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Monday, May 30, 2016

Unofficial Start of Summer With a Few of My Favorite Things

This Memorial Day weekend, as we remembered all those who fought and died for our freedom, our family also kicked off summer with some our favorite summer traditions.  The temps were hot here in the Allegheny Mountains, and we even turned on the AC, which I would have never dreamed we'd need to do a couple of weeks ago when we actually had sleet and snow on the mountains.  Even if the official first day of the season is still weeks away, it definitely looks and feels as if summer has arrived in the Northeast.

We started the weekend by taking the cover off our pool, and what a mess!  Leaves, dirt, tadpoles, and who knows what all else fell down in those murky waters.  It will take us days and days of vacuuming and dumping loads of chlorine in there before any of us will be willing to jump in.  The children went wading in the creek instead.

That's not to say that no one was swimming in our pool because there were most definitely plenty of creatures in there.  We'd scoop them out and let them go free, but ten minutes later, there they were again.

Fortunately, I have a number of amphibian lovers in our house who have been more than happy to catch and release them...maybe a little too close to their little sister who is afraid of every amphibian and reptile.  She doesn't even want to go to the zoo this summer because she remembers the crocodiles that she was certain were just waiting for her to fall over the fence to provide them with their dinner.

Frogs and toads were not our only weekend guests.  A bush on our patio was full of these newly hatched moths.  They were everywhere, including in the spiderwebs on our back porch.  They're so interesting to watch as they emerge and stretch out their wings.  I absolutely love all the wildlife here in the summer time.

Hanging out on our patio in the evenings is one of my favorite ways to relax in the summer.  We always have a few "barn cats" nearby to keep us company. The only problem with this spot is that I get a great view of our surroundings---beautiful but always wild and unruly.  We never get caught up on the yard work.


At least for now, we have these beautiful yellow irises to distract me from all the overgrown shrubs, grass, and weeds.  Trying to focus on the positive.

 First thing on weekend mornings, when it's still a little cool and we have no place we have to be, I love to sip my coffee and read a book on the front porch swing.  All I hear are chirping birds and buzzing bumblebees except for this weekend, when cabin owners with four-wheelers spend their time zipping up and down the mountain at top speed.  I'm not fond of them at all.


When the temperature climbed to over 90 degrees one afternoon, we all came into the air conditioning, and watched this movie about Mother Teresa on Netflix.  This woman has been such an inspiration to me for years.  The way she continued for decades to treat the poorest of the poor with dignity, kindness, and love despite the dark emptiness and loneliness she felt inside, moves me to tears.  I couldn't be happier that she is to be canonized a saint this fall.  The movie is a great introduction to her life.

Last evening we fired up the charcoal grill and ate out on the patio for the first time this year.  Nothing fancy, just the traditional summer foods: watermelon, baked beans, cheddar & bacon hamburgers, potato salad, potato chips, and Arnold Palmers.

That was followed by a campfire...

...and some firecrackers, sparklers, and all the ingredients to make smores.  My kids never, ever get tired of smores no matter how many campfires we have.

Now I'm off to retrieve the kiddos from the creek and slurp on some lemonade swirl popsicles before we all head off to our last full week of school.  I hope all of you were able to enjoy some summer favorites this weekend too.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Aromatic Herbs You Can Grow in Your Flower Beds

Although we've lived out in the country for nearly ten years now, I spent most of my adult life living in suburban subdivisions.  Even then, I dreamed of growing some of my own food ingredients, and I planted herbs, cherry tomatoes, and peppers in beds next to my house and in pots on my patio.  Even in neighborhoods where strict ordinances are enforced, many owners can grow fragrant, attractive herbs in beds around the perimeter of their houses and pools.  Right now we have quite a variety of herbs planted amidst flowers and vines on the sides of our house and in raised planters next to our pool.  I encourage everyone to give this a try, even if it's just for making some iced tea in the summer.  The orange mint in the above photo grows on a shady side of our house and smells so good when you just brush up against it. 

We started growing chamomile next to our swimming pool last summer.  When the flowers arrive later in the season, they bring out the wonderful smell.  I plan on using this to make tea.

Chives are a terrific addition to any raised bed.  You can see these are about to bloom, and they will have the cutest round purple flowers.  I use chives in all kinds of dishes and salads. 

If you've ever grown mint, you know that it likes to spread and take over, so you have to watch certain varieties.  This chocolate mint sprawls next to our house, but it tastes so good even on its own.  It also makes the greatest warm tea. 

