Garden Power

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, shares her thoughts on the importance of gardening, as well as a recipe for a delicious post-gardening snack.

Dirty hands, wet boots, a speckle of mud on the face, stones and seeds in the pocket, a basket of fresh vegetables in hand: this is a child coming from the garden. He looks messy and a little tired, but his face glows with satisfaction.

Most children are drawn to gardens and are happy to spend some time in these cultivated slices of nature. By adding a little bit of age appropriate guidance, our gardens can become great informal outdoor classrooms and labs. Gardens serve many purposes and they can provide space for various activities for our children.

Gardening is a great hobby. Those who don’t garden yet and need an excuse to start, will easily find one (or more) reasons to do so. Gardening is of course an extremely practical hobby: a gardener grows food.  But there is more. Having a garden benefits our kids, gardening is therapeutic, and growing your own food is environmentally responsible (as opposed to buying produce shipped from faraway places). To work in the garden means to exercise. Then let’s consider the health benefits of eating very fresh organic vegetables, etc. The list could go on and on.

Gardening has been part of my life since my early years. No matter how small, I have always had a garden or at least several pots of herbs and flowers to satisfy my need to grow plants. When my children were young, they had no choice but to accompany me to the garden. They did not mind. Equipped with small shovels, they never got tired of digging. Children are naturally attracted to dirt. Letting a young child explore the soil and look for worms is a good introductory garden activity. Water is another favorite. Watering never disappoints a child. Small watering cans are best for young children, while older kids can usually be trusted with the hose.

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If you encounter a reluctant young gardener, he or she may be lured to the garden with the promise of a fresh snack. Few could resist a freshly picked strawberry, sweet tender carrot, or the first cherry tomato of the season.

The physical work in the garden engages the muscles. The garden environment engages kids’ senses and imagination. It inspires curiosity and provides space for exploration and magic. The garden is the meeting place of the strivings of humans and the work of nature. We humans sometimes loose. We are not always in control.  So we cultivate patience, perseverance, we figure out plan B, we learn to compromise.  Entering a garden, children are stepping away from the world of technology and from instant gratification. Here they need to wait, be persistent, and take responsibility. They are operating in the real world, where actions have real consequences.


Gardening is sometimes hard work, but from caring comes satisfaction, sense of purpose, and achievement. It builds self-esteem and teaches how to work with nature. In the microcosm of the garden, the children observe the cycle of life first hand. They learn to understand not only where food comes from, but also what it takes to grow it. They acquire a very useful life skill: how to grow food and provide for themselves. It is empowering. Young gardeners also learn to taste the difference between quality fresh produce and veggies from the supermarket. Their bodies will start craving food that is fresh and nutritious.

“I don’t like the ones from the store, but these are good.” This is a statement often heard during snacking in the garden. It is a hopeful statement. It shows the power of seemingly small things. It reinforces my belief that our gardens can help us raise thriving children.

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And now, for an easy post-gardening snack recipe…

Egg Spread Sandwiches

This is a nutritious, easy to make spread. Older children should be able to prepare this recipe without adults’ help. Younger children can help to peel the eggs and decorate the sandwiches. If you have a garden, use homegrown herbs and vegetables to decorate the sandwiches.

5 hardboiled eggs, finely chopped
4 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons white yogurt or sour cream
1 tablespoon mustard
2 tablespoon finely chopped onion, green onion or chives
salt and black pepper to taste
sliced bread or baguette
radishes, chives and/or cucumber to decorate the sandwiches

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix, then mash together with a fork. Taste and add more salt or pepper if needed. Spread on bread of sliced baguette. Decorate with fresh vegetables.

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The Time of Seeds

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, reminds us of the lore and symbolism surrounding springtime, and why it is a time for sowing physical and metaphorical seeds.

In the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, young Persephone is carried away by Hades to the underworld. Her grieving mother Demeter, the Goddess of The Harvest, refuses to let the earth bear fruit in her daughter’s absence. However, an eventual deal is struck, in which Persephone can return to her mother for six months of the year, as long as she spends the remaining six with Hades in the underworld. Persephone’s annual return to earth marks the beginning of spring and the growing season. Persephone is not only the queen of the underworld, but also a goddess of spring growth.

In The Story of the Root Children (a favorite of young children), Mother Earth opens the door leading up to the world on an early spring day, and the root children walk in a long procession from underground out to the earth, bringing with them new growth, new life.

It is not surprising that spring has a strong presence in myths and stories of different cultures. In the spring, nature transitions from cold, dark, and sleep, bringing the promise of light, warm weather, and most importantly, of abundant food. The triumph of light, awakening, new life, cyclical renewal, are all associated with spring, as are two powerful spring symbols: eggs and seeds.

For those who work the land, the early signs of nature’s transition are their cue to begin planting. The farmer puts on her rain boots and, equipped with her gardening tools and packets of seeds, goes out to the garden as soon as the soil can be worked. Life feels good. The intoxicating smell of freshly turned soil and the seeds in the basket waiting to be planted hold a promise of new life and a promise of harvest.  The farmer puts seeds into the ground, hoping that with her help their potential will unfold later in the season. It takes faith to plant…

Seeds germinate in the darkness and reach for the light as they emerge through the soil’s surface. For seeds that overwintered under the blanket of soil and snow, more light and longer days signal that it is time to wake up. Spring brings one of only two days each year when light and darkness are perfectly balanced: the spring equinox. Equinox literally means equal night. Light and darkness share the same portion of the day.  Planting around the spring equinox is a technique used by traditional farming cultures worldwide. Sowing seeds outdoors on the first day of spring may not have been an option for us this year, but we can start seeds in the greenhouse or on a windowsill in the days following that day of balance.


