Monday, April 29, 2013

You're about to learn more about my kitchen than you ever wanted to know. Sorry.

But these posts are keeping me on task so I'm going with it.  Okay, just so you get a sense of the kitchen I'm working with, a general photo.  It was a red and white '50's kitchen when I moved in, but I remodeled it.  I'm more the earth-tone type.  It's a galley kitchen and not particularly spacious, but I like it.  The end there used to have a little breakfast nook, but I designed a granite topped table that is perfect for things like kneading dough.
All that food piled on the dining room table has to go somewhere. One feature I do love is the pantry with a door that can be closed. I keep the food that goes in here organized in bins - the tea bin, the cookies and granola bars bin, and so on. I also keep oils, vinegars, jams and the like on the little shelves.
Such neatness! All the food not in the pantry or fridge goes here and in the cabinet below. I used to keep things like flour in those glass containers, but the pantry moths knew how to get in and now I mostly store pastas in them. And at the moment, Easter candy.
The lower cabinet has cool slide-out shelves. Now I can actually see what I have and use up some of the duplicates. Ditto in the freezer - all the seafood and soy things are grouped together so I know what is there.
For efficiency's sake, I keep the coffee and sugar out with the coffee maker and grinder. Those are two of the four appliances I keep on the counter because I use them on a daily basis. The others are the microwave and the toaster oven. Everything else I want stored out of sight, behind cabinet doors. Like the dishes, pyrex containers, and vases above the coffee.
This cabinet holds every other small kitchen appliance I own. I was already something of a minimalist when it comes kitchen gadgets. Not that I've never bought them or had them given to me as gifts, but ultimately, I get disgusted and revert quickly to the tried and true items. Over the years I've gotten rid of my bread machine because it eliminates the only thing I like about making bread - working the dough with my hands. And the rice cooker I was told would magically improve my life because I realized it was harder to clean, took up space and I already owned a rice maker in the form of a pot. Also, an ice cream churn because I don't eat all that much ice cream to begin with, but when I do I either want to go out for an ice cream cone or I want a pint of Ben & Jerry's Karamel Sutra or Cherry Garcia. And finally, a juicer that, although it did make good juice, was a royal pain in the ass to use and clean. This go round I got rid of the waffle maker for the same reason.  Likewise, the food processor because I like to chop things. After all, that's what my knives are for. And I ditched the regular blender, too. Instead, I have a handheld immersion blender and a hand held mixer. I also have an air popper for  popcorn (because microwave popcorn bags have a carcinogen in the lining that decomposes and is consumed along with the popcorn) and a crockpot for applesauce and some stews. And that's it. Measuring cups and colanders and I'm good to go. I culled from this cabinet and the one next to it all the odd glassware like commemorative glasses from various events or places.
And of course I weeded through the drawers that hold utensils. Why did I have two ice cream scoops? Why keep the big wing-style wine bottle opener when I only ever use the simple waiter's corkscrew? Why were there cheap chopsticks from Chinese takeout when I have nice bamboo chopsticks? Why was there some mis-matched flatware stored behind the stuff I actually use? Gone now, all gone.
I have two other drawers that hold utensils. The one on the other side of the stove that has only three grill implements, wooden skewers for shish kebab, and oven mitts. Every utensil I cook with is in that ceramic container or the drawer on this side of the stove. There is not a single item here I don't regularly use - everything else went to the get-rid-of pile.
And finally, the spices I use most frequently, in alphabetical order. And the two lone knickknacks in my kitchen: a wooden cow I brought back from Switzerland and a pewter echidina a friend gave me to remind me of my visit with her in Tasmania (because whenever we saw one toddling alongside the road, I'd make her pull over so I could get out and pet it).

There you have it. I know it's not for everyone, but this is THIS cook's dream kitchen.

On to the kitchen...

The first step was taking every item of food from the pantry and cupboards and putting it on the dining room table. Frightening, isn't it? My sons tell me I'm a food hoarder. And I can't argue very convincingly. As far back as I can remember, I have had a dread of running out of food or money. But the part that is not hoarder-like is that I'll happily use the food.  In fact, even if I only have a single dinner guest, I cook as if I'm feeding a crowd. Because, by God, NO ONE will go hungry at my table! But the stocking up is at a point where I wasn't even sure what I had since I tend to just unload groceries without any real organization. And it doesn't help that my kids also go to the grocery store and pile their stuff in, too.

