Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Houston, We Have Lift Off

A couple years ago my parents gave me a brown paper bag filled with some funky-looking tubers. "Plant these someplace where it doesn't matter if they take over," my mother said. "You'll never get rid of them." She left me holding the bag and walked into the house. I looked inside. Coolsunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes or Helianthus tuberosus. Sunflowers are one of my favorite flowers, so a perennial bunch of sunchokes seemed like happiness in a bag. And if I could eat part of them, bonus! I planted. Years passed. I never harvested a single tuber.

Until this past Sunday.

After spending a little too long in the garden with Graham (planting around 425 million garlic cloves), I walked past the drooping sunchoke stalks and decided it was finally time to harvest (my timing had everything to do with the fact that I had a garden fork in hand). I unearthed over 10 pounds of golf-ball-sized tubers. Of course, now that I had them, I had no idea what to do with them. The last time I had eaten a sunchoke, I was a kid. My grandmother had sliced them into a salad and I remember liking them. I turned to my shelf of gardening books for help, because I also needed to know how to store such a bountiful harvest. Whoops. It turns out it wasn't necessary (or smart) to harvest them all at once. They don't stay firm for very long once they're dug up. Every single book mentioned this. After I stopped cursing, I turned to the Google for help. I started typing, and, by George, the Google held many answers.

I discovered that the bumpy little balls are chock-full of goodness. There was loads of information out there about how they are the perfect substitute for potatoes. Words such as inulin, prebotic, and vitamins kept popping up. After losing myself in several blogs that practically held these guys up as a food of the gods, I decided that sunchokes were going to save my family from the flu, improve our cholesterol counts, lower our blood glucose levels, make me thin, and straighten my hair after just a few carefully prepared meals. I would slice them into salads, roast, mash, and even whisk them into soups. My eyes were spinning and my fingers twitching. I was ready to tackle the tubers. Although I had to go about it quickly—before they spoiled—I also had to be careful: I didn't want to scare off the family. I would start slowly, get everyone hooked, and reel their taste buds in with delicious, nutritious dish after dish.

Sunday night. I scrubbed and thinly sliced two small sunchokes and placed them on a plate for everyone to try. Mmm, was the response from the family. Sort of like jicama but nuttier and crunchier. "Can I take some for lunch?" asked Katharine. This was good.

Feeling charged (no doubt a side-effect of the mighty chokes), I did the Google again looking for recipes. Move slowly, I reminded myself: The goal was to work up to a creamy, health-packed soup. As I searched around, I noticed the occasional mention of how a very small percentage of the population may experience a slight gastric reaction to sunchokes—those inulins, again. One guy even referred to them as fartichokes. I cast these concerns aside; my family was made of tough stuff.

Monday night. I decided we would have burgers (thank you, Ferdinand, our friends' bull), a salad made from the lettuce that had re-seeded itself all over our garden, and roasted sunchokes. Graham, the prince of roast potatoes, instructed me on the proper roasting technique. After scrubbing away all the soil, I tossed the chokes in a little olive oil and popped them in the oven. About 40 minutes later they were done.

They did look like roast potatoes, but they smelled different. Katharine gave them a side-long glance. Uh-oh. Graham poked them with a fork. It wasn't looking good. They were mushy. I took the first bite.

"Mmm, interesting. I think they need more salt."

o, that wasn't it. Maybe a little of Andrew's homemade ketchup. "Oh, that's the ticket," I shared with the family. "Mash them up like potatoes and add ketchup."

The kids looked at me strangely: "Mom is adding ketchup to roasted vegetables," I could hear them think, "they must be awful." OK, so they really weren't very good, but I ate them anyway because they are so good for you. Andrew had two servings. Graham quietly pushed the chokes to the side of his plate, while Katharine said she preferred them raw.

The kids went to bed. I noticed that Katharine was unbuttoning her jeans and rubbing her belly as she climbed the stairs. Not long after their departure, my stomach started rumbling. I, too, found myself unbuttoning my jeans. I changed into my elastic-waisted PJs in an effort to accommodate my now bloated belly. This is what Sigourney Weaver must have felt like in Alien, I thought. I was certain some gnarly headed sunchoke-like creature was going to pop its head out of my belly button. I felt awful. Andrew laughed. I checked the kids. Fast asleep. Maybe it was just me. Figures.