Lettuce sprouts

When planting, we choose to plant some seeds in the hope of an edible harvest, others because we consider the plants or their flowers beautiful, and sometimes we have other reasons. There is one plant that I plant each spring just for the sake of its seeds.

Several years ago, in a friend’s garden, I saw a flowering plant that I had not seen before. It was late summer and some of the bloom had already turned into seeds. The plant itself wasn’t remarkable in any way. It was bushy, rather weedy-looking, with small yellow flowers that stayed closed in bright sun. It was the kind of plant that looked like it would survive almost anywhere. But the seeds were anything but ordinary. They were the most unusual and beautiful seeds I have ever seen. They were large, about ¼ of an inch long, dark and shaped like an ancient Greek amphora (a vase used in ancient times for food storage). I just had to have them and I put some into my pocket. I named the plants that grew from these seeds “amphora plants”. I do not know the plant’s proper botanical name. I looked for it in seed catalogs and gardening books without any success.  But, like last season and the season before, I will plant my amphora seeds again for their promise of beauty.

Spring is here (or coming very soon) and whether we put physical seeds into the soil, or as gardeners in the garden of life we sow seeds of gratitude for life and light, it is time to go out and plant.


“Amphora” seeds


Making Seed Packets

There are many seed themed activities we can do with children. Planning the garden and preparing for planting are activities we can engage in even before the weather is right for actual gardening. On a cold afternoon, we made seed packets to give away to our friends.

For this project, you will need some seeds: either seeds you have saved from your garden or store bought ones. Choose seeds your friends could plant and easily grow. For those with gardens, beans, sunflower, squash, salad greens or annual flowers are a good choice. Seeds of basil, parsley, dill, or greens (to be grown as micro-greens) work well for containers. If you wish, you can create your own seed mix.

Use the template below to cut out the paper for the seed packets. You can use plain white paper, construction paper or even wrapping paper. Fold the paper along the middle fold. This will be the bottom of the packet. Put some paper glue on the side flaps and fold to seal the sides of the packet. Decorate the front using pencils, crayons or stickers. Remember to include the name of the seeds the packet is intended for. Fill the packet with seeds, fold the top flap and use glue or use a sticker to close it up.

This is a lovely birthday party activity for younger children!


The Rise and Fall of the Sourdough

Eva Szigeti gives a peek into the living world of Sourdough culture and its many culinary uses.

Before there was commercial yeast, humanity had sourdough. All yeasted breads were made with a starter culture of some kind: sourdough culture, mother starter, levain, whole wheat starter, white flour starter, spelt starter, etc. Regardless of the name, it has always been a mixture of flour and water (or other liquid), colonized by strains of wild yeast and lactobacilli.

How does a sourdough culture cause the bread to rise? Certain proteins in wheat, called glutenin and gliadin, are activated when flour is mixed with water. Together they form gluten. As wild yeast eats away the sugars in the flour, it produces carbon dioxide. Thanks to gluten (meaning glue in Latin) and its elasticity, the dough stretches, making room for the little bubbles of gas and at the same time trapping them in the dough. The acidity of lactobacilli acts as a preservative – the acidic environment works with the yeast, but it’s inhospitable to other organisms. The collaboration between yeast and gluten leads to a fluffy bread with a pleasantly chewy texture, while lactic acid adds the tangy flavor.

Although sourdough bread is usually considered superior to breads made with commercial yeast, we mostly gave up on sourdough baking for the sake of convenience (commercial yeast offering a faster, more straightforward process), and for more reliable and consistent results (less fuss, more predictable dough).

We home bakers may feel intimidated by the task of baking with sourdough culture, but as soon as we learn about the process, we will be more at ease. If we look for instructions, we will find recipes for sourdough starters made with beer, grape juice, wine, or potato water, but these are not necessary or even desirable.  All it takes is some high-quality flour (ideally rye), good water, and time. Lactobacilli and wild yeast (a strain of yeast naturally occurring in flour and the environment) will make themselves at home in the mixture and do the rest of the work. Perhaps you have heard stories about sourdough starters that are generations old, but your sourdough starter doesn’t have to be old (only mature) to work well. It will be unique no matter when and how the culture was started. It will adapt to the environment of your kitchen. It will be affected by the temperature, humidity, altitude, type of flour used, and your care. As you learn to “feel” your starter, you will be able to control its acidity, slowing down or speeding up its rise.

Sourdough starter culture

Sourdough starter culture

It is also worth remembering that the use of the starter doesn’t have to be restricted to bread and rolls. Sourdough culture can be used to make pizza dough, pancakes, waffles, muffins, brownies or even a chocolate cake.

Although making your own sourdough starter is not complicated, it does require some time and attention. Before I started baking with sourdough, I had done some research on the subject. Along the way, I was confronted with vocabulary that seemed slightly unusual in the context of culinary activities. I encountered words about the rising and falling sourdough (and that it is ok for it to fall.)  I learned that a sourdough culture could get exhausted (after consuming all available sugars) and need feeding (more flour). Some sentences suggested even more drama: If neglected, the culture may dry out. It can be saved by resuscitation (meaning by adding more flour, water and a good stir). Luckily, a revived sourdough will bounce back. Then, if fed properly, it will mature and increase in strength and flavor. Everyday feeding is required in the beginning. Once a week feeding is sufficient for a more mature culture.

