Friday, December 30, 2011

Winter break

No school.  No garden class.  No rain.  

I don't mind the first two.  But maybe a bit of the third would be nice?

See you after break--if you're looking for some reading, check last week's holiday message...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Real, True Gifts

These long dark nights of winter break remind me of my own inner darkness.  Sometimes I am mean.  And hard-hearted.   Just before the break, I was meanly resenting the students in the garden for not appreciating what was being laid before them.  They were restless and inattentive.  To them, it seemed much more like classroom learning than most moments in the garden: they were being asked to copy something from the blackboard, to draw and label the layers of compost that they had been assembling in the new pile.  They whined and interrupted.  I spoke up: “Guys, I keep hearing people talking while T is trying to explain something, and it doesn’t feel very respectful to me.”   Okay, not so very mean.  But what I meant was “shut the %&*# up, this is important.  She is giving you a gift here, people.”

I was acutely aware of this gift, having had the need to call upon it not long before.  The story: I am particularly hard-hearted when it comes to my depriving my own kids of the pleasures of modern life, namely, movies.  My poor kids are so movie-starved that when I am too ill to do anything but lie in bed, I can show them a cheese-making instructional video and they actually enjoy it.  But recently, weary from various personal stressors, I decided to let them watch an actual, mainstream, narrative-based film.  For this special event I chose Wall-E, based on my completely uninformed impression that it had a strong pro-environment message.

Wall-E, unfortunately, did not give us an evening of relaxed family time.  Rather, my five-year-old whined through most of it that it was boring, and my ten-year-old ended up in tears.  Given that the movie has an predictably happy ending, the tears confused me, until my sweet, sad boy said, in reference to the earth overrun by life-killing garbage that provides the backdrop for the robot love story: “I feel like that’s really happening.” 

My kid sees a planet being abused.  And who am I to correct him?  When we are willing to let drop all the masks we wear to protect ourselves from seeing it, we know he’s right.  That’s what’s really happening, in many ways, perhaps not precisely through the over-accumulation of soda cans, but from the over-accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere and toxins in our environment.  It’s real.  And scary.  And sad.

So, what do you tell a kid who is describing a basic truth about the world, a sad, scary truth?  You hand him another truth, a concrete, real, hopeful one.  You say, “But you and I, and all the kids at school, we will not let a world like that happen, a world without soil, without plants, without food.  Without life.  Because you and I, and all the kids at school, we know how to make dirt.  We know how to create a place for plants to grow, and how to grow food.  We, all of us, will never let that happen.”  And when you say that, he nods, and you see some light return to his eyes. 

May the light ever return, and may we pass on the gifts that we are given.  Now, let’s make some dirt.

Recipe in pictorial form:

How to make Compost Cake:

(And later in the year, once their dirt-making pile is smokin’ hot, I’ll make them the chocolate version.  So check back in the springtime.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Everyone loves latkes (even Santa)

Last spring, during the last week of school, I corralled a handful of second grade boys into planting a bed full of potatoes.  They, to be honest, would have rather been playing tetherball.  But I told them, panic rising in my voice: “but if we don’t plant the potatoes, we won’t have latkes next winter!”  That got ‘em digging.  Everyone loves latkes, even the kids who don’t know what they are.

Truth be told, our potato bed didn’t fare as well as usual and this year’s latke potatoes were storebought.  But the kids did follow the rhythm of it, spring planting for winter food. 

The third grade focusses its learning around Hebrew culture, so this last week before winter break, latkes are always on the menu.  They’ve been learning “Oh, Hanukkah” since kindergarten, so they are well primed by “Gather round the table, we'll give you a treat/Dreidels to play with and latkes to eat…”  Though somehow, the religious significance of the oil and the festival of lights seems somewhat watered down by the proliferation of Santa hats around the table.  Ah, well, we feed them, and some of it they absorb, right?

The Two (no-so-secret) Secrets to making good Latkes

Secret Number One: get the starch OUT of the potatoes! 

Give each kid a good-sized potato to grate.  Have two at a time dump their grated potato into a thin muslin cloth, twist it up and squeeze all the liquid out.  Squeeze hard, then dump now-dry grated potato into a large bowl.  Repeat for each pair of kids.  Meanwhile, discuss all the possible uses for potato starch if you chose to save the “squozed-out” liquid and dry the starch. 

Have each kid beat one egg and add to potato bowl, throw in a teaspoon or so of salt (we used about 1.5 teaspoons per dozen potatoes), and mix. 

Secret Number Two: have the oil HOT!

This means that really, you have to read the kids a story while a parent fries the latkes in an insane frenzy of hot oil and flame.  Remind them of the significance of the oil and the menorah.  Serve those latkes hot off the stove (after a quick drain on paper towels), with the applesauce they made last week.  Keep frying until everyone has had thirds and you are out of potato mixture.

