Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A potential problem

On Sunday afternoon the dog unearthed a rabbit nest, and then the kids gallantly saved two bunnies from a set of frothing canine jaws.

The word “saved” is ambiguous. Saved for what? To be butchered? To be fed to the dog? To die from starvation? Seeing as I don’t care much for rabbits, particularly the wild kind, I wasn’t too thrilled—whatever would we do when the bunnies grew into two adult garden-loving rabbits?—and I told them so.

But then I remembered the hours of fun I had with my friend Amber back when we were little girls and turned part of her barn into an animal hospital and spent hours trying to feed and coddle their viciously wild barn cats. It was so much fun to (try to) take care of those little kittens, pretending that their survival depended on our hard work and loving care.

Fast forward twenty-five years and here I was, my delighted children clustered around me, their hands cupping two, real-life, side benefits of country living, looking at me expectantly, hopefully. (It didn't escape me that I was being handed a free, hands-on educational experience, not that I was about to do any teaching).

"Go out to the barn and find a cage," I said. The kids gasped with surprise (am I really that strict?) and then yipped with joy and tore off to round up all the things that two little bunnies could ever possibly need.

When Yo-Yo came in and asked me to look online to see what bunnies eat, but I pointed him to the world books instead, telling him to look it up himself. He yanked the thick blue book off the shelf and ran back outside where I could hear him reading out loud about grasses and climate and such. Later when they asked for milk to feed the bunnies, I did find a little medicine dropper for them and show them how to wiggle the tip in behind the rabbits' clenched front chompers and gently squeeze the milk in, drop by drop, looking all the while for the occasional throat twitch that would indicate it was indeed swallowing. (Feeding the bunnies did tug on my heartstrings, just a little).

The children have been faithfully feeding the bunnies milk and slipping them bits of carrot and snap pea and cuddling them in all their free time, but then the inevitable happened: the littlest Bunny Foo-Foo died. “Are you sure?” I asked, going outside to investigate.

They lifted the bunny and hung it upside-down to show me how very dead it was. (Mr. Handsome thinks it had internal injuries—the dog, you know...)

“Okay, then, go throw it on the burn pile” (the burial ground for most of our dead, wild animals). They obeyed, no tears or drama whatsoever.

The remaining Bunny Foo-Foo appears to be thriving, jumping so high he bangs his head on the roof of his dog-carrier cage. The kids are determined to sell it for the bargain price of five dollars, but I told them I doubted they will have many buyers clamoring to snatch up their pet.

I’m not too worried about this potential problem yet, figuring I have plenty of time to let it work itself out before I will have to step in and make any decisions. I’ll let them nurse it back to health, raise it, and then, if it hasn’t taken a bite out of a child’s finger, died or escaped, we’ll deal with it then. They can play with their new pet as much as they like as long as they are gentle the the bunny, as long as they take turns holding it without fighting with each other (we're not doing so well on that one), and as long as they washed their hands with soap after each visit to the bunny's house, and as long as they keep it out of my house.

About one year ago: Work. (It looks like we won't be getting any blueberries this year---our local blueberry farm closed their PYO option after being open for only two days. I'm sorely disappointed and am taking this misfortune as a sign that we need to get busy and plant ourselves some blueberry bushes.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Salvaging the compost

The other day—

(You do realize that’s a euphemistic phrase, don’t you? It means that whatever I’m about to tell you happened a while back, perhaps a good deal of a while back, perhaps as long as a couple months back, but since I never got around to writing about it until now, and since I want my words to seem fresh, I say “the other day” because it sounds more recent (and more relevant) than “a couple ages and eons ago.”)

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, red beets.

The other day (maybe a week and a half ago, if you’re wanting the hard, irrelevant truth) I thinned out my beets. I don’t have a very big row of beets since no one else in my immediate family enjoys them, but I do plant a handful of seeds so that I have enough to eat some fresh, make a salad (or two or three), and possibly whip up a chocolate beet cake for a church potluck. Right about then, after feasting my heart out, I start to get sick of beets and begin to feel rather glad that there is no point in canning them since no one else likes them anyway. So I cheerfully, and without guilt, toss the large, woody beets that are still hanging out in the garden onto the compost pile, and move on to preparing and eating other foods, relieved to lay off the beets for another ten months until the next beet season swings around and provides me with the opportunity to glut myself once again.

So anyway, as I was saying, I thinned my beets. For the Amelia Bedelias among you, that does not mean that I slipped girdles on my beets to restrain their slowly swelling bellies, nor does it mean I took a knife to them, trimming their round frames into hourglass figures. It means that I went down the row pulling up the beets that were crowding too close together, making the row thinner, not the beets.

I’m guessing you probably already knew that.

Of course I couldn’t throw away the pulled plants, so I gathered them into a bowl and took them inside, intending to cook them up for my lunch.

I had planned to eat only the greens, but the little beets, some skinnier than a pencil, looked so yummy that I decided I would eat them, too. I cut them off and set them aside in a little bowl—I would boil them first and then serve them along with the greens.

It appeared that the only beet part I was going to toss out would be the red stems, but then I got to wondering if they would be good to eat as well. So I called my mom and she said, Sure, go ahead and eat them if you want; it certainly won’t hurt you.

I boiled the little beets in a pan of salted water till they were almost, but not quite, done, and then I added the stems. When both the beets and stems were fork-tender, I poured them into a colander to drain while I wilted my greens in a pan of hot butter. Once the greens were sufficiently cooked, I scooped them onto my plate, piled on the stems and little beets, and dug in.

It was a huge pile of roughage; I made it three-quarters of the way through before I called it quits. I had eaten salad for breakfast that morning, so I was feeling a little nervous about all that fiber flooding my system. Maybe there was a limit to the amount of salvaged compost that a human body could digest. Maybe I had overdone it. Nothing happened to me though, except that my cheeks turned rosy red, my fingernails lost their white spots, and my split-ends mended themselves. (My ears also grew a couple inches and my nose started twitching, but by the next morning those symptoms had vanished, so I think they were a fluke.)

Red Beet Greens

The greens from baby beets, about one large bowlful, or about 8-12 cups
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a large soup pot. Add the greens, salt liberally, and toss gently till they have wilted. Allow them to cook, uncovered, for three to six more minutes (the shorter amount of time for newer greens and a longer amount of time for the not-so-new greens).

Yield: Will feed one to two adults when served straight-up as the main meal (the gray fuzz that sprouts on the back of your hands will disappear within twenty-four hours), or it will feed four to six adults when served as a side dish, or, when tossed with a pound of cooked spaghetti and freshly grated Parmesan and served as a main course, it will be make a hefty main meal for four to six adults.

About one year ago: One freaky kid

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chapter Two: The Miss Becca Boo Reading Situation

Remember all that stuff I told you about how Miss Becca Boo still isn’t reading but she doesn’t seem to mind? The other day my friend Shannon watched my kids, and later she filled me in on a little interaction that transpired between Miss Becca Boo and Jalyn, Shannon’s daughter who just turned six and started to read.

Miss Becca Boo was sitting on the couch, absorbed in some books. Jalyn walked into the room and asked, “Are you reading those books?”

