Category Archives: With the Kids

unintentional egg hunt


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Straw is something I always have to have on hand. Either for lining the chicken coop and nesting boxes or for mulch somewhere in the garden. But since I don’t have a barn (or anything even remotely like that!) it’s hard to find a good spot to store the large bales (which at their smallest are about 2’x2’x4′). The solution I’ve come up with is keeping partial bales in waterproof plastic tubs outside in the garden and then stowing a full bale right under the chicken coop. It’s a good dry location and a whole bale fits underneath with just a couple inches clearance on top.

On Friday I was adding another layer of straw to my potato towers (which I realize I haven’t even written about here—subject for a future post) and had finished up the loose straw in my plastic tubs. So I walked back to my chicken coop and bent down to pull off some straw from the end of the bale underneath. As I separated off a section of straw, I was startled by an egg rolling off with it. What? I crouched lower so that I could see the whole top of the bale and was shocked to discover a large pile of eggs right in the middle! What a funny surprise.

I have no idea how my chickens were managing to squish themselves between the bottom of the coop and the top of the bale, but I guess it must have made a cozy adjunct nest. Unfortunately I don’t know when they started doing this or how old the eggs are so sadly I didn’t feel comfortable eating them. But throwing away a dozen organic eggs was a depressing thought. Then I had an idea–every year my kids love dyeing eggs but no one ever wants to eat dozens of hard boiled eggs afterwards. Why not just dye these before tossing?

At first I thought about blowing out the insides and coloring the shells only, but I realized this would be too delicate an operation for the kids. So I decided to hardboil them, let the kids dye them and then toss them out. Since the process of art (and life) is the continual cycle of creation and destruction, this seemed an appropriate solution. And if you’ve never dyed brown (or blue-green) eggs, the beautiful deep jewel-tone colors they become put the traditional bright pastel colored (white dyed) eggs to shame.

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home is where the hearth is


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Since today is the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer author who (along with my parents and grandparents) first kindled my homesteading spirit, I thought it would be an appropriate time to write about my recent explorations into hearth cookery.

One of the things I've always loved about summertime adventures is the opportunity to cook outside over a wood fire. There's nothing that beats the flavor (and enjoyment) of preparing food in this simple and rustic way. For years I've thought about bringing the same fun indoors for the winter and cooking in the fireplace. But since I only have a traditional 50's era residential fireplace and not some kind of spectacular colonial walk-in hearth (or even Alice Waters' fancy wood-fired oven), I thought it would be a cramped and awkward mess.

But as is sometimes the case when it comes to my passions, my enthusiasm overruled my concerns this winter and I decided to embark on a series of Friday night suppers cooked in the open-hearth. The first few weeks the kids wanted the campfire basics–hot dogs, S'mores and their favorite grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in my vintage Toas-Tite. But I had my sights on serving up real homesteader meals.

I got out my cast-iron dutch oven and made baked navy beans with molasses and salt pork right in the coals. I upgraded the kids from the Toas Tite to real pie irons and let them bake their own cornbread to have on the side. After that easy and hearty hearth meal we were all hooked.

Next I decided to invest in a cooking grate to expand our cooking possibilities. In keeping with our Laura Ingalls prarie inspiration, the next meal was pan fried trout breaded in corn meal and cooked in salt pork drippings (a nod to On the Banks of Plum Creek), fried potatoes and the kids made apple turnovers in their pie irons. The pie crusts on the first few turnovers were a bit charred (we're still working out the heat and timing for the pie irons) but the trout and potatoes were wonderfully delicious.

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Now I'm looking forward to expanding our repetoire with larger cuts of roasted meats and more baked goods. I also want to set up my firebrick from my makeshift pizza oven and see if I can get a good wood-fired pizza made in the fireplace. Can it be long until I start contemplating a full-fledged rotisserie?

But besides the culinary upsides of cooking around an open fire, I also think the act of gathering the family around the hearth to prepare a meal in a slow, deliberate and communal way has further-reaching emotional benefits. It not only brings the kids closer to the idea of their food and how it's cooked but it's warm and cozy and the kind of thing that memories are made of.

For anyone interested in getting into serious fireplace cooking, I highly recommend reading The Open-Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America by Suzanne Goldenson and Doris Simpson. It gives a great background on the history and implements of early American hearth cookery as well as recipes specifically adapted for cooking in this way. The coals await!  

