Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stori: things I learned yesterday, bread has feelings too

I come from a long line of cooks and bakers. My Dad would never accept it if someone told him they could not cook. His philosophy was if you can read, you can cook. So since Dad was one of the major people that taught me how to cook, but mostly how to bake, I was never afraid of trying out a new recipe. If I could read it, I could do it. That ideal is basically true except for a few foods that reading has nothing to do with.

Yesterday I got to learn the lesson that you cannot teach someone how to bake a beautiful loaf of bread over the phone.

There is so much more to the art of baking than reading a recipe and following a set grid of guidelines. How much flour do you use? Depends. How humid is it in your house? Is it a rainy day? Do you have a wood stove burning? How hot does the water need to be? Oh, about that hot, maybe finger tingle. What the heck is finger tingle? It's when the water is hot enough that when you stick your finger in it, it makes your skin tingle. Is that an exact temperature? Not really, how cold is your finger to start with?

My Dad taught me how to make my first loaf of bread about 11 years ago. He handed me the recipe, did it once and let me watch, then let me loose. He was there if I had questions, but his answer was usually, "just see what it feels like". "Dad, is this enough flour?" his answer would be, " I don't know, what does it feel like?". I don't know how to teach people how to get the feel for baking. So since my first batch, I have made around 6 loaves about every week or so for the last decade. I have had beautiful bread, I have had the ugliest dough hunks you could imagine. I have played with water temperatures and oven temperatures. I have tried storing my bulk yeast in different ways. I have discovered that yes, different types of flours do matter! I have played with the olive vs. vegetable vs. butter argument. I have battled the using water over milk theory. Sugar over honey. My voyage into the world of traditional hand made bread has evolved to the point that I am now inventing my own recipes. Since white bread destroys my Mom's blood sugar, I needed to come up with a bread that she could eat without sending her into the shakes. Debi has mentioned that recipe before, we call it Mimi bread since that is what the grand kids call my Mom.

Over several years, I have developed the FEEL for bread and any baked goods I have tackled. My friend calls me yesterday with a cooking question. It surprises me every time someone calls for my cooking/baking advice. I'm honored that they may value my opinion, but still surprises every time. So she asks me if it would be ok if she used the lactose free milk in a bread recipe. Her youngest daughter is just about the same age as my Sunni Sue and her baby is lactose intolerant. I tell her I have no idea. We have a milk cow, why would I know how to cook with fake milk? I told her that I use water in my bread, not milk. I had mentioned to her in the past that I do all the family's baking every week, but I don't think she quite believed me till she came by last week to buy some eggs just as I was pulling the last 3 loaves from the oven. She still questioned me then. Asked if those started out as the frozen dough balls you can buy at the store, since they were too pretty to be home made. I tried really hard not to be insulted by this. So me telling her water over milk started the next 5 hours of phone call after phone call. I gave her the recipe and a short list of how to's and do's and don't's and thought that was it. I had forgotten how intimidating a loaf of bread could be when you don't have the feel yet. I walked her through each step, trying to describe the texture of the dough when you have enough flour added, to how foamy the yeast needed to be before adding the flour. We measured bread pans, and discussed oven temperature differences when using glass or metal pans. The final call was what level should her oven racks be? I haven't heard from her yet this morning, I'll probably end up calling to see how it turned out. It would not surprise me that if like my first batch, her's was total crap too. Next time I think it would be simple and fun to tell someone how to make my bread, I hope I remember to invite them to my house first, so they can see feel first hand what it's supposed to feel like. So for those of you with the touch and the grit to bake, here is my bread recipe. I'm going to keep it simple, because if you know how to do it, you will know how to do it, and for those who don't, please feel free to drop by the place here. I'll make us a cuppa coffee and we can talk about our feelings.

Country white bread
(also great for rolls, cinnamon/sticky buns, and bread bowls!)
makes 6 loaves

4 cups hot water
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup sugar
4 tsp salt
2 eggs
4 TBLS yeast
10 to 14 cups bread flour (depends on how much is needed!)

In large bowl, combine first 4 ingredients. Whisk in eggs till foamy. Need water temp to be about 110* or finger tingle, add in yeast. Blend very gently and let dissolve and rest for about 5 minutes. Start stirring in flour. When dough is too hard to stir, dump out on to floured service and start kneading. Keep adding small amounts of flour as needed while kneading. When nice bouncy skin has developed, put back into lightly oiled big bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm, and preferably moist, place till doubled. About an hour. Once doubled dump dough back out and divide into loaf sized chunks, about 1 1/2 lbs each. Shape into loaves working out all the air bubbles and place in lightly oiled loaf pans. Let rise again till doubled. Bake in preheated 380* oven, middle-ish rack, for about 24 minutes. Till tops are golden, pretty, and sounds hollow when thumped. Remove from pans and place on racks to cool. While still warm, brush with melted butter or margarine.

That's about as simple as I can make it, but don't give up if it doesn't work right. It takes time to learn how to be a good baker.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Stori: didja eat yet?

It's only 6:30 in the morning and it's already daylight. It was only a few weeks ago that it wasn't light until 11 in the a.m. Once a season decides to change in Alaska, it doesn't mess around. By this time next month, darkness will no longer be an issue, it will be light 22 hours a day, with the other two hours merely being dusky. From one extreme to another with this place.

