Friday, July 29, 2011

Fantasy House on the Prairie

I've often had this daydream - I've had it since I was a kid - that Laura Ingalls (not yet Wilder) magically appears in my life for a day or maybe a week.  Wearing her pinafore and lace-up boots, her hair in perfect plaits, she must have stumbled upon a tear in the space-time continuum while swinging from a rope into the swimming pond to show off for Nellie Olson.  And, whish!  From Walnut Grove to Cottage Grove in a blink.  (Cottage Grove is where I went to high school, by the way.)  I need to dress Laura up in my clothes so she doesn't stand out, but she feels indecent in my shorts and tank top.  No kidding, I really have this fantasy.

Depending on how old I was at a given moment or where I was living, the fantasy would change a bit in context.  But, Laura was always the same.  There was, maybe, the terrorized expression as we zipped along in my black, manual transmission '93 Chevy Cavalier.  She might have choked on the urine-perfumed essence of subway air rising from a vent in a New York sidewalk as we walked passed, her eyes gazing ever upward.  The look of shock that eclipsed her condemnation of modern female attire amused me endlessly.  For some reason, I really enjoyed torturing her with the speed of today's society and all the differences I imagined between our two worlds.  And, for some other reason, she trusted me completely. Go figure! We became fast friends, of course, as I treated her to the grand tour of seventh grade or dorm life or my twenties in New York.

In my fantasy, she was far too busy being horrified or scared to notice all the greatness surrounding her.  If the dream lasted long enough, she'd eventually loosen up, I suppose, and start to enjoy her adventure in present-day America.  It's just a dream, though, and I wonder what she really would think of life in the early 21st century.

Let's remember here that we are talking about a world that actually existed rather recently.  The time that Ms. Wilder wrote about were the pioneer days of the 1880 and 90s.  That's barely more than a hundred years ago, compared with the origins of humankind which scientists put at about 50,000 years.  A drop in the historical bucket. The "Little House" books were first published in the 1930s, so she could have crossed paths with my grandparents!  The idea that I could have known her in real life isn't that far off.

Funny how, in my fantasy, it's never me that visits her time, though.  If I was searching for an appropriate analogy, I guess I'd say that I'm not really looking to go backwards in time -- just to carry a little piece of it into the present.  Maybe I'd like a way of figuring out just what piece that is.

The progress of the last century or so has given us a life of ease, relative even to our grandparents.  I like that airplanes are available for travel, that the Internet keeps me connected to faraway friends and oodles of handy information, and that I - a woman - can finally vote!  And, how marvelous that my choices on the ballot have included other women as well as other ethnic backgrounds.  Progress can be great.  And, while the destruction caused by agri-business is intolerable, I must admit that finding something to eat without much effort or money has its benefits.

But, it can also take us away from that which is most important.  For me, it's a connection to the land and to other people that big-business of all kinds has stolen.  The speed in which growth on Wall Street is expected - and let's not forget our own expectations for wealth - has robbed us of the simple peace of mind that other generations have enjoyed.  Isn't it our families and friends and a clear head that bring us joy? Go ahead and try to convince me that shouting (because you're late for a very important meeting) at the jerk ahead of you on the freeway who can't help being stuck in traffic any more than you can is somehow a more pleasant experience than the calm of a gentle stroll with your sweetheart through a state park.  We all need a means of supporting ourselves and our families, but cutting a cucumber off the vine for my dinner is so much more satisfying than spending a day in the office so I can buy one that's sub-standard, genetically-modified, plastic-wrapped, and shipped in from out of state.

As much as I've loved my imaginary visits from the esteemed author, I've loved even more the wisdom that can be gleaned from remembering people who tended a vegetable patch, not out of nostalgia, but out of need.  For thousands of years, we humans have literally enjoyed the fruits of our labor.  We've sustained our bodies and our souls on nature's bounty and the satisfaction of its harvest, and it was nearly all we needed to feel fulfilled. When did we lose this?  It's no coincidence that the loss of our connection to the "Great Mother" mirrors the obesity epidemic.  When we tend a garden, we both exercise and nourish our bodies.  We feed our souls.  We connect with the earth from which we were sprung.

Unless technology advances in the next fifty years include time-travel, it is highly unlikely that I'll ever receive an actual visit from Laura Ingalls or any other historical figure.  Nor will I ever make a journey to the past myself.  But, there are some things that we carry with us in our DNA - the basic need for healthy food.  Transportation can change from foot to carriage to automobile to flying saucer, but we'll still need to eat.  So, I will happily stick a wide-brimmed hat on my head instead of a bonnet and walk myself out to a happy little square of land to thin the cabbages.

