Tomato harvest

I’ve been going out to check on the garden about once a day the last few weeks, and every day I’ve seen all kinds of green tomatoes, but almost no red ones. Today, they had finally turned.

The ones with the greenish tops are purple Cherokees, my absolute favorites. The smaller ones are like cherry tomatoes, and the long, skinny one is a San Marzano. Can’t wait to see how those do in sauces.

The secret life of breadcrumbs

I don’t even remember how this came up, but one day Mike and I were looking at labels of things in our cabinets and we noticed that the item with the most ingredients was … breadcrumbs. Yeah.

I like how the label says “plain.”

I had been buying them to use in my tofu nut loaf without ever having looked to see what was in them. I guess I just assumed bread – simple.

But no. There have to be more ingredients in this can than in a piece of mystery meat. I guess keeping them good at room temperature is a feat of science.

So we looked at other breadcrumbs in the store, just to see if there was anything better. This was the back of the panko bread crumb can.

Needless to say, we’re switching. And if I can make them fresh, I’ll do that, too. But sometimes when you’re pressed for time you do reach for the can.

Just thought you might like to hear about our little discovery. It sure surprised me.

The doggie eye pillow

This photo came out a little dark, but I was trying to capture Reggie sleeping with her ear perfectly placed over her eyes, so as to block out the light. Clever!

Geek out: historical books

Me (and my book club) have been on a historical kick lately with our readings, so I thought I’d share them with you:

First, “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick. This was a book club selection, and I really liked it. The book covers the history of whaling, primarily in Nantucket, and the real-life story that inspired “Moby Dick.” It was absolutely fascinating to imagine the lifestyle people led (women left alone for years at a time, while their husbands traveled thousands of miles around the world) and the reliance on whale oil that made people take absolutely insane risks. The story reminded me of that show, “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” It’s brutal, but worth a read.
Next, I grabbed “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky off my own book shelf. Mike had read it before, and I had always been curious about it. The book goes back thousands of years and traces the history of salt production and trade all over the world. I liked this book, but didn’t love it. Mainly because it read more like a textbook. I found myself trailing off many times. The best parts described innovations that people had made to mine salt, or strange things that happened because of it (like a town that basically sunk because they took out too much salt underneath).
Staying on my history kick, I decided to read “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles Mann, which Mike had also read before. This book just blew my mind. It’s about so much more than just the year 1491. It’s about new findings related to when people came to the Americas thousands of years ago. It’s about how native Americans had much more advanced civilizations than we used to believe. It’s about how way more people were wiped out by disease than we ever realized. And it’s about countering the idea that native Americans lived on the land but didn’t mess with it. They did a lot to change their environment, but when their populations were decimated by disease, that stopped. Therefore what Europeans saw when they came here was much different. Anyway, though a few parts (mostly dealing with battles) bored me, the rest was so intriguing I couldn’t put this book down. Highly recommend!
And finally, book club decided to go historical two times in a row and we chose “The Lost Cit of Z” by David Grann to read. It’s about an explorer named Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while looking for a lost city of riches. Apparently people have become obsessed with finding both what happened to him and the city itself, and many have died or been kidnapped in the process. The author goes on this journey himself, and finds some new details, and ultimately the same kind of conclusion that’s written in “1491” (that advanced civilizations could have existed in the Amazon). Sadly, I was so into “1491” I couldn’t quite appreciate this book as much. I would give it somewhere between a six and seven on our scale. Enjoyed, but would recommend this more as a library check out than a buy.

Checking in on the checklist

It’s now less than two months until the wedding, and we’ve accomplished a lot of planning in the last week or so.

Remember the old checklist?

pick out menswear
-make our food decisions
-pick out rings
-order flowers
-write our ceremony and vows
buy plane tickets and make reservations for our honeymoon in Spain
test cake recipes and proportions for the pans we have
-Make the decorations, table numbers, goodie bags, etc.
Send the invitations and collect RSVPs
Find a dog/house sitter
-Make a photo montage

I also got my second rosette pin made, got the cake toppers in the mail, figured out some travel logistics, and Mike assigned some people to bring speakers and run the music.

