Amazing Produce

When we lived in Montana we were living what is a high cold desert. We lived at 5,600 feet above sea level, we had less than 10 inches of moisture a year and sitting out in the open the wind was merciless in all seasons. Frost was possible anytime, and you were never surprised to wake up to snow. For a girl coming from the Midwest the inability to grow a garden that did not get frosted off at least twice year was a hard thing to swallow. Suddenly here in North Carolina I find myself surrounded by amazing produce.

We arrived in the last week of strawberry season. RangerSir and I found ourselves talking about how the local strawberries tasted like the ones we remember in our grandparent’s gardens. The had that mythical flavor that grocery store stable strawberries can never capture.

Since that time we have had so many other amazing fresh farm grown items. We had a cantalope one week that was unlike anything in memory in flavor and sweetness. This week we got an old-fashioned watermelon imperfect shape with seeds and all. It had a flavor that almost seemed impossible. On the other hand it had so many seeds that the only option was to let them be and spit them out as we ate the melon. The rind of this melon with the little bit of green, a nice layer of white and some red called for me to make some watermelon pickles.

I can’t remember the last time I saw seeds in a watermelon.

I did not make watermelon pickles. My mom’s recipe calls for a couple of weeks of time in brine in a crock and lots of daily chores of skimming and reheating that I could not imagine doing in the apartment. I did make an assortment of refrigerator pickles instead. I got nice fresh little pickle-style cucumbers at my favorite farmstand and I picked up fresh beets at the local farmer’s market. I called my mother and got the recipe for pickle sauce of Great Grandma’s beet pickled beets. My mother told me about making a refrigerator version of bread and butter pickles she had made. I used Google to find a bread and butter pickle recipe that was small batch and went directly to the refrigerator. Lastly I remember our favorite deli we ate in so often when we last lived in the city. They always had a crock of fresh dill pickles on the table. A friend had given me a book “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die.” It had a kosher dill pickle recipe that the story alongside the recipe could have been describing the deli of my memory.

I had given away all my canning jars when we packed for moving. I debated if I should buy new and start my collection of canning jars again. I felt that these pickles were one offs and I was unsure I would be canning again. I decided I wanted something pretty or at least decorative for this first batch of pickles in NC. I sought out French heat resistant canning jars with red rubber ring seals and a clamp. I spent an afternoon making the various sauces/brines for my pickles, cutting veggies and arranging my jars. My choice of jars gave my “canned goods” a rustic farm feel and made them show off pretty.

Small batches of pickles

My pickles turned out awesome and brought back so many wonderful memories. It was a great sense of accomplishment and went a long ways toward of making this new place feel like home. I encourage you if you like pickles to consider making a fresh refrigerator batch of pickles. The supplies are readily available, minimal and not expensive. We are now in peach and tomato season. I feel a peach pie and gazpacho calling me next. Keep tuned.

Month One Is Over

We have now been in our apartment for just over a month. It has been a month of lots of realizations. A few surprise moments. Mostly good times and a few not so fun times. For a couple who spent the last 19 years living on acreage in rural SW Montana living in the apartment has gone much better than I had imagined it would.

Confirmation: We are ready to downsize and need much less space than we imagined. After living in an apartment with less than 800 square feet we have all realized this downsize is not going to be hard. The house we are building is bigger than it needs to be we have learned this month in the apartment, even if it is smaller than our previous house. We have discovered that little rooms are just fine. A small kitchen isn’t great, but we can make it work. Lack of countertop is a little bit of a bummer, but it is not a show stopper to cooking good home cooked meals.

RangerSir sitting down for dinner at the breakfast bar in the apartment.

Discovery: We’ve never had a breakfast bar before. We have discovered we’d rather eat at a table than sit side by side for dinner looking into the kitchen. If we are going to sit side by side, we might as well sit in the living room because we actually see one another better in the living room. Our new house has the so in vogue open floor plan with an island and breakfast bar area for stools. Thank heavens it also has dining area for the table we moved.

RangerSir and Zip standing in front of our new kitchen island.

What are your thoughts on the breakfast bar/islands with stools? Do you have them? Do you like them?

