Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

Small Things

As I get older, I'm beginning to realize how our lives are composed of small things. The inconsequential, strung together like beads on a string. As the seasons change, I'm drawn back again inexorably to the sense of rhythms and the piling up of small things that make up the balance of our lives.

The leaves are falling and we begin plowing paths through carpeting over the yard. Bug is reveling in the piling up of leaves and jumping into them. He even got so ambitious as to pile up a mound at the base of the deck and jump into it. From the railing of the deck. Fools and children, I tell you.

The maple trees are making me glad that I live in New England and that Fall is a more brilliant affair than the sudden bleaching of brown that marks a Southern autumnal season. As we scrape the lawn clean of the bright litter, we stack up banks of it at the end of where the luge will be when the snow is deep enough to launch saucers down our back yard. Gotta have a back stop or there'll be no slowing down until one fetches up with an obliging tree. Permaculture at its best, no?

The garden, such as it was, is pretty much finished. I only have left the root crops to pull out. The shallots, if they didn't produce, at least survived and I've yet to explore what has happened to the chance yam that I stuck in the ground on a whim. There will probably be some butternut squash rendered up from an obliging volunteer vine. It was the volunteer fruit that saved me this year. Not many of my intended plans came to fruition.

Other markers of Fall are around. The nuts from the tree shading our house are falling on the roof, sounding for all the world like the squirrels are having a bowling party over our heads. They might actually be...Dog would probably know, given his intimate acquaintance with the roof. The chipmunks run around like a band of rodents with the mumps...their cheeks stuffed almost further than the diameter of their holes will permit.

A friend of mine called to pass on a message to me and made a chance remark about the washing of her windows...on just the day that I'd decided to drag out the ladder and hose and tackle ours. Some of the last of the warm, sunny days for Fall cleaning.

The piles of winter clothes cluttering the master bedroom. Too warm to put out all of the heavier clothing and too cool to put away the summer clothes for good. After seven years, I've still not worked out a seamless transition. So it goes.

As the Hobbits are growing, becoming independent, and assuming more responsibilities, I'm finding myself with--gasp--actual time on my hands. One of the matriarchs has inspired me to resume knitting. Which in turn has inspired Bug and Princess to become interested in needlework themselves. After teaching me the lacy stitch that is in short order becoming scarves, she's begun teaching Bug to crochet the basic stitches and even Princess is progressing with "finger knitting." Generational ties...

Small doings in schooling. Dog is progressing in his writing. We're working on formatting paragraphs and paragraph construction. Bug is tackling spelling with alacrity...okay, at least not outright resistance, which amounts to about the same for him and Princess is working on actually writing. It brings back memories of my childhood to watch her try and construct words from the letters she's mastering. I can remember stringing together random letters and bringing them to my own mother, asking if these spelled an actual word. Never happened. But of such attempts writers are born.

We've hung a poster of Roman numerals on the wall. Dog spotted an architectural cornerstone with Roman numerals on it and we've been working on decoding the date on the building since then. We inherited an abacus and Bug has developed a fascination with the beads on it. I've never learned how to use one, but I suspect I'll be proficient before all is said and done, if he has anything to say about it.

The chicken tractor is almost finished and awaiting its new tenants. I imagine that raising animals will add even more texture to our awareness of the passing seasons. All of this feels like putting down roots and planning to stay a while. This year I branched out into putting in asparagus and red raspberries. I'm finally settled into this settler's mentality, thinking further ahead than merely this season's crop. Who knows? Maybe next year I'll be planting apple trees...

One of these years, I'm going to plant potatoes. We eat so much of them and it would be simply delicious to be able to harvest new potatoes out of our yard. And given food prices, I'm looking for more ways to incorporate potatoes into our diet. Like tortilla de patata, which is becoming contagious in our homeschooling group. As a reciprocal gesture, one of the moms shared her favorite potato recipe with me:

Dill Mashed Potatoes by T.C.

Approximately 7-10 potatoes
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 tsp. dried dill
1/2 tsp. powdered garlic
1 tsp. Real Salt

Dice potatoes and boil until soft. (I never peel my potatoes.) Using a balloon whip, mash up potatoes and mix in ingredients. Garnish will additional dill and serve.

I must be a Hobbit at heart, because small things have always given me a sense of connectedness and contentment. "You do not know your danger, Theoden," interrupted Gandalf, "These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience."*

Small things pile up like the markers on Bug's abacus. "Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."

*The Lord of the Rings(Book 3, Chapter 8).

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Best Learning

I'm thinking that Thursdays are my favorite day of the week. Even if it is my busiest. That's the day of the week we have our homeschooling co-operative. When we get together to learn. But we do so much more than have class together. There are so many things that we teach each other.Throughout the afternoon, one parent is teaching some of our children about the fundamentals of reading and equipping them with the tools to be inspired by books. Another is teaching art theory and color confluences. One spot is littered with plastic bodies...a diorama in a historical re-enactment. In another room, we are parsing sentence structures and improving register selection. From the kitchen, wafts the scents of blueberry muffins or those glistening cinnamon rolls,sending out tantalizing fingers...proud product of the Home Ec class.(A definite incentive to show up before Announcements, so as to be entered into the drawing--what a pity it isn't gluten free!) Somewhere else, saw dust dances to the buzz of the machinery that set it in motion. This is most of what we gather for. But not all.

But even then this may not be the best learning. In many ways, the best learning is what happens outside of the classroom or hasn`t been pre-meditated and written down. I recall one college professor announcing to our class, 'I`m not here to teach you. I`m here to teach you how to teach yourself.' I imagined what my parents would say to the concept that the tuition that they were paying wasn`t actually funding an liberal arts education, but one in learning to fish. As in 'give a person a fish and they are fed today--teach them to fish and they feed themselves for a lifetime.' So part of what we`re doing here is learning to fish. We`re creating autodidacts. Like when our Butterfly Whisperer came in with a compelling caterpillar, there was an exciting opportunity to scour the internet in an attempt to discover what kind of butterfly it would become...and what will it eat in order to become that. Spicebush Swallowtail, it turns out.

Additionally,some of the things that we learn are not even overtly taught. Or are not in the curriculum or on the lesson plan. Things like teamwork.Learning how to work together toward a common goal, putting impatiences and irritations aside for the greater good. Not every child is thrilled about the course selection or the activity planned for the day, but in this process, learn forbearance. It`s the iron sharpening iron again.The rubbing of each person against another that wears off everyone`s rougher spots and hones us. It`s the learning to speak to each other with the law of kindness on our tongue. The learning of respect for each other`s space and place...sometimes as simple as standing in line.As homeschoolers, we are often free to wander our own paths and the discipline of working in harness with others can be a useful exercise.This isn`t the sort of thing that I write on my lesson plan when I`m projecting what we need to cover in class for the upcoming week, but I`m glad that it somehow finds its way into the learning process anyhow. These are the things we all need to learn.

One of the things the Hobbits need to learn is how to eat their vegetables. So in the spirit of guerrilla nutrition, I'm always looking for ways to stealth move vegetables in to their diets. Since they like just about anything that looks like a pancake and hold the promise of maple syrup, they were game to try the latest invention.

Parsnip Pancakes

6-8 parsnips, chopped and steamed
1 cup sourdough starter
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp guar gum
2 T chopped onion
1 egg

Run steamed parsnips through a food processor until creamy. Add remaining ingredients and whirl until incorporated. In hot skillet, melt a small amount of lard or ghee and dollop in 1/4 cup or so of batter. When browned on one side, flip and flatten with spatula. Cook until pancake is cooked to the center. Serve hot. Syrup mandatory for Hobbits.

Not all of the Hobbits were inspired by these, though Bug came back for thirds. They're learning.

Indeed, the best learning isn`t really inside the classroom at all, though that`s the stated reason we all come. The best learning happens in the spontaneous 'teacher' conferences in the hallways and kitchen. The sharing of ideas and experiences. Newly-discovered research. Newly-mastered skills. Or even old ones that are new to someone else. We`re teaching each other how to teach ourselves. The best learning.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fools and Children

It is generally to be expected that children of a certain age will require less supervision than ones of a younger age. I've watched with envy as other moms pass off responsibilities to their maturing youngsters, enjoying greater liberties even while having much smaller ones underfoot. It was with such burgeoning expectations that on a morning when I was running behind schedule, I tossed back over my shoulder to the Hobbits heading out the door, "You're surely old enough to know the rules and I hardly need to helicopter over you, right?" Listening to the chorus of assent, I informed them where I'd be and admonished them not to kill each other. I failed to mention not killing themselves. An important distinction, it turned out.