Had I not known that the sourdough starter is actually a living thing, the vocabulary of fellow bakers/writers would have no doubt given me a clue. It is clear that sourdough culture requires care. We parents certainly have an advantage here. The job is to nourish the starter, to feed it, keep it warm, and to intervene at the right moment. It is important to keep things in balance (right ratio of flour and liquid is important, and timing of the feeding matters). We also need to be able to let go, because part of our nourished sourdough culture will need to be occasionally discarded or given away in order to keep the starter healthy.

Since we are already experienced in all of this, now might be a good a time as any to mix up some flour with water and wait for it to come to life. It could be a beginning of a story told years, perhaps decades from now, by our kids: a tale of a sourdough culture handed down by a mother or father weirdly obsessed with baking the old-fashioned way.


(Sourdough) Chocolate-Walnut Squares

The word sourdough is in parenthesis because there will be nothing “sourdoughish” about the taste of your dessert. The acids will be consumed in reaction with the baking soda. The texture and taste will say “cake” not “bread”. You can use or omit the word sourdough in the name, based on your audience. Use it, if you think the potential consumers will appreciate the unusual ingredient. Don’t call it sourdough if you are baking for not-very-adventurous eaters–they will never know…

Sourdough Chocolate Walnut Square

Sourdough Chocolate Walnut Square


You will need a mature sourdough starter for this project. Recipes are available online.


For the sourdough:

¼ cup sourdough starter
¾ cups all-purpose flour

The sourdough should be of a consistency of pancake batter
Mix the sourdough culture with flour and water the night before baking. Cover it loosely and keep at room temperature overnight.


For the Chocolate-Walnut Squares

¾ cups sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
2 eggs
1/3 canola, safflower or coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, melted and cooled
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup sourdough from the previous night
½ cup chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Combine sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla, and melted chocolate. Sift dry ingredients together and add to the wet mixture. Gently stir in the sourdough. Put into a greased and floured 8” x 6” baking pan. Sprinkle with walnuts and sugar. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Cool and cut into squares.


Birthday Cake

Eva Szigeti gives us a recipe for birthday cake (the kind of cake one dreams about). 

We may not think of the kitchen as a place where decisions regarding risk-taking are being made. Personally, with every approaching birthday in the family, I find myself faced with a dilemma: to bake or not to bake (the birthday cake, of course). I consider the pros and cons. There is the safe solution: walking into a pastry shop and purchasing a fine cake. Or the risky one: making one at home from scratch.

The idea of honoring someone’s birthday by investing my time and energy into a handmade gift or homemade cake is appealing to me. Motivation for risk-taking in this case is not financial or political gain, nor fame, but simply giving. The cake will not only please (hopefully) the taste buds of the birthday boy or birthday girl, it will also stand as a symbol of my love and care. But is it worth the risk?

Risk-taking can be exciting as well as stressful. I choose to focus on the exciting part and I hope that the stressful aspect will never materialize. As long as everything goes well, I will be safe. Of course it is easier said than done. Many things can go wrong when baking a cake. Not only is it much harder to bake a good cake than it is to cook a soup or stew, but usually there are fewer opportunities for troubleshooting. To a soup, one can always add more salt, seasoning, or liquid; the stew can be tasted anytime during cooking and there are tricks that can save even a stew that turned out to be too salty. A cake is different. Once the batter is in the oven, we have no control (except for the baking time and temperature), its fate has been sealed.

One day, I decided to take a double risk and bake a cake I have never made before. Not just any cake, a cake with history. This central European classic can be found in pastry shops of Vienna and Budapest under the name Esterházyschnitten (Esterházy slices) or Esterházy torta (Esterházy cake). The cake was invented in the late 19th century in Budapest and named after a member of the wealthy Esterházy dynasty. As the recipe traveled from one city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to another, every confectioner added his touch, and many variations of the original recipe were born. My search for the authentic recipe led to an array of recipes, some of them quite different from one another. After careful consideration, I decided to use two of them.  One for the nut meringue layers; the filling I imagined would taste better if I followed another recipe.

For a not-very-experienced cake baker like myself, the notion of taking risks also comes with exploration. In the late night solitude of my kitchen, I am entering unknown territory where qualities of meringue and buttercream filling will be explored, and where experiments will be conducted as to what extent the amount of sugar can be lowered without compromising the taste or texture of the cake. It is a place where my patience will be tested, where I try not to give up when the freshly baked meringue sheet starts to break apart as I peel off the parchment.  I will need to be ready for a compromise and give up the original fondant icing in order to save the looks of my cake.

A little after midnight, the cake is done. I must admit, it doesn’t look like an Esterházy torta at all: instead of the signature spiderweb-like chocolate pattern on white fondant glazing, mine is glazed with chocolate. To improve the aesthetics of my cake (I should say to cover up the uneven surface), the top is decorated with slivers of toasted almond and a few sour cherries. My final conclusion is that the cake looks good enough after all to be called a birthday cake and to be given as a gift. Now it has to rest overnight for the layers to come together. I won’t know how it tastes until tomorrow, but hopefully the work was worth the risk. It usually is.

As birthdays remind us of life lived and the years that are already behind us, we can think of becoming pastry chefs for a night and going to a slightly unsafe place, not only as a gift to a friend or family member, but as a gift to ourselves.


The Cake (Almond Meringue Cake with Coffee Buttercream)

In our family, this cake has become the ultimate birthday cake and we refer to it simply as The Cake.  My recipe for The Cake is yet another variation on Esterházy cake. Although it is traditionally a round cake, I prefer to bake rectangular sheets of meringue because they are more forgiving and easier to troubleshoot.

