It's Lent again. I say the word and I instantly think of the smell of fish sticks in the cafeteria on Fridays and the Catholic girls at school proudly abstaining from chocolate. At my house, in my church, we didn't do Lent. It was just a blank space between Ash Wednesday and the drama of Holy Week.
So it's been something of a culture shock to become part of a church that sees Lent as a chance to dig in and grapple with what it means to be in a relationship with God.
That last line is the perfect example. Where I came from people don't say that sort of thing. It feels presumptuous and a bit dangerous to talk like that. I half expected the computer to short out when I wrote it. And that's what Lent has become for me, a time to be vulnerable, to stretch my faith a little beyond what's comfortable. In recent years I've tried new forms of prayer, colored mandalas, attended chant groups, meditated, read, read some more and yes given up indulgences like TV and Mt. Dew.
This year my friend Kristina (check out her blog)invited me to join her in a creative project. The idea is to build on our church's theme for Lent, Listening to God. That makes me more than a little uncomfortable, so I've rebranded it as making time to appreciate what's around me. Ignatius of Loyola (there's evidence of that Lenten reading) said to find God in everything, so I think I'm on solid theological ground.
We couldn't decide if we wanted to take a photo each week, or write something short, so we decided to do both. We each take a photo and write a haiku (at least one) each week during Lent. These are then made into diptychs, her photo with my haiku and vice versa.
I haven't written a haiku since 6th grade English. I've never collaborated with anyone on a creative project like this. Will the results feel jumbled and confused, or will the mishmash make us see our own creations in a new light? I don't know, but that uncertainty has me really excited to give it a try. To quote Anna from Frozen "Don't know if I'm elated or gassy/ but I'm somewhere in that zone."
Without any further ado, here are week 1's diptychs:
We're expecting single digit temps overnight. My partner Z is wrapped up in not one, but three blankets on the couch, and I have turned on the heat in my office for the first time in a month. The weather may not realize that winter is over, but in my mind it's a thing of the past.
Back in February I dusted off the grow lights, poured some potting soil and planted some seeds. This was admittedly early, but I had two good reasons. One, was that I wanted to know if the seeds I had left over from last year were still any good. Many of them weren't. The second reason was less practical; I was ready to see growth! Life! Green!
Turns out I wasn't the only one. Jenna Woginrich over at the ColdAntlerFarm blog was eager for green too. She announced The Cold Antler Farm Snap Pea Challenge (click the link to see her great graphic). The challenge is simple. Anyone who wanted to join just had leave a comment on her blog and plant some peas on the 12th. The benefit (aside from the excitement of seeing that first millimeter of green emerge from the earth) is that you get to compare progress and methods with everyone else who joined in.
So here goes:
Planted: Amish Snap Peas from Seed Saver's Exchange. SSE and Annie's Heirloom Seeds are my favorite sources for seeds since they keep the old non-patented seed varieties going. I've read that the West Concord library branch has a seed library for patrons. Isn't that a great idea? When I make it over there I'll tell you all about it.
Soil: Commercial potting soil. I would have added compost, but mine is still frozen.
Light: Grow light. I have it on roughly 12 hours a day, but I'm not precise about it.
First Signs of Life:roughly a week after planting
Today roughly half the seeds I sewed have sprouted. The package didn't give any information about peas' preference in terms of moisture, so I've been watering daily. I have a spay bottle and I also pour water into the tray under the seed pots.
Those are the facts. Those are what I capture in my gardening log, with an aim of having something to look back on in the future. Those have nothing to do with what I love about gardening. Each year I take notes on what I do and what happens as a result, but whether it's the way I take these notes or simply that I'm not all that interested in the science behind gardening, I haven't managed to turn those notes into anything useful. Instead, I take photo after photo of each plant's progress, like the proud parent of a newborn. No one else sees anything worth grinning so widely about, but I smile at the way all plant chutes start out the same verdant chartreuse, the way peas come up looking like question marks that slowly unfurl into certainty as they reach for the sky, and the way tomato plants fill the room with scent as strong as any rose.