Tuesday morning. Let's just say today is payback for Andrew laughing at me last night. Sure, my stomach is still rumbling a little, but for Andrew, well... Houston, we have lift off!

Thank goodness I didn't feed any to the dog.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Pleasures of Urban Living

I'm fairly certain that if my husband had not gotten together with me when he did (his early fifties, after splitting up from a long marriage), he would have moved back to the Vermont or perhaps Connecticut country. Even though he was born in Manhattan, Peter is not, at heart, a city guy.

I, on the other hand, am a city girl. (My friend Maggie once gave me one of the greatest compliment of my life: she said that even though I'm not originally from New York, I was "a New Yorker waiting to happen.") I love the art and culture and diversity and the food! And I love being the only white person on my subway car. (I should say here, because I can hear his protest, that Peter loves these things too; but there's a city temperament that I possess and a country temperament that he has, and they are just not the same thing.)

We moved from the upper west side of Manhattan to Brooklyn in 2002. I wasn't sure I was going to like it. I loved where we lived, but the landlord would just do these crazy rent hikes on us, and I agreed that we should buy a house in Brooklyn, which seemed like a compromise between Manhattan and the country. People would ask me: Do you miss Manhattan? I did -- for about 40 seconds. And then I became a Brooklyn convert.

We have the diversity of an international city and the luxury of having a garden. What could be more perfect?

But, here's where Brooklyn (at least, my little corner of it, called Windsor Terrace) has failed me: no good neighborhood restaurants or bars. Oh, wait. Let me reclaim that statement a bit. We have a fabulous Dominican/Mexican restaurant on our corner, Elora's, that I hope will never ever ever go away. But that -- until lately -- has been it.

The other week, Peter and I were coming back from a long walk in Manhattan and I said, "My life would complete if we had a really good neighborhood bar." We came up from the subway and there on Prospect Park West Avenue (what we refer to as "Main Street") was a brand new bar: The Double Windsor. They sell fabulous and diverse beers on tap. And it's cozy and it's not some place where females or people of color would feel out of place (which describes the other bars in my neighborhood).

Then, just last week, Peter comes home with a menu for the newest restaurant in our neighborhood: a French bistro!!!!!! Have I died and gone to heaven?

Today we had a just about perfect urban Sunday: the Times and coffee and Don't Cry Over Sour Milk Apple Cake for breakfast (even thought they left out the magazine section when they delivered the paper, grrr!); a little bit of work for me on my magazine and Peter in the garden; then a long six-mile walk from our house through several Brooklyn neighborhoods (where we stumbled upon a craft fair and I bought some beautiful earrings), across the Brooklyn Bridge, to Washington Square Park (where we attended a Meditate New York event at Judson Church); then on the subway back to our neighborhood, where we had a beer at the Double Windsor and ate at the new French bistro (Le P'tit Paris). Mussels and a hangar steak and a lovely conversation with our sweet waiter who is newly imported from Sacramento CA (one our favorite cities in California; he was so delighted we knew it).

I love this city. I love my life.

The Zen of Hanging Out the Laundry

It's been 50 years since I first read T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," as a callow youth in my high school A.P. English class, but much of it resonates with me today, as I lead my retirement life, far more than it did then. One line, in particular, came back to me this morning, as I noticed my thoughts while hanging out the week's laundry in our backyard:
"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons."

Hanging out the laundry has become almost a meditation for me. As I carry out this nearly mindless activity, my mind wanders and I follow that wandering with interest, noticing where it takes me. Today, I noticed that, as I often do after I've hung all the laundry, I was counting how many of my T-shirts and underpants I'd hung out, in this case, it was seven of each. Usually when I do this, I remark (to myself) on how many days it's been since we last did our laundry, but this morning, I found myself instead thinking that a week of my life had passed since I'd last hung out the laundry. From there my mind went to the line from J. Alfred Prufrock and I thought: am I measuring out my life with laundry loads?

