Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th Birthday!!

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln...

Amazing to think that these two men were born on the same day in the same year. I just can't stop marveling at the coincidence. While Lincoln is a constant source of learning and interest in our household, I find that my knowledge of Darwin beyond the most basic level is really lacking. I'm inspired by this anniversary to read more about him and his ideas. How's that for a goal for the year?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Shady" Strikes Again

We apparently have a raccoon thoroughfare running from the front fence to the back fence in our yard. We live a block and a half from the Columbia River and over the years we've sighted many different critters but rarely do we have them in our backyard. Two summers ago some skunks took up residence under our shed. The addition of a dog to our household has thankfully discouraged their return. (The cats were getting a little too curious about them.) Since then, all the wildlife we've seen has been around the river: bald eagles, ducks, hawks, coots, billions of seagulls, beavers, otters, skunks, raccoons, salmon (usually the spawned kind, red and decomposing on the beach), even two coyotes in one day about a month ago.

This winter one or more raccoons have decided they like our yard (I guess they haven't been introduced to the dog or cats yet) and now they use it to get to a large stand of evergreen trees in the yard behind ours. One night one of the raccoons (Shady, perhaps?) came up onto our back deck and peered through the sliding glass door. I wouldn't have known it was there except that it scratched on the glass, just like our other animals do. We certainly startled each other when I went to the door to see who wanted in.

Today Shady (as my kids have named him) sauntered through the yard in broad daylight. Here he is:

And here are his tracks:

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Biscuit by Any Other Name...

A few weeks ago I read in a post on scones at the Down-to-Earth blog that: "what we call scones here and in the UK are called biscuits in the US." While scores of readers wrote in to request her recipe, reminisce about scones in general, and concur that using a wine glass makes the best cuts for scones, that little phrase stopped me in my tracks. Literally. Scones are biscuits?? I just couldn't get past that phrase because for years I have tried unsuccessfully to make scones. I had convinced myself that I just couldn't do it.

It wasn't for lack of effort, either. If you look at my recipe binder in which I have accumulated recipes since before married life [it was more a collection of meals or dishes that someday I would like to try since I really couldn't make much more than rice pudding and steamed broccoli before getting married] you will find 5 or 6 scone recipes culled from the NY Times, LA Times, and various gourmet-type magazines. I wanted scones more than anything. The names are so wonderful: "Tea-and-Talk Currant Scones"; Blueberry Scones; Buttermilk and Jam Scones; "Regent Beverly Wilshire Tea Scones." Doesn't that last one make you think of pillbox hats and white gloves?

Between that earth-shattering revelation about scones and biscuits (who knew?? even I can make biscuits) and another post on another blog for oatmeal scones (I am a sucker for oatmeal anything) I started reconsidering my prejudice about my scone-making potential. My dear husband, who freely admits I wasn't much of a cook in our early days together but loves my cooking now, convinced me that if I can make all the things I do now, scones should be... a piece of cake? Seems weird to mix metaphors, or baked goods, but really, how hard could they be if they're just biscuits?

So I set to work on the oatmeal scones and have made them twice since then, for breakfast, lunch, snack, whatever. They are so good! This morning I took the plunge and tried the recipe for Blueberry Scones which has resided in the cobwebs of my old recipe binder. Granted, the sight of frozen blueberries squirting out all over when I tried to press the two circles of dough together (the recipe quaintly directs one to "pat or lightly roll the dough out until the circle is about 12" across. Don't mush the berries." Go figure.) gave me pause, feeling again the momentary grip of that voice of old, "You can't make scones!" I pushed forward though, knowing that my son was starving (as much as a 9-year can be having been awake for all of 45 minutes) and that it was too late to turn back. In the end, they turned out pretty good for a first try. And all that blueberry juice made them look artsy in a Jackson Pollack sort of way.

Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Friday, February 6, 2009

In Praise of Homemade Bread

When we came back from China last March I was astounded by how much food prices had jumped. We had seen a similar rise in prices in Hohhot, but we were told it was more a phenomenon of New Year's price hikes than anything more global. Once we returned home, though, I could see that the situation was more serious than holiday price gouging.

And this is what finally pushed me to make bread weekly for my family. I'd already been disgusted with bread offerings at the grocery store and equally repulsed at the thought of paying $5 a loaf for "good" bread; seeing the price jump on even "adequate" bread broke the proverbial camel's back. Armed with a wonderful recipe from a friend, which makes 3 loaves at a time--a great time-saver--I started baking bread once a week. I haven't turned back.

This is my bread dough, ready to be punched down and separated
into three loaves.

And here is the finished product.

I honestly don't know what happened this week, but my loaves practically jumped out of the pans--they are HUGE. I guess the yeast really liked the steel-cut oats this time.

Making bread takes all day but the effort involved is actually so minimal. And there is nothing more satisfying than eating bread made from simple ingredients, bread which has never seen the inside of a plastic bag, much less the glare of a grocery store.

Winter Beauty

This picture is from an island that the kids and I like to visit. There are many different birds, raccoons, beavers, and a wonderful juxtaposition of burned out trees from a fire a decade ago with new growth. We spend an awful lot of time looking very closely at worm marks and beaver signs. This tree was just too lovely to pass up. In the summer I doubt we'd even be able to see it, for all the growth that would surround it.

The 6-Month Hiccup

Maybe it's a February Revolution, sweeping across the blogosphere; maybe I've finally put enough distance between myself and my other blog; maybe I've finally hit my stride, "only" 6 months into the school year, a period marked by travel, ankle surgery, ups and downs of how to homeschool (yet again... will I ever stop second-guessing myself?), football league, an interrupted soccer season, the usual whirlwind of holidays and my new-found interest (passion? obsession?) in knitting. Whatever the reason--and undoubtedly the hiccup stems from all of the above and more--I was inspired by Lisa Zahn's blog make-over to try again.

For the past few weeks I've started feeling the same urge to write or simply post a picture that I felt when we were in China. Of course there I had a purpose--I needed to keep friends and family up-to-date with our adventures in Hohhot. I think this blog (because it is purely for me and I hardly doubt anyone will read it but myself) has felt a little daunting. I mean, for whom or what purpose am I writing? It seems a little self-absorbed to write for myself, dwelling on bumps on the road of life or else perhaps verging on navel-gazing or self-congratulatory paeans to my family life, but then again, people have been keeping diaries for centuries. Why not do the same? I guess I am hung up on the concept of audience. If I am only writing for myself I shouldn't worry about what I write or how it is expressed. But the very nature of blogging is that it carries with it the possibility--maybe even the expectation?--that it will be read by someone, eventually. It's that self-exhibition that stymies me.

I live a pretty sheltered, self-imposed isolated life, at least in terms of popular American culture. My home is my sanctuary, where I bake, create meals, teach my children, knit, read, and of course wallow in housework. There is much "out there" of which I have very little knowledge: my sole source of news in NPR and even at that I frequently turn it off because sometimes there is such a thing as too much information; we don't have television other than for the occasional football game or as a monitor for DVDs and videos; my kids don't go to public school; and we don't partake of restaurants, movie theaters, churches, or the mall. When football, baseball, and soccer season come around I am always shocked to enter into mainstream life. It's just so jarring and unexpected, but often oddly satisfying because I am reminded that while I may not share the same values as many other people, we have enough of the basics in common to keep me from totally retiring into isolation. And it keeps me honest and from feeling smug about our lovely life. So maybe writing a blog again is the equivalent of starting up baseball season--I'm forcing myself to interact with the world, exposing myself to the unknown but hoping to grow in the process. For if anything is certain, if I slip into the comforting rhythm of my little life here I will most surely become rigid in my thinking and stop learning about life and my place in it.