Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Post-Diss Bliss

The fall rains have come!

That means that we're starting to see some beautiful color when we take our morning walks. Some trees have leaves that are barely tipped with color...

...and others that have been completely consumed by it.

Maple trees in fall are nearly my favorite. The bark turns dark, almost black, and the leaves are a constantly-changing riot of color for weeks.

This sweetgum tree doesn't have any red at all...just cheerful yellow leaves among the green.

One of my favorites, the ginkgo, has that bright yellow edge to its fall leaves that I love so much!

Every day, I bring home any leaves that strike my fancy. I brought these home because they reminded me of a rainbow.

This one, because of the dramatic half-changed state.

This one, because of the deeply-etched veins.

Sometimes I'll take whole tree branches, especially oak.

I love to bring them inside and lay them on the table. The colors are really wonderful!

The sweetgum seeds are still green, but are nice to pile up, too.

There's a flurry of fall activity in my yard, too. The swallowtail caterpillars are preparing to go into a chrysalis state.

All over the yard, insects are mating. The timing must be right, so that their eggs can be laid in the ground before frost, but not so early that they would be in danger from digging creatures or from having their growth schedule skewed from too-warm weather. These grasshoppers will soon separate, and the female will lay her fertilized eggs in the still-soft ground.

Still not many butterflies, but several unusual moths around! My cosmos are done for the year, and the marigolds are on their way out, but I still have lots of zinnias that attract these little visitors.

My autumn sedum has finally bloomed, too!

It consists of a flower head full of teeny tiny flowers. They're delicate-looking, but they stay beautiful through the fall rains and a whole range of temperatures.

I recently found several patches of clover outside. There must've been some four-leafed ones there, because we've had some extraordinary luck.

My husband, who possess several attractive qualities, including this one...

...finally completed his dissertation!

He has some easy revisions, but we can both envision a dissertation-free life in the near future. At long last, we're able to schedule a camping/kayaking trip. We went to a movie together...for the first time in over two years. We played board games and then vegged on the couch for the season premier of "The Office". In other words, we've been having some blessedly normal days!

I've been scurrying to complete a knitting project, too. I had some very nice, soft, springy wool in a lovely wheat color, fingering weight, that I thought would be perfect for some fingerless gloves.

I've scorned them in the past ("If it's cold enough to wear gloves, you need your whole hand covered up!"), but they're truly miraculous in the fall. Perfect for those months when it's not quite thick, woolen glove weather, but there's a definite bite in the air. These gloves are perfect protection in cool mornings and brisk, chilly nights. I even wear them around the house, since the open fingers enable me to use my phone or type on the computer.

This particular pattern ("October Leaves" on Ravelry) is really clever. A four-stitch cable snakes up the wrist to the base of the thumb, and then separates to form two delicate lace leaves.

There's also a cable on the other side of the hand.

I'm very pleased with my new fingerless gloves!

Since the weather's turned, I've also been baking a lot. In fact, I've baked three pies in the past 10 days. Pies are so quick and easy, even if you don't have much experience. And there's nothing like biting into a warm, tasty slice of pie that you've baked yourself, from scratch.

I've posted my go-to pie crust recipe on here before. It's Smitten Kitchen's no-fail all-butter pie crust. I highly recommend it for any type of pie.

The first pie I baked this season was also the easiest. I love blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries in a pie, so I paged through several recipes before deciding on one. I'm really pleased with the result.

Three Berry Pie
makes one pie

one recipe pie crust
6 cups berries
1/4 cup cornstarch
3/4 cup sugar

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Mix together your cornstarch and sugar, withholding two tablespoons. After well combined, pour onto your fruit and mix well. When fruit is completely coated, sprinkle the held-back tablespoons of sugar/cornstarch mixture into the bottom of your pie crust, and pour the fruit on top. Cover with second crust. Crimp crust and pierce with fork. Cover the edge of your pie with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 25 minutes. Cool completely before cutting...this helps the liquid inside to congeal.

