Friday, March 29, 2013

The Vocational Homemaker's Guide to Easter Dinner

A young friend asked me what I'm doing about Easter dinner.  She fears that her own efforts will be inadequate to the occasion as she has a particularly judgmental guest coming to dinner that day.

We've all been there--and if you haven't, you will be.  :)

Anyway, I was pleased to tell her that my menu will be insanely simple and easy and cheap and nothing like what my beloved Martha will be serving.

Here you go:

We are not having an Easter dinner.

We are going to have a very plain, simple Easter eve dinner that came from Aldi and consists of a spiral cut ham (served cold), some steamed broccoli with ranch dip, and some scalloped potatoes with a sprinkle of bacon because bacon.  Oh, and some drop biscuits made from homemade baking mix.  If I'm feeling especially sassy, I'll add some cheese and herbs to the biscuits before baking them.

We'll enjoy a pleasant, unrushed dinner, which is always filled with laughter and good company, and as we're clearing the table and getting the kitchen tidied up I'll put together a breakfast casserole for the slow cooker and I'll make some deviled eggs, because we'll have a standard American boatload of multi-colored hard-cooked eggs sitting around.  And on Easter Sunday, Ella can run around the house looking for eggs the Easter bunny hid, and Rudi and I can sit together with some fresh coffee, then we'll all have a good breakfast then get dressed and go to Mass.

It will be wonderful.  We'll all be well fed.  And I will not be mad at anybody for "making me" work all day on a holiday.

There.  I hope that helps you exhale.

And if by chance you happen to have a particularly judgmental guest coming to dinner this weekend, I recommend the following:

Do exactly as I am doing, but do it on Easter.  Don't talk about which store things came from or how much/little effort went into the meal.  Just add some orange juice or mimosas and thank your guests profusely for gracing your table.  If they have the audacity to critique your offering, tell them that you'd be honored to be their guest next time so you can learn from a master.  :)


Ok, for those who want an actual PLAN, here you go.  This is a modern twist on a traditional Spring menu, it is easy for a beginner to manage, and it is sufficiently impressive to keep nitpickers at bay.  For dessert offer fruit sherbet with a butter cookie perched on top, and a cup of fresh, hot coffee.  All of the ingredients in this menu are available at Aldi right now for very reasonable prices.  The only downside to this menu is:  no leftovers.

Smoked Pork Chops with Curried New Potatoes and Green Beans

  • 10-12 new potatoes
  • 1 pound green beans, ends removed
  • 6 tablespoons butter 
  • 6 smoked pork chops, 3/4" thick
  • 2 tablespoons whole mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder

Steam the potatoes in a rack over boiling water for 15 minutes.  Add the beans to the rack, cover and steam until potatoes and beans are tender (about 10 more minutes).

While the potatoes are cooking, melt about 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat.  Add the pork chops, three at a time, and cook, turning once, until lightly brown on both sides (about 10 minutes total).  Arrange pork chops on a platter and keep warm.

Melt the rest of the butter in the pan, then stir in mustard seeds and curry powder.  Cut the potatoes in half and add to the pan, cut side down.  Cook until lightly browned (about 5 minutes).  Arrange on the platter with the pork chops.  Add the beans to the pan, turn to coat in the butter until heated thru.  Arrange on the platter with the pork chops and potatoes.  Drizzle the rest of the butter over the vegetables on the platter.  Serve and enjoy!

Thursday, March 28, 2013


A conversation with a then-5 year old Ella:

"Mama, how old was Jesus when He died?" 
"We believe He was around 33 years old."
"Why did He have to grow up so fast?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, He was born in the Winter and He died in the Spring--that's not very long, so why did He have to grow up very fast and get His job done so quickly?"


As far as I know, the period between Christmas Eve and Good Friday has no formal liturgical name.  Sure, there are seasons in between--there's Epiphany, and there's Lent of course--but as a whole, how are we to understand the spaces between one holy season and the next?

For me, this particular space is bracketed by Mary, who was granted the privilege to cradle the newborn King at His birth and the Redeemer of the World at His death.  Mary--who rocked the baby Jesus to sleep, the one to whom the toddler Jesus ran for comfort when He fell and skinned His knees--the woman who knew the child Jesus' favorite color and His favorite food, knew His favorite childhood games, the things that made Him laugh, understood His fears and delights and ambitions.

