Thursday, August 25, 2011

Quinoa with Roasted Beets and Bleu Cheese Vinaigrette

Crazy accidents happen, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.  I invented this recipe to use what little remains of this season's garden.  (better)  However, a key ingredient - the bleu cheese - was missing last night. (not better)  And, I had to substitute shallots for red onion.  But, it's okay!  What I love about cooking is that it is an improvisational art: Take what you have and make the most of it.  The bleu cheese really does make this dish special, and I wouldn't recommend omitting it intentionally.  But, these things happen, and my family ended up with a really lovely meal.

I served this with zucchini bread and carrots from the garden which I sliced and sauteed the heck out of.

QUINOA WITH ROASTED BEETS AND BLEU CHEESE VINAIGRETTE

Roast 2 medium beets (or several small) individually in foil in the oven for about an hour, until skins fall off easily.  (If you don't have quite this much time, it's okay for the beets to be slightly crunchy -gives a nice texture, actually.) Let cool enough to peel the skins.

Meanwhile, soak 1 C quinoa in water for 15 minutes.  Drain and rinse in fine strainer.  Put in saucepan with 1 1/4 C water and bring to simmer.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until quinoa has soaked up all the water and the quinoa is light and fluffy, about 30 minutes.  (check occasionally to make sure quinoa isn't sticking to bottom of pan.)  Put in serving bowl and set aside.

Chop the leafy parts of one bunch of Swish Chard or other leafy green and blanch for one or two minutes in boiling water, then remove it to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.  Dry in a towel.


Dice 1/2 of a red onion (or a whole one if you really like it).  You can use it raw or blanch it as with the chard.

Dice the beets.  Add the beets, onion, and chard to the serving bowl with the quinoa.

For the vinaigrette: Whisk together 2 T apple cider vinegar, 1 tsp (1 clove) minced garlic, 1 T red cooking wine, 1 tsp dried herbs (like oregano). Pour in about 1/4 C olive oil, in a steady stream, whisking until emulsified.  Add about 1/3 C crumbled bleu cheese.

Pour vinaigrette over quinoa salad, mix gently, and serve.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My friend Tara and her two kids were over yesterday, getting in one last playdate before school starts on Tuesday.  She's as much a foodie as I am, and we inevitably talk about recipes, what's fresh in the markets these days, and the ills of corporate farming.  As mothers, though, we discuss our children's eating habits and our frustrations over their picky starch-and-sugar based diets.
(Tara and I talk over family eating habits, while Brenner and Maddie bake.)

This is a common conversation amongst my friends, and I would guess it's common in any group of parents.  Let's face it: kids are picky.  But, when Tara asked me how I feed my kids, I actually had an answer.  It may not be the perfect answer with the magic to get our kids to voluntarily reach for the asparagus, but it is my answer nonetheless, cultivated from a decade of dinnertime battles and the desire to give them up.

Human beings have a biological instinct to assume scarcity in food.  Long, long ago, on a planet that looked a lot different from today, we had to gather and hunt, and the results of our efforts were meager.  Fast forward several millennia, and our social and agricultural progress has transported us exponentially fast.  Anything we want is a short drive to the Piggly Wiggly.  Our DNA is still in the dark ages, though. The idea is: Eat as much as I can now because I might not get another meal for a week!  As a species, we learned to ignore our true hunger and fullness signals.  We also learned to fill up on as much sugar as we could find since that could be stored in the body longer and give us reserves of energy should we have to go without for a while.  Mushrooms could be poisonous, our prey could turn around and attack.  Eating was a dangerous and limited prospect.

We now tell our children to lick their plates, eat at prescribed times, have eggs for breakfast and meat-and-potatoes for dinner, and not to have dessert until they've eaten all their veggies.  And, "for Pete's sake, stop playing with your food."

Rubbish!

Now, I'm not suggesting we let our kids fill up on Halloween candy day after day and splatter the walls with a mashed potato food fight.  I'm just relaxing a bit and letting nature guide the rules for eating in my house.