And, for whatever bit of irony it may be worth, there's a Little House on the Prairie marathon on the Hallmark Channel tonight.  Happy viewing!


I'm thankful for TV.  I'm also thankful for really good books. I'm thankful to talk on the phone with my sister, back home in Minnesota.  I'm thankful my sons' rooms are clean.  I did have a cucumber from the garden for dinner tonight, and I'm thankful for that, too.

I wish that progress continues... with care and respect for the earth.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Summer Roasted Corn Salad, Two Ways

I'm sure I got these recipes from somewhere, since I did not create them. I believe they started with Williams-Sonoma and Real Simple Magazine. Though I make them from memory now, I believe they are fairly close to the original recipes.  Both with fresh ears of corn as the primary ingredient, this is an easy and elegant summer supper or pot-luck dish that can be served at any temperature. In the photo below, I've served the Feta version alongside some fresh buttercrunch lettuce from the garden and a buttered English muffin.

4-6 ears of fresh corn on the cob
4-5 oz Feta, crumbled
1 pint of grape tomatoes, halved
1 bunch of green onion, green parts only, sliced
2-3 T butter
3 T olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
fresh lime juice
fresh thyme
fresh basil

Cut the corn kernels from the cobs into a large bowl.

Melt the butter with a T olive oil in a large saute pan.  Add the garlic, and saute a few seconds.  Add the corn and saute a few minutes.  Add the thyme and green onion, and saute a minute more.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Let cool to room temp.

In another bowl, mix the tomatoes, Feta, 2 T oil, and salt and pepper to taste.  Pour over corn mixture and toss to coat.  Add 2-3 T lime juice and toss again.  Serve.

4-6 ears corn
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
1 pint grape tomatoes
1/2 of a red onion, diced
olive oil
lime juice
salt and pepper

Cut the corn kernels from the cob and cook either by sauteing or boiling for a few minutes.  Add the avocado, tomatoes, and red onion.  In another bowl, whisk the oil, lime juice, salt and pepper.  Pour over the corn mixture and toss to coat.  Serve.

Abuelita's Gazpacho & Spanish Tortilla

As a birthday gift, our two exchange students from Spain - Julia and Isa - made traditional Gazpacho and Tortilla.  Credit must be given to Isa's grandmother for these recipes.  On a steamy evening in July, this was refreshing and special.  Easy to prepare, it can even be made in a pinch on those nights when a real dinner seems a remote fantasy.  Recipes below...

6 tomatoes, peeled
2 green peppers, sliced
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 slice of crusty white bread.
1 garlic clove, sliced
a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt

Puree the tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, bread, and garlic in a food processor.  Add oil, vinegar and salt to taste. Press through a strainer to remove the solids.  Cool in the fridge until ready to serve.

8-9 small potatoes of the creamy variety (not baking or Idaho), peeled and diced
6 eggs, lightly beaten
salt and pepper to taste

Add the diced potatoes to the beaten eggs to combine.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Pour mixture into a medium saute pan over low heat.  Cook until nearly cooked through on top and a light golden crust has formed on the bottom.  Using a large plate, turn the tortilla over and put back in pan to finish cooking the other side.  Remove to a serving platter and slice like pie.  (Of course, this dish can be personalized with asparagus or onions or some fresh thyme.)

Birthday Gazpacho

It's July 23rd, and for anyone following the news, it's extremely hot here in the Northeast!  The grass is browning, my peas are dying, and we've fashioned a tarp over the chicken run to provide a little shade.  At least the sunflowers seem to be loving it.  And, truly, I love it too.  I wish my peas were hanging in there a little better, but it makes me happy to feel the humidity soaking in to my skin.

Also, being July 23rd, for anyone who knows me personally, it's my birthday! And, on this sweltering afternoon, Chad and I are taking our four kids and our two "host-kids" from Spain to Yankee stadium to drench ourselves in solar heat in the nosebleeds.  We'll dine handsomely on cotton candy and nacho chips with cheese sauce.  Did you know that the qualification for cheese at Yankee stadium is that it needs to be orange-colored?  Well, if you're gonna do junk food, might as well go all the way, I think.

This is all a round-about way to say that the weather, my birthday, and the fact that we won't be home today to have an official meal meant that we made last night into a Spanish birthday fiesta.  Julia and Isa, who are teenagers and have never cooked at all before, took it upon themselves to make Gazpacho and Tortilla - their favorite traditional foods from home.  They even used Isa's grandmother's recipe for the Gazpacho!
(Julia and Isa peeling tomatoes for Gazpacho de Abuelita)

While the tomatoes in my garden have yet to ripen (at least they're growing, though, right?), I was able to find bright and juicy hot-house tomatoes at the Westport Farmer's Market.  And, after pointing out where to find the other ingredients and kitchen tools, I puttered around while other people actually cooked for me!  What a birthday indeed - I didn't know what to do with myself!