Perhaps. For years, I've experienced a similar feeling of time passing every Fall and Spring when switching out storm windows and screens: "Another spring is here and a winter gone; didn't I just do this? Has it really been six months?"

Ironically, I've never really experienced the passage of time on those official occasions when we note them: birthdays and anniversaries. No, it's these periodic details of everyday life that seem to remind me that my life is passing.

On a more practical note: weather permitting, we actually hang out our laundry throughout the year, even on dry, sunny winter days. As the laundry hamper begins to fill, we check out the next few days' forecast and if it looks like we're going to have a mostly sunny day with a low likelihood of precipitation, we plan to do a laundry on that day. TIP: We actually hang our socks on an indoor drying rack, which is less time-consuming than pinning each sock on a clothes line. This has the added benefit of making it easier to match pairs and spot that a sock has "gone missing" and search for it right then and there.

We take great satisfaction in using solar and wind energy to dry our laundry instead of using our gas-dryer. (See The Clothesline Revolution.) And, I appreciate the opportunity to meditate, noticing where my mind takes me at these peaceful and otherwise mindless times.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

How We Compost

I used to be just like Therese and Peter, never wasting a bit of food. That is until we started keeping laying hens. Now, we toss them the potato and carrot peels, sandwich crusts not eaten by our children's friends, eggshells, and even coffee grounds. In the old days, I would have felt guilty for not turning that last slice of bread into breadcrumbs. Now I just think about how that slice will turn into an egg.

Before: Scraps from cooking and meals.
Giving our chickens coffee grounds with the hopes of creating the first Egg McZoomZoom.

After: It took our girls 10 minutes to peck the ground clean.
We use this "composted" soil in our garden.

Nothing is wasted.

Give Her a Foot

It has been documented that (while traveling) our children are adventurous eaters. Give Katharine a plastic baggie filled with fried pig bits and hominy and she'll be silent for 20 minutes. Fluorescent-colored foam in a cone? Graham is there. Their eating of the unusual extends to animals and insects that the rest of us might cuddle with or step on. Their been there, ate that list includes such creatures as, guinea pigs, ants, and termites, as well as whole lambs, cow innards, and various pig parts. When we returned home from our travels in South and Central America I had to set some boundaries, so to speak, that included no eating of residential ants and termites (who knows what poisons they're filled with) and the refusal to start raising guinea pigs for home consumption. Needless to say, I was a little taken aback during dinner the other night when Katharine put down her fork and said, "That's it. I'm not eating anymore. There is a caterpillar in my broccoli." Drat. I thought I had found them all.

In between bites, Graham says, "You know, I ate a worm once. It really isn't such a big deal"; and then resumed eating his dinner. Huh? OK, now I remember us eating all that other stuff, but for the life of me I couldn't remember ever eating a worm.

"Really? A worm? Where?" I asked.

"Oh, when Jack and I went fishing at the pond. We had one left over, it was little and pretty clean so I ate it. I think Katharine should eat that caterpillar. It's from our garden and it's cooked."

"No, I don't feel like it."

"I think you're chicken."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Am not! I just don't feel like eating a caterpillar now. Leave me alone!" And so went our quiet dinner.

Since returning home we've noticed that Katharine has turned into a picky eater, refusing to even try some foods based on nothing we can figure out. And I'm not talking about anything weird either. Roasted or mashed butternut squash receives a big 'no way, no thank you' yet she loves sweet potatoes. Green peppers cooked with tomatoes (both her absolute favorites as individual items) gets a fork poke and a squint-eyed once over. We're not sure if this is a phase she's going through or not. Although we don't pressure her, we can't help but ask how she could lick up lemon ants and devour guinea pig ears yet refuse to eat cooked zucchini.

