Sunday, November 18, 2018

Hostess Gifts

The snow over Thursday night is still covering the ground. The season is changing... Here we go again. Another holiday season begins!

This Thanksgiving, we received two invitations besides our family gathering. We usually spend Thanksgiving at Shirley's. She and her family are kind enough to open their home for us as their extended family. We always have lovely time with them by their warm hospitality. She invited us again. The other invitation is by another neighbor, a sweet old couple. We're visiting both.

For holiday dinners, I don't like to bring food since they already have more than enough food there. I think more food from guests is the last thing they want. We all know they'll live with their left over for a while. I still don't want to show up with empty hands even they wouldn't mind that.

I don't like to bring "typical" holiday stuff like poinsettia, Christmas cactus or wine either imagining they'll get those during the holiday season.

For Shirley, I picked a small simple bouquet. She likes to keep things simple.

The colors don't even mention Thanksgiving. Well, that's the key. In this case, it's more personal than picking yellow and orange flowers.

The old couple have artists in their family. They are interested in arts and crafts. So, I decided to make my hands dirty a little bit. I got the fireplace on and some munches with coffee. I'm good to go.

Well, it's going to be a Christmas wreath. If they don't like it, they might take it for Yankee swap and they could have fun. I like to use grape vines for a base. You might think using artificial fir base. I'm not a big fan of its artificial look.

After playing with the elements for a while, it started taking a shape...

This little birdie adds a little holiday cheer.

I tried to add more holiday cheer...

They made me dizzy. Oh boy, that was too much. I decided to stick to its organic rustic feel.

Thus, my hostess gifts are ready for Thanksgiving. They are a little bit out of the ordinary. Hopefully, they'd enjoy them.

It is grateful that somebody would think of having us at their home for Holidays. Thinking back, many thoughtful people invited me for Thanksgiving and Christmas whether I was able to make it or not. They thought I would be alone for these family oriented holidays their knowing my family was thousands miles away. I have been so thankful and grateful for every single of their invites over the years, and still I am. Someday, I'd love to open our home to somebody who would be all by themselves on the holidays just like those people did for me.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Big Hunk of Chocolate


Looking back, this summer turned to be a very humid one I'd never experienced in New England. It reminded me summers in Japan. Even the uncomfortable summer, its heat is already missed on these days with 50s weather...


In the hot and humid evening of August, 90 pounds of chocolate was dropped off at my house. My 93 years old house has no central air conditioner. The temperature was almost 90 degrees. It was one of those days you feel you are sweating slowly and constantly as much as the moisture in the air. You would feel like being in a rainforest. It was not an ideal weather for chocolate.

Chad and I got brief care instructions for the chocolate. Her mom and dad put a new tag with her name, and our phone number on her collar. They gave her their love, then left. Thus, we became Cocoa's temp. parents for next 3 weeks.

One of Marilyn's bowl was filled with water in the breakfast room. Marilyn's bed was set in the bedroom with A/C. Cocoa finished one big rawhide bar her mom gave her earlier, then had a big drink of water from the bowl. She was not sure what was going on yet. She was unsure about her next action. "Hey Cocoa, do you want your dinner?" Her eyes brightened up.

After her dinner, we went to the TV room. She didn't know what to do. I gave her a doggy ice cream. She settled. We watched Marley and Me together. She was hanging out with me for a while, but took off to check out the house. In the movie, Marley got old and wasn't doing well. There was a flashback in my head, the moment I came to the realization that I couldn't help my baby anymore. My feeling was running parallel with John's in the movie. No matter how much time past, the memory of the moment chokes me up with the guilt. The guilt of unable to find any other way to help her. I guess pet owners who have sent off their beloved furry friends share this feeling, a price to pay to have our most precious friends/families.

I was falling asleep watching TV. Around midnight, the big barks woke me up. Cocoa was in the dining room baking at Marilyn's ashes in the dark. "Cocoa, it's ok. You don't need to bark." I introduced them. "Cocoa, this is Marilyn. Marilyn, this is Cocoa. She's staying with us for a couple of weeks while her mom and dad are away." Then, we went to the bedroom. It was cool and dry there, but Cocoa didn't like to stay in the room. She went into the room, turned around and left. I was puzzled. "Cocoa, don't you want to be in the cool room?" She went straight to the stairs. Her mind was made up. There was no way she would go upstairs again. She settled in the living room where she would get breeze from the dining room windows. I was afraid she would bark again in the middle of the night if she was left alone. We slept in the living room together. There was no more barking for the rest of the night.