Feeling Like Home

Everything about living in the apartment is different than living in our home in Montana. It is more than the size, or that it is urban. We can’t surround ourselves with things we have collected that make our nest feel feathered because our belongings are in storage. I have found one thing in spite of all the challenges of a temporary living situation is I can cook. Feeding my family and friends has always been a way I showed love. So figuring our cooking is a step that makes this move, this place feel like home.

One of the biggest challenges in decking out the temporary kitchen is that I have a lifetime of collecting things that make an awesome kitchen. All of that is in storage, so the idea of going out and buying things I already own seems a lot pointless spending of money to me. Instead I am challenged to think about things that maybe I wanted to try, but have never done so. I am also tasked with finding things in either a thrift or discount store that will work for us for the next several months.

So far thrift store pickings have been some of the worst I have ever encountered. I’ve always found a fair number of things this way. This time and this location so far I have found no treasures. I find myself comparing prices in discount stores and Amazon. After three weeks I have managed to set up a fair kitchen.

The three big items I have purchased so far are: an instant pot, a countertop modern toaster oven, and a indoor electric grill. Stay tuned as I tell you what I discover about these purchases.

Emptying the Larder

Since I last wrote RangerSir and I have sold our home. It has been a ride like no other home sale we have experienced before when selling prior homes of all sorts, in many different states and locals. We will be having a closing on June 1st. One of the things we must do before that date is empty our larder because we will not be moving directly from one home to the next. Nor will this move be a local one. We will not be moving food. We must empty our freezer and cupboards.

I still make pies using the same rolling pin RangerSir and I found at an estate sale when we first got married.

After years of living without a grocery store just minutes from home, we developed a habit of having a well-stocked pantry and freezer. We bought our beef, pork, and lamb from a locally known rancher. We raised and butchered our own chickens. We stocked up on meat when it was on sale, so if tonight we wanted brats on the grill, it was possible without running to town by looking in our freezer. Our freezer was well stocked. If beans or can tomatoes were on sale in the 10 for pricing option, we stocked up so we could make chili if the day turned cold. Our full pantry always had lots of options available.

Apples and cranberries almost make something like a tart cherry pie.

This last year in the midst of COVID, a friend offered us apples. We accepted the gift and went about putting them in the dehydrator for snacks, and making enough apple pie filling that we could have a pie a month before apple season next year. I love cranberries and when they were in season, I bought multiple bags and froze them so I could make a salad, relish, or bread when cranberries were no longer in the store. I did not think much about this because 2020 had been such an unpredictable year. I did not know for sure if we would move or 2021 would be another year spent in Montana. COVID taught us life was a toss-up and anything was possible and any plans could be upended.

In 2021 we sold our home and found our moving plans for retirement back in play. Because of how the sale’s timing, it turned out we were short on time on our exit plan. We suddenly realized we had five month’s worth of apples, and bags upon bags of cranberries, and just weeks to use them up. I decided that I would make pies. I found a recipe for cranberry apple pie. I made five pies, mixing the two together in a pie mashup.

I’ve never made pies in aluminum foil pans before. I did not get the browning I wanted but oh they did make wonderful gifts.

I enjoyed making the pies. It took my mind off all the craziness happening with the sale of our house. I enjoyed more giving the pies away to friends. It moved me further along in the continuum of getting ready to leave behind our home of over 20 years. Getting rid of the items in my freezer allowed me to mentally start to move forward into the next phase of our lives and journies. Our larder is not bare, but I can see and hope that by the time our last day comes that there isn’t much left I will have to find a new home for.

Everything Is Very Much The Same

I have been struggling with what to write about on my blog. I had great plans for what to write about as RangerSir and I explored life as full-time retirees. The places we would go. The decisions we would make. Things that turned out well and things that turned out completely wrong. Times we got more than we planned and times we got a good slap in the face from reality. Instead we got COVID and half the country “hating” those who don’t agree with them. It has made me hesitant to write about my ordinary life for a whole host of reasons. I know I am lucky compared to many other folks, so I did not want to flaunt my lot when so many others are struggling in so many ways. I did not want to say things that would start a firestorm of haters and trolls because I don’t need or want that. Days seemed the same to me and I could not imagine that my ordinary life would be something that someone else would want to read about. I could list many more reasons for why I haven’t been blogging. I have decided that is all about others and how they might negatively view what I write. I have missed writing, but have allowed myself to be talked out of writing. Today I am going to stop all that and start writing again. If I lose subscribers and my numbers go down I don’t care. All I want to do is share things that happen and maybe make you smile or feel like you can when you thought you could not. I want someone to think occasionally I could be in her shoes and that would be worse. I want to prompt someone remember something they forgot and relish the memory. So here goes a jumpstart on an old blog, by an old gal who just likes to write even if it is the ordinary.

