Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Great Strawberry Escapade

In my head, the thought evokes images of steam rising from plump crusts on a windowsill.  A woman in a pretty apron, maybe with a loose bun in her hair admires the day's work.  A crow comes near, also admiring the sweet fruits under that sugary blanket, then disappears into the hillside beyond the square little frame-house. A husband tries to sneak a bit of crust and is met by a teasing swat. There was a time when, in certain parts, a pie was part of the daily routine, and this is the vision I have for myself.
(a finished pie!)

Of course, nothing is ever so simple.  At the end of the day, though, I had my pie.  Three of them.

At ten-thirty at night I finally pulled the three pies from the oven, wiped my sweaty, flour-covered brow and went to bed. Maddie, with whom I'd been watching a romantic comedy while the pies baked, had gone to at last gone to bed.  I had only to wait for the timer to go off, and I traipsed upstairs to collapse, too.

I had felt uneasy for most of the afternoon.  We have two students from Spain arriving this week, a last-minute decision that has left me feeling pressured to stock the house with groceries and scrub each and every inch. Or, at least acquire a modicum of neatness.  The mess I was making for the sake of our fresh-picked strawberries that would rot if I didn't get them into a pie, was weighing on me like the rice that held the crusts down for pre-baking.  Yes, I was pre-baking myself.

In the middle of dough-rolling, which was fast, furious, and very, very messy, my friend Rebecca showed up with her five children.  Coincidentally, Rebecca and her husband had just arrived from a romantic week in Spain!  Rebecca rounds out the triumphant neighborhood trio in my neighborhood.  Girlfriends I'm not sure I could live without.  So, I couldn't wait to catch up with her.  

Oven: off.  Kitchen counter: a disaster.  Dough: back in the fridge.  Girl-talk: on.
(Yikes!  My messy kitchen!)

It was nearing dinner time, so we stuck the kids in their strollers, bikes and scooters and swung by Rebecca's house to pick up her husband before heading over to Christie's Country Store for a little din-din.  (Boy, do I wish my town would invest in some decent sidewalks.  As much as I try to live simply here, it really is a bustling New York suburb with crazy drivers and not much space for pedestrians to feel safe. Anyway...)

I had managed to get a start on the pies in the afternoon, around three o'clock, while Westley was taking a nap on the couch.  Gabi had gone from the berry farm with his best friend Phoenix's (of the locally famous Parker family of whom I will speak often here), and Brenner and Maddie made a gorgeous hand-colored welcome sign for our Spanish guests.  We would have preferred going for a swim at Luba's, but we were housebound and made decent use of it.  Flour!  Markers! Snoring!  Dogs tackling each other under the table! 
(Westley naps)

The berry-picking itself was wonderful for me, but quickly tired the kids.  We did meet up with Samantha and her four kids, including Phoenix, at Jones Berry Farm.  I think the kids most enjoyed the ride on the "Berry Ferry" to get to the fields.  Strawberry picking is not like apple, peach, or even blueberry picking.  Strawberries are low to the ground and require constant sunlight.  You're out there without any shade, on your hands and knees.  I desperately wanted to fill my basket to its ten-pound capacity, but the kids gave up after only twenty minutes or so.  Picking in the height of the day's sun wasn't the smartest idea, but that's just how they happened. The kids rested under the shade of the trees that so conveniently surrounded the vast open fields.  
(above: Phoenix and Gabi choosing berries; my kids waiting for the "berry ferry")

Still, it had been a success.  I wasn't really there to get a deal on fruit anyway -- I could buy them at the farmer's market for the same price.  Really, it's the experience of sharing in a harvest with my children of teaching them where their food comes from, how much work goes into producing the foods they take for granted, and just being outside together.
(above: Maddie choosing a berry; middle: Brenner find the perfect one; bottom: Westley and Foxwylde)

We would have been there sooner, maybe stayed cool a little longer, maybe left with a few more berries. But, I had overlapped the berry adventure with a morning playdate for Westley.  All four kids came along so that the youngest could see his school-chum while I chatted - a rather deep conversation, actually - with mom Tara.  Half an hour turned into two full hours.  But, even the oldest, Maddie, was having a ball launching herself down the driveway on a little scooter-car.  Tara and I fully enjoyed looking over the railing of the deck to the six kids below. 
(playtime at the Parkers')

Kids should have fun.  It's how they learn and develop as human beings.  They play.  This opportunity to invent their own games and to chase each other around without some adult making up the rules was so priceless, and in our current culture, sadly rare.  

