As is not unusual in our Northern New England winters, I’ve been knitting a great deal. Being as it’s been a somewhat rougher winter, weather-wise, than usual, I’ve been using more than my usual amount of spare time for knitting.
I’ve got a sock and a sweater on the needles at the moment. Why? Well, socks are a portable project. They’re easy to toss in a purse and perfect to keep one distracted in waiting rooms, on buses and to relax on a lunch break. The sweater I am working on is in the bulky stage. I usually knit in the round, so sweater sleeves might be delightfully portable, but when you attach them to the body, any sweater for an adult becomes really bulky. That’s my writin’ chair project.
I’m taking a break from knitting because my hands hurt. Yes, I know, knitting too much, and I’m not sure typing an article is really the way to relieve the problem, but it’s a different motion, right?
After I finish it, though, I’m going back to review some material in Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitter’s Almanac
for my project.
When I picked it up, I really got to thinking. I’m a knitter and a reader, so I do have a pretty good knitting library. Stitch dictionaries, books about techniques, books full of patterns… I enjoy them.
But I keep going back to Mrs. Zimmerman’s books.
She taught me how to knit. No, I don’t mean basic techniques. My mother, though not into knitting to the insanity I am, did know how and taught me casting on and the garter stitch when I was a little kid. It wasn’t until several decades later that I wanted to make sweaters and stuff. I experimented with several methods before reading Knitting Without Tears. It was like the heavens opening.
Zimmerman was indeed a very clever knitting designer, but she did something I found even better. She taught the underlying concept behind the patterns, why the garment worked up the way it did, and strongly encouraged her readers to become their own designers and not worry too much about what a pattern said. I loved that.
“I knit all year, day in, day out. It is my passion, and I rarely knit the same thing twice in the same way.” Elizabeth Zimmerman, Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitter’s Almanac.
I’m similar. I’ve knit the same sweater twice exactly once – Roll Your Own Braided Yoke Sweater. That’s mostly because Mom and I have the same basic shape, so when I liked how it looked on me, I had to make one in a different color for Mom.
But for the most part, I’m always tweaking and changing and I like knitting that way better. The problem is, of course, that I can’t follow a pattern worth a damn.
In a way, I’m a fanfic* knitter. I take things I like from other people’s work and make something new, concentrating on the design elements that make me happy and expanding on them.
By the way, fanfic means “Fan Fiction.” A fan of a series, or television show or whatever will take settings, characters and worldbuilding from an author’s work and expand on it, creating stories of their own. It’s a not too unusual way for people to learn to write stories. Keep that concept in mind. It’ll be important later.
So, I’m working on finishing a sweater I started back last April. It’s a seamless raglan sweater, and the sleeves are done. I cheated and used the process of making the sleeves as a gauge swatch. It worked quite well and I’m pretty comfortable that the body will fit just fine.
The front panel is going to be this lattice diamond pattern framed by a cable called “Riptide Wave” in my favorite stitch dictionary.
I’m slowly making my peace with the idea that I just never going to knit a sweater directly from a pattern. I feel weird about it, as if I don’t truly knit well if I can’t seem to do this. (Yes, I know. I knit just fine.)
It’s not that I never carefully follow a pattern. I’ve knitted a couple of sweaters from The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns (a wonderful gift from a friend when I was whining that I couldn’t find a sloper kind of pattern like you have for sewing), and learned seaming sweaters ain’t my thang. I still use it for gloves, hats and mittens.
Then I read Knitting Without Tears and learned that the design canvas I like best for a sweater is one that is knit in the round. One of these days, I’m going to get the courage to steek a sweater to make a cardigan, honest, but that’s scary.
I’ve knit directly from patterns the We Call Them Pirates hats and gloves. That’s where I learned stranded knitting, and where I started to realize I knit like a lot of people write fanfic. Boy, howdy have I done the knitting fanfic on that design with sweaters and stockings. I’m not even done. I have a cardigan mentally planned out using it that is going to be so awesome I bounce up and down in my chair a little whenever I think about doing it.
After I learned stranded knitting, I started to knit from basic templates and add design challenges for fun and to expand my skills. To be very honest, many of my projects have one tiny little element that’s outside my comfort zone, but are mostly things that I’ve done before and feel comfortable with. To me, it seems like a good way to gain skill without driving oneself crazy. But I’m always reading about some design or technique I like, but I almost never knit the pattern. I take the design element I like and use it.
So, essentially, most of my knitting is one form of fanfic or another.
As you know, Bob, I’m a knitter and my favorite things to knit are socks and sweaters. Mostly because then I wear them.
I’m knitting the first thing I’ve knit in a good eight months. A Life-Eating Project seems to have sucked away my mental energy to the point where it was beginning to worry not only me, but my family. I needed to do something at least moderately creative and soothing that would make me feel good without long-term commitment. That meant knitting and it meant a small project.
I’m knitting some basic toe-up socks out of leftover yarn I have around. I have special sock yarn, but this stuff isn’t it. It’s Wool of the Andes Sport that I have left over from various knitting projects. It’s a bit thick, but I live in Northern New England and it’s cold. Thick wool socks are nice.
