Come Again?

Sometimes all I can do is scratch my head.

Every year I grow a garden. And every year I must ultimately deal with the influx of harvest vegetables. My goal? To preserve the vegetables a-la-eighteenth-century-like. Well, sorta. I use a freezer.

Anyway.

I grow things that: a) we will eat all summer long. Like fresh green beans and cucumbers and tomatoes and basil and radishes and zucchini and arugula; b) I can turn into actual meals and freeze like leek and potato soup, pesto, pizza and pasta sauces, spicy carrot soup, and pepper dishes; c) I can freeze and can to preserve like relishes, jalapeno ketchup, candy jalapeno, pepper jelly (I grow a lot of peppers), tomato jam, pickles; d) I can simply flash freeze so I can use fresh ingredients in the middle of winter like beets, sliced leeks, grated lemon cucumber, zucchini, and banana peppers, onions, and corn; e) Just simply get dried like my black beans, Italian rose beans, rosemary, and fennel seeds.

I have a large 3-ring notebook (no surprise) that I fill with recipes I collect throughout the year that will use the vegetables either I am growing or that are in season over the summer. Every week when the harvest starts to come in I pull out recipes I want to make.

I’ll be honest here. It is overwhelming. And sometimes I wonder why the hell I grow so much. When there is a pile of zucchini and yellow squash, a huge bowl of tomatoes, dozens of yardlong beans, half a dozen leeks, some cucumbers, herbs, a few beets, a few carrots, and a bowl full of kale…and I go back to scratching my head and suddenly desiring a nap…and that harvest is from one little afternoon…that I can carry in the one bowl I brought out to the garden with me.

Every September-November it is the same thing around here. Weekends full of canning relishes and pickles and jellies. Of making tomato sauces and pesto’s. Of making soups using carrots, leeks, zucchini, tomatoes, fennel, peppers. Of thinking of dinners stuffing zucchini or creating salads using heirloom tomatoes and sliced cucumber. Of discovering ways to blanch beets and freeze them for later…

Oh sure, during summer I am preparing things here and there. For instance, early on I may make a batch of salsa from what is coming out of the garden early. Maybe slice a tomato and cucumber in our salad. Or cook up a side of yardlong beans with dinner. But inevitably when September rolls around I am inundated with fresh produce.

It’s a total love-hate. (More love than hate. And perhaps hate is too strong a word. Overwhelming is better.)

Which brings me to the point of this blog. (I know, I was beginning to wonder if I had a point too.)

When I start freezing meals using up the garden harvest sometimes I get a little overzealous. For instance, I decided it would be fun to make things that didn’t necessarily come out of the garden. Like ravioli’s (okay, technically I used kale instead of spinach to fill them). And lentil burgers. And broccoli meatballs. Granted, I used a pepper or herb or onion that came from the garden INSIDE those recipes.

Do my kids love lentil burgers? Are you really asking me that? Hell no, they don’t. However, they eat it if that is what’s for dinner. But it doesn’t stop them from complaining about it.

Recently my mom asked me, “Do the kids even like the vegetables you are growing?”

Come again?

I had grandparents that grew everything in fields behind their Los Angeles home from the time they were married in the early 1920s until the 1970s when they got too old…and even then my grandmother still grew herbs, grapes, and a variety of fruit trees. I asked my mom, “Did nana and papa consult with you and your siblings before they grew a variety of fruit and vegetables during the 1930s when you were all children?”

Give me a break.

Of course my grandmother didn’t. She cooked. They ate. End of story.

Now, did my Italian grandmother whip up lentil burgers? Chances are she didn’t but she was a very creative cook and fed a lot of mouths when there wasn’t a ton of money.

I finally asked my mom, “Are you really giving me shit for feeding my children – fresh ingredients from my garden? And a variety of vegetarian dishes?” (For the record, we are not vegetarians but we eat meatless meals at least twice a week, sometimes more.)

Her response: “Those poor kids. Make them regular meatballs with actual meat!”

My response:  “I guess if the worst thing I do as a parent is give my kids whole foods with ingredients fresh my own garden, then I’ll take it.”