I also emptied out the fridge and freezer onto the kitchen counters. Actually, there's a smaller fridge in the basement where I keep sodas for the kids, beer, and bags of flour because of the pantry moth problem. I brought everything from that freezer up, too. And after I sorted, I did some counting. Seven pounds of shrimp in the freezers. Seven. Pounds. And those little vegetarian sausages my son loves? We call them notsages, and I counted 89 of them. You read them right. Throw in some corn and potatoes and I've got a low country boil. Also half a dozen salmon fillets, maybe ten swai fillets, and four other kinds of seafood. Eight quart bags of tomato/veggie sauce I made last summer. And several frozen loaves of bread. I'm officially on a grocery embargo. The only exceptions being things like milk, eggs and produce. But I will be cooking my way through the food on hand, especially emptying out the freezer. I suspect I'll always keep an abundance of food around, but the organization/moderation part is a work in progress.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

De-cluttering frenzy.

Because when it hits me, it really hits me. Prompted, in part, by the decision to move when my son graduates from high school in a year, I decided it mad sense to winnow down my belongings now. I've been reading some books on simplifying and getting rid of clutter, and they resonate. One of the books said that we use 20% of what we own 80% of the time. So why do we own the rest of that crap? Following the book's suggestion, I picked a room and started.  In this case, my room. The author said to start by piling everything in that room in a central place and then deciding what went back in. I altered the plan, a little though, starting first with my clothes and then with the rest of the stuff in my room. Here, I've gathered up everything on every flat surface in the room (shelves, dresser tops, bedside tables, the floor). Yikes.
I even culled and organized on the level of the little drawers in my jewelry box. Now there is not an earring or ring, for instance, that I can't find easily. And jewelry I never wear went into the get-rid-of pile. The harder decisions were the knick knacks - after something has sat there for a while you don't even see it anymore. And while I don't really have any collections, I do bring back rocks and shells from places I visit around the world. The problem was that I had completely lost track of where each one came from. So I pulled out my favorites and piled the rest into a bag to be used as vase-filler to hold flowers upright.  Every single item was evaluated and judged harshly and sorted into what would stay and what would go.
The clothes de-cluttering project, I'll admit up front, was a bear. There is nothing quite like seeing all your clothing heaped on the bed and floor and realizing you have waaaaay too many clothes. So I was brutal - out went anything that didn't fit well or that I didn't like or that I just don't wear for reasons I can't even explain. Someone out there could be using those things, so why keep them? Another book I read said you should get rid of all duplicates and have, for instance, only one pair of sneakers. Well, no.  Because I have a couple of pairs of running shoes and a couple of walking shoes, since those are my primary forms of exercise. Add in gore-tex hiking sneakers, and my yard work shoes, plus a pair I wear frequently when I'm not exercising. Dammit, I'm keeping them. But I did get rid of: 9 pairs of jeans (if I ever go back up to size 3, I'll buy more),  ski pants, 12 pairs of sweatpants/pajama pants, 5 pairs shoes/boots, 28 (!) shirts, 8 pairs of shorts/capris, 4 jackets (including a down coat that it never gets cold enough for here), 2 scarves, a purse (I'm down to three now), 4 hats, 8 sweaters, 7 dresses, 5 skirts, and a robe that is so heavy and fluffy it gets on my nerves.
Another suggestion was to only keep what fits you now. The only exception I made was that I have some very nice skirts that needed altering. I wear pants that sit at my hipbones, but skirts are different  Any skirt that fits me in the hips is going to have a huge gap at the waist. I found a tailor in town who is reasonably priced and skilled. It's kind of comical - he is Middle Eastern ( I think), about five feet tall, and has a limited grasp of English. He just says, "You try, yes?" And then as you stand in front of a mirror, he makes a few quick marks with a piece of chalk and he tells you to get the next one.  It seemed so haphazard that I was sure this process could not possibly work, but every skirt I own now fits like it was made for me.  And just look at my supremely organized closet - sorted by type of garment and color and no extra junk stowed away in there.
Cleared of excess, my room is now a thing of serene beauty. Surfaces are clear except for a few items that have meaning to me. A place for everything and everything in its place. And a remarkable amount relegated to the pile of stuff on its way out.
My new rule is that as each room is cleared, there will be no more setting stuff on the floor or dresser or chair to be dealt with later. No more things tossed into a drawer (because every last one was emptied and de-cluttered) and no spilling-over stacks of anything. I have a hard time now not just standing in my room and basking in the clearness of it all. But it's just one room. I'm already plowing my way through the kitchen.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"Les Indices de Bleu"