I had my dress fitting, which was lovely up until the point where they told me that the alterations were going to cost $291. WTF?! I could buy a whole other dress for that. I also have to come in for a second fitting, and then another time after they press it. Which would be a lot better if this place wasn’t a 45-minute drive away.

I’ll be honest – we had a little financial freakout after that and buying the plane tickets to Spain. But we are just trying to take it one step at a time. Many things still can’t be done until about a month before the wedding. And we will get there.

Roasted beets with goat cheese

This has been my go-to side this week, now that we have fresh beets in the garden.

I’ve always found beets to be a little too strong tasting. I’ll eat a few, but then I’ll start to pick them out. But this recipe has given me a whole new appreciation for beets. I think the difference is that I finally cooked them long enough to caramelize, so they became more sweet than beet-y, if that makes any sense.

The addition of goat cheese and a drizzle of balsamic dressing just makes them even better.

The only sad part is that our beautiful chioggia beets lose most of their color when roasted. But I still get to enjoy the swirled patterns every time I cut one open.

So all you do for this recipe is wash the beets (as many as you want), trim the ends and cut off the greens.

Then you can peel the outer layer of skin if it’s too rough.

Cut the beets into 1/4-inch slices, place them on a cookie sheet and drizzle on a little olive oil. Bake for 25-30 minutes at 400 degrees. You will be tempted to take them out too soon, but don’t. You want them soft, with slightly curled edges.

When they’re done, let them cool a few minutes, and cut the slices into 1-inch pieces. Sprinkle goat cheese on top (I like Northern Prairie Chevre’s black pepper version) and drizzle with a little balsamic dressing.

The weekend in photos

Kind of ironic after my last post about freelancing, but last week was one of those where it was like everything happened at once work-wise. That’s another thing I’ve noticed is work seems to happen all at once or not at all. And you have to use those down times for something productive because they suddenly disappear.

Anyway, I finally got a break over the weekend to do some yard work, and Mike and I had a fun time riding our bikes around the neighborhood. Ragbrai training plan: ride to Snookies, eat ice cream cone, ride back.

Anyway, I decided to go on a weed-killing cleanup mission in the backyard because it was starting to look like a jungle. I cleared out the space behind our garage, which had been so overgrown you couldn’t walk back there, and our neighbor offered to weed whack the edges so that it was completely clear.

(Unfortunately it revealed just how badly our garage needs to be painted!)

This means I can finally tackle the “secret garden” spot in between our house and garage. I dug out all the weeds and baby trees and discovered all the rocks underneath that we had put in two years ago. I’m starting to scrape them back so we can put down a cover, then replace the rocks on top.

The rest of the yard is always going to get weedy unless we put down some more mulch, but I just don’t know how much more money I want to invest in our yard, since we’re renters.

One fun thing: After the first coneflower in our side garden died and we bought a second one, I noticed that a lone coneflower was growing out of the brush pile in our backyard.

So we’d had one all along. The little guy got a bit trampled by the dogs, but it still looks pretty good.

I weeded the garden some more and found that the yellow hot peppers are ready to pick, and that some of the beets are crowning.

I’m very excited to have these with dinner.

The other day I made stuffed shells, and I just had to take a picture because they looked so yummy. I just used a bit of ricotta mixed with parmesan cheese and black pepper for the filling.

Mike went up to Minneapolis over the weekend and found a suit for the wedding. We also sent out our invites and got several other items checked off our list, so we’re feeling a lot better about things. I’m dying to go ring shopping now.

This is the hair pin I’m going to wear. Isn’t it gorgeous?

And if you want one for yourself, go here.

Lessons learned in a year of freelancing

I left my full-time job in June of 2009, so it’s now been a full year since I became a freelancer. I guess I thought that since I’d been a freelancer before, I would pretty much know what I was doing. But the last year has been full of a lot more surprises than I was expecting. A few people have asked me for some advice on freelancing (with all the layoffs and uncertainty in publishing, it’s no surprise that more people are venturing out on their own), but sometimes I feel completely unqualified to give answers because I’m still learning myself.

Still, I think I’ve come a long way, especially in the months since I left the temp job I took over the holidays and really had to focus on the solo writing gig.

Here are some of my lessons learned. I would love to hear yours, too.