So, the time flew, and I was late for berry picking.  I didn't get to accomplish any house-keeping, and actually made an even bigger mess to deal with.  We are still out of groceries. Oh well.  I spent the day with my children and our friends.  I picked and baked and cuddled.  It was a good day.

On days when I have so much to be thankful for, it is difficult to come up with a wish.  Well, I suppose I do need to get some work done once in a while.  So, I wish to get it done quickly and get back to playing.

I am thankful for the drunken scent of strawberries, still on the vine.  I am thankful for the long hours of sun this time of year.  I am thankful for a day spent with people I love.  I am thankful that to have friends that understand the flexibility of time and who won't fault me if a playdate runs long.  
(Phoenix, Gabi, me, Westley, Maddie, Brenner, Blu, Foxwylde, Zephyr & Samantha)

By the way, my recipe for Strawberry Pie comes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which I highly recommend.  You can look up whatever food item you just picked up in your CSA box, say kohlrabi, and Mark has three or four recipes for it.  For the pie, I added a package of frozen wild blueberries to make up for the two cups of strawberries I lacked.

Hot Tips for a Wholesome Lifestyle

*Use cloth napkins.  Not only are they reusable, but they can be pretty and add charm to your table.  I use a holder or basket filled with vintage, mass-produced, and handmade napkins in a variety of colors and patterns.  A small pile of ironed, neatly folded napkins makes a great housewarming gift, too.

*Forget the paper towels. Yes, there are times when a disposable towel for truly disgusting jobs makes some sense.  Most clean-up, though, can be done with dishrags, kitchen towels, and a stash of retired towels and t-shirts. I keep my stash in a clean pail under the counter of my laundry room.  When they're clean I just toss 'em in there.

*Kids can do chores.  It's easier just to clean up myself, rather than spend the time cultivating a sense of personal responsibility in my children.  The whining and complaining is sometimes beyond my capacity to take.  But, when they're rooms are clean, they feel good about themselves.  What matters here is regularity. My children clean their rooms on Sunday mornings.  That's just how it is, and they know to expect it.  Other chores might be unloading the dishwasher, feeding the dogs, or putting the chickens up at night.  Despite their complaints, they really do want to participate.  And, families bond over more than trips to the zoo or the ice cream shoppe; We bond over working together on the care of our home.

*Let it be messy.  A house is not a museum where we show off our finest objects.  It's where we live, make babies, chat with friends, cook and eat.  It's where relationships are cultivated.  Yes, a house should be healthy and livably tidy.  But, the floor doesn't need to be mopped at the expense of time with the people we love.  (Besides, your guests might actually feel relieved that your abode is just as imperfect as their's are.) Here's a poem my mom said to me when I was small and then had printed and framed.  My kids love it, and it is a great reminder to me...
Cleaning and scrubbing can wait 'til tomorrow
For Children grow up, we've learned to our sorrow
So, quiet down cobwebs
Dust go to sleep
I'm rocking my baby...
And babies don't keep.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In Need of Plan B

Wouldn'cha know...  I was all ready to extoll the virtues of freshly picked strawberries, still warm from the sun, but even the best laid plans sometimes go awry.    

Westley is still recovering from his tonsilectomy and needed a three-hour nap during prime picking time.  I would ordinarily be so grateful for it.  Ooh, I could do so much in three hours!  All the laundry, organize all the old files in the basement, scrub the mudroom, read a book.  But, since it is summer (another thing I would ordinarily be grateful for) with all the kids out of school, Westley's invalid state leaves us with nothing much to do but gaze at the gorgeous day happening outside without us.

In short, we did not go berry picking yesterday.  And, I have no photos.  Ugh.

Sometimes we just need a Plan B.  If anyone has a universal Plan B that I could keep in my pocket for grumpy days, please share it.  I would be most eager to accept it.

It's so easy to get caught up in our own expectations, an issue we struggle with rather cyclicly at home.  Somebody has an idea for how their time should be spent, like a having a sleepover in a tent or being the star little league pitcher or growing amazing bell peppers.  When it doesn't work out, we can get all upset about it and our brain just shuts off.  We forget that when a door closes, a window often opens.  So busy are we throwing a fit over what might have been that we don't even notice the swirling zephyr from that window blowing lightly on our faces.  Our ruined expectations leave us grumpy and closed.