Then, since they gobbled so fast, let them play in the woods until the time for garden class is over.  ‘Cause there’s nothing like muddy feet to add a sense of the sacred into any day.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Apple (a) Day

On Wednesday, third grade garden day, my third grader wakes up with a stomach ache.  He complains of this particular complaint with enough frequency that I usually make him go to school for main lesson and if he still remembers that he has a stomach ache at recess time, he can come home.  Usually by recess, it’s gone.  But there were enough nocturnal rumblings from that corner last night justify a day off.  For him.

Unfortunately, it’s the busy holiday season and no one can sub for me in the garden, so the boy home from school has to go to school with me.  He brings his drawing pad and a blanket and we make him a little nest near my workstation.  The garden can’t spare an adult today: it’s apple day. We have multiple sharp objects for peeling and slicing, plus, as a bonus, boiling hot applesauce to put into boiling hot jars.  All hands on deck.  (This year we did apple day at the school with apples brought from a parent’s trees, but to get a sense of it, see last year’s apple day.)

My station is applesauce cake, the position of least danger.  No knives or peelers, mostly just measuring cups and spoons, to intersect cleanly with the measuring segment the kids are doing in math. 

We get the cake mixed, and Wild Child points at me, “Um, YOU are BLEEDING.”  Somehow, in my little station of round objects, I have gashed my knuckle, as if just knowing that there are people peeling apples within 100 feet is enough to take off some skin.    WC then starts a chorus of “Ooooh, gross!” and immediately takes advantage of the fact that I have turned my back to wash off the blood and grab a band-aid; WC leads the group over to the little pond where they immediately all break off chunks of ice so they can then yell about how cold their hands are.

 I make them wash their hands so they can get the batter into the pan and then the oven.  “Why do we have to wash our hands AGAIN?” they whine, clutching the chunks of pond ice.  “Um…” I roll my eyes.  “Why don’t you think about that as you walk to the sink?”

Once the cake is in the oven, my little sick guy lurks near the baking warmth and good smells.  Poor thing, he won’t be able to have any of the cake that will go back to class as celebration for the teacher’s birthday.

Fortunately, by midday we determine that we have peeled and chopped enough apples to shut down the sharp objects workstation, freeing up an adult to relieve me in the kitchen, and they send us home. 

We pick up my kindergartener and head home to make our own applecake from the same recipe.  And by the time it gets out of the oven, steaming warm spice, we all feel better.

Applesauce Cake
(makes 2 9-inch pans or 1 Bundt pan with extra for a couple of little cake-lets)

Preheat oven to 350.  Grease & flour pans.

Cream (forks in the garden, mixer at home):
2 sticks butter
1 1/2 cups  or less brown sugar (use less if your applesauce is sweetened)

Beat in:
2 large eggs

3 cups flour
(in the garden we use 100% whole wheat, at home we did 2 cups white and 1 whole wheat)
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg (fresh grated in the garden—may well explain the gashed finger)
Ginger to taste (optional)
1 tsp salt (reduce if your butter is salted)

Stir flour mixture into wet ingredients in 3 parts, alternating with

2 cups homemade chunky (or just any) applesauce

In the garden, we added some crushed walnuts to the top.  At home, we stirred in three cut up apples that were getting old in the fridge.  In other words, add whatever you want.

Bake anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on your pan and oven.

If you feel fancy (we did), sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Share and enjoy.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tucking in the beds

As we prepare for the rain and cold, we are having a general clean-up day.  I’m recovering from a cold and should probably be tucked in bed, but I came anyway.  Fortunately, Wild Child and I have struck an easy truce as we fill the day with various physical tasks: weeding, mulching, cleaning out the greenhouse, and finally planting all the leek starts.  WC often tires of any given task, but I have found a secret: if I laugh heartily at his jokes (yes, the same ones that my son has come home and told me ad infinitum), he can stay on task easier.  So he repeats old joke after old joke, and then, as we gently separate the little chive-sized leeks from one another and nestle them down in their beds, he comes up with a new one.  Which he then proceeds to repeat over and over, pleased with himself, until it is old.  But the leeks keep getting planted, so I keep laughing.  And I mean it.  Because, really, we are happy.

Of course, I told him I’d post it so all the parents could read it: “You know, when you are getting ready for winter you usually fill the leaks with patches?  Well, we are filling the patches with leeks!”  (Big chuckle.  Every time.)

Clean-up (Pomegranate/Walnut) Salad

It’s now or never for most of the lettuces, so despite the chill in the air, we are having salad today.  
Harvest, triple wash, and spin the remaining lettuce in the beds. 
Cut open a pomegranate and remove the seeds.  (You can cut it in half and bang it with a spoon and they just fall out, wow!) 
Toast a few handfuls of walnut pieces on the stove. 
Mix up some olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and honey. 
Toss it all together and enjoy!