First of all, dinner is for me.  I do try to prepare meals with my family's tastes in mind so that there's at least one thing on the table that each person will eat without complaint, but I would go crazy if I tried to please everyone.  For me, though, dinner is family time, focused on talking over our day and sharing our wishes and thankfuls.  Food is just a centerpiece. Chad loves my cooking, but the kids don't usually eat much at all.  So be it.

If I'm being honest, I do feel disappointed from time to time that my children haven't embraced my philosophy whole-heartedly, but I do believe they see how happy and healthy it makes me and that they'll catch on sooner or later.  Besides, if I was really cooking to make them happy I probably wouldn't make mushroom lasagne in bechamel sauce.  No, I make that for me.  It took some time to realize it, but it's okay if I have this one meal each day that fills me with joy.

Breakfast and lunch.  And snacks.  Those are for the kids.  And, they eat plenty to satisfy both their cravings and their health.  Eggs, sunflower butter sandwiches, pickles, oatmeal, fruits, carrots sticks, popcorn.  Almost everything they eat during the day is fresh, local, and so easy to prepare that making individual meals for them is a snap.  And, because I live in the real world, I have given in and found cereals and chips that are produced in a more-or-less acceptable manner.

Chocolate chip cookies or other treats have nothing to do with finishing a meal in my home - that kind of system destroys a child's ability to self regulate and promotes "treat" as reward and "meal"as punishment.  So, we do our baking in the afternoon when the treat stands on its own and they'll have time to burn the sugar off jumping on the trampoline.  Then dinner can stand on its own a couple of hours later.
(a few sprinkles - if you're going to have cake, might as well do it all the way!)

From planting radish seeds, to shopping the farmers' market, to sauteeing carrot slices -- and adding sprinkles to cake batter -- my kids are involved.  They point out awful chicken houses when we travel, followed the Taco Bell is-it-meat scandal on TV, and let the hens peck sunflower seeds out of their hands.  They read ingredient labels. I arm them with knowledge, opportunity, and choice.

Now, it must be said that my kids are not fantastic eaters.  Nor are they fantastic vegetarians.  In fact, they order burgers when we go out.  But, they all have some healthy foods that they rely on, and they slowly stretch their boundaries out a little at time.  They have learned the difference between foods that are grown sustainably and those that are manufactured.

Brenner, who is clearly the worst eater, is even trying new things.  He'll put something on his plate and mush it around.  Progress.  And, he goes out into the garden and shells the sugar snaps right there, munching on the peas inside.  His first vegetable.  They have all rejected McDonald's.  Victory!

An expansive menu of tastes will come with age and experience. What I can provide to encourage that expansion is opportunity and role modeling.  I put new things in front of them.  I eat these new things.  Occasionally, I let the kids design the menu.  This often results in pizza or breakfast-for-dinner, which are really pretty decent choices when done with some thought.  It did once mean that I served a bowl of candy corn as the evening's vegetable selection, but even that was an experience in fun and creativity with food.

We are all healthy.  No one has diabetes.  The pencil markings on the mudroom wall where the kids stand, heels to the baseboards, while I hold a ruler over their heads, are climbing steadily upward. This is the real measure of a child's eating habits: their health.

Most of all, we don't fight about it.  We used to, and it didn't work.  What goes into - and out of - the body is the only thing a child can control and he will do anything he can to have that control.  Everything else is mandated by an adult.  I decided a while ago to take the power struggle out of food, to let my family feel a sense of choice for themselves and the opportunity to feel the achievement that comes from making good choices.

Brenner still refuses apples, of all things, but he'll eat zucchini bread.  Westley has moved from fried pork dumplings to the steamed vegetable variety.  Gabi had lettuce and tomato on his sandwich yesterday, and loved it.  And, Maddie is naturally drawn to anything fresh and raw.  Though they prefer cookie to veggie, they will always choose homegrown or homemade over store-bought.  

And, me?  I can serve cake in the afternoon and quinoa with roasted beets and bleu cheese vinaigrette in the evening... happily!

What do you feed your kids, and how do you get them to eat it?  Desperate mothers want to know...