-It is a really, really tough time to be a freelancer.
That may be a bit of a downer, but it’s the absolute truth. If it hadn’t been for a slew of circumstances that led me to choose last year to quit my job, I never would have done it out of any sort of logic. There are fewer jobs, they pay less (much less) than they used to, and there is much more competition for those jobs. But there is not nothing and it’s not impossible. I would just say that you probably are going to need at least one other source of income to make it work.

-You can live on a lot less than you think.
Having smaller and less steady paychecks has been very tough for me, of course. Add in the fact that we’re saving for a wedding, and budgeting has been crazy stressful at times. I went through all my expenses and cut out things where I could. I almost never buy clothes anymore, and what I do buy is really cheap. I’m working on the ‘little-by-little’ mindset, where instead of buying things all at once, I buy them one at a time. I’ve come up with a lot of free decorations for the house. It definitely forces you to be more creative, and to see what it is that you truly NEED.

-It helps to have a really supportive partner.
I’ve said this before, but I couldn’t have made this transition without Mike’s help. It means a lot that he believes I can do this, and that he doesn’t throw a fit when we have to sit down and figure out how we’re going to get through a month (usually through some sacrifice on his part). There are times when being a freelancer, or business owner, gets you really down, and you want to give up. But he encourages me in those moments, and that means a lot. I keep saying that our relationship is the only thing I don’t worry about lately. I believe this has made us closer.

-Being in charge of your schedule is as awesome as it sounds.
I think my most favorite part of this lifestyle is that I get to do my work when I want to do it. I have gotten so many little projects done around the house, and I have way less stress about things like taking the dog to the vet or being home when the Qwest guy comes. I can say yes to yoga and Nia opportunities that I couldn’t with a 9-to-5 job. As a result I have a workout schedule that I love, and I feel much stronger and healthier.

-…That said, managing your time is important.
A lot of people have told me that they couldn’t work at home because they’d be too distracted, and I would have to agree that if you can’t make yourself sit down to work you’re probably better off with a traditional job. I am VERY guilty of putting things off, but I always do them. And I think I’ve struck a pretty good balance between working on the house and working on paying work. I have a morning routine, and I try to get dressed, make the bed, etc. by a certain time and then “go to work.”

-You can’t do everything you want to do, so figure out what you want to do most.
This is a big one. Part of my journey has been exploring different things that I like to do and seeing which ones are sustainable in the long-term. Many, many, many things that I’ve tried have not worked, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better at being OK when something fails. And it’s been exciting to see the things that have succeeded. But I’ve learned that I can’t do everything. The big thing that has sort of fallen through the cracks is my vintage shop on etsy and vintage blog. I will probably go back to doing those things as a hobby, just because I have too much on my plate, and that takes a lot of time and space to collect goodies and ship them out. Instead I am focusing on teaching yoga and knitting poufs, and I will do a bunch of shows in the runup to the holidays, because I know I have success there.

-If you’re a control freak like me, you have to do a bit of letting go.
My whole life I’ve been one of those people who planned for the future, and didn’t take many risks unless I was sure of the outcome. This past year I’ve had to change. At the beginning of a month, I don’t usually know where my work is coming from or whether or not it will add up to enough. (This is where having a bit of savings is literally a life-saver). I kind of have to go on faith. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some months that were dire. But I’m starting to get to a point where people know they can rely on me, and they assign me regular work. My classes are starting to pay a little more. And when sales are slow, I try to relist items or make something new, so that the numbers go up.

I am way out of my comfort zone there, and I don’t want it to be that way forever. But in the beginning, you just can’t control everything. You absolutely should work as hard as you can to meet new contacts, get your name out there, tell people what you do, etc. But at the end of the day, you do have to surrender a bit. It’s scary, but is it any more scary than spending the rest of your days at a steady paying job that you can’t stand?

-You absolutely can’t put all your eggs in one basket.
I’ve learned the hard way that jobs disappear in an instant, so you have to spread out your projects, or your part-time jobs to fill in the gaps. If something falls through, you can’t cry too much about it. You just have to move on to the next one. Sometimes that door closes so another one can open. Sometimes you have to build the next door yourself.