I can't say we had the most exciting day of the summer; We remained eager to get outside.  But, we managed with our evolving Plan B.  Brenner and Maddie spent the afternoon making houses for their "Go-Gos" (anyone with young kids might know these) out of those miniature plastic baseball caps used for sundaes at the ice cream parlor.  Gabi just played Wii, and maybe a child needs some down-time once in a while.  When Westley woke up we went for a swim in Luba's pool then out for frozen yogurt.

As good fortune would have it, we discovered that our friends The Parkers also had to delay their plans to go picking.  It turns out, we are both now planning on going to Jones Family Farm at the same time!  How serendipitous!

I am thankful for blessings in disguise, and I wish for the clarity of mind to notice them when they happen.

By the way, if anyone has a really terrific strawberry jam recipe...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Balsamic Caramelized Onions and Apples on Flatbread

As with most cherished recipes, this one was born out of necessity.  I happened to have some large pita my friend Amit had made, some fruit in a bowl on the kitchen island and a few veggies and some cheese in my fridge.  Wanting to avoid a typical pizza, I fashioned this super-easy, accidentally-elegant dish.  It's excellent for parties.

(no photo yet, but coming as soon as I make this dish again.)

2 8" to 10" inch flatbreads (Stonefire Tandoori Naan works perfectly)
2 onions halved and sliced into thin half-circles (I use yellow, but any onion will do)
1 apple, peeled, cored, and fairly finely chopped
3 or 4 ounces herbed chevre or bleu cheese (or other tangy, spreadable cheese)
Olive oil to drizzle
Balsamic vinegar to drizzle

Heat a grill or oven to 350 degrees.

Caramelize the onions over low heat with 2 tablespoons of butter or oil.  This should take about 20 minutes.  The onions should turn golden and very soft - but not crisp.

In another pan, saute the apple pieces in 1 tablespoon of butter until just tender, about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how small the pieces are.  Do not let them get mushy - they are better crisp than falling apart.

Spread or crumble the cheese on the flatbreads, spread the onions over that with a fork, sprinkle the apples over that.  Drizzle a little oil and a little balsamic vinegar over all of it, to taste.

Heat the flatbreads directly on grill (or on sheet pan in oven) for 5 minutes.

Serve in rectangular slices on a platter. For extra elegance, you can drizzle a tablespoon of a nice balsamic glaze over it.

A Reminder from the Robins

Call me out if I've mentioned this before, but I just love summer days that float lazily by like nothing of note has occurred yet are somehow jam-packed full of tomorrow's memories.  Well, I've just had a weekend of such perfection.  This means much to share!
(look close & you can see all 3 baby birds -- email me with ideas for their names!)

So let's get right to the robins!...  When I was about ten years old, maybe younger, I found a robin's egg in my aunt's yard.  It must have been a holiday because my family was visiting both my mom's relatives and my dad's.  I held that precious Tiffany-blue egg in the car on the half-hour drive to my grandparent's house on Queen Street in Minneapolis.  I'm sure my parents were both thinking quietly to themselves that an egg out of the nest was already doomed and had been since long before my rescue attempt.  But, they let me have my dream of hatching a baby robin.  Would I have gone out to find worms each day to feed them?  My dream didn't fly so far into the future, I think.

In any case, I was so excited to show Gramma Ruth my egg that when I leapt from the car toward her front door, I squished it in my hand.  The egg, that is, not the door. The gluey yellow mush dripped down my wrist, thinned by the tears that fell into it from my face.

Lately, my kids have found several empty eggs around the yard, and we've wondered where their former inhabitants were hiding.

I run the risk of redundancy with the multitude of other robin stories on the Web and in books, but I will never forget the heartbreak of believing I had killed a bird, still in its shell. So, when the Parkers and the Chungs came for lunch yesterday, and we marveled in unison over the tiny birdlings in a maple about a 10 inches from our deck, I felt a pang of relief and of joy.

