Gardening Interlude

While I was house-sitting for my parents, they asked if I’d start their vegetable garden. Their new house doesn’t have a designated garden yet, so they wanted to plant a couple tomatoes and peppers in pots on the patio. And since I’m always itching to play in dirt and my garden will never bit enough to sate that desire, I said YES, ABSOLUTELY, WHEN CAN I START?

It’s a small garden with two tomatoes, a bell pepper, and a mammoth jalapeno. We bought four bags of soil, and I only ended up using two. I’ve already been given the go-ahead to take the extra bags home with me, which is exciting in and of itself.

I also found that I vastly prefer starting plants from seeds to buying seedlings from the store. There’s a certain–satisfaction, or maybe wonder–at seeing little green stalks poking through the soil.

And another lesson: Sam and Grace like to eat potting soil. I envision them trying to eat the plants as they grow, so it’ll be interesting to see how long the leaves are without doggy bite-marks.

If you have a garden, what are you planting in it?

Project Adventure: Alpacas

Project Adventure: Visit somewhere new (ideally) once a month.
Adventures completed: 1

I found out about the Carolina Alpaca Celebration through Facebook; one of the local interest pages posted the event info. I’ve become fascinated with fiber-producing animals (alpacas and sheep) as I’ve been knitting more, so I jumped at the chance to see alpacas up close.

The Cabarrus Arena & Events Center is about thirty-minutes from my apartment. It took me about that to get there, and I walked inside and into a massive open room that smelled of hay and manure. The front half contained a handful of vendors dispersed among three rows, and in the back stood a dozen chest-high pens with fans attached to the bars.

The alpacas ranged in color from beige to gray to brown to black and looked like over-sized, super-fluffy stuffed animals. A few of them hummed.

A couple industrial, roll-up doors were partially open, making me regret my decision not to wear a winter coat. The show area, located inside the arena-portion of the building, was slightly warmer. It also housed a handful of adorable baby alpacas.

I took lots of pictures and browsed the vendor booths for the better part of an hour. Long enough to see everything (and to justify the trip up). I bought a ball of alpaca yarn; I haven’t figured out what I’ll make from it though I’m leaning in the direction of fingerless gloves.

What kinds of new places or experiences have you had so far this year? Do you have any planned?

Me with an alpaca

Permission to Write

This post is just as much for me as for anyone who needs it.

You have permission to write whatever your heart desires.

Write a teenage character that swears, an over-the-top gory death scene, an asshole character with no redeemable qualities. Write and finish a crap story instead of rewriting one sentence over and over with the goal of perfection.

Write the story that scares you most. Write the story that’s just above your skill set. Write the story that isn’t “in” right now. Write the story that you want to see on your bookshelf. Write the story that you want to read.

Writing is work, yes. And there are times when it will feel like work. Keep writing anyway because you’ll hit that breakthrough moment where all this work is worth it.

Keep writing. Write whatever you wan to write, even if it’s rough around the edges or all over. There’ll be time to sand those out in the next draft.

Candy Corn Cupcakes

What happens when I start searching for Halloween-themed recipes on Pinterest? I find lots of cute ideas for desserts and start making elaborate plans for baking cupcakes and brownies and a cake and Rice Krispy Treats.
Then I dialed back on the whole “sugar up my partner and coworkers” endeavor. I decided to bake a cupcake a week, and that has since been dialed even farther back to just one cupcake because of time and trying to eat healthier.

I was still planning on four different cupcakes when I bought the ingredients for the first (and only) ones I made, so it just happened that the design turned out to be Candy Corn. The cupcakes weren’t Candy Corn flavored, just colored. I used this recipe for the vanilla cupcakes and this one for the vanilla buttercream. Then I divided the batter in half before adding food coloring. I was relatively proud of myself because I avoided mixing the colors too much when I poured them.

The orange ended up being a pale after baking; the yellow didn’t seem to show up at all. And the powdered sugar for the buttercream made a mess of my stand-mixer and counter. Plus the only cupcake liners in my cabinet had white and blue stripes.

But my Candy Cane cupcakes were still cute. And they tasted A-MAZ-ING. Like, that cake recipe is going in the recipe box amazing. The buttercream ended up being super sweet, which tasted best when I hadn’t gone too buttercream-crazy on a cupcake.

I’m really, really happy with how these cupcakes turned out. Especially since they’re probably going to be the only Halloween-themed desserts that I’ll make this year.

EXPLORE

Myrtle Beach never hit my list of places to visit, despite being bustling tourist destination four hours from my apartment. Come to think of it, that may be exactly why it was never on that list. Touristy can be fun. But I’d rather get my touristy-fix with a mouse in Florida.

Then my parents relocated this summer. To Myrtle Beach.

With two visits under my belt so far, I can say that I’m familiar with the traffic in Conway and Ollie’s Bargain Outlet. I still haven’t hit the beach or the touristy destinations like the Hollywood Wax Museum and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. I’m sure that I’ll check out those places (and document the visits extensively) on a future trip.