So one of the goals of my family is to be as self sufficient as possible. There are many reasons for that goal. A big reason is the fun of it. The thrill in the challenge of knowing we are more than capable of taking care of ourselves. How richly satisfying it is know we have provided almost every part of our food supply our selves. To live as closely as possible to the earth, to leave as small a footprint as possible.
If Alaska is some how cut off from the rest of the US for some horrifying reason, will we be able to sustain ourselves? A lot of people here live like the rest of the lower 48 does. Grocery shopping weekly or daily, relying on outside resources to provide services and products. What if we have another 911? Air travel is cut off, what if they decide to also cut off ocean traffic? There goes our two main modes of transportation in which we get the majority of our food. There is now only once existing dairy farm in Alaska, hard to get enough milk for a state over twice the size of Texas from one small family dairy. When folks are scrambling for canned goods and emptying grocery store shelves, we will be calmly continuing our lives as we have always lived. We are able to survive without grocery stores, or electricity. The fact is, we could become cut off from civilization and although we would experience some small discomforts, we could live quite comfortably and safely for quite some time.
Another reason is health and safety. We know there is no chemicals, hormones, or medicines in the food we produce ourselves. We drink our milk raw, which means it is not pasteurized. We know we do not give Molly, our cow, antibiotics or hormones to increase milk production. We know exactly what food we put into her, therefore we know what food we will get out of her. We are able to produce our own milk, butter, cream products, and cheeses. Our chickens are fed whole foods, and in the summer are free ranged which makes for a much better tasting and healthier egg. Our pork and beef is raised in the same way. Our animals are treated with kindness and respect. Their safety and comfort is a huge priority. They are pastured on our fields with only organic fertilizer used for the best crop of grass. The produce we grow is not treated with chemicals or pesticides. We naturally cure our potatoes before putting them in cold storage to lessen sprouting. Mass produced potatoes are normally treated with a chemical that prevents sprouting. My Dad and I built a cold storage room in the crawl space of his cabin several years. By controlling the temperature and humidity, we are able to keep enough potatoes fresh and usable for a full year. By the time we run out of last years' crop, this season's harvest is ready to dig. We keep any carrots and parsnips fresh for several months by packing them in leaves inside and storing them inside of coolers. This keeps the temperature cool and the humidity and light down. We freeze the wild berries we pick and are able to use them year round also. Besides the beef and pork we raise, we also use moose and sometimes caribou as a huge staple in our diet. Harvesting wild game is a good way to keep costs down and health options up. If a choice is made to eat meat, wild game is a wonderful option. Since we also butcher and process all of our own meat, the cost is kept way down. We cut, wrap, and freeze all we harvest. One moose will feed our family of 7 for more than a year.

With temperatures as extreme as they are in Alaska, it seems as if the summer is used to primary prepare for winter. Summer is when we maintain and improve our homes for warmth. Oil the house logs, insulate, and gather firewood. It is when we plan and grow our gardens not only to eat fresh but to can or freeze for winter food. Early spring is also the time our family butchers the years' supply of pork. Our sow pigs farrow out in January. After raising the piglets for 6 to 8 weeks, they are ready to be weaned and sold. The people that buy these weaner pigs raise them to butcher this fall as butcher hogs. My family learned a long time ago, that if we must eat pork, the best meat is not the butcher hog but the sow. After only having one litter and allowing their milk to dry up and pass one heat cycle, we butcher the sow for our supply. The quantity of meat is way more than what would be taken from a butcher hog. A butcher hog is finished out at around 230 pounds, a first litter sow can weigh around 300 to 500 pounds. So now that our piglets are weaned are being sold off, it's time to start preparing for butcher season. This is my most unfavorite part of our lifestyle but it is what it is.

As spring rushes towards us and with all the excitement and fun it brings, it's the reality that it is really just the season to prepare for the hard stuff that reminds me of where I live.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Debi: City Nudnik

The scene: Sammi is playing with a handful of little dolls. One is the "mommy" and one is the "daughter."

Sammi as Mommy doll: Oh, daughter, you have a lovely dress.

Sammi as Daughter doll: Thank you, Mommy. Who is holding you?

Sammi as Mommy doll: That's Sammi.

Sammi as Daughter doll: Who is Sammi, Mommy?

Sammi as Mommy doll: Oh, Sammi? She's my boss.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Debi: How We Move On

It's interesting that Stori wrote about death in her last blog post, because I've been thinking for a week now about how to explain my strange experience with death last week.

My sister-in-law (David's sister) is married to one of the gentlest people I've ever met. His grandfather passed away just over a week ago, and though David and I had only ever met him once or twice, we went to the funeral just to be supportive of his sister and brother-in-law. This grandfather was well into his 90s, and it was a merciful end to what seemed to be a full life. In our years together, David and I have attended several funerals for people of similar age -- his grandfather, his grandmothers, and other extended family -- and so I thought I was prepared for the experience of celebrating a long life, comforting the grieving family, and looking to the future.

I forgot, however, that I've really only ever been to Jewish funerals.