I swept the great room, set the table with the good dishes, and poured iced tea from the old plastic pitcher into a decent glass one.  I listened to Isa flutter on the phone in Castiliano - the language of Spain - to her grandmother.  I learned that one does not need to blanch tomatoes in order to peel them, nor remove the seeds before processing.
(ready to puree the tomatoes, with cucumber and green bell peppers)

I learned, too, that "Tortilla" in Spain is not a flat, round piece of bread in which to stuff burrito filling and guacamole.  Rather, it is a thick potato-egg omelet, slowly cooked over low heat.  Thus, when I grabbed a bit of sidewalk chalk to write "Julia and Isa's Menu" on the framed slate by the kitchen table, it was necessary to distinguish today's Tortilla from the more common American Tex-Mex version. It got the intended laugh from the chefs, so I was pleased.
(Tortilla on the stove and the birthday menu)

Chad, endlessly finishing up some email in his office at the front of the house, did eventually join us to pour the remainder of the Gazpacho directly into his bowl and literally like his plate clean of the Tortilla. A little bread with olives and red peppers baked in, and it was, hands down, the most delightful meal of the summer.  We all felt as light in our hearts as the soup tasted light on our tongues.  We laughed as we invented silly nicknames for each other in Spanish.
(Chad really did like his plate, a slice of Tortilla)

Today, I collect another year of life.  Tomorrow, my kids go off to camp.  On Tuesday, Julia and Isa board a bus to JFK airport and on home to Spain.  Even Chad will be away on business next week.  The heat will dissipate back to a normal range, allowing my poor peas to recover.  And me? I'll get done all the work I've put off in favor of play-time with my enormous summer family.  Some needed personal time is in order, I must admit.  But, right now I have a loving husband at home (who, by the way picked up for me a crazy-gorgeous blouse we noticed while window shopping on our last date and had a charm made with my newest puppy's name on it for my favorite bracelet), the six most wonderful children, and a home with animals and foods and a lawn like carpet to play on.  I have baseball, too.

Today, I am thankful for another birthday, another year, another moment of this life that is mine and glorious.  I wish to remember this feeling the next time I am blue, or exasperated, or bent on self-criticism.

And, I am thankful for Isa and Julia.  In keeping with the theme of Wishful Thanking Farm, I am thankful for Gazpacho and Tortilla, which are already family favorites.  But, mostly I am thankful just to have had this month with two amazing girls who have trusted me to care for them, and shared their experience, generosity, culture, and hearts with me.  My so-called "host-daughters" have a permanent place here, and I wish for the opportunity to visit them, too, one day.
(my host-daughters, Isa and Julia, preparing one of the best birthday gifts ever.)

Oh, and I wish for a Yankee win!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Aspirations of a Not-So-Little Garden

I realize this blog is supposed to be about "my" little garden, but today it's about a much grander garden: The Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

My family and I were invited there to tape a news piece with Diane Sawyer and her staff for the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  Because my husband was working and my step-daughter was at camp, the boys and I attended.  We had been there two times before so that ABC News could catch up with us and the babies born to us after their fathers were killed.  I've grown a little shy of the media over the years, but the staff at ABC News are wonderful and provide us with a nearly magical atmosphere for reconnecting with other 9/11 families.  Food, white tablecloths, a game table, more food.   And, cameras everywhere.

Fiver years ago, we ventured out with our then-preschoolers to plant a weeping cherry in the Children's Garden.  It was pouring rain then, so much that my sandals were flicking water up my legs as I walked and I had to take them off.  This year, as my son is about to enter his last year of elementary school, we made our way in the heat to check on our tree.  And, indeed, most of us wept as we paused for a moment clutching enlarged photos of our lost husbands, our children's fathers.
(taken from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Web site - I hope they don't mind me using it!)

I say all this as a frame of reference for why I was two-hours away in Brooklyn in the first place.  As much as I'd love to visit there just to walk around, it's a bit of a shlep.  So, the opportunity to walk amid this glorious urban eden is an enormous boon.  I also say it as a frame of reference for the gratitude I have now, for the life I am able to live and the memories I have of a time long past.

But, did I remember my camera for this milestone occasion?  Nope.  I figured ABC would send me pictures of the kids, which they will. Somehow, though, I failed to remember I would be in a giant GARDEN!!!  Picture me now with a big ol' self-deprecating L on my forehead!