Over the weekend I had a conversation with my brother who sees the pictures of the food I am making on Facebook. He said to me, “Nana and Papa are turning over in their graves! Broccoli meatballs! What is all that shit you are making?”

What?

Are you kidding me?

I told him I can’t believe he is actually complaining about this to me and that I just happen to be maybe a bit more, um, creative with what I take out of my garden or buy from the local growers.

So, let me get this straight. I spend a good six months working on and in my garden. Out there every single day. All summer long we eat fresh vegetables and all through the year we eat fresh ingredients I have either frozen, canned, or cooked into a meal. I never buy boxed up food from the grocery store, my kids don’t eat frozen pizza, and we hardly ever go to a fast food restaurant. And you are giving me shit for making broccoli meatballs? Really?

I’m back to scratching my head.

A Certain Way To Write

I was asked recently if there was a certain way I wrote – and does it ever change?

For starters, hardly anything is done in longhand – and that has been the case since I first discovered a little thing called a typewriter. (Yes, I’m that old.)

I hear about writers ALL THE TIME writing their books or screenplays in longhand. Oh dear gawd, hold me. I Can’t. Even. Imagine. For starters, it would take me forever. And my hand would be aching on a regular basis. And I would forget half of what I wanted to say because my hand holding a pen would simply not be able to keep up with the speed in which my brain pops out words that magically form sentences.

But, it would be unfair if I said I never did anything handwritten. I usually begin a quick outline in longhand on a legal pad. I make notes on pieces of paper all the time and they are everywhere (in fact, I have piles of scrap paper with very valuable information, thankyouverymuch, all around me as I speak). I will make lists in longhand. And I will initially edit a project with a pen.

For everything else, I immediately turn to the computer. I can write faster and edit and change things much easier.

When I begin a novel I first start out with scraps of paper with several ideas on them; maybe a few character sketches or names. Then, I will pop onto the computer and write out a very loose outline with a lot of “Character X could go here…” and “Character B might think this…” From there everything is done solely on the computer – chapter by chapter outlines, character sketches, and the first draft. With my Los Angeles historical novel I did write out highlights of each chapter under each act, including a color coded system, all in longhand – but that is rare.

I talked to an author who writes a bunch of individual scenes and then pastes them into some form of novel. Another writer I read about writes all over the place – her book doesn’t even take form until she is finished writing the ending, then a few things in the middle, then the beginning, back to the middle, back to the ending…ohmegawd, my head would not be able to wrap around any of that. I tried the individual scene thing once and got myself thoroughly confused.

I need to work in some kind of linier fashion. I need order…and most definitely to start at the beginning.

The only exception to that is my non-fiction work which I have file folders that collect information and research and notes here and there until the file is bulging and ready to be put into order at which time I would turn to the computer for all the writing.

So, does it ever change? Not really, no.

If you are a writer, do you have a certain way to write?

Works in Progress

I have a list of dozens of writing projects.

I mean – DOZENS especially when I add in article writing to the mix.

Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself. Why do I put so many projects in the fire? Why must I have so many?

For me, the answer comes down to one thing: attention.

I don’t think I have any “real” attention issues but I bore quickly if all I was doing was one thing all the time. Believe me, over the years I have tried that approach and always wonder why I can’t seem to stay focused long enough without getting restless.

Then I discovered that I need to focus on more than one project at a time. Of course, I could easily achieve this with say, four projects. In my case I have over 20 projects pending. That being said, those twenty projects are all in various stages of completion. The cookbooks I have been slowly gathering and writing recipes and conducting research. A few of the fiction projects only have one scrap of an idea in them and still needs a full outline, etc. And then there are projects that are closer to completion like the “Chavez Ravine” novel.

As of today I have 9 chapters left to rewrite in “Chavez Ravine”. Meanwhile, I have a beta reader working the front chapters. So, I am rewriting the last chapters and also sending my BR the first chapters, which means I am looking those over too and editing before I send them to her. I am also beginning to write up book proposals for the project. This novel will be the first one I have moved out of “first draft” mode! I have another completed first draft waiting in the wings…which I’m excited to delve into and rewrite.

