Praising the Perennial Garden

Oh how I adore the perennial garden in our front yard.

I love the way the flowers sprout from the ground, spread their leaves, and form their precious blossoms without any encouraging from me.

I love the way the different hues bloom in rapid succession, beginning in May and continuing through the fall.

I love the way the garden looks from the front window where I stand and appraise it periodically throughout the day. I also love the different views it offers from the lawn and the street. (I think the streetside view is the best, actually.)

Two years ago at this time, there was no perennial garden. Instead, there was a rather ugly bush. It wasn't removed until July, and that's when the perennial garden came to be.

Having never planted perennials before, I decided—as I do with so many things I try—just to wing it.

I purchased flowers that were already blooming and that I liked the look of. I selected ones with names that seemed familiar. I picked some that were on clearance because it was already July. I tried to make sure they were all suited to our climate and, when I could figure it out, that they were native.

Around this time last year, I added some mulch and a few new plants, but mostly let the garden do its thing.

And this year, I only added one new plant—a purchase from the master gardener's plant sale, one that will hopefully add a bit of late-summer color. Beyond that one planting, I have weeded and mulched and little else.

This year, it's all about enjoying the fruits of previous years' labor. Like the blooms shown here, which made their appearance the other day.

The first flowers of the season, all in hues of purple, are giving way to a more vibrant assortment of oranges and yellows.

Fun, isn't it?


Farmer's Market (x2)

Finally I had a quiet Saturday at home. A quiet Saturday without homework or wedding festivities or any obligations. And so finally I made it to the farmer's market.

Only it wasn't just one farmer's market. It was two.

You see, last year an incident occurred at the L-Town farmer's market. Big drama in a small town. And so the farmer's market split into two.

Now, there are a handful of vendors still setting up shop at Latham Park, where the farmer's market has long been held. But there's another group that now hosts a farmer's market in Scully Park.

The two parks are only a few blocks apart—on opposite sides of the square. But it's a wacky situation considering the original farmer's market wasn't all that big in the first place.

And of course I have to go to both, because my favorite vendors are split between the two markets.

So yesterday I got some beautiful produce—asparagus, rhubarb, sugar snap peas, strawberries, garlic, more strawberries, broccoli—at the new Scully Park market.

But the sweet woman who sells her breads is at Latham Park, so I stopped there for a bag of her to-die-for granola and a caramel pecan breakfast bread. (I had to do something to offset all the healthful fare I purchased at the other location.)

Alas, after this weekend the madness begins again and I just realized I may not make it to a single Saturday morning farmer's market in June. How sad is that?


2 Easy Pasta Recipes (Part 2)

I'm not going to mess around with this recipe, for I have no lovely photos to share. But you can use your imagination with this one. I'm just sure of it.

Yesterday I posted the recipe for an oh-so-nice springy asparagus and pine nut pasta. Today the second pasta recipe makes an appearance, and I have to admit something.

It's a bit naughtier.

Granted, it doesn't sound all that naughty: cream sauce with linguine, courtesy of Real Simple May 2007. (Yes, my recipe stack goes that far back.)

But then you look at the ingredients and realize that although this is a lighter sauce than, say, alfredo, it's no angel.

Yet goodness gracious, it is good. And easy. So you should go ahead and make it anyway.

Here's how:

Cook 1 pound of linguine according to package directions.

In a large saucepan, over medium-low heat, warm 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/2 cup whole milk, 1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.

Add the cooked pasta and 1 cup grated Parmesan and stir until the cheese melts and the sauce thickens (2 to 3 minutes).

Then enjoy.

Really. That's it.

I told you it was easy. And sinful. But that's to be expected when half of the sauce ingredients are the same as those used to make homemade ice cream.

Not that I did that ... and ate it after I had the pasta with cream sauce ... because that would be over the top even for me, don't you think?


2 Easy Pasta Recipes (Part 1)

You know me. When Conservative Hubby is away, I love a big bowl of pasta. Nothing too heavy or hearty or meaty. Just light and easy.