I've been a mom for almost twelve years, so I've done this for a little while. I've heard and even affirmed the chestnut, "When you can't hear them, go look for them, because they're up to something." Rookie error. No doubt. I got out of the shower and proceeded to proceed with my day, checking things off of my tyrannical to-do list. I vaguely remember thinking that they had come so far, matured so much, mellowed so significantly to be playing together so well. Must be the diet stuff, no doubt of it.

Rookie error. No doubt.

I was shaken out of the hazy-fringed, pinkish fantasy by an ominous crash in the vicinity of our back deck. Trying it imagine what it was that had caused such a loud noise, I dashed toward the back door to see a ladder laying on the deck and the blur of Dog, scuttling for cover. To tease the details out of what happened weren't so direct as what I'm relating and took quite a bit of time to unravel, but I did manage to find out what had happened.

It seems that the three of them had invented some kind of pitch and catch game between the deck and the ground, involving a Woody doll...or is it more politically correct to call them "themed action figures?" At any rate, this Woody--as much abused as his big screen doppelganger--ended up on the roof and stubbornly refused to come down. Smart Woody. Not to be deterred, these squabbling siblings were able to truce long enough to devise a plan of appropriating a ladder, bringing it up to the deck, and climbing up to retrieve the...action figure. Who was seeing a great deal more action that Disney ever imagined or intended, given his subsequent bedraggled appearance. This worked well for a few times--apparently all of the times while I was still in the shower--and they were actually throwing the doll up there for the purpose of retrieving it. Until Dog hit his knee on the poorly placed ladder and managed with that blow to knock himself off the ladder, barking his knee and obtaining quite a lump from the ladder's descent to the deck. I couldn't decide whether to shake my head or laugh. I think I did both. He was most incensed because Princess, of the Amazon stature of five years old, failed to hold the ladder securely enough to avoid this.

Where was Bug in all of this, you ask? Oh, when his exit from the roof disappeared, he availed himself of gravity and jumped off the roof at the front of the house. I kid you not. It should be noted, for the sake of everyone's cardiac stability, that our house is a low-slung bungalow which sits on an incline and the lowest part of the roof is actually the front of the house. I can stand flat footed and reach the top of the roof with my hand. But for an eight year old, even one who is tall for his age, that is quite a jump.

Dog was quite offended. I'm not sure exactly why. I didn't laugh in his face, nor did I yell at him for being stupid. I didn't ground him or exact any punishment or consequences for it, though I did try to explain to him why it was ill-considered behavior. He disappeared in a sulk and when I noticed that he'd been off my radar for a while, I asked the other Hobbits if they'd seen him. Nope. My last sighting of him was the vicinity of the van, so I suspected I knew where he was. Sure enough. Sulking in the van. I hopped in and sat next to him.

"So is this what running away looks like at your age?" I asked. He muttered that he wasn't running away. Somehow we managed to get the conversation going again and he poured out all of his tweener frustration. I listened, sympathized, and reminded him that if he was being an eleven-and-a-half year old for the first time, then I was being the mother of an eleven-and-a-half year old for the first time. We chuckled and walked away friends again. Though I'm still not sure what I'd done wrong in the situation. Other than take a shower.

The Hobbits like sweets, but for comfort foods, nothing beats fried anything. The moment seemed to call for comfort food, so Bug asked if I would make up fried onion rings. He even suggested the application, though I was mentally heading in the same direction when he made the suggestion. He's the one making his own breakfast these days...scrambled eggs. The next generation's chef, that one.

These onion rings take a bit of advance prep, but are, in Dog's words "awesome" and Bug concurred, asking, "Who wouldn't like these?" That's a five star rating in our house.

Grainless Fried Onion Rings

2 onions, sliced thinly and separated into rings
2 cups tapioca starch
2 tablespoons seasoned salt

Take sliced and separated onions and soak in cold water for a few hours or overnight. In a plastic bag, measure the tapioca starch and seasonings and shake to mix. Drain the onions and toss into the plastic bag, shaking and mixing thoroughly to coat. Remove onions and spread onto a large platter or cookie sheet. Spritz with water from a spray bottle until the flour is damp, but not so much that the flour is rinsed off of the rings. Place in the refrigerator for a few hours, then repeat the procedure with the bag of seasoned flour a second time. Spritz lightly a final time and leave the rings in the refrigerator for at least a few hours or ideally overnight.

When ready to cook, heat lard in cast iron dutch oven or skillet to frying temperature and scatter rings in hot oil. Fry for 2-3 minutes or until desired crispness. Remove and drain. Enjoy!

When I spoke with my dad later that week--he was out of the loop, working on a hurricane relief crew on the coast--I shared the story. He laughed, too. I told the story of the neighborhood kids, including me, climbing up on the roof of the pump house located in a no-man's-land in our neighborhood. He informed me that he was aware of the practice, but let us stretch our wings, as it were. Then he shared a few of his childhood horror stories. Generational ties.

There's an old expression that God protects fools and children. Good thing that, since we seem to have a double dose of both.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

It's hard to count all of the ways that people give of themselves to us. Of course, family is there...doing ten thousand little things in so many little ways. And then the folks whose lives touch ours on a regular basis are there. The person who thinks of us that we might be able to use a no-longer-needed book or some clothes that one of the Hobbits might get some more wear out of. The friend who clips a recipe, thinking it might be one that I can convert for our use. Even the kindly soul who has found an article on gluten-free living and thinks the information might be useful for us. Almost every day, there are people pouring themselves in small ways into the support of our family. The matriarch who at separate times gave Dog a pair of opera-style binoculars when she found out that he liked to look at birds. Then made a book bag for Bug to carry his AWANA materials in and always made a point to be available to listen to him recite his lessons. (He surely misses her this year when he has to wait in line!) And also made the flannel baby blanket for Princess...the one that she prizes above all others, even at five years old. I'm deeply grateful for those people. They are irreplaceable and I've been given occasion recently to meditate on just how irreplaceable they are. As I get older, such people are becoming increasingly more precious to me.

But the kindnesses that are almost more touching and certainly more surprising are the ones shown to me by people who I don't really know and have ample excuse to ignore me with impunity. Recently, I was graced by such kindnesses. Tool Guy and I made a decision to change banks in the wake of a security breach of a regional store's data bases. Which entailed all of the joys concomitant with changing banks, ATM cards, and checking accounts. We usually only change banks when we are moving to a new location and I'd forgotten it can be. No doubt about it. As I get older I take change less gracefully. Glad we're not bebopping to new locales at the rate we did when we were younger!

I was totally unprepared when Walmart refused to take my check. Particularly stunning since the bank we chose has a branch in that exact store. (Which, of course, was closed at the time.) I know, I know...I shouldn't be shopping at Walmart anyway, but they are the only place that carry OTC antihistamines without corn starch in them. It did niggle the back of my mind as I stocked my cart, walking through Sam's that I might have the same problem. Surely not. They have a computer data base with my entire shopping history from the inception of my membership. They'd see that I never have bounced a check with them in thirteen years. Nope. When you are talking to a manager whose voice isn't finished changing, you aren't talking with someone who has enough life experience to look at rational reasoning and make independent decisions. He's acquired his position by sheer virtue of the fact that he's outlasted his peers who change jobs more frequently than the software in their Wii systems. Nuh-uh. He's going to fall back on the dictums of policy and entrench himself there. No talking to him. Good thing I've been stocking up for the past few months, because I felt gratified by the fact that there was nothing in that cart that I didn't have more of already in my basement. The cashier, at least, had the grace to be apologetic.

Still, it was frustrating to think that I would have gotten up early and taken Tool Guy to work, dragging along three Hobbits who would have preferred to sleep in, and gone on this exercise in futility, only to return home with nothing to show for it. So on my next stop--at the very store whose computers got hacked--I first visited the manager's stand and spun out my sorry plight. Although I'm a familiar face in the store...not many patrons regularly shop at break of dawn every other Friday, with three children in tow even during the school year...when one thinks about it, she really didn't know me. Even the worst offenders are known to neighbors and considered to be trustworthy. But Doreen was gracious and understanding and pre-approved my check. She even approached me a few minutes later while I was browsing the outer aisles to discuss the computer breach issue in further detail, sharing some of her own experiences in the matter.

