Monthly Archives: April 2008

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about three months ago.  It became a ritual to head to the bath tub or bedroom and enjoy reading every night while Ed watched one of his history channel shows on TV.  I knew that this book spoke to me, when in the first chapter Kingsolver wrote:

It is not my intention here to lionize country wisdom over city ambition.  I only submit that the children of farmers are likely to know where food comes from, and that the rest of us might do well to pay attention. 

Any time someone makes a comment that country kids are intelligent, I’m listening.  Over the last few years teaching botany and environmental science, I have been shocked to realize just how separated this generation of teenagers is from their food.  My students are always bothered by the fact that we have, in the past, eaten chickens, turkeys, pigs, or cows that we raised.  We don’t do that all the time, but it’s something we do on and off.  The can’t believe that I would eat an animal that was my pet.  My response has always been: “I grew up on a farm.  My life is different from yours.”  Not to mention, if I have helped to raise an animal, I know what its life was like, that it was loved and well cared for, and was a happy animal.  There are none of those guarantees when we go to the grocery store and buy a hamburger, and in fact, lives like that for cows are more the exception than the rule. 

In two generations we’ve transformed ourselves from a rural to an urban nation.  North American children begin their school year around Labor Day and finish at the beginning of June with no idea that this arrangement was devised to free up children’s labor when it was needed on the farm. 

Not all children.  My brothers, cousins and I were raised in the farm stand.  All of us played a role in weeding, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, arranging, and selling the crops we grew, in some way or another.  I was mostly in the farm market.  I learned to arrange strawberries in a basket with my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.  I know what the most attrative way to pile corn is.  I also know that on a hot day you need to put ice in the pile.  I know how to polish an apple with a burlap bag, and I know how to sort through tomatoes.  I also know that you can’t put too many peaches in a box because when you put the lid on you’ll squish them.  I’ve gone through blueberries until my fingers were blue.  I know to never carry a pumpkin by the stem.  I also know how to choose a melon, something which is for some reason mysterious to most people.  But I digress…

The Kingsolver clan proceeds to live out a year on their farm growing all of the food that they possibly can, and buying very little, mostly from other local farmers.  I enjoyed reading Barbara’s description of day to day life, husband Steven Hopp’s interjections of articles about society or science, and Camille’s recipes.  I’ve adapted my own version of her pizza crust recipe.  It was also wonderful to hear about how daughter Lilly was involved in her own adventure in math, business, and science education raising laying hens.  It is clear that farming for the Kingsolvers was a family affair, as it is for all farming families.  When a family lives that way, children are able to feel that they are contributing to the success of the family, and they also learn all of those little lessons that are not taught in school.  My dad always said that you could learn more in a day on the farm than you could in a week in school.

Farming is not for everybody; increasingly, it’s hardly for anybody.  Over the last decade our country has lost an average of 300 farms a week.  Large or small, each of those was the life’s work of a real person or family, people who built their lives around a promise and watched it break.  The loss of a farm is a darkness leading to some of life’s bitterest ends.  Keeping one, on the other hand, may mean also working in a factory at the end of a long daily drive, behind and ahead of the everyday work of farming.

The thought of my family losing our farm is one of the most horrible things I can imagine.  We all work other jobs, including construction and teaching, and we all work on the farm.  We do it because it is our home and our lifestyle, not because it’s lucrative.  I may jokingly ask how many college degrees I have to earn before I can stop working summers and falls at the farm, but then again, would I want to stop?

I loved reading this book because it made me think so much of my own family, but I could also see how it could be educational for someone who did not grow up the way that I did.  The trials and tribulations, as well as the successes, are a wonderful documentation of how a local food lifestyle is.  The stories of long days in the fields, a kitchen full of zucchini, slaughter of hens, and of hard work shared by a family are sadly not stories that many people would relate to anymore.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the importance of eating seasonally and locally, and wants to hear about one family’s experience in that lifestyle.

