Meatless Monday Ideas for Carnivores

As part of my sustainability goals for 2020, we’re doing Meatless Mondays as a family. Except for the dog, that is.

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I must have… meat…

My husband is a carnivore second only to the dog, so I have been working on ways to keep him satisfied and not deprived. Here are some ideas for magical meatless meals:

Chick peas (aka garbanzo beans) – Protein and fiber in one place – what’s not to like? Sure you can buy them canned, sure, but for really nice chick peas, buy them dried and cook them yourself. It’s a lot cheaper ($2 or $3 / pound) and the texture is better. Soak them overnight in plenty of plain water (for at least 6 hours), drain, and then simmer in salted water for about 1 hour, or 30 minutes in the Instant Pot. They have a buttery texture and take well to spice – try some crushed red pepper in a hearty sauce!

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Italian style spicy chickpeas in tomato sauce

Lentils – Another protein and fiber one-two punch. These cook more quickly than chickpeas and have a texture that lends itself to soups and stews. I like the French style lentils, as they’re a bit more durable than other kinds, but it’s all good.

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Curried French lentils with butternut squash and spinach (and a few chick peas for good measure)

Chili – Purists will argue that chili should NOT have beans in it, but who cares? When you’re making a vegetarian dish, it’s a given that beans will star. I like to use either black beans or kidney beans, plus some plant-based meat substitute to bulk things up, plus lots of onions, peppers, tomatoes and corn. And a lot of spices – smoked paprika really works wonders to bring flavor to anything. Feel free to top with cheese or sour cream and some thinly sliced scallions.

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Vegetarian chili

More cheese, please! You need to be careful with cheese because it can pack as much saturated fat and calories as red meat. For Italian dishes, I like to buy part-skim ricotta and mozzarella to save some fat and calories, but I always use good imported Romano or Parmesan. Here’s some manicotti in a quick tomato sauce, getting ready for the oven.

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Vegetarian manicotti in tomato sauce

Go for grains – A lot of less-common grains make the base for salads and soups. Barley in particular is filling and satisfying, and its texture stands up to whatever you throw at it. I like to parcook barley in plain water until it’s almost done, then take it off the heat, add a generous amount of salt, and let it stand covered for 15 minutes or so. This barley salad is great for summer with watermelon, feta, cucumbers, peppers and other goodies.

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Barley salad

What kinds of meatless meals do you enjoy?

Resolutions for 2020 – Distaff Style

Self-improvement plans – what else would we distaffers do on January 1?

A few quick resolutions then, before we get to work:

  1. Style: I did Me Made May for the whole month last year (even while on vacation) and for most of the year, really. Now that I have a reliable jeans pattern, there’s nothing stopping me from wearing Me Made Everyday. So I am going to go for it!

I got started this morning with a nice long walk in the park with the hubs and the dog in Me Made Jacket (Simplicity 8843), the Jasper Sweater from Paprika Patterns, and hat by Green Pepper Patterns.

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Me Made Cold-weather outfit

I made the sweater last week out of some poly-cotton blend sweatshirt fleece with a muted plaid design.

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Paprika Patterns Jasper Sweatshirt

To add interest, I did the cuffs, side panels and collar on the bias.

2. Gardening: My vegetable garden really put out this year. Amending the soil in my two raised beds helped so much. I found a reliable set of tomato plants and other veggies to grow from now on. I was kicking myself for not doing a better job of tending to the plants and harvesting. So I am planning to do less, but put more effort into what I have and not let anything go to the bugs or go bad on the vine.

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Tomatoes anyone?

3. Fitness: Seek out a real posture plan. I played around with various posture exercises and finally found something that seemed to work. I need to hire the trainer who did this workshop for some private sessions, to make this a regular thing. I am hopeful that I can stop my hunchback development and maybe even undo some of the damage I’ve done.

