houseplants, nature, Personal, projects

Bonsai: a beginning

Both my husband and I love houseplants. Which is why our apartment currently has close to 50 plants in it. (Greenery overload! Some of them are refugees from my husband’s office and need to be re-homed.)

A few years ago, we went to a bonsai show. We wanted to get one for ourselves, but didn’t really feel justified in the expense at the time. Then, last year on our wedding anniversary, my gift to my husband was a juniper bonsai, which currently lives in our kitchen on top of our microwave (why yes, we are running out of flat surfaces on which to put our plants!).

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Our juniper bonsai, with a tortoise at its base.

Unfortunately, when it arrived it was infested with fungus gnats, which were killing its root system. After a couple of treatments*  the gnats died and the plant is recovering.

Then, last week, there was a further development in our bonsai saga: my mom gave us a kit to grow our own little trees from seed! Very exciting. And it’s just the right time of year to plant things.

The first step was soaking the seeks for 24 hours. The seeds for the flowering trees changed the color of the water, but the evergreen seeds didn’t. After they had soaked the requisite amount of time, we prepared the peat for potting. This involved pouring very hot water over the little discs of dirt and watching them expand to many times their original size.

After the dirt was rehydrated, it looked and felt like half-cooked brownie batter. In order to prevent mold, the instructions bade us squeeze the water out, which also helped to cool it down. That bit was pretty fun–there’s something very satisfying about sticking one’s hands in dirt and mucking about.

Then it was time to plant the seeds. Unfortunately, we only had one seed for picea abies, the Norway spruce, so I’m really hoping it sprouts. In clockwise order from the top left, the seeds are picea abies, the Norway spruce, delonix regia, the flame tree, pinus aristata, the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine, and jacaranda mimosifolia, the jacaranda (I’m very excited about this one! Such beautiful purple-blue flowers). The close up is of the flame tree seeds, whose outer layer peeled off like old plastic.

 

At the bottom, you can see how much the peat disc expanded, and the last picture labels all the seeds and gives the date on which they were planted. The instruction booklet said that the Norway spruce can live for thousands of years, so . . . perhaps we will have to make arrangements for it in our will. Is there some sort of institution that cares for bonsai that outlive their owners?

They will not be sprouting for a least a few weeks, but when they do start, I will be posting updates about their progress. I’m very excited to see how they grow!

*A triple attack of hydrogen peroxide and diatomaceous earth (to kill the grubs, which do the actual damage) and cinnamon (to prevent the adult from coming back to lay more eggs). To paraphrase Mr. Darcy, fungus gnats “are my abhorrence”.
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handicrafts, knitting, projects, Uncategorized

Noodling about with (knitting) needles

In January 2017, I made what (at the time) I considered to be a wildly optimistic New Year’s goal: to complete one knitting project by the end of the year. My previous knitting had consisted of two scarves and part of a hat. I have long harbored delusions of knitting grandeur: knitting blankets, sweaters, even lace. Unfortunately, I also harbor bafflement regarding anything more complicated than knitting and purling. Increasing? Decreasing? The words make sense, yes, but the techniques . . . and then there’s slipping stitches, passing slipped stitches over, yarn over . . . the list goes on.

So I decided that my next knitting project would be something uncomplicated. Something familiar, to ease my passage back into Knitting Land. Yes, you guessed it, I made another scarf. But this time I got fancy–I used three different colors of yarn.

And once I started, I really got into the swing of things, and finished it quite quickly. I didn’t use anyone’s pattern for this scarf, I just made it up as I went along. It’s pure wool, so I’m sure it’s very warm, but unfortunately it is very scratchy, so I’ve scarcely worn it. Not to mention we had an exceptionally warm winter.

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The finished product

At any rate, my success with this scarf emboldened me to throw myself back into knitting, and I have another project in the works. 🙂

ME/CFS, Personal

ME/CFS: coping by prioritizing

What I want to do: write a thoughtful post about ME/CFS. One that makes fellow sufferers say, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is! You’ve captured my feelings exactly”. One that helps people without ME/CFS understand what we go through.

What I am currently capable of doing: . . . not the above.

So, instead of that post, you’re going to get a post that requires less of me. What I’m doing right now: watching the Brother Cadfael mystery series (set in England during the 12th century). And noodling around on the internet. Yeah, doing two things at once is a good recipe for not really enjoying either one of them, but the impulse is difficult for me to resist. ME/CFS makes me restless and then robs me of the ability to concentrate or perform sustained physical activity. Whatcha gonna do.

Recently, in an effort to cut down on feelings of despair that accompany the inactivity enforced by my illness, I have taken to making a mental checklist on bad days: what are the one or two things I really need to do today? If I can decide what those are, I kill two birds with one stone: I am less likely waste my energy on nonessentials and waffling about what to do, and I feel less guilty for all the things I didn’t do. Somewhat ironically, setting my priorities often allows me to do more than just the basics.