In any case, the Children's Garden, so bodaciously full of vegetation, is located inside a picket fence, about 30 times the size of my little plot at home.  Each specimen has a mound, nearly suitable for a Little League pitcher.  The cabbages are full-size.  (Mine are either bitten up by bugs or just beginning to form the round nuggets of edible material.)  There are more varieties of squash than I could find at the supermarket.  The corn must be exactly 5-foot-five-and three-quarters, just like me.  I wanted to hug them.
(my decimated cabbages, hanging on.  I swear there's a little cabbage head in there.)

One little girl was nearly as excited to see it as I was.  At only nine years old, she clearly knew so much more than did I.  She pointed out the strawberries, which she said are really a type of rose, then rambled on as we meandered to the cherry tree, pointing out all she knew.  It was extensive.

"Where did you learn all this?" I asked.
"We have a garden at home." she said, as though I should probably have assumed.

I know who her mother is, but I think now I should get to know her better.  I could learn a thing or two, I bet.

This morning, I got up with the dogs, let the chickens out and visited my own garden.  I caressed the leaves, wet from the rain we finally had last night.  I looked out across the bare parts of my yard and wondered if my garden will ever look like that of Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  A tall order, but a worthy aspiration nonetheless.

And, a day that could have been all about memory, reminded me that we indeed can only live in the present.  A visit to a cherry tree, planted by a child with love for someone lost nearly a decade ago, took me 'round to a garden that reminds me of what I have right at home, right now.  And gives me a little to look forward to as well.

I am thankful for those surprising moments that remind me to live what I have right now.  I am thankful to hold my memories (and to cherish them) but without being held (or held back) by them.

I wish to tend my little plot so it grows into a robust slice of heaven.  And, I wish those who suffer have to have a place of peace, like a garden is for me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Back to the Garden

The activities of life are so diverse, especially with kids around.  Even a daily routine tends to wend its way around variety.  And so, my daily ritual of watering the garden and putting the chickens up is only a slice -maybe a forkful - in the pie of life.  Today, though, we go back to the garden, the center of our little homestead.

It's not quite the middle of July now, hot and sticky and perfect for a water fight in the yard.  The dogs sleep on the cool slate floor of the mudroom much of the day.  I yearn for anything refreshing.  I have conceded to run the much-loathed air-conditioning after a month's long pseudo-battle with Chad.  And, my vegetables are even yawning a bit in the heavy air, a dichotomy of prolific production and stalled growth.

As I stoop in my hot-pink garden clogs to pull the endless, inch-high pin-oaks from the soil, the world is so serene.  I pet the leaves of the acorn squash, coaxing it to grow.  Chickety, the "guard hen" peeks from the chicken run to see if I'm bringing leftover watermelon, then tries to peck the new sunflower seedlings, just out of her reach.  The greeting of my mini-farm is a morning prayer to me;  It begins my day with nature as a my guide and brings me peace that I can then bring back inside to my children who are about to wake up and demand television and cereal.

(Cherry, Butterscotch and Lemon on their roost, sunflower seedlings that line the chicken run.)

But, the business of the garden must be attended as well.  And, I'm a bit puzzled by that this morning - a feeling I don't favor but am learning, out of necessity, to appreciate.  There is a lesson in everything.  There are so many plants that are doing well:  For anyone who has tended a garden, peas and beans are prolific.  They make me feel successful even though I've done very little to earn that recognition.  My lettuces, which I've been replacing when harvested, have been feeding us deliciously a few times a week with a little homemade dijon vinaigrette.  Another success.  I'm on my second round of radishes.  Success.  While the yellow squash aren't growing to the size of baseball bats like my neighbor's are, they are certainly making perfectly sunny wands that I've enjoyed sauteed or with hummus.  Even my little pumpkin patch is taking off!
(the shelling peas have fallen over, but they have produced enough to share with friends or freeze.)
(yellow squash)
(I dare say this one is self-explanatory)

There are horror stories, here, too.  I had to yank the cantaloupe and watermelon plants that Westley had his heart set on.  They were a bit of an experiment, planted along with the pumpkin.  Well, the pumpkin overtook the bed, as they are wont to do, and the melons withered.  I then left the herbs on my deck so they would be accessible from the kitchen when I need a quick snip of dill.  However, I forgot to water them.  I managed to save the basil, sage, and rosemary, but the dill, thyme, and parsley are no more.  And, I am just completely befuddled by the peppers.  As of this morning, it looks like I have one tiny little pepper bud.  Now, maybe peppers are late-bloomers like I was, but it seems to me they should be further along. The potatoes didn't even sprout.
(my saved herbs vs. the dead)
(tiny pepper bud? - well, it's a pretty picture, anyway)