This is a gluten-free cake without any compromises.
Meringue layers
2 cups sliced almonds or walnuts (almonds are typically used in Vienna, walnuts in Budapest)
10 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar

In a food processor process the nuts with ½ cup of sugar until the nuts are finely chopped.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and beat until shiny peaks form. Fold in the nuts.

Spread ¼ of the mixture in a 17 x 11 jelly-roll pan lined with parchment. Bake in a preheated oven on 350 F for about 20 minutes. While the first batch bakes, store the rest of the meringue in the refrigerator. Take the baked meringue out of the oven and while still hot, carefully invert onto a cutting board. Peel off the parchment.

Repeat the process and bake all four meringue layers. Don’t worry if the sheets break, they can be put together when layered with the buttercream.

1 ½ cup sugar
10 egg yolks
¾ cup strong brewed coffee
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 sticks butter

In a bowl combine all ingredients except for the butter. Whisking constantly over a saucepan of simmering water bring to a boil. Let cool down.

Add butter to the lukewarm pastry cream and mix with electric mixer.

Chocolate Glaze
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons milk

In a bowl combine pieces of chocolate, butter and sugar. Melt over a saucepan of simmering water. Add milk, mix until smooth.

To assemble: Alternate meringue layers with buttercream. Save the best meringue sheet for the top. Glaze the top and sides with chocolate glaze.

This is a large and very rich cake. It will serve 12-15 people.

This cake has to sit overnight before being served. The brittle meringue will absorb the moisture and flavors of the buttercream, it will soften and lose all the qualities of meringue. No one will be able to tell that this is a flourless cake.

The Pantry

Eva Szigeti unpacks the pantry, and in doing so, lets us in to the longing, beauty, and ambition that are bedfellows of every gardener and cook.


It is cold outside. The first significant snow of the season is coming down, covering the empty garden beds. I feel content in my warm, cozy living room.

In general, I am quite happy with our suburban home. Still, if I could wish for two extra rooms, I would not hesitate. My choices would be clear: I would wish for a mudroom, hoping that all the mess would be left behind there and keeping the house neat and clean would be easier. Even more than a mudroom, I would love to have a space for storing food, a pantry room.

“Pantry? That’s a funny word,” my seven year old daughter comments. “What does it have to do with pants?”

Well, not much. The word has its origin in Latin. There was the Latin panis, then Anglo-French paneterie and paneter (servant in charge of the pantry). Paneterie became panetrie in Middle English and today we call the space reserved for storing food ‘pantry’. The Latin panis means, of course, bread. The funny word actually does make perfect sense.

Hearing the word pantry I see a small, cold, dark room full of edible treasures: pickles of all sorts, jams and jellies, canned and dried fruit, homemade tomato sauce, cured meats, nuts and herbs. A pantry is like a walk-in closet, but instead of shirts, dresses, suits, and scarves there are pickles, jams, beans, and smoked sausage.

A small pantry room is a common feature of European houses and even city apartments. I miss not having a pantry.

I see the pantries of my childhood: rooms with simple, wooden shelves filled with neat rows of jars of different colors and sizes: sour cherry preserve, prune butter, pickles, pickled stuffed peppers, canned apricots to mention just a few favorites. There are sausages, slabs of bacon and prosciutto hanging from a rack. On the floor is a big crock of lard. Next to it are bags of flour, rice, sugar, and salt – a lot of it – much more than a family could use in a week or two. Just in case…

One could find walnuts, dry beans, red paprika, and herbs stored in linen bags. There are perhaps a few bottles of elderberry syrup and a ceramic barrel filled with sauerkraut. Grandma’s pantry was never without heart-shaped gingerbread cookies she kept for us, her grandchildren.


I am thinking about the next growing season and I am already filling my imaginary pantry. The first jars of the season are the strawberry and strawberry rhubarb jams in late May. They are followed by jars of canned cherries and sour cherry preserve in June. Raspberries and apricots are next. In July, I will preserve blueberries and make lots of pickles: garlic pickles, dill pickles, and horseradish pickles. The surplus tomatoes from the garden will be turned into tomato sauce, some might be dried, and maybe I will push myself and make ketchup. Peppers will be pickled, red ones preserved in oil. Peaches, my favorite canned fruit, are a must in August. I definitely will make prune butter and eggplant spread. Drying herbs for cooking and tea will be an ongoing activity all summer long. Then the fall comes and with it the season of applesauce and sauerkraut. In late September, I will make a huge jar of pickled “everything” like my grandma used to make. Nothing gets wasted, so in a gallon-sized jar the season’s last peppers, green tomatoes, and cabbage come together with some carrots, onions, and pickling spices. This will be the special jar for the holidays.

For the gardener, the pantry is sort of a memoir of the last growing season. It is like a marketplace for a cook. For children, the pantry room is an exciting and tempting space to explore. They sneak in when no one is looking to have a taste of the best jam. Just a tiny bit, so mother wouldn’t notice. Mothers consider the pantry their own domain. They hide birthday presents on the highest shelf behind the tall jars. For them, it is a safe place to keep the sweet treats they give out now and then.

I’d like to have a pantry room because it is practical, but also because it could be beautiful, giving a sense of safety and satisfaction to the gardener and cook in me.

There are of course many more reasons to wish for a pantry. I like to keep in mind that Emily Dickinson wrote some of her poems in the quiet, cool pantry room…



Bean Mandala


On a winter day, the pantry could be a source of material for an art project. A surplus of dry beans and peas could be used for making bean mandalas.