4. Housework: I have one simple goal. Keep the kitchen floor clean! With a dog around, it’s a chore. I always feel like my home is at its best when the kitchen floor is vacuumed and scrubbed. So that’s the big goal here. Exciting, right?

5. Sewing: For sure, I am going to continue with my “sew edgy” look for the office. I need to find a simple dress that I can make a TNT. I also need a few blouses, and I really need to make a proper suit. For casual wear, I will perfect the jeans. I realize that while I have been playing around with a lot of indie pattern companies, I have been disappointed with some results compared with results from Big 4 (although there are exceptions), so I am going to focus more on Big 4. I have plenty of fabric and patterns at this point – so I am going on a “fast” at least for the first half of the year.

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Sew Edgy office outfit – a favorite

6. Sustainability: A friend who’s a sustainability consultant really made me think about the nature of consumption and waste. I am proud that I don’t do fast fashion and that I will mend and alter clothing. I take public transportation, walk or bike most places. I have a few “upcycle” and “refashion” sewing projects in my head for this year. I feel I could do more, however, when it comes to food. We are doing Meatless Mondays as a family, and on my own I will do more meatless meals (my husband will be challenged to do Mondays as it is). I also am going to buy fewer prepared things in plastic containers – I am talking to you, deli soups and salads! Seriously, it’s not hard to make soup. I’ll probably save $100 a year! I sewed up some simple reusable bags for produce, and I always use tote bags at the store. And I am going to stop buying the occasional to-go coffee unless I can get it in a reusable insulated mug. I already do this with water – why not with coffee?

7. Diet: I just gotta kick sugar. I feel that very badly. I can go for weeks without any, and then I have some, and it’s just a spiral from there. I am not sure how to tackle this one, except to go cold turkey. I need to research more, but it’s happening.

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The last pie, for a while anyway

8. Career: I started last year doing a weekly work reflection on Friday mornings. I’d write down a few accomplishments, networking wins, personal achievements and other notable events from the week. This is a great idea because at work, weeks turn into months, turn into years, and then you have to get a new job, and you go to update the resume and you can’t think of what to say! This exercise takes 5 minutes and it really helps. I am getting started by updating my LinkedIn profile and resume with key accomplishments from 2019. Also, I am trying to network more. I need to be “heads down” at work and more collaborative and social.

9. Family: This is a tough one. I feel that I have neglected my husband and family at times, especially my in-laws. There’s no excuse – we live so nearby – but weeks go by without a word to or from anyone. Even with my husband, we have well-established routines that make it tough to break out. So I am going to make more of an effort on all fronts. Sometimes a simple call to say “hi” or an impromptu date night is all we need to get out of the rut. I will take care of my mother when she has knee surgery later this month, so I can use that time to visit a bit with others to get the year started off well.

10. Reading: I have done well with reading more female authors, but I feel I need to do more to read writers from different nationalities and races. I got a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas, so I plan to pick up a few things to get started. I general, I am going to try to read more and do less “faffing about on the mobile” while on my train commute. Now that my grad school is done, I will have time to open my mind more in other directions.

11. Giving back: We made an effort  in 2019 to give more to charities, and we succeeded in increasing our contributions by a thousand dollars over the course of the year. I also have done a bit more charity work with groups I support by in-kind contributions of time and expertise. In fact, I won an award from one charity I support with weekly editing and coaching of college students. I miss volunteering with local groups, though – I managed one event in 2019 – a bike-a-thon – so I am going to try to do two events in 2020.

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Biking for charity – $500 raised

12. Activism. I will admit it: I dread 2020. I am terrified that Trump will get re-elected. I have little confidence that the Democrats will get their shit together. I worry that the economy will thank, and while that would hurt Trump, it’s going to hurt a lot of other people too, so I don’t exactly wish it. After he was elected, I made a plan to so something once a week to #resist. I wrote letters to Congress. I attended rallies. I got educated on the issues. I sewed a shitload of pussyhats. I donated money to groups under siege – Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League – I could go on. I have kept up some of these activities but have let others slide. This is a do-or-die year. I need to step it up.