The three little heads peeped away while Mama Robin flew back and forth with worms from our yard for her little ones.  Jen held one of her twins up close to take peek, Samantha had Foxwylde in her arm, and Brenner stood on a deck chair to get up high enough to see.  I sneaked inside to get my camera.
(baby on the right has fallen asleep while its sibling awaits its meal)

For me, this is the epitome of backyard farming; Nature taking care of itself without my interference.  The feeding of baby robins is such a mundane and common occurrence, yet the very basic-ness of it reminds me that everything we need is right here for all of us.  We need not force nature, need not force life, need not force our opinions or our will.  We can let it all happen.
(a view of New Pond Farm, and Brenner strolling with Kaia)

The remaining highlights of the weekend include a morning at New Pond Farm which resulted in an accidental meeting with my friend Amit, a stroll around the grounds, and finding another reliable dairy option for my family - on the honor system, no less.  This deserves a post of its own.  We had friends for lunch on Sunday, perhaps my favorite summer activity of all, and dined on salad plucked fresh from the garden. (My recipe for Balsamic Caramelized Onions and Apples on Flatbread, which was snapped up by our party before I could snap a photo, is available from the recipes tab, by the way.)  The weekend ended with my husband and I sharing some much-need quality time building a planting bed for sunflowers to border the chicken run.  Thanks hubby!
(me and Chad)

The weekend was full of accidental miracles and slow, warm memories-in-the-making.  Our fledgling robins may soon be ready to fly.  Wish them luck!

Today I wish to remember the calm joy of this weekend - to make use of this feeling when I need it, when things are not as peaceful as I'd like.

I am thankful for the babies born in my backyard, and for being privy to the magic of their first days.
 (Samantha, the twins, Jen, Howard, Chad & Edward, over for lunch-
several children not pictured)
 (buttercrunch lettuce, radishes, sugar snap peas & endive with mustard vinaigrette)
 (pan roasted corn, tomato & feta salad - recipe from Williams-Sonoma)
(potato salad - recipe from

Saturday, June 25, 2011

About Me - A Brief History

My full name is Jennifer Ruth Aschenbrener Jacobs Dick.  Whew!  So, I've shortened it to Jenna Jaydee. Most people just call me Jenna.  Not Jen.  Jenna.  Jennie, is fine, too.

I'm a mom, wife, and foodie.

This blog - a concept that is so very new to me - is the evolution story of my love of food and how it has influenced my life.

Growing up in the Twin Cities' suburbs, in a fairly typical home and family, I was more connected to Cub Foods (the local supermarket chain) than to the earth.  I think my generation might be the first to be reared primarily on packaged foods.  That's just how things were in that time and place, and it was just fine.

Moving to New York when I was twenty provided an opportunity to expand my horizons more than just geographically.  On my own, with no one to serve my dinner, a world of culinary divinations appeared to me, like some patron saint of delicacies.  I couldn't afford any of it then, but even wandering the aisles at a street-side fruit stand was intoxicating.

As life became a little more luxurious, so did my dining experience.  It was such an adventure to sit with unusually straight posture at places like Jean-Georges in New York or L'Orangerie in Los Angeles.  The upper-class mystique was such a departure from my upbringing, and the food was indescribably beautiful in appearance and in taste.

Now I'm thirty-seven, and so much has changed, both in terms of my personal life and my connection to what I eat.  I'm no longer single or pursuing the Broadway dream.  In fact, I have given birth (three times) to the life I love the most-- my family. And, I have dealt with a monumental tragedy, my first husband having been killed on 9/11 six days before the birth of our son.  From the grief of loss and the overpowering love for my children came a need to tie my world and myself to something even greater.  

My second husband, Chad, and I now have four children... Madison, Chad's daughter from his first marriage; Gabi, my son whom Chad has adopted; Brenner and Westley, the next (and last) two sons for Chad and me.  We have two dogs, one cat, and eight hens.  We have a neighborhood and a community of friends and family.

Together, we have embarked on a lifestyle that reflects a passion for food-pleasure, but also a connection to our best selves through the earth.  Instead of continuing on an exclusive path of haute-cuisine, we have chosen to understand the all-inclusive sustenance of our lives from its roots - literally.

We are vegetarians now, shop at our local farmer's market, limit our small dairy consumption only to local farms we know and trust, eat only our own eggs, and cultivate our own garden.  We pass our values along to our kids.

For all of this, we are thankful.