My lavender doesn't get very big, so I'm not sure we're the best zone for it or if I need to move it to another location.  I really want it to thrive because it's terrific for headaches, which I tend to get a lot of when the pollen counts are high.

Somehow this lemon mint popped up on the side of our house the other summer, and it has been gradually taking over that flower bed ever since.  This herb smells so summery and also makes a good tea.

What would any summer herb garden be without some oregano?  I use so much of this in my cooking, and especially in the big batches of salsa we make in the summer once the tomatoes are ripe.

Along with these herbs, we have also successfully grown parsley (until the rabbits ate it,) apple mint, peppermint, rosemary (until our black cat kept napping on it,) basil, and sage.  Many of these have medicinal qualities as well as being fantastic culinary herbs.  Some are natural insect repellents as well.  Go outside and see what little unused parts of your flower beds are available, and go to your local nursery and pick up a few herbs to plant.  By the end of the summer, I think you'll be hooked.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Green Chinese Birthday Celebration

When I asked our third son what theme he'd like for his eleventh birthday, he said he didn't know.  After many more inquiries, he finally said his favorite color is green, and he'd like for me to make my chicken lo-mein for his birthday dinner.  Oh, and he'd like to celebrate on Sunday since his actual birthday is on a school day this year.  And no party, just family here.  That's all I had to go on.  This is the same child with whom I gained the most weight, and my body never again returned to a size 4.  The same child who kept turning his body into a transverse position in utero and kept me worrying up until the end whether or not I'd be able to have him naturally.  The same child who kept me in labor for two whole days, and I thought he was never coming out.  My only child born with my orange hair and super fair skin and freckles.  The only one of our children born with his dad's stocky body and an intense love affair with food from the very beginning.  He has always been the one to do things a little differently, quite a bit reluctantly, and with a contrary nature.  So I wasn't suprised by his birthday wish list or requests.  The tricky part was trying to come up with an entire party theme based on the color green and Chinese food.  But here's what I came up with.

Hubby and I started out at Party City and picked up green and white paper products and these cute treat boxes that resemble Chinese takeout.

Then we went around those candy carousels that Party City has and picked out most of the green and white candy---enough for our youngest six children who were here (including a grown one.)

Then we filled each green box with the exact same amount of candy and put one at each child's spot at the table.  The rock candy sticking out the sides was supposed to resemble chop sticks.  

We tossed some green and white glow sticks all over the table.  Not really sure that they fit the Chinese theme, but they were the colors we were looking for, and what kid doesn't like glow sticks?

And I put out a plate of crispy Chinese noodles for a snack that we picked up from the supermarket.  I refilled this at least three times.

I know this is a little repetitive of  my fruit kabobs at Easter, but the green grapes and kiwi fit with our theme, and instead of marshmallow peeps on the skewers, I placed fortunes.

Because you can never have too many good fortunes.


Of course, we had to have a bowl of fortune cookies too.  Actually, there were broken fortune cookies scattered all over the table, and whole ones ended up on the cake too.

Speaking of the know I admit my failures and flops on here.  The original birthday cake was a HUGE disaster.  Our son asked for a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.  Usually our daughter does the cake baking in this house, but she was tired due to a field trip to an amusement park the day before, so I baked the cake.  The double layer triple chocolate super-moist cake that I made from a box that said it even had pudding in the mix came out of the oven perfectly.  But I had a problem with the homemade peanut butter frosting.  I replaced the butter in my favorite butter creme recipe with natural peanut butter.  First it seemed too thick, so I added more milk.  Then it seemed too runny, so I added more powdered sugar.  I ended up adding more peanut butter at the last minute because I didn't think it tasted "peanutty" enough.  By the time the cake cooled, the frosting was very, very thick and stiff.  When I tried to frost the cake, the top layer kept leaning off to one side, and the frosting was almost impossible to spread.  The cake split once, twice, three, then four times.  And it was all over.  I told everybody to come help themselves to whopping large pieces of cake.  Then I made everybody eat it for breakfast the next morning because I needed the empty cake plate. 

So on the way home from Church, we stopped at Weis, and the Birthday Boy picked out a Pellman's triple layer chocolate cake with chocolate peanut butter candies.  But it was frozen, and I wasn't sure it would be thawed in time to eat.  Fortunately, we ate later than I had planned and all was well.  You can see from the top photo that we added some green confetti sprinkles and fortune cookies to the top of the cake to keep with our green Chinese theme.