Next morning, I found Cocoa sleeping next to Marilyn's ashes in the dining room. It seems Marilyn took care of her over night. I believe she made a visit and told Cocoa our house rules. She'd never barked at night since then. It took no time to her to make herself at home.

First couple of days, we tried to either occupy her or tire her out. Until she got used to our place, we preferred her busy doing something or sleeping instead of being homesick and depressed.

She was not interested in toys. We tried to take her for long walks to entertain her. She was smart one. She didn't like to go too far away from home. She preferred to stay in the area she could see our house which is the connection between her and her parents. Once she got to the point our house was getting out of her sight, she stopped. 90 lb. is not easy to drag when she decides not to do anything. I had to bribe her with treats to get her going. After all, she is a food loving Lab. She also loves people, and tried to greet everybody she saw on the street. It didn't take so long for her to make new friends.

When they saw us walking, neighbors came out from their houses with their excited expressions. "Ahhhhh~! You got a new dog!!!!" Their excitement didn't last so long. "Uh no, we're dog-sitting for a couple of weeks." I added kiddingly "Our plan is to brainwash her to be our dog before her parents come pick her up." Even ones we barely know came up to us "Oh, I'm so glad you got a dog. It's been awhile since Marilyn's gone." They remember our dog though we don't even know each other's name. That certainly made us feel warm and fuzzy. Since Marilyn was gone, we had lost a reason to walk around the neighborhood. It was nice to walk around and see familiar faces again.

Cocoa loved to watch the yard and the street laying down in the yard. Her mom told us she doesn't understand cars are dangerous. She added to watch out for UPS and mail tracks, which Cocoa thinks they have treats. Apparently, the UPS guy and the mailman at their area regularly give Cocoa treats. Cocoa was off the leash in the yard, but never took off toward the street even UPS or mail tracks drove by.

Only time her attention caught by mail tracks was at a walk. She found a mail track and was ready to go after it to get some treats. I had to put all my weight toward the opposite direction from the mail track. "Cocoa, that's not your mailman. He doesn't have treats for you, sorry."

When she got tired of her watch duties, she entertained herself by soaking up the sun or rubbing her back on the grass. Her life seemed to be good.

One of joys of having a dog is that you get your super enthusiastic welcome committee. Once your car pulls into the driveway, your dog's excitement sets on fire. He/She dashes toward you. His/Her tail is in a full action, super wagging. He/She crushes you. He/She only thinks to get to you as quick as they can. He/She rubs his/her body on you, jumps on you, gives you kisses, and/or cries for joy. It's the purest love, joy and excitement you could get from others. It gets even better. That happens every time you come back to him/her! Who else could make you feel that much loved?

With senior pups, their physical expressions wouldn't be as animated as young ones, but their joy and excitement are the same. Their bodies just cannot keep up with their mental state, but you see sparkles in their eyes and you can tell how they are excited to see you.

When I parked my car, Marilyn was always at the driver side door to say hi to me. I loved that. No matter how the day had been hard, that was purged instantly by it.

Even I was her temp. mom, Cocoa was so excited to see me whenever I came home. She was about to dash toward my car as soon as I pulled into the driveway, so Chad had to hold her until I parked the car. Then, she ran toward me with the wagging tail, and gave me a shower of kisses as if we'd not seen for years. It was just sweet.

As she found her new/temporarily normal at my house, she showed more her personality. She is vocal. She was not shy to say what she had to say verbally or nonverbally. She didn't like to be alone when she knew we were around. Whenever she found herself alone, she barked, "Where are you?", until she found us. She baked when she found something interesting. When she woke up, she came to me with lots of kisses on my face, which had been my alarm clock. The alarm clock came with a snooze feature, too. When the sun was up and I got up for using the bathroom early morning, she woke up and looked at me. Then, I went back to the bed, she put her head down and went back to sleep. When she found me awake after the sun was up, Marilyn was ready to go for a walk. "The sun is up. Marilyn is outside." That was how Marilyn thought. I didn't get a luxury to snooze with Marilyn. Every dog is different. They are unique beings. They have their own personalities.

I thought I'd get attached her much more. Interestingly, there was always a little thought, "she is not ours.", in my mind. I don't know if I had it to ease my feeling when she would go her home, or not. Although I adored her and enjoyed every second with her, I felt the boundary and my feeling was not quite as same as I had for Marilyn.

We went for walks to Great Brook Farm for a couple of times. Dog walks bring us good opportunities to meet people... and more dogs. This is a popular dog walk spot. You see a lot of happy tails there. They have a dairy farm with an ice cream shop. Naturally, it's also popular for families.

