Friday, October 28, 2011

Harvest Time!

When school is over, I need to leave.  I tell this to the garden teacher.  We’ve had a busy week so far and my kids need a chill afternoon at home.  We are behind on homework, the house needs to be swept, there are dirty dishes on the counter from when we left for school this morning.  And we are tired, so she says “go ahead.”  But as I gather the kids’ backpacks and my travel mug from the kitchen, I look at the scattered stalks, the trails of dropped husks, and most of all, the big baskets of corn that still needs shucking, and I let it all go.  I shrug the packs onto a bench, abandon the mug on a picnic table.  I start gathering spilled ears of corn into the baskets.  The teacher looks at me quizzically as I hoist up a basket and head out to the field where the middle school kids are playing volleyball.  

“There’s too much work to leave it behind,” I say.  “Shall we watch the game as we shuck?”

There’s a reason that kids used to have no school during harvest time.  When the work has to be done, it has to be done.  And yes, we live in a world where, if our corn rots because we didn’t shuck it soon enough, we can go to the grocery and buy fresh corn to eat, we can go to the farm store and buy seed in the spring.  But so much would be lost.  (See next week’s post for more about the corn.)  So we shuck, and all the little kids who aren’t playing volleyball come over and learn how to pull back the husks but leave them attached so the corn can be braided together and hung to dry.  And some of their parents join in, and the work of the harvest gets done, by many hands.  

Harvest popcorn

We don’t eat the corn we are harvesting today, not yet, though the kids all taste kernels.  But it IS corn harvest day, after all, so the teacher has found (Bill’s Farm Basket, oh ye locals) the kind of popcorn that is sold still on the cob.  

The kids carefully separate the kernels from the cob—watch out!  Those kernels jump!  We pop it on the stove, then let whichever kid is still hanging around the kitchen doctor it up with olive oil, tamari, salt, and nutritional yeast.  And dig in to our corn harvest feast.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sunshine Soup, with a few clouds

Gardening is work. Teaching gardening is work. We all have to learn this lesson today.

The kids’ version: double digging the wheat field so they can get their wheat planted before the rain comes. Lots of days we do tiring physical work until we are ready to move on to something else, but today we actually need to finish the job so we are pushing through tired arms and some creative non-cooperation from Wild Child, involving multiple time-consuming trips to the water fountain. (Smart kid, he understands that it’s really hard to say “no” to a drink of water.)

My version: having to ask for help when the going gets tough in my brain. My arms are tired, too, but it’s my patience that gets the real workout. Wild Child is just riding that line today, almost almost almost crossing it but banking on the adult’s ability to absorb large amounts of disrespectful behavior. He knows perfectly well that we try our best to keep him here with us instead of in the office. An ecosystem can absorb and adapt to a large amount of toxic additions, until it reaches a tipping point and things start to die off. My patience, like a fragile salamander, is joining the endangered species list. So in the break between the first and second garden groups, I put out a call for help, and get some habitat restoration for my soul. We garden teachers hold each other like that, help each other restore balance: “Remember all he’s dealing with at home, remember how he has to hold so many things together, remember. And here, have some more mood-brightening soup.”

Sunshine Soup

Before class, bake a kabocha squash. Have a raw one as well, to cut into halves and have the kids scoop out the seeds for saving, before putting it in the oven to bake for the next group. Kabocha is one of those great secrets of the squash universe. Why oh why did we grow up eating only acorn and butternut when delicata and kabocha exist? The kabocha is, well, an ugly squash, like a splotchy green pumpkin, unless you are an heirloom vegetable geek, in which case you find it “gorgeous, luscious, stunning.” Seriously, we are vegetable geeks here, as the children do not tire of pointing out. But they also do not tire of sneaking little bites of the baked squash, which I pretend not to notice as they scrape the flesh out of the skins into bowls. (I do, however, make them wash their hands again, because I am a nurse and thus the obvious enforcer of hand sanitation.) After the first taste, Wild Child keeps insisting that “it is not squash, it is a yam,” never mind the thick green skin in his hand.

Meanwhile, have someone chop up an onion and sauté it till it’s translucent, add a pinch of salt, cover and cook on the lowest heat until you are ready to use it. Just before you pull it off the stove, stir in some curry powder. With group two, I let the kids take charge of the curry powder and we had incredibly spicy soup—they also opted to add some grated fresh ginger and press three garlic cloves in—but the class, despite my worries, LOVED it. I gave small “taste” servings first so we wouldn’t end up with a lot of waste (we thought it might be too spicy for the worms) but every single child came up and asked for more. The enthusiasm of the cooks, which led to the spicy soup in the first place, was apparently infectious. No stuffy sinuses after this class!