The mother in me understands Mary in ways I could never have imagined before my own child was born.  Now:

  • I am certain, as she heard the crowd cry out for her Son's execution that her first instinct was to shred each person there to bits with her bare hands.
  • I am certain, as she watched her precious child walk the path to His crucifixion that she must have yearned with every fiber of her being to make it all better, to wipe His face clean and bandage His bleeding knees and to take the cross off His shoulder and fling it at the soldiers who put it on Him.
  • I am certain, as she heard His words of comfort and forgiveness to those who witnessed His suffering, that her heart must have burst with a horrible mix of pride and sorrow that only the mother of Her own Saviour could comprehend.
  • I am certain that when Mary stood at the foot of the cross, it must have felt to her like only yesterday when she first held her sweet, new baby.
  • And I am certain, as she held her bruised, battered, lifeless Son in her arms, that she wondered to herself where she had gone wrong, what she could have done differently, how she could have prevented this horrific end for Her beloved child.

We're like that, we mothers.  We think it is all about us.  :)

Poor Mary--she could have said NO.  She could have saved herself so much pain.  Yet she stuck close to this Son who caused her so much trouble.  She carried the infant Jesus safely to Egypt when Herod was looking for Him--she searched three days and nights for the preteen Savior when He was lost, only to have Him scold her for being worried about Him when she found Him--and at the end she stuck by Him through His humiliation and apparent defeat.

Through it all, Mary never wavered.

For me, that's the lesson of Mary.  It isn't about how I can be more perfect--it's about how I can be more faithful.  It's about remembering that He didn't ask me to do it all, but He did command me to try--to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit those who are alone--to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offenses willingly, to comfort the sorrowing, to pray for everybody, always.  

This is why Lent never burdens me.  I am not sorrowful, I am not weary.  I just try to follow Him.  To do what Mary said to do at the wedding at Canna:  whatever He says.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Brides: Here's the stuff you need for your kitchen

It's the time of year when weddings are being planned and more to the point, money is being spent on wedding things and I have several young friends putting together their dream registers to get their new homes started.

My beloved and I will be celebrating 19 years of wedded bliss soon (that's on top of the three years of pre-wedded bliss we enjoyed before that), so I believe I'm in a good position to give some perspective on this.

If I were starting from scratch today, knowing what I know now after all these years of having a home together and all these most recent years of that home being my job, here's are the top 5 things I would get for my kitchen:

1:  Pressure cooker(s)

Fagor "Splendid Line" Multi-Pressure Cooker 2-in-1 Set

All my friends, loved ones, and probably a few random strangers know my love affair with pressure cooking.  If you have a good stove top pressure cooker you can use it without pressure as a regular pot--most of them come with a regular lid that you can use for just that purpose--and stove top models come in many sizes, have lots of accessories available, and are made from the tough stuff so they last forever.  One maker even has a pressure cooker you can use for small-batch pressure canning!

If I were buying pots and pans from scratch, I'd go for a collection of a small pot, a medium pot, a large pot, a pressure lid, a regular lid, and I'd make sure the largest pot was approved for canning.  The only pieces I know of in the States that fit this description is from Fagor.  They're expensive because they're the best.  Put them on your bridal registry and make sure the office gang that is going in together to buy you something "really nice" knows that this is it.  The set in the picture is the one I have, plus the steamer basket (I have a separate, really big canner that is not from Fagor--it is great too--but sometimes you just want to can 2 quarts instead of 20, you know?).

At this point you're thinking, "What if I'm not into canning?".  Still get the canner pot.  You need something that big when you have dinner parties.  Later, when you are into canning you'll be glad you don't have to go out and get all the stuff.

2.  Cast iron skillet(s)

Lodge Logic LCC3 Pre-Seasoned Combo Cooker, 10.25-inch
Yes, I'm from the South, but I didn't get my own cast iron skillet until about four years ago.  What a shame those lost years without one were.  Since acquiring mine I've used it for so many things besides the obvious (for you non-Southerners, the obvious is cornbread in the oven).  My favorite cast iron hack is to use it for a panini press--if you have two, different size cast iron skillets you can put the sandwich in the larger one and put the smaller one on top (make sure the smaller one is already hot so it can cook the sandwich at the same time).

I like Lodge brand because they are a Tennessee company, but if you are lucky someone in your family has a cast iron skillet to hand down to you as a token of their affection.  Even if it looks like it has been out running with wolves, accept it gratefully.  All you have to do is remove the rust (vinegar and steel wool are your friends here) and give it a coat of oil to season it--it will be sparkling and just like new.

3.  Good knives

J.A. Henckels International Classic 8-Inch Stainless-Steel Chef's Knife

One small enough to handle peeling tomatoes.  One big enough to cleave a butternut squash in twain.
Choose something heavy and make sure you can actually see that the blade extends thru the entire length of the handle.  Oh, and put a whetstone on your registry and spend the time between now and the big day learning to use it.   I have and love Henkel knives--mine look just like the one above except that mine are not blurry.

