Thursday, February 26, 2015

Shadows on the Snow

For Marigold, who lamented the lack of a shadow shot in my last scenic post....

Sunday's walk was cold. After a week of zero and sub-zero temps, a Saturday of teasing warmth (30 degrees!) had coaxed the snow into softening a bit, but overnight the mercury crashed back into negative numbers. The snow showed its displeasure by turning crusty on top, and repeatedly giving way underfoot just when our blogger least expected it. (Which made for a very good workout.)

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A bright sun shines from a cloudless sky, casting sharp blue shadows across the wintry afternoon. Shadow of a blogger:

And a turtle:

Shadows of grass:

And trees (and again the blogger):

How the blogger stays warm when wind chills are well below zero:

 The most beautiful shadows are cast by the simplest shapes, I find.

Someone has walked this trail before me - someone with a dog. The human footsteps trudge straight down the center of the path, while the doggy prints swerve joyously from left to right. I can see the dog in my mind's eye, meandering happily, making sudden rushes from grass clump to grass clump to follow a fascinating scent. I wonder which enjoyed the walk more, the human or the dog....

I've turned off the path proper onto the snowmobile trail. A leaf has sunk into the snow, carving a perfect image of itself:

Shadows of trees fall aslant the trail as it curves through a bit of wood:

Tallulah poses on a wind-carved ledge:

We look back at our own footprints...

...then turn our faces to the wind and to home.

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Usually, by late February, I'm desperate for spring and warmth. This year is different. I don't mind the cold; I wish we had more snow; I view with faint alarm the relentless march of the days. Time is moving too quickly, and I have too many projects to finish before winter ends. Is this a sign of age, or merely of overcommitment?

How about you? Are you longing for spring, or are you willing for winter to hang on a bit longer?

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Monday, February 23, 2015

American Tacos and Homemade Taco Seasoning

If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, the word "taco" probably conjures up a mental image of a crispy yellow shell filled with spiced ground beef, shredded cheese, and lettuce. The more culinarily adventurous will also envision layers of chopped tomato and perhaps avocado. These pleasing ideas may, or may not, be accompanied by thoughts of a corporate logo which include a stylized bell against a background of red or brown. It all depends on where you ate your tacos.

When I was a kid, we rarely ate out; if we wanted tacos, we made them at home. The process started with the purchase of tortillas, a pound of ground beef, and a small red packet labelled "taco seasoning". While Mom browned the meat and stirred in the contents of the packet, my sister grated cheddar cheese and chopped up the (shudder) iceberg lettuce. Then the tortillas were warmed, and we sat down to enjoy what we fondly thought of as Mexican food.

Nowadays I know better. I've read enough food magazines and eaten at enough awesome hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants to have an entirely different (and presumably more authentic) concept of a taco. But sometimes I still hanker after the old seasoned-ground-beef-in-a-tortilla of my childhood. I think of it as the American taco. (Apparently this is a common name; I just googled the phrase "American taco" and all kinds of recipes came up.)

Though they have no culinary snob value, American tacos are tasty and filling, and, if you add enough leafy greens, make for a more or less nutritionally-balanced main dish. And since I mix my own taco seasoning, my tacos are MSG-free - or, to be scientifically accurate, they contain no processed free glutamic acid. The same cannot be said with certainty for tacos seasoned with the little red packet, or purchased from a building with a bell on the sign.

I don't usually measure the seasoning ingredients when I'm making taco filling - I just get out the containers and sling the stuff in - so the measurements given here are approximate, and adjusting to taste is encouraged. I like to include a bit of cinnamon for velvety warmth, and finish with lime juice for brightness. (If you make the vegetarian filling below, the lime juice is key to counteracting the stodginess of the beans.)

Any of the filling versions below will also make a great topping for leafy green salads: arrange greens on plate, then top with warm taco filling and shredded cheese. Or make an enchilada variation: soften tortillas in hot oil, then roll with filling and shredded cheese and place in an oven-proof dish. Pour on a little salsa, and top with more shredded cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until heated through.

Seasoning recipe makes enough for one pound of ground beef.

