Monday, October 25, 2010

10/19: Bringing in the Corn

The corn harvest was so inspiring, it produced a true sense of reverence even in wild child. Here's a link to the photo album. Watch the slideshow to get a sense of the day.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

10/6: Apple day (or, adventures in food preservation)

Every year, one of the SunRidge families lets the third grade come and visit their apple orchard, taking over their kitchen and yard for the day for a variety of apple-related activities. All I know ahead of time is that I’m assigned to the canning group. Hoo, boy. Let’s just say that I’m a less than experienced canner, though I have managed to produce a few jars of jam over the last few years that haven’t killed anyone yet. Still, I don’t have the proper equipment, nor do I really know how to use it. And somehow, my mother’s knowledge of canning passed down to me only in the form of a vague fear that canning causes explosions. My rational mind knows that this is only if you are using a pressure cooker and its pressure release valve malfunctions, but I still have lingering malaise about the whole process, like, show me a Ball jar, and there’s a small part of me that ducks and runs for cover. And so, of course, I’m now expected to perform this potentially fatal task in close proximity to several Other People’s Kids.

In preparation for the apple day extreme canning adventure, I stop by the hardware store’s canning section to pick up some lids for the many quart jars cluttering up my kitchen. While there I grab one of those stainless steel funnel things that are supposed to prevent you from making too big a mess, or an unintended trip to the burn unit, as you transfer boiling substances from a large pot into a small opening. Just in case whoever is supplying all the other canning supplies: the pots, racks, and those funny tong things, forgets the funnel. And as I head to the register, I grab a “Blue Book of Canning” so I have a reference in case I don’t know, say, how long we are supposed to do what. I mean, risking my own kids’ health with possibly under- or over-boiled jars is one thing; introducing botulism to the entire third grade is something else altogether.

Fortunately, and inevitably, when we arrive en masse at the orchard, T has it all under control. There are to be four rotating stations: apple picking, apple pressing, applesauce making/canning, and apple cake baking. I breathe a sigh of relief to learn that not only does the other parent volunteer assigned to my station know a lot more than me about canning, we also don’t have to keep six kids at a time entertained for an hour solely with hot objects and substances. The canning is just the last step of the applesauce station; most of the time we are simply dealing with multiple sharp objects. No problem.

T comes and demonstrates Apple Cutting 101 for our first group. Unlike me, she has the forethought to encourage them to “never put your fingers between the cutting board and the knife.” Who knew? I don’t think I’ve ever cut the core out of an apple without holding it in my hand, but there she goes, showing those kids how to cut up an apple without endangering their digits. We also have these cool apple corer/peeler/slicer gadgets that clamp to the edges of the table and are way more fun and exciting than just using a knife and cutting board, so the kids clamor for their turns. And those gadgets produce long strings of peeling that would end up as compost if Wild Child didn’t start grabbing at them: “I want the worms! Can I have the apple worms?” thus turning them into commodities to be hoarded, valued, and continuously eaten throughout the rest of the day. Of course, the gadgets, in order to provide all this thrill and functionality, have numerous (okay, two) extremely sharp components. Ever-enthusiastic about my teaching responsibilities, I demonstrate the real and present danger of these blades by gashing through my knuckle, with a dramatic and convincing show of blood that continues seeping through bandaids for the rest of the day, a reminder to the kids to stay vigilant.

Somehow we do it, kids and parent helpers, we make it through an entire day of all-apples-all-the-time with the worst casualty being my bloody knuckle (good thing I wasn’t assigned to the juicing group, where I probably could have ground my fingers into mash). Quarts upon quarts of properly (no thanks to me) canned applesauce line up beside the propane camping stove, several pans of apple cake cool on the counter, a huge vat of apple juice sits by the press. There’s a large bowl of leftover cut-up apples for sauce that in the heat of the moment I volunteer to take home and finish up.

The kids are tired and full of apple worms, tastes of apple cake and the richness of a day taking their food from tree to table. We’ll save the applesauce for them to eat with latkes when they learn about Chanukah; the apple cake will freeze for serving with their play in a few weeks; the juice will similarly wait in the freezer for a time when we need a little reminder of our hard work and the earth’s gifts. I’m tired too, more than I realize until I get home and notice that my feet have turned into sluggish bricks of dull pain. I throw the leftover apples into a pot and cook them down into sauce, then feel entirely too exhausted to deal with the canning process, so I throw the sauce in the deep freeze with the cakes and juice. Cheating, perhaps. But then again, we managed to get through the day of canning without blowing up any kids, so why push my luck?