Unless I learn to delight in the soil and light needs of my various plants, I will never really progress as a gardener and get the vegetable yields I hope for; but for now I'm happy playing the part of proud plant mama.
I read several blogs written by people who live on small farms. There are many parts of their lives that I'm more than a wee bit envious of, but caring for animals in the winter is not one of them. Jenna Woginrich carries huge buckets of water across the icy side of a mountain, over and over again each day. Ben Hewitt and Jon Katz are often breaking ice with an ax, boot or whatever else will do the job, to ensure animals have water to drink. The Soules were recently out in the snow (OK in a barn) at 4 am to check on a sick cow. And then there's lambing...in the snow! (See Jon Katz, Kristin Nichols).
It's enough to make a person feel like a bit of a wimp for thinking "It's too cold. I'll talk a walk tomorrow". In fact, Katz' recently had a mini blog post that stated
It is very cold here, we took the dogs out for a walk at a nearby park, Red pays no attention to the weather, he runs out ahead and sits down and waits for us. I love walking, even in the cold.
He lives in upstate New York, so I'm sure it was freezing, and not the "very cold" of someone living in South Carolina.
That's when I started pulling jumbo, sealed, plastic bags out of the extra room we call "the attic". In these bags I found a bounty of knit wear (including some leg warmers I knit this summer), some socks originally bought for snow boarding, and an assortment of long johns. Even surrounded by all this gear (and a reflective safety vest), I still didn't have any urge to go out in the 16 degree air to check the mail, much less go for a walk. And that's when I thought of the bees.
I don't know what made me think of bees, unless it was the reflective vest's coloring, but I remembered something I'd read about how bees survive the winter. Bees cannot fly, heck they can barely move when the weather turns cold. In the autumn these symbols of productivity become docile and lethargic as the temperatures dip. However back in the hive (hopped up on honey), they can achieve summer-like temperatures by vigorously vibrating their bodies
If I wanted to be warm, I needed to get moving. Those first five minutes or so were going to sting, but soon enough I'd be unzipping my jacket, stuffing my mittens in my pockets, and laughing at all those folks trapped inside the confines of their homes on this sparkling day.
Ever since getting a pedometer, I've had the urge to measure how many steps (or even better miles) go into everyday events. Last week, as I eagerly anticipated a marathon night of Thanksgiving baking, I wondered just how many steps it takes to make challah, two pies, a cake and braised cabbage. A tiny part of me wondered if the distance would be enough to counteract all the pie dough and chocolate I was sure to sample in the process.
It seemed unlikely that the math would come out in my favor, but I liked the idea. Now I was conducting an experiment, testing a hypothesis to be exact, not just being nerdy with my pedometer. No, no, no. No nerdy number crunching here. What made it even better is that I won either way. If my hypothesis was accurate and I would ingest more calories than I burned while baking, then I'd be right. And that's winning. Just ask any five year old. And if my hypothesis was wrong and I burned more calories than I ate, well then my body would win, ergo I win again. I liked my odds.
Walk to store for ingredients. Wander store looking for candied yams = 770 steps, 0.25 mile, 90 calories
Walk back and forth from refrigerator, to cutting board on counter, to stove, to cook book and back again for several hours = 1510 steps, 0.58 miles, 738 calories
That's 2,280 steps, 0.83 miles, and 828 calories burned.
Now to compare that to the tasty nibbles I enjoyed along the way.
What? I didn't keep track?
I guess it's a good thing I'm not a scientist.
If you would like to conduct this experiment at home, you can replicate it using the recipes listed below. All have been thoroughly taste tested and approved.
This is a post I've been meaning to write for nearly a month, because it was about that long ago that I took a deep breath and said good-bye. I think each family has its rituals for marking the passing of the seasons. In some families these may be well documented and anticipated events (the Soule family of the SouleMama blog do this beautifully). In others they happen with no fanfare, aside from the occasional grumble while hanging plastic over the windows or removing fall's jetsam from the gutter.