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Garlic Mustard

On Saturday, while walking home from our walk around Lake Gaillard, I pointed out some garlic mustard to my mom.  I have a tendency to point out plants that have interesting smells, like black birch, spicebush, or garlic mustard.  I grabbed a leaf, crushed it in my hand, and told her to smell it.  It smells like garlic! She asked me if it was edible, and I didn’t know.  On Sunday morning, I happened to see a chef on the local news cooking with some garlic mustard.  I did some searching and came across a few interesting sites for recipes, including one about an annual garlic mustard recipe contest.  You see, garlic mustard is an invasive plant in Connecticut, which forces out native plants.  So, gathering it and cooking with it are great ways to help protect your local plants.

A few words of caution:

  • You should never eat any wild plant unless you are 100% sure you have identified it correctly.  Garlic mustard is easily identifiable by the garlicky scented leaves, serrated leaves, white flowers in spring followed by long, slender seed pods, called seliques, which are characteristic of the mustard (Brassica) family, which includes sweet rocket, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and watercress.  Garlic mustard is one of the first plants that I learned to identify, and it’s also one of the first plants that I teach my Botany students to identify.  Get a good field guide and you should be able to ID it.
  • Don’t eat any wild plant that grows near a road or driveway.  Heavy metals from cars and trucks can accumulate in the soil and are taken up by the plants, making them unsafe to eat.  Since heavy metals are persistant in the soil, an old exposure can still affect plants now.  Also, they often chemically treat roads for ice in winter, and you don’t want to eat any of that either.

So here’s the recipe that I came up with for tonight.  Ed said it’s one of the best things I’ve ever made!  I gathered the garlic mustard last night from the woods behind our house, and I discovered a huge patch of it, right near my other wild favorite, wineberries. 

Looks like we’ll be eating more of it!  Supposedly, the tender spring leaves are the most tasty.  I would guess that garlic mustard has all the nutritional benefits of other members of the Brassica family, but I’m not sure.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Mix the following in a food processor:

  • 2 large handfulls of garlic mustard leaves
  • 2 crushed clove of garlic
  • 2 Tbsp walnuts
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • dash pepper
  • juice of half a lemon

Stream in:

  •  1/2 cup olive oil until emulsified. 
  • Add parmesan cheese if desired (I make it without parmesan cheese). 

This will make just enough pesto for about a pound of cooked pasta.  I cooked spinach pasta according to package directions, drained, added the pesto and 1/2 cup ricotta cheese and heated the pesto and cheese through.  Very yummy served with some crusty bread.

You can substitute pine nuts for the walnuts if you have them.  I don’t make pesto very much this time of year, so I didn’t have any.  I also like to make pesto out of spinach and basil, so you could substitute one or both of those for some of the garlic mustard, just be sure to add another garlic clove.

I like to serve pesto on pasta, or spread it on fish like salmon or cod loin before baking.  You can also spread some on chicken breast before baking.  I also saw a recipe once for a steak with pesto butter, which I bet is good!

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Fried Fish

I picked up some beautiful wild-caught flounder fillets today.  So, inspired by my new cookbook, Alice Water’s The Art of Simple FoodI decided to make some fried fish.  I have my own recipe, but I might consider using hers sometime.  They’re very similar.  Ed and I both love fried fish, but I try not to make it too often.  I used to be one of those people who was afraid to cook fish, since I didn’t grow up eating a lot of fish.  However, it’s very easy to cook, as long as you don’t over cook it.

My Fried Fish (serves 2)

  • 4 small flounder fillets, or other white fish (sole, lemon sole, cod, cod loin, etc.)
  • 1 cup flour in a pie plate, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp water in a pie plate
  • 1 1/2 cups Panko breadcrumbs (Panko is Japanese, you can substitute regular breadcrumbs, but these are course and make great fried fish)
  • canola oil about 1/4 inch deep in the bottom of a heavy pan (I use my dutch oven)

Heat oil in the pan over medium high heat.  Dredge the fish in flour, then coat with egg, then coat with breadcrumbs, being sure to shake off the excess.  Carefully place the fish into the hot oil.  You should see it sizzleing around the edges of the fish.  Cook for 3 minutes, flip, and cook an additional 3 minutes.  If it gets too brown, you may need to turn the heat down to medium.  If you’re making a large quantity, you can keep the cooked fish hot in a low oven until they’re all cooked.  Drain on paper towel or parchment paper briefly before serving.  Serve with tartar sauce, salt potatoes (boiled red potatoes with butter and salt), and cole slaw.  Oh, and by the way, I discovered you can make my cole slaw recipe using half of the oil and with a whisk, which is nice because then you can cut the calories, fat, and fossil fuels (by skipping the food processor), and still have yummy cole slaw.

