Still Life, With Cats

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Jennifer

Let it be happy

A brand new year, spreading out fresh and bright before us. I know, I know, it’s an arbitrary number on a calendar that really has no meaning in the grand scheme of things, but there is something that is always delightfully refreshing about looking at a clean slate.

We heralded in the new year in a quiet fashion, Richard and I. December 31st is his birthday so this year (oops, *last* year) – okay, yesterday – we drove off to San Francisco and went to the zoo. We both love that zoo, especially the lemur habitat, so we got there just a bit after it opened and then spent a good long time watching lemurs go about their business, followed by the Emperor Tamerins (another favorite) and then we went to find the penguins and the river otters, until we were distracted by a rather strange and loud booming sound, which turned out to be the noise a very, VERY large rhinoceros makes when chasing an equally large ball around its enclosure. That’s something one doesn’t see every day.

Most of the critters still had extra branches and trees and toys in their enclosures from Christmas, and it was amusing to watch them playing. It was, as always, lazy cat time in the tiger and lion exhibits, but one of the river otters was industriously smashing branches into a nest, interspersed with diving into the water and swimming through a giant tube over and over. There were some cute little critters that were the South American equivalent of a raccoon (cannot recall the name) who were having a grand time playing hide and seek with several large towels. And we caught a glimpse of a rather small gorilla baby who is apparently known for harassing the others. But then considering his age, I suppose that’s to be expected for a toddler.

After the zoo we headed off to The Stinking Rose for a rather early dinner. We both love this restaurant because we are both huge fans of garlic, and their motto is that they season their garlic with food, and they really aren’t kidding about that. We kicked off the meal by splitting their signature appetizer, which is a little pan filled piles of roasted garlic, to be spread on fresh baked rolls (so, so very delicious), and then followed that with delicious entrees (lots more garlic in those, of course). We did pass on the garlic ice cream for dessert, as intriguing as it sounded, and instead split a large martini glass filled with the most amazing layered chocolate mousse of the sort where every single bite you had to stop and close your eyes and savor it slowly because it was just that good. And then we headed back home; the entire trip (and dinner) having been carefully planned so as to allow us to get back without having to deal with New Year’s Eve traffic (and the drunk drivers that come with it).

We were discussing what we wanted to do once we got home, but then on the way, Richard checked his email and hey, a note from Best Buy, telling us our order was ready to pick up, and that took care of that. This is because each year instead of doing presents for each other (beyond the stockings, which actually turns out to be the same thing anyway because we tend to go overboard at times but it’s the *principle* of the thing, you see), we get ourselves one big joint present. Last year it was all the furniture for the office (which we then had to assemble – hooray for Ikea), for example. This year was *going* to be new phones, as we’re due for an upgrade from Verizon, but since both prefer the slide-out keyboard, and since Verizon, for some obscure reason, pushed the release of the Droid 4 back beyond December, we decided instead to get something else. So off we went to Best Buy to pick up our new toys. Yay!

I have been dithering for the better part of a year (I like to take my time on these things) on whether or not I wanted to get an eReader. I like the idea of a tiny tablet sort of critter, but I wasn’t sure I wanted a Kindle because I want it for color items as well, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get just an eReader because I read a LOT (no, really, I am not exaggerating, last year I checked out 223 books from the library alone and that does not include all the books I read that didn’t come from the library, which would likely have brought the total up to over 250, and admittedly, it’s felt like kind of a slow year for me in the reading department), and while a lot of books are available for electronic checkout, there’s still not a big selection when compared to actual paper versions, and that new thing with Kindle where you can borrow one book a month just makes me laugh (I can read several books a DAY if I put my mind to it). But a tablet – ah, that gives me options beyond just an eReader. I went to play with the Nook, and I did like that, but it locks me into Barnes and Noble, which I didn’t like. And then we went to Best Buy so I could play with the Kindle Fire, which I had fully expected to love (even though I have some major reservations about the fact that they force the user to keep practically everything in the Cloud, and not having physical copies of things can make me a bit twitchy). But I was quite shocked to discover that I actually did *not* love it, not at all. I have thought wistfully of tablets in the past, but they usually are wincingly expensive. But while I was standing there in Best Buy, frowning grumpily at the Kindle Fire, there it was, the cute little Acer Iconia, just about $10 more than the Nook Tablet, but with the added benefit of it being far more functional. I poked at it and oohed and aahed and started to fall a little bit in love with it, and Richard started playing with it and then I broached the possibility of us getting these instead of the phones, and he said something to the effect of ‘gee, twist my arm’, but they didn’t have them in stock right that moment, so instead they ordered them for us, and yesterday they came in. Merry Christmas!