Thank you for reading! I wish you all a happy healthy 2020! (Except Trump.)

Holidays. Meh.

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States – our annual harvest festival where we all eat too much while giving thanks for all the stuff we have. In theory anyway. Some people follow the gorging ritual with midnight shopping sprees, to buy even more stuff.

Sounds like a job for The Distaff Side!

Women do most of the holiday work. “Wait!” You may say. “My husband loves to bake his triple-chocolate cake for Christmas,” or “My Uncle Joe makes the best turkey!” Sure, men do their part, but the brunt of the work – certainly the grunt of the work (the planning, the budgeting, the shopping, the decorating, the cooking, the hosting, the cleanup) piles overwhelmingly onto women.

Not that most women view this all as a thankless task. Most women I know – especially retirees and women who don’t work outside the home – LOVE holidays. They really look forward to them. Get excited about them. Work hard for them. Enjoy them. And then feel let down or resentful when it’s not as perfect, or as fun, or as appreciated, as they’d hoped.

Why? Two reasons, I think:

  1. If you have a busy life, whether it’s with work, kids, school, volunteering and other obligations, your days are full already. A holiday is fun and a break from the routine, but it’s also a lot of work – work that piles on to the work you already have.
  2. If you do not have a busy life, you have little to do and little to look forward to. Holidays, birthdays, vacations and other events take on epic levels of importance. You really want to go all out. But the busy people in your life don’t see it your way.

Each side of this divide needs to give the other side a break.

If you’re in the “busy” camp, practice saying “no” to whatever holiday obligations irk you most. The holiday won’t be “ruined” because you ran out of time or money or energy to follow some hallowed tradition. Decide on your priorities and stick to them. Outsource thankless tasks.

If you’re in the “not busy” camp, practice having something to look forward to besides holidays. There’s no reason why you can’t cook your special holiday dish anytime, or why you have to wait for a holiday to do some cherished activity. Recognize that not everyone has the time, money and energy you have.

Finally, both sides can eat less, buy less, decorate less and do less. Look instead for those moments that make a holiday memorable. No one’s going to remember in 5 years that the turkey in 2019 was especially delicious, but they will remember things that really matter.

Picked Green Tomatoes and Garden Plans for Next Year

We were set to have our first hard frost this weekend, so most of the plants in the garden had to have a last hurrah. I picked all the green tomatoes and  hot peppers.

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Tomatoes galore!

Anything red was processed and frozen, either as spaghetti sauce or as chopped peeled tomatoes to use for cooking another time.

Anything unripe and green went was invited to party in the piccalilli pot.

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Piccalilli pot – ready for action!

Piccalilli is basically a sweet and sour relish made with whatever’s left in the garden at the end of the season. (See here for the ancestral recipe.) The veggies are ground finely and cooked down a bit with vinegar, salt, sugar and pickling spices. I usually make some every fall, mostly to give as Christmas gifts. This year I went overboard.

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Piccalilli a-palooza!

I don’t know what I was thinking. It didn’t seem like so much, and yet it kept coming and coming… Altogether I think it was 30 pints, but I admit I lost count. The good news is that I won’t have to make any next year if I don’t feel like it.

I  also have results of my tomato roulette experiment. At the end of the season, I decided that these tomato varieties worked best, so I will plan on planting them next year:

  • Fourth of July – An early variety, not quite ready to harvest at July 4th, but a week or two later (still pretty good in my book). Each plant produced at least 100 billiard-ball-sized tomatoes of 1.5 to 2 ounces. The flavor was a bit acidic with a sweet finish, and the tomatoes have a good texture – not too wet, not too dry.  The skins that were neither tough nor delicate – a nice balance that made for easy picking and storage.
  • Brandy Boy – Has a similar flavor to the heirloom favorite Brandywine, but the skin is not as delicate, so it’s less likely to crack and get moldy. The plant produced twice as much fruit as the Brandywine, at about the same size – 8 ounces to over a pound. The fruit was ready to harvest two weeks earlier. A great win! I’ll plant this instead of Brandywine from now on.