In my household, I know that spring has truly taken hold when my partner comes in from work and after the customary hellos announces "It's first day of no-socks!" with a smile on his face and a wiggle of his Birkenstocked feet. At that point my sandals are usually already due for a wash, from being worn in New England's fifth season - mud. But Z's adoption of sandals is a sign that the warm weather is really and truly here to stay. The woolens get washed and hung to dry (like a reverse version of Christmas) and outdoor living moves into full swing.
As summer gives way to fall, I see Z return to his beloved black socks without a backward glance. I wait as long as I can to do the same (not just because I despise matching clean socks together, though that's part of it). Finally the day comes when only a fool would subject their bare toes to such temperatures and into the sink my workhorse Tevas go. Soaking in hot soapy water, they give up the dust from my garden, beach sand long trapped in the velcro, stains from popsicles that melted too quickly, as well as the scent of bug spray, chlorine and I'm sure plenty of sweat. Now they're tucked away like woodchucks and chipmunks, waiting for the return of warm sun and green grass.
P.S. If you enjoy picture books (or have kids in your life who do) I recommend the book A Flock of Shoes by Sarah Tsiang. It's sweet and really funny.
Smitten Kitchen. Orangette. Dinner: A Love Story. Remedial Eating. The Wednesday Chef. Eating from the Ground Up. These are food blogs that I read as much for the back stories, as I do for recipe ideas. So when I sat down to write about a salad and how a walk made it so much better, I automatically tried to write in a collective version of my favorite food bloggers' styles. I remember doing this rather well in college French when given the assignment to write in the style of Emile Zola, but then I was only immitating one author. And more importantly, today I prefer to sound like myself.
So I set that version aside and asked myself, what do I want to say about this salad? A couple weeks ago, my partner Z and I invited friends over to break in a new game that he'd received for his birthday. Our friends took care of drinks and dessert, Z picked up an assortment of sushi and I made the Corn + Avocado + Cilantro salad from Real Simple magazine.
Through the "magic" of modern food shipment, you could make this salad any time of year, but right now, in the heat of the summer is when it truly should be made. Local and in-season make a difference in the flavor, especially when a recipe only has six ingredients, and two are givens (salt and olive oil).
You start with the corn. Grab a cloth sac and get ye to your local farm or farmer's market for summer's gold. I'm lucky enough to live within walking distance of a farm stand where tomorrow's corn harvest can be seen over the shoulder of the cashier as you pay today. With its wrapper of green and jaunty tassles, corn is the only food that nature wraps like a present.
On the way back from the farm, stop at a grocery store and pick up avocados and limes, unless of course you live somewhere that grows these foods. One nice thing about avocados, is even though they do not grow in the northeast, and therefore have to be shipped long distances for our enjoyment (a "sometimes" food rather than an every day staple), there is no loss in flavor. Avocados do not ripen until removed from the tree, so unlike many other fruits and vegetables which are picked early to benefit the shipping process, but arrive with just a shadow of their potential flavor, avocados taste great several thousand miles later.
The final ingredient in the salad, as published, is cilantro. I neither like nor dislike cilantro, which means it's not growing in my herb garden, and I don't want to pay for a bundle and end up with a pile of leftovers. I was walking back from Wilson Farm when I bent down to nibble on some lamb's quarters growing by the side of the trail. The first bite is nearly tasteless, but then there's a wave of green, much like the taste of a cucumber with the peel left on. I decided to replace the cilantro in the recipe with wild lamb's quarters.
The walk home became a scavenger hunt. Whenever I saw a sprig I plucked it and added it to my sac of corn, feeling quite triumphant. Though lamb's quarters grow abundantly along the edges of farm fields, they are harder to find in wooded areas (like the one I was walking through). What does grow there, in abundance, is wood sorrel. This slightly vinegary herb is often mistaken for clover, but wood sorrel's leaves are tiny hearts, in that yellow sort of green associated with spring. I tried a bit of lamb's quarters with a sprig of wood sorrel and smiled. This tasted world's better than cilantro. In no time I had enough greens to complete the salad.
When I got home I gave the greens a careful wash and whirl through my salad spinner. I'd been careful to gather plants several feet away from the path, since it's a popular dog walking spot, but you never know. I ripped off the leaves and set the stems aside to add to my garbage pail vinegar (but that's a story for another post).