WISHES AND THANKFULS

I am thankful that all of my family is back home together after a week of separation.  (Maddie was on a vacation, Gabi was at sleepaway camp, and Chad was golfing St. Andrew's.)  I am thankful I had eight days of quality time with my two youngest sons.

I wish the last week before school starts is slow and easy and filled with memorable summer moments.






Monday, August 22, 2011

Golden Gazpacho

From a weekend characterized by organizing the linen closet and pantry, in addition to playing with my youngest two children while the rest of the family is away, the focus wasn't exactly on food.  Yes, I made a list of things I would be making when all six of us are back at home, together again.  And I did throw together some more Baba Ghanoush, to which I am addicted, and a batch of Golden Gazpacho.  I watered the garden and picked up chicken feed.

But, what I didn't do was remember to photograph our great picnic at the beach when Luba invited me to have dinner there, though I did get a couple pics of the kids playing.  Nor did I remember to bring my camera to her house when she invited me for barbeque!  Despite the simplicity of the meals, the settings and company would have been blog-worthy.  This is my second lesson that I need to keep a camera with me at all times.


Without the makings of a great post, I will simply share the gazpacho recipe, which comes from one of my favorite local chefs at his restaurant, Blue Lemon, here in Westport.  As a guest chef at the Westport Farmer's Market, he gave away samples of this refreshing summer soup and the recipe for it as well.


GOLDEN GAZPACHO

2 lbs golden beets
1 stalk celery (I didn't have this and omitted it, which was fine)
3 cloves garlic
1/4 C sherry wine vinegar (didn't have this either and substituted, cider vinegar and marsala wine)
2 1/2 C water
salt and pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 lg cucumber
1 lemon
4 T olive oil
1 bunch chives, optional, for garnish

Put the beets in a pot and cover with water.  Bring to a boil and simmer until tender, about 30 - 40 minutes. Remove from water and let cool. Peel the cucumber, and cut it, the pepper, and the celery into small pieces.  Peel the skin off the beets and cut into pieces.  Place all these ingredient in a blender with the garlic, water, and vinegar.  Squeeze the lemon and add the juice (no seeds).  (I had to do this in two batches because this amount would overflow my small blender.) Blend this mixture until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper, add 2 T oil, then puree another 30 seconds.  Chill the soup for at least 30 minutes.  Pour soup into bowls.  Drizzle with oil, garnish with finely diced chives, and serve.

At Luba's barbeque, we served the gazpacho in shot and high-ball glasses!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Chickies

The first question I'm always asked about my chickens is, "Why do you have chickens?"  The second is, "Do you get eggs?" Obvious questions perhaps, but worth answering.  The third most frequently asked question, usually posed by men, is, "You gonna eat 'em?"
(leader of the pecking order, Lemon Sorbet)

Before moving to Westport a few years ago, we lived in a nearby town called Weston that was my first foray into rural living.  It wasn't exactly the country, but it was close.  A neighbor had goats, and I'd take Gabi to look at them when we walked our dogs.  I once asked the property-owner there, who happened to be out in his yard, why he had goats.  He asked rhetorically, "Why do you have dogs?"  Good answer.


My next door neighbor had chickens.  She even had a rooster.  According to the story, when she ordered her chicks, they were supposed to be all female, but it turns out the gender-checker had made a mistake.  It can be hard to tell the gender of a baby chicken, so she ended up with a rooster.  That big bird patrolled the fence between our properties making noise and ruffling his feathers, taunting my dogs who barked and paced.  I thought that rooster was the funniest thing.

It wasn't until moving to a less rural place, only one town over, that I really missed the animal husbandry that was comparatively common in my old town.  I missed the woods and the laid back feel, too.  I am pretty sure I was trying to recreate the country feel I was lacking in my new home when I got the chickens and planted the garden.

The answer to the egg question is pretty straight-forward: The hens are still pullets (adolescents), so they are not laying yet.  We will have eggs in late October or early November.

But, why do I have chickens?  Honestly, I just thought it was cool.

(Kernel sits at attention, waiting to nab a baby chick; Cherry and Butterscotch safe in their run.)

