Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gardening in Mandarin

by June

When the days grow long, and the flowers bloom, and the peas swell, and the sun shines through every color making it even more that color, we are out of this house. We are out with the flowers and peas and the nesting swallows right there on our garden post.

Which doesn't mean that we stop studying Mandarin. For the last few years, we've made our garden tags using ready-to-color Chinese flash cards drawn by local artist and my dear friend Betsy Thompson, who also homeschools two of Blossom's and Fern's nearest and dearest. (You can see more of Betsy's lovely work here.)
We photocopy the cards onto card stock and cut them out. Blossom and Fern color the vegetables according to whim. Then we laminate and punch a hole in each one. Finally, we hang them by garden ties onto the swaths of chicken wire that guard against the ground hog families who share our land (and our vegetables too, if given any opening).

All summer, we water and weed and harvest our wan dou, xi hong shi, and huang gua. We learn our Chinese and eat it too.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Green stuff

by June

The peas are up! Fern says they look like tiny asparagus spears, and so they do. 
The very sight of those brave little sprouts gives us a Pavlovian madness for fresh peas (like that one over there from last year). Since fresh-from-the-garden is impossible, we're resorting to the Green Stuff.
That's what we call our beloved pea spread. The idea came from an old Jewish cookbook. It's supposed to taste like chopped chicken liver, but don't let that dissuade you. It doesn't. It tastes like the whole green, growing world on a cracker.
We do it this way:
Hard-boil three eggs.
Toast three-quarters cup of walnuts.
Dice and saute one largish onion in olive oil.
Stir one-and-a-half cups of frozen peas into the sauteed onions. Thaw them out but don't over-cook them.
Put everything in a food processor. Whirl. Add salt to taste and lots of pepper. Dash in Worcestershire sauce. Squeeze a lemon over it but not for long. Whirl again.

Eat on toast or carrots or right off the spoon. We have been known to eat it off our fingers, but we wouldn't do that if you were coming to dinner, promise.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bread My Way

by Birch

There is a certain satisfaction to kneading bread until it’s smooth as a baby’s cheek—which is exactly what you’d want to do with heavier loaves like whole wheat or pumpernickel. But lately, I’ve begun using a new technique that suits our lives and results in surprisingly ethereal little loaves. I keep them on the smaller side because the wet dough is hard to manage in bigger volumes and the shorter time in the oven keeps the crust thin and crisp. When we want a relatively quick, soul-satisfying bread for lunch, I can mix this up after breakfast and get some work down while it rises and bakes. It is an easy three-step process:

Step One:
Measure two cups of water into a large clean mixing bowl—one pound by weight a kitchen scale if you wish to be exact, precision counts for this one. Sprinkle two teaspoons instant dry yeast into the water, one-and-a-half teaspoons salt, and a teaspoon of sugar. Stir to mix. Using a kitchen scale, measure out twenty ounces of unbleached, white flour (we always use King Arthur). Add the flour to the water and stir the whole sticky mess with a wooden spoon until all the flour and water are fully incorporated. Scrape the spoon clean with a plastic scraper, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let rise about an hour-and-a-half.

Step Two:
Dust a wood board with flour and turn the dough out onto the board. It will be very wet and sticky. This is the blob-from-outer-space stage. Flour your hands and give the dough a few quick turns and flips around the board, using a metal dough scraper to help lift the dough from the board. Resist the urge to flour anything more than your hands: Sticky is good for this style of bread. Shape the dough into a log about twelve inches long and cut into about four equal-sized pieces. Shape the cut pieces gently into rounds and dust the tops lightly with flour cover with a clean tea towel. Let rest for an hour.

Step Three:
Preheat your oven as hot as it will go—450 or 500 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Cut each round in half with your dough scraper. Gently transfer each piece to the parchment-lined baking sheet. You should have eight half-moons of dough. Cover with a tea towel to let the dough rest from all this handling, about twenty or thirty minutes. After the dough has rested and your oven is preheated, remove the tea-towel, dock the loaves with a sharp razor if you wish, then bake the half-moons for about twelve to fifteen minutes, or until just barely golden or internal temperature reaches 200 degrees. Let cool and devour or slice in half to use for sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hands on the keyboard

by Fern

Now that we are blogging, I am learning to type! Our Grandpa Hickory made an easy chart to show us where to use each of our fingers. If you are learning to type too, we would be happy to send one for you to try. Just e-mail us here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Marmalade laid an egg!"

by Blossom

Here's one of our favorite hens, Marmalade, laying an egg. The hens are comfortable with Fern and me because we raised them from chicks. So we took my camera into the coop and waited.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ancestral lights

by June

The poetry of Deborah Digges entered my life the week my grandmother left it. I still have the yellowed copy of The New Yorker; the poem is there on page 44. It is called "Ancestral Lights." I recognized something of my jagged self in her words and not just because she wrote about loss (of belief, of those who came before) and not just because she knew what it was like, as I did, "to lie there, whole, myself, safe in the coarsening grass of a Missouri August."
I was in my last year of college. I was preparing myself to let go of what had defined my life and to find what would be. Her words glimmered with all I hoped was true: that the familiar and beloved would illuminate what was to come.
And though I know now that Heaven may be
only the mind's fear of the wonders it imagines,
the way our best thoughts surprise us
and seem not to be our own, I like to believe
we turn into light around those we love,
or would have loved, had we known them,
and warn them through the blood
by ringing in their ears.
Deborah Digges is gone now. If you have not read her poetry or her memoirs, go. Do.
I will always think of her on summer nights, especially in Missouri, especially when families sing old songs and fireflies rise.