I took the risk on this yarn when my LYS owner commented that she doesn’t really bother to buy special sock yarn, but knits them out of leftovers from the truly extraordinary Nordic sweaters she knits. They are thick, but about like hiking socks.
Which, after nearly two hundred words, brings me to the main point of this article.
I ran across a sock-knitting block post by a knitter who cannot bring herself to wear socks often. After cost of the materials (she quoted $20 for a pair of socks) and the time put in, she didn’t want to wear them out.
The comments got to talking about how yeah, you can buy a pair of socks at a department store for five bucks, so hand-knit socks are so expensive.
I don’t knit to save money. It’s a hobby, but a not-too-expensive one for me. I spent less than $100 in yarn last year planning to do a mess of knitting for Christmas presents that never panned out, so I still have a larger stash than is usual for me. The socks I’m knitting now are from leftovers from the two sweaters I did knit and used about two balls of yarn, totaling five bucks to buy.
But if I bought those 100% wool socks, I’m still looking at between $8 and $10 for an inexpensive pair of wool socks. L.L. Bean, my preferred winter gear go-to, charges more.
But after I’ve gone to all that trouble, expensive or not, darn right I am going to wear the socks I made. Will they wear out? You bet. Socks do. It’s the nature of the garment. I’m easy on my socks – wearing slippers in the house rather than just the bare socks, and hand-washing the hand-knit ones. But, I’ve been knitting socks for eight years. Of course I’ve had a pair or two wear out.
I wonder why someone would go to the trouble to make them then not use them. What’s more of a waste, keeping them in the sock drawer, or enjoying them after you make them?
My primary motivation for prepping freezer to crock pot meals is not to save money. Please don’t faint.
I do it to save time during the week.
It does save money. It saves a lot of money.
I did not do much in the way of freezer to crock pot cooking this November and December. In looking at my budget book, I spent an embarrassing amount of money on groceries. Yes, yes, it was the holidays. Yes we cooked things we don’t ordinarily. Yes, we ate out more. But when I looked at what we spent on food for December 2013, I cringed. Even with the inflation factor, I’ve fed four adults and two kids on less, and my household only has three adult appetites at present.
The problem was two-fold. I didn’t make bento as often as I ordinarily do, so we bought lunches more than we should have. I also did not have any freezer meals ready. We were busy, so that meant more expensive convenience food items and more eating out.
You see that picture? That’s going to make about 20 dinners – meals for weeknights and some leftovers for various lunches. Let’s say five meals person per crockpot full. I spent $200 on the food. This wasn’t cheating by shopping from a semi-stocked home pantry. That sucker was bare. I even had to restock my spices.
Friends, when I do the math, I find it comes out to $2 a meal for people who are not light eaters. Please understand that I’m not claiming I’m feeding the family on $200/month. We’ll spend another $150 or so on food for breakfast, lunches and weekends if we’re not feeling excessively frugal.
That’s still significantly less than I spent on food for December! So yes, doing the prep-ahead thing saves money like you would simply not believe until you do it.
I would also like to point out the picture on the right. My artist husband likes to draw illustrations on the family calendar. He is gently needling me for pointing out that bento are really just food in a box.
I suppose I should have said meals in a box. Doughnut holes are breakfast, right?
Apparently it’s a Thing to analyze people’s garments (okay women’s garments, and we all know women aren’t quite people and need a bit of extra scrutiny to make them fit to exist) and decide whether or not the bifurcation is tights or pants and then get all up in a fit if somone is wearing tights with a shirt.
I don’t care. Not because I don’t care about fashion or personal adornment. I care a great deal about it, enjoy adorning myself to my personal tastes and have a hobby of making clothes, for pity’s sake.
I don’t care because unless someone walks up to me and asks me for a critique of their outfit, I don’t need to spend mental energy analyzing their clothes. Few people dress to my personal tastes, and I’m okay with that. The world doesn’t owe me a consistent esthically-pleasing view. I mean, sure, I’m arrogant and entitlement-minded, but there are limits.
I have Views on dress appropriateness, oh very yes. But if you don’t ask me, I’m going to presume my opinion doesn’t count in that instance.
(This post contains language that is not drawing room fashion at all. At all.)
There’s a housecleaning method that many of you may heard of called Unfuck Your Habitat. You could say it’s FlyLady, only not as twee, but that’s not entirely so. It’s really meant for people whose lives may or may not fall into the Husband’n'Kids scope that is most of Flylady’s demographic. This works as well for a teenager living at home as it would for a middle aged woman with that prescriptive Husband’n'Kids.
It’s also not quite as organized. Yes, yes, yes, there are routines that UFYH encourages you to follow, but they’re pretty basic.
Having tried out both methods, I’m going to say that I like one over the other depending on how much time I have to devote to the house. Flylady is for when I am working from home. I can do housework on breaks, I’m devoting more time to home care and in my Suzy Homemaker mode. It’s mode I enjoy, as I like doing the homemaker thing a lot, but it’s not nearly as good for my bank account as some others.
Unfuck Your Habitat is much, much better when I’m 40-50 hours a week in an office. Why? The routines are considerably more scalable to how tired I am one day or another. It’s based on the idea that you should work for 20 minutes, then take a ten minute break – Lather, Rinse and Repeat as desired until you’ve worked as much as you need/want to. UFYH calls this a 20/10.