4.  Wood cutting boards

Michigan Maple Block Co 24" x 18" Maple Cutting Board

Don't fall for the pretty, shiny glass boards with pictures of roosters or artwork by Van Gogh on them.  They will ruin those beautiful knives you made sure to tell your not-at-all-crazy aunt to buy for you.  Get real wood.  For the purposes of your kitchen use it doesn't matter what kind of wood it is--pick something that fits your aesthetics and political leanings.  My favorite board is maple and is made up of lots of boards smooshed together--what is that type of composition called?--well, just look at the picture and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Put at least two, clearly different boards on your list.  You want one to use only for cutting raw meat/poultry/fish, and the other can be used for veggies or cooked meat/poultry/fish.  NO CROSS CONTAMINATION, PLEASE.  You will thank me when your dinner guests do not develop food poisoning.

OK--here's one place where I do think a concession is reasonable.  If you wish, you can choose a plastic board to use for cutting raw meats.  I have one that is exactly like the one in the following picture.  It can be sanitized in the dishwasher or in the sink with a little bleach.  However, don't get carried away with fear.  Your wood cutting boards can be sanitized too, and with stuff that is much milder than bleach.

Progressive International Cutting Board

Also, I know you and your beloved are going to be living in an apartment the size of a tent--still, get the biggest cutting boards you can.  They don't take up much room (unlike those big pressure canners I told you to ask for) but there is very little that is more disheartening than trying to cut a 10 lb. roast on a 5 lb. cutting board.  ;)  If you are really squeezed in, you can store them under the mattress (unlike those cast iron skillets I told you to ask for).

5.  Real towels

60 Hometex Heavy Weight Cotton Terry Towels

Instead of spending the rest of your life cutting coupons so you can afford to indulge your paper towel habit, just put "large package of white shop towels" on your registry.  The ones I have right now came from Costco, they were a package of 60 towels for less than the cost of one big package of paper towels.  I use them with wild abandon, knowing that I can just toss them all in the washing machine at the end of the week and have a fresh, clean batch ready to be used with wild abandon.

I know what you're thinking:  why would I make more work for myself by adding another load of laundry to the list?  I do it because once I'd spent the money to load up on real towels, it only cost 50¢ per week to have plenty of towels to use with wild abandon.  Compare that to the cost of using white paper towels with wild abandon (trust me--one good shop towel will do the work of 5 paper towels).

For some reason Costco doesn't have these towels on their website.  Don't buy them at Amazon--they are overpriced there.  If you don't have a Costco store near you, send your loving friends to a local auto supply store.  They'll have an exciting shopping adventure and a lovely story to share with their grandchildren.

Disclaimer:  I still use paper towels for certain things--pet accidents for example--but otherwise it is reusables all the way.


There are other nice things you can get for your kitchen (digitial gadgets, I'm looking at you), but this list will get you started.  After that, you'll have plenty of time to consider investing in a complete set of sushi rice paddles.

Fellow established homemakers, what 5 items do you recommend to the newbies?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Protecting your Spring gardens

This morning and afternoon I gave my first talks of the season at Bates Nursery and Garden Center in Nashville (go see them--they are awesome), and one of things I promised the attendees is that I would post a few pictures of how I keep insects from laying eggs in my SFG boxes.

The structure is similar to protecting them from frost.  I put up frame made of 1/2" schedule 40 PVC pipe and drape it with fine netting--the kind used to make bride's veils.  It comes in widths up to at least 180" (although not every fabric store will have it that wide, so you might have to get it online).  I clip it to the frame with the same clips that I use for making the cold weather hoop houses.

The following is a kohlrabi plant under netting.  The day I netted it, it had already been attacked by a tiny green worm. You can see the damaged leaf in the lower part of the photo.  The rest of the leaves came out after the net was put over the garden....

....and as you can see with the netting  lifted, there was no further damage on the plant from then on.

This does not mean the bugs didn't keep trying.  Here is a shot of a bug that actually just laid her eggs right on the net!  I crushed those eggs, because when they hatched the little guys would have been small enough to get thru the holes.  (I felt HORRIBLE about destroying those eggs.  That is another post for another day).

If you happen to be in the Middle TN area on Saturday, 13 April, you can catch a repeat of the talks I gave today.  11:00am is my Intro to Square Foot Gardening, and 2:00pm is my Intro to Four Seasons Gardening.  If you were at either of my talks today and I said I'd post something for you on the blog--please job my memory as to what it was I said I'd post.  :)  I remembered the netting but it seems like there was something else....

Friday, March 22, 2013

Candied Rhubarb Love Knots

Thank you, Facebook fans!  You took up my Friday plea and helped me get to 200 fans in just a few minutes, so I offer you these sweet little nothings as a thank you.

Candied Rhubarb Love Knots

  • 1 pound rhubarb, leaves discarded and stalks cut into thin ribbons
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Unsalted butter, softened, for baking dish

In a small pan over medium heat, dissolve the sugar in the water.  Stir in the vanilla extract.  Remove from heat.