It’s true that sometimes I don’t manage even the most basic things I wanted from a day, but I’m learning how to move on from it. To forgive myself, and extend myself the same understanding I would give to someone else. I do have bad days (weeks, months), but I like to think I do what I can. And that’s all I can ask of myself.

food

Homemade Pasta

A few months ago, I finally got up the gumption to use the pasta maker I got for my birthday a couple of years ago, with able assistance from my husband.

The dough is very simple: flour and eggs (with water if you need extra liquid). It doesn’t even have salt!

It needs to be rolled through the pasta maker at least 6 times before you actually put it through the attachment which cuts it. You add flour each time, and it starts looking less like a ragged strip of playdoh and more like food.

It was quite fun to work the crank and feed the dough into the machine. When we were done with that part, we put the dough through the fettuccine attachment. It only took 3 1/2 minutes to cook it, and it was delicious! I might cook it longer next time, though.

We have since used it to make lasagna noodles. We are still figuring things out, but are pretty pleased with the results so far.

If you adore pasta and like cooking, I recommend trying this out. 😃

baking, bread, King Arthur flour

French-style Country Bread

I’m baaaaack! I haven’t posted in quite a while, what with one thing and another. But I haven’t stopped baking. This is my first-ever attempt at artisan bread, and it went well, considering I didn’t have bread flour, which is what the recipe calls for. My bread machine is defunct, so I kneaded it by hand. The recipe wanted me to mist the oven every few minutes, but I didn’t have a spray bottle, so I put a cake pan with water on the bottom rack to provide the necessary steam.

I’m definitely happy with the way it turned out: it tastes like it came from a bakery, has a lovely chewy crust, and slices really well! But I’d like to try it again so I can do it exactly as the recipe suggests.

food, fruit, projects, Traditions

Strawberry Jam

 

When I was a kid, every year around the end of May, my mom would enlist us to help her in the kitchen with strawberry jam. The kitchen would be filled with pounds and pounds and pounds of strawberries, needing to be washed and hulled and cut into quarters. There was sugar waiting to be measured and pectin packets to be opened, all ending up in a large pan on the stove.

We put the jam in small plastic containers, which were ideal for storing in the freezer. All through the next year (but it was a particular treat in the winter), we would take out one box of sweet red goodness at a time, perfect for toast, PBJ, pancakes, and crêpes.

As an adult, I haven’t made my own jam until this year. I came upon this recipe via my sister Isabella (she scouts out recipes and shares the best ones with me, hooray!). It comes from a book called The Homemade Kitchens: Recipes for Cooking with Pleasure by Alana Chernila.

How to turn fruit into jam

  • Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups

The secret that jam makers keep is that making jam is easy, and it can be done with whatever and however much fruit you have. A jar of jam can last two to three weeks in the fridge, so you can make one jar at a time with just a few minutes of stirring at the stove, no canning required. Thicken it with a little sugar, pour it into a jar, and you have jam. If you’re not canning your jam, you don’t have to pay attention to pH or acidity, so if you like to experiment, play around with sweetness, herbs, and other flavors with your fruit. Sugar is a preservative, so take note that if you use less sugar, you’ll need to eat your jam faster. This formula works well with berries, rhubarb, stone fruit, pears, and cantaloupe. Just adjust the water and sweetener according to the water and sugar content of the fruit you’re using. This is a quick jam that’s great for all sorts of uses in the kitchen. In the interest of ease and versatility, this recipe creates a loose jam, and there’s no need to worry about temperature or getting it to “set.”

  • 1 pound fruit, fresh or frozen (weighed after pitting, peeling, or cutting it appropriate)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar or honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
  • Optional: herbs, spices, other flavor additions
  1. Combine the fruit and water in a heavy-bottomed pot and set over medium heat. Bring to a low boil, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until the fruit breaks up into sauce, 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Uncover the pot and stir in the sugar or honey. Raise the heat to medium and continue to cook, uncovered, stirring often to prevent the jam from burning on the bottom of the pot, until the sauce thickens, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Taste, and adjust for sweetness if necessary. Allow to cool and transfer to a jar. If you’ve added whole spices, you can either remove them now or leave them in the jar to continue to infuse the jam for a stronger flavor.
ME/CFS, Personal

Severe ME/CFS Awareness Day

August 8th is the awareness day for severe ME/CFS. At its worst, ME/CFS can mean being so sick and so sensitive to stimulation that you are in a dark room by yourself all day.