You will need:
Piece of heavy cardboard
Beans, peas and/or lentils of different colors and sizes
Craft glue
Ruler and compass (optional)

Using compass and ruler draw your mandala design on the cardboard. Choose beans, lentils and peas you would like to use for particular areas of your mandala. Put glue on the area you wish to fill with beans. Glue the beans on. Proceed to the next segment of your mandala.

Make sure to use a variety of colors and sizes.

If you prefer to work without drawing a design, start by creating the middle of your mandala first. Develop your design as you go.


The Weaving Room

Eva Szigeti weaves us a story full of memory and beautiful imagery, and shows us how to weave at home, no loom needed! 

Although the rhythm of the seasons is imprinted in the rhythm of our of daily lives only marginally, we perceive late fall and winter as a time for introspection, indoor activities and generally a slower pace of  life. Even if for most of us, life during this time of year doesn’t actually slow down much, we try to find bits of time for ourselves: we sit down with a thick book, a large mug of hot tea or our knitting needles, to relax. In traditional societies, handwork was one of the main winter activities. With no work outdoors, it was a time to sew, spin, weave or knit; to create pieces of clothing for the family and textiles for the household. For me, to spin some wool into yarn or to knit a hat for my child is not a necessity, but regardless of the outcome of the final product, I find these activities rewarding, going well beyond “hand work”.

Writing about handwork, I can’t help but think of my friend Ruth. Ruth is a hobby weaver. On most days, she spends some time in her small attic room furnished with a weaving loom, small couch and baskets of wool and silk yarns that are impatiently waiting to be chosen for the next project. The weaving loom dominates the space, at least visually. But more than anything the room is filled with sound: the noise of moving water. Ruth’s window is overlooking a narrow inland bay that looks much more like a fast moving river than a branch of the ocean. Through openings between the branches of tall pine trees, the eye can reach the surface of the water.

The power of the tide coming in and going out of the bay moves masses of water. The noise seems almost unbearable at first. It is natural, beautiful, and overwhelming at the same time. Then you get used to it, it becomes one of the dimensions of the space, it defines the place like the trees growing at the water’s edge. It belongs there. Next, you miss it. For a short period of time, right at the midpoint between low tide and high tide, the water changes. It is still. It doesn’t move. Between the river flowing east and the river flowing west, there is suddenly a river that has come to a halt; and you miss the noise.

I often wonder if Ruth would weave very different scarves in another room. Does the pace of her weaving change when the room is overpowered by the sound of the moving water? Does she stop to take a nap on the couch when the water is quiet? Does she reach for strong colors when the noise is overpowering? Are pastels her choice as the sounds leave the room?  And her thoughts? Does she move the shuttle up and down with the rhythm of the water or the rhythm of her thoughts?  Do they all become one? – The arm of the ocean reaching far inland, bringing the smell and the sounds of the deeper ocean, the purple pattern on the loom, pictures of childhood flashing in Ruth’s mind.

I imagine there is so much more happening in that room than a new scarf being born out of carefully chosen spools of thread. As the freshly woven weft is beaten down and finds its place in the pattern of the newly created fabric, so must the weaver’s mind come to a quiet place, the thoughts and flashing memories finding their places in the narrative of life: spots in the fabric of life.

The shuttle moving up and down, and one more row is added, up and down, and another row is done. Everything is becoming organized, everything starts to make sense, the pattern is emerging, the weaver is finding answers.

Ruth weaves a lot, and although she sometimes sells her scarves at the local farmers’ market, income is not her reason. She likes to weave, of course, she likes to use her hands to create, the beauty being born under her fingers gives her pleasure. Undoubtedly, she must like the unusual charm of her room, the solitude it offers, the time with herself and for herself…

The rhythm of the water, like the spacing of the warp, like her hand pulling the weft through the corridor of warp threads: left to right then right to left, the weft going under and over, under and over the threads of warp. Like the water leaving the narrow confines of the bay at low tide, the thoughts are flowing free, a beautiful unexpected pattern is taking shape on the loom….

I haven’t seen Ruth for a while but I am thinking of her as I fold the blanket she had woven for my then newborn daughter. I hope she found some time today to sit down and weave; to create, to find sense and balance. I hope that the cozy room and her weaving loom took her once again someplace where there is rhythm, order and freedom at the same time: the up and down of the shuttle, the water flowing east then west, the noise and the absence of the noise… I imagine this is the real reason why Ruth weaves.

Because all things in the fabric of life are interwoven…


Weaving with Kids

You don’t have to own a loom to introduce your child to basic weaving techniques.
When weaving, we are creating a fabric by interlacing two different sets of yarn at right angles. The longitudinal threads are called the warp, the lateral ones are called weft. At home, we can create a weaving frame out of natural materials or recycle a CD and use it as a base for our weaving.

Weaving on a Weaving Frame

You will need:

Those who have access to a backyard, park or woods can create a simple, rustic weaving frame out of collected sticks. You will need four relatively straight sticks of about the same length. Put the sticks on a table forming a rectangle (with the ends crossing). Tie the corners where the sticks cross using yarn or string.

Prepare the warp: take a long piece of yarn and tie it to the left side of the bottom stick of your frame. Bring the warp yarn over the upper part of the frame then down around the back. Pull your warp yarn across the loom again. You are always crossing over the front of the frame and around the back making a figure 8 with your warp thread. Continue until you have warped the frame and then tie off your warp. Your frame is ready for weaving!