Corn + Avocado Salad
Shuck 4 ears of corn. Either boil them briefly or cook them on the grill, turning them frequently.
Once the corn is cooked and cooled, place an ear in a bowl and carefully cut off the kernels. Repeat with remaining ears of corn.
Chop one avocado and add to the corn.
Add lamb's quarters and wood sorrel leaves.
Pour in lime juice to taste (a tablespoon or two).
I've printed my donation page, charged up the iPod, checked the weather, and now all that I have left to do before tomorrow's Walk for Hunger is pack a couple snacks. There will be plenty of food available along tomorrow's route, both at tents set up for the event and in shops we'll pass along the way, but I'm trying to be smarter about what I eat, so bringing something from home is the way to go.
Last summer, in the middle of a discussion about fences (we were on a walk at the time) Z, my partner, asked if I'd like a dehydrator. I gave him a confused smile and said I had no idea what I would do with one. "OK. They sell dried pears at my work, and it seemed like something you'd like to make" he replied. I was intrigued, but still resistant to adding another gadget to our kitchen. Not long afterward I read Didi Emmons' book Wild Flavors, saw what she does with a dehydrator and knew I wanted one.
I've done a lot of experimenting with my dehydrator, but my current favorite things to make are dried pears (yes, Z knows me well) and fruit leather. To me, biting into a piece of fruit is a gamble. Will it be mealy, rubbery, squoosh like a worm or or make my eyes water? It's hard to know until it's actually on my tongue, exactly where I don't want something on its way to rotten to be. So, I tend to buy fruit, think about eating it, then feed it to my compost bin. I don't feel good about it, but it's what I do. The dehydrator solves this because it lets me take fruit that is over ripe (which I won't eat) and turn it into something sweet, healthy and consistently firm. My idea of the perfect fruit.
Wash the pears. I usually do 6-8 at a time to fill my dehydrator. The number will vary depending on your dehydrator's size.
Chop into slices roughly 1/4" thick. Some people peel them first since the skin will turn slightly brown, but then you lose fiber and probably some vitamins as well, so I leave the peel on.
(Optional) Toss slices in a bowl with lemon or lime juice. This keeps the pears from turning brown, but I often skip it since it adds a slight citrus flavor to the finished product.
Place in the dehydrator with room around each slice for the air to move.
"Cook" until dry to the touch with just a little bit of give. I like to put them in before going to bed. They're usually just right when I get up in the morning.
If you leave them in too long, don't worry. Just call them fruit chips and enjoy the crunch.
There appears to be no end to the possible variations of fruit leather. And unlike my childhood memories of failed sun-dried fruit leather, using the dehydrator the process is nearly fail proof.
In a medium size pot pour 1/4 cup water or juice. Heat on medium.
Add fruit (see below)
Stir occasionally. Cook roughly 15 minutes or until fruit is soft.
Puree the fruit. This is easier with an immersion blender, but a regular blender will do the trick.
Spray Pam (or similar product) on fruit leather tray - these came with my dehydrator
Pour the puree onto the trays. Spread to make an even layer roughly 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick
"Cook" until dry to the touch. I find it takes about 6 hours.
Rip or cut into pieces and store in an air tight container. On the rare occasion it isn't gobbled up in a day, I've had it stay good for several weeks.
Mixed frozen berries
Grapes (1 bunch) and apples (3)
Pears (6) with a dash of cinnamon and cardamom
I'm experimenting with fruit/vegetable mixes. I'll let you know if I find one I like
For my final snack tomorrow, I'm bringing something I've never tried before. Amanda Blake-Soule, author of several books and the SouleMama blog is making this the year of popcorn. Each month she posts a different topping recipe. Creating a new popcorn topping is actually on my To Do list for life (I'm serious), so I've read Amanda's posts with a big smile on my face. I finally found the nutritional yeast necessary for her Cheesy Herb Popcorn recipe, so I'll cook that up tomorrow morning, just before the walk. I have a feeling the results will be messy, so the great outdoors seems like the perfect place to give it a try.