And I also like to clean out the pantry while I'm at it, which is why the last two pasta recipes I tried on evenings when the hubs hit the links involved linguine.

This is the first. It's linguine with asparagus and pine nuts, from the April 2010 issue of Real Simple.

All you do is cook 12 ounces of pasta according to package directions, drain it, and return it to the pot.

Then heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup pine nuts and 4 cloves garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until golden (1 to 2 minutes). Add 2 pounds trimmed and cut asparagus and cook, tossing occasionally, until just tender (2 to 3 minutes).

Add the asparagus mixture to the pasta along with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Toss to combine and sprinkle with Parmesan just before serving.

Springy and tasty.

And a bit lighter than the cream sauce I'll share with you tomorrow ...


Kid Sister and T-Bear's Wedding

It's official.

On Saturday, Kid Sister and T-Bear tied the knot.

You've been with them through it all (well ... sort of). From when T-Bear first received his name to when he popped the question.

So it's only fitting that you should also be there for the big day. However, this is difficult, given an unreliable digital camera and the fact that I try not to post photos of unsuspecting victims on the blog.

Instead, I will give you a little rundown of the excitement, with a few glimpses of the action thrown in along the way.

The weekend extravaganza began on Thursday evening, with a most delicious dinner at Q and MB's for immediate family and out of town guests (including My Parents).

Friday, we did the requisite rehearsing and enjoyed a rehearsal dinner unlike any other at The Villa. (You should have seen how big the out-of-towners' eyes got when they saw the size of the prime rib.)

Saturday was, of course, the big day. For the ladies it began at 9:30 with hair and makeup. For the first time, I tried airbrushed makeup along with the rest of the girls. It was a quick and easy process, and I was told it made you look pretty darn good in photos. Who doesn't want that?

Then it was off to the church where we got ready, relaxed, and took photos.

I'd like to interrupt this play-by-play, by the way, to say that Kid Sister was a most beautiful bride. Her hair was perfect, her makeup was perfect, she looked absolutely stunning in her dress, and of course she was glowing because it was the day she had been waiting for since T-Bear got down on one knee with an Easter egg more than a year ago. And T-Bear, too, looked incredibly handsome and incredibly happy.

Then it was time for the ceremony. But this wasn't just any church wedding ceremony. It was special for a number of reasons.

For one thing, Conservative Hubby played the saxophone while his sister and father walked down the aisle. He did a swell job and everyone was duly impressed.

Then, to lighten the mood, the best man gave each groomsman a button with a picture of this handsome fellow to wear on their suit coats, since he couldn't be there in real life. (Although the best man did contemplate actually bringing Cubbie to the festivities, he decided against it.)

That really lightened the mood, to say the least. For a while I thought we might not stop laughing long enough for the happy couple to say their vows, but eventually they got around to the important part of the ceremony.

Afterward, the bridal party hopped in the bus for a cocktail and a few more outdoor photos before heading to the ceremony, just in time for our grand entrance.

The reception venue was beeaauuutiful, all pink and silver and white lights.

And the reception? Well, if you want to know about the reception, just know this: We're all still recovering.

From eating too much wonderful food. From laughing and crying and laughing some more. From dancing way too much.

(Just to tease you and give you a glimpse of the gorgeous bride, here's a photo of the father-daughter dance, carefully chosen because it does not show their faces and so does not break my blog rule ... much.)

And now Kid Sister and T-Bear are living happily ever after.

Saxophone photo via Flickr: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton


Bangs and Brooks & Dunn

For a good portion of my life, I had bangs. Permed bangs. Poofy bangs. Bangs curled up. Bangs curled down. Stiff bangs. Straight bangs.

You get the idea.

Sometimes they were cute, like when I was really young and missing key teeth.

Once I got to that awkward middle school stage of my life, the bangs got a bit more awkward too. Of course, the giant glasses didn't really up my coolness quotient at all.

But, as you can see, even My Mom sported sweet bangs. It was just how things were done back then.

Also, apparently back then we only wore Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts.