Was it travel and our pronouncement before we left that everyone had to try the different foods we would encounter—no wrinkled noses or "eeww" noises—that caused her to taste and eat everything? Was it her shear competitive nature and desire to beat her brother in everything? Maybe this return to picky eating is her way of taking back control? Maybe I shouldn't be so hung up about this. Maybe this is a control thing and I'm the one with the problem? If that's the case, tough cookies. I will continue being in control and cooking the foods she refuses (we harvested over 100 pounds of squash this year, what choice do I have?) and will continue giving her a few bites of each (minus the caterpillars, of course). I'm sure one day her taste buds will turn.

Which brings me back to dinner last night. Katharine came into the kitchen to help cook. I let her poke around the broccoli looking for caterpillars while I prepared the chicken that Andrew and Graham had butchered earlier. Katharine stopped searching the broccoli for a moment and looked around the kitchen, "Hey, where are all the feet? There should be 12, right? Is Dad grilling them?" she peeked outside to check. "Oh good, I'm so in the mood for some grilled chicken feet." Okay, I surrender.

For more on our family and food, visit our South American travel blog.

Don’t Cry Over Sour Milk Apple Cake

I’m totally phobic about soured milk. I must have repressed memories of my mother forcing it on me as a child (“It tastes fine!”) because I practically convulse if I even think the milk suggests that it might in the next few days start to turn perhaps just a bit so that it may need to be replaced three days hence. Given the psychic/political/emotional/spiritual trauma I go through trying not throw out anything that remotely qualifies as food (see Saved From the Scrapheap), I have looked for ways to use the sour milk, rather than toss.

This recipe combines one I found googling “sour milk recipes” (here’s a link to the original recipe) with one from An Apple Harvest, a book my friend Barb gave me a few years ago, which has some nice recipes in it. One other reason I like this recipe is that it calls for vegetable oil vs. butter—which means you can make it on the spur of the moment. I can't tell you how many baking impulses have been thwarted by the fact that my butter is frozen solid (which maybe is not such a bad thing). This cake—sans nuts—is a baby-pleaser (if Paloma, my granddaughter, is any gauge).

Don't Cry Over Sour Milk Apple Cake 
1 cup + 1/2 tsp sugar
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp all spice or pinch of nutmeg
1/2 cup canola or other vegetable oil
1 cup sour milk*
1/2-1 cup chopped walnuts or other kind of nut (depending on how nutty you like your cake; can be omitted altogether)
1 apple**, any variety, peeled, quartered, cored, and then thinly sliced  
*Note 1: If you don’t have a full cup of sour milk, put whatever amount you have in a measuring cup and then drop in spoonfuls of plain yogurt until the liquid reaches the one-cup measure 
  **Note 2: You can use pears, peaches, plums, blueberries. Honestly, just about any fruit would work.  
1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour a 9x9 inch baking pan (or just spray it with a vegetable oil spray, which is what I do).  
2. Sift together: 1 c. sugar; all the flour, soda and salt; 3/4 tsp of cinnamon; and the all spice or nutmeg into a large bowl.  
3. Stir the sour milk into the flour mixture by hand, then mix in the vegetable oil until all the liquids are thoroughly integrated. The batter will be thicker if yogurt is part of the sour milk mixture. 
4. Fold in the nuts, if you are using.  
5. Scrape into the baking pan and smooth the top. Then layer on top the fruit slices in any pattern you wish. Mix the remaining 1/4 tsp. cinnamon and 1/2 tsp. sugar together and then sift over the top (I use a tea strainer for this).  
6. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to an hour. It will be done when the middle of the cake has some spring to it when you tap it, or if a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  
7. Serve warm, if you can, with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Saved From the Scrapheap (a Mild Obession)

I’ve said this before, but I grew up in a household where it was a sin—and I use that word with all the force of it behind it—to throw away food. That didn’t stop me (I was especially discreet at tossing the shoe-leather liver we were forced to eat once a month on the premise that it was good for our blood), but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel guilty about it. That guilt followed me into adulthood, where for the first twenty years of it, my way of dealing with food I no longer wanted to eat was to leave it to rot and mold away in my refrigerator so that I would have no choice but to throw it away—no guilt! (Ha ha! says the psychotherapist.)