It's so easy! The pie only has three ingredients. And the no-fail pie crust truly is no-fail. Look at that flaky crust!

It's the perfect weather for fall. I hope you'll try it soon!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Squirreling Away Your Fall Treasures

The weather is cooling, and I'm seeing a lot more of this:

and this:

This is my absolute favorite time of year, and I love bringing the outside in! Even though it seems to bother this guy when I'm rooting around in his territory...

My favorite thing to bring in, in September, is acorns. They're a beautiful, glossy green right now.

I love to group them with freshly-picked berries and yellow fall leaves.

I take out some of the 'best' ones and make little acorn 'nests' to put around the house. These little nests are so versatile, because I put robin's eggs in them in spring and summer, and they have this fall use too.

I frequently combine the two, especially on our sun room table. I think they complement each other very well!

These green acorns will eventually begin to turn darker...

...and some develop multiple hues, like this purple, tan, and green one.

Eventually they become a dark purple, and then darken into a lovely deep brown.

There's a mysterious tree by our house whose seeds resemble teeny, tiny pine cones. I bring those in too, of course, and will eventually make small wreaths out of them.

This month's issue of Martha Stewart Living says it best:

Everything in the garden has gone to seed, so I've really been gathering this week, before the rains come and cause rot. Of course, I use my rubber stamps and shape-cutting presses to cut out sticky labels.

I think they brighten up the bags quite a bit!

The last of the summer bouquets have been picked, too. It's back to grocery store bouquets until spring!

Still, some creatures are still out and about, like this full-grown Black Swallowtail caterpillar. He's in his final stage before making his chrysalis.

This little guy is in the second instar phase. Instar refers to the stages between molts for arthropods. He has one molt to go before reaching adulthood, and then his final molt. I've cut down most of the dried plants along the fence, but I've saved several for the caterpillars.

The mantises are still pretty active...

...and little insects, like this cucumber beetle.

I've gotten started on my fall knitting. I wanted a simple, warm hat to wear, in a nice fall color. I found a cloche-style pattern that I really liked. The construction is quite clever. You knit a section in stockinette, add a purl row, continue with another stockinette section, and then fold at the purl "crease" and knit the two stockinette sections together. Now you've got a tidy, sturdy brim. Modeled by my sister...

I wanted to stitch a brown velvet ribbon around the brim. Unfortunately, it wasn't a well thought-out plan, but I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out. It lays almost completely flat when the hat is on, and I just had to hand-stitch a center row of dark brown stitches to hold it in place.

I'm finishing up a lap blanket, too, and halfway through a pair of fingerless gloves.

Besides fall gathering and fall knitting, I've got my fall cooking, too. I had originally planned to post a different recipe today, but I fell in love with a potato soup I made last week that was a conglomeration of three or four other recipes. The resulting recipe is astoundingly good, even though I'm not much of a soup person. Thick, rich, and flavorful...and perfect for fall.

Thick, Rich Potato Soup

3 1/2 cups peeled and diced potatoes
1 finely chopped onion
1 - 2 cloves garlic, minced
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
1/2 - 3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
handful of mushrooms, sliced
2 - 3 carrots, grated
5 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
2 ounces cream cheese
a handful of shredded cheese

Saute onions in butter until translucent and slightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add mushrooms and carrots and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Then, add chicken broth, spices, bay leaf, and potatoes. Boil for about 20 minutes, until potatoes are soft.

When your potatoes are about 5 minutes from being done, start your roux. Melt the butter and then whisk in flour. Stir for about a minute. Slowly stir in milk and bring to a boil. Stirring almost continually, cook for 5 - 8 minutes, until mixture thickens. Add your cream cheese and a handful of shredded cheese and stir until completely melted.

When potatoes are done, add the roux and remove the bay leaf.

With some thick, crusty bread, it's a perfect fall meal! Enjoy!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fortune Cookie Rookie (no more!)