Ginger Gold apples are in season right now and the price is certainly right. I stocked up on a whole boxful, as this is a favorite of the Hobbits. Tool Guy remarked offhandedly a few days ago that it's been a long time since we've had apple pie. Yeah. A really long time. I don't think I've made apple pie since before we went gluten free. And I can't say that I was a dab hand at rolling out crusts back then. My crusts were usually rather leathery. It was with much trepidation that I approached the task of making pie. In fact, I think I spread it over a two day period, because I wanted to think everything through carefully before I committed myself. So much for cooking dangerously, eh? The resulting pie was an absolute delight, however, and the crust was astonishing...flaky and melting on the tongue. Perhaps it's been so long since I've eaten wheat and even longer since I've eaten properly made pie, but this was the best pie I've ever eaten, let alone the best gluten free pie I've ever made...having the virtue of being the first. Heh.

Gluten Free Pie Crust

3 T Rice bran
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1/4 cup potato starch
2 1/2 cups gluten free flour (I used a blend of brown rice/millet/teff/buckwheat)
1 t salt
1 t guar gum
2/3 cup lard/ghee/or palm shortening (In sheer desperation for this to work, I used equal amounts of all three)
5 T water

Sift dry ingredients together to blend well. With a pastry knife or with forks, cut fats into the dry ingredients until pebbly. Add water and cut until well incorporated. All of the recipes that I looked at for pies recommend chilling the dough. I found that chilled dough crumbled and this worked more readily when at room temperature. Divide dough into half. Using a silicone baking sheet under one half of the dough and a sheet of baking parchment on top, gently roll out the crust. Peel off the top parchment and re-place as necessary. When dough is desired size and thickness, remove top parchment and, leaving the dough sticking to the baking sheet, work dough into pie plate, carefully working the baking sheet away from the dough. With a fork, poke holes at intermittent spaces in the dough across the bottom of the plate.

When ready to place the upper crust, repeat the same procedure, cutting out the vent holes before placing the sheet over the top of the pie. I found it difficult to crimp the edges in the artistic fluting fashion so popular among pie bakers, so resorted to using the handle of a knife to approximate the pattern. Not sure if it is the nature of gluten free dough or the ineptness of my fingers. Only time will tell. If the taste tests are any indication, I'll be getting plenty of practice.

To prevent the edges of the crust from burning, I created a "collar" with some aluminum foil around the edges. Bake at 350* for 45-50 minutes.

Apple Pie Filling

6-7 cups apples, peeled and sliced (I soaked these overnight in water with a dash of lemon juice in the fridge, giving myself time to work up the nerve to actually bake this.)
2 T maple syrup
Vegetable glycerin mixed with maple syrup to total 1/3 cup sweetening
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
4-5 T tapioca starch

Sift dry ingredients to mix well. Add apple slices to the dry ingredients and stir well to coat completely. Spoon into pie plate and pour maple syrup/vegetable glycerin mixture over the top of the apple mixture, cover with top pie crust, and bake according to crust directions.

Ginger Gold apples remind me of our first taste of them a few years ago. In a passion of having discovered a new favorite food, they regaled Granny with raves about this wonderful "new" apple. Being the quintessential indulgent granny, she made it her business to stock up on them during their drive from Texas. Stopping in at a farmer's market, she found some and enthused over her jackpot, explaining to the patient farmer exactly why this was such a special find for children who had very little special to eat in their diets at that time. The lady walked over to a display of Ginger Golds and pulled out two more bushels and gifted them to my mother. The kindness of strangers. Sprinkles of gold.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Pick Your Poison

After years--what feels like many years--of shoe-string menu selections, I have what feels like a backlog of foods or products that I want to experiment with. Each food that re-enters the menu represents a whole cornucopia of possibilities of things to be able to try. Each with their own risk.

People have discussed the challenge of making everything from scratch. And it is physically demanding. But on the other hand, it's easier. It lacks the drama and suspense of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. Or if the other shoe will drop. Or the bitter taste of when the other shoe actually drops. Particularly when you thought that the shoe was firmly tied to your foot.

I'm finding that, with the influx of new products to consider, making things from scratch may have actually been easier and less time-consuming than trying to vet out the various and sundry items. It certainly involves quite a bit of time and energy either on the phone or sending off emails, communicating with the companies, trying to pin them down to making commitments as to whether or not the "natural flavorings" might have something that is still off the menu, hiding under that muzzy umbrella term. It is particularly frustrating to have them primly reply that this is "proprietary" information. There are a whole host of unsuitable replies that I retain unsaid and from which I will spare you. I have, however, managed to corner a few into admitting to the absence or presence of specific problematic ingredients, like corn--which isn't required to be declared under the allergen labeling law.

Other manufacturers are delightfully open about what they put in their foods and their processes. It certainly makes vetting out foods much easier. One recent email exchange with Yummy Earth lollipops went something like this:

Me: I know you've got "dairy free" on your website, but I feel compelled--in an OCD kind of way, I guess--to inquire about dairy/casein/lactose in your Butterscotch candy. Realio-trulio? Nothing in it?

YE: Realio and trulio with a cherry on top.

Now why can't all manufacturers be this nice?

Unfortunately, even stuff that is labeled gluten free and looks safe isn't really safe when there are other food issues afoot. Chex cereals have recently declared their Rice Chex gluten free. But. The more sensitive folks are reporting reactions...perhaps to corntamination, but there's no way of knowing. I recently had a blithe moment...or was it a blond moment?...when I ripped open a bag of Mary's Gone Crackers' recently released "sticks and twigs"--which are delicious, btw, but Tool Guy now calls them "Mary's Gone Crazy" due to the putative effect it has here--and let all of the Hobbits indulge. In the ensuing aftermath, I had plenty of opportunity to repent my recklessness. What were they reacting to? Who knows? It looked safe. It should have been safe. But it clearly wasn't. Not for us. The food canaries. Four people having food reactions at the same time is a new ring of hell which I have not heretofore visited. Not goin' back anytime soon, either. Sorry, Mary.

I can only take so much of this kind of food drama and then I toss the phone into an obscure corner and head for the kitchen. The latest favorite food to show up on the menu is injera. I started indulging in this shortly after a very long phone conversation with an internet foodie friend. Hey, when someone calls you to say that they were researching lacto-bacilli until 4:30 am on your behalf, it gets your attention, right? The crux of the conversation was that not all grains are created equal with regard to catching wild yeasts. This is why rye is the recommended flour for sourdough starters. Rye "grabs" lacto-bacilli out of the air more readily than wheat.

Now for gluten free. And we know rye ain't gluten free. Let me digress a moment to say that God planned things very well, nutritionally as well as other ways. There is no one food that is the sole source of any kind of nutrition. Every single nutrient is present in abundant redundancy...which makes sense when you consider how big the world is and people used to be forced to eat regionally, food intolerances aside. Likewise, rye is not the single repository for positive LAB contribution to a sourdough starter. The very good news is that teff is similarly endowed and so is fenugreek seed. With some playing around, I found that a few fenugreek seeds tossed in a flagging starter re-energized it to a startling degree.

So I made it my business to get some teff--ivory is my preference--and play around with it. Most of the injera recipes I found included wheat because, unfortunately, the financial and governmental politics have driven the price of teff out of reach for those traditional consumers. So I resorted to the fundamentals of fermenting grains and engineered it that way. One of the beauties of this traditional comfort food is its simplicity, unlike most gluten free grain foods...just flour, water, and salt.


Mix a couple of cups of water with a couple of cups of teff and allow to sit out on the counter for a day or two or until bubbly. You can also use a starter from a previous batch by utilizing the dark liquid that accumulates on the surface of the settled flour...the liquid that old miners used to call "hooch." When it is ready, add a teaspoon or so of salt for flavor and enough water to make the batter runny. If the batter is too runny, the injera won't hold together, but it needs to be thinner than regular pancake batter. How's that for ingredient specificity? Pour into a heated, greased skillet (medium low heat) and allow to cook until the surface is no longer shiny. Traditional injera isn't flipped like a pancake, but I've not been able to restrain myself from the urge to flip. Similarly, the Hobbits have been unable to restrain themselves from seeing this as an exotic pancake and demanding copious amounts of maple syrup which to anoint the injera. Philistines, I tell ya...Philistines. Promising that someday I'll learn to make the African dishes which are scooped up with injera "spoons" and eaten, I make my feeble apologies to the traditional culture that spawned them. Someday. Promise.

Making stuff from scratch looks easy when compared to these labyrinthine exercises of detection. I know what is going in my stuff. Every ingredient. Every surface I touched. How that flour was milled. Where that tomato came from. Exactly how much sweetener went in it. Up close and personal. Intimate knowledge. We who have food issues have to work harder at eating than the average consumer. We just get to pick which way we want to work hard.

Pick your poison.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Let's Begin Again

The leaves outside are turning and so is another page on the calendar. School is in session and it is time to begin again. Personally, I find that, as a parent, I`m greeting the school years with much the same kind of mix of anticipation and regret as I did as a child. Regret that the summer was so short-lived, but anticipation at starting up another school year. We all seem to feel this way, children and parent alike.