We are Jewish, and the funeral and mourning experience is fairly proscribed for us. In Jewish tradition, the dead are buried quickly after death, since we don't use any preservative materials. While the immediate family is offered the opportunity to view the body, the casket is never open at the funeral. There is usually a short service in a funeral parlor chapel, and then the graveside service includes giving all attendees the opportunity to watch the casket lowered and then throw several shovels full of dirt into the grave. This is considered to be a great good deed -- known as a "mitzvah" -- and forces those who participate a true moment of closure. After this service, there are several other rituals that take place at the home of the immediate mourning family. There is hand washing outside the house, and the covering of mirrors in the house, and seven official days of mourning, where the family is cared for by the community. The focus for the mourners is on remembering the life of the departed loved one, being inspired by his or her gifts, and settling in to be loved and comforted by others while reality sets in.

Well, that's not how it went down for my brother-in-law's grandfather's funeral.

The service at the funeral parlor was largely the same as others I've attended; a family friend who is a practicing pastor talked about the departed, offered a prayer, and instructed those attending on how to get to the cemetary. That's when things became quite foreign for me. At the graveside service, the pastor began talking about what I can only imagine is what I hear referred to as the "end times." He talked about what would happen when Christ comes back, and how he would bring my brother-in-law's grandfather with him, and that only those who had accepted Christ into their hearts would see Grandpa again. Then the pastor asked all those in attendance to close their eyes and repeat the vow he recited (out loud or in their heads), a vow that he accepted Christ as his savior, that he believed in everything the Bible said, that the only truth in the world was written in the Bible, and that his heart was full of belief that Christ would rise again and bring the dearly departed believers with him. At the end of his vow, he told everyone that if they had said that vow, they would see Grandpa again. If they didn't, then this was truly goodbye forever.

David and I raised our eyebrows at each other from our place at the far back of the crowd. My sister-in-law is Jewish too, and loved her husband's grandfather very much. I was hurt on her behalf, but of course, there's nothing to be gained from saying anything about it to anyone involved. It would be horrible timing anyway, not to mention useless. After the service, everyone went their own way; some family went back to his grandmother's house, but we went out to lunch at a restaurant with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, my mother-in-law, and some friends.

It was such an enlightening day for me, to realize this key difference between the way my tradition views the end of life on earth and the way that -- according to a friend of mine who is a pastor -- the majority Christians perceive it. We say goodbye, throwing the dirt on the grave and giving ourselves a week to really think about it. It's over and done with, then, since we don't have any truly conclusive set of religious beliefs about an afterlife. My brother-in-law's family, if they are believers as their pastors hope, are not really saying goodbye. They have hope that they will be reunited, and I imagine that is deeply comforting as well.

What does this have to do with being a City Mouse? I got to see something totally outside my personal experience last week. My sister-in-law married someone from a family completely different from hers and mine, bringing a new set of traditions and outlooks into the lives of the people around her. In a city/suburb/exurb so diverse and vast, this kind of thing happens a lot. For that, I am grateful.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stori: well at least nobody is dead

Then there's Jake. Meet Big Jake, he is a coming 15 year old Appaloosa gelding horse. He is one of the prettiest appys I have seen, he's called a bay blanket appaloosa which means he has a reddish brown (bay) colored body, black mane and tail with a white patch with brown spots on his rump. Jake is the world's best babysitter with small kids. He taught my oldest daughter Paige how to ride. He'll teach my son Colt how to ride in the next couple years. He has perfected the art of looking completely grouchy at all times, except for when he has his tongue hanging out like a big ol dog after he has eaten a horse cookie. Although he likes folks to think he is a grumpy old man, all it takes to prove otherwise is to hold out your hand for him to lick. As a total package, Big Jake is one heck of a good horse, but nobody is perfect. Like most appys, Jake sees bogeymen behind every bush, he's very spooky. Jake is petrified of blue tarps, earplugs, pig noises, and gunfire. The fear of gunfire is what makes him a pretty pathetic mounted shooting horse. He's very patient with me when it comes to my short comings. He's allowed me to use him to learn how to ride side saddle, and he loves to swim in ponds. There's very few family events that have happened in the last 5 years that Jake hasn't been a big part of. He's not a tool to me, or a piece of equipment, not even a mode of transportation. Jake is my friend. He and Heidi accept me more so than any human has. I love that stupid horse.

Big Jake is a total character, and he almost died tonight. Although they are amazingly beautiful, graceful, intelligent animals, horses have the crappiest plumbing of any creature. Their gut is flawed in a way that allows it to twist itself, impact easily, and are prone to colic. Colic, simplified, is a gas bubble in the intestines. Or as my mom would put it, a fart turned sideways. Some horses never colic their whole lives, others colic at the drop of a hat. I have owned and have been around horses all my life and have never had a horse colic, Jake has done it twice. Colic can kill a horse pretty easy, but it's not the gas that gets em, they die from stress and pain.

We were just sitting down to supper tonight at about 6 when I first noticed him hurting. The majority of the windows in our cabin face out at the barnyard, and this was done on purpose. I find myself watching the animals most the day. I know when they nap, or play. When they move from this patch of sunshine to that part of the pen where the wind can't hit. I know how long Heidi sleeps for and in what position. Jake never lays down. He's a stand up and nap kinda guy, very business like. He was laying down at supper time. I watched him get up, paw at the ground, move aways, lay down again and roll. I thought, uh oh. When he started biting at his side I knew he was starting to colic. That's a sure sign of pain. I called the vet, let him know what was going on, agreed to call back in an hour if it hadn't cleared up. Got some winter gear and prepared myself for a long walk. Walking, or leading, a horse is one of the ways to rid colic, or at least distract the horse from the pain long enough for the gas bubble to pass. If he isn't able to get over it within an hour or so, it's a good idea to get some meds in him. So ol Jake and I got to walking. After a solid hour of trudging through snow past my boots, leading a 1,300 pound horse that only wants to lay down, in 10 degree weather, without any progress getting rid of his pain, it was time to call the vet in. Since we live about 45 miles from the vet clinic, it took the Doc about an hour to get out to us, which made another hour of Jake and I dragging through the snow. Within 15 minutes, 3 injections, and $450 later, Jake is back to his old self. He's better, but tired, I'm exhausted and closer to broke, it was just another day living with animals as an extended part of my family. Although stressful and extremely expensive, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Debi: A Very Citified Weekend!