There’s more of an element of random in it, especially if you buy the app. It’s been available for a while in iTunes, and was just released in Android format. Being an Android user, I was excited to try it out.
As I said, this is not housecleaning app for when you want a Master Plan. =Oh yes, I have and like them, but sometimes you’re too damn tired to think much, and want a little motivation to do a little something.
The app takes this into account with a choice of times for different random challenges.
For instance, you’re wandering around your cluttered, messy house, feeling yucky and low energy – not really into thinking, but really wanting to do something.
Random Timed Challenge to the rescue!
Friends, you’d be amazed at how much you can get done in a paltry five minutes and how motivating it is to see things finished.
And it gets better!
If you do five of these challenges, you can get a star!
Can this be a little silly and childish? Of course. Ideally, the Real Grownup sees what needs doin’ and does it, right?
Yeah, fine. You’re probably right. But deciding I wanted a star and doing five challenges in my kitchen got me a star and a clean kitchen without feeling overwhelmed about it, so who cares? The kitchen is clean.
But suppose you want to make a plan. There might be specific things you want to do on a given day. The UFYH app does take we planners into account, too, with My To-Unfuck List.
Yes, I really do intend to do these things today. And when you do everything on your list, yes, you get a star, too. Goofy, but it does kind of motivate.
The reality is that while a clean house is satisfying, if you’ve got a big mess, you can be overwhelmed. Both Flylady and UFYH have methods to cope with both the overwhelm and keeping it from getting too bad in the future. It really depends on what appeals to you. I like both and think both are worthwhile.
Oh, and buy the app if you’re into UFYH and have a smart phone. You’re supporting female developers. The development team, from the project manager down, were women.
Now, I read a lot. I know, big secret. But, online social media being what it is, there are websites that will quantify that. I tend to track my reading through Goodreads, where you can track your books, list what you’ve read and when you’ve read it, and interact with friends online about what you read.
I try to read about a book a week. Call it fifty books a year. More than the average for an American, but I know several people who read more. That’s cool. I’m happy with how much I read.
Fifty books a year is a lot. Well, it looks like a lot until you look at what I’m reading. Some of it is Serious Literature, or Serious Non-fiction. That tends to be history, biography and cultural analysis, with a bit of self-help and motivational thrown in.
Otherwise? I read all over the place. Science fiction, fantasy, sentimental late 19th century stuff that probably had yellow covers when it came out, children’s literature, YA, classics, men’s adventure, horror, you name it.
With that experience, I find myself impatient with people who are necessarily proud of themselves for only being into Great Literature. Is there such a thing? God, yes. But it’s simpler than people think
Great Literature is Great Literature because a lot of people over a long period of time read it, loved it and took it to heart. Can we analyze why this is so? Again, God yes. Can we predict if something new will become such?
Not so much. It takes time. Harry Potter is a great example. People have loved it and it’s a phenomenon. Will people love it 100 years from now? Dunno. I would say I doubt it. A lot of its charm is the juxtaposition against late 20th century life. I could also be dead wrong. People still love Dickens, and a lot of his work requires an understanding of the times.
It’s about the love that people put into it over time that makes Great Literature. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Okay, so bento are becoming more of a thing in the US as we move away from brown bagging it.* To that end, Rubbermaid has come out with some containers called LunchBlox. The one to the right is the sandwich version, but they made a salad-style one and another that’s flat and meant to fit into tall insulated lunch bags.
I do like the idea and think it’s cool that they’re being made. I’m all about bringing your own lunch to work or school, reducing waste with reusable containers and all that smack. And hey, bento is my hobby, so of course portable meal containers are going to be of interest to me.
I’m also not going to buy it.
I’ve been eyeing these damn things for months, contemplating getting one. What finally decided me was a comment I made when I was examining the little containers (stop laughing at me, it’s no worse than stamp collecting) on shopping trip yesterday. I was examining one, and my husband asked me when I was going to stop doing this every week or so and buy the darn thing.
“I want one. Thing is, if I buy it, I’ll use it twice, then go back to my usual bento box. They don’t fit in my laptop tote and wouldn’t fit in a purse, either.”
They have a volume capacity of nearly twice my usual bento –4.5 c to the 2.5c capacity of the bento. (1135ml to 591ml). Sure, if you’re going to have a sandwich for lunch, you’re going to want that. Bread is fluffy and isn’t well suited to the small-capacity bento boxes I use. Salad? Yep, lettuce takes up a lot of room.
But for me, part of the whole appeal of bento is that it is a small, filling meal that doesn’t take up much space. It’s not even necessarily a fascination with Japanese food. I mean, I love rice and all, and onigiri are delicious, but the example of a bento I’m using here is actually has two muffin tin Shepherd’s Pies. The tiers stack on top of each other and are about six inches by three inches when wrapped up to be tossed into a tote or purse.
So, while I applaud the idea that the bento concept is becoming popular in the US, I am still going to be using my more compact containers.
* I can’t recall ever putting a lunch in a brown bag unless we were on a field trip. It was considered wasteful when lunch boxes served perfectly well. Was that more of a thing than I knew?
Well, certainly teamwork counts, but it is also because when we’re really busy and we rely on the crock pot most weeknights. None of us really wants to come home after a long day and cook, and all of us have busy days.