Blossom and Fern with a firefly; Missouri, 2007

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gardening with six hands

by June

No doubt I’ll repeat this story now and again since I’m the kind of person who can’t remember from one conversation to the next what she’s said and to whom. No doubt that’s me as a blogger too. And since this is the most famous anecdote from my childhood having to do with a garden, I tend to circle back to it again and again now that I live to muck about and grow things – a fact that makes my family of origin hoot with hilarity. Because it was not always so. Oh, no.

When I was in junior high, my dad finally got his garden spot. I liked to hang on the fence and talk to him while he hoed. But then he made the mistake of asking me to weed. I cried. Okay…since my brother will probably read this, I actually wailed. I was worried about getting dirt under my fingernails. I hated hunkering down there in the row of beans. I hated gardening. I didn’t hate everything about it; I did love the wilted lettuce salad my mother made with cider vinegar and crumbled bacon, but I’m pretty sure that had more to do with the bacon than the growing of the lettuce.

Years later, when I was off bacon and making my way in New York City, something happened. The green markets whispered seductively to me, and I hauled home flats of flowers and plunked them into window boxes. And from there it was just a hop, skip, and a jump (including the biggie from Brooklyn to Maine) until I was the tender of several-hundred-square feet of garden space.

I was determined that I wanted my daughters to grow up with no grudge against gardening. So I swore never to ask them to touch a weed. Or a watering can. And I didn’t. But the first summer we moved onto our four green acres, I planted a garden that was basically a dizzying race between who could grow the fastest (the weeds or the veggies), and who could eat the fastest (us or the groundhogs). The weeds and the groundhogs won.

But before they won, I dragged my night-owl self out of bed early every morning and crawled along the rows of my first real garden. And my darling girls, they got out of their beds too. If I beat them out there, I would hear these joyful whoops, and here they would come, two five-year-olds running through the slanted sunlight in their shorty pajamas. And, be still my heart, they got down on their hands and knees. They scrabbled at those weeds every bit as earnestly as I did. I explained that they didn’t have to; it was almost fun for me but I didn’t expect it would be fun for them. I could do lots of thinking in the garden, I told them. I could have quiet time while I weeded. For me, this was fun.

One morning, as we worked in silence, Blossom piped up and said, “Mommy, when I’m grown up I’m going to have a huge garden.”

“You are, baby? Good. Why's that?”

“I’m gonna need a lot of weeds,” she said. “So I’ll have lots of time to think.”

The three of us have been out there ever since, weeding and thinking and laughing. To be sure, they tire more quickly than I do and decide to watch the tree swallows dart in and out of the nesting boxes or to catch earthworms for the chickens or to sit in the sun and pet the cat. But they think of it as their garden too. And it is. Often, I’ll look out the kitchen window and see Fern’s head bobbing through the tomato boxes, patrolling for hornworms.

This spring we’ve had the pleasure of sharing our passion with an eighth-grade gardener who happens to be a kind of big sister to Fern and Blossom. You can read about her garden here. She came over this weekend along with a gardening Girl Scout friend of ours, and we all planted seeds together. We were like pigs in mud. The kitchen smelled pleasantly of soil, and the seed packets held endless possibilities, and we were all together. Nothing can match it…well, except maybe the moment that came two days later when Blossom spotted the first tiny knuckle of green. “Sprout!” she sang, “Sprout!” And, sure enough, there was baby kale among us.

Hurray! Dirty-fingernail season has come at last!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

First food from the garden

by June

My sources at the farmers’ market warned me that leeks wouldn’t over-winter in Maine. But winter caught me off-guard last year, and though I meant to harvest all those kindergarten-pencil-size leeks, I ended up tucking them under a blanket of snow.

Today, I surveyed the mush of the leek bed. It was disheartening: The stalks were frostbitten to the ground. When I tugged on one, its top layer slithered off in my hand. Still, I had to oust the remains for a spring planting. I went in gingerly with my trowel and came up with…firm, fragrant leeks -- albeit only five inches long at the most.

I soaked them clean, snipped off the roots, and layered them into a dish. I barely covered them in cream, then gave them an ample grinding of pepper and a lavish sprinkling of Maldon’s salt. After forty minutes in a 375-degree oven, those sorry little leeks had melted into the very solace of spring.

This was our first dish from the garden this year. It will be hard to top. But I’m willing to let my Ruby Gold tomatoes give it their best shot anyway.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Meet the Rooster

by Blossom

Our rooster is named Daisy. We thought he was a hen like the other chicks. But slowly we started noticing he was growing a comb and wattles. Then he started making a funny noise; it sounded like a really bad horn. Then we knew he was a rooster.

Our grandfather, Hickory, wanted us to change his name to Davey. But he was already Daisy to us. Now we just call him Daisy Roo.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Meet the Hens

by Fern

Tuesday is one of our favorite chickens. Blossom and I like her because when she was a chick she was the littlest one, and we had to take special care of her. We can always tell her egg because it has little brown spots on the top of it. Tuesday likes to sled and ride in the wagon.

Marmalade is another of our favorite chickens. She is the pretty one with the fan-shaped tail. Her egg is pointy at the top.

Dottie is especially soft and white. Her breast is covered in white feathers. Our white cat likes to rub his nose on her breast feathers. We identify her egg by how white it is compared to the others.

Lemon Drop got her name because she had yellow dots on her forehead. She is the one who got her egg stuck. Daddy had to hold her upside down to make it come out. Her eggs are always the largest ones.

Stormy is named Stormy because she has a very stormy personality. Her egg always comes out with a poop on it.