UPDATE 12 February 2011

Last night I tried out the pizza idea. I placed one of my pizza stones on the grate and surrounded it on three sides by firebricks. Then I balanced another pizza stone on top. It created the perfect little pizza oven right in the fireplace. I tried to measure the temperature with an oven thermometer but couldn't get an exact reading–just that it was over way over the maximum 600 degrees. Yay! I was hoping for something in the range of 800 degrees and think I might have gotten close. We were able to cook a series of tasty winter broccoli raab and potato pizzas each in about five minutes time. They had a wonderfully crispy crust (as always, thanks to Peter Reinhart's fantastic dough recipe) and a smoky wood-fired taste. Quick, easy, tasty and fun! This is something I'll definitely be doing again soon.

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the hunter’s moon


After last week’s sunrise excursion, it seemed only fitting that we should bookend the experience by watching a moonrise. And in perfect timing the full moon, specifically the Hunter’s Moon, fell on Monday. This time we took a picnic dinner and arrived just as the faintest trace of the moon was showing against the blue sky. Then the sun set, the moon rose and the hazy sky was thick with intense pinks, blues and lavender. So much color it was almost sickening!

There’s something about a new moon that always makes me want to take a moment, stare at the sky and contemplate my place in the universe. According to Stephanie Gailing at Planetary Apothecary this particular Scorpio/Taurus Full Moon was supposed to be a time to evaluate what makes us feel good–mentally, emotionally and physically. Even before I read her words I happened to be having these same thoughts. I guess it’s always good to reflect on what makes us feel safe, secure and affirmed but it’s nice to have the moon to remind us!

the first sunrise


I recently realized my children had never seen the sun rise. Of course they are always up early enough (!) but from our house we can't see the horizon. So earlier this week we planned a sunrise expedition–a speedy early departure from home and hot cocoas in the car as we drove in the dark to a good vantage point. It was wonderful to see their surprise and amazement as the sky went through the spectrum of colors. Afterward we went to a local "greasy spoon" for breakfast and then off to school. It was a special and adventurous way to start the day, and a good reminder about the importance of taking time to celebrate the simple joys in life.

Later when I got back to my desk I read the quote of the day that I get by email from Gratefulness.org. It said:

"May the sun bring you new energy by day, may the moon softly restore you by night, may the rain wash away your worries, may the breeze blow new strength into your being." –Apache Blessing

I've been carrying those words and the feeling from the sunrise morning with me and now I'm passing them along. Celebrate a sunrise the next chance you have!

garden grab bag

I usually try to write about single topics here but since I've fallen way behind in documenting what's happening in the garden, this post is going to be a bit of a catch-all (though by no means comprehensive!) In my printed gardening journals this is when I would just scribble a list of disconnected notes without much description.

As shown in the photo above, my walnut tree is covered with nuts. I actually don't like walnuts (the tree was here long before I was) so I usually just let the squirrels enjoy the bounty. But I do appreciate so many other aspects of the tree–it's visual beauty throughout the seasons (even in winter), the shade it provides in the heat of summer, and the food it offers to the woodpeckers who frequent it. There's something about this tree that draws me to it and almost every day I have a moment where I just stand and stare up into its branches.

At the beginning of last month we harvested the very last of our spring carrots. This was actually one of the kids' gardening projects. I always get a "kaleidoscope" seed mix of red, purple, yellow and orange carrots for them to plant. They aren't necessarily the sweetest or best tasting carrots I've ever had, but the kids love being surprised by what color is going to come out of the ground. And they do look so pretty cut up in a salad together. (Unless of course it's a freak carrot like the one we picked in April!)

Most of our summer crops are going full tilt now, and I'm getting almost frightened by the "Little Shop of Horrors"-like pumpkin plant that has grown out of the garden and across the patio. This is the second year the kids are trying their luck at growing giant
(Dill's Atlantic) pumpkins. This variety supposedly can
produce up to 800 lb. pumpkins. Yikes! You could take Cinderella to the ball in one of those.

Last year we had some relatively big pumpkins (in the 50 lb range) but lost a few right at the end to rot and squirrels. Hopefully we'll do better this year. There's no scale reference in these photos, so please note that each of these leaves is 22" across! Scary!