And, then there's the rest, that's sort of fair-to-middlin'.  The carrots are doing well, though they seem to have slowed a bit. Root vegetable that they are, they should be bursting from the ground, eager for their emancipation, in a month or so.  The cucumbers are curly, which I was not expecting and don't really know how to handle.  I was so hoping for the standard straight cukes I'm used to, so I'm going to have to consider this a learning opportunity.  And, for the second year in a row, the beets are a failure.  This is too bad for me because I absolutely adore them.  Better this year than last, but not edible.  Am I expecting too much?
(carrots and cukes)

I must remember I am still a novice at this.  And, since I learn by doing (Chad teases me because I can't remember how to get places we've gone a thousand times until I drive it myself) I am bound to have some bumps in the road, some sand in my proverbial soil.  Armed with evidence of my problem areas, I will visit Gilbertie's Herb and Garden Center to pick up a copy of Sal Gilbertie's gardening "bible," Small Plot, High Yield Gardening to see if I can glean any tips.  

Your tips, my fellow gardeners, are welcome too.  My high-school friend Dawn commented with a suggestion for a container system for my tomatoes, which are still a source of some angst for me.  One pot of Roma's have some good looking fruit now, but the other five pots are...  Well, I'm just not sure how they are.

Today, I am thankful for all my garden teaches me.  I can grow at my own pace, just like my lovely, if irksome, tomatoes -- sometimes bearing a great deal of fruit and sometimes conserving my energy.

I wish for patience and the joy that comes from delayed gratification.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Would the Real Phat Salad Please Stand Up?

Yes, yes, I did make a mistake!  Horrific, I know.  I had titled another recipe Phat Salad, and my husband called me out on it.  Oh, the shame!  That one has since been retitled Retreat Salad.

Well, anyway, my husband calls this one Phat Salad because it is so scrumptious that he can't help eating it until he feels fat.  What a clever man.  It came to me by way of my friend Betsy who got it from the July 1998 issue of Bon Appetit, and is officially called Orzo with Everything by the magazine.  It's great for parties because it's easy to make, serves at room temperature, and is beautifully colorful.

1 1/2 C orzo pasta
1/3 C (packed) drained oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (I use one whole 8.5 oz bottle)
5 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 C balsamic vinegar
1/4 C (packed) chopped Kalamata olives or other brine-cured black olives

1 C finely chopped radicchio (about 1 small head)
1/2 C toasted pine nuts
1/2 C chopped fresh basil
1/2 C freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 large garlic cloves, minced

Cook orzo in a pot of salted boiling water until just tender but still firm to bite.  Drain well.  Transfer to large bowl.  Add sun-dried tomatoes, oil, vinegar and olives and toss to blend.  Let stand until cool.  (Can be prepared 6 hours ahead.  Cover and refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before continuing.)

Mix chopped radicchio, pine nuts, basil, Parmesan and garlic into orzo mixture.  Season salad to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Betsy's Mom's Enchiladas

I wish I could take a photo to do it justice.  Back in the days when I was taking Gabi for a weekly dinner at Betsy's house, this became an instant favorite.  I asked for the recipe, made it at home, and then reheated it, a slice at a time, for a week.  It's all comfort to me.  The original recipe called for chicken, instead of all the veggies, if you so choose.

8-12 flour tortillas
2 C half-n-half
1 C vegetable broth (or chicken)
1/2 C chopped onion
2 T butter or olive oil
2 C chopped veggies (eg- zucchini, yellow squash, carrot, corn, peas, red peppers, mushrooms)
1 C salsa
1 C sour cream
1 1/2 C jack cheese

Make filling by sauteing onion in the butter or oil in a large pan.  Meanwhile, cook remaining veggies in a grill pan on the grill (or add to saute pan).  Combine all veggies in a bowl with the salsa and sour cream.  Set aside.

Pour the half-n-half and broth into a bowl. In same saute pan used for veggies, heat each tortilla in a little oil for a few seconds a side, then dip into the broth mixture.  Fill the heated tortilla with filling in a line across the middle, then roll.  Place seam side down in a large casserole dish.  Repeat with remaining tortillas until the casserole is full or the veggies are gone.

Pour the broth mixture over the rolled tortillas, top with the cheese, and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Expanded Family Dinner

Last Thursday evening, I stood in a church parking lot with Maddie and Brenner who held the "welcome" sign they'd handcrafted with poster board and markers.  We'd waited and waited for a very late bus.  Julia and Isabel finally arrived from Spain, weary and exhausted, after a long, long day of travel.  We traded gifts: Westport hoodies from us to them. Malaga t-shirts and Barcelona water bottles from them to the kids, and traditional figurines and a Spanish cookbook for me.