In my 40s I married Peter, whose childhood lessons about not wasting food (we were both raised by people who had lived through the depression and a world war) dovetailed neatly with his propensity to be obsessive-compulsive about almost everything he does, and I found myself living with not only the ghosts of my Catholic childhood but also the Felix Unger of leftovers. Peter goes after saving food with the urgency of a medic on a battlefield. (Earlier this week he got me, protesting at first, to rinse all the mold off some olives that had been left festering in the back of the fridge. I have to admit that they were fine once washed, but I would never have done this on my own.)

Then I started seriously cooking and paying serious attention to food as a political issue, and the non-productive guilt I felt about wasting food turned into a creative drive and a personal imperative to use food wisely and respectfully—not just in the buying and cooking of it, but in the aftermath of the buying and cooking of it. The fact that we have two compost bins means that we are virtually assured of putting almost all our food matter to use versus waste. But the barrels get amazingly full very fast. And truly, if I put into the compost a potentially edible morsel of food, it bothers me. Couldn’t I have done something with that?

It would be inaccurate to say that guilt isn’t lurking as an underlying emotion here. And I will never be as zealous as Peter, who will try to save the one teaspoon of flesh from a tomato that has nearly completely rotted on the vine. (Sam was down here last week and saw me, in a fit of spouse-infection, actually trying to do this myself; he arched an eyebrow and said, “Therese — compost it.” Whew! Thanks, Sam for rescuing me from that vortex.)

But I’ve come to understand my save-the-food mentality as a kind of moral and political stance that I have chosen for myself: never take food for granted. In a practical sense, what I have done is turn the whole issue of food-use into a kind of cooking game: What do you do with [fill in food scrap name here]? (You can sing this to the tune of What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?)

So, from time to time, I’m going to use this blog to share some of the ways that I reuse food that might otherwise be headed for the compost. (I’m hoping Louise and Andrew will contribute their uses as well; and of course, readers of this blog are most encouraged to share their saved-from-the-scrapheap recipes.) I’ve already posted one recipe for what I call compost stock. Here’s one for the moldering food stuff that I hate the most: sour milk.

Monday, November 2, 2009

November Gardening in Brooklyn

Visits this past week from my son, Sam, who runs Poor Farm Farm in Vermont and our friends Otto and Olive, who live in Minneapolis, reminded me how relatively temperate our climate is here in New York City. Our visitors all gaped with wonder at ripening Roma, Beefsteak and cherry tomatoes still on the vines in our garden, not to mention the last of some of our other summer/early fall crops: peppers, eggplants and lima beans (which are still filling out).
Meanwhile, I’ve been monitoring the slow progress of my experimental plantings for late fall: several varieties of shell beans (for soups), Swiss chard, kale, carrots, turnips, cilantro, lettuce, mesclun mix, and a second planting of shell and snap peas. I’ve never before planted this late (mid-September and early October), so I don’t know if the combination of shorter and shortening daylight hours and overcast days will permit enough sunlight for these plants to mature before we get killing frosts (probably in early December).
Inspired by Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest, I’ve also begun my experimental plantings for early winter: some winter-hardy kales, collards, arugula, lettuce, and other greens. Some of these are already planted in regular garden rows, which I plan to cover with Reemay “garden blanket” when hard frosts begin. I’ve also planted some of these in the boxes in the wind-protected alley, where I’ll experiment covering with Reemay and/or Plexiglass.

Re-reading Coleman, I am struck again by the realization that so much of vegetable gardening is experimenting to see what works in one’s particular garden with its unique soil conditions and microclimate. I suspect that results also depend a great deal on annual variations in weather, plant diseases and pests, and even seed germination.
Stay tuned for the results of my experiments.

Getting Here From There

So our friends (the ones with the now dead chickens) were traveling in California for 10 days in October. The first four days they spent in and around the Mohave Desert driving motorbikes and camping. I received a crackBerry message from one of them that sounded like she was close to having a come to Geezus moment but the lack of private showers (she was the only woman) kept her on this side of sanity. From the desert, they flew north to San Francisco, where they rented motorbikes and tootled around northern Cal. I was jealous. Not of the motorbike part, but of the traveling in and around San Francisco part. Their trip got me thinking about how we arrived here—thousands of miles from the city I love the most—on this little farm, on a tiny spit of land between two waters.