Here’s the thing about wanderlust: it hits me when I least expect it and doesn’t require venturing off to an exotic venue.

During my most recent visit to Myrtle Beach, I satisfied my wanderlust by exploring the Tangier Outlets. Seriously. I took a quick trip to Ollie’s and scoured the book section, finding nothing. I couldn’t just go back to my parents’ place, so I searched for nearby bookstores on my phone and found the Book Warehouse at the Tangier Outlets.

It took several minutes of wandering through the pathways lined with the Nike store, Justice, Dress Barn, As Seen On TV, and others before I spotted the bookstore. I ended up not finding anything. So I decided to keep exploring. I spotted (and managed to stay out of) a fudge store. I also found a kitchen store packed to the gills with more kitchen gadgets than I’d ever seen. I managed to leave the Outlets without buying anything. Somehow.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve quelled the desire to EXPLORE by simply wandering around stores. It’s a good reminder, though, that I don’t have to spend a lot of money to get my wanderlust fix. All it takes is to find somewhere that I’ve never been and simply explore.

Confessions of a Yarn Addict

I’ve discovered a fundamental truth: when I step into a bookstore or a craft store, I’m going to walk out with a full shopping bag.

This used to only be the case with bookstores (and is the biggest reason I avoid them whenever possible). But I’ve developed a hardcore yarn addiction this pas year. That combined with my inability to pass up a good clearance deal adds up to T-R-O-U-B-L-E whenever I’m within eyesight of a Michaels or AC Moore.

Let me put it in perspective: I have a yarn trunk. Not a yarn bag or a yarn box. I have an old-used-for-traveling-pre-suitcases trunk filled from bottom to top with yarn pretty much all bought on clearance.

What sparked this yarn addiction? I began knitting baby blankets.

There are no babies in the near future for me, and I don’t know anyone currently pregnant. The best I can figure is that I decided knitting a blanket for a baby was a good jumping off point for figuring out how to knit a full-sized blanket. And since blanket patterns typically require several hundred feet or more of yarn… well, that’s how I ended up with a yarn trunk.

I’ve branched out in terms of knitting patterns on Pinterest and Ravelry. I’ve made a stuffed polar bear, fingerless gloves, coffee cup sleeves, and even a poncho in addition to blankets.

One particular hat pattern has been my go-to of late. It’s a winter hat that’s just a simple garter stitch. Translation: I mindlessly knit while watching Netflix and not f-up the pattern. Plus even if I pick up the project for five minutes here and there, I can usually finish a hat per week. (Double plus: each hat uses up half a big skein of yarn, making room for new yarn faster.)

The hats are pretty thick and will hold up in a good chill. So my first thought was to gift them to friends back in Massachusetts, but they already own more winter hats than they know what to do with. I know I sure did.

North Carolina doesn’t get as cold as Massachusetts and gets only a small fraction of the snow. Yet people still need winter hats. So why not give them to charity?

I set myself a goal: knit five hats by December to donate to a local shelter. That goal is getting revised to ten since it’s August and I’m already on hat number four. I may decide to revise that goal again in the fall depending on how much time I spend mindlessly knitting.

Whether I produce more than ten hats or not, I know two things for certain: people who need warm hats will get them this winter, and I’m going to have so much room for clearance yarn.

 

I Baked Macaroons for the First Time

My baking experience is confined to boxed brownies and bagged cookie mix. So deciding to bake macaroons after seeing a cool-looking recipe on Pinterest was ambitious–to say the least–and it would probably end in disaster. Let me explain a little: macaroons are a bitch to make. They’re super easy to under-mix, and the cookies are notorious for cracking while baking. The internet is awash with macaroon-baking horror stories.

I decided to make Nutella Macaroons anyway.

Because I’m following through on my goal of doing the thing; because I’m inexplicably overconfident in my baking skills;  and because Nutella Macaroons sound really freaking tasty.

I bought the ingredients, only for them to sit in my pantry for the two weeks it took for me find a day with spare hours to embark on the project. Then came a Wednesday with a bit of time not earmarked for anything in particular, and I started going through the recipe and gathering all the spoons and bowls and such when I realized that I need a new mixer. Why? I pulled the beaters for my hand-mixer out of the drawer and found rust where the finish had worn away. So I ventured to Walmart, found a cheap stand,  and headed home, ready to get to work.

I laid out my ingredients on the counter before scrolling through Pinterest for a particular pin that converted weight in grams into things like tablespoons and teaspoons. It wasn’t there. I went through my pins several times and searched every string of words even tangentially connected to “macaroon gram conversions.” Nothing. The pin had disappeared into a blackhole.

The irony of the situation was that I’d passed on a food scale at Target because it seemed unnecessary with that fore-mentioned pin. Plus I’d already gotten home from the Walmart shopping excursion, and I really did not want to go out again. But I’d gotten too far into the process to turn back. So I cursed under my breath the entire trip to Target and back.