We also found big balloons with his name on them at Party City.  Our daughter had the great idea of blowing them up with glow sticks inside.  The problem was the glow sticks tended to jut out the sides and pop the balloons easily.  We also should have had them inflated with helium because we could not get them to stay upright on his chair.

On the front porch chalkboard, our daughter wrote Happy Birthday in Chinese with attempts at drawing some Asian flowers.  She decorated with green chalk; although, you can't tell from the photo.  I know I'm freaky about trying to keep our family members' names private, which is why everywhere his name appears, I've blotted it out.  Maybe some of you parents can understand.  We haven't taken any Chinese here, so we looked this up on the Internet and hope it's correct. 

I couldn't find any green Chinese birthday banners, so this one had to do from the Dollar Tree. 

This old farmhouse definitely does not have enough counter space, so I made use of the coal stove and turned it into a mini bar to make our first vodka tonics of the season for the big people.

Our Birthday Boy insisted on helping decorate, so he designed his own chalk dragon on our indoor chalkboard.

Finally it was time for dinner.  Our adult son and his fiancee arrived with homemade egg rolls, something I've never made, and I was thoroughly impressed.  Everyone loved them so I'll have to get the recipe to share.

At our son's request, my husband and I cooked up some chicken lo-mein.  Lots and lots of lo-mein.  We'll be eating it for days.  This is one of the few Asian dishes I create, but it's one most of us love (I have a few non-lovers in the family who were less than thrilled about dinner yesterday.)

Chicken Lo-Mein
Marinate a pound of thinly sliced boneless chicken breasts in 1 Tablespoon corn starch, salt, 1 Tablespoon water, 1 Tablespoon soy sauce, and powdered ginger.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes-several hours.  Cook a pound of vermicelli and drain.  Add the cooked vermicelli to heated oil in a skillet, and sprinkle in 1 Tablespoon soy sauce (enough to turn noodles slightly brown,) and salt to taste.  Stir-fry until heated through, then remove to a pot or plate to keep warm.  I mix in a tiny bit of oil to prevent it from sticking.  Stir-fry the marinated chicken in the same oil in skillet.  Add a little more soy sauce, salt, and ginger if you like.  Once cooked through, remove and keep warm.  Add 1/2 cup each of thinly sliced carrots, broccoli, cabbage, and mushrooms.  Stir-fry until tender crisp. Add 1-2 cups chicken broth, and bring to a boil.  Add the cooked chicken and 2 shredded scallions or chopped onions.  Bring to a boil.  Stir in mixture of 2 Tablespoons cornstarch, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and 2 Tablespoons water.  Cook until thickened, stirring constantly.  Spoon over vermicelli, and serve immediately.  Of course, feel free to use any vegetables you like.  I also don't measure soy sauce or ginger; I just sprinkle it in as I go along until it tastes the way we like it.  We doubled this recipe and cooked it in a wok since it was too much for any of our skillets.

After dinner and cake, it was time to open a few gifts.  The Lego Creator set was put together in less than an hour.

But the pocket knife from his older brother is going to get hours and hours of use, I can tell.

He was already working on a walking stick or spear or something I maybe don't want to know about last night as it was turning dark.  Perhaps whittling wood will replace Lego building as his new hobby now that he's become a middle-schooler.  Regardless, I'm sure he'll continue to surprise us with his uniqueness as he enters this next stage of his life.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Inspired to Do the Unthinkable

 Last weekend two of our children ran in a 5K to raise money for the athletic programs at our school.  Even though several of our kids have run track and cross-country, this is the first 5K race I've ever attended.  I've always hated running.  I spent years teaching aerobics classes and yoga classes, but I rarely ran to keep fit.  Hiking is much more my thing.  But as each birthday passes, and I get closer and closer to 50, there's been this nagging persistent thought in the back of my head that I should really give running a try.  I don't know if it's the possibility of tackling a new challenge or proving that's it's never too late to start something new or if it's because no other form of exercise is getting rid of these pesky extra inches around my middle, but I've been pondering training for a race.  Maybe it's crazy, but watching the race participants of all ages run these 3.1 miles last Saturday really inspired me to give this a try.