Stir together in a bowl:
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon medium-heat chili powder (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (or 1 clove chopped fresh garlic, added with meat)
1/4 teaspoon onion powder (optional)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
2-4 hearty dashes of cinnamon
4 teaspoons cornmeal (ground oatmeal may be substituted in a pinch)

Very Basic Meat Filling: Brown 1 lb. ground beef, stirring occasionally to break up meat; drain fat if desired; stir in seasoning and 1/2 - 3/4 cup water (water will be absorbed as mixture simmers); cover and simmer on low for 5-10 minutes. Remove pan from heat; squeeze in juice of 1/2 lime and stir. Serve with tortillas and fillings of choice.

Mrs. M's Enhanced Filling: Chop 1 onion, 1 small red bell pepper, 1 small jalapeño (seeds and ribs removed), and a small handful of cilantro stems (reserve leaves for later); saute in 1-2 Tablespoons oil until just beginning to soften. Add uncooked beef (and fresh garlic if using). Cook for a few minutes, stirring gently to break up meat as it browns. Add taco seasoning, 1/2 cup chunky salsa, and 1/2 cup water (water will be absorbed as mixture simmers). Cover and simmer on low for 5-10 minutes, adding more water if desired or if mixture seems dry. While meat simmers, chop reserved cilantro leaves. Remove pan from heat; squeeze in juice of 1/2 lime, stir, and top with cilantro leaves. Serve with tortillas and fillings of choice.

Vegetarian Version: Make as Enhanced Version above, but replace ground beef with 1 can rinsed prepared black beans OR 1½ cups cooked black beans, and about 3/4 cup cooked rice. Be sure to use the lime juice at the end - it makes all the difference to the flavour.

The Whole Shebang: Combine the Enhanced Version and the Vegetarian version by using beef AND black beans and rice in the amounts listed above. Double the seasoning recipe, and use extra salsa and both halves of the lime. Increase water if desired.

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We like to build our American tacos from corn tortillas heated in olive oil until soft, then salted on one side; meat or bean-and-rice (or combined) filling; grated CoJack cheese; and torn fresh leafy lettuce. If we're out of lettuce we use baby spinach leaves. (I did say "American", right?) Mr. M adds guacamole when I remember to buy an avocado.

Other fillings you might enjoy: cooked corn; sour cream; refried beans; chopped tomatoes; chopped fresh onions.

Do you eat tacos? What kind do you like?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

An Icy Walk

This is the time of year we try not to be jealous of other climates. Snowdrops are blooming in England and Scotland; the Pacific Northwest is leafing and flowering after a January "false spring". But here in Wisconsin, it's simply cold. We're having a week of below-zero nights and barely-above-zero days, with wind chills making it even colder.

The funny thing is, it doesn't feel too bad. Temps that made us squirm in December now seem quite bearable. (It must be a case of getting acclimated.) But there's one part of me that doesn't like this weather one bit - my fingers. Given a choice between holding a camera out in the wind, and staying warmly tucked inside winter clothing, my fingers would choose pockets over photography every time - which is why there are so few photos from Sunday's walk.

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The sky is mostly cloudy when I set out. There are small birds singing all over the neighbourhood - rather puzzling in this cold weather, but strangely cheering as their song brings thoughts of spring.

After I reach the park, the clouds break slightly, showing glimpses of wintry blue sky:

A pine cone looks as though it washed up on a snowy tide:

Tree branches beaded with the promise of spring:

A patch of the lake has been cleared of snow to make an ice rink (though no one is skating today):

Even though I know it's frozen solid, I still feel nervous about walking on the ice, which is full of vertical and horizontal cracks, and dark beneath its stippled surface (much darker than this photo shows):

What the camera sees from ice-level:

I lose my nerve and head back to the safe shore. There's something about the dark ice that makes me uneasy. I envision myself striking a thin patch and falling through, like Amy in Little Women - with no Laurie to drag me out. (Logic tells me this would be highly unlikely in these temperatures, but why listen to logic when unreasoning fear is so much more colourful and exciting?)

My fingers are glad when I put away the camera and pull on my gloves. A chilly mile later, I'm back in the warm house.

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Have you ever skated on a dark frozen lake, or swum in lake waters where you couldn't see the bottom? Did you wonder uneasily about what might lie below the surface? Coward that I am, I hope that a few of you will answer "yes", so I'll know I'm not alone.... :)

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Thursday, February 12, 2015


Million. It's one of those words that has almost no meaning. It represents an amount so vast we really can't envision it. And "two million" is equally (or do I mean doubly?) incomprehensible.