So we take an hour an prep a few Bags o’ Dinner on various weekends. To make this go smoothly, what we will usually do is choose five recipes that we like and work well in the crock pot, then double them so we’re doing two bags of each. Spend two or three weekend mornings doing that, and you’re all stocked up with an adequate meal variety for a long time.
When we decide on meals, I will often make a list of what goes in each recipe so that we can streamline prep work. Ferinstance, every meal we chose to make had onion in it. It just made sense to figure out how many onions those ten bags needed and do ‘em all at once. While this sort of prep work does use up all your various bowls to hold chopped and prepared ingredients, it makes it a lot easier when it comes to assembling those gallon freezer bags.
Once everything is chopped, any hamburger is browned and drained (I tried it without the browning step once and found the meals far too greasy), you can start adding ingredients to the bags. I go with heavy things first like beans or meat. It helps the bags stand up and makes adding other ingredients much easier. Ideally, I try to make meals with several ingredients all of them will have, so I would do a hamburger session, then a chicken session. I didn’t do that this time, and just made two meals based on hamburger and three based on chicken.
Some people use crock pot liner bags and freeze their meals in the shape of their crock. If that’s what works for you, I see no reason not to run with it. I don’t do that, though. I freeze my meals flat. Since I don’t use a chest freezer, I need to be able to fit all the meals I make in the freezer on top of the fridge. Flat works better for that. I am very careful to label what we do. After it’s frozen, you’ll have a devil of a time telling the difference between three or four tomato-sauce based meals. Don’t try. Label them.
I usually take a meal out to thaw the night before, then dump it in the crock pot before work in the morning, turn it on low and forget about it until I get home. Lately, if the meal needs to be served with rice or pasta, my son will take care of making that in time for his father and I get to get home from work. If you don’t have someone to make these things for you, yes, a little prep work will need to happen before dinner. Just not much.
So, how do these meals taste?
They’re good. Are they like the most amazing gourmet treats you could possibly sink your teeth into? Of course not.* Don’t be foolish. This is basic, everyday dinner -peasant cooking that’s stewed all day, and that’s what it tastes like. Then again, ratatouille is a peasant dish, and so are many meals that taste pretty damn good when they’ve cooked a long time. If you insist on gourmet cooking every night, this is not for you. This is your guardian against fast food because you’re too damn tired to cook. This is when you don’t want to (or can’t) spend a lot of money on restaurants, but just don’t have the time to make something every night. For my family, we really either do this or have a rota for who wears the chef’s hat that night. We’d all rather just take an hour and get it done than have to cook every third night.
People keep asking for recipes and the link has a couple. But really, anything that works in a crockpot will work with this. Some people say that potato-based recipes don’t work well when you freeze them, but my curry has potatoes in it and does great. So does the beef stew we made last week.
However, if you need recipes or shopping lists, you can check these links out. The taco stew came from one of them, though I forget which. Happy hunting!
*Except for the curry. The curry is awesome.
It’s no wonder I love bento.
To the left was my lunch box when I was in 7th and 8th grades. I don’t remember if I asked or it or if my mom, knowing my tastes, just got it for me.
I loved this lunch box so very much. You could put a sandwich in it that wouldn’t be all squished at lunchtime, and there were these little containers you could put other food in — a salad (which I often did. I like salads), cut up fruit in the little container, but best of all, you could freeze a drink in the cup and have it be cold with slushy bits come lunchtime, even in an un-airconditioned Virginia June.
But I also loved it because it was a little gadgety. All the pieces fit into the box perfectly, and the tops seals so the food wouldn’t mix. I was a picky little heathen as a youngster, and would have found the food mixing in my bento of my middle age horrifying.
I was once pondering with my husband whether or not I would have made bento had I known about them when I was a teenager. I think, in the 1970s orange Tupperware goodness of my youth, I have an answer.
I would have made bento. I would have adored making them, been proud of them and found them just as much of a respite in the middle of a difficult day as I do now. In fact, I can recall those neatly-organized lunches and the pleasure I found in them quite clearly.
Truly, it’s no wonder I started making bento as soon as I encountered the concept.
These bento boxes were the family lunches yesterday, as my son went back to school for his senior year.
The rolls weren’t really sushi, but tiny onigiri rolls. Tasty as onigiri always are, but bite-sized. I suppose at some point this year, I’ll make a bento-friendly maki roll, but this wasn’t it.
The yellow box has hot dog octopi as the meat, per my son’s request. The other boxes have chicken bits cooked in garlic and wine.
Then, I filled in the corners with various raw veggies and fruits I knew the family would like.
Is this a particularly special bento? Nope. Just lunch, though hopefully moderately attractive and appetizing when one opens the box.
And that’s the point.
A friend of mine bought his daughter a bento box recently. His wife (also a friend, though we’ve not met in RL yet) was looking for bento recipes, which kind of prompted this post.
Bento recipes are fine, but to make bento, you don’t really need recipes so much as you need to have a bit of a philosophy about how to make the food.
So, here my personal bento principles. (If you like them, awesome. If not… I’m not cooking for you, and you’re dealing with your food, not mine).