I have stopped trying to predict the future at this point, and I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this in this arrangement. But I’m feeling a little more comfortable and confident. I’ve tried some things I always wanted to try (and some I had no idea I would ever want to try), and I have learned from that what to do next. I can’t say it’s been an easy year, but I think when I look back I’ll always be really, really glad I took this year to find out what it is that I’m truly passionate about.

Get inspired: Brianne and Joe’s wedding

We spent a lovely weekend in the Chicago suburbs attending our friends Brianne and Joe’s wedding. They couldn’t have asked for better weather — it was sunny and warm, but not too warm, with barely a cloud in the sky the whole time.

Here we are with our ‘bees knees’ cocktails – yum!

Prior to the wedding, we did what any self-respecting Chicagoan would do, and had a picnic along the Fox River with a box of Lou Malnati’s pizza.

I think we made a lot of passersby jealous. (But if I’m being completely honest, I have to say it was my least favorite of all the Chicago deep dish pizzas I’ve had). Still pretty darn good, though.

Brianne and Joe had their ceremony in a bright, airy chapel.

(Complete with a unity candle set I had made for them – with an extra candle for Brianne’s dad, who passed away a few years ago).

Afterwards, we headed out to a picturesque farm for the reception. Beautiful!

We walked through the greenhouses and along all the different rows of veggies, and swooned.

Imagine being able to plant everything you wanted to eat. They even had apricot trees!

We petted the goats and visited the chickens.

I can’t get over how much goats’ ears remind me of my Sadie. Their little tails wag like crazy, too.

We met up with some characters from DeMo.

My friend Karen, co-owner of the best paper store ever, Ephemera. (And no she didn’t drink both of those drinks…)

Plus Sophia and Kimberly, my former coworkers at Juice.

The groom looked happy as can be.

Sadly, this is the only photo I got of the bride in her cute dress. My camera died shortly after.

I did get this shot of the tent while they were dancing.

Everything was so cute, from the paper lanterns, to the glass jars of flowers, to the heart-shaped sparklers we lit in a long line. Loved it all. The dance was pretty rockin’, too.

Congrats to Brianne and Joe. Have a blast on your Austrian honeymoon, you two!

Wedding cake test: success

I meant to check “test cake” off my list a little earlier last week, but I didn’t get time to do it until about 10 p.m. the night before we were about to leave for Chicago. Crazy, I know, but it was one of those times when you just decide you need to do something, and you don’t stress about it, you just do it.

I started with Deb’s recipe for vanilla buttermilk cake (found here, scroll down). I decided to test one 3-layer cake, the same size as the middle layer would be, a 10-inch circle.

I had to run out and buy eggs (another reason for the delay) because you need 7 just for this part. Yikes! But the recipe came together flawlessly in the end. It makes 9 cups of batter, a lot more than I’m used to working with at once, but the perfect amount for 3 layers. The batter is soft and smooth and easy to work with. I decided that I wanted to make it just a little more special, so I added in the goop from one vanilla bean pod that I had.

You can see the little flecks in the batter and in the finished cake. Nice!

It took a little longer to bake than the 26-28 minutes it called for, maybe 32 minutes or so? Once I took it out of the oven, the domed top immediately sank, giving the top a perfectly flat appearance, which makes it easier to stack and frost.

I did notice, though, that the rack in the oven is a little bit on an angle, so with smaller cakes there will be some adjusting to do.

The thing I notice with from-scratch cakes (especially buttery ones) is that they end up a lot crumblier and more finicky than cakes from boxed mixes. But in the end they make a dense, rich cake that is worth the extra effort.

This cake tasted great with a little buttercream frosting I whipped up, and after a day in the fridge it tasted even better. Since the cakes will be frozen and thawed during transport, I feel good about how they are going to taste after a couple of days.

I think just to be on the safe side I am going to have to quadruple this recipe to have enough batter for all nine layers. That equals 10 sticks of butter and 28 eggs, if you’re counting. That will be a fun trip to the store.

My biggest concern is the frosting, which we decided we are going to make there. Keeping it at the right temperature could be a little tricky. But strangely I don’t feel that stressed about the whole process. I’m actually really excited for it!

I also ordered the cake topper kit from Etsy, so that’s two more things I can cross off my list. Whew.