This blog is an homage to a tradition Chad started as part of our children's bedtime routine: "Wishes and Thankfuls."  Now done at the dinner table, we each take a turn making a wish for something we'd like for the next day or for the world in general and giving thanks for any good fortune we've had that day.

I've found that if I've had even a minute to marvel at a new strawberry or let the hens peck sunflower kernels from my hand, then I can be thankful for my connection to the earth and all its inhabitants.  I bring our harvest to my children to feed them, and I feel connected to them.  I share the bread I make with friends, they share with me, and I feel connected to them, too.

It's a far-cry from the flat, square blocks of my hometown or from the buzzing energy of Manhattan's Upper West Side, but deep down we are all the same.  We all eat. This is my way of joining this crazy place that is our world.

Caramel Ice Cream

Caramel Ice Cream
with (PeaceTree Desserts) Cinnamon Cajeta Caramel

This is among my favorite desserts, either as a stand-alone item when I'm watching TV, or served alongside strawberry cake or rhubarb pie.  The caramel from PeaceTree is second to none and makes plain old vanilla ice cream into something sumptuous.  I find that milk directly from a small family dairy works better than supermarket milk, because it is both richer in flavor and freezes more easily.  (For the reference of anyone in Fairfield County, I use milk from Ladies of Lebanon and cream from Smyth's Trinity Dairy.  All these are available at the Westport Farmer's Market, of course!)

Dissolve 3/4 C sugar in 1 C milk in a mixer on low speed for 1 or 2 minutes.
Pour in 2 C heavy cream and 1-2 tsp vanilla extract and mix briefly to combine.
Pour into ice cream machine.
Add 1/2 C Cinnamon Cajeta Caramel to milk mixture in machine
Follow machine directions (mine runs for about half-an-hour with a kitchen towel over the top).
Optional: Add another tablespoon or two of the caramel in the last minute of running the machine, if desired, to make caramel ribbons.
Transfer ice cream to a container and freeze in the freezer another hour or so.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Maybe I'll Just Buy A Tomato Plant

At first, I thought it was just a minor delay.  The miniature plants I had nurtured from seeds on my windowsill were following their own growth curve, kinda like my middle son Brenner.  One of these days I would find yellow blossoms playing dot-to-dot amongst the widening leaves, and I would finally have homegrown tomatoes.  Really, I would!

Except, I think I must be a tomato monster because the stunted growth of my six plants can no longer be attributed to anything but ineptitude on my part.  I have to admit it so I can learn what I'm doing wrong with them and try again.  The most basic of garden veggies, and it's just not working for me.

It's no surprise that it's been a wet spring here in the Northeast, and tomatoes are not moisture lovers.  Yes, they need water.  They just don't like all that water sitting around.  I'd like to blame my tomato problem on the rain, then. Whew!  It's not me.  Good.

Oh, but wait!  Boris and Luba have giant tomato plants.  And, that pretty girl Blair from the Farmer's Market says her tomatoes are taking over.  The dreary, wet accumulation hasn't stopped their tomatoes. Hmph.

Maybe it's the pots my struggling little guys are in.  I've propped them up so they can drain, but I wonder if it's just not working.  Chad has suggested putting a couple two-by-fours under my line of pots to see if that helps.  Or, I could transplant them into the beds once I pluck the vegetation somewhere.  The radishes are nearly all harvested now, so that might be a good place.  (At least, the radishes have been wonderful!)

Truth be told, my very organized garden just doesn't have enough bed-space.  I would really like to expand the whole thing;  Give everything some ground to take root in and to stretch out a bit.  Maybe I'll still be a tomato monster, but it's worth a try.  In the meantime, I will go out into this morning's drizzle and pluck the sugar snap peas (which are also thriving, thank goodness).  And, maybe I'll just buy a tomato plant.

If anyone has tips for tomatoes, I'm all ears...

I really, really, really wish to save my tomato plants and to see them grow big and healthy and delicious.

I am thankful that the supermarket is available if I simply must have a tomato.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tonsils and Crumbles

There are days of early summer that amble along like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo on a mushroom hunt, one moment leaning into the next with no discernible segue.  I love those rare days, when I can look back and feel accomplished despite the open boxes on my to-do list.

