Friday, September 30, 2011

Sun-baked Smiles

Sometimes the kids follow the script without any prompting. Wild Child looks down into the bowl of fresh salsa we have just made and says, surprised, “There’s a rainbow in this bowl!” Couldn’t have said it better if I tried and tried.

Recipe for happy, happy third graders:

Try out the new solar oven on something easy: fill the pan with chips and grated cheese. (Yes, the garden kitchen has embraced nachos this week, since we have so many many ripe tomatoes perfect for salsa.) Get as excited as the kids when the cheese melts!

School Garden Salsa:

Harvest every tomato you can find on campus (mostly cherries).
Have everyone smell their yummy sunsoaked hands. Wash them (tomatoes and hands). Have one kid peel and press three humongous cloves of heirloom German garlic. Have the bravest kid peel and chop half a purple onion. Talk about the exciting cascade of chemical reactions that make people cry when an onion is cut until the kids are all debating the difference between the word “nerd” and the word “geek.” Get the hint.

Meanwhile, two kids can be hard at work chopping the tomatoes, which, given that we have only “kid-safe” knives, is no easy task. The straggler can chop a handful of parsley (Well, there was no cilantro around, and they honestly could have cared less). Trade jobs as often as needed to get all the tomatoes chopped and the onion in tiny tiny pieces that won’t make anyone revolt.

Chop into micron-sized bits half a jalapeño pepper. Resist Wild Child’s pleas to take this task on himself. Instead, have him entertain the others with his exciting reenactment of last year’s salsa day, when you (after being beguiled by the beauty of the extra-hot habañero in the store) let the kids chop the peppers themselves. Your main memory of that day was the beautifully penned, overly polite note that came down from the office: “Perhaps in the future you could not let the kids put hot peppers into their eyes?” Wild Child’s version is a bit more raucous, involving lots of running around holding his eyes and screaming.

Mix everything with some sea salt in a big bowl and hand it to Wild Child to put on the picnic table while you pull the nachos out of the very hot sun oven. Smile when he gets his line just right.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Trying to get buy-in for the day’s activities, T tells the kids that after they get their work done, we’ll be having pasta with pesto made by the cooking group. Hands fly up.

Girl #1: I don’t like pesto.
Boy #1: Me neither.
Girl #2: I don’t like pesto, either.
Back to Girl #1: Can I have my pasta without pesto?
And so on. Who knew, it’s the anti-pesto table (okay, I admit it, pun intended).

I interrupt (a bad habit I am trying to break so I have to fess up about it): Do you guys know what the word “pesto” means? (Hmm, no, they don’t.) It means “paste.” It can be made of anything, ground up into paste. It doesn’t even have to be green.

They cock their nine-year-old heads at me, like, seriously? Are you crazy?
An hour later, every mouth is full. Of green stuff. With raw garlic in it. And who asks for thirds? Girl #1. (Gratification.)

Hand-mashed pesto
Before class, dry-roast a cup of pumpkin seeds (just stir them around for a while in a hot cast iron pan on the stove).
Have the kids peel and coarsely chop a half a large head of garlic. They each will have a small pile on their cutting board.
Then have them tear leaves off (prewashed) basil—they can tear them up small if they need something to do.
Pass the mortar and pestle down the row. Each one will add their piles of garlic and basil leaves, a handful of the roasted seeds, and a pinch of salt, and smash away. (You can drizzle in a bit of olive oil but too much will cause undue splashing.)
Here’s the cool part: between each kid, scrape the pesto into a large bowl, stir in a little oil, and let them all take a taste. The first taste will be “WAY too spicy!” from the garlic. Subsequent kids will adjust their garlic amounts according to preference, add extra seeds and salt, etc to play with the flavors. But keep adding each batch into the communal bowl and tasting. So, the first taste will be from just one kid’s batch, the second will blend two kids’ batches, and so on. By the end, everyone will love it. Magical, but true.
Add pre-cooked pasta (have some rice pasta on hand for the gluten-free kids) and serve. Make sure you have enough for seconds (and thirds).

