Thursday, November 26, 2009


To our dears, near and far. We are thankful for you today.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Savoring the harvest: Cranberry chutney with homegrown shallots

by June

Since we eat from scratch, I love simple preparations that accentuate the flavor of the ingredients (and go together fast enough to satisfy our hungry children). But on special occasions, the work of a dish can intensify my pleasure in preparing it. This is especially true at Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving revolves around food and tradition and family and thankfulness, and through years of holidays, these strands have become entwined for me. When I cook for my family, memories tiptoe in from other days, other years.

This morning, I spent time alone in the kitchen making our favorite cranberry chutney. I'm rarely alone when I cook. Blossom and Fern share the family passion for cooking, and we are often all there together, talking and laughing. But today, the girls had chickens to tend. Birch was out and about. So I found myself cooking and going wherever my mind wandered. Fortunately, making the chutney requires blanching and peeling a half-pound of shallots. So my mind had a lot of time to wander.

It wandered from the May day I planted the shallots in my garden to the first Thanksgiving I spent in New York City, a day when a friend and I roasted our first turkey and watched the Macy's parade across from the Museum of Natural History. The sky was so blue it seemed like a Missouri sky to me; I ached for the only family I'd ever known. But that was also the Thanksgiving I realized the joy and importance of the family one finds in the world.

As I trimmed shallots for tomorrow's feast, I thought of waking on Thanksgiving day to hear my mother in the kitchen, to smell the celery and sage, to feel the deepest sense of well-being I have ever known in my life...because it happened every year and I imagined it always would. I thought of the long walks my father and I took every Thanksgiving along the railroad tracks: I would be eager to get home to the fireside, and he would distract me with the same joke he seemed to fish out of his back pocket every year, "You may think this is an icicle on my nose, but it'ssss not."

As I blanched and peeled the shallots this morning, I thought of how lucky we are that my grandfather will be at my mother's Thanksgiving table this year. He'll tell 92-years of great stories. Even though I won't be there to hear them, I love knowing that he'll be telling them. I thought too of how my great-aunt Ella was always at our Thanksgiving table when I was growing up and how her homemade noodles are still on our every holiday table and how the great-great-nieces she never knew nevertheless know her...and know how to make her noodles and will be making them for Thanksgivings beyond the stretch of even my imagination.

I was filled with thankfulness as I cooked this morning...for the children chasing chickens outside the kitchen window, for the husband who will bake our bread, for the people who love us and show us they do. I felt such deep gratitude for the kindness shown to us this year.

For me, cooking is an act of deep thoughtfulness and thankfulness. It's the perfect start for our celebration. It is itself an act of thanksgiving.

"Best" Cranberry, Shallot and Dried-Cherry Chutney

1/2 pound shallots (about 16)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup white-wine vinegar (tarragon is very good)
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried, unsweetened sour cherries
2 cups fresh or unthawed frozen cranberries, picked over
1/2 cup water

• In a saucepan of boiling water, blanch shallots for one minute. Drain. Peel shallots and separate into cloves.
• In a heavy saucepan, cook shallots in butter over moderate heat, stirring until coated. Add sugar and 1 tablespoon vinegar and cook until the sugar mixture turns a golden caramel. (The texture will be very grainy, dry, and weird-seeming; don't be discouraged.)
• Add remaining vinegar, wine, and salt and boil one minute. (Don't panic if the sugar caramel hardens; it will melt.)
• Add cherries and simmer, covered, 45 minutes, or until shallots are tender.
• Add cranberries and water and boil gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, ten minutes, or until cranberries burst. Transfer to bowl and cool. Serve at room temperature.
• Makes about three cups and can be cooked five days ahead and chilled, covered.

In my kitchen memory book, I did not note where I found this recipe. The first time I made it, in 1996, I spent part of the same day re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion and listening to Ella Fitzgerald by the fire. I've been making it for Thanksgivings ever since.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Savoring the harvest: Popcorn Brussels sprouts

by June

Who can resist a cabbage the perfect size for a dollhouse? Not Fern and Blossom! They have loved Brussels sprouts since their first Thanksgiving. I'll never forget how they pinched the beloved little cabbages off their plates...and pinched and pinched and pinched some more. They dubbed them "little balls," and they have loved this vegetable ever since -- even without bacon being involved.

This was our first year to grow Brussels sprouts in our garden. I pinched off the tops a little too deep into September (next year I'm aiming for September 1), so the little cabbages that sprouted off our stalks aren't huge. But we find that is part of their charm. We can roast the small sprouts without cutting an X on the bottom (but if yours are bigger than, say, a Bing cherry, then do X them for even roasting).

We love the simplest preparation possible for these sprouts. We fire up the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. We trim the sprouts off the stalk, tip them into a cast-iron skillet and douse them with olive oil. We roll them around to make sure they get a good sheen. Then we pop them in for a good roasting... from fifteen minutes to twenty-five, depending on size. We like ours to come out with caramelized leaves.

On goes the Malden's sea salt.

We confess we hardly ever eat ours with a fork. We pinch them right out of the bowl and call them popcorn Brussels sprouts.

When we want something a little fancier, perhaps for Thanksgiving dinner, we roast them the same way, then toss them with walnut oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some toasted walnuts. We've got some stalks still tucked under garden fleece out there in the cold. With any luck, more than one holiday table this season will be graced with our beloved little balls.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why we homeschool: Trusting the feet

by June

Of all the things a homeschooling mama hears from other mamas (and teachers and grandparents and cashiers at the gas station), the most common sentence of all has to be: “I could never do it.”