When I started this blog almost 4 years ago, I had no idea where it might take me. I certainly had no idea I'd ever see this on the dashboard:

At this rate, by next week there will probably be a large (and largely unbelievable) 2-with-a-bunch-of-zeroes-behind-it on my Blogger screen.

Another important number looming in the Micawber household: 55. This month Mr. M will hit the speed limit of birthdays. He plans to celebrate by shaving off his winter beard. (As his beard has gone mostly grey, this will immediately knock ten years off his appearance - a smart way to take the sting out of getting older.)

Big numbers aren't the only noteworthy ones. 3 years ago this month my mom passed from this earthly life to her new forever life. I can't imagine what she is seeing or hearing, but someday I'll find out. And I'll get to hug her again.

There's something about anniversaries, about the numbers both big and small with which we mark the events of life, that compels emotion in the human heart: whether it be awe, excitement, wistfulness, or merely surprise that such a thing should be, that so much time should have gone by, that so much should have happened almost without our being aware of it. My heart is full of all of these this February.

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In March, this blog will turn 4. Time to start planning a giveaway, I think. :)

Are there any important numbers in your life this month?

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Little Hats

Have you heard? Taci of TaciStudio has sent out a call for hats - baby hats to be precise. She's going to Brazil in July, and would like to bring 200 hats to a village where there is a great need for baby clothing.

Baby hats are so quick and fun to make - a little yarn, a little time, and before you know it you've got a little piece of love to give away.

I've made three so far:

Left to right:
1) Crochet, Deborah Norville Serenity Garden Yarn, colour Crocus, size G/4.00mm hook
2) Knit, Plymouth Encore Colorspun Worsted, colour Purple Mix, size US 6 needles
3) Knit, Red Heart Boutique Unforgettable, colour Winery, size US 5 needles

I'm calling them the Abraço Hats (patterns can be found below). "Abraço" is the Portuguese word for cuddle, hug, or embrace - a good name for a baby hat, don't you think? :)

The Abraço Crochet Hat is easy-peasy - nearly all double crochets, worked spirally to avoid troublesome round joins. I love the way the colour changes fell out on this hat - totally unplanned:

The Abraço Knit Hat starts with a beginner-level lace pattern for the brim, which is highlighted by a few rows of garter stitch, then finished with a stockinette crown. The hat is knit flat, then seamed. I got lucky (again) with the colour changes on the pink Abraço:

The lavender Abraço came from a skein of ombré yarn with very long, very abrupt colour changes. For this hat, I cut the yarn into sections of the same shade, joining when needed at row beginnings so the hat could be mostly one colour:

For more baby hat inspiration, or if you'd like to participate in Hats for Brazil 2015, see Taci's post, where you'll find links to other simple hat patterns (one knit, one crochet). Teresa Kasner has also designed an easy, pretty hat for the project - you can find her pattern here. And of course there's always Ravelry....

Now for the patterns.

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Note on Sizing Baby Hats: There are lots of measurement charts floating around the web. Just google "baby hat sizes" and you'll see what I mean. Some charts give head measurements, and others give suggested hat measurements, which may include extra length for a foldup brim. I looked at several charts to come up with a kind of average for my own chart below.

Crochet Abraço Hat

Use fine, dk, or worsted weight yarn with the appropriate size hook.

Skills used: magic ring, sc, hdc, dc, sc2tog, invisible join

Hat is worked in increasing spiral rounds until the crown is the desired size, then worked in even rounds to desired length. Below is a chart for suggested measurement combinations. Numbers have been rounded to the nearest half-inch for simplicity, which means your hat may not exactly match the measurements given. Allow extra height if you want a fold-up brim.

Note: Each normal increase is 12 stitches, which can cause a big jump in size between rounds, especially if you're using heavier yarn. If you have trouble getting the circumference you want, you can always frog back to the crown and change the number of increases on your final increase round. To size down, try skipping every other increase (this will remove 6 stitches from your total count).