In my last post I wrote about my half turkey that I was fixing for Thanksgiving. It is exactly what I did. Turkey dinner for two. I started the prep at the same time RangerSir’s family started the Zoom meeting. It was the first time we had spent the holidays with his side of the family in over 25 years. Family and friends were in all phases of celebrating the holiday. We had some folks who were in the late afternoon celebrating across the pond and we were the furthest west so I was just starting our half turkey. It was different, maybe even a little strange since some of the family were folks we had never met as there had been a couple of marriages that we had not gotten to be there to celebrate. The most interesting part is we were just putting our turkey in when we started and we were taking our turkey out as we finished. It was perfect timing and we really enjoyed the time spent with the family

Our zoom group for Thanksgiving of family.

We made the perfect dinner for two folks who have lived many places and not been home with family for years. We made Minnesota wild rice as a side. It is an old Minnesota family favorite that we had not had as part of Thanksgiving for a long time. I halved or quartered every recipe I made to allow us to have all the sides we thought necessary, but not so many leftovers it would create waste. I revised some recipes making them have a comfort food taste, while making it a healthier alternative. It was a grand adventure in cooking and planning to pull it off.

When RangerSir worked we ate dinner at the table most nights. Since he has retired we have gotten sloppy and started to use the dining room table for puzzles and other things. For Thanksgiving dinner we treated it like a proper meal and set the table. We used Granny’s good silverware and the bank giveaway crystal we collected when we first got married and only get out for special occasions. I dug out the table cloth that we only use when we put a leaf in the table. We spared no extravagance for the special day.

Dinner for two.

I must say we missed folks that we are usually with for Thanksgiving but we did enjoy our dinner together. We talked about many things and it was perfect in its own way. We were thankful for one another and our bounty that was both present and absent.

So I am back blogging. I will share with you thoughts I have as we plug through the adventures of life even when they are quite ordinary. I appreciate your time and support.

New Way of Thinking of Thanksgiving

With the current crazy wave of COVID most of us are choosing a new type of Thanksgiving gathering this year. For most folks it will be a smaller gathering. Just your immediate family. Just your household and one or two friends. It will be different that is for sure.

One of the greatest challenges is how to scale back a holiday that is laden with more food, friends and family than almost any other time. It is full of long standing traditions for every family on what we must do and have. So the idea of making a Thanksgiving dinner for less than six is hard to imagine. You have spent years getting the biggest turkey you could find. You have juggled ovens and timing to get it all done at exactly the same time. Doing the holiday smaller may seem daunting. Scale back may seem reasonable for some things and others elements smaller may seem impossible.

Turkey is one of those things that just doesn’t scale down. However one thing you can do is have your grocery store meat department cut your turkey in half down the breast. I have been doing this for years. There are lots of advantages of having a half turkey this way. It takes less time to cook. You get an assortment of white and dark meat. You don’t need a roaster or huge pan; instead you can use a sheet pan.

Two halves of a turkey, each having one half breast, thigh and the famous turkey leg.

Be forewarned that there are some grocery stores that don’t have meat cutters on site or meat cutting equipment. Our local Walmart has neither. Our local Safeway does have meat cutters working during core business hours. We also have several local meat markets that will be able to help you as well. You need to be prepared to take both halves of the turkey. So if you have a deep freezer this idea will present no problem. If you don’t look for a friend to split a turkey with you.

This half turkey makes and easy turkey dinner.

Another option is to opt out of turkey for some other meat. Chicken is an obvious choice because you can stuff it. Don’t let that be your limit there are game hens and duck. Or maybe you do chicken all the time because it seems to be a healthier choice, so go wild and do beef or pork.