My husband and I differed these two: Big Beef and Big Boy. Big Beef was ready to harvest a week before Big Boy and the tomatoes were all about a pound – one slice covers your whole sandwich! Big Boy’s size varied from a half-pound to a pound. Big Boy showed some wilt about halfway through the season, while Big Beef didn’t. Both kept producing until late September, but we got a few more Big Boys. Both were very sweet – everything you’d expect from a summer tomato. But Big Boy was rather wet and seedy, while Big Beef was meatier but drier. I liked Big Boy’s texture better, but the hubs preferred Big Beef.  I suppose I will plant them both next year.

These two were total flops:

  • Better Boy: Very poor producer, and what we got was mealy and malformed. Pass!
  • Yellow Pear: Very pretty to look at and a heavy producer, but totally flavorless and dry. Even cooked they were no good. Pass!

I am already looking forward to next season!

The Joy and Heartbreak of Apple Trees

I planted two apple trees 10 years ago. Each year, I faithfully watered, fertilized, pruned and cleaned up around the trees. I even tried sprays to control for insects and blights.

And I got no apples.

Deer invaded our yard and ate the new growth. We put up a fence. One tree died after five years when some rodent chewed up the tender graft point. The other tree lived but never thrived. It didn’t take root properly and blew over in a hurricane. I rerooted and staked it. I kept up the orchard husbandry. I got a few apples, but most of them were lost to squirrels, birds, and bugs.

Two years ago, I said the heck with it and left the tree to its own devices.

This year I got a ton of apples.

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Only took 10 years to get these apples

OK, not a ton, but a good basketful and more on the tree to harvest soon.

Joy at finally having my work pay off? Yes. Heartbreak that the apples are malformed, shot full of bugs and not that tasty? Again, yes.

Out of the whole basket, only these three apples look “good enough” to maybe pass for supermarket apples:

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Winner, runner-up and third place in my backyard-grown apple beauty contest

Who am I kidding? If most people saw these apples at the store, they’d pass them by. The next time you buy apples at the market, think of how much human intervention is required to get something picture-perfect.

If you have ever been apple-picking, you’ve noticed that commercial orchards keep their trees pruned to the point of being stunted, for easier harvests and bigger yields. My grandparents pruned their trees annually and still had to use a homemade apple-picker made out of an old broomstick and a twisted wire coat hanger to pick some fruit.

Because I have not pruned the tree in a few years, it’s even harder to harvest. I had to buy one of these telescoping fruit-picking gizmos.

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Long arm of the fruit tree cultivator

From the ground, looking up into the branches, lots of great fruit seems within reach. I finagle the fruit-picker under a tasty-looking apple, pluck it, and pop it into the basket. It looks pretty good:

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Right side

Then I flip it over:

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Wrong side

Yuck. Damn birds.

I mean, I love birds and I don’t mind sharing a few apples with them. But they prefer to peck at many apples instead of just eating one. Hey bird – if you’re going to start an apple, finish it before you go onto the next one!

Many pecked-up apples rot on the tree, Those that fall get a second life as a meal for raccoons and squirrels. This windfall encourages the raccoons and squirrels to visit again and again. I try to vigilantly pick up any fallen apples right away, but every morning some more lie on the grass, chewed and brown and yucky.

I took the basket of “good” apples inside, washed them, then got to work prepping them. These are Cortland apples, meant for cooking not eating. They’re good for pies, sauces and things like that. I figured I’d made an apple crisp. I mixed the apple pieces with the juice of a lemon, 1/4 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg and cinnamon. The crisp topping is made from 1/4 cup each of butter, flour, brown sugar and chopped toasted pecans.