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Rhubarb Strawberry Crisp

I realized it’s been over a week since I last posted a recipe! It’s not that I haven’t been cooking (believe me, I have), it’s just that I haven’t really made anything new or exciting enough to post.  Thanks to the beautifully fragrant strawberries I found yesterday and the fresh rhubarb I found today, here’s a recipe!  Strawberries are by far my favorite fruit, and even though these aren’t Native yet, they looked so good in the store that I couldn’t resist them.  (That’s only a half-truth… Strawberries are my favorite this time of year.  Depending on when asked, I could say that white peaches, Maine blueberries, wild wineberries, red raspberries, or Macoun apples are my favorite.  Or ask me mid-July, and I’ll say “Who cares about fruit? Have you tried the Butter & Sugar or Silver Queen corn?”)

Rhubarb Strawberry Crisp

Place the following in buttered baking dish and stir to combine:

  • 1 quart ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 4-5 stalks of rhubarb, sliced or diced, depending on the size
  • 2 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 2/3 cup sugar

I usually don’t add sugar to the fruit when I’m making a crisp or crumble, but the rhubarb is so tart it’s really necessary.  The cornstarch is necessary, too, as it will control the runniness of the strawberries.  Let fruit marinate while you make the topping.  In a bowl, combine the following with your fingers, squishing it together:

  • 1 stick cold, cubed butter
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup unrefined molasses sugar (or you can use brown sugar)

Spread topping over the fruit and bake in a preheated 350F oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the red juice bubbles up through the crisp topping, and the topping is nicely browned.

There are some fruit desserts that I like to serve cool, and this is one of them.  (I’ll also never eat pumpkin or butternut squash pie unless it is cold.)  Serve with vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.

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Fence for our Vegetable Garden

Over the last 2-3 weeks, Ed and I have been working on building a fence around our future vegetable garden.  Well, mostly Ed’s been doing the work, and I’ve been doing the holding, handing, assisting, refreshments, etc.  Ed put in the posts, built fence pieces, and assembeled it all today.  The gate is salvaged from our old appartment at my parents’ house.  I’m so impressed with how Ed was able to design and build our garden.  I love being married to a builder!

All we have left to do is put some wire between the ground and the bottom of the fence pieces to keep out the bunnies.  I’m almost positive that our deer will jump right in there, even with the tall fence.  Then again, maybe they’re still full from all of our grass.

Oh yeah, I still have to plant, weed, water, etc.  Many of my seedlings, like lettuce and peas, are ready to be transplanted.  I drew out a plan today… we’ll see how close it comes to reality.

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Lake Gaillard Walk

Today my mom and I went to the Walk-A-Thon around Lake Gaillard sponsored by the North Branford Women’s Club and the Regional Water Authority.  Today was one of only two days each year that citizens are allowed to visit the lake (the other day is Easter for sunrise service–which I think I went to once, in 8th grade).  There was a shuttle from the elementary school to the entrance, but since there’s an entrance from the end of our road, we just walked.  We couldn’t justify the use of fossil fuels when we could just sneak in…

Here’s where we entered.

Mom, me and a view of the lake.

I wanted to go out to that building but there was a gate with barbed wire.

We stopped at this point to check out a bald eagle nesting through binoculars.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a picture.  It was out on the island in the reservior, which my dad said is an 80-acre island.

The 6.5 mile marker.  All together, including walking off the trail and to and from the lake, we walked 9.3 miles.  We both wore pedometers…

The dam.  Lake Gaillard is a man-made reservoir.  My great-grandmother Marion(Harrison) Rose grew up where the lake is now.  All of the farmers living in this valley were forced to move when they decided to make a reservior.  I would guess that was about 100 years ago, but I’m not sure…

Stealing some daffodils off the lawn of one of the water company houses.  Nobody lives there, so I decided to bring them home to enjoy.

I wish we could go to the lake whenever we wanted, because it would be a great walk any time of year.  It’s so peaceful and we also thought it would be a great place to bike ride.  However, this reservior supplies drinking water to much of New Haven County, so it’s off-limits most of the time.

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