This is what it looks like.


Nine months ago I wrote here that I would keep you all informed about what it looks like to be a grad student, mom of a 4 year old, good friend, wife, half-assed homesteader and blogger.  Well apparently what it looks like is nine months of silence.  The truth is that for the last nine months I have not made all my own bread.  I have not made any bread.  I didn’t run out to my garden and pick fresh kale for a salad from under a cover of snow.  I did not once make toothpaste.

What did I do instead?  I taught kids where their food comes and how to grow their own.


I taught my daughter how to write her name.  I went on dates with my husband, and went out dancing until really late at night with friends.


I spent Christmas in Arkansas with my grandmother and Spring Break in Palm Springs, laying in the sun drinking mojitos.


I got a tattoo of a hazelnut.  I wrote a thesis proposal.  Obviously, I got an iPhone and got addicted to Hipstamatic.

What else did I do?  I ate that failed strawberry balsamic jam on toast every other day or so, and a couple of months ago I started eating eggs in the morning from my chicken friends.  I watched with pride and wonder as my apple trees bloomed profusely for the first time since I planted them four years ago, and as those beautiful flowers swelled into the delicate tiny green apples out there now, just tinged with rose. I also watched as the peach tree I planted last year withered and nearly died, and as my quince tree developed a rust that will almost certainly pass over to the apple trees that I am so proud of.  A month ago I planted an entire vegetable garden in one day, a week ago I freed my strawberry plants from the clutches of those evil creeping buttercups again (just like last year), and just today I looked outside and noticed the teeniest hints of green all in a row – the carrots that my daughter helped me sow are coming up, finally.

What didn’t I do?  I didn’t write about it. Mainly, because I was writing a thesis proposal and extra writing suddenly seemed a lot less fun than it normally does.  I suppose I am the half-assed blogger as well, which I was well-prepared for.  But I love that today is the day that I finally decided to devote a few minutes to writing.  Today, I used my first harvest of this spring – rhubarb.  A rhubarb crumble is cooling on the stove right now, of course with  one quarter rhubarb from my garden and three quarters from the market.  Who would I be if I grew enough of any one thing to do anything with it?  The crumble is to be shared tomorrow at a potluck, with all the friends and colleagues I’ve developed relationships with during the last year – a celebration of having come so far together.  And a celebration of it being over!  I have one more week of classes, a final, and then I’m done with my first year of grad school.  Three weeks later, I start the second part of my program.  Not much of a break.

I am absolutely certain that over the summer, and over the next year, my half-assed homesteading will continue.  Soon I’ll be harvesting snap peas and strawberries, then will come the inevitable deluge of zucchini, and with any luck in a few months I’ll have more apples than I’ll know what to do with.  I’m sure I’ll make some cheese here and there, and I have been thinking I really miss sewing lately and I’d love to try to make a dress for my daughter.  My fingers are crossed that I’ll have the time and the inclination to share those adventures here, but if the airwaves go silent for awhile again, it’s probably because I’m too busy sitting outside in the sun with my friends and family, trying to figure out how to use up all that zucchini.

When the garden gives too much zucchini…

…you make zucchini bread.  And attempt and fail (twice) to make zucchini chips.  And make the zucchini ricotta spread until all your friends are sick of it.  AND YET THERE IS MORE ZUCCHINI.

I’ve grown zucchini every year I’ve ever had a garden.  That’s the majority of the last thirteen years or something like that.  So you’d think I’d know by now how many plants will produce too much zucchini for my family to eat.  Do you know how many plants that is?  It’s one.  One plant will just about do us.  Maybe two if we want zucchini coming out of our ears.  So how many zucchini plants do you think I planted this year?

Five.  Yes, that’s right.  Five zucchini plants.

See, I have a tiny gardener who likes to help me.  She especially likes to sow seeds.  And even though I have never had a zucchini seed fail to sprout, I still have this method instilled in me, from my days of professional propagation, of oversowing.  No good propagator would ever sow less than three seeds. And I feel like I have to pass this down to my daughter.  This is valuable gardening information!  This is the sort of information that gets passed from generation to generation in a gardening family!  So, we planted two or three seeds in each spot, I’m not sure how many, but eventually we ended up with five absolutely enormous zucchini plants, and I just didn’t have the heart to thin them.  I know that goes against all professionalism, thus making my earlier insistance on oversowing seem ridiculous, but…that’s me.  Half-assed overachiever.  Even I don’t understand my own brain.