My inability to see any child turned away from anything compelled me, at the last moment, to agree to host two teenagers in an exchange program based on volunteer housing.  Why not?  We didn't have anything novel going on this summer, and my kids would get a kick out of having a couple older girls in the house.  Plus, it would only be for three weeks.  With that, we had an entire weekend to prepare.  I had to let go of my urge to power-wash the floors and scrub the window sills with a toothbrush and vinegar.  There was nothing I could do about the dog hair stuck in the family room rug with the vacuum cleaner away for repairs.  Luckily, "the girls," as we refer to them are well-mannered enough not to say anything.

While the decision to house two students has forced me out of some of my household duties, it has simultaneously pushed me into being more creative about activities than I might otherwise be.  We had a picnic on the beach looking over Long Island Sound and the Fourth of July (oddly, taking place on July first) celebration and fireworks.
(Isa and Julia at Compo Beach for the fireworks)
I took all six kids for a day in New York City last weekend, visiting the Intrepid Museum, wandering Fifth Avenue, stopping in at Dylan's Candy Bar, and dining at a delicious Upper East Side brasserie.

We also invited other exchange students and their host families for a BBQ at our house.  You never know what will happen in a crowd of strangers, but we truly had a terrific time.  The party lasted a good two hours past my expectations, and we used just about every dish and tool in my kitchen to keep it going.
(exchange students on my back deck)
Tonight, though, we sat down for our second family meal - all eight of us - at our kitchen table.  I had hoped to use the yellow squash and zucchini in the enchilada casserole, but they are still a few days from picking.  Oh well.  It was still delicious, and it still reminded me of dinners at my friend Betsy's house aeons ago.  Warm and familial.  The Girls don't know the connection that dish conjures for me to the idea of extended family, but the intent was there.  I made Betsy's Mom's Enchiladas de Pollo (substituting veggies for chicken, of course) not because of its Spanish name, but because it feels to me like an invitation to join in the feeling of family.

(Betsy's Mom's Enchiladas - available in The Recipes)
I hope Julia and Isa are enjoying their stay with us as much as we are enjoying their presence here.  Imagine going to another country to live with people for nearly a month and finding out upon arrival that they're total whackadoodles!  I'd be scared out of my mind by that prospect, so I hope the home and family we are offering for these weeks meets their expectations.
(my extended summer family)
I am thankful for the opportunity to share my home and my family.  I am thankful for the opportunity my family and I have to learn about another culture.

I wish to learn Spanish cooking like I imagine my little figurine would do.
(my kids show Isa and Julia the hens)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Retreat Salad (or the salad formerly known as Phat)

I initially had titled this one Phat Salad, but my husband gently reminded me that I was horribly confused; Phat Salad is made with orzo and radicchio.  Hmph.  I stood corrected.  

This salad is green and was born out of necessity at our "retreat" - our little vacay home in South Carolina. My family was soon to embark on the fourteen-hour drive home, and I needed to serve one final dinner.  I also needed to make use of the odds-and-ends in the fridge that would otherwise spoil during the drive.  We loved this salad so much that we make it often at home -- on purpose!  Feel free to go through your fridge and put your own spin on this delightful year-round dish.  

Substitute walnuts for the croutons and a little shaved parmesan for the chevre for an even healthier meal.

Since this is an odds-and-ends salad, add whatever you have fresh in your garden...  sugar snaps, corn, radishes, carrots.  Anything goes!

1 head of lettuce, maybe green leaf or romaine, chopped
1 apple, something crunchy, diced
1 bell pepper, I like yellow or orange, diced or cut into strips
4 oz chevre (or whatever cheese you have)
4 slices of bread, heels just fine
3 eggs (2 hard-boiled, 1 raw and lightly beaten)
1 shallot, finely chopped, optional
dried herbs, like Italian Seasoning or Herbs de Provence
dijon mustard
olive oil
apple cider vinegar

Hard-boil two eggs by placing them gently into boiling water and letting boil for 12 minutes.  Carefully remove and run under cool water.  Peel and slice the eggs.  Set aside to cool slightly.

Chevre Croutons: Put two slices of bread in a food processor (heels are good here) to make bread crumbs.  Dry roast them over medium heat or on a sheet pan in the oven - optional.  Sprinkle with herbs and mix.  Form chevre into 1-inch balls, then flatten slightly.  Dip into beaten egg to coat, then dip into bread crumbs to coat.  Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a small pan over medium to med-high heat.  Add breaded cheese to lightly fry about a minute or two on each side.  The cheese and breading will lift easily when done. Set aside on a cloth napkin or paper towel.