I am beginning to break up my days like this:

In the morning before I take my daughter to school I spend a few minutes reading some notes, checking out online freelance opportunities, making coffee, working out.

Once I take her to school I set the timer for 60 minutes and write and send out queries, pitches, proposals, and apply to whatever freelance job I can. (I also keep a dry erase board in front of me with a running tab of potential income, which keeps me motivated in a simple little way.)

Then, I dig out a chapter of my novel and set about rewriting. Sometimes I can complete the chapter in one morning, other times it can take me a few days to a week or more. I make check marks on the parts I need to research later.

By now it is late morning and I squeeze in some time to do some research reading, edit, critique – and update my blog. Okay, I check social media too, dammit…but only when I am eating lunch.

After lunch I try and go back over the novel chapter and research the parts I left blank and fill in the details. I try and set the timer again and pick up another project and try and do at least one task a day on a new project. Sometimes, I will spend a few minutes filing or sending out an email, or making a call or two. And depending on the time (everyone starts getting home from school/work around 3pm which is when I typically stop unless I am on a roll I will continue working for another hour or two) I will try and send out another query or pitch.

On my dry erase board I keep track of how many queries are in the pipeline, how many tasks I have completed overall, the number of words written today, and an ongoing total number of words written – a large several hundred thousand word count that keeps me inspired to keep going.

Today, I managed to send one pitch, start rewriting chapter 35 and chapter 5 (so I can send it off to my BR), write and send two book proposals for my children’s book, read a pile of research, critique a chapter sent to me, and work on a local pitch for a series of articles – and do some dreaded filing at the end of my work day.

In between the freelance writing work I am researching Gettysburg and the Civil War for a historian study – along with culinary history work too.

On a Day Like Today

If you were old enough to remember what happened thirteen years ago today, you most certainly have one of the “where were you” answers.

I was at home in San Diego, getting out of bed slowly since we had a barely-three month old baby. I was getting ready to nurse her and get the boys off to school when my husband called me from work to tell me to turn on the television.

I sat in our bedroom watching the television in horror - like most Americans that morning, glued to the constant news coverage.

I took my boys to school – one in the first grade and the other in preschool – and parents were all in a daze. Everyone was in a daze. I walked into the preschool building and had doubts about leaving my son there. As I signed him in, parents all around me were voicing the same issues.

It wasn’t that we felt our little corner of San Diego county would be a target or that we would be in any real danger like what was happening in New York and Pennsylvania but it was more a fear of wanting to keep all your loved ones close by, within contact, protected.

I didn’t want my little ducks where I couldn’t see them, hug them, watch them.

It’s cliché to say that our world changed that day. Sure, we have a voice in the airports now warning us of the security level and to not leave your bags unattended and we have to take off our shoes to go through major security…

What really changed is how vulnerable we are as a society now. I used to think it was sad how the children of the forties and fifties had to learn how to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear bomb and what a horrible thing for little kids to be in constant fear like that. And yet here we are – my children will only remember the days as they are today: with constant battles to keep our country safe from the terrorists who want to destroy us.

What really changed is how I can’t sit in an airplane anymore without at least thinking about what happened on September 11th. I can’t help myself from thinking the horror those people must have felt and how I just want to hold my children’s hands and keep them safe, always, even though I know I can’t. Not really. And certainly not forever.

What really changed is how we are no longer so footloose and fancy free. We look at people differently. Our world got uglier and nastier after that day. We are more guarded and careful. There is a darker cloud over us now that hadn’t been there in a good long time.

I suppose we were never really free from the fear, the war, the terror, the ugliness - it has been with us since the very beginning of our country – it’s just that when so many years separate the problems, we grow complacent and cavalier.

Even as the years move us further and further from that fateful day, we are sometimes more complacent…and then September 11th arrives on the calendar again and we are once again reminded. Oh yeah. We aren’t the same anymore.

What I’ve Learned Over The Summer

I hate that unofficially summer is over.