It was a joint choice to leave SF, but mostly mine to head east. We were renting a house in the fog belt and were totally ready to buy, only there was one tiny problem: We didn't have enough cash to get us a place in the neighborhoods we liked. We're talking Riviera tastes on a Six Flags budget.

I had given birth to Katharine months earlier and was not in the best frame of mind. While Andrew trotted off to work on the other side of town basking in sunlight, the kids and I spent the summer in dreary fog, bundled up in turtlenecks and fleece. So one September morning, when I woke to see the sun shining brightly, I bounded out of bed and told Andrew I was going for a quick walk to the bakery and would bring back a fresh baguette. It was a glorious morning. Brilliantly clear, crisp and unusually quiet. I returned home by 6:30 am to the sweet sounds of Andrew and Graham chatting in the kitchen and the phone ringing. I was so high from my walk that the early morning call didn't phase me. I picked up and found my sister on the line. "Turn on the TV," she said, "a plane flew into the World Trade Center. The buildings collapsed." What? The sun was shining. It was a perfect morning. This didn't make sense.

As the week progressed and we learned that our cousin, who we were heading east to see in three days, never made it out of the building, I suddenly started feeling very far from home. I wanted to be back east where our families were. It was a decision totally based on emotion. A month later Andrew made another decision: He was quitting his job and would join me working from home. Scary thought, but the extreme politics and greed in his dot com office had finally gotten to him. Plus, he really wanted to spend more time with the kids. After some careful thought, we decided we could make the necessary sacrifices, learn to live with less, and be our own bosses.

But where would we live? I had proven that one could work from home successfully as long as there was an Internet connection. For several years I had worked with a company based in New York while I was surrounded by San Francisco fog. Moving back to New York City didn't interest either of us—we wanted our kids to grow up with some space. Neither did moving to Cape Cod where Andrew's parents were (winters and tourist season would be hell) or upstate New York where my parents were (winter, again). So Andrew starting googling and found a house that seemed to fit all our basic desires on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It didn't seem to matter that neither of us (in spite of living a year in DC) had ever heard of the Eastern Shore. The house called to us. So we checked it out. We spoke to the previous owners. We poked around the area. Next thing we know we were moving to the country. So here we are, seven years later. Our kids have space. They are learning about where their food comes from...like at this very moment. And now I suppose I'll come clean. I'm writing this as a way to remove myself from what's going on outside. That would be the Frankenbirds meeting the machete. I'm clearly not as brave or right-minded as Therese (see Killing Chickens At Home: Would You Do It? (PHOTOS). I couldn't end a bird's life, but I will cook her later. I'm just happy that the kids are out there helping. That should count for something. Right?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

At Last: Pumpkin Seeds Worth Eating

I had given up on saving and toasting pumpkin seeds. The hard, tasteless things never did it for me. Until now. I feel like I've stumbled on a secret long after everyone else. All those seeds from our pumpkins past tossed out while people around the country were munching away. No more. The secret? Boil first before toasting. We tested our toasted seeds by tossing them with different spices: Curry powder, cumin, or powdered habanero.

Recipe discovered on simplyrecipes.com.

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds


  • One medium sized pumpkin
  • Salt
  • Olive oil


1 Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut open the pumpkin and use a strong metal spoon to scoop out the insides. Separate the seeds from the stringy core. Rinse the seeds.
2 In a small saucepan, add the seeds to water, about 2 cups of water to every half cup of seeds. Add a half tablespoon of salt for every cup of water (more if you like your seeds saltier). Bring to a boil. Let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.
3 Spread about a tablespoon of olive oil over the bottom of a roasting pan. Spread the seeds out over the roasting pan, all in one layer. Bake on the top rack until the seeds begin to brown, 10-20 minutes. When browned to your satisfaction, remove from the oven and let the pan cool on a rack. Let the seeds cool all the way down before eating. Either crack to remove the inner seed (a lot of work and in my opinion, unnecessary) or eat whole.