My mother, a high risk individual, is not going to anyone’s home for Thanksgiving, and she doesn’t want to risk any of her children coming to her place. She is geographically unfit for me to take dinner to her. I have come up with a different solution for her. The local grocery is going to have ready-made dinner for pick up on Thanksgiving day. She is going to have plenty of food and lots of left overs, but the grocery store feast promises to be provide her with the essentials for a Midwest Thanksgiving dinner.

I encourage you to look around if this avenue sounds interesting to you. My mother lives in a little town of 4,000 people with one grocery store. I was surprised at the options they have. You may be surprised what your local grocery store will offer.

Another option would to to do pickup from a local restaurant. They sure could use your support right now. It is another case of you not having to cook and having all the special trimmings you want.

One of my dear friends will be doing a turkey picnic on the beach for two. Her food will have elements of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. When you list the recipes you see Brussel spouts, turkey, cranberry, corn and bread but it is all updated. It sounds like a wonderful alternative to a woman who is looking out the living room window as a the wind howls and the third winter storm of the season blows over the mountain.

Maybe what this year is in disguise is an opportunity to update our Thanksgiving traditions. This is being said by a woman who Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday. For years I hosted the holiday and rented hall tables and chairs to seat all my friends and family who came from near and far. When I no longer did that I was included with friends as part of their holiday traditions and large gatherings. This year it will just be RangerSir and I. I am just fine with this. It is a moment in time when despite all the changes I have so much to be thankful for.

Exploring Cooking

In these times of hunkering down and staying close to home there are reports about ingredient shortages as folks apparently starting cooking more from home. Many folks out there are first-time cooks, while others returned to their roots and made family favorites. There were folks who took up cooking to take some sort of control over all the craziness out there. Others took up cooking out of necessity to stretch their shrinking budgets. I’ve always cooked at lot from scratch for both enjoyment and for better health. Staying home was not going to change that, but it did.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love making pies.

My cooking style was influenced by my grandmas, all three. I came from a blended family and I had an amazing group of women who influenced my life in so many ways. They all brought something different to the table in my cooking experiences. One of my grandmother’s belonged to a cookbook club and made one new recipe a week for as long as I could remember. So experimental cooking seemed to me to be the norm. Another of my grandma’s was the queen of comfort foods, feeding others, and was well known for her pie skills. She gave to me the importance of sharing food with others and the ability to make pastry by gut instinct. My third granny lived in the city and she exposed me to all sorts of foods with her statement that I had to try two bites of everything on the table. It was a taste palette expansion I don’t think I would have had any other way.

Pandemic cooking has brought two things to our home. Learning to really cook for two and making meals that I had never imagined before. RangerSir always was a trouper about eating leftovers and trying new things. I have always loved to browse cookbooks looking for something new to make. Unfortunately for me my collection of cookbooks is old and full of tried and true, but not much new in there begs to be tried anymore. Cooking magazines are outrageously expensive so they are a very rare guilty pleasure. Lucky for me Amazon “gave” a full year of The Food Network app away just after the lock down started and I suddenly had more recipes to try than I had days in the week.

Half of a chicken dinner done on a sheet pan. Thank you Marc Murphy of The Food Network

The Food Network started me thinking about foods I didn’t really use and provided me with new recipes without breaking the bank. We would watch a food show while we ate lunch. Sometimes it was a “What???” moment and other times it had us thinking we should make that. This chicken was suppose to be a spatchcock chicken cooked on roasted vegetables. Once I split the whole chick down the back bone and flattened it on the pan, I got to thinking ‘why am I cooking both haves at one time?” I put the second half in the freezer for another day. The roast vegetables included leeks, something I saw in the store many times. I had always bought onions, shallots and garlic so did I really need leeks too? This recipe got me to try them. They are one of my new favorites to add when doing fall and winter root vegetables. There are now a staple and no longer shy from recipes that call for them.

Another fun thing about using a TV network show is it has turned into a group effort cooking. I know I can print the recipes, but that makes it a one sided affair. Now days I am in the kitchen prepping foods and RangerSir is assigned remote control. His job is to stop, rewind and start the video as I get out of sync with the TV chefs. It makes this cooking a joint effort and we laugh at ourselves in this crazy synchronization of making dinner. He always asks about the food we eat and this way he is much more informed because he was part of the cooking in a way.

Are you cooking more during these times? If you’d care to share I love to hear about what you are making.