Then, as was the trend at the time, the summer before I entered 9th grade I grew my bangs out. I've had a few whisps across the forehead at different points since then, but for the most part since my freshman year of high school I've been a no bangs girl.

Last Friday, though, when I went for a hair cut, I got an itch. I decided I needed to do something different, to change things up a bit. To hide my giant forehead.

And so I got brave and asked for bangs again.

These bangs, to be exact.

(And no, that is not me. Although naturally I'm almost as hot. But my makeup artist has the day off and so I had to substitute this photo in place of a real one of me.)

So far, I'm a fan. Although I keep brushing them to the side because it feels like they don't belong on my forehead. Still, it's a fun change.

And the timing couldn't be more perfect, because on Saturday we went to a Brooks & Dunn concert.

Now I know what you're thinking. I believe it goes a little something like this:

Julie, what the heck do Brooks & Dunn have to do with bangs?

Come on people. They have everything to do with bangs.

But let me be a bit more explicit.

In the height of my bangs-wearing, in what My Mom and I are estimating was around fourth grade, I attended my first real, big, live concert.

And it was Brooks & Dunn at the county fair in Lewistown, Montana, where My Mom was born and raised.

We often went up to visit Grandpa Charlie and Grandma Barb in the summer, and when we were lucky our visits coincided with the fair—think the usual variety of rides and fair food and, of course, a rodeo or two.

And so, that fateful fair year, I went to my very first concert. It was the tour where Brooks wore that red flamed western shirt, in case you're up on these things. (Consequently, some fellow actually was wearing that shirt last Saturday night. Perhaps it, too, is coming back in style?)

It was the year of Boot Scootin' Boogie and all those classics that a good portion of the people at Saturday night's concert didn't really know.

Boy oh boy, last weekend's concert took me back.

I even bought a t-shirt from my very first concert. And somewhere, in some photo album, there is a photo of me in that t-shirt from that trip. And there's one thing My Mom and I remember for certain. In that photo I have bangs. And big glasses. And a perm.

We can both picture it as clearly as if it were last Saturday.

And that is why bangs and Brooks & Dunn go together.


Coconut Cream Pie

On Saturday, I spent a couple of hours at the Illinois Elks state meeting in Springfield. (I am the secretary of the Lodge board now, which is why I attended.) When I went up to the desk to register upon my arrival, the friendly folks in charge couldn't find my envelope. They looked for a few minutes, checked their records, and then discovered why:

They had me listed as Julie Bakes, rather than Julie Bates.

Coincidence? I think not.

So, in honor of my new moniker, I thought I'd share a virtual slice of coconut cream pie with you. This was Conservative Mom's request for her Mother's Day dinner, which Kid Sister and I were in charge of.

I have to admit, I used to not be that big of a fan of coconut. Don't know why really. Just didn't care too much for it.

But since living in L-Town and spending time with Conservative Family, I've changed my tune. This undoubtedly is because they are serious coconut lovers. That sort of thing rubs off on you eventually. (Although for some reason rhubarb love is not rubbing off on Conservative Hubby, but that's a whole other issue.)

This recipe comes courtesy of the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. It's basically a vanilla cream pie recipe, with coconut thrown into the cream mixture and on top of the meringue.

First, you bake your pastry shell.

While that's baking, separate the yolks of 4 eggs from the whites. Set the whites aside for the meringue. (Letting the egg whites stand at room temperature for 30 minutes ensures a prettier, tastier meringue. At least that's what the BHG folks say.)

For the filling, combine 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup cornstarch in a medium saucepan.

Gradually stir in 2 1/2 cups half-and-half.

Cook and stir over medium-high heat until thickened and bubbly; reduce heat.

Cook and stir 2 minutes more. Remove from heat.

Slightly beat egg yolks with a fork.

Gradually stir about 1 cup of the hot filling into yolks.

Add egg yolk mixture to filling in saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat; cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon butter, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, and 1 cup flaked coconut.

Keep filling warm while you prepare the meringue.