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And while we're seeing the last of the spring crops (though we're still eating peas like crazy) and enjoying the peaking summer crops, it's comforting to see the start of some of our late summer and fall crops, like kale. For years I really only planted a summer garden, but I feel so much more in sync with the cycles of nature when I grow food year round. Which reminds me, I better get some broccoli planted soon!

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frog release!


Thanks to my gardening frenzy over the last couple months, I've completely neglected to update the status of our tadpole raising project. A few weeks ago our three remaining tadpoles finally turned into little tree frogs. Even though the kids knew what was going to happen they were really amazed and astounded to see the transformation–from fish-like creatures to actual hopping, wall-scaling frogs!

Their metamorphosis also ushered in a dietary change. The boiled and frozen lettuce we were feeding the tadpoles wasn't enough nourishment for the frogs so we switched over to live fruit flies. The frogs' speed and accuracy in gobbling these up was so intriguing to the boys they started calling feeding time "Frog TV."

The whole process of raising these creatures was fun for all of us, but now that they had come to maturity we didn't feel right about keeping them in captivity. So yesterday we decided it was time to release them into the wild.

The creek where our friends originally caught the tadpoles had dried up (thanks to California's third year of drought) so we went to another larger creek close by. It was exciting (as well as a little scary and sad) to see our tiny frogs jump out of their safe home into a new environment. It's always hard to let go of something you've cared for but I hope they have a good life out there. Good luck little frogs!

the memorial day wheat harvest

I'm sure glad the wheat harvest landed on a three-day weekend because I needed every minute (and then some) to get it all done. Luckily the kids were amazing helpers at every stage. I had planned to involve them just a little (as an educational opportunity) but hadn't imagined how truly engaged they'd be. As soon as they understood the process they started begging me to let them do the cutting, so once I showed them how to safely use the tools I let them at it.

I was actually astounded at how focused and skillful they were (being only six years old.) Our system was as follows–I would tie the growing wheat stalks into small bundles, they would cut the bundles, carry and stack them. I would then tie the smaller bundles into bigger bundles.  Working this way the kids were really responsible for cutting almost the whole crop. Wow. I didn't expect they would be such a huge help while also having the time of their lives! Talk about a win-win family experience.

After we finally cleared the area, I rented a 13hp Barretto tiller. I normally work my soil by hand, but having lost so much time with this crop and needing to get the area amended and ready for planting ASAP, I decided to bring in the big guns. I wish I had taken a video of hilarity (and terror) of me (with my whopping 115lb frame) trying to negotiate this unweildy beast on my sloped terrain. Definitely something right out of an "I Love Lucy" episode. Luckily my mother and my friend Jacqueline came over to lend some additional "girl power" and support. Both very much appreciated!

Once the hair-raising adventure of tilling was over, the boys and their best friend raked all the loose stalks out the soil and loaded wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow to the compost. It was all just one big game for them.

And if that wasn't enough fun, we ended the day with a potato harvest. The kids enjoyed this even more than an Easter egg hunt (shrieks of glee every time they unearthed a new potato) and I enjoyed it the way I always do at the culmination of every plant cycle. I like thinking back to the planting, the first leaves, then the first flowers…and the state of mind I was in at each of those stages. The harvest brings a conclusion to all of it, not just in the lifecycle of the plant but also to the thoughts and feelings that accompanied the journey.

And so…after three hot, dirty, exhausting, but utterly satisfying days in the garden we ended the weekend with a warm bowl of freshly dug potatoes topped with thyme butter and goat cheese. Heaven!

 

eggs in a cloud


My love of cooking started at an early age. By age eight I was avidly collecting recipe cards (that one of the gas station chains were giving out as a promotion) like some kids collect baseball cards. I ended up with an entire recipe box full (boy would I love to see those now!) that I actualy used for cooking the occasional family dinner.

I also had a children's cookbook with the more typical kid-type recipes, like Rice Krispy treats. The other day I was thinking about a breakfast dish I used to make from that cookbook. I remembered it was this god-awful pink color because you mixed ketchup into egg whites before beating them. Who knows why, but as a child I loved that breakfast. So I thought it would be fun to try and replicate it for my kids. But what was it exactly?