So here we are, a brand new year, with five cats that make us laugh every single day, and a 100 year old house we adore, and jobs we both enjoy, and a brand new shiny toy to usher it in. I think I am giving up on making any sort of resolution, or setting myself any goals, since that hasn’t worked so well in the past year or three. Instead I think I will simply say that my hope is to keep on doing what I’ve been doing, except better, and take it from there.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies



A bit of this and a bit of that

I like to cook. I am not a gourmet chef by any stretch of the imagination, but I prefer to use fresh ingredients when possible, and we’re really focused on minimizing the use of anything from a can or a box (unless it was something I canned myself). I subscribe to dozens of food blogs and bookmark tons of recipes and I love trying to make new things. Sometimes they’re successful; other times, not so much, and then that’s why delivery pizza is such a wonderful invention.

I cobbled together two things recently that turned out pretty tasty. The first (which I tossed together on Friday) involved some chicken breasts and mushrooms and a large onion, chopped, plus a few frozen cubes of Meyer lemon juice (from last year’s crop), and a bunch of garlic, tossed into a crockpot and cooked slowly all day. I tasted it near the end and it was kind of flat, so I tried adding a bit more garlic, and then I tried adding in a bit of thyme, but nothing really seemed to do the trick, plus I was really looking for that lemon flavor, and then I remembered that last year, when faced with a bumper crop of those aforementioned Meyer lemons and not wanting to make another metric ton of lemon curd (and I do love lemon curd but seriously, there is only so much of that we can consume in a year, and our tree, while small, is prolific), I put up a whole half-gallon jar of preserved lemons. And they have been sitting in the refrigerator for about a year, because I had no clue what to *do* with them.

Preserved lemons, by the way, are nothing more than lemons cut into quarters, seeded, and packed into a jar with a whole lot of salt and then left in a dark corner of the refrigerator to sit and marinate for a while. The salt extracts the juice and breaks down the rind, so that when you finally dredge out a piece later, the rind is soft and pliable. They are very salty (obviously) and very bitter since you’re basically eating the rind, but they have just the strong lemon flavor I was looking for. I pulled out four segments, tossed the slimy pulp and then chopped up the rinds up into teeny pieces and stirred them into my chicken creation. Perfect! Granted, I have no clue how to recreate this, since aside from the lemon components, I didn’t bother measuring anything else I threw in there. Ah well.

The second was what I had for lunch today. We had a leftover yam in the fridge, and I was hungry, so I chopped up about one quarter of it, tossed it in a pan with a little olive oil, and just about as it was almost cooked, I added in one egg whisked with a dash of soy sauce, and a few heaping spoonfuls of brown rice. The soy sauce made the eggs a little grey, and a few of the yam pieces got a bit burnt when I was distracted removing a certain grey tabby cat from the dining table where he was trying to shove the box of jigsaw puzzle pieces onto the floor, so it wasn’t the most attractive of dishes, but oh my was it tasty. And at least this one I should be able to recreate again if ever I am in the mood.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.



