Go ahead. Play with your food.
That’s our tag line for Plot to Plate, and I can’t help but admit I love it. Even more so as of Wednesday, when Melissa and I got to share an edible play date with some 50 or more creative kids and LiveWell Longmont at the Longmont Downtown Farmers’ Market. As part of LiveWell’s mission to promote healthy eating through early educational opportunities, we’re hosting an edible activity booth highlighting seasonal produce at the market the first Wednesday of each month. For this first event, we featured cool cucumbers…but the stars, of course, were the kids who came to visit, and their marvelous inventions.
As a new parent, aligning play with food will no doubt taunt and even haunt me at times in years to come, but that’s ok. Because, there will also be magic.
“Can I eat it now?” asked one young boy as he proudly held up his creation for a photo. Others were overheard talking about adding toppings like hummus or cottage cheese when they got home. Faces beamed as plates were gingerly carried away. Dave brought Felix by to
get squished with fierce cuddles see us, and it made my heart swell a little to see my little 10-month old’s eyes widen in awe at the bright colors, swirls, lines and designs of the vegetables and the art kids made with it. By the end of the evening, we must have seen 60 kids, all of whom created incredible, edible art, and/or approvingly sampled the simple and nutritious refrigerator pickles we had on hand, taking home the simple kid-friendly recipe cards.
It’s amazing how appealing produce can be when it decides to play dress-up with imagination, becoming caterpillars, trains, sea monsters, flowers, and a limitless universe of possibilities. Throw toothpicks and maybe a lego or two into the mix, and WOW!
Of course, magical as moments may be, there is no magic “fix”. Now that Little Monkey’s taste buds are developing, and his preferences made clearer, our happy, easygoing eater is showing signs of occasional fastidiousness. At breakfast, he may pointedly clamp down his jaw surveying his porridge, while pointing, grasping for, and nearly hyperventilating at the sight of his current favorite, blueberries. All we can do as parents, I suppose, is continue to expose, expose, expose, and have fun with the journeys our children take wherever we can.
I saw this fascinating TED Talks video the other day, which focused on correlations between the decline of play and the ride of mental health issues. Play, it said, is nature’s means of ensuring young mammals acquire the skills they need to develop into healthy, successful adults. This message has been persistently popping up lately, through new studies and commentary, reminding the world of the psychological and educational advantages of learning and exploring through play. Wednesday night made me reflect more, and emphasized for me where I stand. It’s sad when we see play getting the life squeezed out of it, or when it’s squeezed out of life. Whether the context is a work-addicted, weary world that values hours logged over quality and efficiency or budget cuts and focus on rigor meaning less recess, free exploration, and time in the day for kids to make choices and create on their own.
As we grow, we learn and learn to accept life is never ever all about play. There are times to buck up, even with food, including “have to try”. There is a point where we all have to suck it up and work hard even when we don’t want to, as contributors of society and people who do need to eat, clothe ourselves, and have shelter. But isn’t everything so much better when it’s at least a little playful?
Next month at the Downtown Farmers’ Market we’ll be exploring zany zucchini. Come see us if you can! We’ll have zucchini chips and fun edible supplies for your children and your inner child. You’ll see, we take our play seriously. 🙂
Since we’ve known each other, Rachel and I have canned together every summer…because, canning is so much more fun and productive with a friend. Also, at the beginning, I felt wildly intimidated by the whole prospect of canning…and mess…and heat…and botulism. Stuff.
Things changed when Dave and my mother-in-law got me well stocked with canning supplies. What a wonderful world the realm of canning supplies can be! Everything has such a clear, beautiful purpose, and things you didn’t realize you had a need for fit in the routines you’d been accustomed to so logically, bringing greater ease by the ladle. Like funnels, of course, and jar holders, and thin little spatulas, must-have clamping tongs, and cool magnetic lid picker-uppers. Yes, I’m down with the science, and the scientific names. And I’m getting even more adept, no kidding…
Every summer, Rachel and I have such a great time catching up while canning, we declare with real, committed enthusiasm that we will make it happen more regularly. But so far, “more regularly” has only amounted to twice a year. This summer, we were both away so much, we could only coordinate once. Yet, generous Rachel kindly brought me two big boxes of fresh peaches for her backyard, providing for a a day of peach preserving solo. (You’re the best, Rachel!) The batch of peach jam turned out gorgeous, rich and sweet, and golden-orange like a warm sunset. Roll your eyes if you will, but humor me too, in drawing comparisons with good friends.
It wasn’t just Rachel’s generous gift, left one afternoon on my doorstep, that conspired to inspire confident independent canning. Midsummer, Rachel and I decided on a whim to post on freecycle: “Wanted: Surplus Tree Fruits”. We briefly explained that we love canning, and if anyone had extras they weren’t using, we’d gladly share the preserves.