My friend, Samantha, got some hens a while back, and a couple other people I knew had them, too.  I didn't know a cultural phenomenon was on the precipice and that backyard farming would become so hip. My friends were wild about the birds themselves and about the eggs they collected every morning.  I had to think about it for a long time, though, because I tend to take things on and then get overwhelmed.  But, what finally convinced me to talk to Chad about it was... You guessed it!  Food!

The more educated I am about our food, the more difficult it is for me to eat anything that came from some unknown place.  Commercial eggs are farmed in horrible conditions with laying hens in one-foot-square wire cages that cut their feet and stacked half-a-dozen high.  You can imagine what rains down from one cage to the cage below it.  The lights and heat are manipulated so that the hens' natural cycles are forced into mass-production mode at all times.  Genetic modification has rendered the eggs susceptible to diseases like salmonella and e. Coli that home-farmed eggs just don't have. The details get more gruesome, but I'll stop here.

(commercial chicken houses)

I was already buying eggs directly from a farmer I trusted at the Westport Farmer's Market, and having my own layers seemed like a logical step in the progression for me.  There are some aspects of food production I can't handle myself, like growing and milling my own grains.  But, I feel a responsibility for doing as much as I can on my own and for buying from trusted sources as much as is possible in a country owned by Con-Agra.  Besides, fresh food is healthier and tastes superior.

This was also a decision about what is healthy for my kids - not just their bodies, but their souls.  With a little garden patch, they could see that carrots don't really come in cute little whittled-down nubs in a plastic baggie labeled "baby carrots."  In fact, they are even more appealing right from the ground, with the dirt washed off and the greens still attached.

But, what about the food that comes from animals... or used to be an animal?  It was unlikely that I would ever own livestock for meat, even when I was still eating it, because there are zoning laws about it.  But, chickens have very few regulations, either commercial or private, so long as the neighbors don't complain.  I thought it would give the kids a chance to see where "animal food" comes from.


In my mind, though, I was testing myself to decide where I stood on eating animals.  Laying hens don't actually make good meat because commercial breeding has separated layers from meat for maximum efficiency and profit.  Still, I thought at the time that a dead hen shouldn't be wasted.  I have a friend who has eaten her hens after they've gone.  Hens live a good seven years, but only produce eggs for two of them, so many people have their non-producing hens picked up and "taken care of."  Could I do that?  I think I already have the answer to that long before the time gets here.  I'll have to introduce new hens every couple years and end up with quite a brood.

I often get on my high-horse about political hot-button issues, with strong opinions and a loud mouth.  But, my opinions on commercial ranching was based only on my feelings and not on a whole lot of knowledge.  Having my own chickens would be an education about farming, but also about the validity of opinions that could now be based on experience.

My family waited impatiently for months for our one-day-old chicks to arrive.  Oh, they were the cutest little things, peeping and fuzzy!  They spent a month in a brooder (a crate with mesh walls) in our laundry room before going outside to a coop and chicken run.  They eat feed from Benedict's farm supply store because I am unable to grow enough natural food for them in my own yard, but they get all our kitchen scraps, excepting oils.  They eat our weeds.  They'll eat ticks when we're able to let them out of the run.  Best of all, they peck sunflower seeds right out of my hand.


(the babies at one day old, then going outside for the first time at one month old.)

Why do I have chickens?  They make good eggs, good environmental sense, good education, and good pets.

Cluck!

WISHES AND THANKFULS

I am thankful for the opportunity to care for my little acre of the world.  It gives me peace and reminds me each day what it important.  I am thankful for all the backyard farmers who paved the way (or should I say "spread gravel") for the rest of us.

I wish my dogs would behave better.  So, I guess I also wish to be more diligent in training them.  If I can be successful in that, then I'll have happy dogs and truly free-ranging chickens.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Yesterday was one of those glorious late summer days, with perfect 80s temperature, low humidity and loads of sunshine.  Having managed to get much of my endless to-do list checked off, my two youngest boys and I found ourselves with a free afternoon and no one to play with but each other.