Sticks and string and everything in between

I am a knitter. And I have been one for nearly nine years. Wow. Sometimes it feels like it’s only been a few years since I started. It took me a little digging, but I eventually figured out that I’ve been knitting since January of 2003, when I asked a knitting friend if she would show me how. My mom says she showed all of us, back when we were very small, but I honestly don’t remember it. I have this very vague recollection of sitting with one of the grandmothers, doing something with yarn, but I’ve no idea if it was knitting or crochet.

It took me a little bit to get the hang of how to hold the needles, and I freely admit that I am a lazy knitter – I prop one needle against myself when I knit. I never figured out quite how to hold both needles away from me, without losing hold of one of them, and even though I know it’d be a really handy skill to eventually learn, I quickly lose patience every time I try. I’m a fairly quick knitter, and propping works well for me. I may never be able to knit while walking, or standing, but I’m okay with that.

I love this craft. I really, really do. There’s something amazingly rewarding about turning skeins of yarn into something beautiful, or even just something practical. I love doing cables – the more intricate the better. I love knitting lace, even though I am most decidedly *not* a lace wearer. And I am just as happy noodling along on a pair of plain stockinette socks as I am hunched over a complicated lace pattern that requires absolute silence, all my concentration, and usually a fair bit of swearing under my breath.

It has definitely had its rewards. I have taken second place twice for my lace – once at the California State Fair; once at the Sacramento county fair. I have knit a LOT of socks, so it is rare that I wear anything but handknit socks these days, and there is a pile of knit afghans (done in machine-washable acrylic because hello, I live with five little shedding, hairball-hacking cats). I do test knitting on a regular basis for two toy designers, and have made a number of shop samples for various local yarn stores, ranging from hats to lace. And four years ago I decided I wanted to try my hand at doing my own designs, just for fun. I set myself a goal – one published pattern a year (I could do more if I wanted, but the whole point of setting such a low goal was to keep it stress free; I’m doing this for fun, not to make a living). And every single year I have met that goal.

This year I managed to squeak it in under the wire, but here’s my published pattern for 2011 – the Embossed Scarf.

I’m pretty happy with this one – I have a LOT of sock yarn in my stash, so finding ways to turn it into something other than socks has become somewhat of a priority lately, and this pattern was the result.

‘Tis the season for Holidailies.



And then there were three

This past weekend we put up the Christmas tree. It is a very quick process, these years. We drag the extremely heavy box down from the attic, and we open it up and then we remove a cat, and we pull out each section of tree and we remove a cat, and then we set them all up and we remove a cat, and we hook all the cords together (and remove a cat) and then plug it in. And then poof, we’re all done. Because even though last year I did go buy some completely nonbreakable ornaments, we have come to the conclusion that it really is not worth even bothering with decorating.

That would be because of two reasons: Rupert and Ingrid

Rupert, the tabby terror

Ingrid the poofy

This year, we added Nutmeg to our little family. Nutmeg loves following Rupert around, and anything Rupert does, she is sure she needs to do too. So she came over and sniffed the tree, and we waited. And watched. And sure enough, after a day or two to ponder it, our tree gained its third (and final) ornament for the year.

Some people have all sorts of fancy ornaments and tinsel and garland.

Us? We just decorate our tree with cats.

‘Tis the season for Holidalies!



Unprocessing

Oh look. It’s October already. And this year that means things get a radical shift in the kitchen. Okay, maybe not all that radical, since we weren’t doing too horribly bad about things beforehand, but this year, Richard and I are taking part in the October Unprocessed challenge. Granted, the word ‘unprocessed’ is a bit misleading for this challenge, since just the act of chopping or cooking is by its very nature ‘processing’. But the point of the challenge is that if it’s not something that the average person could make at home, or the ingredients list includes things that were manufactured in a chemistry lab, it should be avoided.