It was late afternoon by the time that I finished setting out all of the ingredients and got to work. Then came more hiccups. Whisking the dry ingredients together isn’t a substitute for putting them through a food processor because the almond flour isn’t small enough to fit through a sifter. And it takes forever in the mixer for egg whites and granulated sugar to turn into meringue the consistency of soft serve ice cream. It’s also possible to DIY a pastry bag for putting the shell/cookie mixture on the baking sheets out of a Ziploc bag (and for the filling so long as the bag is CLOSED before being squeezed).

By some miracle, the cookies looked okay when I pulled them out of the oven. I assembled them on my counter before stepping back to look at them.

The macaroons were misshapen in general and refused to sit up straight on my counter-top; but they still kinda looked like macaroons if you squinted.

Yet they tasted delicious. There was just the right amount of airiness in the cookie along with a satisfying crunch. The chocolate of the Nutella filling balanced out the slightly bitter taste of the coco powder in the shell.

Baking macaroons is just as much of a pain in the ass and time-consuming as everyone says it is. But–and I’m probably going to regret saying it–I enjoyed it. I liked piping the cookie mix onto the baking sheets and making bigger macaroons than normal. I stared in wonder at the shells when they came out of the oven actually looking edible. And I halfheartedly cursed while trying to keep the Nutella-filling from flowing all over my hands because I hadn’t closed the Ziploc bag completely. (Who’s going to complain about having delicious Nutella on their hands? Not me.)

Baking macaroons was a success.  They’re not super pretty, and I made them the week that my dishwasher was on the fritz. But they came out tasting good, not just edible.

It’s going to be a while before I bake macaroons again. I’ve got to psyche myself up and find a free afternoon to get it done. But I’ve already found a couple flavors (S’mores! Blueberry! Raspberry! Chocolate Mint!) that I want to try. I like the challenge of it. Though I can’t promise that I’ll say the same thing next time I’m elbow-deep in meringue.

 

 

Another Garden Update

Last year’s garden gave me unrealistic expectations about this year’s garden. No, scratch that. The only things growing in my garden last year were flowers, and the flowers are currently doing fantastic.

The vegetable garden is a different beast. Watering, or accidental lack thereof, plays a huge role in their growth with the brutal summer heat. And so do pests. F-ing pests.

It would be fair to say that the vegetable side of my garden has kept life interesting.

Productive Survivors

Tomatoes ~ My eight tomato plants–stuffed into two planters– are faring better than expected. I didn’t realize how sensitive they are to heat, but they bounce back well when I finally remember to water them. The first harvest produced in the neighborhood of 15 tomatoes, and the second harvest is looking to be just as fruitful.

Carrots ~ The full-size carrots I harvested a few weeks ago are in the neighborhood of two and three inches, and I must’ve ended up with ten. They taste… okay. I’m convinced that I haven’t scrubbed all of the dirt off them yet or just need to cook . Once I picked that first batch, I planted a second one.

Parsley ~ These suckers are so easy-going. When I forget to water them for a day or two, it doesn’t seem to do lasting damage. They shrug it off. They also bounce back quick from when I harvest the leaves. Now I just need to find more recipes that require parsley.

Basil ~ The two basil plants in my garden refuse to die. One of them was literally knocked off its shelf during the storm, came out of its pot and was put back in a day later, and the asshole is still alive. And no matter how many times I forget to water them and the leaves shrivel up, they still go right back to normal after I get the watering can out.

Unproductive Survivor

Cucumbers ~ I pretty much considered the cucumbers on their way out when every single leaf started turning brown. Yet the vines stayed healthy, so I kept watering them. The leaves at the tops of the plants seem to be holding their own. Plus it’s been producing bright yellow flowers for a couple months now; but the cucumbers that start growing just look… weird. Like one end is far fatter than the other. Or the skin has turned an ashy green. I’m not holding my breath.

Casualties

Pumpkins ~ Losing these plants bummed me out. They were doing so well, the vines hanging over the edge of the pots and off the side of the shelf. But then some f-ing pest decided to burrow into the vine. And not just a little bit either; they turned the insides into pulp. I got wise to them after the first pumpkin died and bought powder that’s supposed to repel insects. It did just that… where I put the powder. The f-ing pests started burrowing farther down on the vine and ultimately killed it.

Peas & Peppers ~ I take about half the blame for these guys not surviving. The rest of the blame I place on whoever designed the decks in my apartment complex. Rainwater streams straight down through the boards on my upstairs neighbor’s deck and directly onto the vegetable shelves. Since there’s no drainage in the pots, the plants ultimately ended up with about an inch of water atop the soil after each storm. I ultimately gave up on draining the pots by hand.

I’m glad that I took that leap of faith in the spring and started a veggie garden on my patio. And I’m absolutely going to do another one next year; I’m just going to learn from this year’s mistakes and maybe scale back my expectations a hair.