Choose a yarn for weft (you can also interlace your warp with plant material, like long stalks of grass or very thin twigs). Starting on the left side, begin interlacing your weft with warp by going under, then over the warp, under and over, under and over until you come to the right side of the frame. In the next row, you will be interlacing the weft with warp starting on the right side of the frame. This time, the weft will go under the warp where it was over the warp in the first row. Continue this process until you fill your frame. In this project, the created fabric is not taken off the frame. The frame becomes part of the final project.
CD Weaving

You will need:
some yarn

Cut a piece of yarn about six feet long. This will be your warp thread. Tie it to the CD. The knot should be on the ‘wrong’ side of the project. Wrap your yarn around the CD 13 or 15 times (must be an odd number). Make sure the warp is tight. Tie the end of the string. You are ready to start to weave.

Tie the yarn to one of the warp threads close to the middle of the CD. Hide the knot on the ‘wrong’ side. Pull your yarn between the warp threads alternating going above and under the warp. Keep repeating this process. Make sure your yarn is tight. If you would like, you can change colors (there is no need to change colors if you are using a rainbow-colored yarn). When you switch yarns, tie the new color to the old yarn. As you continue weaving, hide the knot under your weaving. When you are finished, tie your weft string to a warp string and hide the end under the weaving.

Pickling and Phi

Nature Place cooking maven Eva Szigeti shares a pickling recipe with us for this month of October. 

The gardener and the frost are no friends, certainly not during the growing season. As the season of gardening is coming to an end, the gardener is preparing for the upcoming months when winter dictates the rules. There are many decisions to be made before the first frost. The gardener watches the weather forecast, considers the micro-climate of the garden and makes decisions. Freshly picked produce is of course the best, so we strive to extend the harvest’s garden life for as long as possible. It sometimes means taking a risk, because even a light touch of the first frost will destroy the late harvest of cold-sensitive tomatoes or peppers. Most gifts of the garden need to be harvested before the frost puts its hand on them, but some plants survive the first cold spell or even benefit from a little frost.

Some members of the cabbage family not only grow well in cool conditions but they react to mild frost by producing sugars. Some root vegetables (parsnip, celeriac, carrot), on the other hand, convert their existing starches into sugars after a frost or two. So late fall offers a perfect window of opportunity to feed some frost-bitten kale, Brussels sprouts or parsnip dishes to our picky eaters. The frost is on our team in this case.

One of my favorite cold weather vegetables is cauliflower. Cauliflower is a brassica, cousin of cabbage, broccoli, and kale. Although we refer to it as a vegetable, the part we eat, the “head”, is a closely packed arrangement of undeveloped flower buds.


Fall is not only a time of harvest but also a time when we focus on preserving the surplus for the upcoming winter months. Pickled cauliflower is a must in our family.

Although those who have never made pickles may feel intimidated by the idea, it is a fairly simple process worth trying. If we involve children, it will be time well spent for sure. “Quick pickles” require no canning but they need to be stored in the refrigerator and will last for only several weeks. For long-term storage, the jars need to be canned. It adds some extra work and time to the project but as a reward we get jars of pickled vegetables that don’t need to be refrigerated and that will last through the winter.

Armed with sterilized mason jars, a large stockpot for canning, a head of cauliflower, onions, peppers, canning liquid, and with two young helpers at my side, I am ready to start.

As we wash the cauliflower, take the florets apart, and wait for the pickling liquid to cool down, we talk. The children start to wonder about the word itself. Where does ‘cauliflower’ come from? We start playing word detectives trying to figure out the secret of the word. The “flower” part doesn’t require much guessing. The “cauli” part is harder. We look for a dictionary. The first element of the word comes from the Latin caulis “cabbage” (originally “stem” or “stalk”). It was adopted into Germanic languages and is the source of the cole in coleslaw and of Scottish kale. We learn that the words cabbage, kale, cole in coleslaw, and cauli in cauliflower all share the same origin.

Leaving linguistics behind and returning to culinary activities, lets take a look at cooking methods that can be used to prepare cauliflower. It can be sautéed, steamed, roasted, fried or stir-fried. Cauliflower, especially when roasted, makes a great cream soup. Eat it pureed, put it in a curry or make a cauliflower spread. Recently, I saw a recipe for cauliflower steak: basically a large chunk of roasted cauliflower served as one would serve a steak. Of course, eating cauliflower raw works too. Because of their nice shape and color, the small florets make great crudités. And lets not forget the leaves and stalk, they don’t have to be thrown out, they can be used in stocks.

The acidic smell of vinegar is tickling our noses as we add the pickling liquid to the mason jars packed with cauliflower florets. The closed jars are now ready for the canning pot. We will have crunchy, tangy cauliflower to brighten our winter meals.

The discussion about cauliflower doesn’t have to end at the dining table. The artist in us will stop to admire the beautiful, intricate surface pattern of cauliflower’s florets before putting them into the cooking pot. The scientifically minded cook can go on and explore cauliflower’s distinct fractal dimension (which involves the pattern of the “head”) noticed by mathematicians. Or one can use the plant to study the golden ratio, since another quality of cauliflower is that the angle between “modules” (in the kitchen we call them simply florets), as they become more distant from the center, is 360 degrees divided by Phi.

To me it all proves that even cooking can take us to unexpected places…



Pickled Cauliflower (both quick pickled and canned)

For 5 one-quart jars

1 – 2 cauliflowers
2 medium onions cut into wedges
1 red bell peppers cut into strips
few cayenne peppers (optional)

For the pickling liquid
7 cups water
3 ½ cups white vinegar, white wine vinegar or rice vinegar (5% acidity)
5 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
6 pc allspice
3 pc cloves
2 bay leaves

Make the pickling liquid. Combine water, vinegar, sugar, and spices in a nonreactive pot and bring to boil. Gently simmer for 3-5 minutes. Make sure all the sugar is dissolved. Let the liquid cool down.