I remember thrilling to the possibilities of blank notebooks and the smell of new crayons. (Okay, show of many of you pulled the crayons out of the box and sniffed each one? 'Fess know you did!) Unsharpened pencils. Shiny rulers and sharp scissors. New bottles of glue, uncluttered by tacky wads of previous uses. When I walked through the school supply aisles at the store--the ones that looked like bombed out strikes from the London blitzkregs--it was hard for me to resist grabbing more than just the wide-rule composition notebook Dog needs for his Format Writing class. I still find blank pages compelling.

It`s truly exciting and enjoyable to have regular opportunity to interact with parents who are equally excited about this job of teaching our children. The first few weeks of our homeschooling group are hallmarked by everyone, students and adults alike, reconnecting with old friends and exploring relationships with new ones. Every year, matriculation means the departure of solid fixtures in our family, both of the student and the parent, who contributed to the synergy that makes us feel like a cohesive team. Blessedly, every year brings fresh sparks of talent, enthusiasm and uniqueness that re-energize and enliven us.

Our homeschooling group has been around since...and has seen many families come and go--some for a few years and some for the full tour. The program has expanded and contracted according to need. Maturing along with the children attending and the skills of the parents leading.

Our Drama "department" has seen the coming and going and coming of different generations of talent, both in leadership and participation. Past performances have included Oliver, Anne of Green Gables, and Cheaper By the Dozen. I suggested that everyone was ready to assay Fiddler on the Roof this year, but the newly coronated drama leader glared balefully at me, so I wilted quietly into the scenery. But I think they could do it.

Drama class isn`t short on entertainment, even off-stage. Rumor reached my ears that the talents of these young thespians stretches even to the ability to improv the antics of a gorilla suffering from scientifically-induced rabidity. The things they learn... Despite my most earnest wheedlings, however, it appears that the story of the blowfish must remain untold. Dommage.

One of the things that makes this group feel unique and cutting edge are the talents that parents have contributed to our learning process. In the past, we`ve had such offerings as Crime Scene Investigation by a CSI and Korean Culture class by a first generation citizen. This year, the course offerings include such fare as Introduction to Phonics Fun for the primary set, and for the older students, college level Fine Art directed by a local professional artist who happens to be currently showing her work in some local galleries, SAT Essay Prep, Format Writing, Life Skills, American Sign Language III, Home Economics including fiber arts by a veteran artisan, Music Ensemble by an experienced musician, Drama, and Introduction to Furniture Building, as well as our perennials of General Music, Art and Gym.

Tool Guy is going to be joining us this year, having convinced The Powers That Be to allow him to flex his hours to work on Saturday so that he can be off during the week for our co-op. His is, of course, the Introduction to Furniture Building. There's a fulfilled feeling having all of us pile into the van and take off together to do this as a family.

Which means that I'm also packing more adult "snacks" to go along with us for noshing on during the afternoon. This past week was kimbop. I'm planning ahead for this week. The garden, such as it has been, is winding down. Don't think I'll get many more pickles out of it, but the tomatoes are persisting a bit. Not enough to bother canning, so I decided to pull out my salsa recipe.

We did a stint in San Antonio, where Tool Guy was exposed to honest-to-goodness lacto-fermented salsa. The kind where people just do it and think nothing of it, because "Mama always made it this way." His crew consisted of many natives of the area and he tells me that my salsa is redolent of the tastes of theirs...sans jalapenos for the sake of Hobbit sensibilities. Again, salsa is one of those "potato salad" foods where the ingredients are as varied as the families who make them.


4-6 tomatillos
1-2 red bell peppers
1 vidalia onion
Enough red tomatoes to equal a gallon of product
2-3 T Real Salt

Chop all ingredients, more roughly than fine. Mix thoroughly with salt and divide up into quart jars. (This might very well be able to be fermented in larger crocks, but I've not tried it that way yet.) LOOSELY covering jars with a coated or plastic lid, leave out for 2-4 days, or until bubbling. Gases can build up during the fermentation process, so don't thread the lids on the jars until ready to remove to the refrigerator. This salsa has a tangy zip and effervescent tingle that adds zest to any food it tops.

The High School students aren`t the only ones who are amazing us. The first day, everyone was treated to a primary student with her kaleidscope of butterflies...that were even finger tamed. Finger taming butterflies? Who knew? Got to be here to see it! I was sorry that I didn't have a camera to the ready to catch an image of the cluster of small, grubby index fingers, outstretched in hopes of alluring those shy wings onto the receiver's

Aside from the input and direction that the parents provide to all of the children in each session, we have the input and inspiration that we provide to each other. 'As iron sharpens iron,' we 'provoke one another to love and good works.'

Friday, September 5, 2008

Summer of My Sloth

Pneumonia can be dangerous. This I knew. But I never knew how dangerous. Oh, not necessarily to lung and life. I've pretty much recovered with only an occasional annoyance in the pulmonary department. And the on-hand elecampagne tincture has kept that nicely under control. No. It is in other ways that pneumonia has proved dangerous. You see, after that memorable bout at Christmas, pneumonia revealed to me that life can go on quite oblivious to the fact that there are dust mice under the bed. Stacks of games teetering ominously and with sometimes disastrous outcomes in the closet. Piles of books unattended. Light feebly poking through grimy, neglected windows. Cobwebs left to be co-opted by successive generations of spiders. Lawns left unmowed for extended periods of time, much to the chagrin of the neighbors, but somehow unmoving me. Prior to being ill, I'd pushed myself through my self-assigned work with uncharacteristic discipline, as if I could make everything in life right as long as I kept to my tasks and did "what needed to be done." It was almost compulsive and I could be rather rigid about it. I remember wondering what I'd done with my days before all of this had come to be. I'm starting to remember what I did.

I read mountains of novels.

I played computer games. Compulsively. Just like I do everything else.

I slept late.

I watched videos.

I stared off into space.

Oh, yeah. That's what it felt like...

It's become rather hard to snap myself out of it. To resume the traces and re-discipline myself to those hard habits. Even in gardening I've become quite slack. When it became clear that my garden wasn't going to be performing up to previous years, I decided to live and let live with whatever decided to poke up. Ironically or perhaps to the point, what volunteered actually performed better than what I'd so carefully planned, started, and cultivated. There's probably a lesson to be learned here. I'm meditating on that possibility.

I don't know where this volunteer came from. A friend of mine gave me a couple of yellow zucchini squash from her abundance last year--I'd never heard of yellow zucchini before--but I thought we'd eaten it all. I have no recollection of having any seed of which I'd disposed. And somehow...the largest profile that dominates my garden is the volunteer yellow zucchini squash, producing in characteristic zucchini fashion.

Squash is, along with beans, one of those foods that never seemed to come up on the "crave" list among the Hobbits. No winsome appeals for "just some more squash, Mom!" Philistines. But they do like crispy, crunchy stuff. Salty stuff. Potato chips. That sort of thing. Having recently joined a foodie list on preserving foods, I sit and observe the conversations and technical discussions on the vicissitudes of dehydrating zucchini. Now I'm rolling up my sleeves to try my hand. A lot, it seems depends on the width of the slice, the length and temperature of the dehydrating process and the storage of the end product. Zucchini has humectant qualities, which will attract moisture from the environment to rehydrate itself. to this end, I've found it helpful to insert a dessicate pack, usually scavanged from an empty bottle of supplements, into the jar before vacuum sealing it.

Dehydrating these is one of those endless variables, kinds of things. I generally dehydrate between 100-150* depending on what I'm drying and how quickly I want it done. This time around, in a bit of a hurry, I dried on 150* for 3-4 hours after sprinkling salt over the very thin chips. Having opted for a thinner chip, the end product was a bit difficult to peel off of the drying trays. I learned to pull them up while they were still a bit leathery. Tedious, perhaps, but less tedious than trying to pull fully dried chips off that stuck and cracked like parchment. Individual taste and projected use can dictate how thick or how crispy one wants the final product to be.

I called the Hobbits around for a test drive. Dog and Tool Guy thought they were great, while the other two--unable to surmount the "but it's squash" obstacle--didn't care for them. Tool Guy remarked that this left more for him and left fewer people to fight with over them. Heh. Some you win, some you lose.