Gently add rhubarb ribbons and steep like a tea for 5 minutes or until rhubarb is soft.  

Place the rhubarb ribbons on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, being careful that the ribbons are not touching, and bake at 200ºF for 45 minutes or until the sugar coating on the rhubarb is dry to the touch.  

Remove from the oven and tie ribbons into knots while the rhubarb is still pliable.  Allow to air dry overnight.  

Friday, March 15, 2013

The week that was, the week that will be

Oops!  I let an entire week go by without posting here.  I've been posting on the Vocational Homemaker Facebook page, which is a good place to keep up with things if you are an online addict such as some people I know who will not out themselves on their own homemaking blog.  Please accept this gratuitous photo of a wild strawberry for your trouble.

A feature that I've added to the bar just below the blog banner is a link to my weekly menu plan.  I will have each week's update by the weekend before.  Any recipes that are available online are already linked in the menu.

There is also now a garden work plan for the week, but it is subject to more change than the menu plan due to the fact that Mother Nature is kind of fickle this time of year.

Tomorrow I'm hosting a Square Foot Gardening workshop here at our studio and gardens and then I'll officially be off until Monday.  Have a great weekend!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Voice mail

As a Vocational Homemaker (and proud Southern belle), I aspire to offer warm and gracious hospitality to one and all.  Sadly, this does not come naturally to me, and I have come to fear it as one of the arenas of homemaking in which I am most lacking.

In the middle of the night--when, as you know, we all do our very best thinking--I realized that I have been nursing a character flaw that directly--negatively--impacts my spirit of hospitality:  for well over a year I have kept my voice mail full, on purpose, so as to prevent anyone from leaving me a message to which I would have to respond.

WOW--talk about unwelcoming.

Please don't judge me harshly.  I like hearing from people.  But I am not good on the phone.  I have to come up with words on the spot, and often those words are not well chosen.  It's not from ill will but rather being awkward on the fly.

That's how ballerinas are--if we haven't rehearsed it, we tend to stumble, especially on words.  We're used to being seen, not heard.  I am much better in print.  Thus, a blog.

So today, as a non-threatening way of exercising my hospitality skills, I will weed out and delete any voice mails that I don’t absolutely need to save.  After that, I pledge to stay on top of them so as to always make room for at least one more.  Just as I hope to do at my dinner table.  Wish me luck.  :)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Coffee Cake Diplomacy

Photo from that other famous Vocational Homemaker, Betty Crocker

There is something magical about coffee cake.  Nobody claims to like it, but nobody ever turns it down.

Coffee cake can smooth over a lot of rough spots in life.  No matter how tedious, stressful, or upsetting the situation, a coffee cake says “everything is going to be ok--someone took the time to bake.”

Coffee cake is one of those things that every Vocational Homemaker should have in her domestic armory.  You can put together a coffee cake while the pot of coffee is brewing.  And since obviously you have at least two cups of heavy cream in your fridge at all times, you can whip some of it into soft peaks and turn this coffee-and-cake occasion into an outright affair of note.

Herewith is the recipe that I use for all coffee cake happenings.  NOTE:  You’re going to need some baking mix. Use homemade if you have it, but store-boughten will also work just fine.  Let’s not get carried away as to which is the better choice--as long as you end up with coffee cake, you win.

For the cake:
2 cups baking mix
2/3 cup milk or water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg

For the topping:
1/3 cup baking mix
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons firm butter or margarine

Heat oven to 375°F. Grease 9-inch round pan. In small bowl, stir topping ingredients until crumbly; set aside.

In medium bowl, mix coffee cake ingredients until blended. Spread in pan. Sprinkle with topping.

Bake 18 to 22 minutes or until golden brown.

Enlightenment, please

Why is there Parmesan cheese in my rain boot?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How to deal with frayed knots

Image courtesy of Idea

Whenever someone is having "a moment", start at the top of this list and work your way down:
  • hungry?
  • tired?
  • coming down with something?
  • needs a break?
When you find the problem, administer the appropriate remedy with ample amounts of empathy and affection. If all you have is empathy and affection, apply liberally while you seek the required treatment.  If you are running low on empathy and affection, apply anyway--they are self-renewing resources.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Did You Know That You Can Freeze Pancake Batter?

Whenever I make pancakes I always make some extras to stash in the freezer, but this is a great and easy solution for using up milk that is about to go bad!  Now I can buy a gallon of milk at Aldi-I-love-that-place without worrying that we will waste half of it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Aging canned goods--What do you think?

I'm not sure I'll ever know if I agree with this article, because most of those foods are not ones that I like anyway, but hypothetically I have opened and eaten food that was "expired".  What is the oldest food item you've ever taken a chance on?