So far, we’re not doing too badly, although it’s only been two days yet, and weekend days are a lot different than week days when it comes to having time to cook. Of course it helps that yesterday we made our yearly pilgrimage up to Apple Hill, so pretty much the only things we ate all day were made of apples, and were made by hand at the farms (shh, we’re ignoring the ice cream on the pie). Today I made bread and for dinner we made a huge pot of dal. We followed that recipe pretty closely, but added a chopped zucchini (because the monster zucchini plant of doom is STILL producing, for crying out loud). As an aside, should you be interested in that recipe, bear in mind that it makes a LOT. Unless you have a large and hungry family, or are intending to serve this to a crowd, I’d recommend halving the recipe, at a minimum. I ended up stashing about half of it in the freezer, because while it turned out really delicious, there are only so many days in a row either of us is willing to eat leftovers of something before we get completely sick of it (and I suspect that given the amount left that *didn’t* end up in the freezer, we’re going to be bringing leftover dal for lunch all this coming week).

I know we’ll be running into a few interesting surprises as we go through this month. I hit the first one bright and early yesterday morning, when I went to set up my first cup of coffee of the day, took a look at the ingredients in the flavored creamer that I always use, and realized that it did not meet the criteria for ‘unprocessed’ by any stretch of the imagination. Luckily I stumbled across a blog post from someone else who’s doing the challenge who ran into exactly the same problem, and she linked to these recipes. This afternoon I made a batch of the Cinnamon Strudel (which smells just like a freshly baked cinnamon roll) and when I’m done with that, I think I’ll give the French vanilla a try. In the meantime, if anyone stumbles across a recipe to make my own hazelnut creamer, that meets the criteria for the Unprocessed Challenge, let me know!

As I noted above, the zucchini plant is still chugging along, although at a thankfully slower pace than earlier in the summer. The tomatoes are also showing signs of slowing down, although based on the number of tomatoes we put in, ‘slowing down’ still results in me filling the freezer and having to process another dozen or so pints of sauce every few weeks. With what’s left from last summer, and everything I’ve put up this summer, we’re not going to have to buy tomato sauce (or pizza sauce, or marinara sauce) for a good long time. The cucumber and peppers, however, have hit their end point, so this morning we spent about half an hour doing some clean-up, hacking back the worst of the blackberry vines and pulling up an embarrassingly large number of weeds. Then we put in the first batch of cold-weather plants – lettuce, sugar snap peas, scallions, and spinach. Later on, I’ll get some beans and shelling peas started, and maybe even try carrots again, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, the snail and slug population in the neighborhood will take a drastic turn for the worse and we might actually get a decent winter crop.



The hardest part

I thought we had more time. Although I’m not sure which was worse in the long run, thinking we had more time, which meant more time to watch and worry, or having it all go by too fast.

She was losing weight. She’d always been thin, but this was getting too thin. Rosemary was due to go in for a blood check anyway, to make sure the pills were keeping her thyroid hormones stable, so I decided it would be a double-tortie vet visit. I carefully placed the carriers in the car so they couldn’t see each other. Checkers and Rosie never liked each other. Checkers didn’t like much of anyone, for that matter – except for me. Most of our life with her involved a lot of arranging things for her so she didn’t have to deal with anything else but me.

He felt lumps in her intestines, and I could tell by the look on his face that it wasn’t good. She went back in, later, for x-rays. When I went to pick her up, he took me aside to talk. There are treatments, but life expectancy isn’t great. The least invasive is pills, but only if she’ll tolerate them. We are talking about Checkers here. Treating her for anything has been a massive struggle.

I brought home a bottle of pills and some pill pockets – little treats into which you stuff a pill so the cat will eat it with less fuss. She took them for four days. I started to feel a small sense of relief. The internet said if she’d do the treatment, we could get a temporary reprieve. The vet said it always comes back, but maybe she’d get another few months or a year or two.

The fifth day she bit the pill pocket in half and tasted the pill, and that was it. Four and one half pills. No more.

I tried to catch her to take her back for the next type of treatment – steroid shots. She freaked out and bit me, hard. I’ve been bit and scratched thousands of times in my life, but never like this. I sat down on the floor and cried, partly because it hurt like hell, and partly because I didn’t know what else to do. How do you explain to a cat that this is the only thing standing in between her and death?