We didn’t expect to get any responses. I felt a tinge of embarrassment, too, that we posted from my account, with my full name in clear view. But then, we did get not one, but two responses, and they were so positive! Marya offered up her apple tree, which I am looking forward to but have yet to visit. Evelyn offered plums. I went by her house today, and was greeted at the door by a tall man with a gray ponytail and a broad grin. “Evelyn’s not here,” he said. “Are ‘ya after some plums?”
I never did get the man’s name, as I barely had a chance to nod when he directed me around to the side of their house where, he said, there were nectarines, too. The plum trees were shaded, and they were just laden with the most lovely, bursting, softly purple, dreamy plums! The branches were drooping with them. I picked two boxes and spent the rest of the afternoon canning plum jam, some of which is going back to Evelyn, of course.
Our society can be so guarded, so skeptical, so stressed. We have to be…that’s how to survive the structure we’ve mostly created for ourselves. It’s not always that way, but often, right? In any case, sometimes the word “neighbor” seems meaningless. But other times, it seems to expand and stretch, encompassing increasingly greater spheres of influence, and offering an embrace of community that feels so good, even without speaking.
That’s all I wanted to say. Thanks friends and neighbors. Will pay it forward, promise. 🙂
Every year, our team schedules a field trip to the pumpkin patch as close as we can get to Halloween. Every other year it seems, the pumpkins are snowed under. And every time this happens, we all shake our heads in wonder, as if snow in October is outlandishly early. Yet at the same time, it’s no surprise, obviously.
This year, we measured a foot of snow on the back deck on Wednesday. Driving in to work was a mess, with no fewer than four frozen-leafed, snow-laden branches falling down immediately in front of, or on the hood of the Outback. We operated on generator power at school, and half the Kindergartners stayed home.
On Friday, we traipsed through the somewhat muddy paths of the pumpkin patch, breathing in the brisk air, and essentially very comfortable. Our guide said that the previous day, student groups had to dig their pumpkins out of the snow. We were lucky, really. It was a lovely day, and the brilliant oranges, greens and golds of the gourds were glorious against the snow.
With all it’s splendor and bounty, fall is fleeting, and in volatile Colorado there’s always the chance any day will resonate with the reminder that winter is coming. Here’s a last chance to can your produce for stark months ahead, and to turn attention to ever present and wonderful grains and legumes. But winter doesn’t have to be barren, the table lit up solely with holiday lights and decorations. Here are five fabulous foods that, being seasonally accessible, can hopefully work deliciously for both meal plans and your budget.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower come into their peak of flavor in early winter months. The cute little cabbage patch kids of the vegetable section, Brussels Sprouts are sometimes hard done by. This year, I’m making it a goal to discover fail safe means of preparing them so that Dave enjoys them, maybe even asking for them on occasion. Cruciferous vegetables have been receiving the spotlight in recent years from numerous studies revealing their cancer-protecting properties. Broccoli is particularly high in both vitamin K and A, in addition to many other great nutrients. This combination is uniquely suited to helping the body store vitamin D, in which research has been finding many are deficient.
Citrus fruits add bright notes to washed out wintry days, and contain great doses of immunity bolstering vitamin C to boot. A single orange supplies nearly double the daily value for vitamin C, the body’s primary water-soluble antioxidant. Rich in healing phytonutrients, acid fruits are also noted for being detoxifying.
Loaded with powerful antioxidants, and rich in vitamins, potassium, folic acid and iron, pomegranates have risen to celebrity status in recent years. They are the jewels of winter,seeds gleaming like bright red treasures in winter salads and dishes. They’re pretty enough to use as the table centerpiece. Throughout history, pomegranates have been associated with health, fertility, and life. It has even been suggested that Eve’s temptation was not an apple, but in fact a pomegranate.
Winter Squash and Root Vegetables
I’m cheating a little for the sake of efficiency, putting these two broad categories together. But they really have so much in common, including the stretching range encompassed by the categories. Both are perfectly suited to the comfort food we all start to crave as our bodies settle into our own sort of hibernation phase. Delicious roasted or baked, many develop a sweet, caramel quality that as easily to dessert as a savory meal (eg pumpkin, butternut, sweet potato). Puree, mash, cute, toss in soups or chilis, these are winter staples to savor.
Have I mentioned lately that I “mow” our back yard with a weed whacker? As you may know from a previous post…one of the first posts ever on this blog, in fact, we can’t run the sprinklers in the back because the combination of gentle decline and clay soil resulted in our unintentionally and continually flooding our neighbors garden, killing the plants that line the shared fence border. Not the best scenario for good neighborliness. It’s unpleasant when the only time you ever speak to the people who live adjacent to you is when you explain how sorry you are you flooded their garden. Again. This cloud’s silver lining was a beauty of a bright side, though, because it was directly responsible for us finally creating the beloved raised beds. We called our solution “project No Grass”, and we get great gardening, a whole lot of ever-growing knowledge, and fun out of it.