So that’s how I ended up harvesting thirteen pounds of zucchini in one day a few weeks ago.  They sat on my counter and I stared at them until one day I decided it was zucchini day.  First up, I read this post about zucchini chips, and I thought that sounded fantastic.  But I don’t have a dehydrator.  That’s okay, I thought.  I’ll just slice them up with a mandolin and put them on various flat surfaces into the oven and the lowest temp and see what happens.  These beautiful zucchinis went in looking like this:

Unfortunately, they came out looking like this:

We had to use the oven later that night and I thought I’d just take them out for a few hours then put them back in, but when I took them out it was obvious immediately that they were an abysmal failure.  I didn’t use anything to prevent them from sticking, and so….they stuck.  I mean, really really stuck.  On the upside, they immediately disintegrated when immersed in hot water so they did not turn into a cleaning debacle.

I actually tried the zucchini chips again a week later, and once again they were totally unsuccessful.  I actually put them on aluminum foil, but they still stuck.  Interestingly, I didn’t use a mandolin this time, and I used two different size.  The larger slices, which were also mostly thinner, just shrank down and died.  But the smaller and thicker slices actually kind of started to work, but there were so few of them that I just ate them out of the oven.  They were delightful and I still think I might give this a third try if I am feeling ambitious someday soon, since my garden is still producing an abundance of zucchini.

But anyway.  Back to the zucchini bread.  I thought I’d make six loaves at once and freeze five of them in my completely awesome chest freezer.  (You may remember some of this debacle from Facebook.)  I dropped my kid off at school and stopped at the store on the way home to get some dish soap, and while I was there I picked up ingredients, and was feeling all smug that for once I remembered to do something like that in advance.  I got home, was actually knee deep in ingredient assembling when I realized that I did not have a smidge of brown sugar.  So out I ran to the store, with my table covered in half-assembled zucchini bread ingredients.  I came back home, turned on Radiolab, my eternal homemaking partner, and set up this wonderful streamlined system of zucchini bread production.  After the third one I kind of thought…Hm.  Did I leave something out of that one? But I had no idea what it would have been, so I continued.  At the end I was astonished and proud to have six lovely zucchini breads to put into the oven.  An hour later I pulled out this:

But also this:

For comparison:

One of these things is not like the other.

I obviously left out either the baking soda or baking powder of the sad one.  But that’s okay!  Five out of six is not bad, for me, frankly. One of them collapsed coming out of the loaf pan too, but it still tasted delicious.  The other ones all went into the freezer so that I will have ready to bring summery desserts for mid-winter dinners.  Overall, this was a successful project!  I mean, I know making zucchini bread is not a particularly demanding venture, but I grew something, I made something with it, and I saved it for later, and I think that is cool.

I’m still planning on making a zucchini quiche to freeze for the winter also, and I might do some zucchini pickles too.  I mean, this zucchini just keeps going!  And then, of course, I somehow planted four acorn squash plants too, so will I be failing at making acorn squash chips in a couple months?  We’ll see…

*and in case you missed it on Facebook, after I made a colossal mess making the zucchini bread, I realized I had forgotten to buy dish soap the first two times I’d gone to the store and I had to go to the store AGAIN for dish soap.

ain’t no party like a half-ass party

I have found, much to my satisfaction, that as I’ve gotten older I have become a much happier hostess.  As my poor husband and best friends can attest, entertaining at my house used to be a very sad, stressful affair, where I anguished over every detail of the planning and would basically curl up into the fetal position about ten minutes before the event, terrified that either nobody would come or everybody would come. There was much cleaning and cooking and scurrying about the house muttering to myself about place settings.  These days, I’ve (pretty much) learned to actually take the advice that moms throughout the ages have given to their daughters: if people are judging you on something stupid like how dirty your floor is, they aren’t your friends anyway.  Especially now that entertaining involves hordes of small children coming over, I really don’t even bother cleaning or planning that much.  I just want to hang out with my friends, not lie to them about what day to day life is like.  Having said all that, I am still the weirdest half-assed overachiever ever, so a typical get together for me is as follows.