He said that this wasn’t painful; that it will mainly just make her waste away. I saw her eat. I bribed her with wet food. She spent most of her days under the bed, only coming out at night to burrow under the blankets and curl up as close to me as she could, purring and shoving her head into my hand for pets.

Last night – although it was really early this morning – we came home from a trip down to San Jose to watch Richard’s parents’ play. Getting ready for bed, I noticed Ingrid and Rupert staring under the bed. Leave her alone, I told them, and then crouched down to find her. She was stretched out under the bed, barely breathing. I yelled for Richard. He brought me a towel and I pulled her out gently and wrapped her up and held her in my arms. At some point during the drive to the emergency vet, she passed away.

August 8th is when we were given her diagnosis of lymphoma. It’s only been four weeks. I thought we would have more time.

I wanted there to be more time.

Checkers: March 2003 –  September 4, 2011



Buttered

Right now, the freezer drawers are full of gallon bags, stuffed with tomatoes. And the tomato plants outside are still full of tomatoes – most of them still green, but some of them that probably should have been harvested earlier this week, except that there were too many awkwardly placed spider webs and neither of us felt like trying to dislodge them while they were currently occupied by extremely large garden spiders, nor did we have any idea quite where to put any more tomatoes if we picked them in the first place. I have made red wine marinara sauce, and garden vegetable salsa, and still there are so very many tomatoes left to deal with, and I am running low on clean pint jars into which to put them after processing. Plus we still have plain tomato sauce left – at least a dozen pints of it – from *last* summer. All of which brings me to tonight’s decision to do Something With Tomatoes for dinner, except that I didn’t want to have to go to the grocery store and I didn’t want to have to thaw any of the whole tomatoes, and I didn’t want to have to do anything more than toss something into a pot and then walk away and immerse myself into a book until dinner magically finished all on its own. Or in other words, all of this is just a long-winded explanation of why tonight, I finally tried Marcella Hazen’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter.

I have seen a number of people gushing about this recipe on various food blogs, so I admit I was a bit skeptical about it at first, because I am used to my pasta sauce being full of herbs and chunks of vegetables; the sort of thing that takes a whole bunch of ingredients and a whole lot of time to put together. But there is a reason why people have been gushing about this sauce. It really is just as fabulous as everyone says. It only takes three ingredients, and best of all, even though it takes 45 minutes, it is exactly the sort of recipe where you can just throw everything into a pot and turn on the heat and then walk away.

Here is how you make this sauce (at least my version of it). Chop up one large onion and toss it into a big pot with about 5 tablespoons of butter. Pour in two pint jars of home-canned plain tomato sauce. Simmer over medium heat for about 45 minutes, or until sauce is thickened and the onions are translucent. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, start some water boiling for pasta, and if you time it just right, you should be draining your noodles just about the time your sauce is ready to go. If you are like me and only ever use unsalted butter, and tend to can your tomato sauce with no seasoning at all, you’ll probably want to add a few dashes of salt at the very end, but otherwise, resist the urge to doctor it up in any other way.

For such a simple recipe I have to admit, I was really surprised by how delicious it turned out. The onion imparts a lot of flavor into the tomato base, and the butter adds an element of complexity to the flavors. I am always happy when something so simple turns out so well – especially when it’s the sort of thing that makes use of something I’ve got in excess. We’ll definitely be making this recipe again. But next time, I’m going to make sure we have some kind of bread to go with the meal, if only to have some kind of method of somehow extracting every remaining bit of sauce off the plates.



Determined

It’s been kind of a crazy year so far, when it comes to the weather. First of all, it was a pretty soggy winter, and then the soggy kept dragging on and on, all through May, and even into June. We put the veggies in in late May, and one week later a massive hailstorm came through and pummeled everything. Luckily we only lost one melon plant – everything else somehow survived, scarred but otherwise unbowed. Then it rained again, and rained some more, and all those little veggie plants went WHEE and decided to see just how huge they could grow. Toss in another huge rainstorm just this past week (complete with thunder so loud it was rattling the windows all across town) and this is what you end up with.