Like everything else, this is a basic guideline. My usual bento meal is about four parts carb (rice, bread or pasta), three parts protein (most often meat or eggs, but sometimes beans), three parts veggies (usually raw, unless I’m making a leftover bento) and one part sweet (this means fruit).
Fresh is best
Most of my bento use fresh veggies, preferably in season. Yes, I know apple season hasn’t started yet. But fresh veggies taste so very good, don’t they?
Lots of color from the food, itself.
I like a colorful bento, but I like the colors to come from the food. Bright red peppers, sweet yellow tomatoes, lush green broccoli… I’ve heard it said the more colorful your meal the more nutritionally balanced. I have no idea, but bright color contrasts make it easier to do the next step.
Arrange it to look nice.
Yes, the elaborate bento that are animals and rock stars and video game characters are awesome. I don’t generally go further than octopus hot dogs and apple bunnies, myself. But I do give a little (very little) thought to presentation. It doesn’t have to be much. Just try to think a little about symmetry, color contrast, and shape. If you do this, usually something will suggest itself to you as you arrange your food.
It must taste good at room temperature.
Ideally, one does not refrigerate or reheat bento. It behoves one, then, to go heavy on the salt and spices. There’s a reason traditionally-made Japanese bento are very salty! Salt is a natural preservative. However, cold chicken is tasty, especially if strongly flavored. Onigiri (rice balls) tend to be an acquired taste, but are all the better for a strongly-flavored bit of tasty morsel at the center. Pasta? You’ll want to use a little oil and flavoring to make something pasta salad-ish. You can’t go wrong with raw fruits and veggies. If you’re worried about food safety, Maki over at Just Bento has a great article about bento food safety.
It should be food you like.
I love onigiri and lots of other Japanese food. You may not. In that case, just don’t make bento with rice balls. It’s no big deal. Do you like burritos? A burrito is a great basis for a bento, and a big family favorite at my house. What about wrap sandwiches? If you make a wrap rolled tightly enough, you can cut it into slices kind of like maki sushi rolls, which fit great into any box you’d use for a bento box. (And no, you don’t have to get the Japanese boxes!) Any casserole type dish you’re fond of can be baked in a muffin tin, which also fit well in most bento-sized boxes – meatloaf, mini quiche, or a mini shepherd’s pie, they all do well in bento.
The point is, though, that making miniature lunch boxes, which by the way, if packed right really are filling, don’t have to be complex. Nevertheless, they can be a lot of fun!
Amazon has this new thing called “Immersion reading” for some of its books. The basic deal is if you buy a book, you have the option of buying an accompanying audiobook for a very small fee and then reading along with the book as it is narrated. The syncing mechanism will sync the narration with the text, so you can switch between audiobook and written word with ease.
Me? I like the concept but it’s more of a way to get cheap audiobooks than it is a different way to read a book. I read, quite literally, over ten times faster than people speak. To follow along in a book with a narration would be a serious irritant. I’m more likely to use it switching between listening and reading. Or would, if I didn’t download audiobooks and physically add them to an iPod that doesn’t use an Audible app, and won’t sync in any case. Listening to a book on my smartphone means a heavy device that has too little battery. I listen for hours at a time while I’m doing housework and stuff.
I still like the concept. A book in French? It’d help immensely with my language comprehension. For someone trying to bring reading skills up to scratch (child or adult), it’s a great idea. But since it works on Kindle Fires and the smartphone apps, I’m dubious that it will be used much except among the affluent, and maybe I’m wrong, but I’m going to have to assume that most adults who can afford to buy this stuff read just fine.
Has anyone else tried this and what do you think of it?
I bought a tablet a couple of weeks ago. I’d dithered for quite awhile because it was hard for me to justify the expense when I had a perfectly good laptop.
Tell ya what, though…
I love this thing. I broke down and bought a Kindle Fire HD because I felt like tablets were really consumption devices and I am already rather far into the Amazon ecosphere. I’ve read three or four books on it since I got it, and that’s cool. I watch Blackadder in the morning on Netflix when I get ready for work. Yes, I use it to shop just like I used my computer, and when I’m screwing around on the Internet, I am more likely to use the tablet because it’s convenient.
What surprised me was that I actually use mine at work. I’m an independent consultant and I go to a lot of meetings. I take a lot of meeting notes with my tablet. I use it for spreadsheets to analyze data at these meetings. I did not expect this to be a productivity machine.
I wouldn’t want it as my main computer by any means, even if I could limp through my job using it. But my goodness do I love it on the go.
And yes, of course I am writing this article on my tablet.
“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”
I don’t sit in meditation at all. I’m sure it’s worthwhile, but it’s not my thing.
This saying is about more than meditation, though. It’s about taking care of yourself when you’re busy. Due to some extraordinary good fortune, I’m busy. Really busy. Grateful that I’m busy, but busy nonetheless.
You might think that in these very busy times, the little grace notes I so treasure in life would fall by the wayside in favor of stripped-down practicality. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.
I never need little grace notes in life so much as when I’m flat-out working. This bento is one of those things. Sure, I could pack a sandwich with some fruit, and it’d be a fine lunch. It’s just that opening the top on something attractive and tasty as a break in the middle of the day does so much for my morale and focus that I really need to take that extra time for myself to pack something nice.