Miss Becca Boo said, “No, I’m looking at the pictures.”

Jalyn said, “Would you like me to read them to you?”

Miss Becca Boo said yes, the girls snuggled up together on the sofa, and Jalyn read the books to Miss Becca Boo.

“Did she act embarrassed?” I asked Shannon.

“Not at all,” Shannon said. “I was watching really closely because of the stuff you’ve said and I think she is either totally clueless or else she has amazing self-confidence. And I don’t think she’s clueless.”


Aren’t most people ashamed of (or at least subdued by) their inferior abilities, even at a tender age? By all accounts, Miss Becca Boo ought to be blushing with embarrassment and ducking her head in shame when a child younger than her can read books she can’t. (Mr. Handsome was a late reader and he knows firsthand the heavy shame that comes with falling behind.) But she’s not, and even though I’m grateful (of course), I’m also downright mystified.

While I know that some of our decisions (keeping her out of the school system and letting her learn on her own time table, to name two) have played a role in this, I am not naive enough to take all the credit. We did the same things with Yo-Yo, and before reading clicked with him, he articulated embarrassment about his inferior abilities. And I doubt she gets her confidence from me. I’m riddled with all the standard feelings of inadequacy and fight many a mental battle in the War of Self-Acceptance (excuse my drama).

Maybe Miss Becca Boo has a non-judging personality, one that allows her to accept herself and others. Maybe she’s just not aware enough yet to feel bad that she’s behind and once she does she’ll push herself to learn. Or maybe, irregardless of how far behind she falls or what anyone says, she’ll learn when she’s ready, no bad feelings involved.

I’ll have to wait a few more months till I can find out how this ends. It’s kind of like a real-life mystery complete with twists and turns and ah-ha moments, but minus the smoking gun.

The story isn’t over yet. Hang on for Chapter Three.

About one year ago: Brown Bread and Fancy Granola and French Chocolate Granola (the chocolate granola is well on its way to becoming a classic).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Another sketchy character

Here’s the other character sketch. Even though this sketch is part fabrication, those of you who know me will have no trouble figuring out who this is. I’ll just say this: I love this woman ... to pieces.


Chin Hairs and Chicken Noodle Soup

Mrs. Sarah Stoltzfus worries. She worries that the stove is leaking gas and spends long minutes adjusting the gas knobs and sniffing above each burner. She worries about botulism. Once when the venison roast was left in the crock pot all morning without being turned on, and even after she cooked it properly, she feared that it would kill them all and threw it out. They ate cold, left-over vegetable soup on top of the rice instead. She worries that the appliances aren’t properly plugged into the electrical outlets and that the plastic casings around the wires are wearing thin, so she unplugs certain lights each night before going to bed. She worries that she won’t notice the hairs that might begin to sprout out of her chin before important people have already seen them. She worries about the old chair by the kitchen stove that is painted with paint that probably contains lead, so she refuses to allow any cooking utensils to be set on it. She worries that her signature looks sloppy; maybe the cross for the ‘t’ has partly slashed through the ‘l.’ She worries that she’s getting old because flab hangs from her arms and she forgot to put the chicken in the chicken noodle soup. And she worries that she’s a heretic for wondering if God really did tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac or if it was just a figment of Abraham’s imagination.

About one year ago: Cake Extravaganza

Friday, June 26, 2009

The chicken that's been missing from your life

I love this. The kids love this. As for Mr. Handsome, well, this is what he said.

First, he said, with reflective tentativeness, “Wow.” Next, he added a bold, “Mmm.” And then he really let fly the culinary praise when he asked, almost peevishly, “Why doesn’t chicken always taste like this?”

So, there you have it. We’re sold.

Oregano, Garlic, and Lemon Roast Chicken with Potatoes and Asparagus
Adapted from Aimee's blog Under the High Chair

I didn’t measure my potatoes or asparagus. I used the last bit of asparagus that was hiding in the crisper, and ran out to the garden to dig up a couple potato plants—I was shocked to discover giant, fist-sized potatoes this early in the season.

The asparagus roasts up kind of soft, I think because of all the lemon juice. I thought I wouldn’t like it (since I don’t like baked asparagus—tastes too slimy for me), but it was great, the texture melded perfectly with the potatoes and chicken.

There did not seem to be many juices left in the roasting pan when I pulled the roasted chicken from the oven, but after letting the chicken rest for a few minutes and then after piling the veggies up around it, the juices oozed out, seemingly from nowhere. If you want a juicier chicken yet, you can add a cup of chicken broth to the pan the last fifteen minutes of roasting.

I’m going to be making the pesto-like rub and freezing it in little containers so we can eat this roast chicken year-round.

Leftover chicken goes great in a lettuce-cucumber salad.

1 chicken
3 lemons, divided
6-8 cups new potatoes, washed
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch spears
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more for seasoning
1 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus some extra
½ cup fresh oregano leaves
10 garlic cloves, divided

For the “pesto” rub:
In the canister of a food process, combine the following: the zest and juice from two lemons, four cloves of peeled garlic, and the fresh oregano. Process until the mixture resembles a nubbly pesto. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil, the tablespoon of salt, and the teaspoon of pepper and process till well-blended. Set aside (you may freeze it at this point, if you wish).

For the chicken:
Put the chicken in a roasting pan. Rub the garlic mixture all over the chicken: stuff it under the skin, right up against the meat, inside the chicken’s cavity, and all over the outside of the chicken. Bake the chicken, uncovered at 350 degrees for 1 ½ - 2 hours, or until done. (I check for doneness by wiggling one of the legs—if it moves easily, it’s done.) Remove the chicken from the oven, cover it with foil and allow it to rest for 15-20 minutes.

For the vegetables:
While the chicken is roasting, prepare the vegetables. Wash the potatoes, but do not peel them. If they are not uniform in size, cut the large potatoes into chunks the size of the smaller potatoes. Put the potatoes in a pan and cover them with water. Bring the potatoes to a boil and then simmer them until they are half-cooked (about ten minutes). Drain them and then put them in a large bowl.

Cut the third lemon into six wedges and add them to the potatoes along with the prepared asparagus and the last six cloves of garlic. Generously douse the vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle them with plenty of coarse sea salt and some black pepper. Toss to coat. Spread the veggies out on a large baking sheet.

Once the chicken has finished roasting, turn the oven up to 450 degrees and slip the baking pan of vegetables into the oven. Bake them, stirring once or twice, for 10-15 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender and the vegetables are beginning to caramelize.

To serve:
Mound the vegetables up around the roast chicken and serve.

About one year ago: Lemon Donut Muffins

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One whole year

One year ago today I took the blogging plunge. It’s been quite the ride. I started with one blog and now have six (mostly just reference blogs—food indexes and such). I’ve clicked “publish” more than 300 times. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, and I’ve spent countless hours thinking, composing, and editing. I’ve written about everything from airing my dirty laundry to laundry detergent, from husbands to husbandry, from feminine issues to feminism, from birthdays to birth stories, from tearing up the creek to tearing up the town, from smashed fingers and gashed heads to smooshed apples and smashed potatoes, from dumb mistakes to dumbness, from haircuts to hairy issues, and all the stuff in between, most of which has been recipes.