There is some good news, though. My sister Isabella sent me a link about progress that is being made on ME/CFS research at Stanford University. It may enable a diagnostic test, the lack of which has been a big obstacle to doctors in identifying patients with ME/CFS and giving them the care they need. It may even point the way toward new treatment! The basic gist of the news is that ME/CFS patients have a much greater amount of certain cytokines that are linked to causing inflammation than the healthy control subjects do.

As always, I am excited when ME/CFS is given publicity and researchers move forward. I’ll be keeping my eye Stanford’s ME/CFS site.

baking, dessert, food, fruit, Holidays

Independence Cake

For family occasions, I am the designated dessert maker. Our traditional Fourth of July dessert is chocolate cupcakes with American flags stuck in them (which I did do last year), but I didn’t have the flags or the chocolate and I wasn’t sure what to do. After turning over and rejecting various ideas (including éclairs), I settled on making a cake.

Surprise, surprise, the recipe I chose is from King Arthur flour (I do love them). It’s a classic, standard American cake, the kind that gets made for birthdays: golden vanilla cake.

It’s pretty much a one bowl cake, but it was more work than I anticipated. Each egg needs to be beaten in individually and the whole bowl scraped down in between each one, to ensure that the cake has enough air, presumably. And my cake had a lot of air: each of the layers domed hugely, making it necessary to cut off the tops. And as the pictures clearly show, there were holes throughout the cake.

To fill and cover the cake, I whipped about 2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream with about 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and 1 or 2 teaspoons vanilla. I didn’t use quite all of the cream: 2 1/4 cups probably would have sufficed. I also layered the cake with raspberries freshly picked (by me) from my parents’ garden, and blueberries (store-bought). Then I slathered more cream on the bottom layer so there wouldn’t be any gaps.

To make sure the cake dish would be neat after I finished frosting the cake, I put four strips of parchment paper in a square underneath the cake and when I was done, I pulled them away: voilà! Clean cake stand. That’s a trick I got from Cook’s Illustrated. My husband helped me by slowing spinning the cake stand while I frosted, and by helping me with garnish (again, raspberries and blueberries for a red, white, and blue cake!). I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the top of the cake until the last minute, when I decided a star was appropriate to the occasion, and I think it turned out really well.

The cake was moist and kept well. In fact, I think it was perhaps even better the second day. All in all, a satisfying endeavour.

baking, food

Cranberry orange scones

In my newfound passion for scones, I have tried yet another recipe. In addition to the fruit flavors, this recipe has an option for adding allspice, which I liked well enough, but I plan on trying them without it next time.

Thanks to my silicone baking mat, I was able to get my dough into an exact 8″ round, the precision of which is pleasing to my inner baking perfectionist. The top is brushed with milk and sprinkled with sugar.

Memories, Vignette

Knowing when to let go

When I was a child, we had a small playground set in our backyard. It had monkey bars, a swing, a deck with a fireman’s pole, and a few other features. I loved the swing the most, and I remember begging my  mom to push me, again and again. My favourite way to be pushed was “underdog”: my mom would push me so high that she could run under me before I swung backwards.

I didn’t need a push to soar, though. I had excellent swinging form (not a currently recognized sport). When I went forward, my legs were straight as an arrow, and as I swung back, I would bend my legs at the knees, keeping them together but spreading my lower legs to make an “A” shape. Back and forth, back and forth. I could swing for what felt like forever, and it really provided a sensation of transcendence.

I spent a lot of time there by myself, but I also often played there with my siblings. We had a complicated game called “Traffic”, the rules of which I no longer remember, but, not very surprisingly, it involved a lot of movement and dashing about, trying to dodge things and people.

Whenever our cousins or friends came over, we would head to the backyard. My best friend and I had great fun in the winter when there was a heavy layer of snow on the ground. We would climb up to the deck and leap from it into the snow below again and again, each time feeling a rush of delighted fear before we took the plunge.

I can think of only one truly frightening experience on the playground. I had gone up to the deck with a cousin five years younger than I, and we were at the end with the fireman’s pole. This was fun not only to slide down, but to prove one’s strength on by climbing back up, hand over hand. Perhaps D., my cousin, was trying to slide down the pole, but I no longer remember exactly how he ended up hanging off the edge of the deck. He was being kept from falling only by my hold on one of his hands.

It was summer and there was no cushion of snow, and I was terrified that if I let go of him he would break a bone in the fall. I probably wasn’t older than 8 or 9, and he was too little to understand why I wouldn’t just let him go, because my grip on his arm hurt so much! He was crying and wriggling, I was desperately clinging. Finally, I couldn’t hold on to him anymore. Either my strength gave way or he succeeded in struggling out of my grasp. He fell, but was unharmed, to my great relief. And not to worry, this incident did not have a negative impact on our relationship: we are still very good friends.