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...