“Detailing the minutia of my existence in a determined effort to make it more enjoyable—for me” is the phrase I came up with to describe this blog (you can see it in the upper right hand corner by my blue shoes). Has this blog served to make me enjoy my life more? Hm, I would have to say yes....and no. Let’s start with the no.

I don’t think my life is any more enjoyable than it used to be. The Daily Drudge—paying bills, buying milk, emptying the dish drainer, washing peed-on sheets, kneading bread—has not been transported to a level of rhapsodic ecstasy. Those parts of my life are still just as dirty, messy, draining, and boring as they were pre-blog.

The truth is, the act of writing this blog can be quite draining, too. I struggle to finagle the time to write, and the constant pressure to get the words out (a mental sort of constipation, if you will) can make me irritable. Furthermore, I mentally fly away to another world when I sit down to write, a world of cool phrases and thought-provoking ideas, and this being-here-and-yet-not-being-here state of being can cause my immediate family members to develop a case of Blog Resentmentitis. I do see the irony.

And yet, I need this creative outlet, or rather, I need a creative outlet; if I didn’t have the blog, I would have something else, and whatever that creative outlet is (be it teaching Sunday school, mentoring a teen, being a foster parent, making cheeses), it would be accompanied by the same tensions and frustrations that come with this blog. This is how life is, one giant balancing act complete with Give and Take, Push and Pull, and maybe, if you’re lucky, some clowns thrown in for good measure.

This blog has provided me with a space to be creative, my artist’s palette, so to speak, and for that I am grateful. I love the satisfaction that comes from arranging words and photographs into a shareable format; I love hearing back from people that appreciate my work; and I love, love, love learning that my work has been meaningful to somebody. (While I like writing for the sake of writing, you, my dear readers, and your comments have been the icing on my bloggy cake. So here’s a big bear hug to all of you who read my blatherings, and here’s a giant bear hug to all of you who blither right back at me. Thank you!)

This past year of blogging hasn’t been all roses and it hasn’t been a magic cure-all to my mild malaise, but it has provided me with a platform from which I can soapbox to my heart’s content, and boy oh boy, do I like to soapbox. So I think I’ll stick with it, this thing called a blog, continuing to teeter-totter my way through as I try to find the balance between living my life and writing about my life.

Year Number Two, here I come!

One year ago: Reasons for blogging

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

There's a red beet where my head used to be

Commenter S just informed me that the reason I'm having trouble shelling my peas is because they are snap peas and snap peas are not meant to be shelled. Oh. Oh?


I can not believe that I spent hours upon hours upon hours shelling snap peas.

Do you know how sick this makes me feel? Do you know how utterly embarrassing this is?

I am totally and extravagantly mortified. I actually thought of deleting my pea-shelling rant because it makes me look like (nay, it shows that I am) a complete fool, but then I thought, no, I’ll leave it up there so that everyone else can feel good about themselves because I’m sure no one out there has every done anything that totally stupid. I mean, who would ever try to shell their snap peas?

I can not believe I did that.

I’m still presenting a pretty stoic front about the whole thing, still pretending that I'm normal; wouldn't want to frighten any little children or faithful bloggy readers, you know. I want to laugh, but I’m afraid that if I crack my carefully arranged facial expressions I might just dissolve into a puddle of blubbering snot. Then again, I might laugh so hard I pee myself. It’s a toss up at this point.

Though I appear calm and placid on the outside, my emotions are going haywire (as if you couldn't have already guessed that). I picture my emotions as little men (funny they’re not women) romping around inside my brain. They make lots of noises, too. Right now the predominant sounds are chokes, gasps, high-pitched giggles, jeers, chortlings, and moans, and under all that commotion is the steady slap, slap, slap, the sound made by many little hands striking against many little foreheads, repeatedly and in unison.

Crap. Not only did I inadvertently broadcast what a fool I am to the whole entire world, but now that I’ve spilled the beans (or maybe the peas) about the little men housed in my head, I’ve proved that I’m also certifiably crazy. Hi! Ima Cray Zeful. What’s your name? I have no shame.

Due to heightened feelings of vulnerability, I’m laying down some ground rules for comments to this post: You may only post a comment (and I do screen them after all) if you deign to share a gardening blunder of your own. If you haven’t made any gardening mistakes, then just make one up, okay? (Oh, and I’m also open to advice on what to do with all my hull peas that are now snap peas.)

Let the healing begin.

A Subdued, Contrite, and Humbled Home Gardener
(otherwise known as Ms. Beet Head)

A public service announcement

Never, never, never, under any circumstances whatsoever, buy Amish Snap peas.

You know how hull peas are supposed to make a satisfying pop! when you squeeze their fat bottoms with your thumb? Well, there is no pop to be found anywhere in these peas. In fact, the only thing that happens when you give them the butt squeeze is that the butt tears off. The best way to get the peas out, I’ve learned, is to tear off the heads of the pods and string them, working from their heads down their curving backsides. Then, oh wretched Extra Steps, you flip the pods around in your hand and pinch their butts. This method might work if you could string them the whole way to the end, but more often than not the strings disappear halfway down the pods so that you still have to use both thumbs to carefully split open the pods. And the pods still shred and rip.

And you know how you’re supposed to scrape the peas out of their pods with one deft swipe of your thumb? There is nothing deft about scraping these peas out. On the rare occasion that you open a pod and keep it intact, the little peas cling fiercely to their umbilical cords so that it often takes two fingers, plus lots of valuable time, to wrestle them out. More often than not, you end up picking each pea, some of them smooshed, out of bits of mutilated pod.

The Amish Snap peas also cause marital strife, something that the writers of the Seed Saver Catalog failed to mention. I’m pulling the still-producing, worthless things out by their roots today.

These peas are bewitched, I tell you. Beware.

A Pissed-Off Home Gardener

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In honor of Father's Day: The Giant Green Slug

Fact: It is hard to keep your balance with a giant green slug on your head. Mr. Handsome knows this firsthand because he tried it.

Preamble: Parenting does not come natural. When people say, “I just can’t do it! It’s too hard,” and then look at us like we’re from a different planet since we have four kids and we homeschool them, I want to tell them this little fact: It is hard, and it doesn’t come natural. All parents—and maybe some more than others (we belong to the “some” group)—make bumbling fools of ourselves in the process. It takes awhile to find The Parenting Rhythm (not to be confused with The Rhythm Method). It’s super tricky to find the middle ground (not to be confused with “selling out”) between Being Yourself and Being A Parent. But it can be achieved... for about two pointy-toed steps, and then the wibbling-wobbling starts back up again. Oh, the joys of parenting!

Introduction: What follows is a little story about Mr. Handsome finding his balance, slug and all. It’s an awkward story, one that show’s Mr. Handsome’s gangly edges, but rest assured, he doesn’t fall off the edge and get squashed by the slug. After a little faltering, he reorganizes his principles, chucks the slug, and regains his balance (and some common sense). And he laughs about it now. He’s a good sport (in my meaner moments I might add, “Because he’s had a lot of practice”, but I’m feeling kind now, so I’ll bite my tongue and keep the peace).