Of course, pessimistic as it may sound, it’s fair enough to flip the cliche and state that every silver lining has a cloud, too, and for Project No Grass, it’s weeds. Because those cursed, noxious, menacing-looking plant-beings flourish with or without water. It’s ridiculous to get the lawnmower out for them, but I have to do something, or the busybody with too much time on her hands and too few thoughts in her head will come around squinting, clipboard in hand, to scrutinize whether our grass blades are all even, and to evaluate the state of THOSE WEEDS! She will inch slowly along the street from the safety of her air-conditioned car. She doesn’t get out. We don’t know her, and we don’t know where she lives, and it’s probably better that way. I know, tough talk…I’d NEVER act on even a threat to talk back, so I don’t know why I bother suggesting as much. She, on the other hand, will not be intimidated, even if she does administer her wrist slaps via a generic form letter and completes her evaluations behind tinted windows. She is not above calling you out on keeping your Christmas wreath hanging a day past what some amorphous authority considers the acceptable date (apparently, it’s January 8th), or for having an oil spill on your driveway where your car just created it 30 minutes prior. But oh well. It takes all types.
Which brings me back to my point. It does take all types, and even weeds deserve a place along the ladder of life. If only we could make them less plaguing, and more palatable. Literally. And actually…
We can. Last year, I deplored our summer weed wars on Facebook, joking that if only I could eat them, I’d really be a model of sustainability. I could feed the world, at least figuratively, with our weeds. Free food! Behind our house! All hours! Unsurprisingly, I had immediate comments that yes, I actually can eat the weeds…as long as I’m careful to make sure they’re not the poisonous ones. So, this year, once again faced with the weed monsters, I’m trying to learn more about which those are, and identify their edible counterparts.
Eating weeds isn’t really all that shocking (or at all), when we stop to think about it. Dandelions, violets, alfalfa and red clover…these are all acceptably considered food, though we may not put them on the weekly menu plan. Other, weedier weeds are never on the radar, however, at least not for me, but maybe they should be. Apparently, many of these “wild greens” are high in vitamins and minerals, and contain healthful elements you won’t find in a conventional grocery store. Plus, they’re fresh as can be.
Colorado Public Radio did a segment featuring Marie Moore, a botanist in Paradox who has been eating weeds, or “wild greens”, since she was a young girl of four or five. I thought it was a funny coincidence when I came across it, because one of the people who attested that we can eat our weeds is Dan, whose blog about worms somehow added an extra punch of validity to the statement for me, and who happens to share the same last name. Moore expounds on some of her favorites, including purslane, which she describes as “very calming”. A succulent (a bonus for its appeal right there), purslane is the only known plant as of the broadcast that is high in omega-3s. Moore says that not only are the leaves excellent in salads, tasting like a mix of lettuce and spinach, you can pickle the stems.
Other weeds mentioned in the segment include salsify, which supposedly can taste a little “like oysters”, lambsquarters, superb steamed, and malva neglecta, a mallow (which makes it sound like it should be candy), and very common. The entire plant is edible, and the young pods taste somewhat like okra. In fact, it’s related to okra.
As luck would have it, I don’t think our back yard actually hosts anything but the nasty, best-to-be avoided weeds, perhaps with the exception of prickly lettuce ( Lactuca serriola), which has spiny, unappealing stems with progressively smaller leaves. It is closely related to lettuce, however, so much so they can cross-pollinate. It may be worth a little research.
Speaking of research, of course that’s what’s needed before we go sit in our back yard with a fork. Here are a couple of resources to start with: Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide; The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants; Nature’s Garden; Wild in the Kitchen: Recipes for Wild Fruits, Weeds, and Seeds.
I’m not sure how much I’ll honestly explore the potential of weeds this year, but I must say, I am starting to feel a little more at peace with them. What determines whether a plant is a weed and not just a plant, anyway? Seriously, I’m sure there is a very sensible scientific explanation as to the classifying, I am just ignorant of it. At least I can admit that sometimes weeds are not sooo terrible. They can even be pretty. And there have got to be a whole lot of life lessons for us to take from something that thrives in all circumstances, no matter what.
It’s only been a week, and I am already feeling my newly budding photography skills floundering. I do, however, have some pretty fun media to work with right now, the kind that keeps a person from from frowning too long: I need to play with my food. Have to. Really.
Melissa, Elsi and I are writing a book called Plot to Plate: Grow, Cook, Create. It’ll be a long time coming yet, and so I’ll withhold further details for now, but we do have an interested agent lined up, and are working on marketing points, a prototype, business cards for the book, a web page, and the like. And I could really use your help.
It’s super simple, and (almost) guaranteed to lighten your mood. Just check out my smiling plates and their subtle differences, and let me know which is most ready to represent in public. He may have a short career, but it’s a stepping stone.
Here’s number 1:
Slight tweak for number 2:
# 3 has a bit more mischief about him?
Not sure if it’s just me, or is #4 a little brighter, more thoughtful?
That’s all for now! Thanks for your help! : )