It’s times like these that bubble baths and candles become important. I listen to more music during such time. I’m more likely to read before bed. (And be careful to go to bed on time!) A silk scarf, pearls, self-manicures, and olive oil treatments for my hair become important – not because of how they make me look, but how they make me feel.
I’m going to be working in a commercial office regularly for the first time in five years or so and one of the things I’m thinking about is lunch. Oh, stop looking at me like that. People do eat lunch at the office every day, whether it’s a sandwich bought somewhere or something brought from home.
My inner Scrooge simply cannot cope with buying lunch every day, so it’s going to be a brought lunch. And that means bento!
The bento to the left is just made in one of those cheap flat 750ml Glad containers. It’s a chicken drumstick (a very common bento meat for me as it’s cheap, easy to cook up and goes well in a bento), broccoli, grape tomatoes, fried rice left over from dinner that night, Cucumbers to separate the meat and rice, some green peppers, a yellow pepper, and some blueberries. I like the way it looks, but I think that particular bento, being assembled from leftovers and prepped-ahead food, might have taken me all of ten minutes to put together.
So, it’s a healthy enough lunch. My husband, who has worked with some of the people I am going to be working with, has commented that his bento were sometimes commented upon, and it might be that people will be interested to learn that I was the one making them. Could be.
Me, while I do make bento partially to satisfy my inner Scrooge, it’s also a morale thing. It feels good to open up a pretty lunch and have this little capsule of specialness during the day. It’s more or less why I make them. They’re like having tea with the silver teapot or using the good china for dinner.
I curl up in a little ball internally whenever I am in a group of women where some other perky woman begins her comments to us with “Ladies!” It is not that I hate being called a lady. While not really one by the standards by which I was reared, certainly I understand the compliment involved and am a product enough of my times to like it.
It’s that I consider the verbal tic indicative of the “cheerleader” type of woman. Cheerleaders are attractive, of course. They’re also competent, skilled and fun. Much of what they do can be found on many a dance floor and gymnastics mat, after all, and requires enormous amounts of skill and practice. But they’re accessories. Their attractiveness, their skills? All of that is to serve the purpose of being an accessory to someone else’s (usually male) achievements. It matters not one iota how hard one has worked, nor one’s own abilities, the cheerleader type essentially has it as a function to complete and pull together someone else’s outfit.
I relate to the lifeguard type better. Often attractive and by necessity skilled, the lifeguard is important and necessary in her own right. She’s not there to make sure someone else’s package is attractive, but is there to make things better, safer, and more fun. When something goes wrong, the lifeguard dives in and does her best to fix it.
So there’s this guy who is embarrassed that his wife reads a lot of YA literature. “I feel mildly embarrassed that she can talk (in detail!) to my nieces about these books at holiday gatherings.”
The idea that literature written for youngsters is automatically simplistic stuff is moronic. We all know the story about A Wrinkle in Time being marketed as a YA because the ideas in it were too complex to be marketed as adult literature, yes? But YA often has more compelling storytelling than the adult stuff, so why not read it? I like compelling storytelling. There’s a reason I was a big fan of that Nickelodeon show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and why I loved the Harry Potter series.
On the other hand, why must everything you read be “Great Literature?”
Since books have been cheap enough for the masses to afford, there’s always been some peabrain who goes on about “bad literature” rotting the brain. Sometimes the peabrain is a celebrated author! Louisa May Alcott has several fine rants in Little Women, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom about the dangers of trashy literature. Never mind that she wrote a fair share of it herself!
I do admit that I read with about the same forethought and discrimination most people apply to their television watching. That’s mostly because I rarely like television shows (yes, Avatar was an exception) and go to reading for my entertainment on the same level as someone getting into reality TV. I mean, at present, I am reading T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and a more sentimental early twentieth century dime novel you’d be unlikely to find. It pulls on the emotions more or less like reality TV is meant to.
Do I ever read “Great Literature?” I guess, but I don’t really think about it that way. Whenever I look at a list of 100 or so books that are listed as “classics,” it’s a pretty sure bet I’ve read at least 50 of them, sometimes more, depending on the list. But the fact that I have read them has considerably more to do with sheer volume at which I read than any real serious selection on my part. *grin* That, and the fact that you can read many classics for free by downloading them from The Gutenberg Project.
Maybe I’m a low-brow. I dunno. But one thing I am sure of, any guy who is embarrassed at his wife reading The Hunger Games is a dork.
This morning when I got up, my husband announced to me that Horace the Sourdough Starter had grown so much that it had reached the top of the jar. Since he really isn’t into baking, it was a source of some amusement to me that he even noticed. On the other hand, I suppose sourdough starters seem awfully mystical and complex – almost magic. Never mind that’s how all leavened bread was made for centuries!
I’ve been reading a lot about sourdough starters – how to start them, how to maintain them, everyone’s super-secret foolproof method for making one. I gotta say, I think people are making this way too complex. Some people swear by pineapple juice to start it (never bothered, myself) and others insist that fake mashed potato flakes are the key. I’ve seen reports of tossing in a grape or two. The reason grapes turn into wine is that they collect yeast on their skins. What, did you think early winemakers went to the brewing supply store?