Lazy Mom Applesauce

Take a bunch of leftover apple chunks (peels and all) and throw them in a large pot with a little bit of water. Turn the stove on low, cover the pot, and forget about it for a while. Give it a stir whenever you wander through the kitchen. When it seems sufficiently applesauce-like, turn off the stove; briefly consider canning it and decide to not bother; take off the lid, and let it cool. When cool, place in a freezer-safe container and freeze. Any smallish amount that doesn’t fit into the container can be served to your own kids with their supper. Try to remember to remove the applesauce at least 24 hours before you need to serve it in December.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

9/28: Digging

Now that I’ve already spent a day “leading” the seed-saving group, it seems a bit late for me to be confessing that I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. Plus, it’s too hot to argue, or really to even ask questions. So off we trudge again, different kids this time, clippers in hand, small bowls and mesh frames and Ziploc bags all piled into the large metal bowls we’ll use to collect the dried blooms of the plants we’ve been assigned to, which is “all the stuff around the community room.” With each other’s help, the kids and I can recognize three plants which seem to be ready to give up some seeds: columbine, calendula, and yarrow. We clip and clip and clip blossoms into three large bowls, which we without much forethought leave on the ground in the sun as we clip. Wild Child keeps “gathering seeds” into her mouth from the cherry tomatoes growing nearby, which is the kind of thing I usually not only tolerate but encourage, but I keep trying to pull her back on task so we can get out of the scorching sun. Of course, once we have denuded the plants of spent flowers, our metal bowls are too hot to touch, and we have to use our shirts to hold them to run to the shade where we put them down & wait for them to cool off.

While we are standing around in the shade, mopping our brows and waiting for our bowls to cool, T and her group are digging holes and planting lettuce & chard starts in the sun-drenched beds over by the third grade classroom, sweating away in the sun without any hope for retreating to the shady garden to clean and package their seeds. For this hour of sweat they will be rewarded with a long spray of water, but not before T calls their attention to how hot they are, and how long they worked, and how much hotter and longer-working must be the day laborers we see in the fields all around our town. Food is work, she points out gently, then cools them all off with the hose. They romp in the rainbow spray, proud of their lush green garden bed.

In the meantime, we are shaking the small seeds through the mesh frames to remove the extra non-seed items, blowing on the bowls to remove the light bits of detritus (this, we discover, only works with the heavier seeds), and packaging them up—labeling them clearly as instructed with the plant, the date, and the grade who gathered them. Wild Child is having a hard time not tossing the bags around in a way that will definitely result in the loss of all the seeds if I can’t refocus his energy, so I lead the group down to check out the bed from which the cooking group has removed a snack’s worth of knobby fingerling potatoes, which places us within range of the hose. And no, they haven’t earned a cool-down like the diggers, but it’s so hot--why not?--I let them run back and forth a bit through the cool water. Wild Child double-times the others, somehow getting fully soaked while they seem lightly sprinkled.

Hmmm. So, we’ve gathered, cleaned (as best we could, given my total ignorance of seed cleaning, having to be taught to blowing trick by one of the kids), packaged and labeled our seeds, and it still isn’t time for the cooking group to give us our snack, but it’s too hot to head back out into the sun to look for more seeds. I mean, it’s not really too hot, but I’ll have a small rebellion on my hands if I suggest it, so I have them go get their garden journals instead. This seems like a good way to not only keep them occupied but to save them from a lifetime of embarrassing ignorance (like mine) about the plants around them. They now have paper and colored pencils, so I have them get to work drawing the seeds they gathered as well as the plants the seeds come from and will produce. They each choose one plant, and I encourage them to look closely at the plant, to really notice the shape and color of the leaves, the details of the flower. I make sure they each have a leaf and flower right there on the table next to them, so they can dig down beyond their impression of the plant to its individual features and gifts. And as they get deeper into the drawings, I watch them transform from generic leaf/blossom/seed shapes into carefully chosen colors, spidery or thick leaves, measured stalks, and attempts at scale for the seeds.

By the time we are done, the cooking group is calling us over for today’s feast: the fingerlings they planted last spring, fried up yummy, and in recognition of the heat, plates of cool cucumbers sprinkled with sea salt.