Make a magic ring, chain 1.
Round 1: sc, hdc, 10 dc in ring = 12 sts. If desired, place marker in the final dc of round, and move it up with each round.
Round 2: 2 dc in each stitch = 24 sts.
Round 3: (2 dc in next st, 1 dc in next) 6 times = 36 sts.
Round 4: (2 dc in next st, 1 dc in next 2 sts) 6 times = 48 sts.
Round 5: (2 dc in next st, 1 dc in next 3 sts) 6 times = 60 sts.
Continue increase pattern until desired diameter is reached, adjusting final increase round if necessary (see Note above).
Start even (cluster) rounds: Still working in spiral, (2 dc in next st, skip 1 st) around, ending with 2dc in space just before first 2dc cluster of this round. You should have an even number of clusters, which will equal half the number of stitches in your final increase round.
Following rounds: 2 dc in each space around.
Work spiral cluster rounds until the hat is 1/4" to 1/2" less than desired height.
Final round (shells): Inserting hook in next 2 spaces, sc2tog. Then *(2 dc, ch 1, 2 dc) in next space, sc in next space. Repeat from * around, ending with shell in last space. Join with invisible join to sc2tog. Weave in ends.

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Knit Abraço Hat

Use fine, dk, or worsted weight yarn with the appropriate size needles.

Skills used: cast on, knit, purl, ssk, k2tog, k3togtbl, seaming

Important: swatch before you stitch to determine finished hat size! Cast on 16 stitches and work first 6 pattern rows (this will give you 2 repeats of the lace pattern, ending with k2 on RS rows). Measure one repeat, and divide the measurement into the hat size you'd like to make. (Example: 1 repeat measures 1.5". You want to make a 14" hat. Divide 14 x 1.5 = 9.33. Round it down to 9, and that's how many repeats you'll need. This is only an example - your measurements may be different.) Multiply the number of repeats you need by 7, then add 2 stitches for the seam, and cast on that many stitches.

If this sounds hopelessly confusing, just use trial and error. Try casting on 65 stitches in dk weight yarn, OR 58 stitches in worsted weight yarn. Work a few lace pattern rows, then measure to see if it's the size you want. If it's not, frog it; add or subtract multiples of 7 to your original number, and cast on again. One repeat of 7 stitches will take you up or down a size.

Hat is worked flat, then seamed. To knit in the round, cast on over 3 or 4 needles and eliminate the starting and ending stitch of each round (and the seam).

Cast on multiple of 7, + 2 stitches for seaming, allowing for a 10" tail after cast on.
Note: I used the longtail cast on; if I could start over I would use a purlwise longtail cast on to help prevent curly hem.
Row 1 (RS): K2, *yo, ssk, k1, k2tog, yo, k2; repeat from * to end.
Note to beginner knitters: be careful that your yarnovers don't twist around and disappear while you make the ssk. If necessary, put your finger on the yarnover and hold it while you make the ssk. I'm a beginner knitter myself and had to learn this the hard way!
Row 2: Purl. (Watch your stitch count! If you are short a stitch, one of your yarnovers probably went astray.)
Row 3: Repeat Row 1.
Row 4: Purl.
Row 5: K3, *yo, k3tog through the back loop, yo, k4. Repeat from * to end, ending with k3.
Note to beginner knitters: same as before - watch the yarnover just before each k3togtbl, and hold it in place while making the k3tog.
More experienced knitters - if there's a better k3tog to use here, could you leave me a comment and let me know? Thanks!
Row 6: Purl.
Rows 7-10: Knit.
Row 11 (WS): Purl.
Continue in stockinette (knit 1 row, purl 1 row) until hat measures 1½ - 2" less than desired height (see chart above for suggested circumference/height combinations). End with a purl row.
Begin decreases:
First Decrease Row (RS): Knit across, decreasing evenly by whatever multiple of 7 you used to cast on. (See the chart below for some sample starting decrease rows. The extra stitch at the beginning and end are for the seam.)

Next Decrease Row: Purl.
Continue decreasing evenly on each knit row, working 1 less knit stitch between decreases, until you are down to 16 stitches in your row. Don't forget there will be an extra knit stitch at the beginning and end of each row.
Work 1 purl row between each knit decrease row.
Optional: on final decrease row, switch to a smaller pair of needles.
Final Recrease Row: K1, k2tog 7 times, k1.
Cut yarn, leaving a 6" tail. Thread through darning needle and pass through final row, starting at the opposite end and coming out where you started. Slip stitches off needle and draw final row closed.
With starting tail, seam hat closed from bottom to top. (For an invisible seam, use mattress stitch on lace and stockinette rows; use invisible garter stitch seam on the 2 garter rows. Click here for an excellent tutorial on both techniques.) Weave in ends. Block hat.