I thought it would be fun to contrast the weather and activity in Stori's world with what was happening in our world this weekend!

My husband is in the middle of studying for a test that will add another set of initials after his name. He's an investment analyst, and need I say more about the need for him to stay as current as possible? The test is this coming Friday, so I needed to keep the kids out of his hair for the weekend. Around here, we don't turn our kids out into the outdoors until it's probably warm enough for Stori's family to go swimming -- in the 40s here, which was yesterday's ambient temperature, we still spend most of the day inside. What to do?

Well, the morning is taken care of. Every Saturday, our girls take swimming lessons at the YMCA. They're in two different classes, but they meet simultaneously at 9:30am. (A note: since my daughters wake up at what I not-so-affectionately refer to as "Dark-thirty," this is no problem for us. By 9:30, we've eaten, dressed, watched an hour of cartoons, folded a load of laundry, and possibly set dinner into a crock pot or started a loaf of bread rising or made homemade muffins.) I watch their classes from a perch in the balcony above the pool, alternating between reading a book (right now, it's Lisa See's Dragon Bones) and admiring their flailing progress.

After a quick shower involving more strawberry-scented pink shampoo than is really necessary for a half-dozen girls, I take them to the drop-in childcare center and get a chance for a workout. I've been running regularly for about 8 months now, and had made some pretty good progress, but recently I've started noticing that the big toe on my right foot, and the top of that foot, feel like someone is pounding on them with a small hammer that's been left sitting on an open flame. This week, my run became much shorter than I'd like and turned into a short run and a short ride on the recumbent bike. A blissfully solitary shower later, I picked up the kids from their frenetic running around in the drop-in center, and we hopped in the car to meet their grandmother for lunch and adventure.

I try not to drive too much around Evanston, but with such sprawling city and suburban friends and family, when I do drive, it's often pretty far. I drove about 30 minutes away to a ridiculous planned community and fake city center called "The Glen," halfway between my mother-in-law's house and ours. It's home to lots of overpriced retail and restaurants, but on a day when it's just too muddy and chilly to play on metal playground equipment or go to the beach, its proximity to the Kohl Children's Museum is perfect. After lunch at a noodle shop, all five of us spent the rest of the afternoon there. The kids enjoyed the babydoll daycare center, the stuffed animal veternary clinic, the fake grocery store, the toy mechanic shop, and several indescribable exhibits involving inflating things, shooting balls at each other, and the moving of beanbags from one place to another. My mother-in-law and I had a few yuks making molds of our various body parts on a six foot tall, three foot wide pinhead toy. Yes, just what you're thinking.

After a stop at the candy store, we drove the 30 minutes back home for a dinner of leftovers with Daddy, who gave up studying for the night.

Today, we've had a lazy day at home, with the kids bouncing off the walls and finding new ways to make messes everywhere. In a few minutes, some friends will be calling us to meet at the park, since today's high is 50 -- just warm enough for we midwesterners to put on thin gloves and have a shot at the monkey bars. We'll ride our bikes -- Ronni on her own bike, and Sammi in a seat on the back of mine. It's about 8 blocks away, and I bet we'll stay until dinner time. Dinner is destined to be a joint affair with our friends, and just peeking at the contents of my fridge, I think I'll make something with white beans. I haven't quite gotten that far, and I don't have to -- these are fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants friends, and it's a relief to have that in our future today.

No ice sculptures or sled dogs here -- but would anyone like to thank me for not taking a picture of my tush in that pinhead toy?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Stori: a very Alaskany week

For as long as I have lived in Alaska, I've not paid too much attention to the dog sled races. I, myself, don't approve much of the whole sled dog sport. If taken care of properly, I have no issues, but like most things, there is some bad apples willing to ruin the whole bushel. My brother had a team for quite a few years here so I had the chance to be around the sport a little bit. Now my brother's dogs weren't like the majority of sled dogs that are used, his were pretty big, 60 plus pounds. The average sized racing dog is only about 40 to 50 lbs. They are called Alaskan Huskies which is code for rangy mutt. They aren't of any particular breed, or color. Some look like labs while others range from border collie to greyhound. My brother's team was not meant for speed, nor distance, they were made for pulling weight. Those who know my brother understand the reasoning behind this. These dogs really are not the pet type. They are hyperactive, and as close to wild as a dog can get while still being domestic. They still pack howl, like wolves, still run in packs, like wolves, still have pack mentality, like wolves. This is, in fact, what makes them amazing at their sport. They love to run. And run. And run.