Summer draws to a close. My to-do list calls to me reproachfully and I gird my loins to do what must needs be done. Time to slough the sloth.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The World In My Own Back Yard


This is the value of networking. I got a phone call from a friend who is in our food co-op, asking me, "You're interested in herbal stuff, right?" And with my affirmation that I'm taking baby steps into herb lore, she shared with me an advert in the local paper for an herb walk offered in one of the upstate preserves. All of the querying and casting around for expert information on our local area netted me nothing, but the right set of eyes in the right place scored!

Tool Guy was just as excited when I told him about it and decided that this would be just the thing for a family outing...of which we haven't had as many as we would have liked this past summer. It meant getting up at 5:00am to pull together the day's food, but everyone was excited to go. I was nervous, because this was a place I'd never gone to before and we needed to be there at a specific time. The internet is a wondrous thing and so are the map websites, but I've learned very early that they aren't trustworthy. Sure enough. Halfway to our destination, we "found" the typo in the mapping program's instructions--someone must have hicoughed when they were laying it out. So we had to ditch the printout and resort to connecting our last dot on the printout map with what the Rand McNally atlas was telling us. With a lot of prayer and sweating, we rolled up to the kiosk to pay for our hike mere moments before the guide did. Whew! Tool Guy and Princess decided to meander off and explore the great outdoors on their own, but Bug and Dog felt that they were ready to wrap their brains around some serious herbaling.

I'll readily admit to being a neophyte in the realm of herbal lore, but I certainly realized how little I knew as I stood among the veterans on this herbal walk. One of our group, whose accent identified her as a world traveler, opened her flower guide, which parted to reveal pressed leaves that she identified as some things that she had found on a recent trip to Italy. Another in the group asked in astonished tones if the book was applicable over there, to which Greta replied that the flora was amazingly similar. Dog and I had a brief pangaea discussion while we slowly moved ahead...a mere two the next identified herb. It was slightly gratifying to be able to identify plantain and both Bug and Dog were quick with their offerings of the potential applications of it. Did me proud.


I was excited to find barberry identified. Our next-door neighbor had informed me that the profusions of them hedging our road were poisonous, but my herbal guide was of a different opinion. It does look to be a plant that one uses judiciously and I'll be exploring the precise harvesting and preparations, but the possibilities are impressive. She declared it a good substitute for goldenseal, which is not encouraged for wildcraft purposes, being endangered. Both of these have berberine, the attractive ingredient in goldenseal, though goldenseal has a higher concentration of it. Nice to know that the prickly shrub looming toward the back of my lawn has some valuable uses!

Wood Sorrel

As we meandered through the meadow, we never went far before stopping to exclaim over a find. Wood Sorrel was particularly appealing to me, since I'd seen it encroaching in my garden, as well as other spots in the yard. A plant that is good for liver support, it also has a sharply lemon taste. I'm planning on harvesting all of the opportunistic clumps of them in my garden and stick them in some olive oil as an experiment in a potential salad dressing. Hmmm....


Plantain has been my mainstay for poison ivy...especially since Dog seems to be magnetized toward the stuff this year. I'd heard references to Jewelweed as the herb of choice to remedy the unfortunate who ran afoul of sensitive foliage, but I never made the connection between that orangish-yellow flower dotting the ditches along my road with the pictures and descriptions I encountered online. I've come to believe that books and guides are but a poor replacement for a native informant for such matters. In his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan talked about hunting mushrooms and described how that, after having a live informant demonstrate, educate, and guide through the search process, those slippery distinctions between one kind and another kind became amazingly clear. Perhaps herb wisdom isn't quite so nebulous, but having someone point out to me these things enabled me to see them when I'd never seen them before. Tool Guy laughed at me on the way home as I exclaimed over this or that stand of herbs that I'd never connected with before. He told me that I sounded like an addict who was identifying places to score. Hmph. Troglodyte.

Jewelweed Pods

Dog and Bug were enchanted with Jewelweed, which also goes by the name "Touch-Me-Not" because of the delightful pods that, spring-loaded, will pop open with a touch. I had moved down the trail almost out of sight before I realized that I was light by two other sets of feet. They were lingering with some other enchanted adults, finding as many Jewelweed pods as possible. I won't even tell you about the frenzy they had with the silks in the milkweed pods. No wonder this two-mile hike took over two hours. Heh.

The walk wasn't limited to meadow foraging. We also found quite a bit of even more interesting things putting in an appearance in the deeper woods. These were undisturbed and protected, so we found some herbs that I'd heard were endangered, but never seen. Things like Trillium, Bloodroot, "Heal-all," and Solomon's Seal. Delicate stems of pink Indian Pipe poked up through the humus. When someone asked about the mushrooms we were seeing, she tickled us all with the quip, "There are old mycologists and bold mycologists, but there are no old, bold mycologists" and we returned to looking for the more shy herbs lurking in the understory of the forest.

The walk certainly whetted my appetite to learn more. After Tool Guy and Princess rejoined us (they lost themselves and found themselves in the woods on their walk), we decamped to find a picturesque picnic spot where we indulged in lunch meat wrapped in tortillas, fried chicken fingers, and the Hobbits gorged themselves on watermelon. When we got home, I walked through the yard, amazed at how much had been underfoot all of this time and I never knew it...all of these riches in my own back yard.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Stocking Up

The weather has given us a very cool August. Hardly a need for fans this year, air conditioning aside. The Hobbits are "enjoying"--and I use the term in mild sardonic amusement--a vacation from media except on days that are stormy and otherwise confining. Needless to say, Bug prays daily for rain and not for my garden's sake. Heh. On the other hand, they are learning better how to play with each other, how to explore the limits of their imaginations and expand the limits of their patience with each other. I'm turning each room out in a fall cleaning frenzy, still trying to play catch up from all of the to-do's hanging over my head since I was ill during Christmas. And of course, everyone is starting to think schooly thoughts. I'm teaching an SAT essay prep course this year and am madly prepping myself for the task. Oh, I can write, but I've never tried to teach anyone else to write. Gonna be an interesting year, I can tell you.

The leaves are starting to turn already and it augers to be a very cold winter. The fall webworm caterpillars are in much larger abundance and some of the local veterans speak of them in ominous terms. One feels the urge to start the annual process of putting foods by and preparing for the winter ahead. Since the fruits of such garden as I have yield enough to feed us only a seasonal share, I'm looking at other sources of stocking up and filling my cellar.

Stocking up seems to be on the lips of lots of folks. Rising food prices and references to food shortages, though none domestically have materialized...yet, have a good many people thinking ahead and planning ahead. It doesn't have the frenzied commercial furor of Y2K, but I see more people quietly planning, working, and systematically laying in a store house of food for their families. It certainly seems reasonable to me. Nothing radical or overly ambitious. I'm following the same rule of thumb for storing as was given me for planting a garden. "Plant/store what you eat and eat what you plant/store. " No breaking the bank, either, on glitzy food rations and survival toys. Just every time I order food or go shopping, I pick up an extra bag or two of grain or bottle of olive oil or whathaveyou to stick down in the basement. The halt of some countries in their export of foods may be temporary and a blip on the radar, but as someone who can't just grab Mac n' Cheese instead of Rice a Roni if it comes to that, I feel the need to be cautious.

Since beans seem to be enjoying a return to the menu--that is if I can get the Hobbits to eat enough of them to monitor for a food reaction--I'm leaning on them as a cheap source of protein to fill in the corners of my now-less-roomy basement. Which brings me back to "store what you eat and eat what you store." I can store all of the beans our budget will buy, but I've got to get them to eat 'em. So I've been meditating on ways of presenting beans that will sell to Hobbits. (I won't elaborate on my nose being out of joint at their cavalier dismissal of my hummus, which I think is divine and Tool Guy agrees, but I digress.)

I think I found it.

Toasted Garbanzo Beans

2 cups of dried garbanzo beans
2 T lemon juice
mason jar(s) and sprouting lid(s)
4 T olive oil
salt or seasoned salt
1-2 T chili powder (opt.)

Soak the beans in water and lemon juice overnight. Drain and transfer to mason jars to sprout for 2-3 days or until tails are length of bean. Pour out onto towel and blot dry. Spread into baking pan or cast iron cookware in a single layer of beans (this may mean splitting the beans into more than one pan/container). Mix in 2 T of oil per 2 cups of beans and sprinkle with salt or seasoned salt to taste. If zippier beans are desired, add chili powder to the mix and stir well. In a 450* oven, toast beans for 20-40 minutes or until desired degree of crispiness is achieved, checking every 3-5 minutes after 30 minutes. These nuggets can go from toasted to "toast" in a very short period of time, so keep an eye on them.