Yesterday I had a “happy hour playdate”, in which I provided some drinks and snacks and over the course of a few hours some lovely moms brought their hooligans over and we let them wrassle around in the backyard while we drank wine in the sun.  It was pretty glorious, if I do say so myself. When I hatched this scheme I envisioned myself having basically all the preparation done by the middle of the week, because I knew that I’d have my little lady with me all day Thursday and Friday and I wanted to actually hang out with her rather than deposit her in front of the TV while I frantically finished up the food.  Of course, that’s never how my life happens.  I did manage to keep my stuff on the fairly simple side for once, instead of hollowing out grapes and filling them with blue cheese or something equally ridiculous (sorry to the person who had to help me with that in 2005.)  I was planning to make a zucchini ricotta spread, to get rid of zucchini.  Bake some no-knead bread to go with it.  A big plate of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.  And deviled eggs.

I have a cheese making set that my ever-supportive husband got me for Christmas and only used once and I have been really wanting to use again, so I thought I’d make the mozzarella and the ricotta, but in a rare show of common sense I decided to only make one and chose ricotta because last time I made mozz and it was not especially successful.  I thought I’d have a relaxing Wednesday and make the cheese, but somehow it didn’t happen that way and I found myself at 9 pm on Wednesday night realizing that it was now or never.  So, glass of wine in hand, I dumped a gallon of milk into my dutch oven and hoped for the best.

The directions made it seem like it would be pretty quick, the milk just had to come to 180 to 185 degrees and as soon as the curds separated from the why, I was to take it off the heat.  I was supposed to make sure there was no “milky whey”. Curds started forming pretty quickly, but after the first few the whole process seemed to sort of stagnate.  I was kind of hoping that at 180 it was just going to suddenly clump up and the endpoint would be obvious, but at 185 it looked…basically the same as it did at 85.

At this point it was probably 10 pm, and I was beginning to hate the cheese and my life. My husband had long since gone to bed and it was just me, my wine, some semi-clumpy milk and Facebook.  (I did think to make the dough for my no-knead bread during this time, feeling all smug about my late-night tipsy multitasking.)  I noted that the directions said to make sure not to let it scorch so I started stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan a little more vigorously, but still the clumps were starting to get a little brown.  And still, the whey still appeared milky to me.  I just thought there would be a clear distinction – clear liquid vs. clumps, but no.  Eventually, knowing that it still had to sit for 15 to 30 minutes after I took it off the heat, I just gave up and dumped it into my cheesecloth.  About 15 minutes later, it looked like this:

And it tasted like…solid, chewy milk.  It had the right texture and everything, but it was just basically flavorless.  I put it into the fridge and went to bed.

I had planned to make the zucchini spread the next day, and also to bake the bread.  Neither of those things happened because it was the best day ever and it was NONSTOP FUN ALL DAY.

Friday morning we had plans, so at noon I had three hours to bake the bread, make the zucchini spread, the tomato salad, and the deviled eggs, plus try to make my house somewhat presentable.

The no-knead bread is supposed to sit for eighteen hours, then get punched and sit for another two.  Eighteen hours after I made the dough, I was sitting under the stars at a farm with grilled corn, a beer, and some sweet friends.  I eventually punched it roundabout 40 hours after I started it.  I tasted it and it had a slightly tangy flavor, but other than that it seemed okay so I decided to go for it.  I didn’t have time to let it sit for two hours and then bake for 45 minutes so it sat for an hour instead.  This is why I love no-knead bread: the end result was just a kind of sourdough version of the regular bread with a more open crumb.  Genius! Homemade bread = success!

The ricotta came out of the fridge to go into the zucchini spread and had a really weird gummy texture, but I zipped the whole thing up in the food processor and it was delicious!  Homegrown zucchini + homemade ricotta = spread = success again!

Oh right, and somewhere in here during the week, I hardboiled a dozen eggs.  I literally don’t even remember when.  It was sometime during the day, and I didn’t have time to ice them down, so I just stuck them in a bowl of cold water into the fridge for, I don’t know at least three days?  Where they were still waiting for me Friday afternoon.   When I got chickens I had this great idea that deviled eggs was going to be my Signature Dish.  I was going to collect deviled egg dishes and everything.  Then I realized that hardboiling super fresh eggs actually kind of sucks.  I still do it, but I’m a little less enthusiastic about it.  I remember peeling Easter eggs when I was a kid and how it was really satisfying to see if you could get the whole shell off in just a couple pieces.  Fresh hardboiled egg shells come off in thousands of pieces. It is so time-consuming and tedious, and the eggs always look like a fifteen year old’s acne-scarred face.  They are not pretty.  I thought I’d make them more appealing by at least piping the filling out of a pastry bag, but I didn’t mash the yolks enough and a big yolk clod clogged up the bag and I ended up with a yolk volcano out of the top of the bag and all over my hands.  The first one was all twisty and lovely, but the rest were dumped in with a teaspoon as usual. But, hey they were delicious so whatev.  And!  This time I fancied ’em all up with some edible flowers.  Backyard eggs + homegrown edible flowers = success!