I've had my younger son more than normal the last couple of weeks - both because his father is off on vacation and because he and a friend of his had a French class project and met at my house several days in a row. While others in the class were doing power point projects, he and his friend elected to make a video of Blue's Clues in French.  robably only the parents of children of a certain age will know what I'm talking about. As it turned out, the writing, staging, filming and editing took many hours. My son played Pierre (their version of Steve) and his friend was Bleu, an adorable cat version of Blue. The film started with them waking up and progressed through a day involving a search for a spoon.
Objects gained little paper faces and became animate, and my house was re-arranged a bit to suit their show.  On the board above, they put up drawn "photos" of the pair of them, two tall, lanky kids, the girl with a pair of cat's ears.  I stayed in the background, tried to be quiet during filming, provided pizzas, and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the two of them laughing and talking. When it was over, they included a bloopers section they titled "Bluz Cluz," starting with the wake up scene, where my son sat up in bed, and then collapsed in giggles at the site of his friend perched next to him waiting to be petted.  I've watched it through a couple of times, and can't imagine it wasn't at least the most entertaining project in the class.
I keep finding the little remainders of the show. Like this lamp that I had to de-face and return to my room.  The salt and pepper shakers, though, still wear their little smiles. And a word about that violin: My younger son bought himself a violin back in November and is teaching himself to play. Mostly his Irish songs. But the other day I heard him playing Pachelbel's Canon and when I went into the living room, I asked where the music was and he tapped the bow to his temple. I asked him how he'd learned the song without sheet music and he said, "Well, I've heard the song before so I know how it goes." The whole playing by ear that my kids have is alien to me.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The rest of the weekend.

I have a pair of cotton-tail rabbits who live in my yard. Probably because I have as much clover as grass!  But I love seeing them around.
In honor of Earth Day weekend, I decided it was time to get some tomatoes in the ground so I went out to weed and get the little graden ready.  I harvested this pair of leeks that had over-wintered.
This time instead of growing them in containers, I put the plants directly in the ground, with a row of protector marigolds in front. Five varieties, each buried as deeply as I could and then covered with a weed barrier of newspaper. I always think the tomato cages are overly optimistic, but by summer's end, they'll be leaning under the weight of the plants.
And then time to weed and bask in the old faithful perennials  I love creeping phlox, especialy when it is spiling over a stone wall.
I planted this little Japanese cut-leaf red maple a few years ago. I like the way the shape makes it look wind-blown. Each winter I'm certain it has died, and then it sprouts its lacy leaves.
Azaleas, tulips and candytuft along with all the periwinkle. And clearly, I've not managed to uproot all the lilies of the valley in this bed, so there's more work to be done here. I love them, but they choke out the azaleas and pierris, and so I try to keep them confined to other areas.
Fothergilla!  Even the name is cute.
These are my easter egg tulips. And yes, I need to mow. I did get the back yard done, but it was too warm to spend a lot of time in the direct sun. I'll get the front yard tomorrow.
April. Say what you will about the South, but there are some real positives to living here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

There's a lot of weirdness in the world.

Sometimes I don't know why I agree to go out. I almost didn't go the other day. Shouldn't have.  He'd invited me to Hot Springs, wanted to meet part-way and have me ride with him, but then just refused to give me his last name. Yeah, right. We went around and around about that, and on the phone he assured me that he looked like a nice, normal guy. Not the point. I said, "I have two words for you: Ted Bundy." After all, you can look normal and still be a serial rapist/murderer. Finally he told me his name (which I promptly googled) and we agreed to just meet at Hot Springs. No way I was getting in a car with him. First time, incidentally, that I've ever worn a swim suit there. He'd brought wine and snacks and it was blissful in the warm water on what turned out to be a chilly, rainy day, but I kept my distance. He was friendly enough, but still managed to irritate the bejeebers out of me.

You know the chemistry thing? Not so much. For a variety of reasons. Chemistry isn't, I don't think, entirely physical. There's also some sort of personality/intellectual click that's important. And if I'm feeling impatient and I find myself staring off and taking deep, measured breaths, I know that's a bad sign. In addition, there was some game playing that I wasn't keen on. Like when he was talking about how he usually never kisses on the first date and then actually said that he likes women to make the first move because it gives him the power. And then he sat back and said, "I want you to kiss me. So I'm just going to sit here and make you come to me." Really? I mean, really?  I just laughed, shrugged and said, "Suit yourself." And stayed where I was. Also? A little advice - never tell a psychologist who has done countless intellectual assessments that you are unusually smart. Because she'll know better. And she has observed over the years that really bright people never feel a need to say so.

I was glad to get home that day.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Need a stoner accountant?

I don't use an accountant, myself. There are some things I'm not particularly organized about, but I do get my taxes done on time. I filed early enough this year, in fact, that some late information from my accounts came in and forced me to file an amended return. But even that one I sent in early last month. But this weekend, I shredded my receipts and so on from 2009. Each year I shred the stuff from three years ago, and store away this year's information.  All part of my de-cluttering efforts.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The war continues.