Now, Westley loves coming into the garden with me, but Brenner, who eats no fruits or vegetables whatsoever except for pickles, isn't much of a gardener.  Miraculously, though, he agreed with enthusiasm to join me for carrot-testing!  In other words, I told him he could pull a carrot.


(Brenner and Westley pick carrots)

Before we even got to the garden gate, though, my eye was caught by something red off to the right.  Could it be?  Our first sunflower!!!

And then more about to bloom!  I had to run back in for my camera.

Intending only to pull up the dead pea vines and make room for maybe some potatoes and other fall planting, I turned away from the boys and got to work.

"Can I pull a beet, Mommy?" asked Westley from behind me.

"Yeah.  Sure.  Why not?" I replied, dryly.

Those beets, which should have been sweet and juicy and the ruin of a couple kitchen towels, had stagnated all summer.  They'd grown colorful leaves for a while, but when I'd checked on the bulbs, those were small and hairy, the size of a scallion.  I planned to pull those up, too, so why not let Westley "check on one."

"Mama, you have a beet!" From Brenner, who seemed as surprised as I was to watch Westley pull a smallish but respectable beet out of the ground.  Westley was not surprised at all, of course.  He practically took credit for it.  

Then Brenner, again.  "Uh-oh.  I'm sorry, Mama.  It just fell off."

"What fell off?"

"The pumpkin."

"Oh, sweetie, that pumpkin's been there a while.  I think it was ready."

The vines from that single pumpkin have started taking over.  Their prickles ravaged the cabbages, but I'm holding on to hope there.  If nothing else, the vines make the garden look like it's doing something besides dying off.  I followed the vines for a while, retraining them away from anything that might have a little life left.


I found, to my now lessening surprise, that more pea shoots had started growing.  The kholrabi had sprouted, and there were little green bean plants, too.  It's a little late in the season, but some of it just might produce a meal or two.  It's worth finding out.

Others had to go, though, I'm afraid.  Most of the lettuces were hard, bitter stalks that would have sat pathetically on my table if I'd tried to put salad dressing on them.  Yuck.  But, even the plants that don't work out so well have a purpose - they become food for the chickens who will eat anything green.


The bell peppers, too, might not be plentiful, but here were three bell peppers, a few jalapenos, and a handful of habaneros, turning colors, and teaching me just what I'll need to do for them next year.

And, what is this strange thing laying among the pumpkin vines?  It had been there a while, and I just wasn't sure what to make of it.  It surely couldn't be a pumpkin.  It didn't look much like anything else, though, either.  I've kept thinking it would turn into something easily recognizable, but it hadn't changed at all in the last two or three weeks.  Time to pull.  A yellow squash!!!  I thought that was impossible since my yellow squash plants had withered in their pots.  But, here was one totally edible squash growing in the pumpkin vines.  Go figure!


Finally, I transplanted the strawberry bush that had grown leaders out of its pot and had started to permanently attach itself to the ground.  The little spot behind the fence and near the shed would make a lovely strawberry patch, I think!  Next to them, I'll do blueberries and raspberries, too.


With several hours still left in the day and weather too perfect for indoor inactivity, I threw our three bikes in the back of the minivan and headed over to the ball fields where there is a paved circle to ride around on.  I could have just sent the boys out to ride in the driveway, but boys need to GO!  And, frankly, a ride sounded awfully good to me, too.  Brenner has just learned how to ride his two-wheeler, and now there's no holding him back.  Then, it was off to Christie's Country Store for an ice cream.

Oh, wonderful summer!

I might just scoop out that pumpkin and toast the seeds.  If the flesh is right, I'll roast it.  If not, I'll give it to the chickies.  Today is also Farmer's Market day, and I plan to buy a few varieties of potato and see if they'll grow eyes to plant.  I'd love to know from readers what, if anything, you plant this time of year.  You see, blogging about gardening doesn't make me an expert.  This is only my second season, and I have so very much to learn.

WISHES AND THANKFULS

I wish summer hangs on a while, long enough for me to dig up the rest of my yard for a garden expansion.  And, I wish to learn how to prep the soil this fall for next year's plantings.