Miss Becca Boo and Mr. Handsome working out their balancing act.

(By the way, this is an excerpt from our book. And remember, the setting is Nicaragua.)


Mr. Handsome refused to use disposable diapers. Ever. When Yo-Yo was born, the hospital staff put him in a disposable, but as soon as we had Yo-Yo in our care, Mr. Handsome switched over to the cloth diapers, safety pins, and rubber pants that my mom had sent from the States. I, too, thought disposables were an awful waste, filling up landfills all over the world, taking decades to decompose. How much simpler (and more satisfactory) to wash out the rectangular cloths every few days and bleach them dry in the tropical sun. An added bonus was that the poop, once solids were being consumed, could be tossed in the dry latrine and reused as fertilizer after it decomposed.

I was thankful that I had a husband who didn’t baulk at the diapers and laundry, who understood that the extra work was worth it. So we martyred through the first couple months of Yo-Yo’s life, changing him about a dozen times a day and several more at night, proud of the upright life we were leading.

Then, when Yo-Yo was two and a half months old, our whole MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) team had to make a two-day bus trip to get to Guatemala for the regional retreat. Afterwards, Mr. Handsome and I were planning on attending language school for a couple weeks to brush up on our Spanish. I told Mr. Handsome that I thought we should take disposable diapers. He was horrified, “And spend all that money?”


“Disposables cost way too much, like five dollars for twenty!”

“But honey, MCC pays for them. We don’t need to worry about the money, and besides, it’s an MCC function, so they can help us out. I don’t want to lug around all those cloth diapers on our bus trips! And where do you think you’re going to wash them and hang them out? And when? We’re supposed to be in meetings and studying?”

“I’ll figure something out. Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Fine. You can be crazy if you want. But it’s all your problem. I’m not helping out one iota, and don’t you dare ask me to do any of it! Got it?”

I was perturbed. I thought we were using cloth diapers because we wanted to save the environment; I didn’t realize that saving money was what was motivating Mr. Handsome. Somehow that didn’t seem as noble. And I was mad that he insisted on being insane. I was positive that I was right, but there was nothing I could do but let him find out for himself.

It only got worse. Mr. Handsome and I packed a couple backpacks for ourselves, and then he packed the largest duffle bag we had, an enormous green slug of a thing. He filled it with all seven dozen of our cloth diapers, a medium-sized plastic tub for soaking/washing the diapers, some bars of hard laundry soap and a container of the powdered detergent, rope for a wash line, and a big bag of clothespins.

I could hardly bear to watch when it came time for Mr. Handsome to drag the bulging monster of a bag out of the MCC gates and down the front steps. The taxi driver had to get out to help heave the bag into the trunk. I watched enviously as the other MCCers skipped along with just one bag slung over a shoulder (including the other couple that also had a baby), while I struggled to manage our own two backpacks and the diaper bag and Yo-Yo. The others all piled into the taxis, squishing in together. We, the rich, loaded-down gringos, filled our taxi all by ourselves.

In San Salvador we spent the night in the bus station’s hotel. Mr. Handsome had by then rearranged the bag’s contents so that he could carry it on his head and wear one of our backpacks. He looked crazy.

When we finally got to the Chiquimula retreat grounds, we were informed at the registration table that the planning committee had debated whether or not to put the parents with young children in the hotel-like rooms that had just been built, or in the cabins and cottages with everyone else. The good thing about the new facilities was that they were secluded and modern; the bad thing was that they didn’t have running water yet. I watched as Mr. Handsome had an internal hissy fit; my smug smile refused to stay hidden.

When we got to our room, I couldn’t help pointing out to Mr. Handsome that the rooms were fabulous and that the other parents didn’t seem fazed in the least bit. Mr. Handsome stomped around, hissing under his breath so that the people next door wouldn’t hear of our absurd problem. “How can they have a retreat with no running water? This is so stupid! What are they thinking?” He stormed outside to a grove of trees where he rigged up a clothesline, and then went off in search of some running water, a couple plastic bags of dirty diapers and the bag of detergent in the tub under his arm.

Mr. Handsome fell into a rhythm of washing diapers every morning and folding them in the evening. I pretended not to notice when he was late for breakfast or the first session, but I was pleased to note that he was late. Just like I had told him he would be.

One of the other MCCers, an experienced older woman who had birthed two children in Central America, saw our diapers hanging on the line and told us that oh yes, after her baby was born she refused to use disposable diapers, but then they went on a trip with cloth diapers and she vowed never to do that again, lugging around all the extra baggage on over-crowded buses was way too difficult. Mr. Handsome listened quietly, beginning to catch on, I hoped.

Retreat over, we set out for Quetzaltenango, a beautiful city situated above the clouds. Our host family was kind, but right away we noticed that they had only several small clotheslines in the tiny courtyard. Once again Mr. Handsome went about setting up shop. The first morning he tried to wash out the diapers, his fingers about froze off, the water was so chilly, and the diapers turned to sheets of ice as soon as he hung them up. That evening they still weren’t dry since they had received no sun and the day was damp. We tried to drape them over the night table and chair that were in our room, but they still hadn’t dried by morning. So that afternoon Mr. Handsome packed up the cloth diapers, shoved them into the giant green slug, and went to the market to buy some disposables. On the second try he purchased the correct size, and we both (Mr. Handsome’s an agreeable loser) gloated over how convenient they were.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rainy day adventure

The garden has stressed me out this spring. Actually, it’s not the garden that’s stressing me out, but the fact that I have not been able to get into the garden due to the incontinent skies. It’s been raining almost every day, often in the afternoon. It reminds me of the three years that we lived in Nicaragua, a country (that used to be) filled (until we cut most of them down) with rain forests.

I have an announcement, people: Virginia weather is not supposed to emulate the weather patterns of a rain forest. It’s kind of freaky.

Anyway, so it rains and rains and rains and rains. And the weeds in the garden grow and grow and grow and grow. And then it stops raining for a day and the ground starts firming up a bit and I get all excited because I think that the next day I’ll be able to actually get out there and wield a hoe....but then it rains again.

I think I spied a banana plant shooting up among the asparagus fronds.

We did have two days without rain this past week (I think it was Sunday and Monday), and so on Monday I worked in the garden till noon and then when Mr. Handsome came home he took his turn, walking behind the bucking tiller, inspecting the plants, weeding. The next day it rained all day, continually. But I felt a little better.

Well, um, I should say I felt a little better about the garden since we had gotten a chance to rein (ooh, bad word) it in a bit, but the heavy skies and cool temps were a real mood-damper (eek!). I piddled. The kids hovered. I felt itchy-crazy under my skin and my voice acquired a note of panic. But I breathed deep and tried to pretend that we hadn’t all been really piled on top of each other for the past seven hours. And then I made myself walk out through the gentle rain to the garden to pick some chard for supper. That was nice.

And then I went back outside for an onion. And basil. And parsley. And oregano. It was better than nice; it was kind of fun. I made splashing sounds as I slogged through the grass in Mr. Handsome’s flip-flops, making the little trips out to the garden kind of like an adventure. And goodness knows, I sure needed an adventure.