Have five sterilized one-quart mason jars with lids ready. Prepare the cauliflower. Cut off the outer leaves and any brown spots. Break the cauliflower into small florets. Wash thoroughly.

Put a few pieces of onion into the bottom of each jar. Fill the jars with cauliflower florets, trying to pack them as closely as possible. Add a few strips of red bell pepper. For spicy cauliflower add 2-3 cayenne peppers per jar. Fill the jars with the pickling liquid. (The amount of liquid you will need depends on how tightly your jars are packed. You may have some liquid left.) Put the lids on.

If you are making quick pickles, you are done. Refrigerate for at least 3 days before opening. Keep refrigerated at all times. Kept in the refrigerator, quick pickled cauliflower will last for several weeks.

For canned cauliflower proceed to the next step:

Use a pot large enough to hold five mason jars. Put the jars into the pot. Add water to the pot. The water level should be around two inches high. Cover with a lid and bring the water to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Turn the heat off and keep the jars in the pot until they cool down. This will take several hours or overnight. Take the jars out of the pot. Your pickled cauliflower is canned. It does not need to be refrigerated and it will last for months. Wait at least a week before opening your first jar.

Quest for Bread

Nature Place cooking activity leader, Eva Szigeti, writes about food and cooking, and how to feel at home, wherever you are. 


It never was part of my plan to bake bread. Like many other things in life, somehow it happened…

I grew up in a place where “daily bread” is not only a metaphor for food in general, but where bread is truly eaten daily, almost with every meal. Good bread with fresh butter is the ultimate comfort food for most of my countrymen and countrywomen. For kids, bread with butter and honey or jam is what peanut butter sandwiches are for American children.

My quest for the “perfect bread” began years ago when I left Europe for the United States. Coming to a place far away from home, I braced myself for the unknown. I knew that I would have to face the unexpected, but I was unprepared to be somewhat hungry almost all the time. In this country, which was to become my new home, I encountered sophisticated technology, an abundance of goods and foods, but shockingly, I could not find good bread or butter. And there is no home without good bread and butter… never before had I thought about the value of basic, simple food. To make myself feel at home, I started to bake bread.

The loaves that came out of my oven in the beginning of my journey were great compared to the ones sitting on the shelves of the supermarket, yet still very far from the imagined “perfect bread”. The first turning point came when an older lady living in the neighborhood paid a visit soon after my son was born. Along with her good wishes and tiny, hand-knitted mittens and socks, she brought us one of her home-baked loaves as a gift. The very next day I was walking home from her house with her bread recipe in my pocket, and in my hands I was carrying the real gift: a jar full of sweet-and-tangy smelling, bubbly sourdough starter. That’s when the real magic began…

A few years and many loaves later, on a rainy summer day in Transylvania, I was helping my husband’s uncle, a retired baker, to make bread. He lives in a tiny village where the drinking water comes from the stream running behind the houses, and where the art of traditional bread making is still alive. At the end of the day, out of the wood-fired oven came robust, round loaves with thick, dark crusts, and these loaves redefined my idea of bread. That night we ate the same kind of bread the baker’s ancestors had on their tables. My request for the recipe left a friendly smile on the baker’s face. Naive me, of course – he had no recipe, he didn’t need one, he knew the way of bread… After this day, my loaves became much better again.

My next inspiration came from reading experience. In books written by professional bakers, I found not only inspiring recipes but motivating personal stories, and most importantly, techniques that brought my baking to a new level.

Over the years I have shared many breads with my family and friends: free-formed, pan-baked, white and whole-wheat, yeasted and sourdough, wheat, rye, spelt and multi-grain, breads “spiced up” with potatoes, seeds, cheese, spices… It has always been a great pleasure for me to work with my hands, experiment with ingredients and give the fruits of my work to those I love.

All of the above being true, I sometimes think about the other side of the truth. The dark secret of my bread baking (as dark as the crust of a burned loaf of bread, one could say) is that I can’t get away from it. By baking bread my family likes, I build myself a trap. My children would often label average quality, store-brought bread as “not proper bread”, and politely (or not so politely) refuse it. But they do want to eat bread and I just have to keep baking. One loaf disappears quickly and soon it is time to bake another and then yet another. I am trapped… or am I? Maybe I have to admit that there is something satisfying in this demand for bread coming from my family, and maybe I like my established baking routine (at least most of the time). The bread I bake is certainly not perfect and it never will be, but having it is part of what it means to be home.


Whole-wheat Rolls
(makes 16 medium rolls)

2 cups whole-wheat flour
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups lukewarm water
2 teaspoons instant dry yeast
2 tablespoons salt

Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add water. Stir together with a large spoon or mix on low speed in a mixer with the paddle attachment until the dough comes together. You may need a little more or less flour, depending on the quality of your flour. Adjust with water or flour if your dough seems too sticky or too dry.

Cover and let rest for about 20 minutes. Knead by hand or machine (on medium speed for 12 minutes).

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough ferment at room temperature for approximately 1 ½ – 2 hours, or until it doubles in size. Push the dough down and let it proof again until it doubles in size.

Dust your counter or a large wooden board with flour. Transfer the dough onto the floured surface, divide it into 16 pieces and form round rolls. Cover a large baking sheet with parchment and arrange the rolls on the sheet. Brush the tops of the rolls with lukewarm water and let them rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Bake the rolls for about 20 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer the rolls to a cooling rack. Cool for at least 45 minutes before serving.