When I started Horace, I started him in the springtime, so yes, I did have the advantage of warmth. I also started him in a kitchen that sees several loaves of bread baked in it every week, so the air was full of wild yeast. And I did use a glass jar. I didn’t worry about stirring him with a wooden or plastic spoon, but just used my usual stainless steel.* I did cheat and use a miliscrunch of yeast to get him going, but from then on, I was just feeding him with a 1:1 volume mix of flour and water. Since I bake a lot, I keep him on my kitchen counter. He’s good and strong, so skipping a day or two of feeding really has no negative effect on his activity. I’ll pop him in the fridge when it gets too hot to bake. This is a far cry from the twice a day feeding and careful weighing of the water and flour feeding that you’ll see some sites recommend. Seriously, people, do you think medieval bakers treated it like alchemy?
What I think is missing when people get complex about the starter is that they don’t pay attention to the real basics—clean utensils and containers, unbleached flour with a fairly high gluten content and water that isn’t too chlorinated. If your tap water tastes good, you’re probably fine. Otherwise, you might want to filter it. In the town I lived my first thirty-odd years, yeah, filtered or bottled water would be better. Where I live now? Tap water is fine.
For flour, make sure you’re using something that’s good for making bread, and there are many so-called all-purpose flours that aren’t. You don’t have to go overboard with this and buy specialty bread flour. Something like King Arthur flour (which I do use) works just fine and isn’t really pricey.
The last problem I see is patience. Most starter recipes will say to wait for 24-48 hours to see the initial bubbling get started. That’s a good average, but don’t sweat it if it takes more like 72 hours. Even then, you’ve only got a beginner starter. It won’t be strong and stable for another week. A lot of people don’t want to wait that long, but really, you want to.
And after that, you’ll have a starter that will last pretty well as long as you’re interested in baking with it.
* Some people think metal will kill a starter or that the acidity of the starter will react with a metal container. That’s true if you’re using tin from the 1800s. Not so much so from modern stainless steel.
Just like stranded colorwork and being able to do cables is the apex of knitting competence in my mind, being able to make a good, crusty loaf of sourdough bread with no added yeast (cheating!) is the apex of bread making for me.
I didn’t think sourdough really was all that difficult when I first heard of it. Laura Ingalls Wilder described it in On the Shores of Silver Lake as being simple enough.
“When you haven’t milk enough to have sour milk, however do you make such delicious biscuits, Laura?” she asked.
“Why, you just use sour dough,” Laura said.
Mrs. Boast had never made sour-dough biscuits! It was fun to show her. Laura measured out the cups of sour dough, put in the soda and salt and flour, and rolled out the biscuits on the board.
“But how do you make the sour dough?” Mrs. Boast asked.
“You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.”
“Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water,” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put the clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use, whenever you want it.”
“I never tasted better biscuits,” said Mrs. Boast.
Now, this is accurate as far as it goes. You do combine flour and water somewhere warm and wait for it to start smelling sour. But the process is a bit more involved than that. She leaves out the feeding process. You see, to get a good sourdough really bubbling, you do need to feed it frequently as you’re moving along. Once it starts to bubble, you really should discard about a cup of the starter every day and then feed it with a fresh 1:1 flour and water mixture. It seems to work best for me at a cup each. You’ll know that it’s good and strong because it will start to grow and be a bit thick – like a really hearty pancake batter.
Now, throwing away all that flour offends me. If I had local friends who liked to bake a lot, I could give some of it away to let them get their own starter going.* However, I did something a little different.
At first, I thought that the starter was done after starting to bubble a few days and getting that sour, yeasty smell. I made a loaf of bread from it. But the dough hadn’t risen nearly enough even after 15 hours, and the resultant loaf was a bit too dense and chewy. Because I use a method where I bake it in a Dutch Oven inside my oven, I did get some steam proofing, but it wasn’t up to the standard I like for bread.
Not wanting to give up, I “cheated” and used the starter in making my bread, while adding a little yeast to the dough. Even though the starter wasn’t as strong as it could be, it still added some texture and character to the bread, and allowed me to feed the starter without having to discard a cup of the stuff every day. You have to discard some after you feed it to keep the growth balance right. Don’t just get bigger container. It weakens the strain.
Yesterday, Horace (yes, I named my starter) decided to start partying. He grew so much he bubbled up over the top and soaked into the cloth I had covering him.
So I decided to take a little risk and try making “real” sourdough break without any added baker’s yeast. I mixed up the dough late at night and when I came down the next morning, I saw that Horace had really been flexing his muscles. That’s a better rise than I usually get out of the dough I make this way with baker’s yeast.
Because I make a very slow-rise artisan type bread, it’s really ideal for sourdough. I poured this out on a floured surface, sprinkled it with some flour and set it up to rise for another couple of hours on my pastry board.
And Horace was still as active as ever. I got a nice second rise out of the dough.
As you can see, Horace really did his job on this loaf. That’s as fine a sourdough loaf as ever I did see. I just took this out of the oven and haven’t tasted it yet (other than breaking off a bit of crust), but this looks like the real thing. Well-risen, crusty and delicious.
I’ve included the recipes for the sourdough starter and the bread I make. They’re really pretty easy. Hope you enjoy.
(Horace is pictured on the right. He was fed last night and transferred to a clean jar this morning.)