I whipped up such a delicious dinner—a culinary adventure of the best sort—that I felt better for a little while. And then we had a family movie night because we had to have some type of reward for making it through a day like that, and because not everyone in my family would call Swiss chard rolls a reward.

There were lots of leftovers so I had the privilege of discovering that chard rolls make fantastic leftovers. I ate these rolls for five meals straight, not counting breakfast. I looked forward to each meal, and I was sad when I ate the last one.

Swiss Chard Rolls
Wildly adapted from the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites Cookbook.

These rolls scream for creativity. I used the ingredients I had in my kitchen (and garden), but you can switch them up, substituting fresh tomatoes for the dried (or canned), dried herbs for the fresh, different grains (bulgur, couscous, orzo, white rice) for the brown rice, and ground beef, ham, or bacon for the sausage. Or you could omit the meat all together.

The original recipe suggests two different fillings for the rolls, neither of which call for meat. The first is a mushroom filling with celery, marjoram, mushrooms, cooked bulgur, dry sherry, soy sauce, dill, thyme, currants, and lemon juice. The second kind is a simple cheese filling involving leeks, scallions, cottage cheese, and basil.

12 large leaves of Swiss chard
2-3 cups cooked brown rice
½ cup cooked sausage
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup oven-roasted tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 pint stewed tomatoes
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ - 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Wash the chard and cut out the central stem. Stack the leaves of chard on top of each other and loosely roll them up. Place them in a steamer and steam for a couple minutes, or until the leaves are bright green and wilted. Drain the chard and set aside.

In a saucepan, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil till translucent, about five minutes. Set aside.

Strain the pint of tomatoes and reserve the juice. Set both the tomatoes and the juice aside.

In mixing bowl, combine the rice, sausage, sauteed mixture, the fresh herbs, roasted tomatoes, ricotta and cheddar cheeses, and the salt and pepper. Taste to adjust seasonings (do not under-salt the mixture).

Grease a casserole dish (a 9 x 12 was a little too big for the amount I had, so I used my 7 x 11 pan). Pour the drained tomatoes into the dish and spread them out so they cover the bottom of the pan.

To assemble the rolls:
Being as gentle as humanly possible, separate the leaves of chard and lay them out on a work surface.

Pull the leaves together so the gap from where the stem used to be no longer shows. Place about ½ cup of filling in the center of the bottom part of the leaf.

Fold both sides up over the filling (it will not cover the filling). Fold the bottom part of the leaf up over the filling, and then, working up from the bottom of the leaf, flip the ball of filling over a couple times till it is completely encased in the leaf.

Repeat the process until you run out of either the steamed leaves or the filling.

Place the rolls with their seam-sides down on top of the stewed tomatoes. Pour the reserved tomato juice over of the rolls. Sprinkle the leaves with some more salt and pepper.

Cover the dish tightly with tin foil and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. About ten minutes before the rolls are done baking, remove the pan from the oven, take off the foil, sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the rolls, and return to the pan to the oven, uncovered, to finish baking.

Serve the Swiss chard rolls with some crusty bread.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Under the right circumstances

I told you I would post about this Strawberry Margarita Pie, and now I wish I hadn’t promised that because I have other, more pressing things (chicken, cherries, and cheese—but I’m not making any promises), to write about. However, a promise is a promise, so here’s the pie, coming at you.

This pie (more a cake, in my mind) is not something I’m going to whip up all that often, and that’s possibly the reason I’m dragging my feet when it comes to giving you the recipe. It’s not that I don’t like the cake; on the contrary, I think it is delicious. It’s just that it’s not a very practical recipe: my kids can’t eat it (though they beg for bites) and many of my friends and family don’t like the taste of alcohol. Also, it’s not the type of thing that you want to eat with an afternoon cup of coffee, so I don’t get around to eating it, choosing instead to eat pastry-type goodies (like those white chocolate and dried cherry scones) with my coffee.

So, under what circumstances would a person like me want to make this cake? It would be perfect for a summer evening gathering of giggling girlfriends because, after all, it’s pink.

Strawberry Margarita Cake
Adapted from Cookie Baker Lynn's blog

No baking is involved—a plus for a summertime dessert.

I make my graham cracker crumbs by blending the crackers, a few at a time, in the blender.

The alcohol flavors are not disguised in any way, so if you don’t like alcohol, this will not be your thing. But the opposite is also true: If you like alcohol, then you will most certainly adore this cake.

2 cups strawberries, washed, hulled, and sliced
10 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 3/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
½ cup butter, melted
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
7 tablespoons tequila
6 tablespoons Triple Sec
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 cups whipping cream
More sliced and sweetened berries and sweetened whipped cream, for garnish (optional)

For the crust:
Stir together the graham cracker crumbs, the melted butter and 6 tablespoons of the sugar. Press the crumbs into the bottom and up the sides of a greased, 9-inch springform pan.

For the filling:
Whip the cream until it forms stiff peaks. Set aside.

Put the strawberries, remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar, the milk, liquors, and lime juice in a blender and blend until combined.

Pour the strawberry mixture into a mixing bowl and beat in one-third of the whipped cream. Once combined, whisk in the remaining whipped cream. Pour the filling into the crust, cover well with plastic wrap, and freeze till solid.

To serve:
Run a knife around the edges of the pan and remove the side. Serve each slice of cake with sweetened sliced strawberries and extra whipped cream.

Yield: 8-16 servings, depending on how you hold your liquor.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Staying on track

You guys hold such power over me. You know that, right? It’s like I’m a puppy on a chain, and you hold the other end. Sometimes you yank my chain just to see me bark. Other times you tie me up to a tree and walk off, leaving me alone to howl at the moon. Sometimes you relax your grip, content to let me take you for a zig-zaggy hike through the bunny trail-infested woods, and other times you take a firm grip on the chain and strike out on a path of your own choosing, expecting that I’ll trot along faithfully at your heels, which I do, wiggly-waggly hindquarters, puppy dog eyes, and all.

Zoe grabbed hold of my chain this morning when she asked how I freeze spinach. I was going to talk about something else, but well, once my tail commenced to thumping, I (almost) totally forgot what I was going to say.

I had planned to tell you about freezing spinach, like four weeks ago. In fact, I had taken pictures of the whole process, but then I decided not to write about it after all. Another bunny must have run in front of my snuffling nose.

Thanks, Zoe, for getting me back on track.

How to Freeze Spinach

Wash the spinach, and lay it out on a bath towel to air dry. There is no need to get it totally dry; you are going to steam it, after all.

Steam the spinach. I do this by putting about an inch of water in my steamer, keeping the water below the level of the spinach because I don’t want to boil the spinach. I then stuff the steamer with as much spinach as possible.

I clap the lid on the steamer and let it steam till the spinach is bright green and wilted (once in a while I gently toss the spinach with a pair of tongs so that it steams evenly).

Transfer the spinach to a colander and allow to drip-drain.

Now, my mother taught me to lay the spinach out, piece by piece, on cookie sheets lined with plastic wrap, repeating the process till I had two or three layers of spinach, each layer separated with a sheet of plastic wrap, and up until this spring this was how I froze my spinach (although the last time I did this I made the mistake of using wax paper instead of plastic wrap and the spinach froze to the paper and I had a dreadful mess on my hands).