Finally, we've got monarchs in the garden this week.

Todd and I saw one freshly hatched from its chrysalis on a walk the other morning. Talk about fresh, vibrant colors! But many of the ones I've seen are older. This monarch has probably been alive for a couple of weeks. He has telltale tears on his wings, and many of the tiny feathers that cover his wings have flaked off, leaving dull, gray spots.

Older butterflies are a little more devil-may-care than the younger ones. They don't mind sitting on my fingers, or letting me get close while they feed.

I love their delightfully spotted bodies! God had fun making butterflies, I'll bet.

The older ones aren't as buoyant as younger ones. This monarch had multiple tumbles from flowers, but he always patiently climbed back up to the bloom to feed.

Another winged visitor this week: a beautiful moth resting on our screen door.

Identifying moths is difficult, because they are so numerous, and so many of them happen to be brown. But I still enjoy studying their markings. Don't they have lovely designs?

A common buckeye (Junonia coenia) stopped by for some nectar. They look interesting with wings closed, but...

...they are much prettier with opened wings!

Recently, I was eating supper in our little sun room and idly surveying the back yard. On a low wire running through our pine tree branches, I saw a familiar silhouette:

A mantis was poised in "attack position" directly over the web of a small orb weaver spider. The spider tidied up his web, seemingly oblivious of the threat. Do mantises eat spiders?

Oh, yes, they do! Mantises eat all forms of insects, bees, and spiders. Oh, and also small birds and reptiles...if they can get them! I'm telling you - these things are dangerous! :)

Even though I had planned on taking it easy with knitting this year, I feel like I've got an unusually high amount of projects on needles. I like doing small projects in between the big ones, because I need that instant gratification. I recently completed a really fun project...a bookmark.

With a tail.

Squashed, with a tire-tread back.

And a lolling tongue. And, in case you still weren't sure...X's for eyes. Yes, this is one dead rat.

He was so much fun to knit! The pattern was easy...a simple 2-needle cast-on (using Judy's Magic Cast-On), a few increases, a bit of embroidery, some polyfil, and then a simple garter stitch body. I used teeny pink i-cords for the feet and tail.

I don't need to crack open a fortune cookie to know that there are many more of these in my future!

Of course, just in case I wanted to stack the odds...I happen to know how to make fortune cookies. They're easy, and fun, and great for almost any occasion...Valentine's Day, a birthday, an exciting life event, or...just because. Would you believe they only contain four ingredients?
Now there's really no excuse not to try them!

Fortune Cookies
Makes 12 - 20 cookies
Annie's Eats

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg whites

Whisk all ingredients together until well-blended and then chill for one hour. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and write out your fortunes!

When your batter is chilled, spoon out 1 teaspoon of it onto a greased cookie sheet and spread it into a 3- or 4-inch circle. I made my cookies a bit too big and they didn't fold as easily as they would have if smaller. Lesson learned! Only put 3 or 4 circles on your cookie sheet. They harden quickly after baking, so if you have more than 4 cookies waiting to be shaped, there's a good chance that they'll harden before you've got time to shape them. Don't worry...if they do harden, you can heat them up in the microwave for a few seconds to soften them.

Here's where the fun begins! Bake for about 5 minutes, until they've just gotten a golden edge.

Working quickly, remove your cookies from the cookie sheet and flip them over. Lay a fortune inside...

...fold them in half...and fold them over the edge of a bowl to harden. Because mine were a little too big, I ended up placing them on a clean cloth and resting a spoon against their tops to hold them down while they hardened. Either way will work!

Look! You just made fortune cookies! Repeat with remaining batter and let cookies cool. You can give them away in their current state...

...or, you could dip them in chocolate and cover them with sprinkles, which is my preference.

The chocolate hardens quickly, and then they're ready to give!

Your recipient will be "fortunate" to receive such a fun gift!

I hope you'll make some this week. Enjoy!