Classic Croutons: Cut the other two slices of bread into 1-inch cubes, and toss with a tablespoon of olive oil and a sprinkle of herbs.  Lightly fry, stirring occasionally, to make warm croutons.  Mmmm!

Dressing: Pour 3 tablespoons vinegar into a measuring cup, and add 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, the chopped shallot, and salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk.  Then, add olive oil, in a steady stream while whisking until the mixture reaches the 1/4 cup mark.  Adjust taste with a little extra oil or vinegar.

Toss the greens, peppers, apple and dressing in a large bowl to coat with dressing.  Add egg slices, chevre croutons and classic croutons on top, and serve!

To Meat or Not to Meat

It certainly is a monumental question for many of us.  The consuming of a living, sentient creature is a personal decision.  While I am not bent on proselytizing, a blog that is largely about food would be incomplete without addressing this issue. Whatever your point of view, you have my respect.  For myself, I have chosen to be a vegetarian.

Just this past Christmas, I made a scrapbook of favorite recipes for my family and a few friends.  I made nine of them, and it took days to photocopy or neatly hand-write each recipe, place a cute sticker on each, envelope each card in a sheet protector, write personal notes.  It was based on a scrapbook given to me by my friend Betsy who cared for me after my first husband died with a meal in her home, with her family, each Tuesday evening.  This was maybe my favorite gift I've ever given or received.

It was filled with meat recipes.  So, this decision to avoid meat is a recent event for me.  I'd like to go back and revisit that scrapbook, and give my friends the veggie version.

As I've become more involved in getting know where my food is coming from and choosing wholesome foods for my children, it has become difficult to avoid the question of meat.  Throughout my life, I've always really loved a good burger.  The carcinogenic smell of burning cow flesh on a grill is still enticing to me, until I remember it is burning cow flesh.  Eating anything that was available, including meat, was never a thought, though, until this past year.  I suspect, it's not a question for many people.  But, if you're reading this blog, then you're either a friend, or you're a foodie like me who may be in the process of a similar choice.

It started, I think, with the drive my family makes to South Carolina a couple times a year for a little vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The way through Pennsylvania is beautiful, rolling with green. One doesn't even notice the enormous, but innocuously plain sheet-metal sheds that perforate the landscape, sometime hidden beneath the hills, sometimes out in the open.  If I thought anything of them at all, it was "storage."  Then, we realized they were chicken houses.

Each shed, with a few tiny windows and a fan or two, housed thousands of chickens.  They live in conditions I will not describe here until they are mercilessly killed.  I used to think cattle had it bad, but there are at least some laws requiring a bare minimum of so-called humane slaughter.  The chickens, though, have no such protection.  And, the people who work these farms are poor; The riches going to the factories that own it all.  It bothered me, and I started looking into purchasing my meats - all meats - from a family farm I could get to know and trust.  That satisfied me for a while, and I believe it is the only way to go for people who choose to eat meat.

Without a source for family-farmed beef, I decided to give it up.  I had heard of people giving up red meat for health reasons, and I thought I'd give it a try.  It felt good.  I was making a decision about my health and my lifestyle, rather than being held hostage to overly meat-centered restaurant menus.  I then gave up all meats, a matter of weeks later.  Guess what?  My skin cleared up!  Always with a zit or two for my adult life, this was a revelation.  I'd sneak a bite of bacon or burger just to test my own reaction.  Indeed, it repulsed me, and the next day I'd have a red dot on my chin to reinforce the decision to stay away from eating animals.

But, I was still eating seafood and serving meat to my kids... Until a fellow Little League mom handed me her copy of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This changed everything.  What I learned about the quality of factory farmed meats, the living conditions of the animals, the affects on our own health, the government subsidies, and most of all the impact on our environment blew my mind.  Even the seafood industry is fraught with harm and waste.  There was just too much to ignore.  Chad read about half of the book and became a vegetarian, too.

We now have a vegetarian home.  We have guests over and serve wonderfully complete and gorgeous meals without feeling even a little guilty that they might expect meat.  Unless I explain it to them, I don't think they notice. I do struggle with my kids who order chicken nuggets and meatballs when we dine out.  But, at least they refuse Taco Bell and McDonalds because of the "bad meat."  I am hopeful that they will make different choices as they grow up, but I don't feel it's part of my job as a parent to force them to make this personal decision.  I lived on meat for thirty-six years and came to this decision in my own time.  Perhaps my children will too.