Poof.

The mornings are now very chilly. And while I love fall and all that I always feel a little sad to say goodbye to the warm days, daily gardening, and lazy afternoons.

Here is a quick list of what I learned over the summer.

1. I love when I wake up in the mornings and by 7am it is already getting warm. I walked every morning with a friend and if we were any later than 8am to get started, we were dying of heat. In a flash with the first ring of the school bell the mornings are now magically more cold. Damn.

2. I wish summer vacation lasted longer. This year I was at an immediate disadvantage because I was sick with bronchitis for at least half of summer. I love not worrying about homework and waking up early (even though I woke up early to go walking). I love lazy days and quick, easy meals, and sunsets near 10pm.

3. I don’t know what I would do without my garden, I love it so much. I wonder about this when we one day downsize and perhaps I don’t have the large vegetable garden I am afforded right now. And even though come mid-fall I am ready to pull whatever is left out (it becomes a tad bit overwhelming when the harvest is overflowing) I do look forward to spring every year. I love planting new things, I love eating fresh vegetables ALL SUMMER LONG. I love going out there in the early mornings and watering as the sun is starting to come up – so quiet and peaceful.

4. We don’t use the barbecue enough. We always say we are going to BBQ like crazy and then somehow and for whatever reason we seldom use the thing.

5. I always think I’m going to get more done over the summertime. Why is that? I mean, during the school year the kids are out of the house and IN school. Hello. Duh. During the summer the only thing working for me is that a) the weather is warm; and b) I don’t have to look at the clock all day. Even though my kids are older they still knock on my office door all day long asking for everything from “what is there to eat for lunch?” to “do you know where the pool towels are?”

6. Unlike people who don’t have air conditioners (my mom, for instance, lives on the beach in southern California and doesn’t have air conditioning in her house) and have to endure a heat wave or worse, a heat wave WITH humidity and have NO air conditioning (shoot me now) – it doesn’t matter to me whether I decide to cook ribs in the house or bake a cake because the oven doesn’t heat up a house with air conditioning. In fact, you hardly notice the heat from the oven at all.

7. I may “save” time every night from making the kids lunches but it is way worse because every afternoon the kids want lunch and they somehow never eat the types of lunches they eat all school year. Suddenly sandwiches, crackers, and fruit is not good enough. Oh brother.

8. As much as I love all that summer offers, I am a winter girl at heart.

9. I can never get enough of summer fruits and vegetables. I can bathe in a mixture of berries and peaches and live happily ever after.

10. My favorite place to be is sitting outside enjoying a quiet moment on my patio, admiring the yard, looking out at my garden, and loving the gorgeous Idaho skies.

The World of Dieting

I recently had a disagreement with my mother over the issue of eating dried fruit.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. There is nothing my mother and I won’t argue and disagree about.

She said “in her day” the dried fruit as a suitable option for fruit was a big no-no. Too high in calories, too high in concentrated sugar. I can’t argue with that. However, my point was this: it would be better to eat a handful of dried fruit instead of some pre-packaged low-fat/fat-free piece of crap that comes with bold letters on the box announcing how “healthy” it is for you. I call bullshit on that. Anyway, we disagreed.

But, I can hardly fault her for her ingrained beliefs over the years. Let’s be clear about one thing. My mother was never obese but she has dieted on and off her ENTIRE LIFE. She is 83. And she STILL talks about the three pounds she gained when she left Idaho and went back to her home in Southern California. Seriously?

She tried it all. The grapefruit diet, the three-shakes a day diet (I’m sorry but if all I do is drink all day and never chew anything you best be sure I will be chewing your fucking head off), Weight Watchers, No Carbs, South Beach, diet pills, and so on. And not surprising, nothing lasted forever and she yo-yoed for years.

I noticed a friend post something on Facebook about how she lost a lot of weight and when someone asked her she did it – she said it was through Jenny Craig and because she was a lifetime member she was able to join again for free. Well, free plus all the food you gotta buy from them.