(click to see a larger view).

The giant beast you see in front of Richard is our zucchini plant. Our ONE SINGLE SOLITARY zucchini plant, which has so far been producing as many (if not more) squash than the three summer squash plants we had last summer combined. Let’s just say that the dehydrator is going to be getting a real workout this summer.

The messy hedge wall to Richard’s left is made up of three tomato plants. Notice how they are TALLER than Richard? This is what happens when tomatoes and rain storms mix. The tomatoes are so dense at this point that I am not entirely sure how we are going to manage to actually harvest anything – it’s next to impossible to reach in and around the giant tangle of branches. I can see a whole lot of green tomatoes, lurking in there, though, so if the current nasty-hot weather we’re having holds, I suspect we’re going to be swimming in giant piles of beautiful red fruit soon. At that point, it might end up being a battle between the zucchini and the tomatoes as to who can overwhelm us first. Because what you do not see in this picture is the other huge, messy hedge wall behind me (I’m the one taking the picture), made up of five additional tomato plants, all tangled together and loaded with unripe fruit and massive branches that are trying to reach across the path and take out the cucumber. Oh, and let us not forget the blackberries, which are that big tangled mess in the back of the picture, behind the wall of tomatoes, since they are doing their best to take over the potato bed and make a break for the pomegranate tree, and the only reason we have not gone at them with clippers is that they are still (yes, still) producing. Phew.



Click, click

Pattern: Gentlemen’s Sock – from Knitting Vintage Socks. Made for Richard. This is sock pair #2 completed for the year (yes, I am aware that I am 3 pairs behind schedule).

The results of a massive book purge: 8 grocery sacks, and 3 boxes, stuffed with books. This filled the back of the Prius completely, yet is only a small fraction of what we still own. We dropped them off at the Friends of the Library used book store this morning, and returned with only 6 ‘new’ ones (one of which is being sent off to someone else).


Stacking herb garden. There are three basils on the bottom. Naturally those are the ones the snails are decimating. Stupid snails (I hope you like Sluggo).

Tiny baby cucumbers. There’s about half a dozen on the plant so far.

Baby tomatoes. We put in twice as many tomatoes this year. I am hoping that I do not regret this.



Vines

The blackberry vines we planted last year are currently going crazy. Basically, they have spent the last twelve months going from two puny little stalks to doing their level best to take down the fence between us and the next door neighbors. The vines have been covered in flowers, and berries are popping out all over. Only recently, however, have some of them been ripe enough to pick, although admittedly it’s taking us a little while to figure out exactly when that might be. My excuse is that I think berries are horrid, nasty tasting things full of seeds, but Richard loves the little suckers, so I’d have thought at least one of us would be better prepared to distinguish a ripe berry from a not-quite-ripe one. Ah well.

Anyway. Aside from the random strawberry or three every few days, so far the only thing coming out of our garden right now is blackberries. Lots and lots of blackberries. Last night, we picked a great mound of them – big, fat berries that stained our fingers red. So what does one do with a giant pile of blackberries? Do you really have to ask that question? Obviously, I had to make jam.

Time between when they were picked off the vines and when the jars were pulled out of the boiling water bath to cool on the counter – just about two hours. Richard licked the spoon when I was done filling the jars and pronounced it delicious. I did not share his opinion, but that has more to do with the fact that I cannot stand the vile little fruits than any actual commentary on the state of the jam itself.

There are still oodles more of them on the vines, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to be dealing with large quantities of blackberries in the near future. I’m looking forward to giving other recipes a try – perhaps some blackberry syrup, or blackberry jelly, or even (if they get too out of hand) squeezing some of them down to juice and using them to dye some yarn (several kitchen towels are now sporting spots of the most beautiful blue).




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