I am thankful for a community that has supported and educated me about what I eat and the will to make the decision to live without killing or harming animals.

I wish for more vegetarian recipes for real American food.  Not this tofu-scramble, seitan stuff.  I'm sure it's tasty, but I love the comfort of the familiar foods of my upbringing.  If anyone out there has a recipe to share, I'll post it here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Period 3, the Early Riser

In accidental keeping with the homestead lifestyle, I wake up each morning at five-thirty.  It's not a choice. I could sleep another hour or two, but I just can't.  Occasionally, I wear myself out over the course of a few weeks that I find myself waking, startled, at about seven.  But, after ten years of waking whenever a child needed to be nursed or visit the potty, I am now, officially, an early riser.

I'm not complaining.  In fact, I love it.  With a child who is now old enough to stay up as late as the grown-ups do, the wee hours are the only ones I get to have to myself.  I am haggard and bleary-eyed with yesterday's mascara flaking under my eyes.  My bathrobe smells like dog.  My mouth tastes like wax.  But, I am comfortable and at peace.
(me in the morning -- I can't believe I'm posting this!)
I get to watch the sun rise into the early morning, calling wisps of dew skyward.  The look of morning steam rising reminds me of a smoldering campfire, left to burn out until the next day.  The hens need to be let out, the dogs fed.  It feels quiet and homey.  Sometimes I put on a pot of coffee and bring my mug to the balcony to sit a while on the crumbling wicker furniture I found on Craigslist for a song.  I'll listen.  A neighbor out for a walk with her purebred might pass by below, and I'll wave if she notices me.  If she doesn't, I'll just let her go by.
 (view of the maple in my yard where my two old dogs are buried)
(view of my corner, look close- a robin looks for worms)
During the school year, I've used this time to catch up on emails I need to write.  The life of an elementary school mom is run via email almost entirely.  Playdates, PTA meetings, field trips.  Everything is coordinated this way, so it's been a good way to get my day started productively, if not joyously.

Recently though, it's when I blog. My coffee mug goes on the windowsill in the little nook, just off the kitchen, where I write.
(my nook)
There was a morning fifteen years ago or so, when I'd been living in New York only a few months, when I had a morning such that I have routinely now.  What on earth I was doing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side at five a.m. I really can't recall.  I wasn't a partier, so I must have had some legitimate reason.  In any case, the air was blue.  It must have been that the sky was clear, but the sun had yet to rise.  It created a blue effect on everything.  And, the air was still.  New York is not so often quiet, and I marveled at it.

For years, I secretly despised my mornings.  A child had inevitably kept me up, while my husband had inevitably slept with his face smooshed under a pillow.  My face only looked smooshed under a pillow.  These mornings weren't mine, though.  They belonged to an infant, a toddler.  And, as much as I've cherished my time with all my kids, wouldn't hire a nanny, wouldn't trade a single moment...  I've also truly appreciated the recent months with my youngest now, ironically, old enough to get himself up and pour a bowl of cereal.

Things changed for me back in February and March, when we were having terrible winter weather.  The temperature would be thirty-three, and it would rain.  Then the temp would drop and freeze the water.  Then, it would snow over that.  It was worse than winter in Minnesota because, there, it just snows all season.  It's fluffy and ice-free.

We had a new puppy, Walnut, who had not yet been trained on the Invisible Fence; I had to take him out on a leash to do his business, and I had to do it early of course lest he piddle his crate. I'd don my silver rain boots, cram my thickly bathrobed self into jacket I'd gotten from a hospital where I'd once volunteered.  The rain would wet the hair sticking out of the hood an eventually soak through the hood, too.  Ice chips blew into my face, my hands.  Yet, for a reason I still can't explain, I was warm.  Not like a beach in Hawaii, but like I had regulated my own internal temperature against the external cold.  And, the  wind that truly whipped felt like a breeze.

For a not-so-religious person, this was a religious experience for me.  As I stood out in that weather, knee-deep with my puppy in the snow-covered-everything, it felt like the Breath of God.
(same tree as above)
Science has now explained the tendency to rise early, to be a "morning person," by locating a gene called Period 3.  Apparently the shorter the gene, the earlier we wake up.  Conversely, night owls have the gene in longer form.  I love it when science discovers the reasons for our very humanity, but I love even more to be human without explanation.

These hours are when I show love to myself, care for myself.  In a blink, the rest of my family will wake and I'll be needed to pour orange juice.  I'll do it with a smile, too, because I've invested in myself first.

I wish our newest additions to the family - two exchange students from Spain who arrived last night - have gotten a good rest.

I'm thankful that I have time for myself.