Whenever we went to the park, the weather was perfect for a walk, not too hot or humid. Cocoa was in a go-go mode. Her tail never stopped wagging. Her rhythmic footwork said everything.

The park is big enough to enjoy some privacy. Once in a while, we met some people and dogs. Oh, and...

We ran into some families with little kids. Their little fingers were pointing Cocoa. They excitedly said "Doggie!". Sure, the 90 lb. dog grabbed their attention. In case you're not familiar with the size of dogs, this might give you some idea of a 90 lb. dog. Her paw is as big as my palm.

When I see kids express their interest to dogs, I'd love them to interact with dogs. Especially if they don't have dogs in their family, that would be a great opportunity to experience the goodness of dogs.

So, I offered "She's friendly. Would you like to say hi to her?" Looking at the big dog from the distance is a totally different thing from touching her. With their parents' encouragement, they got as close to her as they could. Cocoa was like a horse to those toddlers. Even she was quiet, when her head turned toward them, they got scared and hesitated. "Here, pet her back." I showed them my petting her back. Their little hands quickly ran through her back. Then, big smiles spreaded on their faces. That's the moment I want them to have. Big dogs are their friends.

People tend to misunderstand that big dogs are violent and dangerous, but big ones are generally more laid back and easy-going than small breeds. I have to admit some big breeds tend to forget or have no awareness of how big they are, and their friendly actions unintentionally turned to be rough. But, they are still loving and friendly.

Even such a big dog looks small next to the corn stalks.

Cocoa's mom told us she loves water. We walked by some swamps. Cocoa was thinking of getting in the water.

Unfortunately to her, I didn't let her because they were swamps and you never know what kind of water they are. A stinky slimy dog wouldn't be welcome in late Sunday afternoons. Instead of swimming, she got a lot of walks and sniffs on the trails.

We took one little break for drink. I tried to let her take breaks, but she kept walking and walking. About one and a half hours later, we finished a loop and came back to the parking. I was going to pick up a trail map for another loop. When she realized we were in the parking, Cocoa started walking faster and headed straight to my car. She sat next to the back door and looked at me "Open the door." She jumped up to the back seat and laid down. The second loop was not going to happen. Her face said she had enough.

After the walk, it was ice cream time! We picked up Chad and headed to our favorite ice cream place. They offer small portion for dogs as a doggy dish. The white dot behind her on the grass was Cocoa's doggy dish. After she finished hers, she got a little extra. Doesn't she look satisfied?

We enjoyed hanging out on the grass with occasional breezes for a while, then went to see their goat.

Cocoa was not quite sure what to think of him.

Thus, 2 1/2 weeks flew and her parents came back from France. They gave us an extra day with Cocoa to adjust themselves from the trip. In the middle of another heat wave, they came to pick her up. I had to work late that day and missed my regular train to home. On the top of it, the train I was supposed to take was delayed. I thought I wouldn't get a chance to say goodbye to Cocoa. But they were waiting for me despite of their still adjusting themselves from their jet lag. As soon as I opened the door, Cocoa came to me with welcome kisses. That made her parents happy to know she had a good time with us. She jumped into their car and she was ready to go home. "There is no place like home." It seems that this applies to anybody who has a place to call home.

Well, my "Cocoa brainwash" plan failed. Maybe, another scoop of crunchies with bacon topping for each meal would have done it🤔 It was still nice to see Cocoa was aware of having her own home and family and happy to be with them. It was fun 3 weeks. Having a dog in a life is simply priceless. Chad and I greatly appreciate her mom and dad to trust us to let us have their precious baby for such a long time, and Cocoa to trust us enough to stay with. I also appreciate my FB doggy peers to share the joy of having a dog in a life for a while.

Here is the big hunk of 🍫. She is a milk chocolate kind of girl😘 ... making a life of everyone, who she meets, sweet.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

和風カプレーゼ

久々の日本語のポストです。もっとマメに更新するべきなのでしょうが、無精なので勘弁してね。今回はその無精さから生まれたレシピのお話。

ここニューイングランドは春がとっても短いので、遅霜の心配がなくなり次第、種蒔きしたりや苗を植えないとなんでもよく育たなかったりします。今年の春は仕事に追われて数ヶ月週末なし。ようやく一息ついた時にはすでに7月。花壇は雑草が生い茂り、ハーブガーデンはオレガノ、ディルと紫蘇に占領されてパセリとタイムが肩身が狭そうにひっそりと生えてる状態。