Then I would put the trays of spinach in the freezer until the spinach was frozen solid, and once the spinach was frozen (it took about an hour), I quickly transferred the stiff leaves into pint-sized plastic bags.

But then Mr. Handsome walked into the kitchen while I was painstakingly putting the individual leaves of spinach into bags and asked, “Why do you lay the spinach out like that? Why don’t you just stick it into a bag?” I didn’t know. So I called mom and asked her, and she didn’t know. So I called my girlfriend Amber and she said that she just freezes it in 10-ounce portions since that’s how it’s sold in the store and that’s the amount that most recipes call for. So now I do it Amber’s way. It’s easier and it takes up less freezer space, too.

I realize there's more than once way to slice an onion, so ... how do you freeze spinach?

(Click here to learn how I freeze Swiss chard.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

To share with friends

Beeeeep. The computerized woman on my Balding Brother’s answering machine had finished its speech about all the possible ways I could get in touch with my brother and was now giving me a turn to talk.

“Hey guys. It’s me,” I said, with characteristic informality. “We’re making ice cream right now and wondered if you would want to come over to help eat it. We are going to try to get the kids to bed early tonight and it is 6:30 now, so that means you can stay till about, oh, say 7:30. If you get this message, call me back; otherwise, too bad for you—you lose out.”

My sis-in-law called back five minutes later. “We were outside eating supper when you called. What time should we come?”

Since I was feeling a little bad (but only a little) about feeding my children just ice cream for supper, I threw the leftovers from the previous night's supper into a glass serving bowl, heated them up in the microwave, and then carried the bowl out to the porch where my kids were excitedly greeting our guests and devouring the sweet cherries that my sis-in-law had brought along. I fork-fed my little birdies while trying (rather unsuccessfully) to carry on a conversation, and ended up eating much of the bowl’s contents myself. It was the brown butter noodles and peas, so I didn’t mind too much.

When Mr. Handsome finished with the cranking, I headed back inside to load up a tray with serving bowls and spoons, the bowl of freshly sliced and sugared strawberries, and the jar of granola.

We dug in, scooping the soft ice cream into our bowls, piling on the strawberries and then finishing off the whole glorious mound with a couple scoops of granola.

A storm was coming; the flies were thick. We had seconds, and I finished off the scrapings from the bottom of the canister.

“The rain is coming!” Miss Becca Boo yelled. “I can hear it!” Sure enough, the rain was coming from the north, sweeping down the valley towards our house.

As the wall of rain washed over our house, my brother grabbed the diaper bag and my sis-in-law grabbed the baby. “Just set our bowls out in the yard to wash them,” my brother said, and then they sprinted to their car, the rain pelting them every step of the way. It was 7:30 on the dot.

(Mr. Handsome took advantage of the water streaming from the rain gutters, using it to rinse out the ice cream canister.)

Old-Fashioned Vanilla Ice Cream

Summer evenings when I was growing up, my parents would call up some friends to come over for homemade ice cream. It was the real deal—mostly cream with some milk, raw eggs, sugar, and vanilla. We usually made plain vanilla ice cream, choosing to serve the toppings (usually fruit and granola) separately, but once in a while they cranked the crushed fruit into the ice cream. That was about as fancy as it got.

Nowadays, people make their ice cream fancy-schmancy, with add-ins of every type—real vanilla beans, saffron (I tried it and it made the ice cream look and taste vaguely like poop), cream cheese, chocolate, peanut butter (I have yet to tell you about this one)—and because everyone is concerned with salmonella, almost all the recipes instruct you to make a cooked custard for your base. I thoroughly enjoy the rich, store brand-type ice cream with its custard base, but those ice creams don’t have anything over this old-fashioned, soft serve-style ice cream.

This ice cream is best eaten fresh (once frozen it becomes rock hard and loses much of it’s charm), and because the recipe makes a fair amount, you’ll probably want to call some friends to come share in the feast. If you do end up with leftovers, freeze them in little one-cup containers—they will be delicious in smoothies.

1 quart cream
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer for 2-4 minutes until thick and creamy. Add the sugar, vanilla, and milk and beat some more. Add the cream and mix to combine. (Conversely, you can mix all the ingredients together with a whisk and then pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any little bits of unblended egg yolk.) At this point you can refrigerate the mixture till you are ready to freeze it, or you can freeze it right away.

Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions. Serve plain, or with fresh fruit.

Updated on May 5, 2011
Strawberry Ice Cream
Omit the milk, increase the sugar to 1 1/4 (or maybe even 1 ½ cups), and add 1-2 cups crushed strawberries.

Monday, June 15, 2009


This morning I asked Mr. Handsome to shimmy up into the attic through the hole in the ceiling of Yo-Yo’s bedroom (it’s the only way to get to the attic—I wasn’t being unkind) to fetch my box of highschool and college papers.

I’ve been wanting to riffle through the pages and pages of words I wrote once upon an eon ago. In particular, I wanted to reread what I had written in my creative writing class in college. I loved that class, working my tail off for the teacher in hopes of receiving the occasional gruff compliment. (I did get it, once. He said my short story “sounds like the stuff of a novel.” I walked on air for a week.)

Just for fun, I’ll share one of my character sketches. I wrote two of them for that class, both more-or-less-true descriptions of real people. This one is not about my aunt, though some of you, my dear readers, may be able to figure out who this person is.


Polyester Bras

My aunt Muriel is going a little off the deep end, I think. She lives by herself and she’s pretty lonely, so she complains. When she comes to visit all we hear is, “Oh, my eyes are oozing this yellow liquid,” or “I think my hip bone is rubbing into my cervix. I get the oddest pains.” And then she started going to this quack doctor in Lititz, so now all we hear about is what Dr. Lyons says. It makes me mad that she believes all his bull and that she’s willing to pay seventy dollars an hour to hear him pronounce some insane, ridiculous cure. But then we hear the craziest stories and they do serve as wonderful entertainment. Once her chest and thighs broke out with red and purple spots and Dr. Lyons told her that it was the polyester in her clothes. She restocked her wardrobe, but she had a problem—they don’t make triple D bras without polyester. So he told her to soak her bras in a solution of four gallons of water with one-half cup of powdered milk. And she did! She declared that her bras were polyester-free. When we asked her what now made up the bras that were once a hundred percent polyester, she said she didn’t know, but it wasn’t polyester. Of course the rash didn’t go away, and Dr. Lyons said she needed to come in for another seventy-dollar visit so he could cure that problem. I think he said it was an allergic reaction to the milk.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

(Not so) simple fare

More often than not, the simplest food is the best. Quite a bit of what I eat falls into the category of simple fare, but I often neglect to tell you about it because I figure that you already know about it, enjoy it, and, like me, take it for granted.

Take peas for example. We eat them a lot. I like to serve them alongside macaroni and cheese or Indian chicken. They’re an easy vegetable to prepare and one that the children like, or at least eat with minimal complaining. If I’m throwing together a quick meal, or one that involves a vegetable side dish that the kids don’t like, I usually pull a bag of peas out of the freezer compartment, dump them in the kettle, add some water and salt, and bring them to a boil. It’s faster and less time-consuming than making carrot sticks.