But to back up: to put the soup together, combine the squash flesh, a can of coconut milk, about 2 cups of water, and the onion/garlic etc mixture in a large pot. Heat, blend (one of those blendy-things you can stick right down in the pot is a lifesaver, as long as you don’t lift it up too high and spew scalding soup all over the kids watching), salt to taste* and serve!

*Group one didn’t curry & ginger up their soup and they wanted to add a lot of salt to give it flavor, but group two’s concoction hardly needed any at all.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tossed Picture Day

A half hour before we expect the morning group of kids to appear at the garden gate, the class teacher sends down a message that instead of our usual hour-and-a-half class time, we have only one hour. That’s 60 minutes in which to fit 90 minutes worth of lesson activities. Furthermore, the reason that the class will be cut short is that it’s picture day, and so presumably we are not supposed to get the kids as dirty and disheveled as we normally do. Thank goodness we did the baking last week (although the 6th grade has filled our garden space with the smell of half-baked brownies; the finale to their solar cooking experiments).
Today is salad, and it’s pretty easy to do salad fast. The salad beds we planted at the start of the school year are ripe for harvesting.

Somehow, we manage not only to harvest, prepare, serve, and eat a salad, we also double dig a large section of the wheat field we will be planting soon (so they can have wheat with which to make their pizza when they are doing fractions next year in fourth grade), and start a crock of pickles!

Quick Salad
Parent alert: the kids begged for the salad dressing recipe. We called it “Caesar Salad,” but the dressing is not really a Caesar dressing nor did we use all Romaine lettuce. But we did have some incredible gluten-free croutons on the freezer that Caesar-fied the whole thing.

Squeeze one lemon into a bowl; then squeeze a clove of garlic into the juice. Let sit.

Harvest, wash, spin, and tear up a big bowl of lettuce.

Add to lemon and garlic, according to taste and preferred consistency:
Olive oil
Black pepper

Toss the dressing, greens, and croutons. Serve. See how quick that was?

And one more picture from today in the garden (it's Picture Day, remember?)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Crisp is in the air

Was it just last week we were frantically making lemonade to cool down the kids? Today it’s just plain cold. Rainy and clean and… cold. I guess the plan to make apple crisp in the solar oven isn’t going to pan out under these heavy clouds. But thanks to the ongoing efforts of our previous garden teacher, we have a propane oven in the kitchen so we can be crispy rain or shine.

Wild Child’s moment of the week:

“I’m bored. Cutting up apples is soooo boooring.” Chop, chop, chop. Blood-curdling scream.

For the novice garden helper, the blood-curdling scream might bring visions of a blood-filled cutting board, a finger messily half-removed by the combination of the dull paring knife and third-grade energetic chopping. But I barely even look up. The scream seemed, well, not 911-worthy.

Wild Child has dropped both knife and apple on the table. “THERE’S A WORM IN MY APPLE!” she informs us. Loudly.

As if we haven’t been totally immersed in the removal of worm-damaged sections of the gleaned organic apples for the last half hour. Somehow, the possibility of an actual worm in the wormhole hadn’t occurred to her. This little white inchworm is actually very cute, a fact not lost on the other kids.

“Sorry sorry sorry for screaming,” says Wild Child sheepishly, as the other kids in the kitchen group launch into a rousing chorus of “Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds, seems to me, you’d stop and see, how beautiful they are.” The song belts out over and over as if someone pressed a “repeat” button on the third grade. But the apples somehow all get chopped. Loudly.

Apple Crisp (gluten- and dairy-free)

Rotate tasks so that at each moment, most of the kids are chopping apples, as that will be the bulk of the work. Other tasks: Squeeze two lemons into the apple bowl. Grease a casserole pan with non-dairy butter substitute. Make crispy topping. Task not to give to kids: periodic addition of brown sugar to both apple bowl and topping. Take it from me: handing any random third grader a bag of brown sugar is usually a bad idea.

To make topping (note: please substitute any and all ingredients for ones you like better or are not allergic to), put a handful of walnuts and a handful of hulled sunflower seeds into a large bowl. Hand a kid a flat-bottomed mug and have them use the bottom of the mug to crush the nuts and seeds against the bottom of the bowl. Then add handfuls of almond meal, rice flour, brown sugar, and a few handfuls of quick oats. Mix. Slice in a half stick or so of the butter substitute, and mash in with a fork.

Mix lemony cut apples with brown sugar according to your sweetness preference and the natural sweetness of the variety of apples you have. Stir in as much cinnamon as the kids want. Fill the pan with the apples.

Cover the top of the apples with the topping and bake at 350 of you have all the time in the world, or 400 if class time is getting shorter and you want to eat it sooner than later. Bake for an hour or until class is almost over, whichever comes first. Nod and smile whenever someone walks by the kitchen, because they invariably, without exception, say “Wow, that smells great.” Hand each kid a warm bowl of hot crisp.