I have to tell you, I put my pacifism aside when it comes to stink bugs. I've been hearing complaints from other people recently about how many they are seeing so I did a little googling. These are brown marmorated stink bugs, it turns out, and were accidentally introduced to Pennsylvania from Korea and Taiwan in 1998, and have since spread out from there. Well, thank you Kim Jong Il. In addition to being an agricultural menace, they love to hibernate in houses and become active in the warmth. What it means for me is that several times an evening, one will start flying around like a lunatic, circling the ceiling lamp repeatedly until it suddenly veers off. Often straight at me. I don't like that. And oh my god, do they smell bad. According to a PBS show, it is a "pungent odor that smells like cilantro." No wonder I hate them - cilantro is a truly disgusting plant with a smell and taste that makes me gag. And so I have declared war. Outside I ignore them, but no stink bug is allowed to live in my home.
You know what this is? Death row. I catch them in tissues and because I hate to waste water, I weight down the prison cells with something heavy until I have several to flush at once. Sometimes when they hit the water, they swim out to fly away, but it's too late. They are caught in the whirlpool, and I watch until they've all been sucked down into the sewer. The pink plastic Easter egg has also been employed as a trap. A couple of days ago, I had four stink bugs housed in it before dumping them in the toilet. Fortunately, once they land, they generally stand passively while you collect them. But last night was the worst so far. We were under a tornado watch and the approaching storm must have driven them in.  I looked up to see 17 stink  bugs on my window. 17. No. I've learned, and when I put a new bag in the vacuum cleaner, I first vacuum up a little ash to absorb their stinkiness. One after the other, I vacuumed up all 17, and later in the evening added more of their comrades.  I have a feeling this will be an endless war.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


You know all the cold I was complaining about? Gone. It was in the 70's for the last three days and made it to 80 today! The Spring that dragged its feet for so long just jumped right in. And suddenly people are out in shorts, soaking up the sun. Even the birds take a moment to bask.
My flowers like it, too. The candytuft that first made a tentative showing in February is now threatening to take over the world. I have probably a dozen patches of varying sizes and love the hardy stuff.
And the vinca has so many flowers that little escapees are creeping into the grass. I've spent some time each afternoon clearing out dead leaves and uprooting dandelions, wild onions and misplaced lilies of the valley.
I'm even happy to see the sweet wild violets that litter the lawn. I'm partial to weeds that are dressed in shades of purple. When I was working this afternoon I had bees buzzing companionably by my head and I found myself humming along with them as I worked.
I was so reluctant to come in that it was only after the church bells chimed eight times and the sun set the trees behind my house aglow that I put down my trowel and came back inside. Where every last window is wide open. Prodigal spring, you're more than welcome home.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cirque du Squirreleil

They are so agile they can hang from a branch by their toenails to get at the corn I've hung out for them. But it's never enough. I supply corn, peanuts, and bread and as soon as they've gone through that they head straight for the bird feeders.
I stand at my kitchen window and lecture them on the consequences of greed and their noticeably expanding waistlines. I tell them that one of these days I'm going to cut back on the food I supply and then where will they be? They look at each other, giggle and roll their eyes. Then they stare me down as they continue to eat.
Why do I keep feeding them? Because it's like having a yard full of furry circus performers, and I kind of like that.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Still waiting...

It was so beautiful in February, and now here we are halfway through April practically and it's cold. Okay, it's only the 4th of April. But still. It's been raining steadily all day. Hasn't stopped a robin from finishing it's nest, though. I found out about the construction when a robin landed on my windowsill with a beak full of twigs and stared me down. I waited until the bird dropped below sight and then discovered they built it conveniently under my living room window in a nandina bush. I'm looking forward to my own bird's eye view of the eggs.
I think this is a blue gray gnat catcher. An ungainly name for such a delicately pretty bird. A pair of them took refuge in the Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, which has just started to sprout tiny leaves and buds alongside its hanging catkins.
Me, I'm inside where it's warm and dry. But out on my screened in porch, hostas are pushing up through the soil of the planter boxes. Life returns, whether it feels like spring or not.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Secular Easter

It was the first time in 19 years that I didn't have my kids with me for Easter. Somehow, in the 6 previous years that I've been divorced, Easter Sunday always fell on my days with them. Which is just as well - their father got them chocolate bunnies this year but all the things I always did - dyed eggs and baskets and an egg hunt, he skipped. I told them we would have the regular celebration the next time my older son was home.
In the meantime, I was left to my own devices on Easter. I know, it's a religious holiday and you're supposed to go to church. Unless you're a nontheist like me and prefer the older Spring-based associations of new life. Birth, death, rebirth - a celebration as old as humanity. So I observed the day my own way - I made an omelet for breakfast (you have to have eggs, right?),  planted a bunch of cheery pansies to remind me that we are almost to more consistently good weather, and settled in during the rainy afternoon to watch a couple of thematically appropriate movies: Jesus Henry Christ (a quirky little movie about a boy genius conceived through IVF who sets out to find his biological father) and Jesus Christ Superstar (that 70's musical told from the perspective of Judas).
And I got dinner ready to go - French bread with this wonderful port-laced cheddar, a shrimp pasta dish jam-packed with delicious ingredients, and a bottle of pinot grigio. And chocolate for dessert, of course, since you must have chocolate at Easter.