Finally, there is pretty much no way you can screw up a giant plate of backyard tomatoes with mozzarella and basil.  I mean…I ran out of the olive oil I was going to drizzle over it, but it still was pretty much heavenly.  And purdy too!  4 variety tomato platter = total success!

So, overall, even a half-assed party can be a success.  I invited some people I liked, made some food I was proud of, and allowed myself to relax once they got here.  I never did get to pick up the house at all though, so there were literally peas and Joe’s O’s all over the floor, and one 4 year old was overhead exclaiming, “There are a lot of dead plants in the front yard.”  True.  So true.  But the food was good, right?

you win some, you lose some

That’s really what this whole endeavor is about for me, actually.  My successes keep me from being too disheartened from my failures.  And amazingly, one of my consistent successes lately has been bread. Until today.

I have always been intrigued by this idea of baking all of one’s own bread.  I’m not sure why but there is a whole lot of emotion tied up in homemade bread for me.  It just seems so rustic, and lovely, and…unattainable.  Only fancy people bake bread at all, I thought.  And only REALLY fancy people bake all their own bread, every week.  The concept seemed truly laughable.

People:  I now bake all my own bread.

I know that I am late to the table on this whole No-Knead phenomenon.  Everyone’s been doing it for ages.  Well, I haven’t.  I’ve been doing it for a month and I am ecstatic.  I, in all my half-assedness, am capable of baking bread for my family every week.  And, oooohhh, this bread.  Not only is it easy, even fun, to make, but it truly rivals a five dollar loaf from a fancy bakery.  I won’t give you the directions, because it’s not my recipe, but I advise you, if you have any bread-making aspirations at all to follow the link and give it a go.

For me, I tend to mix up the dough on a Sunday night.  It literally takes all of two minutes, and you get this nice shaggy dough.  Everyone says shaggy…the recipe says shaggy, blogs all say shaggy.  You know why?  Because the dough is shaggy.  I just can’t think how else to describe it.

I leave it overnight, go off to school in the morning, come home for lunch and do the rest.  This is where I’m probably losing some of you, because you have full time jobs and are not home all afternoon on a Monday.  Do it on Saturday night, then.  In three weeks I’ll be back to my regular life and that’s what I’ll be doing and it will be fine.  I promise.

When I get home for lunch, my dough looks like this:

Yes.  These are two different bowls.  They are two different batches.

Dump the sticky mess out, move it around, let it rest, move it around some more, let it rest for two hours, preheat your oven and dutch oven, dump it in.  That’s it.  It actually even sounds more complicated that it is.  I would say it’s a total active time of maybe five minutes.  And here is the glorious part…it emerges looking like this:

The crust shatters as you bite into it. The crumb is perfect, with big airy holes just right for butter to ooze into.  And I have never, not once, screwed this up.  It must be foolproof.

I made a batch today.  When it was done, I made pita bread.  It did not go as well.  Not a surprise.

It’s yet another victim of my “I can make that better for cheaper” problem.  To be fair, we really do not have access to good pita around here.  So it was worth a go.  The only problem is that…they didn’t rise.  The recipe I was going off of included pictures of giant ballooning pitas in the oven.  I thought it would be really fun for my kid to watch them swell up in a matter of minutes, but as we stood there, staring into a 400 degree oven and sweating, she started asking, “What are they supposed to be doing?” Because, they were basically doing nothing.  Out of the eight I made, two had pathetic tiny bubbles off to the side, but certainly none of them expanded to the extent that I was expecting.

Those are some flaccid pita breads.

Happily, although they were limp, they were also fluffy and moist and flavorful,  words I would never apply to the stale, dry cardboard we get from the store.  So ultimately, it was worth it, if not a total success.  And I’m not disheartened because tomorrow morning we’ll have that beautiful loaf of fresh bread and I will remember that I am capable of magic sometimes.  The magic didn’t happen right away this time, but it doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.