I watched, and I learned from this race.  Our daughter who has run track for the past two years does not train for distance.  Yet she and her friend crossed the finish line without having to stop and walk the most of it, and they both finished with smiles on their faces.  Her time wasn't great, but she definitely wasn't the last one to cross the finish line.  She persevered and had a great attitude, and she just looked like she was having fun.  She didn't even realize her time or how well she had done until they announced her name as third place winner in her age group.  Her friend came in second.  Neither one expected that to happen.

She wasn't even too tired and sweaty to fix her ponytail for a picture of them sporting their medals.  They wore them out to lunch as we tried a new Mexican restaurant that just opened.  Lesson learned: go into the race to have fun.

I also learned from our son who actually has been training as he runs the trails of our woods almost daily.  This, however, was his first race ever, and he totally overestimated his abilities.  When he started sprinting the first mile, my husband (a veteran runner himself) knew he was going to be in trouble.  I expected to see him long before we saw our daughter, and when he still didn't show up minutes later, I started worrying that something happened to him or he got lost.  After that first mile or two of going as fast as he could go, his body called it quits.  He finished, but it took a toll on his ego, and he was not a happy camper for a good part of the afternoon.  His mood lifted when he got to see the new Captain America movie with some friends later that night.  Note to self: do not give it your all at the beginning of a 5K. 

When I watched children in 2nd, 4th, and 5th grades that I sometimes teach in the classroom cross that finish line in the first 30 minutes, I was duly impressed.  I was more impressed by their positive attitudes, perseverance, and smiling faces at the end of the race than the winners who finished in 18-24 minutes.  I was in awe as I watched men in their sixties and seventies run past me.  I almost cried when our first-grade daughter's friend brought up the rear, but finished and ran the whole way.  The entire event inspired me in a way I never would have anticipated.  When I left the house that morning, grumpy and cold and just really wanting to stay home and drink another cup of coffee, I would have never guessed that later that same afternoon, I would put on my sneakers and yoga pants and go running through the woods.  My first run in over 20 years!

And it didn't hurt like I thought it would.  I had to intersperse running (jogging) and brisk walking for the 1.6 miles of my jaunt, but I didn't have to stop altogether.  I pushed myself to run a little further than I thought I could.  I thought of the possibility of running that same 5K next year with several of our children instead of just being the mom on the sidelines photographing it.  I realized I wasn't in as bad of shape as I had thought, but I also realized that jogging was going to bring my heart rate up higher than it ever goes when I'm just walking.  I was also humbled to learn that my running isn't much faster than my walking even though it feels much harder.  And I also came to the conclusion that I definitely cannot get away with running at my age without a sports bra and a better pair of running shoes.  So I am now venturing into uncharted territory for me and am doing something I never thought I would do: training for a race.  

Final lesson learned: Never tell people that you are NEVER going to do something---like running.  Just last week, I mistakenly told someone that to me, running is like being in purgatory.  Now I'm eating my words.

I'll be keeping you all posted.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Unwanted Visitors