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pollinating the brain, with mashed potatoes on the side

Jane, the ever-efficient scheduler of garden volunteers, is down here with me getting ready, adding pollinator worksheets into the kids’ folders before class starts. I notice she is getting about twice as many done as I am. “You are so efficient,” I say, admiring. “In this moment,” she answers, and then proceeds to tell me about some research she has been reading about brain function and how there is just so much more going on in our brains than we are conscious of. “So,” she adds, “this is one aspect: efficiency. I also have a totally inefficient aspect which wins out at times. Our brains have more going on than we can imagine.” As we continue our task of opening the folders, unfolding the metal strips, and adding the “choose a flower and draw it, with the pollinator who visits it most often while you are drawing” sheets, Jane illustrates her explanation of the brain’s vast range with a story from last week. She was with two girls, one of whom was afraid of bees, the other of whom was completely unafraid and pointing them out avidly, much to the distress of her frightened friend. Jane is trying, in some enlightened-adult way, to manage this dynamic and make the bees seem less scary, and in the course of doing so she says, “look, they are really all around us,” only to discover that her brain has suddenly allowed a shift in perception: in that instant she becomes aware of a swell of buzzing vibration around her and the air fills with bees, not newly arrived, but newly noticed. And she stands with the girls, allowing them all to feel the wonder of how our very lives depend on these tiny flying insects, and how they are ever-present, physically, here and now, and how we do not always see them even though they are beside us. Did I ever mention that there is magic in a school garden?

And the kids arrive, and draw their flowers, and dig out the potatoes they planted just before school let out for the summer, and peel gigantic sweet cloves of heirloom garlic, and stay past the start of recess as the potatoes took too long to cook, and they want their garlic-mashed potatoes. And we are all nourished.

Garlic-mashed potatoes

Dig up potatoes, all different varieties jumbled together like only a second-grader would plant them. Wash, peel, rinse, and chop into chunks. Carefully place potato chunks into boiling salted water. Meanwhile, peel and slice garlic. Sauté in a generous portion of olive oil and melted soy butter (vegan-sensitive class) until oil is fragrant (that’s when the kids start saying “Wow, that smells GOOD!”) and garlic is browned. When potatoes are cooked soft enough to mash, drain them, put them back into the pot, add sea salt and the oil/soy butter/garlic, and mash all together. Serve large portions and expect many to plead for seconds. Promise to give them the recipe.

Monday, September 12, 2011


So relaxing, there is no need to keep the kids engaged, because in kindergarten gardening is an optional activity during outdoor playtime. Don’t have the patience to listen to an explanation? No worries, just run off to the monkey bars for a while. But return when you notice the gardeners are making a scarecrow with a school sweatshirt on. Stuff some hay in the sleeve, run off again. The kids who are into the gardening will finish it, and even plant some fennel in the bed by the back wall, each kid with a careful trowel and a turn with the watering can full of compost tea, each seedling welcomed to it’s new home with a drink and the easy love of a five-year-old.

Schoolyard pears:

Come to the back-to-school workday, and notice one of the tasks is “Pick pears and take them home.” Inquire. Discover that the pears are ripe and dropping and attracting yellow jackets to the play field. Have the kids help pick the pears. Take them home as instructed. Slice with one of those corer/peeler/slicer things that clamp to the table. Put them in the dehydrator a friend just handed down to you. When dried, stack them in jars, and bring them back to the school for the kindergarteners and office staff to snack on. Feel totally righteous.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

End-of-summer squash

Just a week ago, a friend called to say she had some yellow squash she would fix carpaccio-style and bring over to add to the supper we were preparing for her & her daughter. “Don’t make too much,” I warned, as no one here but me eats summer squash.” And I was right, the kids all tried to swipe the parmesan shavings off the top, shunning the crisp thin yellow slices below. But today, here in the school garden, there is a table full of kids with bowls of kale salad and sautéed squash, my own most recalcitrant veggie-eater seated smack dab in the center. And I might as well be flat on the ground, like my lower jaw is. Because he is asking for seconds of… you guessed it, yellow squash.

Kids love squash (really):

Have kids slice up squash. Sauté lightly with soy butter and a sprinkle of salt. Make enough for second helpings.