It made me wonder. If it really truly, absolutely, without a doubt worked…would you really have to go back again? It boils down to us. We either need to change our habits forever or change our mindset on how we view our bodies. Meanwhile, Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers and all those plans out there are laughing and skipping straight to the bank. How can you possibly keep the weight off when you stop eating the pre-packaged foods they send you? I’m sorry but I’ll never understand that…I don’t care what the “spokespersons” are paid to say.

I did an article about a year ago about the “Gluten-Free” diet/fad. And by fad I don’t mean for those that are truly gluten intolerant (less of a percentage than you would think) and of course those with Celiac Disease. And if you want to go gluten-free and eat whole foods and natural grains and substitute all-purpose flour with coconut flour, go for it. But if you are swept away with all the boxes and bags in the supermarkets these days saying they are “gluten-free” then you are missing the point. Because where they take away the gluten problems they fill in with more sugar, more sodium, and way more shit you can’t even pronounce. And this makes you healthier how?

I am a FIRM believer that instead of jumping on all these diet fad bandwagons…just eat healthy. Eat real foods. Stop buying all that processed, boxed, frozen CRAP. I would rather have a few pounds I need to lose than fill my body with overly processed, preservative-heavy, zero nutritional value shit.

Even small changes can make a difference. I went to a cereal sale yesterday because my kids are obsessed with cereal. I bought healthy cereals that list about five ingredients. If my kids don’t like it, I tell them what I always tell them: when you are out and on your own you can eat all the crap you want. If the cereal doesn’t thrill you, find something else for breakfast. I passed mother after mother with their carts FULL of the sugary of the sugar-iest cereals. I wanted to scream “Stop feeding your children this crap!” But hey, it isn’t my business. So, make small changes. How about that dried fruit instead of a fruit roll-up or gummy fruit wannabe things?

Replace grains/starch at dinner a couple of nights a week with an extra vegetable. Make up a batch of quick and simple granola bars instead of buying the processed ones in a box. Instead of chips try nuts, pretzels, or veggie sticks. A pre-packaged bag of cookies will have about twenty ingredients including a variety of sugar, words I can’t pronounce let alone know what they are, and food coloring. If you bake up a batch of cookies it will have ingredients like flour, sugar, eggs, and vanilla.

I was given a free coupon for one of those “packaged sides” – something I would never buy normally (and it is still on my shelf). It is called “Cheddar Broccoli Rice” and it has 37 ingredients listed. Thirty Seven! Instead, use rice, water, maybe even chicken broth instead of water, cheddar cheese, and um, broccoli and you have the SAME thing without ALL THE PROCESSED CRAP.

I guess I would rather move every day (or almost every day, I try), eat healthy, eat real food, avoid processed crap, enjoy dried fruit without guilt, and maybe a carry a few extra pounds…then fill my body with fake food for the sake of ease…or a diet fad that will do nothing long term.

Food Challenge

I think at times I’m a bit dorky.

Okay, maybe more than just at times.

Anyhoo.

I love to challenge myself when it comes to our grocery shopping, meals, and how far I can stretch something.

Take for instance, carrots.

I grew one little row (note to self: next year plant way more) of heirloom carrots. When the harvest came in I used a few in quick meals like stir-fry and the rest I made into freezer meals. I made Middle Eastern Carrot Tacos, Roasted Carrot & Fennel Soup, and a Creamy Thai Carrot Soup. That pretty much used up all the carrots and I gained three dinners (in the freezer) from that one little row of carrots in my garden.

My challenge for the month of September is to see how many meals I can make – for our family of five – without having to do much grocery shopping.

It helps that I have an overflowing vegetable garden. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, herbs, fennel, leeks, onions, carrots, beets, and beans – and the produce dictates what I make so I can utilize the garden to the fullest.

With the produce and with grocery items I bought in previous trips (over the last month or so) I was able to put together a few freezer meals for when the weather is a little chillier. For instance, I made several batches of both Broccoli and Leek Soup and Potato and Leek Soup (I bought the potatoes from a local vegetable stand for twenty cents a pound – so I got a total of six meals out of about 10lbs of potatoes, or $2, which works out between six meals and five people to be about SIX CENTS a person per meal. Six Cents!). I also made about half a dozen batches of Pesto varieties (straight basil but also kale with basil and the Sicilian type, my current favorite). I made Zucchini Meatballs with my zucchini, Yellow Pepper Soup, and Jambalaya.