This was not one of those days.  No, today, my youngest son got his tonsils out.  And, his adenoids.  And, his ears drained and sinus-something-or-another reduced.  He's the last of the three boys to get a tonsilectomy, and I was finally able to tell Dr. Parker that we have run out of children upon which to operate.
My husband, Chad, and I got our two older sons up at 5:45 to quickly have some breakfast and scoot out the door with Westley still in his Rocket To Mars jammies.  Chad went in to the O.R. to watch as our little baby (he's a 44-pound 4-year-old, if I'm being honest) was put into a phony sleep for his procedure.  Then, he grabbed Gabi to get him to school to accept an award for having good attendance this year.  I must admit I was nervous this time.  Everything had gone perfectly with the first two, and I felt I was pushing my luck.  I cannot say just how very thankful I was to hear Westley yelling as he awoke from anesthesia!  Brenner and I spent the day with Westley in our tiny cubicle, mostly all together in the gurney, watching Nick Jr.  We were finally able to go home at three o'clock, so we clambered in the minivan so Chad could chauffeur us home.

The remainder of the day was blissfully low-key.  More Nick Jr.  More sorbet.  More cuddles on the couch.

I had thought it would be a tasteless day -- that I wouldn't have the energy to cook, and we'd end up having Three Sisters' Marshmallow Oaties cereal for dinner again like we did last night.  Delicious, of course, but better for breakfast. I'd made a point of stocking up at Whole Foods, though, in preparation for the week of recuperation, so I went with it.

I'm so glad I did, too, because I've ended up having a perfectly wonderful experience!

The weather is, despite a little hair-curling humidity, of a temperature most agreeable for dining al fresco.  My kids, of course, refuse to eat anything, but Chad and I relaxed on the deck with our plates.  I took the recipe for Endive and Mushroom Salad with Mustard Dressing right out of the Simple French Cooking cookbook by Williams-Sonoma and paired it with roasted cauliflower drizzled with creamy balsamic vinaigrette.  Just to be pretty, I fashioned finger-sandwiches out of whole wheat bread smeared with mayonnaise, mustard or pesto, then topped with thinly sliced radishes.  (As of yet, the radishes are my only harvest from the garden.  I am growing impatient!) My sister-friend Luba, out for a stroll with her kids, stopped by to play for a while and to chat.  So delightful.

Back inside, Chad had cleared the table and rinsed all the dishes, as is his custom.  The peaches my step-daughter and one of the boys (which one?) insisted on buying were going soft in their bowl on the kitchen island.  Hmm...

Another friend, Pamela, had lent me The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone, and there just happened to be a recipe for Peach Crumble in there.  Why not spend the remaining hour-and-a-half of the day in the kitchen?  I mean, it is my favorite place in the whole universe!

"What'cha doin'?" asked Chad with his brows a little quizzical, glancing at Alicia's book on the counter.

"Makin' peach crumble," I grinned.

I couldn't tell if he shook his head in immense adoration for my dedication to housewifery or if he thought I was nuts to decide that eight-fifteen in the evening was a good time to start baking.  Either way, I know he'll spoon the stuff up in one sitting if I let him, so I'm going to take his look as appreciation.

In any case, despite needing to substitute banana-crunch granola for the rolled oats and arrowroot for the kuzu, the crumble came out just fine.  It would be perfect with my homemade (Peace Tree Cinnamon Cajeta Caramel) ice cream, if only I'd made that, too.  And, as a bonus, the oat topping is so delicious that I adapted it as a separate entity.  How delicious to roll the sticky-sweet stuff in cocoa powder and eat it as candy!

Even the chickens made out pretty well, gobbling up the cake-pan of discarded peach skins I left for them.

My little guy is going to wake up sore tomorrow, and I'll spoon feed him yogurt with one hand while I make school lunches with the other.  The last day of school will drift by, I hope, like one of those meandering summer days that this one was not.  The thing about having a child recovering from surgery is that you have to take the time off from everything else to tend to him.  We will cuddle on the couch with a sippee cup of apple juice in my lap and let the day go by.  The dust-bunnies will collect, and I will let them sit there, unswept.  Gabi and Brenner will leap from the bus, greeting their official start of summer with unbounded enthusiasm, ready for the first lemonade stand of the season.  In the evening, I'll give up canoodling on the couch long enough make dinner, then tuck my son into his plaid quilt and Elmo blankie.