Here are links to other walk friendly foods I've posted in the past:
Over breakfast each morning I check in on what's being knit in Toronto, the latest births and skills learned at a farm in upstate New York, what's on the sewing, baking and general beautifying agenda of a new mama in Portland OR, and all the adventures of a family of seven crafting a life on a farm in Maine. There are other blogs that I check in with from time to time, but these four always start my day. Their authors feel like friends in the way that characters in a book you've read a thousand times do. Only in blogland, there's the advantage of the story going ever on.
A very present part of that story is the changing of the seasons. I'm sure bloggers who focus on politics, science or similar pursuits don't take a quarterly break from their usual topics to comment on the changes happening in the natural world around them, but the sort of blogs I enjoy most certainly do. I remember September posts were rather uniform in content and December was full of the excitement (or longing) for those first fluffy flakes, but March is capricious. Come and see -
"It used to be that when March Break came along I'd swing into high
gear. (For my American friends "March Break" is our equivalent to
"Spring Break" except for we don't call it that on account of there's a
decent chance you'll spend it shovelling snow. There's an equal chance
that you'll be able to forgo the mittens, this time of year is
ridiculously unpredictable.) I don't know what all kids are like, but I
can tell you that my children had an agenda - or maybe it was really
just a commitment, to having the world in absolute chaos all around
them.... I was a pretty orderly mum to start with, but if you're
going to lock a load of winter weary people together for days of crap
weather, then you better start with a schedule of events, a strict
bedtime and a cookie cutter collection that includes a few dinosaurs and
maybe a moose."
"I take the milk pail and such inside and set all washables in the sink
and the big pail on the counter. Boghadair knows this canister and
starts rubbing his [feline] head on it. I am grateful for the 30th time it has a
tight lid. I run back outside with Gibson, literally run, because
I did it! I got nearly a gallon of milk from half an hours work! I run
around the yard with Gibson [the dog] to celebrate. I open my arms and he jumps up
into them and I feel like we have our own version of a touchdown, end
zone dance. Merlin [the horse] is watching this, totally unimpressed. He hollers at
us in his deep, British, voice and Jasper [the pony] just stares alert as a buck in
a field. His little white splotched body all taunt with prick ears and
wide eyes. I get to the work of morning feeding and soon every heckling
sheep, chicken, rabbit, goose, horse, and pig has nothing to say to me
but crunch, chomp, griiiiind, crunch, chooommmp, swallow, repeat. With everyone outside content I am finally free to see to the funnest job of the morning. KID TIME!
I let the kids [baby goats] out of the big dog crate and they pile out. Before they
can even think about peeing on my floor I scoop them up and take all
three outside with Nanny Gibson to keep an eye on them while I return
for their bottles. When I come outside I can see all of them jumping and
tumbling, Gibson frantic to restore some sort of order."
"When our plum tree blooms, there's no mistaking: Spring! It's here. We
cleaned up the yard. We went for walks past other peoples' yards. We got
frozen yogurt. We bought daffodils. We scheduled the window-washer
dude. He'll also de-mossify the roof. We turned off the heat during the
day and forgot to turn it back on at night. We talked about weather to
anyone and everyone. We went to the plant nursery. We closed the windows
when it turned out it was actually still pretty cold. We heard birds.
We saw birds."
This post has gorgeous photos full of colors you may have forgotten over the winter even exist.
"There can be no doubt that spring is on its way now. The maple syrup is
filling up the pantry shelves, I'm washing muddy floors every day, and
now this! We got the early morning post office call yesterday, and
quickly readied the brooder that will see a lot of action in the months
to come (there's a brooder schedule, yes indeed). It is nice, I dare
say, being in somewhat of a groove of things after a few years here now.
Our third spring on the farm, and everything is in place, with systems
only needing touching up here and there (thank you, duck tape and baling
wire, we love you so)."
These posts, full of everything from snowy forecasts to sleeping with the windows open, were all written in a week, March 11th through the 14th. It's a wonder-filled world indeed.
I'd like to close with a snapshot of March in my corner of the world.