So in the years past, I haven't been into the races much, except for this one. This year I have started hanging around someone actually competing in the Iditarod. Her name is Jessie Royer and she is, by far, the MOST competitive person I have ever met. Jessie and I both belong to the same Cowboy Mounted Shooting club. My family has been in involved in mounted shooting for the last several years. At first, Paige was riding Jake in the wrangler (kids) division while I was pregnant with Sunni Sue. Last summer was my first year competing, and Jake's (my horse) first year being shot off of. We had an absolute blast, came in dead last for the most part, but had fun doing it. Jessie on the other hand has been riding in the mounted shoots for several years and is damn good at what she does. Last season she was the top cowgirl in Alaska. This all said, it's a heck of interesting race when you actually know someone trying not to get them selves killed racing it! The race itself is over 1,100 miles long, across totally remote Alaskan wilderness. Jessie was in 11th place for awhile but has since dropped back to 16th, but the race isn't over yet. The top 20 finishers of the Iditarod finish in the money, so she's not doing too bad at all. So says the lady sittin on her butt at her kitchen table NOT freezing behind a team of crazy dogs.

Also this month, the World Ice Art Championships are being held over in Fairbanks. This is when a large collection of ice sculptors get together and compete for the world title. These temporary pieces of art are AMAZING. They have several different divisions to compete in, single block/ multi block. The ice is harvested from a nearby pond and hauled to the ice park. The ice on the pond is close to 4 foot thick this time of year. This common thickness of ice is the reason that the rivers are used for roadways during the winter. Now although the sculptures are incredible, the honest real reason we go is for the the kids park. We took the kids on Friday afternoon. They have small ice slides, houses, tunnels, mazes, spinning cups. Almost like a miniature amusement park made entirely out of ice. The kids have a total blast at this thing. They get to play and blow some steam off, I get to haul all the gear, pull the 3 sleds we bring along for the sled hill, work the camera, wipe noses, police Sunni Sue, and make sure all cold weather gear stays where it should be. After we make our way through the kids park, and hopefully get a quick glimpse at the art, we head over to the sled hill.

This is not just a hill, the folks there have built these huge hill long slides made totally of really slick ice! The kids can shoot themselves down the runs on their bodies, or cardboard, or their sleds. What a time we had! Even little Sunni Sue found her self being luged down the hill on her folks' laps or at one point, even on her own little back, giggling like a fool the whole way. By the time we get the kids gathered up and herded back to the car, they are tired, and sweaty, and hungry, and happy. Sometimes it's a pretty cool thing to live in the cold.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stori: when it's time to say "when"

I have had enough.

We pride ourselves on our simple living, but it's not really that simple. I don't understand as a human why I more resemble a pack rat? Every trip to town has to include a stop at Walmart, or Lowe's, or the BX just to pick a few things up that we may need, and it always ends up with buying a cartload of crap we don't. Why do we do this? Do we over buy in order to prove to ourselves that we are financially stable? That we can afford it? Do I buy unnecessary items because of some primal need to stock pile in case of some unknown disaster?


I spent the greater part of this morning going through all of our flotsam just to find I don't NEED any of it. My kids have too much. They appreciate nothing. An over flowing toy box does nothing except promote carelessness with their toys because there is always more. What's wrong with a 16 count box of crayons? Why do I insist on buying the 64? Does it make me a better Mom to provide my kids with boundless gifts? I think I might have this whole concept backwards. Starting today, I'm committing myself to the "Less is More" philosophy. I think if maybe my kids only had a handful of playthings, they might truly appreciate those belongings. We don't need to get a new shirt for Paige every time we step foot into Walmart. She has nice, un -tattered clothes, we don't NEED more of them. Will having enough shirts to wear a different one every day for a month make her a better person? Or will it just pass on this horrible affliction of always wanting more. Of never being truly satisfied with the simple beauties in life.


I am going to get rid of the unnecessary things in my life. Get back to the basics. I am going to start with myself. Charity options here we come! Out go the clothes I don't wear, the shoes that are collecting dust. The unused items will find a new home with someone who will be able to actually use them, not just collect them. I need to write a shopping list of the absolute necessities we require, and stick to it! I will sit down with myself and have a good long talk. Does this thing make me happier? Does it benefit mine or my family's life? Will I miss it if it's gone? I think the answers will surprise me. I have to find a way to resolve this urge in my life. Less is more. Maybe, just maybe, if I start with myself, my children will follow. Let's hope I'm strong enough.

Debi: Soup's On

My older daughter -- 6 year old Ronni -- and I were having a discussion this morning about bragging. She said that one of her friends scolded her yesterday for musing about whether or not she was the smartest kid in her class. Ronni explained that she had asked her teacher for help with something yesterday, and after getting it, had mused aloud that it was the first time all year that she had asked for help. Ronni said -- supposedly, just to herself -- "I never have to ask for help usually. I wonder if I am the smartest kid in the class?"

Her friend, who is quite competitive, said "Ronni, you think you're the smartest kid in our class just because you read the fastest. That doesn't make you the smartest!!!"

I told Ronni that I agreed with her friend, that reading the fastest simply makes you the fastest reader, not the smartest. I told her that probably there is no "smartest kid" in her class -- there was a fastest reader, and a speediest math problem-solver, and a most prolific artist, and a strongest ball kicker, etc. I said I knew she wasn't bragging when she asked herself that question about being the smartest, but her friend probably thought she was. Then Ronni asked me what bragging was.