For the meringue, combine the four egg whites with 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar in a large mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed about 1 minute or until soft peaks form (tips will curl).

Gradually add 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating on high speed about 4 minutes more or until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks and sugar dissolves.

Pour the warm pie filling into the baked pastry shell. Spread meringue over the warm filling and seal to the edge. Sprinkle 1/3 cup flaked coconut over the meringue.

Baked in a 325 degree oven for 30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack 1 hour. Chill 3 to 6 hours before serving.

Then, as usual, forget to take a photo of the pie once it's served because you're too busy eating.

Over and out,
Julie (Bakes)


Catching Up

Oh boy oh boy have I ever let you down this year.

You should've had your fill of "hooray for planting," "look at the plants growing," "oh wow this one's budding," and "eek! flowers!" posts by now.

Only I'm a slacker. I didn't even get things in the ground and in their pots until this past week.

I've failed to document the way my perennial garden in the front yard has taken off, no thanks to me.

And I haven't even mentioned that I yanked up all the grass Conservative Hubby planted over my garden last year and put another lovely little veggie patch in.

And yes, there are even some "eek! flowers!" moments already.

I guess we have a bit of catching up to do, don't we?


Visiting the Rail Splitter Wind Farm

Since wind farms first started appearing across the Illinois landscape, I've been fascinated by the giant white turbines—with the way they look like giant white children's toys thrown haphazardly across the landscape, with the mesmerizing way their arms spin and spin and spin, with the fact that they sit there generating energy.

So I decided to do some research on wind farms in general, and the 11,000-acre Rail Splitter Wind Farm located just down the road from L-Town in particular, for an article for one of my master's classes.

In the process, I waded through a whole lot of numbers and hard facts on wind energy and the amount generated by the Rail Splitter Wind Farm. I read research on possible health effects of living close to the turbines. And I spoke to some incredibly passionate locals—some of whom are all for the wind farm and the benefits it brings to the county and the state, others who are adamantly opposed to the turbines and wish the darn things would just go away.

And I even got to spend some time at the wind farm, standing under one of the turbines, on an incredibly windy day no less.

And guess who forgot her camera?

Fortunately, my cell phone takes reasonable photos, so I can at least share with you a few snapshots of my up-close encounter.

Even standing beneath one of the 230-foot-tall white behemoths, there's only a faint whoosh, whoosh, whoosh from above, where three 125-foot blades spin steadily.

The equipment inside the tower produces a mechanical buzz that overpowers the whoosh of the blades.

Some homeowners say that the sound of the turbines don't bother them in the least; on many of the farms in this area, it's just another part of a busy day's background noise. Others find the sound too loud, too irritating.

As I worked on the article, I started to wonder: It's one thing to spend a couple of minutes standing beneath one of the white giants. But would I feel the same if I lived in the shadow of one—or 20 or more?

Still, the fact that these giant machines capture something we normally have little use for—wind—and transform it into energy to light our houses and run our businesses is nothing short of amazing. Plus the wind farm benefits many local farmers—who earn money from having the turbines on their land even as they continue planting crops around them—as well as Lincoln and Tazewell counties, which receive tax money for every turbine.

And regardless of whether you think these wind farms are a win-win situation or a nuisance, they are pretty darn mesmerizing, aren't they?


Mmmm Pie

It's that time of year again, when the stalks of rhubarb turn red and cry out for a little strawberry companionship.

So this weekend, as a break from the endless hours spent preparing final papers and presentations and articles and such, I snagged some rhubarb from a friend's yard and made a strawberry rhubarb pie for Conservative Family Dinner.

You saw the same recipe here last year, but this one is much prettier. Just think what next year's pie might look like. Or next weekend's ... there's still a lot of rhubarb to be eaten.

I'm wondering what else I could do with my rhubarb, besides make another pie. Stew it? No way. (Conservative Mom would have nightmares of school lunches past.) Throw it out? (Not really my idea, but I know that's what Conservative Hubby would suggest.)

Any ideas?