These have the consistency of cornnuts, but, given my prejudices about corn--ahem--I think these are better. Certainly higher in nutrients, particularly when soaked and sprouted. A great snack and the Hobbits love them. As my Deaf friends say, "Pah!" (Finally/Success!) So I make another check mark on my stock-up list. Done.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Accidental Composter

One of the benefits of the Hobbits getting older is that I have the opportunity to do more independent stuff. Tool Guy has positively taken up residence in his workshop these days, having a laundry list of things to build this summer, and is locked in the throes of planing and routering. There's a built-in wardrobe at the end of his tunnel and he still has my chicken tractor yet to build. But since the Hobbits are needing less and less direct supervision, it's possible to leave them to their devices while Tool Guy is making enough noise in his shop to annoy the deer and I can go do "me" things.

One such Saturday involved a composting class with my gardening buddy. A local co-operative extension was offering the class, dangling an "Earth Machine" composter as the carrot. Tres chic, and my friend and I decided to bite, thinking that we'd get a free composter and maybe learn a few tips in the bargain. Our version of a Mother's Day Out. Hey, it beats spending money on a day spa, right?

We brought our folding chairs--Princess graciously loaned me her pink one that says, what else, "Princess"--to lounge in the warehouse of a local feed store, redolent of chicken feed and malathion, and prepared ourselves to be informed. The presenters were a couple who were interesting to listen to and well-informed on their topic...even had a PowerPoint presentation to go with it. One of the things that amused me during the lecture was when one of the presenters referred to herself as a "casual composter," by which she meant that she didn't vigorously attend her compost nor apply with scientific rigor the ratios and principles of feeding a compost bin, referencing her parents' habit of tossing all garden scraps and weeding onto a pile just outside the paling of the garden. But listening to her subsequent description how she manages her compost and its wormy inhabitants made me comment later to my friend, "If she's a casual composter, then I'm an accidental one!" Because I guess I'm a rule breaker...or at least a bender. I throw all manner of food scraps into my compost pile. The one that sits at least a half an acre away from the house, so smells and critters are of no moment. Everything including the bones from my soup broth goes into the mountain that sits on the edge of the woods. I'll admit that I pay little attention to ratios of greens and browns, though all of my leaves and yard clippings go there, too. It must all be good, because somehow it all reduces to dirt by the following spring and my worms are auditioning for "Tremors 2." Watch out, Kevin Bacon.

However, bending the rules or ignoring possibilities can come back to bite. This year's garden is a prime example of that. One of the most pertinent points in the lecture was "how to tell when your compost is ready." One of the ways to test compost is to sprout a seed in the stuff. If it doesn't sprout, not ready. Ding, ding, ding, ding. My currently-sluggish garden sprang to mind.

Last summer was the first summer of my huge greenhouse canopy. When I put the garden to bed last fall, I did as I'd always done and pile massive amounts of leaves and yard clippings along with the year's accumulated compost. This procedure has always worked wonderfully well, but I failed to take into consideration the sheltering effect of the greenhouse in diminishing the amount of moisture contributing to the composting process. In the spring, the layer of detritus still remained, bone dry and intact instead of crumbling into the soil over the winter. Despite enthusiastic...nay, desperate...tilling, it's taken quite a while to finish the decomp job. Lesson learned. I guess this is what they call "gardening dangerously."

I'm still managing to harvest a few things out of the garden. I have a half gallon of pickles with the promise of a bit more to come. We've gotten a few squash that volunteered themselves. When I realized that my garden wasn't going to be what I usually get, I decided that whatever showed enough spunk to stick its head up could grow whatever it wanted. I've gotten a yellow zucchini...and I'm trying to figure out where that came from...and a couple of crookneck squash. And a few tomatoes have ripened.

One of the culinary delights that was served to me during that celebratory luncheon with my gardening friend was gazpacho. In my mind, gazpacho has always been one of those exotic dishes that are classics on the gourmet litany of dishes, but I've never had before and never occurred to me to attempt. I was delighted when the first dish of the meal that appeared before me was gazpacho. And it was delicious. My friend confessed that her native informant had critiqued the gazpacho recipe as being "too chunky." Apparently, in this student's home, the gazpacho, after being blended, is sieved through a strainer to make it much smoother and finer. I agreed with my friend, however, that the texture of this gazpacho was much more interesting and satisfying. And refreshing on a warm July afternoon. Here's her version of this Spanish classic.


4 tomatoes
1/4 sweet onion
1 cucumber
1 sweet red bell pepper
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
olive oil, opt.

Blanch tomatoes, peel, and place in food processor with sweet onion quarter, minced garlic and deseeded bell pepper. Peel cucumber, reserving a portion to dice for garnish, and place in food processor. Add salt and puree to desired consistency. Garnish with diced cucumber and dash of olive oil, if desired. Serve cold.

There's an additional piquancy to this particular bowl of gazpacho. It contains some of the precious few tomatoes and cucumbers that my garden was able to squeeze out this year. It's a pity some lessons get learned the hard way. Ah, well. This fall, the yard clippings will reside in van-sized mountain at the edge of our woods and I'll wait until spring to haul it up and incorporate into the garden. Who knows maybe next year will be better than it would have been otherwise for this accidental vacation due to my accidental composting...

Friday, August 8, 2008

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

It's almost impossible to overestimate the value of the people who surround us. The people whom we elect to populate our "village." Prior to having children, Tool Guy and I were pretty free-wheeling. We picked up and moved at the drop of a hat and at the beck and call of his employer. Which was frequent. We moved, more often than not once every year and a half, sometime staying longer in a place, sometimes less. We always left behind precious and unique people...I'm just sorry that I didn't treasure them more while I had the chance. Since beginning to have children, however, we've only moved once. And every year, I find deeper reasons to value these people who touch our lives.

One of the first people to significantly touch us after we began the first steps of our Breatharian journey was Dog's Sunday School teacher. At that time, snacks were de rigour for class and it was the first social food hurdle we faced. I bought a box of Pamela's cookies that I've yet to see any child refuse and equipped him with it. I'll never forget the gracious words as she greeted Dog at the door, thanking him for bringing snacks to share with the class. I'm fully convinced that she set the tone for the level of compliance that we've had from him all of these years, making his food differences feel like a unique contribution to the group rather than causing him to stand out. Our further sensitivities pushed us farther off the food grid, but the initial experiences, the warm understanding and acceptance laid some important foundational attitudes for us.

Along the way, we're deepened relationships with the people who touch our children's lives. People who care enough to recognize and accept what contamination does to us and take such simple steps as washing their hands after eating and before sharing an activity with us. Who come to me with their plans for art projects to make sure that the paint or glue or food item included in the supply list is safe for us or brainstorm with me ways to make it safe. Some of our people don't know or understand or fully appreciate the difficulty of all of this, but blessedly, I've never, as one online friend shared her experience, had anyone deliberately sabotage our efforts and tempt any of my children into infracting just to prove a point. Gratefully, I'm surrounded with people who are at the very least sympathetic, if uncomprehending.

One of the most recent blessings came during a high stress time in my summer. As the scheduling dieties would have it, the whole foods cooperative we buy from changed our delivery week to one that fell right in the middle of Vacation Bible School. Either of these morning activities wipe me out for the rest of the day and the thought of both falling on the same day had me hyperventilating. My food buddy came to my rescue with an offer to make lunch for me. What a respite! In a particularly trying week, in the middle of a I-hate-my-own-cooking funk, to have someone make lunch for me! Does it get any better than that? While the Hobbits had the opportunity to apply their newly acquired swimming skills in her pool, she laid out a veritable feast for me out on her deck. The centerpiece of this celebration of friendship was Tortilla de Patata. Her recipe was even vetted out by their Spanish exchange student, whose only remark was that her onions weren't chopped finely enough. (I'm with her, though...I like the big onions!) Being totally new to the delights of Spanish cuisine, I was intrigued to hear that this is a big comfort food there. Kind of like macaroni and cheese to the American palate. It certainly was comforting to have it made for me in the middle of a very demanding week!

Tortilla de Patata as shared by my foodie friend

Potatoes 6-10 (enough to fill the skillet 3/4 full)
Onion, sliced into rings
8-12 eggs, beaten and salted/peppered to taste
Enough lard to fry potatoes plus 2 T for frying onion rings

Slice potatoes and soak 8 hours or overnight. (Soaking and removing excess starch reduces the acrylamide load in the potatoes.) Drain and set aside. In large skillet, melt 2 T lard and carmelize onion rings over medium to high heat. Meanwhile, over high heat in cast iron dutch oven, deep fry potato slices until tender, but before becoming crisp. When the onions are browned to taste, layer in the potato slices and cover with beaten eggs. Over medium low heat, cook until the egg mixture sets. Do not stir. Covering skillet with plate, invert skillet, flipping out contents to the plate. Slide the contents with browned side up back into the skillet to finish cooking the eggs.