I said, "Well, it would be like if I went up to all the moms on the playground and said 'I make the best soup of all the parents at our school. My soup is better than yours!' I might be right, but it wouldn't be nice for me to say it."

And Ronni said, "Yeah, you would be right."

After reiterating that second bit -- but it wouldn't be nice for me to say it -- I turned away and grinned. Yeah, I make pretty darned good soup. This year, for the silent auction at Ronni's school that benefits their artist-in-residence program, I donated "one month of homemade soup and bread" -- a delivery of a pot of soup and a loaf of bread, once a week, for for weeks, to the winning bidder. There were four separate people who bid on it -- all had either tasted or heard about my love of soup.

In the winter, we eat a lot of soup in this house. When my younger daughter, Sammi, was a baby with health problems that kept her from swallowing easily, I discovered a chickpea soup that she ate with gusto. This was nothing short of a miracle, since, at the time, we were measuring what she ate in terms of single goldfish crackers and teaspoons of yogurt. I made that chickpea soup at least twice a week for several months. We all got tired of it, and when she started eating other things, we stopped making it for a good year.

Now we're all ready again, and I have been making it regularly this winter. My family and close friends refer to it as "THE chickpea soup." The person who won my soup-and-bread auction is getting a nice steaming pot of it tomorrow. Without any bragging, here is THE chickpea soup recipe...which might be the best soup for several surrounding blocks, but it wouldn't be nice to say so.

Chickpea Soup for All That Ails You

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 15oz cans of chickpeas, drained & rinsed
1 bay leaf
½ cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley or any other green – chard, kale, spinach, etc.
4 cups broth (or 2 broth & 2 water, to taste)
1 ½ tsp salt

In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion & garlic and cook until onion has softened, about 10 minutes.

Add chickpeas, bay leaf, parsley, and broth. Stir well, cover & bring to a boil. Reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer about 15 minutes. Stir in salt.

Remove bay leaf and, working in batches, puree soup in food processor or blender (or using an immersion blender right in the pot!) until very creamy. Return soup to pot and serve!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stori: spring break

Spring break in March in interior Alaska is neither springish nor a break. I have never been able to understand exactly why we have spring break here. Why not just have the kids go straight through and let them out earlier in May or go back later in the fall? School starts around the 2nd week of August which is dumb. August is some of the prettiest weather we have. Not too warm, the temps hover around the 60's, the colors are changing, the weather is just beautiful. I think they need to start school after September, but that's just me.

Paige's break started on Monday, March 9th. We had just got dumped on with about 8 inches of new snow. The temps aren't too bad, the highs are around 20 degrees during the warmest part of the day. We had such a busy first day yesterday! When Marc plowed the yard the last time, he pushed up a huge burm of snow on the edge of the parking yard. Paige and Colt have now claimed this pile. They have dragged slabs of wood over to it, confiscated a older tarp, stolen a piece of OSB plywood from their Dad's shop stash, gathered up several shovels and they got to work! Their construction job is pretty involved. They dug out a huge cave out of the middle of the pile, added tunnels, two doors, and a skylight. They pulled the tarp over the top, propped it up in the middle with a pole and held the ends down with more snow. They used the slabs for retaining walls on the inside and gateway posts for the front door, and the plywood is the front door. It amazes me how creative kids can be when left to their own vices. I left them alone to play, supervising from my kitchen window. With only a couple of tattle tales of "she did, he did" they had completed an impressive snow fort that will last till probably the first week in May.

While they were outside playing, Sunni Sue and I made a batch of my famous Cowboy Cookies. The kids came in from outside to have a handful of cookies and big glass of fresh milk for snack.

Cowboy Cookies
(this recipe was handed down to me from my Grandma who used to make these for the hunters' sack lunches when she and my Grandpa had the guiding business in Colorado)

1 cup shortening (can sub 1/2 cup peanut butter and 1/2 cup shortening)
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups oatmeal
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Cream together shortening, sugar, brown sugar. Add in eggs and vanilla and stir together. In separate bowl sift together flour, salt, b. soda, and b. powder. Add oats into creamed mixture, then add in flour mix. Once combined, can add in chocolate chips and walnuts. Drop by spoonfuls onto cookie sheet, pressing the mounds down with fingers to flatten just a bit. Bake in preheated oven at 380 degrees for 10 minutes. These cookies are wonderful to take camping or packed in a lunch. They last forever and are hard to kill. If they get too hard, they are perfect for dunking in milk or coffee!

Marc and I usually meet at the gym on base 3 times a week. We go in the afternoons when Paige is still in school and my folks watch the 2 little ones. Since Paige was home yesterday and she loves athletics, I took her and Colt with me. Gram and Papa stayed with Sunni Sue. We are very lucky to have access to the gym. It's on an Air Force Base and the AF doesn't skimp on much. It has an indoor pool, two weight rooms, a cardio room, basket ball court, racquetball court, climbing wall, indoor track, and indoor football/soccer field. We all had a complete blast! It was the first time Paige and I had the chance to play basketball together. We ran on the track, which is no easy feat for me, I'm not really made for speed. Marc was goalie in our little game of soccer. Little Colt, who constantly gets told not to run in the house, got to run all he wanted. His little sturdy 3 1/2 year old legs pumped till he was sweaty. At one point the boy that has never run out of energy had to sit down for a rest. It was fantastic.