I was also able to make some Banana Pepper Honey Mustard, Cucumber Relish, Zucchini Salsa, and Pepper Jelly. There will be more to add to this list as the weeks go on - harvesting and preserving the garden goods is a slow and long process in late summer, early autumn – like tons and tons of spaghetti and pizza sauce, more pesto, more relishes, and anything else I can prepare and either can or freeze for the later months when the garden has been put to sleep until next spring.

In the meantime, some things I need to just freeze and deal with later like: beets, leeks, and corn. I tried to make soup with the leeks but how much soup can I freeze, for heaven’s sake? So, I’m going to slice the leeks, blanch the beets and freeze them until I can find a use for them later (I already made a batch of Spiced Beets). As for corn, I’m not growing corn but I like to buy local corn in the peek of the season, grill it to a charred loveliness, take the corn off the cob, and flash freeze them. Nothing is better than fresh summer grilled corn to add to a soup in the middle of January.

This past weekend we used previous purchases by making up about two dozen freezer meals – including a variety of chicken recipes: Cranberry Chicken, Pineapple Salsa Chicken, Spicy Braised Peanut Chicken, Peachy Balsamic Chicken, Chicken Lettuce Wraps, Sweet Asian Chicken – to name a few. We also put together Lentil Burgers, Broccoli Parmesan Meatballs, Two varieties of homemade Ravioli, and Mongolian Beef.

In addition to the over 35 meals currently in our freezer and ready for a dinner near you – the freezer is also housing more chicken breasts (enough for at least two or three meals), a whole ham which would yield at least 4 meals (I love making pineapple ham tacos, for instance), meatballs, about ten pounds of ground beef, two pounds of mussels, two pounds of shrimp, and three packages of Italian sausage links.

And we haven’t even covered the pantry yet.

Needless to say I counted at least two months worth of dinner possibilities. I have canned and dry beans, cans of tuna and salmon, pastas, polenta, couscous, rice, tortillas – to name a few.

I wrote out a quick list of possible meals I could make right now based on what we always have on hand (eggs, flour, tortillas, tuna, cheeses, yeast, cream soups, canned tomatoes, pasta, breads, and of course fresh and frozen vegetables).

Here is my tentative list:

Homemade Pizzas
Pasta with just about anything from mussels to fresh vegetables to meat sauce to pesto (and a million other options)
Chili
Bean & Rice Wraps
Wild Rice Burgers
Sandwiches (a variety of options from spicy egg salad to eggplant Panini’s)
Frittata’s
Tostados/Tacos/Burritos
Bean & Beef Burritos
Mexican Pizza/Mollettes
Omelets or Eggs in Hell
Beef Stroganoff
Polenta with grilled vegetables and poached eggs with homemade French bread
Tuna Cakes
Swedish Meatballs
Italian Grilled Cheese
Salads
Shrimp Pad Thai
Bean/Ham Soups
Caribbean Beans and Rice
Sausage and Biscuits
Potato Pancakes
Matzo Ball Soup
Meatball Sandwiches
Stuffed Zucchini
Potato Balls in Sauce
Simple homemade Soups
Black Bean Burgers
Stir-Fry over Rice

Of course, there are probably more meals but this was the quick list I came up with so far. (I love looking for recipes and realizing that I have every single thing on the ingredient list without having to go to the grocery store!)

There will always be things to buy at the grocery store: paper towels, lotion, bar soap, eggs, milk – and so on. Not to mention breakfast cereal and lunch items for the kids.

But, my challenge for the month of September is to make due with all that I have overflowing in my refrigerator, freezer, pantry, and garden and try and prepare as many meals as I can without having to go to the grocery store for ingredients.

I will let you know at the end of the month how well I did, what we ate, and what I spent.

How much do you spend every month at the grocery store?