Depending on the tenor of who’s speaking and depending on my own mood when I hear it, that sentence can carry various meanings... Statement of fact: “I couldn't homeschool because I am the kind of person who is most comfortable with a trained teacher teaching my kids.”Or compliment: “You are made of sterner stuff than I, young’un.” Or insult: “What are you stupid? Taking your child’s education into your own hands like that?”

This last inflection is the one I hear on my worst days. “Could never” is amplified and mixed like a fever chant with my own misgivings because, like most thoughtful homeschooling parents, I have my doubts. And I cling to them. I can't help but think my doubts are the catalyst that will make me do a better job for my children.

Here’s a typical doubt groove in my mind: Are they where they need to be with geography (or math or grammar: pick your worry)? Better check. Google. Tap, tap, tap. Oooh, look at this amazing website! So the kids spend an hour absorbedly practicing their math facts on They earn 20,000 grains of rice for the UN World Food Program. They switch to practicing vocabulary words and earn some more rice. Later, as we eat our own supper, we talk about efforts to end world hunger. We talk about where the problem is most severe and why...and we're back to geography but in a deeply meaningful way: Where do other people live and what are their lives like?

On days when I don’t have the major doubts that send me to Google, I have the lesser kind, the daily kind. For these I have the daily solutions, the little things that remind me that my children are where they should be, learning the way they learn best. They get enough sleep. They read to their hearts' contents. They are rich in time to play. Each can follow her curiosity wherever it leads. The best reminder for me of why we homeschool is watching their feet while they are learning.

Just look at these feet. Don’t they look happy? The kids attached to them look happy too: rapt, engaged, tickled pink by discovery.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Composting fun!

by June

Without our compost pile to tend, autumn would be no fun at all for Fern and Blossom.

First there was the day I mentioned how discouraging it was that the free-ranging chickens were scattering their precious poop around the place (on the back porch, for instance) instead of putting it where it was the compost bins.

Next thing I knew, my girls presented me with two bowls of...chicken poop. Chopsticks in hand, they'd gone on a treasure hunt around the four green acres. They had especially sought the special pink variety: ah, beet trimmings!

I'll spare you the visuals for the chicken-poop treasure hunt, but here's how to have fun while collecting leaves for future leaf mold...

Bury a surprise in the leaves.

Pop up and yell, "Woohoo!"

And here's a compost question for my gardening buddies just over the bloggy garden gate...Do you use chicken poop in your compost? I used it this past year and had a healthy garden. I've heard everything from how wonderful it is to how it causes more trouble than it's worth. And since Eliot Coleman, whose work I idolize, comes down against it, well... I'm wondering how I can use it wisely -- since I don't want to not use it; after all, it's here. Thanks to my pal, Tom, at Tall Clover Farm, I will never use horse manure. But, then, I don't have a horse living in my chicken coop.

So, how does chicken manure work for you? How do you use it?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pizza oven part 5: The arch

by Birch

The arch: It brought fevered visions of ancient Roman aqueducts, the rounded stone curves of the Catacombs, the arch on the Champs Elysees, and the monument in Washington Square near NYU. . . Heck, I even took a good, hard sideways look at June's Volkswagen Beetle parked in our driveway. (That's an arch, right?) The strength. The grace. It was the perfect entrance to my pizza oven. A pizza piazza, if you will.

The dome needed a proper terminus and landing area for the pizza. It had to be large enough to load the oven with wood and pizza, but not so big as to let out the heat. Forno Bravo's website has several examples of oven entrances, and I decided to go with the traditional design of a double arch. One inner arch about eighteen inches wide connected to an outer arch that was about twenty-two inches wide. That way the oven could be sealed off with a metal door to trap heat after the fire has died down so we could even cook a Thanksgiving turkey. Pizza and bread would be cooked with an open entrance needed for the high heat of a blazing fire.
An arch was also important to support the chimney, which would be mortared to an eight-by-eight inch hole in the top of the outer arch. A good chimney would provide the right draft needed for those hot fires.

I had left just enough room for the inner arch with the dome halfway constructed. I had also cut a plywood form in a very nice angle, which I would use to keep me from going astray. On each side, I mortared four split-firebricks together to meet the dome walls. Then I cut a brick in half horizontally at a forty-five degree angle—a challenge that took several tries to get right with my saw. These pieces were mortared in place and would help form the gentle angle of the top bricks. Then I balanced bricks along the top edge of the form, mortaring in one at a time and giving them a few minutes to set. I cut a keystone to fit the top of the arch and tapped that in place with a rubber mallet. I wiped down the excess mortar with a wet sponge and left it to dry.

The outer arch proved to be tougher since it was made of whole bricks, and heavier than the first arch. Storm clouds colored the sky charcoal, and I hurried to get everything in place. The inner arch had dried for few days and I mortared in whole bricks set flat, using a larger template set in front of the opening. Four bricks went up on each side, and I began to bring the arch over the top. A few drops of rain fell. Mortar likes it damp, since slower drying makes for a stronger bond. I pressed on toward the keystone that would lock the whole arch together.

I made a cardboard template to get the shape of the keystone right, but after I cut the brick, it didn't fit. So I slowed down, measured again and cut another brick, hoping that the rain would hold off. But it didn't. No sign of lightning or thunder, but the skies opened with a steady rain. I ran the power tools inside and rushed out to finish the job.

Fern and Blossom followed me out. I pulled a tarp over the dome to keep it somewhat dry as I layered on the last bit of mortar on the arch. My dear little helpers worried about me getting wet. An umbrella suddenly opened overhead—thank you, Fern! I gingerly placed the keystone in position. It worked. The arch stood. We covered the new mortar and dashed inside where June had hot tea waiting for us.

Coming soon: It works! Our first pizza!