1c. warm water (Baby bath warm, not Japanese bath hot)
1c. unbleached flour. (I use King Arthur flour as my basic go-to flour and have for years. It’s cheaper than specialty flours and works great for bread. No, it’s not because I live near the local headquarters. I started using it years before I moved up here.)
(optional)1/8 tsp dry baker’s yeast
Combine the water and the flour in a glass or ceramic container that is at least four cups in volume. I use a quart Mason jar. Stir until smooth and let sit. You can, if you are impatient, put in a bit of baker’s yeast. If you’ve been doing a fair amount of bread baking in your kitchen, or it is in the fall, you really don’t need to bother. The wild yeast is enough.
Cover with a clean cloth and let sit. When you pass by or think about it, give the mixture a stir. When the mixture starts to bubble and get a kind of yeasty smell (this may take anywhere from 24-72 hours, depending on how warm your kitchen is and how much wild yeast you have) discard a cup of the mixture and add a cup of water and a cup of flour. If you can’t stand to throw the mixture away, you can use it in pancakes, waffles, muffins or even “normal” bread.
You’ll know your starter is a good and strong with a robust yeast colony when it grows 50-100% in size when you feed it. Then, it’s ready for baking bread.
I bake a loaf just about every day, so I do not bother to refrigerate my starter. When it gets too hot to use the oven, yes, Horace is going into the fridge to be fed once a week and revived in the fall for serious baking. If you bake less often, you can put this in the fridge, too. Just take it out to come to room temperature and feed it about 12 hours before you’re going to bake.
Artisan Sourdough Bread
3 c flour
1 ½ t salt
¼ t yeast (if you’re in the “cheating” phase. Don’t bother if you have a really strong starter)
1 ½ c. warm water
1c. sourdough starter
Mix in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise 12-16 hours. Turn out on generously floured board. Sprinkle top with flour, cover with plastic wrap and towel and let sit for two hours.
Put dutch oven in oven for ½ hour at 450. Gather up dough, add (carefully!) to dutch oven, cover and cook for ½ hour. Remove top, and cook for another 15 minutes.
Let rest. Enjoy!
* And if you’re local and want some, gimme a mason jar and I’ll be delighted to give you a cup of starter.
Five years ago, I had very little money and a need to have clothes I could wear while teaching. I did a SWAP. I’ve since learned a bit about getting pics taken of oneself to show off clothes! But the principle was that I would sew a wardrobe of interchangeable garments.
I was pleased with what I sewed and had only spent $150 on fabric. The pic doesn’t show it but I made pants from the solids and added some waist darts to the print shell. I’ve since discovered that I really don’t like colored pants all that much and prefer black knits, so I just buy them on the cheap from fat lady stores. It works.
Later, I added a green and a purple capsule to this wardrobe, since the colors went well with the print and the black. I also added a red, a green, a purple and a black broomstick skirt to the wardrobe —comfy at any time and ideal for casual wear.
Did I get my money’s worth? Well, I’m wearing the floral shell and jacket today, with the purple broomstick skirt!
So yeah, I’d say I got clothes out of it that made me happy and I’ve gotten plenty of use out of. The black shell is about dead, though, and I need to make a new one. Black pieces in a wardrobe are so useful!
Last year, I realized I’d gotten sick of the blacks and reds, and really wanted some color, so I made the Caribbean SWAP. The wavy print goes with the purple part of the rest of my wardrobe. I’d chosen this color scheme because I was actually going to the Caribbean and was pondering on how the colors of the Caribbean waters make me happy. January in Northern New England will do that to you. Women around here don’t wear a lot of bright colors, but screw it. I was choosing something that made me happy.
The shell and the skirt pattern were from the previous SWAP, but the jacket was a new thing. I’d been eyeing the Saf-T-Pockets sewing patterns for years and broke down to buy the Flounce About Jacket pattern. It’s my curent favorite jacket pattern because of the graceful lines and the interior pockets. While a bit more time-consuming to make than the simple kimono jackets from my desperation sewing of a few years before, it’s totally worth it.
I have since added broomstick skirts in the wavy and dark turquoise fabrics —ideal for summer casual.
My next SWAP isn’t going to be quite the quickie these two were. Have the garments been serving me well? My goodness, yes! But they’re cheap quilting cotton. Now, I love cotton, especially in the summer, but my next SWAP is going to include more quick-dry knits, lined garments for the winter, and fabrics that don’t require ironing. Also, I’m going to make at least one lined wool Flounce About Jacket for winter wear. I’ve done enough experimenting that I have a better and more exact idea of some things I’ll want, colors I’ll want (god, what was I thinking with the colorful pants?) and the skills to make those garments more carefully without rushing.
The real reason I adore SWAPs is how easy they make travel. I can pack for a weekend in a backpack and still have room left over for my computer and gadgets. I can pack for a week in a carry-on. You can see how easy it is to accessorize up or down with such a wardrobe. A matching solid skirt and shell, add a silk scarf and some jewelry, and you’re ready to go out to dinner and a show. Pants, a shell and jacket, and you’re ready for a business meeting. A broomstick skirt and shell with comfy shoes and you can go out on an adventure (yes, I really do go for walks of many miles on trails in the woods in the summer in a skirt, shell and sandals.)