This was a big hit at the Hobbit house and not surprisingly, there were no leftovers, though I understand this is a dish that re-serves well. Every time I make this dish, I'll remember the support and encouragement in continuing this marathon.

"Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses (examples)...let us run with patience the race that is set before us..." Hebrews 12:1

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Frog Princess

Summer winds on and begins to wind down. The sounds of lawnmowers fill the air, though not as frequently as usual. A cooler summer and the exorbitant price of gas combines to encourage everyone to be less scrupulous than normal about manicuring expanses of green. Weekends are punctuated with nights out in the backyard, "camping out" as the weather permits, trips to "Pooh Bridge" to play Pooh sticks, and bike riding in the park. Tool Guy refreshed the sand in the sandbox and Bug and Princess devote themselves to engineering and excavating new roads and infrastructures to support the necessary castles for HRH. Having a girl among boys presents a curious dichotomy. She is an interesting blend of girly stuff along with the reckless hobbledyhoy. Like when Bug was grooving on all things magnetic. His birthday and Christmas money was spent on interesting magnetic kits and building sets. Princess followed his passion blithely, but insisted that the magnetic marbles for her shopping bag all be pink. So I spent quite a few minutes, sitting on the floor of the educational toy store, picking out fifty pink orbs from all of the assorted colors in the container. Well, at least we don't have to guess which magnets belong to whom...

This has been a particularly busy and eventful summer for us. I think I'm emerging at last from my gestational hibernation. When I was pregnant for Princess, we were simultaneously hit with an exhaustive and exhausting list of IgG intolerances that needed to be eliminated along with gluten. The vulnerability of lacking safe food sources outside of the home, combined with the pressures of pregnancy, created in me a tremendous desire to hole up in the house and go nowhere. I expected that to evaporate after Princess was born, but, somehow, that reclusive drive lingered. Probably due to the dynamic of being contact sensitive to any of the off-menu food stuff and cross-contamination being what it is, every trip outside the house was an "adventure." Picture Snoopy attempting a trek "across enemy lines." That would be us.

This past weekend, we assayed our first participation in our local church's annual picnic. As it would happen, the morning was cloudy and spitting. As we packed up the van and headed out under the blessings of a light sprinkle, Dog kept up a running monologue about how it would be a temporary shower, accompanying the windshield wipers that kept working harder and harder to keep the road visible. I finally put him out of his angst by assuring him that we'd at least stay there long enough to eat, knowing that there was a pavilion where everyone would shelter from the storm.

Under a persistent drizzle, we unloaded the treats of the day and shared a table with another family for lunch. Rain wasn't the only risk of the day...this was a new recipe that I was trying and it was just as much a gamble to serve it to the Hobbits in public as it would be to serve it to guests. (As luck would have it, everyone liked the dish.) As you may recall, I'm in a food funk. My foodie partner has been holding my hand through this pout. She entrusted me with a stack of beloved "Taste of Home" magazines, from which I tweaked Anna Minegar's recipe for pulled pork.

Everything Free Pulled Pork

3-4 pounds bone-in pork ribs
4 cups water


1 cup Breatharian Flames Ketchup
1 cup water
2 T maple syrup or vegetable glycerin
2 t wheat-free tamari sauce
1 T tapioca starch

In pressure cooker, cook ribs with 4 cups water for 25 minutes after the cooker has reached optimum pressure. Meanwhile, dissolve tapioca starch in cup of water, then add mixture with ketchup, water, maple syrup, and tamari sauce to heavy saucepan, and heat until thickened. When ribs are finished cooking, remove and strip meat from the bones, using two forks to shred the meat into fragments. Stir into sauce and heat until warmed. Serve over fresh bread.

When the rain slackened off...and even before...Bug and Princess dashed from the cover of the pavilion and went to explore the delights of the playground. Which included a merry-go-round. Before the end of the afternoon, Princess had assumed the "responsibility" of pushing everyone...all for the joy of "tripping" and allowing the momentum of the equipment to drag her through the muddy track worn down by previous hoydens. Heh. Not a few concerned parents pointed her out to me. One of the matriarchs pulled out her camera and captured the moment for posterity. I still have the princess slippers that did the honors of the day...I haven't been able to bring myself to wash them.

On the drive home, the boys were discussing what they wanted to do when they got home. Dog wanted to read the latest books from the library. Bug wanted to play with his Bionicles. Princess declared that she was going to go and slide through the mud. The conversation turned to food. Dog wanted chicken sticks for dinner. Bug wanted cowboy eggs. Princess declared that she wanted to go and slide through the mud.

If they would just stay five...

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Hurrier I Go

I'm repenting myself. I'm beginning to think that making to-do lists isn't such a good idea. To-do things on a page together are like rabbits...they reproduce more little to-do things. It's almost like when you start fixing up the house and more things start unraveling than what you planned on renovating. This to-do begets that to-do and we all know how long the begets begot before they were done.

Delusionally, I keep thinking that at some point, I'm going to get caught up on housework, caught up on food chores, and caught up on homeschooling to the point of being able to sit down and relax without it all hanging over my head. I just googled up my personalized homepage and realized that the items on the to-do pad there hold things that still are undone. Oh, and I haven't looked at that page in over six months. Sigh. Well, in all fairness, there hasn't been a lot of demand lately for that snow suit needing the zipper replaced, so I cry "mercy!" there. And you know things are starting to approach pathological when the door greeter at Sam's says, "Oh, I have your book!" And turns to bring you your to-do diary. The one that was weeks ago abandoned in the seat of the shopping cart when you were distracted by having to settle the seat spat in the van, while you were off-loading groceries.

This whole attitude reminds me of when we first started our food journey. Oh, I knew that the gluten thing was going to be for life. And I was okay with that. Making gluten free foods didn't daunt me...armed with a pile of Bette Hagman cookbooks and a catalog from United Buying Clubs, I was loaded for bear. It wasn't until after we had to go everything free that things started to get a bit more stressful. In fact, going gluten free felt positively halcyon by comparison. But I didn't think it would last that long. The literature said that IgG's would heal up and we could reintroduce the forbidden foods in four to six months. I remember using that to encourage my father..."Hey, Dad, it's only for four months...six at the most!" It was probably a good thing that I didn't know.

When, at four and then six months, we weren't gaining foods, but still losing even more foods than had originally shown up on the tests, I realized that this wasn't a sprint. It was a marathon. And now, as we're approaching the six year mark and the six month window is a vague memory in the past. I'm having to remind myself again...not a sprint...marathon...think marathon.

With that in mind--and remembering how I hate my own cooking right now--I decided to take a page out of my gardening partner's book and resort to stir fries. Oh! That reminds me! I have to tell tales out of school. My gardening partner will just have to forgive me. In addition to sharing gardening passions, we also share co-op responsibilities. She has the herculean task of juggling the produce order without benefit of purchasing software, as well as gambling on whether or not enough members will make impulse purchases sufficient to sell off any unencumbered produce before we close out our monthly pick up session. It's no mean feat and she does it every month. This past month, there was an unusual amount of bok choy unsold by the time the truck arrived and she came, loaded up and with a plan in mind. Whipping out her wok, she chopped up one of the heads of bok choy and tossed up a quick stir fry, adding just a dash of wheat-free tamari sauce and some onions. Setting it on the check out table, next to our accountant--where people have to stand to pay for their order--she waved it under everyone's noses and pointed out the fresh heads of bok choy on our surplus table. Heh. I guess I don't have to tell you that all of the bok choy sold...

With a surfeit of squash out--and me continually threatening the Hobbits with more vegetables--I decided to shamelessly rip off her cooking technique. And her measuring technique. The end result was this.

Scorched Squash

A couple of zucchini and summer squash, chopped up
A couple of dashes of San-J tamari sauce (not corn-free, despite their declaration on their website)
A couple of teaspoons of minced garlic
A couple of spritzes of olive oil

In a very hot wok (I put this under my "blow torch" burner on my stove), spritz with olive oil, just enough to keep the squash from sticking. In small amounts, stir fry squash until seared and browned, but still offering resistance when forked. Add minced garlic and tamari sauce and stir fry a moment or so longer to incorporate flavors. Serve hot.