At the beginning, I was dreading having all 3 kids trapped in the house for a week. I could just imagine all the fights, yelling, teasing, and tattle telling. I love the fact I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. I need to remember to slow down more and really enjoy my babies. They are such amazing little people, I need to take off my "Mommy's the boss" hat every once and a while and re discover how lucky I really am to be blessed with my little family.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Debi: Time to Get Serious

Today, I'm going on my first job interview in at least four years.

When I got out of graduate school in 1996, I got my first web geek job. It was during dotcom mania, and while the company had hired me to write "web content," between my interview and start date, it had completely changed business plans. I got there, and within a few days, someone had handed me a book on HTML and asked me to start building the web site. During the heady ten years that followed, I switched jobs every time something bothered me even a little. Raises capped at 15%? I'm outta here! New boss not as fun as old boss? Buh-bye! Between 1996 and 2005, I had at least five jobs. Some made it onto my resume and some didn't.

I always left on my own terms, usually with friends and good references. I saw one company get closed by the government for tax and regulatory issues and one company close up shop completely, but the majority of the places I've worked in the Chicago area are still running, at least somewhat. I've been working freelance now for three years, though, and I'm slowly watching my work dry up. Some of my clients are former employers, and they're just not investing in new web projects right now. In the space of ten years, I've gone from a hot commodity (along with everyone else who wasn't frightened of computers in the late 90s) to one of a gazillion out-of-work programmers.

So, off I go this morning, in my five-year-old black business suit, to interview at a creative staffing agency. I am good at what I do, and I genuinely like helping clients achieve what they want, so I hope that I can get some work through this company. It's for 1/3 of what I normally charge, and I will be lucky and happy to get it.

Welcome to the "economic crisis" in the Chicago area. It's not so much about meeting my basic needs; we can pay the mortgage and eat and all of that, no problem. It's more about, as my husband describes the investment world, the landscape having changed completely. I used to look out my window and see a city full of possibility. I still see that city, but the line to get in is a lot longer than it used to be.

Wish me luck.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Stori: more of the white stuff

I think most folks figure that just because Alaska is cold, that we also get insane amounts of snow. Not true for most of the state. Down along the coast, they get unbelievable snowfall, but in the interior, not nearly as much as you would think. The big difference about our snow is that once it's here, it doesn't go away till breakup in the Spring. In the lower 48, snow comes then melts away, comes again, melts. Here, it comes, it stays, it annoys. These last couple weeks are trying to change the normal. We have had more snowfall than most years, and especially this last week. In the last 2 days, we have gotten about 8 inches dumped on us.

Another pattern we are breaking out of is our normal lack of wind. The wind hardly ever blows. In April, we'll have two weeks of some blowing, but that's a good thing since it dries up the mud. In the winter, if the wind blows, that means it's a Chinook, and that's even better! A Chinook is a warm southerly wind that has the ability to raise the temps 40 to 50 degrees in less than an hour. Once the downpour of snow stopped yesterday evening, the wind kicked up. This was no small cold breeze, or a friendly warm Chinook, this was northwestern Colorado winter wind. It was hard, it was fast, it came in every direction. This wind came along and gave us the gift of snow drifts over 4 foot deep.

All of this rude weather this week caused nothing but more work for my family. My dad had double duty with the farm chores. With 3 sows in the farrowing connex he had to dig out a couple times a day, to unloading loads of snow off of his hay tarp to feed the cows. It did nothing to make his duties easier. The snow doubles the drive time for my Mom to get back and forth to work. Our road was so snowed in that on Thursday, Paige's school bus went off the road and got stuck for over an hour. My brother had to go pick up the kids on a snow machine. The fierce wind has caused drifts to fill up our porches to the point we have to sweep and/or shovel a couple times an hour so we can open our doors without filling the house with snow. It also caused hours and hours of plowing my husband. Marc is the plow guy. We have a winch driven plow hooked up to one of our 4-wheelers that he uses to dig us out after a storm. He clears all the driveways, both at our house and up to my folks' place. He clears out the walking path between the houses and barn, and also cleans up around the yards and barns. He has had to be on the plow every day this week just trying to keep up with the storm. Today I was watching him trying to clear out the walking path between our house and the barn when I noticed that the snow was deeper the height of his 4 wheeler in some areas. All in all, Marc spent over 7 hours today alone just trying to plow us all out. He didn't even get to finish my folks' yard before it got too dark to see. He even worn a hole threw his wool gloves that my Mom knitted him, just working the winch lever. Now this is the picture of Alaska that I'm sure most people have.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stori: a new book of ideas