Note: If a bump forms in the center of your hat when you draw the final round closed, see this excellent post by Tech Knitter (including comment section) for some ways to avoid it.

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You may do whatever you like with the items you make from these patterns, but you may not sell the patterns or reproduce their text without permission. Links are always welcome.

If you have any questions or comments, or find mistakes in the patterns (believe me it happens on a regular basis!), do please leave a comment below. You can also email me (click Profile in sidebar for address) or contact me in Ravelry as MrsMicawber.

Thanks for viewing, and happy crocheting AND knitting! Let's send some warmth to needy babies in Brazil....

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015


C.S. Lewis once wrote these words to a friend: "[Y]ou and I ... positively enjoy almost every kind of weather." In his novel That Hideous Strength, this same love for weather is given to two of his characters: "That's why Camilla and I got married," said Denniston.... "We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but just Weather. It's a useful taste if one lives in England."

I grew up in Southern California, where the weather was (in my memory at least) rather monotonously pleasant. Apart from the occasional thunderstorms or fogs, and the regular bouts of Santa Ana winds, my memories are of moderate temperatures and mostly sunny days. Though we knew there were such things as seasons, we really only experienced about one-and-a-half of them.

Here in Wisconsin it's different. Here we have Weather with a capital W, spread across four distinct and decided seasons. The weather is not only a safe topic of conversation, but knowing what to expect of it can affect one's personal safety.

When we first announced our intention of moving here, the response from our California friends was invariably along these lines: "Don't you know it gets cold in the winter?"

Yes, we knew - and we moved here anyway. And after 23 years we still like it. In fact, we love having four seasons.

We like the white-and-blue of sparkling snow and winter sky; the softness of spring rains and spring air that bring the miracle of returning leaf and bloom; the deep moist heat of summer when the corn and tomatoes seem to grow before our very eyes; the mellower warmth and the sharp frosts of autumn, with its unutterable glory of changing trees.

We like the rolling thunderstorms that can strike almost any month of the year, darkening the sky with ominous clouds and stabbing it with violet and silver and peach lightning (though always we hope it won't stab too close to the ground). We marvel at the wind that can drive a stinging snow sideways for hours, carving it into fantastic shapes, burying familiar objects, changing the look of the terrain. We maintain a healthy respect for tornadoes; also for temperatures that can rise and fall 20 to 40 degrees over 24 hours, melting snow and then re-freezing it, turning our sidewalks and roads into a vast and dangerous skating rink. We wonder at a climate that can go from 100º and 100% humidity in summer to -25º (or worse) in winter.

It has to be confessed that much of this awe and enjoyment takes place from within doors, which makes me ask myself: do I truly like Weather in all its forms? Or does my pleasure stem from a sense of comparative cosiness and safety - from knowing that while the Weather is out, I am in?

Would I want to take a walk in a lightning storm? No - but this is a matter more of prudence than preference. Do I like to go out in a heavy fog or a soaking rain? Not usually, especially if I have to be somewhere and want to look decent when I arrive.

Which raises another question: why do I like some forms of Weather less than others? Upon mature self-examination, I have to admit that it boils down to vanity. The Weather I like least is the weather that makes my hair go limp and draggly. A blowing mist is of all things my horror, especially if I have to walk to work in it. (How sad is that?)

On the plus side: I like sun and wind and clouds and snow; heat and cold, and most things in-between. Tonight when I walked home from work, the temperature was -1 (F). I'd been fighting a sinus headache all day, and the clean icy air felt (and smelled) absolutely wonderful. Who needs an icepack when you can step outside into that? I reached home too soon, and wished I could have walked a mile or two more in the lovely breathtaking chill.

I am glad to live in a place where Weather has so many faces, where grandeur and beauty, blue skies and grey, clouds and sunset, storm and calm, even dull days and heavy, all have their places upon the stage of the year, and come and go in their appointed times.

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How do you feel about Weather? Do you enjoy it most from a position of safety, or do you like to be out in it?

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