One of the most startling discoveries for me when moving far into the country was periodically having surprise visits from uninvited guests.  That would be of the non-human variety.  In the nearly ten years we've lived here, we've had a six-foot black snake in our attic, a bat in my swimsuit where it was drying on a windowsill in our bedroom, numerous mice in the walls and basement, several opossums under our porches, horses and cows in our back yard, stray goats and geese on our front porch, a tom turkey who wouldn't leave our patio, a cardinal in our cabin, birds in our chimney, a groundhog family under our cabin, and on Friday, a wild duck in our basement.  These are just to name a few of the creatures not owned by us to show up here.  There have been many, many more that have hung out in our yard, pasture, or pool.  Sometimes they've been rather fun to have around, like the owl in the bush right next to our living room window, the baby quail under our porch, and the nest of wild black bunnies beside our garden.  With four cats around, some of these didn't make it very long here, but others stayed for awhile.  The duck in our basement, however, really baffled me, and it was not something I wanted to keep.
When our 15 year old son first told me he had found a duck in the basement when he went down to get some snack food from the pantry shelves, I didn't believe him.  But just in case he wasn't pulling my leg, I told him to prop open the big basement barn doors so it could waddle out on its own.  These doors had been closed and latched for at least a week, however, and there is no other way down there without removing the small windows.  No one had done that either.  The only other ways down are through our house and down the chimney where the flue pipe opens into the basement.  I knew no duck had wandered into our house and down the basement stairs.  So I guess it flew to the top of our tall farmhouse roof and fell down the chimney?????  To me, that seems unlikely, but I can't conceive of another possibility.
Even though the basement doors remained open for hours, this duck would not leave.  If you got too close to it, it hissed and totally freaked out my children.  When Hubby came home, he and our teen son used a fishing net to catch it and take it outside.  Standing on the patio, my husband let it go, and it flew straight for our pool, of course, where it glided quickly across the water in the pool cover and hopped out.  But then it couldn't figure out how to get over or around the fence.  Two of our cats who were napping nearby and seemed totally disinterested in the whole duck escapade suddenly poked their heads up in great interest at the sight of a trapped duck who was desperately trying to find its way to freedom.  They went running after that duck at top speed, and right behind them was my husband, yelling "Nooooo" and waving his arms and chasing after the felines.
Fortunately, Hubby got to the duck just before our monstrous black Maine cooncat got his mouth around the poor duck's neck.  He swooped it up, raised it high in the air, and threw it into the sky this time.  We all watched it fly away---me, our son, Hubby, and our black cat standing at my husband's feet.  It was the mystery and adventure of our week, I tell you.  It paled only slightly in comparison to the births of our four baby goats earlier in the week.
The goat kids, by the way, are very much wanted and loved guests on our farm.  Actually, change that from guests to members of our farm family.  We just can't get enough of them.  If there were a way to diaper them, I think my children would be sneaking them into our farmhouse all the time.  But we'll keep that to ourselves because I don't want to give them any ideas.
I hope all your visitors are of the welcome variety this week.  Have a good one!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Show and Tell

Remember when you were in elementary school and the teacher gave the class time to show and tell?  Today is my show and tell day with all of you.  As busy as life has been over the past few weeks, I have still tried to photograph all the wonderful things going on around us up here in the Alleghenies.  I actually had some time to load and edit photographs this morning, so I'm sharing with you weeks of images from life on and around our preppy mountain farm.  A few of our tulips are still blooming, but for the most part, they are finished.  Lilacs, lily of the valley, and bleeding hearts are taking their place.
Our crabapple trees are now finished flowering too, but they were spectacular for a few days last month.  And they were buzzing with bumblebees and honey bees.  Our poor beagle was afraid to come out of her dog igloo.
We had gorgeous weather in late-April, and I went for so many hikes all over the mountain.  This is the property of one of our Amish families as I descended the mountain lane right before dusk.
The pond below us has come alive with turtles, frogs, salamanders and just recently, the sound of spring peepers every night.
While walking the trails through the woods, I've come across lots of fiddleheads.
And as I mentioned in my last post, we've had the best spring ever for finding Morels in the forest.
My husband and boys have been out searching almost daily, and they continue to come home with bags of them.  We've been frying, baking, freezing, and drying Morel mushrooms for the past couple of weeks.
Our sunny, summer-like weather in late April did not last.  Ever since we entered May, this is what nearly every day looks like, and we're lucky if the temps get out of the fifties.
While it was still warm, our fantastic sheep shearer came out and sheared our tiny flock of sheep.  They didn't recognize each other for a few hours and had to re-establish their "pecking order."  They are now living harmoniously once again.
The wool fleeces from these past several years are piling up in the garage---partly because my husband doesn't like to get rid of anything, but mostly because we both really want to learn to card and spin wool.  Maybe there will be time in another ten years or so???
Lots of cold-crop vegetables are growing bigger in our one garden, and we have a couple of cats who are always watching out for vermin.
While growing up, cats were always my favorite pet to have, but they have now been surpassed by baby goats.
I think it's easy to see why.  Just look at these little ones.  I just want to snuggle with them all day.
We had one goat kid born this past Saturday evening, two more born the next evening on Mother's Day, and this little guy was born yesterday afternoon while we were all out for the day.  So we have 4 new goat babies: Asiago, American, Cooper, and Gorgonzola.  I've got to get out to the barn today and get some better pictures.
Best of all, we have all come out of our winter hibernation and are spending our afternoons and evenings outside.  Along with fishing, hiking, Morel hunting, and playing with goat kids, our children are also having friendly games of wiffleball in the yard when it's not too wet and soggy.  The hardest part is coming in at night and staying on a school day schedule when all we really want to do is stay outside until it's too dark to see, sleep in the next morning for a bit, and then return outside for the day. 
I don't know about the rest of you, but we are counting down the days to summer break.  Only 19 more days of school to go!