I am thankful for an afternoon to share with my little boys, free from errands and housework that can wait.  I am thankful for giant smiles on their little faces.  And, I am thankful for the fullness in my heart and belly that even a garden as small as mine gives me.









Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Am I Doing This, Anyway?

A blog is an interesting form of writing because it is often personal and could easily slide that slippery slope into diary territory.  As voyeuristic as we can be, though, a diary is private;  A blog is thematic and public.  To that end, I have abstained from telling stories about my children's orchestra concerts, scraped knees, first time on a bicycle, schoolmate crushes, or homemade art projects.  I've kept away from describing date-night with my husband, the times I'm a flipping crabby mess, the pool that's going in the back yard, or the gripe I have with that lady who stole my parking spot.

Unless it's somehow pertinent.
 (my dogs, Kernel and Walnut.  not exactly pertinent, but they make me happy.)

I've also tried to maintain a sense of humor and a positive attitude, as much to inspire it in myself as in others.  No one's life is really as serene or pointedly dedicated as it looks in a blog, and we are all far more dynamic than one little Web site could address.  Still, the idea of using writing to cultivate what is most cherished to me is rewarding, and the idea that others might benefit from the reading is sugar on that cookie.

Wishful Thanking Farm is an idea.  It's the place in my heart where I am most myself.  In this place, time and I move at the same pace; I'm neither behind and stressed out, nor am I smugly bored.  The answer to every problem comes to me naturally, and it always answers the question, "Well, what would happen in nature?"  If one of my sons needed me right now, I might be bent on having my way, finishing my post.  But, in nature there is no Internet, so I would know the answer is to hit "save as draft" and go to my child.  The hens need me to open their coop when the sun rises so they can catch worms.  That means I'm getting up with the sun - and going down with it too.  At Wishful Thanking Farm, I am a part of life rather than its high-strung director.

In nature, all we need is provided to us... excercise, nutrition, home, a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and love.  If all we ever do in life is tend a garden, and then prepare the food that garden provides, we will have a full and happy existence.  Our other needs will fall in line, and everything else is distraction.

I chose food as the centerpiece of my writing because it is my passion and keeps me grounded in the idea of what Wishful Thanking Farm represents.  But no wonder!  Food is our most essential necessity!  If we didn't love food as a species, we'd be extinct!  It was through my obsession with gorgeous and well-prepared food that I became somewhat educated about how it is cooked, then how it is produced.  And, through that I found a connection with the earth and a part of myself that had been secreted away.  And, following that came a community into which I am a welcome member.

Food has so many tentacles (since I don't eat animals, I mean that only figuratively), and it touches every aspect of our existence.  Global warming has roots (this time, figuratively AND literally) in our food production.  The shampoo we use in the shower ends up watering our crops.  Our very important careers keep us away from the dinner table with our families.  The choices we make about what to put in our bodies affect how our brains function.  Our sedentary inclinations force the food we've eaten to behave differently in our bodies than they should. When it comes down to it, it's all about food.

There are only so many hours in a day, and I've been struggling with what I should be doing with those hours.  I want to walk the dog, work on my little sewing business, make dinner, see friends, practice playing guitar, join a choir.  I need to pay bills, run errands, and deal with that PTA project.  Just thinking about my to-do list gives me agita.  Should I continue to write a blog that, at the moment, only a few people read?  Why do I do this, anyway?

I have to remember that I do this for myself.  In a way, it is very much a diary - a place where I can focus my thoughts in writing and, in that way, make them real.  I take a look at what is growing outside, and plan my day around it as much as I can. It is my way of reminding myself what truly matters in my life and beginning my day exploring those ideas.  And, should anyone choose to read it, then it is my way of sharing.

Some people get up each morning and pray, or sit with coffee and a newspaper, or hurry off to the office.  (I have found that those who embrace the latter are also scattered and stressed out, having been one of those people for a while.) As for me, I spend a few minutes admiring the life I have in my house, in my yard, in my community - then writing about it.  I give thanks for what I have here, and I make a wish that the peace I find in a strawberry vine will grow.  I write a journal entry that is a standing invitation to join me at Wishful Thanking Farm.