Vanishing cucumbers:

Have the kids slice up as many cucumbers as you want. Lay slices out on plates and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Marvel at the way the kids keep passing them back and forth, eating more and more and more.

Fried fingerlings:

Plant a fat variety of fingerling potatoes in the spring just before school lets out. In fall, dig them up, have the kids wash and slice them, then throw them into a big cast iron pan with some olive oil, sea salt, and some of the garlic still hanging around from the harvest a few weeks ago. Cook until, well, cooked. (If you were really ambitious, you could chop up and add some kale, but probably the kids have enough to do getting the cucumbers ready.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

9/24: Sukkot

The third grade celebrates the harvest through the Hebrew tradition of Sukkot, a festival which centers on (among other things) giving thanks for the bounty of the year’s harvest. In the field behind the garden, the kids and parents have built a temporary structure out of bamboo poles and tree branches, and decorated it with garlands. The whole class will sleep out in it, under the stars, in the wet wet dew, proving the beyond-what-they-teach-you-in-college dedication of their teacher. Parents are also welcome, though most have brought tents. As we gather in the evening, the Jewish parents in the class explain the Sukkot tradition and ceremony, and then we all join in a potluck feast.

The garden committee, diehards that we are, have requested that each contribution to the feast be grown by either the family or someone that the family knows, to deepen our connection to the food. The table literally bends under the weight of the food, the kids trading stories of what they have brought. On the part of the kids, there is great anticipation of the rabbit meatballs provided by the family that raises meat rabbits; the parents, on the other hand, mostly have our eyes on the gorgeous plate of figs brought by Laura, queen of a vast permaculture garden. And there’s a humongous vat of matzo ball soup, putting to shame my jars of pickled beets and marinated green beans. I made these Southern standards a week ahead, got the potluck imperative off my calendar for the week, whew. But then, of course, I made the mistake of asking The Percussionist (my third grader) if there was anything special he wanted to bring, so of course there I was in my kitchen the day of, roasting his acorn squash.

He was so proud of that one squash, the only one that survived my tendency to kill all winter squash starts through some essential neglect that I have yet to figure out. I mean, we plant the seeds, and we water them when we remember. Shouldn’t that be enough? But that acorn squash meant a lot to him, since it came from some seeds shared with us by his drumming mentor. He watched it grow all summer, and carefully protected it from gopher attack by balancing it atop a wire cage. I had pictured making it the center of a meal for the four of us, celebrating it. But instead I sliced it into enough pieces to share with the class and stuck it in the oven. My pyrex dish with its scraps of ungarnished squash is mortified that the only place I can find for it is next to Laura’s figs. I sneak it onto the table and slink away.

The kids load up their plates (brought from home, but of course—no disposable items!) with food, and settle into small groups to eat. The Percussionist ends up close enough to me that I can see his plate, conspicuously missing any squash. A glance back at the food table confirms my fears: the squash lies basically untouched. So, what’s a humiliated parent to do? Well, cheat, of course. I have actually already cheated on the squash, dotting it with local organic butter, and then at the last minute before it went into the oven, sprinkling it with a little brown sugar, something that to my knowledge, is not now nor has ever been locally produced. So all I have to do now is start a rumor.

I whisper to The Percussionist: “You didn’t try your special squash.”

Nine years old, he knows everything. “I know.”

“But I made it just for you, because you asked me to.” I mean, I know it doesn’t actually look that appetizing, especially in contrast to the gourmet figs, but… “And,” I add in a low voice, “I put sugar on it.”

The eyes open wider, the shoulders straighten up. “Sugar?!” Not that he never has sugar at home, but this meal is noticeably not so sugary, and we haven’t yet brought out the various (regular, regular with nuts, gluten free, vegan, etc) apple crisps we’ll serve for dessert. So, he’s off, getting a piece of squash with infectious if non-locally sweetened enthusiasm—the casserole dish quickly starts to empty. Mission accomplished. And I stop obsessing, so I don’t know if it is all eaten or some is fed to the worms, but at least I know my guy partook of his own personal harvest festival. Sweet.