オレガノってタチの悪い雑草のように繁殖するので油断してるととんでもないことになります。寒さに強いらしく毎年雪がなくなるとすぐに新芽が出て来る逞しい多年草のハーブ。

ディルは一年草。随分前に一度種を蒔いたのだけど、それ以来毎年枯れるまでほったらかしにしてるので前年の種から好き放題にあちこちから芽が出てきます。毎年移植しても大丈夫なくらい大きくなったところで間引きを兼ねて畑の一区画にまとめて植え替えるのです。

紫蘇も同じ。最近こちらでも紫蘇の人気がでてきたようで種が手に入ります。ちなみに英語でもシソ。アメリカ人は赤紫蘇と青紫蘇の違いがわからないのか知らないのか関心がないみたいで、種を蒔いたら青に混ざって赤も生えてきました。日本人としては嬉しい限り。赤は断然数が少ないからなんとか増やそうと思って秋に種を収穫するつもりだったのに気がついたら枯れてた(無精😫)ってなことが数年繰り返され赤紫蘇の割合は年々大きくなってきてます。紫蘇もディル同様雑草のごとく所構わず生えて来るのにびっくり!

話は戻って今年は7月に入るまで何も庭仕事が出来なかったのでトマト無し。慌ててバジルの種を蒔いてみたけど、時期を逃すとなかなか大きくならないのね。カプレーゼを食べたいけど、バジルの育ち具合はイマイチ。

これ全部勝手に生えて来たハーブ達です。紫蘇の間から1メートルくらいの高さのディルがニョキニョキ生えていたのを全部引きぬいたところ。紫蘇はこの通り。お手上げ状態。密に生えすぎたせいであまり大きくならなかったのだけど、例年なら紫蘇もディルに負けず劣らず1メートルくらいまで育ちます。

「それじゃあ、紫蘇でカプレーゼを作ったら?」ってな訳で

ちょっと桜餅っぽい見た目の和風カプレーゼです。トマトをスライスして、好みで軽く塩をふり、その上にモッツァレラチーズのスライスと重ねます。オリーブオイルの代わりに胡麻油を垂らし、紫蘇の葉で包んで召し上がれ。

ひと口サイズにしたいので、トマトは半月切り。紫蘇で包んでもお皿に座りよく仕上がります。紫蘇の香りが口中に広がります。紫蘇のモサモサした感触が苦手な人は好きじゃないかも。

オリーブオイルでも美味しいかもしれないけど、個人的に胡麻油好きなのでこの組み合わせに満足。胡麻油の香ばしい香りが紫蘇によく合うようです。ちなみにうちのダンナもお気に入り。ひとつずつお皿に盛るなり横から手を伸ばして食べてます。

少し時間が経つと水が出てトマトと紫蘇の張りと艶がなくなるので作ったらすぐに食べるのをオススメ。


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Shake Up the Pantry

A little later I moved into the house, I set up my pantry in the basement. My kitchen is small. It's tiny. Tiny like a NYC apartment kitchen. Because the kitchen used to be a pantry. Yup, I cook in the pantry.

That means there was no pantry when I moved in. So, I set up a new pantry in the basement. The basement has a small closed off area with a door. It was just a perfect spot for it. With the French drain and my reliable dehumidifier, my basement has no flooding, mold or musty smell. I've never seen any bugs there, either. Thank God!

Over the years, I got more stuff from cooking tools to small appliances to serving wares... They all ended up in the pantry. The original system doesn't function anymore. Meanwhile, the stuff has kept piling up. The poor pantry was screaming for help drowning in STUFF...

Time for New System

The pantry has the electric panel in it. I'm afraid I scared some contractors with my collection there when they checked out the panel for some projects. Hence, it's time for action.

I packed my tool box — a brand new tarp, my vacuum cleaner, disinfectant wipes, wet rags and trash bags.

Clear

It's hard to configure a new system shuffling around things. It's better to clear the area to start clean and better understand what's going on. You don't want to put foods, cooking and serving stuff on the ground. Putting a big tarp on the basement floor is the first step.

Group

This is also a sorting process. I assigned each corners for specific categories, and placed stuff from the pantry following by the categories. It's a game of grouping. It's an interesting process. Sometimes, you notice how your brain works by doing it, too. When you do any organizational tasks, efficient grouping is a key. In the pictures, they don't look organized, but they are grouped with certain labels. This helped me to assess how much space was necessary for specific groups in the pantry.

This step is actually quite important. If you don't do sorting your stuff at this point, you'd lose the control of your motivation. Imagine you randomly put your stuff out on a new space without any rules, you'd have no idea what is where. You'd feel like you're looking for a needle in haystack, and you wouldn't see the end of the tunnel. Nobody wants to work in such chaos.