An hour of coring, peeling and slicing, and an hour of baking later:

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Apple crisp

It was pretty tasty – the apples are pretty tart, which I like. I feel a great sense of joy at this too. And then I think of all that work just for one apple crisp, to be enjoyed for a couple of meals when I could buy something similar for a few bucks. Heartbreak again!

Tomato Roulette – August Update

My tomatoes are coming in – I have had at least one from every variety I planted, except the Brandywine, which is always late and therefore not my favorite.

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Tomato log – notes on flavor and production
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Tomato records – variety, harvest date and number, size

I already love the 4 of July variety. While they are small – between the size of a golf ball and a billiard ball – they were indeed early and have a nice flavor, a bit acidic, with a good skin – not too fragile or tough.

The loser far is the so-called “Better Boy” which has produced few fruit, and most of them are malformed, like this one:

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I have no problem with ugly produce, but I do want some normal tomatoes too. The plant only has a few other fruit on it. They taste OK – nothing special. Definitely won’t plant this again. Better Boy, my butt!

The king tomato was Big Beef – almost a one-pound fruit so far and several more on the vine:

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The other two varieties – Big Boy and Brandy Boy – also were very good. They were pretty similar really – in a taste test Brandy Boy seemed a bit sweeter, with the delicate skin of a Brandywine. We’ll see what else we get for the season.

Tomato Roulette

Gardeners in New England tend to judge our short growing season by one crop: tomatoes. It was “a good year,” “a bad year” or an “OK year.” Sure, the cucumbers might delight for months and the blueberries, packed in the freezer, might get you through the winter, but nothing beats a juicy summer tomato, fresh off the vine and warm from the sun.

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Tomatoes, settling in for a summer of growing

The past few years have been blah for tomatoes. I think the soil in my raised beds was to blame. Even though I rotate the tomato crop between two beds and liberally supplement the soil with my own compost, raised-bed soil loses its oomph after a while. So this year, I’m trying four strategies:

  1. Replace about half of the soil. I had several yards of clean, screened topsoil dug in with the old soil. The result was a richer soil, but the screened stuff got mixed in with the actual ground soil, full of small rocks that have irked New England gardeners since Colonial times. So I will need to rescreen next year. It’s fine for this year.
  2. Plant further apart. I’ve tended to overbuy tomato plants because of all the fascinating varieties you can get nowadays. The plants tend to crowd one another by midsummer, and inevitably tomatoes rot on the vine because I can’t find them through the dense foliage. This year I followed the directive to plant each 2 feet away from the next.
  3. Skip most of the heirlooms. Many lesser-known tomato varieties provide fabulous flavor and gorgeous looks, but a paltry harvest, less disease resistance or other drawbacks. I have labored with these tomato varieties many times and have concluded that while they’re fun, they’re really not worth the trouble to invest in heavily. Hey – if you’ve got the time and patience, go for it. But I have wasted too much time and money on plants that succumb to disease and insects,  or that produce only a few tomatoes late in the season, to get excited anymore. For heirlooms, Brandywine is our favorite, so I planted a few.
  4. Try a test garden for commercial varieties. Many common varieties produce bushels of tomatoes, but they might not win beauty contests or pack as much flavor as heirlooms. I decided this year to try out several common commercial varieties, in search of two I can rely on year after year for volume with decent enough taste and reliability to be my “go-to” tomatoes. . I’m trying these:
    1. Big Boy – the granddaddy of big-ass backyard garden tomatoes
    2. Better Boy – a variety derived from Big Boy that produces more, but smaller, fruits with a slightly shorter growing season
    3. Brandy Boy  – a hybrid of Brandywine and the “boy” varieties
    4. Big Beef – Big Boy crossed with a traditional Beefsteak tomato
    5. Fourth of July – An early variety that produces loads of smaller fruits

Finally, I planted go-to cherry tomatoes, Super Sweet 100s, and tried a yellow cherry variety, just for fun.