Drummer’s Acorn Squash

Get some seeds from someone special to you, then nurture them enough to produce at least one bright orange acorn squash. Preheat oven to 425 degrees (or less if you’re not in a hurry). Cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, consider saving them and then decide to feed them to the chickens “just this once,” because you are running a bit late and have a lot to do and the kitchen is already enough of a mess. Cut the halves into pieces about 2” by 2” or whatever size you want, lay them face up in a casserole dish and dot each with butter, then sprinkle the whole thing with brown sugar (not too much, just enough to pique the interest of a third grader). Stick it in the oven, get dressed for the potluck, feed the animals, then, just before you leave the house, turn off the oven, pull the dish out and bring it along. Try to enjoy the harvest festival without worrying too much about whether you remembered the step of turning off the oven and whether your house is burning down. Leak the info about the sugar if necessary.

Laura’s Yum-ola Figs

If you prefer a more impressive potluck contribution, here’s Laura’s email to me about how she made her figs:

Sliced figs brushed with a mint honey water (dilute the honey a bit so it is in a liquid state, add minced mint, I used spearmint)
Bake @ 450* for about 15-20 minutes, or until they begin to brown
At this point I let them cool (more for time than method)
Then I stuffed them with a bit of feta cheese (mine was cow feta) and broiled them for 5-7 minutes
Then I placed them on large basil leaves ("lettuce basil" is what I used) for serving

Thursday, September 23, 2010

9/21: Harvesting Abundance (Pear slices)

You don’t notice the pears at first, camouflaged the same color as the late-summer fading green leaves. First, you notice the basket-on-a-stick pear harvester, leaning against the forked trunk. Then you look up, and the pears reveal themselves, one by one, until you can’t believe you didn’t notice this tree drooping with the heaviness of ripening fruit.

Today is harvest day, prep and decoration for the fall harvest moon festival. My group is assigned to the pear tree, tucked between the towering cornstalks and the herb mound dominated by sprawling mints. The kids’ enthusiasm for the removal of the fruit from the tree is difficult to reconcile with the need to g-e-n-t-l-y place the harvested fruit in the box so it won’t bruise. We are getting a lot of bruising. But we’re having fun. Maybe, once again, a little too much fun. Wild Child is balanced atop the not-so-new fence separating the garden from the neighbors’ yard, swinging the metal-clawed harvester over her head to reach the pears hiding among the top branches. Pears are flying through the air, tossed from the pickers to the packer. T comes over and politely reminds Wild Child that fence-climbing is not a safe school activity. Ah, right, I think. Just because I’m in full support of my own kids’ scaling of tall trees at home doesn’t mean I should allow complete chaos in the school pear tree. We’re not at my house, propriety is required.

Our group moves on to cutting up the bruised and buggy fruit, first to feed it to the worms in the worm box, and then, because they are asking if they can eat the good bits, for ourselves and for all the other groups. “But is there enough to share?” the kids are asking, somehow not connecting the giant bin of pears we have harvested with their hunger. This disconnect with the abundance of harvest was something a number of parents noticed at our last school “farmer’s market,” a monthly gathering at a local park at which classes can fundraise by selling food and crafts. For the first one of this year, we decided to let go of the fundraising aspect and just simplify: we’d bring excess from our gardens and anyone could take what they need, donations accepted but not at all required.

Used to the bake sale table of treats which require begging parents for cash, the kids kept returning to the baskets of apples and asking, “How much do they cost?”

To which the teacher would reply, “Do you want one? Take one.”

Unused to this approach, they would soon come back and say, “But how many can we have?”

To which the teacher would say, “How many do you need? If you are still hungry, take another.”

They were clearly baffled by this take-what-you-need idea. “But, how many can we have?” they asked again and again.

And so it went again with the pears on harvest day. There was a true abundance, heaps and heaps of pears, and we hadn’t even finished the whole tree. “How many slices can we have?” they wanted to know. “As many as you will eat.” So they sliced and sliced and carried plates back and forth to the other groups, maybe a bit off the harvest assignment, but slowly, slowly (“Can we cut up another one?” “Yes, as many as we want.”) getting into the feel of what harvest time means, a full belly, a richness of plenty.

How to serve abundance:
Pick a bunch of pears. Give each kid a cutting board and knife and have them slice away until they are satiated with the pears, with the cutting, and with passing out pear slices to their friends. Feed the cores and yucky bits to the worms. Pile the remaining pears up in a basket & use to decorate for the harvest festival, then save it for another class to raid later.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

9/14: Back-to-School Bruschetta

The kids have been back at school for a couple of weeks, but today is the first day that the parent volunteers will be taking the third grade through a full day of garden curriculum. We arrive a half hour before the kids, just enough time to get our assignments and for me to work up an appropriate level of fear. Last year T was the official, paid garden teacher. This year, thanks to budget cuts, she’s volunteering, just like the rest of us.