In some portion of the "useless facts" section of my brain, I recalled (I think) that the dish was called "Eggs in a Cloud." I did an online search and came up with a number of recipes for "ham and eggs in a cloud" but nothing that resemblanced the strange ketchup creation of my memories. I decided that this was a project that would need to be temporarily shelved for further research (perhaps an archaelogical dig into the dusty crevices of my parents garage in hopes that the original cookbook is still stored in a box somewhere)

In the meantime I thought I'd make a "clean" version of eggs in a cloud for the kids since they still get such a kick from the transformation of egg whites when beaten. I found an easy recipe on (of all places) My Pet Chicken. I made them this morning and they were not only dramatic to look at but also very quick to make and tasty (the parmesan cheese on the egg whites is a must).

Now the research for the strange ketchup concoction continues…

good dirt


It’s hard to sit down to work at the computer these days when the weather has been so beautiful, the soil so warm and the garden so beckoning. And as if I needed any more reasons to be outside, medical researchers in the UK have now found evidence that
some bacteria found in soil may produce serotonin and help ward off depression. (You can read more about it on Grist.) And all this time I thought my joy in gardening was just a poetic attachment to being close to nature!

As for my garden…even though my winter wheat is still not ready to harvest and hogging up my prime growing area (argh!), I’ve managed to sow a few crops in other pockets of the garden–more herbs, lettuces, peas, corn, pumpkins, melons. I also planted some bare root raspberries and started a “sunflower house” from seed for my kids.

The sunflower house is a great idea I first read about in Sharon Lovejoy’s sweet book about gardening projects for children called Sunflower Houses. It’s basically a structure made up of “walls” of sunflowers with Morning Glories trailing up the stalks and across the top to form a “roof.” I have wonderful childhood memories of sitting for hours inside a pea or bean arbor, privately picking and eating while daydreaming amidst the tangled foliage and filtered light. Those experiences created a lifetime love of outdoor sanctuaries and garden structures (bean tepees, tree forts etc.) which I now build for my children (and myself!) But the sunflower house is a new one for me. I’m really eager to see how it turns out.

In other gardening news, I recently discovered Veggie Trader which seems to be a cool new way to trade, buy or sell homegrown produce. I always do this informally with friends and neighbors but I think it would be fun to extend this in a larger local network (especially when I’m drowning in zucchini!) The Oooby Ning group is another site that’s interesting in a similar way. I really enjoy the mix of having a broad virtual community around an activity that is by definition so local and terrestrial.

chicken run


This past weekend was full of more beautiful sunny days–perfect for an outside construction project with the boys. So on Sunday we started the day with a trip to the hardware store and plans to make a
portable chicken run.

As soon as the pullets (the technical term for a hen less than a year old) are old enough to move outdoors they’ll have a proper coop and a run, and then free-range when I’m working in the garden. But for now (when they’re young and just having daytime visits to the outdoors) we need to protect them from hawks and other predators. And later when they can free-range more safely I’ll still occasionally want some way to contain them to certain parts of the yard (so they don’t eat new seedlings etc.)

I had a vision of what I wanted the portable run to look like and was lucky enough to find a detailed how-to for building just what I had in mind on Mother Earth News.

Even though it would have been fun to design on my own it was incredibly helpful to have the quantities and dimensions all worked out in advance. (Thank you Troy Griepentrog!) There were so many times during the building process when I imagined the trouble I would undoubtedly have gotten myself into without Troy’s plan (like not basing the framing dimensions on a standard width of chicken wire.) The only real change I made to the original plan was
substituting 2 x 2s for the 2 x 4s that were called for. Even though
this compromised the structural integrity of the run, I really needed
it to be light enough (it barely is even now) for me to lift and move
around on my own.

The best part of having the step-by-step guide though was that it allowed me to relax and be able to focus on guiding the kids to do as much as they could. Having them involved was a lot of fun and a great learning opportunity on so many levels–visualization, design, use of materials, measuring, adding, spatial thinking, physics etc. Except for the sawing and drilling (which I did) they were really able to help with quite a lot of the building. Because they were so involved it really held their attention from start to finish. And when we were done they clearly felt a huge sense of accomplishment. An extra bonus to the whole project.

I’m very happy with how it turned out and its already getting a lot of use–not just by the chicks but also by the boys who like to play in it too!