In a couple weeks we'll be off and running again.  But, tonight, I will allow the aroma of cooked peaches send me off to dreamland.

I wish for the health and care of every child.

I am thankful that my precious little son is sleeping soundly.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Garden

When we moved into our neighborhood, it was because it was a neighborhood.  In Westport, where the roads were paved over old carriage roads that once connected remote farm to remote farm and make no sense whatsoever in the modern world, neighborhoods are not easy to find.  There are short cul-de-sacs, but one can't guarantee there will be other similar families in those four or five adjacent homes.  Instead, we have hilly, curvy streets that don't intersect and few sidewalks.  The kids here need a ride to get to friends' houses until they're in high school.  What happened to riding a bike to a friend's and getting home just a little too late for Mom's comfort?

The idea of buying on a loop that connects to a major thoroughfare on both ends was that the kids would at least be able to take their scooters on little rides up and down the side street.  We hoped there would be other kids, but the major road at least provide us an easy drive for playdates.  We hoped to give our kids some of what we had when we had: a real neighborhood where kids played outside with their chums.

So, I was fairly ecstatic when a woman showed up at my door a few weeks after we'd settled and handed me a brown paper bag of blueberries.  She'd just gone berry-picking, she explained, with her two children who were the same ages as my younger two.  Not only that, but she had a nose-ring just like me!  It was kismet.

Not only did my kids have friends only two houses away, but I gained a friend, too.  It was a bonus that never even occurred to me when we bought kid-friendly property.  Now Luba and I have our mugs of coffee at the bus-stop in front of my house each morning, talk about getting older, talk about our husbands, talk about the latest drama of our kindergarten boys "illegally" trading Lego toys in the afternoon bus line at school.

And, we talk garden.  Truth be told, Luba's garden really belongs to her husband, Boris.  And, it was Boris who stopped by with the kids on their bikes yesterday to see if mine could come out to play.  Oh, I love a neighborhood!!  Brenner and Gabi were still cleaning their rooms as is our Sunday custom, but Westley (the youngest) had finished and went out to play.  I took everyone into the chicken run to see the feathery 5-week-old chickies and to give them some sunflower kernels for a treat.  Then, while the three kids drove their training wheels around in circles on the driveway and made parking spaces for them with chalk outlines, Boris and I went to the garden.

Let's be clear:  I love my garden.  It is neat and tidy, and all the sections of plants are labeled with little markers in the ground in front of them.  There are very neat raised beds with mulched pathways in between.  It is enclosed by pretty four-by-four posts with wire mesh.  There is a real gate.

But, I must say it is sparse.  There's more pathway than plant beds; I've had to buy 20 pots to put around those pathways to give myself more planting space.  And, I thought my veggies were taking off quite nicely, having already harvested some lettuce and radishes.  Westley and I even go out to take strawberries off their vines and eat them warm from the sun.  Boris seemed appropriately impressed with my organization and complained to me in neighborly fashion how he'd planted too thickly.  He felt his spinach was overgrown and that he'd missed the sweetness of arugula by taking it to flower.  He wasn't sure how to tell when the potatoes, which are underground but covered in thick leaves, would be ready to dig up.  This was only my second summer of gardening, and I was feeling rather expert.

Boris left to tend his garden.  The kids stayed at my house to play upstairs, having abandoned their little vehicles.  Luba came a while later with a big, orange Halloween bowl of spinach and arugula picked from her garden.  What could I give her in return?  Ugh.  A few radishes?  I said thank you and asked to see her garden instead.

It was a wonder!  Giant leaves of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk proportions!  Food, ready to eat off the vine!  Sweet, green, charmingly-phallic stalks of zucchini!  My zucchini were only beginning to bloom and were still small in their prohibitive pots.  Luba complained of the closeness of everything, but Luba labels her dresser drawers.  Neatness is of critical importance to her in a way I doubt her vegetables would understand.  It was my turn to stand in awe and feel less-than by comparison.  It would be weeks before I could arrive at her door with an odd holiday bowl full of fresh anything.
(here, my son Westley and Luba's daughter Stella, mug for the camera in Luba's lush garden.)