That is, unless you grow your own peas. Then they are time-consuming beyond reason. The work that goes into growing your own peas (planting, weeding, picking, and shelling) transforms them from an every-day fast food veggie into a gourmet food on par with fresh mozzarella, sourdough bread, and homemade grape juice.

Miss Becca Boo and I (and The Baby Nickel, but he didn’t really help that much) picked peas the other morning and then that afternoon all four of the kids and I spent a couple hours perched on kitchen stools, bowls of peas nestled in our laps and empty pods strewn across the table. It was a nice time (we chatted and played the [boring] game “I’m Going On A Trip and I’m Taking...”), but shelling the peas was still a chore, one that involved hunched shoulders and sore fingertips. The reward for our labors seemed hardly worth it—not even a whole half-gallon of peas. How in the world do families raise enough peas to eat for an entire year? You’d be shelling peas for a whole week!

Because I figured there was no point in freezing the peas since we could eat them up in the next couple days, I simply blanched them and put them in the refrigerator. The next day I fixed half of them for supper, and my, were they delicious. I loosely followed Julia Child’s recipe for buttered peas, and I made brown butter noodles with ham to go along with them. Mmm, butter.

The kids thought the peas strange, claiming they liked the store-bought peas better, but they ate them anyway. (I took their complaints with a grain of salt since the stomach bug is worming its way through our family and the kids have been turning up their noses at even their favorite foods.) They fussed at the noodles and the ham (normally favorite foods) but when told that they could have one cookie for one helping of food and two cookies for two helpings, Yo-Yo and Miss Becca Boo ate generous second servings.

As for me, I could hardly keep my hands out of the noodle pot, and I had seconds and thirds of everything—I didn’t even need a cookie afterwards (though I did eat a part of one).

While I served the peas and noodles separately (kids, you know), they can be tossed together in one big serving bowl right before serving. That’s how I ate the leftovers.

Buttered Peas
Roughly adapted from Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I admit it seems rather scandalous to add sugar to the already-sweet new peas, but however unnecessary, it does make them good!

4 cups new peas
2 quarts water
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons sugar
black pepper and salt, to taste

Put the water in a saucepan, add the salt, and bring the water to a boil. Add the peas and quickly bring the water back to a boil. Boil for 4-8 minutes, depending on how well-done you like your peas and whether or not they have already been blanched.

Drain the peas, return them to the kettle, and turn the burner back to medium heat. Gently cook the peas, watching them closely, till all the moisture has evaporated. Add the sugar and more salt and pepper, if needed. Add the butter, toss the peas to coat, and serve.

Brown Butter Noodles with Ham

1 pound medium-sized egg noodles
4 tablespoons butter
4 to 8 ounces deli ham
black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped (optional)

Chop the ham into little strips, about the same width and length as the noodles.

Cook the noodles according to the package directions, taking care not to over-cook them. Drain them and return them to the kettle.

While the noodles are cooking, brown the butter. Put the butter in a small saucepan and melt it over medium heat. Once melted, give the pan a swirl every minute or so, watching closely to make sure the butter doesn’t burn. When there are lots of little brown specks in the bottom of the pan, remove the pan from the heat and pour it over the noodles.

Add the sliced ham and toss to mix. Taste to check the seasonings. Transfer the noodles and ham to a serving bowl, and garnish with the parsley, if you like.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Not something to meddle with

Our strawberries were less than stellar this year due to the Amazonian levels of rain. We pick over the patch every other day but the rot is always one step ahead. I would be depressed about this if it weren’t for the large quantity of strawberries that we still have in the freezer and jelly cupboard as a result of last year’s strawberry bonanza. Last year we put up way more than we could eat, and at least five different families got a turn to pick the patch. This year we’ve put up a fraction of the amount we need, and we haven’t shared with anybody.

Oh well. Such is life in the dirty world of gardening.

I really shouldn’t complain. We’ve been steadily eating the strawberries we have been getting, maybe even enjoying them more because we’re not totally inundated with them—the medium-sized bowl I get from picking a row or two seems too piddly to bother with putting up, so we just eat them instead.

In the course of the last couple weeks, I have discovered a couple (*) delightful recipes that showcase these ruby jewels. The one I’ll share with you now comes from Smitten Kitchen: strawberry shortcake.

When I was growing up, strawberry shortcake was not a dessert; it was dinner. My mother made two kinds of shortcake. The first was a plain sheet cake, though not nearly as rich or sweet as a cake, more like a cornbread without the cornmeal. The second type of shortcake was a drop biscuit that was sprinkled with sugar before baking. The sheet shortcake was cut into squares, a piece (or two) was set in the bottom of each person’s bowl and smothered in fresh strawberries, sprinkled with sugar, and drowned in milk. The biscuit shortcake was served in almost the same manner, except that each person crumbled the biscuit into the bowl before adding the fruit and milk.

Because shortcake was the equivalent of a full meal, I never really understood how people could eat shortcake for a dessert. First, it was way too filling for a dessert course. Second, strawberries arrived in such large quantities that it was necessary to glut yourself with them. And third, both the sheet cake and the drop biscuits were never that great the second day, so it didn’t make sense to prepare it for dessert when you were bound to have leftovers that no one would want to eat. Strawberry shortcake was either all (the whole meal) or nothing.

(The fork that you see coming down from above is Mr. Handsome's. I had snatched his plate out from under his nose and the stabbing fork was his way of telling me he was done waiting.)

But then I tried Deb’s shortcake and for the first time I understood how shortcake could be a dessert. This shortcake biscuit is tender and airy, almost lacy, and it is still delicious the second day (it’s true that it’s not as good, but that doesn’t really matter when you consider how off-the-charts delicious it was in the first place). In fact, Mr. Handsome and I nearly had a fight over the leftover biscuits when I came into the kitchen and discovered him eating some shortcake. He must of realized he’d crossed an unspoken line because he took one look at my horror-stricken face and started talking, fast: Isavedyousomeoverthere. Ididn’ttakeallofitbecauseIknewyouwouldwantsome. Okay?

I said, Oh, that’s good of you. I was kind of worried, and he exhaled deeply and went back to enjoying his dessert.

(Another shot of Mr. Handsome's dessert. He was not very happy, and he let me know that in no uncertain terms, when I ordered he lay down his fork.)

The key to this recipe is the lemon. There’s probably some other keys, too, like lots of butter and cream and hard-boiled egg yolks and Demerara sugar, but I think the lemon in the clincher. There is lemon zest in the biscuit, and fresh lemon juice is stirred in with the strawberries. It’s a perfect pairing, and, like my leftovers, not something you want to meddle with.

Strawberry Shortcake
Slightly adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen

Deb says that you can use orange zest in place of the lemon. I am so sold on the lemon that I don’t ever plan to try the orange, but I’m telling you this anyway, just because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t.