Lexington, MA home of Ever Onward
The following video was shot in the same location last spring. The collection of maple sap is the first sign of spring in this area, even earlier than the arrival of Red-Winged Blackbirds and Snow Drops. Tthe silver buckets alongside the farm fields remind me that other unseen preparations for life are taking place under all that snow.
Each day when I get home from work, I hang up my keys, set down my bag and head straight to my porch to see what (if anything) has grown since the day before. I get down low and scan the tops of my many containers for any sign of green poking through the dark soil and compost mix. This is my first time gardening in any sort of preplanned, even remotely educated way and I'm both giddy and anxious to see some sign that I did it "right". Is there enough sun? Did I plant the seeds too deep? Should I have paid more attention to what the package said about soil type?
I was recently doing the same thing with a friend's six-year old son. We were walking around their garden to see what new plants had appeared after several days of rain. I told him about my after work routine and he laughed "You're Toad!"
"What?" Kids are well known for saying just what they think, but I couldn't imagine where this declaration had come from.
"I don't remember." It had been a long time since I'd read the series.
"Toad was in his garden yelling 'Grow' at his plants. Frog came over and said 'What are you doing? We planted them yesterday'".
Now it was my turn to laugh. I am most certainly Toad.
Thankfully, there is a harvest ready to be enjoyed today. This isn't one of those plants that people day dream about as they flip through seed catalogs on cold, wintry days. No, these plants are the embodiment of persistence, resilience and a sunny disposition. I think their very prevalence makes them all the more fun to discover as a food source.
Behold, my backyard bounty -
A bowl of violets and dandelion greens from my lawn; and a little thyme from my container garden. I've long been a fan of dandelions, but eating them? When I was a kid, my older brother convinced me that the "milk" in their stems was poisonous. This so-called knowledge made creating dandelion chain necklaces feel incredibly daring. Since then I've learned he was just messing with me, but hearing dandelion greens compared to arugula in bitterness scared me off all over again. However, dandelions as food are everywhere this season.
On Earth Eats they're cooking them up and debating whether or not they can actually be called a weed since they're useful. On Firecracker Farm they're gathering the blooms by the basketful and making fritters. In Taproot magazine they're using them to make dandelion vinegar, salads and medicines. It felt wasteful to ignore this bounty blooming all around me.
I'm not used to searching my yard for dinner, much less getting down low to find the youngest, mildest dandelion greens. As I picked them part of me didn't really believe I was going to eat them. But once they were washed and placed in my salad spinner, they looked like any other green. I hadn't planned to eat anything else from my lawn, but when I saw the purple violets I remembered all the beautiful cakes I've seen Alicia at Posie Gets Cozy decorate with them. And I'm sure I've seen Amanda at SouleMama cook with them too - maybe a garnish on her famous basil popcorn? Checking first for bugs, I tentatively bit into one. There was a slight crunch and sweetness, like sucking a clover flower.
I decided to add these home grown ingredients to my go-to after work dinner - a microwavable package of frozen rice and whatever veggies, nuts and beans I have on hand. I finished it off with a littel drizzle of balsamic vinegar and voila, the taste of spring!
I know January 1st is generally seen as a chance to hit the reset button on life, but last night standing in the darkened church of the Easter Vigil service, hearing story after story of love, grace and second chances, I saw the holiday in a new light. Instead of seeing it on the usual grand scale either of miraculous events thousands of years ago, or the celebration of new life unfolding around us, I saw in it a reminder that each of us can start over, at any time.
And so today is the perfect day to announce the new life of this long hibernating blog. The blog began as a way to write about walking and exploration. It still is, but I've realized those words refer to much more than the physical act of putting one foot in front of another and looking around. Each day can be an exploration of what life has to offer. With each new path I encounter, I can take a few steps down it, decide if it's where I want to be, and if not turn back, all the richer for the trying. This means the content of these pages will be a bit more varied, but the updates will be more frequent and the themes of slowing down, taking a closer look and and finding joy in the exploration will remain.
And now before you go, here's a glimpse of how people in my corner of New England have been getting ready for Easter.
Did you see that cute rabbit sculpture?
Don't these steps look like they have Easter eggs on them?