Speaking of cooking, ok, so nobody was actually talking about cooking, but it is a subject that I think about a lot. I received my new cook book last night at about 8:30. Any special mail that is delivered to our home is delivered to us by a contractor. He does this after his normal job, so we get late evening deliveries for the most part.
So let me begin by saying Hooray for PBS! Ever since PBS went digital, we are able to pick up 4 different versions of the station. One of them is called Create, and it is nothing but do it your self, arsty fartsy, crafts, cooking, and building. I love it! I am a cooking show junkie. A lot of evenings find Marc and I watching food network after the kids go to bed. Not that I need the cooking instructions, but it seems I always find some idea that inspires me to try something new. One night we were watching Create when we come across the show "America's Test Kitchen". There was this nerdy little gentleman with a bow tie and a billion ideas on how to improve everyday dishes and techniques. From how to peel boiled eggs easier to making the perfect meringue that won't weep. I was hooked.
A couple weeks ago, Marc and I were at our monthly Interior Alaska Trail Riders Association meeting when I was introduced to a lovely pork roast with orange marmalade glaze. Surprise, the recipe came from a recipe book from my America's Test Kitchen! I ordered it pretty soon after that night. 500 recipes, along with histories, backgrounds, tips, test kitchen ratings on everyday kitchen items. It is a beautiful thing. From complex dishes to the most basic of stuffed mushrooms and how to clean a portebello. For my friends who do not cook very much and are just getting started to my other friends that submerge themselves in the beauty of food everyday. I highly recommend this book. The Cook's Country Cookbook
also some other great related sites:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Stori: the story of us

It was 5 years ago this month that my husband and I had our first official date. It was 2 years prior to that the first time he asked me out. My husband is brilliant, but fast he is not.

It all started at a wolf trapping school put on by the Alaska Trapper's Association. Every year, the club holds a general trapping school held in October, and most years a wolf trapping school held in January. I was working in the pharmacy at that time with my friend/pharmacist/boss Jeanie. Jeanie is an amazing cook from Louisiana, very cajun style of cooking. Her husband was a member of ATA and the club asked her to cook for the 3 day school. She in turn asked me to come up and help, it was my 2ND helping out at the schools. The school is held at Twin Bears Campground, about 30 miles outside of Fairbanks up Chena Hot Springs Road. Marc's trapping partner Jim Walters was putting on the school, and with Marc also a member, he was at the school to volunteer. It was one cold weekend! The first day, Friday, the temps were hovering right around -50 below zero. I was very glad I had drove up with Jeanie and her family. I had Paige with me who was only 4 at the time. The next day, we were in the cookhouse. Jeanie, our friend Charlie, and I were cooking. Paige and Jeanie's daughter, Amie, were playing cards. A couple guys were sitting around the barrel stove lieing to each other, the rest of the students and helpers were outside setting trail, or in the classroom for a lesson. I was standing at the cooking range stirring a big pot of Jambalaya when this horrible smell hit me like a punch in the face. I turned around to see what was so offensive and there he was.

Standing in the door way like some giant mountain man. Wolf hat and face mask, bunny boots, refridgerwear outer clothes, holding out a string of 6 frozen martin (weasel type fur bearers), and all 6 foot 2 inch, 250 lbs. of him reeking of wolf urine. He was the horrible smell. He had accidentally spilled some wolf scent on him and it was potent!! He asked me if I minded if he thawed out the martin over the cook stove. Definitely not a homey kitchen smell I would imagine.

Later that night after supper, we were all sitting around having a drink and visiting. Some folks, Jeanie's husband Jimbo mostly, were playing some bluegrass music. There was only 3 females at the school that year, and I was the only single one. Marc had sat there the whole evening watching me turn guys down when I guess he started feeling brave. He asked me out for supper sometime, I said yes, I just didn't know it was going to be 2 years later. The day of the school was Sunday and we woke up to -62 below zero. Our cooking range ran off of propane and it was cold enough to freeze the propane in the bottles. We had no lights, the generator's battery and exploded during the night after it had froze solid, no way to cook, and only a barrel wood stove for heat in the cook shack. That morning when Paige and I woke up in our little cabin, our hair was frozen to the wall. It was the coldest I had ever seen it. Jeanie and I were sitting there having a cuppa when Marc and Jim walked in with torches. They were on their way outside to hold open flames on the propane tanks to thaw out the liquid enough to turn it back into gas, so we could cook breakfast. The only thought I had was that crazy bastard was going to kill us all in a fiery explosion, but at least we'd be warm.

After the school, Marc would drop by the pharmacy at least once a week to visit. For the next two years, we would run into each other at various events. Trapping schools, ATA end of the year Spring Flings. It was at one of the Spring Flings when it all really started going. My family and I had decided to quit Alaska and were planning on a move down to Montana. My parents had already accepted an offer on their cabin and I had given a tentative notice to the pharmacy. My friends were throwing a semi going away party for me at a local bar the week following the Spring Fling. On a complete whim, I invited Marc to drop by. We had a great time at the party, the house sale fell through, my family decided not to move, and the wheels of fate had started to turn. We followed up with an actual date to a comedy show the next week, which Marc stopped at the dump on the way, should have been a sign for me. We have been inseparable ever since.

We dated only 6 months before we were married. But were engaged 4 months in. In life, some things just work out the way they are supposed to and it fits just right. We were married September 25Th, 2004 in my parents back yard. Jeanie was my matron of honor. We had a potluck, and a bonfire. We had just finished building the barn, so we gave many new barn tours. It was a perfect evening.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Debi: The Old Town School of Folk Music = The Coolest Place in all of Chicagoland!

These are short videos about my favorite place in the City of Chicago: The Old Town School of Folk Music. This is where I learned to play the fiddle, where I just finished taking a 'Ukulele class, where David and I learned to swing dance, where Ronni takes fiddle lessons, where Sammi and I went when she was a baby to take a baby-music class, where I meet people to play together, where I see concerts, where a good portion of my heart is. It makes me sad to think that this is not a national institution, with branches in EVERY major city. It is AMAZING!