For the biscuits:
1 2/3 cup flour
3 ½ tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon, plus ½ teaspoon baking powder
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2/3 cup cream, plus a little extra for brushing on top of the biscuits
Demerara sugar, for sprinkling

Measure the first five ingredients (down through the salt) into the canister of a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the butter and zest and pulse some more. Add the cream and pulse, just until the mixture forms a ball.

Dump the dough out onto a floured kitchen counter, knead it a couple times just to pull it together, and then shape it into a disk about one-inch thick. Cut the dough into wedges, the same way you would for scones. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, leaving space between the biscuits (they spread a bit because they are so tender and light). Chill the biscuits, uncovered, for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator (if chilling them longer, cover them with plastic wrap).

Remove the biscuits from the refrigerator, brush their tops with the extra cream and sprinkle them lightly with Demerara sugar.

Bake the biscuits at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Allow them to cool to room temperature before serving. (I think these would freeze well, too. Simply bag them once they are cooled, and freeze. To thaw, let them sit at room temperature, uncovered.)

For the strawberries:
2 cups sliced (fresh) strawberries
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Combine the ingredients 10-30 minutes before serving.

For the whipped cream:
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla

Beat together until stiff peaks have formed.

To assemble:
Gently split open a biscuit (this is trickier than it sounds because the biscuits have a tendency to fall apart). Spoon some strawberries onto the biscuit, blob some whipped cream on the strawberries, and put the top half of the biscuit back on top.

*Coming up next ... A dessert for adults only: Strawberry Margarita Pie.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Stirring the pot

I’ve been mulling over the issues raised in the comments section of my recent post on homeschooling. I even typed a couple pages of incoherent notes in an attempt to flush out the key points of the conversation. Finally, I’ve settled on a few main thoughts that I think are relevant and worthy of sharing, but there are so many more. For now, anyway, these are what you’ll get.

Best I can figure, I think people are mostly concerned that homeschooled children will be behind the schooled kids. People worry that homeschooled kids won’t learn things in time (or not at all) and that when they do leave home and try to make a go of it in the big bad real world, they will fail in a big bad way. We’ve all heard the horror stories of inept parents who took their kids out of school under the pretext of homeschooling them and then let them run wild with nary a care to their physical well-being, let alone their academic success. Or, more commonly, we hear about the homeschooled kids who get to college and totally freak out, unable to handle the stress of term papers and dorm life. And it’s true; those things happen. They also happen with schooled kids.

More often then not, though, homeschooled kids do amazingly well, testing higher academically then both their public and privately educated peers. There are screw-ups and success stories on both sides of the fence, but, sadly enough, research shows that there are more screw-ups on the school-side of the fence. Our public school system is not doing so hotsy-totsy.

I didn’t decide to homeschool my children because of flaws in the public school system, but considering that our country's students’ test scores are substantially lower (in this study, off-the-charts lower) than other country's, it intrigues me that so many people clutch the measuring stick provided by our mediocre school system as a means of holding homeschoolers accountable. There’s a boatload of irony there.

If we can, just for a minute, step away from comparing ourselves to the school system—away from fact regurgitation, away from the standard time table for learning set by some unknown (and unknowing) being, away from the focus on one or two types of intelligence instead of the multiple intelligences that we, the human race, have been gifted with—we can start to figure out what it is that we really want for our children.

Here’s what I want. I want my children to know how to learn. I want them to be able to go after what they want and to be able to master whatever skills they need in order to accomplish their goals. Beyond that, I want them to enjoy life. I want them to feel comfortable in their own skin and to be confident enough that they can gracefully embrace the differences of others.

That sounds pretty lofty, no? Do you want more? Alrighty then---here you go: I want my children to know how to listen, to really listen. I’m not talking about do-what-I-say-right-this-very-minute listening, though that is quite nice and has its place—I’m talking about learning to listen for the rumblings below the surface, to listen for understanding, to listen with compassion and love, to listen to the spark of goodness in each person that, when understood, can then be appreciated and bring us closer together. Now that's lofty!

How can we expect our children to listen to other people, to accept their differences and idiosyncrasies, if we have not listened to their—our own children’s—individual needs, instead choosing to cast our children into a societal mold that fits only a small fraction of the population? When we ignore our children’s different learning styles and emotional and physical needs, we are teaching them that differences aren’t acceptable. Without meaning to, we are teaching them to discriminate, judge, and be close-minded.

Oh my. That was quite a little speech. I’m suddenly exhausted.

But wait, I’m feeling some mental gurglings. Oh no! There’s more! Hold onto your seats!

Ponder these random points:

*Everyone’s goal in life is to find pleasure, so says my mom. And she’s right! If learning doesn’t have an element of pleasure (or joy), we shut down.

*You know how some parents are obsessed with making sure their children know their colors as early as possible? Well, guess what! Kids will learn their colors at some point and if they don’t, then they won’t, not for lack of teaching, but because they are color blind. If parents want to spend oodles of time drilling pink, green and purple into their children’s bald noggins, then more power to them—as long as both parties are having fun. If learning is a means by which you connect and bond with your child, then play teacher all you want. If you don’t like those games, then give them up---go read books, pick potato bugs, or make brownies together. Your child will learn the (basics: their colors and the three Rs) information anyway. Which leads me to the next point...

*We are not as important as we think we are. Yeah, yeah, parents are extremely important in many, many (many, many, many, many) ways, but really, our kids are capable of doing more then we think. They don’t need us to point out every birdie that flies by or to structure every minute of their day with educational experiences. They are quite capable of figuring out that stuff on their own, and a little boredom (or a lot) is a crucial part of the creative process.

*On the whole spelling issue: The best teacher of spelling is good literature, and a dictionary or spell check. If a certain teaching method works, then go ahead and use it, but by far and away, a love of words will be the best teacher and that is only acquired by firsthand enjoyment. So read, read, read and write, write, write. (And remember, I am a by-produce of private and public education, with three years of homeschooling thrown in, and somehow, even though I’m weak in spelling, I still ended up receiving the English award at my highschool graduation—a Webster’s Dictionary that sits on the shelf directly above my computer!) Spelling is not an indicator of smarts or ability or anything, really. And I think the Bard would agree with me.

*Conformity does not equal getting along. Getting along is much more complicated (and rewarding) than being in the know about the latest video game or fashion styles.

*Remember, I’m still in the early years of growing up my kids. As my children become more advanced, more will be required by way of in-depth study. I’m not going to blithely say, “The US Constitution? Wha-a-at? You want to know about that old thing? Huh. You know where the library is—go figure it out yourself.” But then again, I might. I think I can go either way on this one, and I’ll probably end up doing a bit of both (as I am already). I’ll tell them to go figure out what it is they want to know if they really want to know it, and I’ll introduce them to, and make them learn, some of the less interesting things just because I think they hold merit. And when it comes time for the SATs (if they’re not already in school by then), they’ll put in some good hours of study, just like their peers in the public school system. And like any parent, I’ll cross my fingers and hope they do well.

So there you have it. Did my ramblings serve to answer your question and ease your minds, or did they only bring more bothersome questions bubbling to the surface?

Whatever you do, don’t keep your questions and concerns quiet because, like lies and dirty socks that are kept buried down deep away from light and fresh air, they will fester. And festering questions give off a killer stink. I know this for a fact.