This past week, I genuinely took the week off. I spent one hurly-burly day cooking ahead and spent the rest of the week with my feet up, listening to mp3's supplied to me by my mom. Thanks, Mom! Amazingly, I'm not any further behind than I usually am and I'm significantly more rested. Marathon...marathon...marathon...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Gone Fishing

Well...foraging, actually. I'm in a food funk. I'm sick of my own cooking. This is probably a precursor stage to another blitz of "cooking dangerously," but I'm not there yet. The weather is certainly a reason to draw me out of doors, being summer and all, with all of the activities that summer affords. We've been out of pocket this entire week doing Family Things. That doesn't leave much time for cooking and I doan wanna be in the kitchen any more than I have to be at the moment. Needless to say, I've been pulling out all of my Breatharian "fast food" ideas. The Hobbits should be heartily sick of them by this time. I know I certainly am.

I'm thankful for any excuse to get out right now. Gardening is still a bit of a tender subject, but there are things that are doing well enough. Almost everything that I planted is going to produce at least some amount of seed, so I'll be able to have seeds to save for next year's garden. It's been interesting to watch the arugula shed its petals and see little seed pods fatten up. I never knew that lettuce went to seed that way. Not sure what I had in mind, but that wasn't it. There are a couple of tenacious beans asserting their existence in the garden and I figure something that is that determined to live is something that I want reproducing next year. My newly settled asparagus crowns are sending spindly ferns up way past the point of being able to support on such thin stalks. Even though the brochure assures me that I can harvest briefly this year, I'm abstaining, once more thinking ahead.

This is a good time for thinking ahead. Thinking back to last winter with all of the miasma that floated around, I'm planning. The elecampagne plant in my garden is taller than Tool Guy and that's saying a lot. This looks like it is going to be a mullein year, too. Last year, I began looking for them late in the summer and gathered enough for a few cups of tea. This year, like the model car one has recently bought, I see them everywhere. Great stands of them littering the roadsides. I've already harvested a grocery bag...fabric, thankyouvermuch...full of the broad, flannel leaves, dehydrated them, and they now occupy four quart jars in the bottom of my basement.

In an enthusiasm of tincturing, I decided to make mullein oil, as well. I pounded a bunch of leaves into a quart jar and glopped olive oil over the top, suctioning all of the air out with a lovely vacuum seal to finish it off. And while I was on the phone, chatting to my herbal mentor, she informed me that the flowers provide the virtue of mullein oil for earaches. Oh. Flowers. My bad. Feeling like Roseanne Rosannadanna prattling about violins (violence) on TV, I grabbed a mason jar and headed back out to do some more foraging.

Picking mullein is not unlike picking cotton. Well, it doesn't have the spikes that lacerate fingers, so bonus points there. But the very small blossoms make harvesting a rather painstaking process. And mullein oil requires a lot of flowers. It's beginning to become apparent why mullein oil sells in these petite little bottles for a not-so-petite price.

It's a pretty straightforward tincture...stuff as much as you can into a jar and cover with oil and forget about it for 6-8 weeks. I cap mine with a canning lid and a vacuum seal to help draw all of the not inconsiderable air out of the whole morass. I have been more active with my particular batch because mullein in an unevenly blooming flower. The blossoms don't all blow at the same time, so a tincture may very well be best done in stages. About every three days, I do another round of foraging and collect what flowers are open and ready for harvesting. I throw these on top of the previous batch, press them down into the saturated flowers below and top off with more olive oil, sufficient to cover the top. Looking at the resulting oil, I'm thinking that straining this through a cheesecloth would probably be a good idea when all is said and done.

I'm working to forage as much as I responsibly can. Seems to me if the herbal plants are having a bumper year, it might be because we'll have a bumper need for them this winter. So every few days, I head out with my bag or my jar and collect new batches. And gingerly step around the blackberries...the crop that I didn't obtain permission to harvest. Drat.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Sleeping With the Enemy

It's probably no surprise that I inhabit the internet quite a bit. In addition to all of the things one has access to and the informational goldmines out there, I find the interaction between people to be inspiring. "Iron sharpens iron." A recent conversation with a mom of a boy with burgeoning sensitivities brought back a flood of memories of what it was like for us when all this food stuff was new with us. When we paused on the brink of the abyss, not knowing how desperate things could and would become. We talked about how some children self-limit their foods out of fear. Out of a sense of losing control and desperately grabbing for the last edge of solid ground.

Developing food sensitivities is a horrible, out-of-control feeling. Control is definitely at the root of food issues and for a very good reason. There's a fundamental betrayal in all of this. Almost nothing, if not absolutely nothing, comes closer to the core of our psyche than what we eat. We can live without physical intimacy, but we can't live without eating. Food is one of the defining aspects of a culture and it is part of defining who we are individually as well. One of the basic "getting to know you" questions people ask is, "What do you like to eat?" When we can't trust our food supply or our food intake, we are whatever/whomever...on the most basic and earthbound level we can reach. If we don't have safe food, what do we have? If we can't trust our food to nourish us, what can we trust?

We know that we can't trust other people to tell us if something is safe. Some people can be trusted, but not most. Tool Guy can't travel for any length of time without getting zapped. Despite all the precautions. Despite lengthy questioning of the food preparers. Despite doing all of the "right things." This sort of thing pierces to a molecular level. Literally. And it becomes scary to think that we can't trust our eyes or that we can't develop a reliable strategy to protect ourselves.

I remember what it felt like when we were losing foods. Things that were safe last week weren't safe this week. One time the Hobbits would eat something and it would be yummy. The next time they ate the very same food, even food from that same batch that was fine the last time they ate from it, they reacted. And it was usually favorite foods. This shatters any sense of comfort anyone has about food. You scramble to find the common thread...some clue...some predictor of what is going to explode in your face next time. It feels safer to not eat at all, which is, of course, impossible. Sleeping with the enemy.

And the more severe the reaction, the deeper the anxiety. This can be hard for some people to understand, even other people with food sensitivities, if they aren't high reactors. As much as I loved the flip tone of Against the Grain by Jax Lowell--I adore wisecracking, tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink-nudge-nudge writing--I can't bring myself to recommend it. Someone who suggests, when at a party and faced with dicey food choices, scraping the caviar off of the cracker with one's teeth and tossing the cracker rather than appear de trop or affected doesn't live in the same world I do. She isn't sleeping with the enemy. Not someone who mail orders food as if it were takeout from the corner Chinese restaurant. The more sensitive the canary, the less concerned about perceptions and the more concerned about sheer survival.

It's scary for the Hobbit, the child, the person to whom it is happening. One day corn was okay for him and then it wasn't. One day tomatoes were okay for him and now they aren't. What's going to turn on him today? What's the common thread? Vegetables? I can see why he's not wanting to eat vegetables. Losing food in a very painful way makes us hyper-defensive.

The Hobbits themselves never reacted by self-limiting foods, but probably because our worst reactions weren't physically painful...just soul-scalding rages--which made me want to do the limiting foods...I'm the gun shy one in our house. But food sensitivities do that. Everyone wants to be able to put food in their mouths without feeling like it will explode in there.

This is why I developed the style of eating we have. Some folks are surprised to find that we don't eat a wide variety of different foods, but, honestly, when I look at indigenous peoples' diets, I don't see as wide a variety as is advocated by Western import-dependent cuisine. We eat plain. Meat, a few vegetables, a few kinds of grains, some fruits and that's about it. And it is the same stuff. Over. And over. And over. And I let the Hobbits pick what they want. At every meal. I have a collection of things that I can make up at a moment's notice and each of them can choose from that list for each meal. My MIL quipped once that it's like living at a diner. But given the severe limits imposed on us, I want them to feel like they have some degree of control over what they eat. Of giving them as much control over what they eat as the limits of their reactions permit.

Exotic cooking is fun and exciting and I do like trying new things. Mostly, though, for day-to-day cooking, I like things that are comfort foods. Foods I can throw together without giving much thought to. Foods like chicken salad. Just the ticket for sultry July days. This is one of those recipes that I throw together as a bit of this and a handful of that. See? Not much thought to it. Comfort food. Yeah.

Chicken Salad

1-1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
3-4 chicken breasts
1 tsp. seasoned salt
3-4 handfuls of Tinkyada pasta
pickles, chopped (opt)

Make mayonnaise. Since I like my chicken salad to be tangy, when I make the mayo for this, I double the vinegar and leave off any maple syrup or sweetener. Sprinkle seasoned salt over chicken breasts and grill out for 10-15 minutes each side or until done. Boil up pasta. I like to follow the package directions and boil my water first, then drop the pasta in the pot and cover without disturbing for 20 minutes before draining. They're right. It makes perfect pasta every time. When the breasts are cooled, chop into small, bite-sized chunks and mix with remaining ingredients. Delicious served hot or cold.

So as we walk this pocked-marked road toward healing, we're picking our way through the land mines...making our food choices carefully. That uneasy dance of sleeping with the enemy.