Shuffle

Once the pantry was cleared, I dusted, vacuumed the area. It's a great feeling to get rid of all dusts behind the shelvings. I have four shelving racks, and I go one by one. Each rack has their own category.

The First Round

The first shelving rack keeps things for daily diet — canned goods, pasta, seasonings, stocks, jellies, coffee, sugar, salt, etc.

From the previous system, I grouped the stuff per storage container for small items. This process is to find the most useful placement to me for those containers.

I use these clear storage containers to keep out uninvited guests help themselves. After all, it's an old house, and they find a way to get into the house to stay a little bit comfortable in the harsh winter of New England, which I don't blame them. I'd look for a shelter in any possible ways if I were them, but I don't offer free meals in the house. This is not negotiable in any manners, period.

I started placing the containers with the items I use often to the easiest to reach, which is at my height. The third shelf from the top is reserved for canned goods.

The flour and the stocks were on the bottom shelf because they are heavy.

After the containers got their own spots, I found bunch of small bottles and jars such as salad dressings and mayonaise. I grouped them in three baskets and put them on the second top shelf.

They looked good, but this was a mistake. I'm only 5'2". The shelf is not so in my reach. I need to pull out the baskets to get what's inside. Each basket is quite heavy. It is not easy for me to pull them out.

Time for a shuffle.

The Second Round

This time the light containers were swapped with those three baskets.

All cans were back on the shelf.

I didn't mention, but the very top shelf was reserved for the white wines. The wine is not related to the daily diet, but the given space is just perfect for those bottles. It's just a good use of the space.

I learned that the way grocery stores place items on their shelves is a good reference. Well, they place the most popular items in the middle in general, but they don't put heavy stuff on higher shelves. They also give you some ideas of how they group items. A pantry is a kind of your private grocery store at home. You could use their system if it works for you.

Move on to the Next Rack

On the left, there is the electric panel. That area needs to be always clear. About a quarter of the left shelves are hard to reach. So, the left rack for something I don't use often such as party utensils, paper plates, paper cups and so on.

The round cover on the right bottom is the pump for the French drain. This area should stay clear, too.

The right rack is for drinks. Soda, carbonated water, bottled water, juice, drink mixers, boose and tea got their home. The top shelf is for... guess what! Red wines🍷

It left the second shelf empty. I gave it to snacks like popcorns, chips and cookies.

The left rack got some extra space. The second shelf got serving stuff. Its top shelf has instant grains like oatmeals for now.

It's hard to nail everything perfectly at once. So, once I reached to somewhat OK state, move onto next.

More Stuff...

I have stuff. I don't deny that. Even I don't use them often, they help me when I need them. These guys go to the forth rack.

After shuffling them around, things started settling down to where they were supposed to.

The bulky serving items are on the top shelf. Canning jars which doesn't get affected by light on the second shelf. There is a window behind it. Baking related items are on the forth self. Small appliances are on the fifth. It's packed, but they fit.

Roll Out

There is an open space below. I have a plan for it. When you put heavy stuff on the bottom shelf, you still need to pull it out. That could be a hassle. So, why don't I use a container with wheels ?

I looked around some storage bins with wheels. They are not cheap, but their build doesn't look tough enough for their prices. Their wheels only go back and forth, not sideways. They are not so flexible.

Then, I found this guy at Ikea.

Its wheels look nice and sturdy. they are not taking up the space of the container. That's awesome! The size is 15" W x 20" D x 14 1/2" H. If I get lucky, I can put three of them there. It's not clear, but I can live with that.

I got lucky🍀 Three of them fit right in. Before I ordered them, I measured the width of the rack and saw the size of the container on their site. I knew three were very tight fit, and the slight extra addition by the lid could cause to push out the third one.

I was so glad to order four of them. They all found their spots happily. They are assigned for flour, sugar, vinegar and sauces (bottled seasonings), and rice.

After a little more shuffling, they settled. The bottom shelf of the first rack got an empty container. That means it's not fully packed.

The Last Group

Finally, my kitchen work essentials got their own home.

These are the kind of things I tend to forget to buy as they run out. So, I stock them up when they are on sale. Technically, they never run out at my household.

As you see, I don't buy so it called brand items so much. They are either store or bargain brands especially for plastic bags. They still serve my purpose just fine.

The new system probably needs some more tweaks, but it's working so far. The things are grouped better. Their locations are clear. They are easy to reach. It was well worth to spend one weekend.