[Though she’s a far cry from the rest of us, with her deep commitment to this class in which she has no children. As much as I’d like to think of myself as someone with a passion for the gardening program, there’s about the same chance of me spending an entire unpaid day (plus) each week teaching gardening to a group of kids that do not include one of my own progeny as there is of there ever being leftover bacon in my house. The rest of us like the garden too, and believe that it’s important, but we’re here for our own kids. Or maybe I should speak for myself: I’m here for my own kids. Because as much as I want a garden program for the school, what I’m willing to pour the sweat equity into is my own boys’ classes.]

Anyhow, with T as a volunteer, though she still takes on the entire task of planning the curriculum and teaching the group, there’s an increased psychological burden on me. Before, I was parent, she was teacher, and I would gladly, willingly, gratefully defer all discipline issues to her. Disruptive kid? Look at T. Defiance? Go talk to T. Rampant rule-breaking? Defer all responsibility to T. But now, um, there’s no hired teacher in the garden, so I am going to have to step up and handle some of this on my own (gulp), which means (gulp), telling Other People’s Kids what to do, something I’ve never really liked doing, and am not so great at. Fortunately, T breaks the kids up into groups and I’ve got only five. Five Other People’s Kids. Yikes.

So, T divides up the groups, and tells me, “You’ll take the weeding and seed-saving group.” Now, I’m all into seed saving. As a concept. My attempts at it so far have mostly consisted of washing off the seeds I scrape out of a winter squash we are about to eat and throwing them in a drawer until spring, when I throw them onto a patch of garden with a bunch of other stuff “shotgun style” and hope something comes up after I toss the dirt around a bit. The squashes I have managed to produce in this manner have been less than impressive. T clearly has no concept of the breadth and depth of my ignorance. Terrified, I fake it: “Sure, no problem.” I look at the bowls and frames filled with screen that she hands me, and am about to ask, “So…what do I do?” when she turns away to give instructions to the parent volunteer of the cooking group.

Thankfully, my group has a garden bed to weed first, which is something I know how to do. Trowels to the ready, mates! Plus, we get to harvest these giant overgrown-past-needing-harvesting garlic, which have huge seed balls balanced atop their thick stalks—there’s really not any point in doing anything but temporarily surrendering to the throw-around-the-seed-ball game. We’re having so much fun weeding that one of the students from the cooking group comes over to ask us to pipe down. We respond by supplying the cooking group with more garlic than they could ever use for their day’s work. So there.

Alas, our weeding enthusiasm sooner than later flags, and it’s time for the second part of the lesson: seed saving. So, off we go, them asking questions, me alternately faking it or saying, “Hm, that’s a GREAT question. Let’s save that one for Miss T.” We manage to gather some seeds that look, well, like seeds, and feel pretty sure that we know what the plants from which we gathered them are, when it’s time for us to be back for the treat prepared by the censorious cooking group, and here’s the magic, beyond my group's love of having their hands in the soil, and their careful discovery of the way the columbine blossoms turn upside down to hold their seeds safely in little dried flower cups for us. The magic here is that I’m watching my kid, who will not eat a raw tomato at home for love or money, clamor with the rest for seconds and thirds of the bruschetta the cooking kids have made.

Back-to-School Bruschetta

Toasted slices of French bread (be sure to have some rice crackers on hand for the gluten-free child)
Basil leaves
Olive Oil

Have the kids pick, wash, and chop up a bunch of ripe tomatoes into small pieces. Make sure they do not include any fingertips. Take the garlic from the rowdy weeding group, peel and crush a couple of cloves, and assign either the most patient kid or the one who just loves to chop, or both, to hacking it—I mean, carefully, carefully slicing it--into tiny bits. Let the others chop fresh basil leaves, mix it all together with some olive oil and sea salt, and take turns spooning it onto the rounds of toasted bread (and rice crackers).

Make the kids all salivate madly while they have to think up gratitudes as they stare at the plates of bruschetta. When they have thanked the earth, sun, rain, and Miss T, let them have two each, and then count to make sure there are enough for thirds. If there’s not quite enough, pass around to the parent volunteers and take the rest up to share with the office staff. Encourage the kids to make more at home.