Later that afternoon, I installed the two 6-foot fan-style trellises that Boris had picked up for me on his Home Depot run.  (Oh, neighbors, thou art my friends and errand-runners!)  Then, at dinner, I blanched the tender greens from the ghastly bowl and tossed them with soy sauce and pine nuts.  Along with the warm fingerling salad and pita bread made by another friend, my family enjoyed a delicious meal.

I do miss my old house in the Weston Woods.  The whooshing noise of the nearby Merritt Parkway is, expectedly, not as pleasant as the quiet of a nature preserve, and I miss the turkeys calling and the coyotes howling.  But, I wouldn't trade my neighbors for them.

I think I'll try to plant some things the way Boris and Luba have -- a little overgrown, directly into beds instead of pots.  Their garden is prolific, and I'm eager to harvest some peas or something soon.  I have so much to learn.  I'll keep my labels, though.

It's nearly time for my boys to awake and get off to school, which means a date with Luba at the bus-stop.  The orange Halloween bowl is in my dish-drainer, ready to be returned, empty of food but full of gratitude.

Today I wish for some sunshine.  These gray days are nice when they water my garden, but I'm ready for some warmth again.

I'm thankful for my neighborhood.  I realize it is more than just a collection of houses and inhabitants on a conveniently flat road.  We happen to be, in large measure, like-minded souls sharing a space of land and some good conversation.  We watch out for each other.

I'm especially thankful for Luba, my kindred spirit. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Taking a Beet, er, Beat

This blog thing was supposed to get me in the habit of writing each day.  Pfftttt.  Not so much, as it turns out.  My excuses for abandoning this project with only one post are: a) too busy with end-of-year school activities for my kids, and b) too much time relaxing in the golden spring sunlight.  I have neglected nearly all the essential daytime duties in favor of a good time.  And, by the end of the day, I've crashed in a satisfied heap on the sectional with the dishes screaming their filth at me from the blurry kitchen beyond.

It's something I've been thinking about as I lounge on the quilted, tree-canopied hammock near my neighbor's property.  (Here, my boys and their friends get to do the lounging.) Is it okay for me to just... be?  Well, the answer, of course, is DUH!  But, how easy is it to do?

Since my first son was born, nearly ten years ago, life's been fairly non-stop.  I've designed it that way.  Ever the over-achiever, I feel accomplished and worthwhile when busy.  Plus, there's the added bonus of avoiding all those thoughts in my head that can stampede over my self-esteem if I don't counter them with symbolic gold medals.  There was September Smiles, a non-profit that helped families facing the loss of a loved one.  There was The Weston Park Project, another non-profit,which spent seven years building a playground and shared the loss of a member and friend.  The PTA,  the pre-school fundraiser, the kids' ball games and music lessons, nursing a baby, nursing more babies, moving from Westchester to Weston to another house in Weston to Westport to another house in Westport.  Marriage.

I was burning out.

After the preschool auction in March of 2010, I quit.  I really just quit pretty much everything.  My kids were throwing tantrums because they were starved for attention.  Who was I doing all this auction stuff for, anyway?  I held a coming-out party for myself and invited girlfriends over to learn bread-making from a master baker (Amit's Breads) in my kitchen.

My latest volunteer project has been to connect with my friends, family, earth, and myself.  Being a school-parent is like being back in school, and I had to stop trying to be popular.  

Flash-forward a year and here is Wishful Thinking Farm.  Pretty, right?  Oh, there are some backyard gardens lovelier than mine, I'm sure, but I just feel so good here and want to share it.  Last night my family went to dinner at the home of some new friends, and I brought an arugula salad topped with radishes from my garden.  That's the kind of accomplishment I'm talkin' about.

Bored?  Nah.  Between watering the seedlings, feeding the chicks, cooking the meals, keeping the house, meeting a friend at the Westport Farmer's Market, and, yes, taking the kids to their ball games and music lessons, I'm still plenty busy.  But, instead of being fried and irritable, I'm a little looser and far more satisfied.

If I don't manage to get to my computer all day - even to blog - well, that's okay.  I must have been doing, or being, something magical out there on the "farm."

My wish this morning is for the weekend's rain to restore our lawn to health.  If that doesn't work, then we probably have grass-massacring grubs, which will make my husband quite unhappy.
I am thankful today for the slowness of spring.  My peas and beets remind me to take my time - that the sweetest kind of growth requires ample time simply lounging in the sun.