Eva Szigeti operates Pinebrook Garden Day Care, child-care centered around hands-on homesteading activities and free creative play. She also offers cooking and fiber craft classes for children and programs for homeschoolers.  For the past three summers Eva has been teaching cooking at The Nature Place Day Camp.

Garden Dreams Coming True

It was a midwinter day. We were engaging in a gardener’s favorite wintertime activity: looking through seed catalogs, planning and daydreaming. As so many gardeners do, we were dreaming about the growing season. We tried not to acknowledge the sight of our frozen garden, the gray emptiness of the ground, the garden fence that seemed to have no purpose in January. We were dreaming of the summer when the gardener no longer remembers the barren soil, the empty beds. With our inner eyes we saw all shades of green in our garden beds, a fence covered with climbing beans, we saw red tomatoes hiding under the leaves, shiny peppers asking to be picked, colorful flowers being visited by bees and butterflies, and busy hands weeding, watering, mulching, picking …

The gardener waiting for the arrival of spring is impatient, she wants to dig and plant. She can’t, so she keeps busy and compensates by looking through seed catalogs. And as she does there is so much hope, so much expectation, that shopping for seeds becomes almost a mania. As if buying a lot, much more than one can plant, or as if ordering the seeds right at that moment could bring the first day of spring closer.

As I was browsing through seed catalogs with my children and planning what to plant and where to build new garden beds my son suddenly said: “Let’s save one garden bed for snack food.” I wasn’t sure what he meant exactly, but I was a very proud mother at that moment. I felt that engaging the kids in gardening activities from an early age was paying off. My child was hoping for snacks from the garden. I couldn’t wait to hear his explanation. It turned out he wanted to plant vegetables he and his sister like to munch on raw, preferably super-freshly picked and right in the garden. My son was dreaming about a garden bed filled with crunchy kohlrabi, buttery salad turnips and radishes, kale, peas in tender pods, and lemony sorrel.

At last, the spring has arrived. We opened our garden shed, took out the tools and went to the garden to start the new gardening season. Turnip, radish and kale seeds were planted directly into garden beds. Kohlrabi seeds were put into planters, emerging seedlings will be kept in the greenhouse for a few weeks. Sorrel, being a hardy perennial, was already there in the garden, the first leaves of the season were ready to be picked.



Although sorrel is not very well know in these parts of the world, it is well worth planting. This plant with spear-shaped leaves, native throughout Europe and  Euro-Asia, somewhat resembles spinach but its pleasantly sour taste will surprise everyone trying it for the first time. Sorrel is also one of the first greens to come back in early spring, it is ready to be harvested before some other plants are even planted. When established, the gardener can forget about it, it more or less takes care of itself. As a child, I remember picking sorrel leaves growing among the grass under my great-grandmother’s sour cherry tree. I had assumed at the time that sorrel was a wild plant.

In the kitchen, sorrel can be treated as a salad green or leafy vegetable. Use raw sorrel in salads, wraps and sandwiches. The most common sorrel dish is a sorrel sauce, but the tart green leaves work well in soups and sautés as well. Sorrel combines well with potatoes and eggs. The lightness and lemony tang of sorrel sauce nicely compliments dishes made with red meats.

But of course as all young gardeners know, sorrel is best eaten as a snack, just by itself, preferably right in the garden. And as my children were munching on the first leaves of the season, I knew that our garden dreams will all come true.

sorrel and potato frittata

sorrel and potato frittata

Sorrel & Potato Frittata

2 medium potatoes; peeled, sliced and precooked
1 small onion, sliced
3 packed cups sorrel
6 eggs
¼ cup Swiss cheese, grated
2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
pinch of pepper
salt to taste

Heat an 8-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add oil. Add onion and sauté 10 minutes or until tender. Add sorrel and cook, stirring just until sorrel wilts, about 2 minutes. Add precooked potatoes and gently mix with onion and sorrel.

Beat eggs, combine with salt and pepper. Pour egg mixture over vegetables in pan. Cook until edges begin to set, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with cheese.

Finish the frittata under the broiler. Using the “low” setting, the top of the frittata should be about 4-5 inches from the flames. Take the frittata out as soon as the top starts to brown, this will probably take no more than a minute.

Cut into wedges and serve with fresh salad.

Leftovers make a great cold lunch.

frittata slice

Dinner Table Dilemmas

Nature Place cooking activity leader, Eva Szigeti, writes about food, family, and finding our way.

Sitting down to the table and sharing food with our family is mostly a source of pleasure. But dinner could easily turn into a less-than-pleasant power struggle if children are not happy with the food being served.

As parents we make dietary choices not only for ourselves but for our offspring as well.  We do our best to stay informed and to make the right decisions. We try to educate ourselves: we read, we research online, we talk to those who have more experience than we do, we learn from our own experience and our mistakes. On our quest for best dietary rules for our family, we are bombarded with information and sometimes it is not easy to weed out pseudoscience, myths, folk wisdom, or marketing strategies masked as science. The quantity of of information itself can be overwhelming and is often contradictory. We try to answer for ourselves a multitude of questions: Is gluten harmful to my children? Would they be better off on a vegetarian diet? Paleo perhaps? Is red meat a good choice? Is lactose making my child hyper? How much sugar is too much? Should I limit the intake of fresh fruit due to its sugar content? Do they need to take omega-3 supplements? Is the latest superfood truly beneficial for my child, or is all the fuss just a marketing strategy? It used to be common knowledge that peanuts should be avoided at an early age because their consumption might trigger an allergy. According to more recent research giving peanuts at an early age might actually prevent peanut allergies. So what does a new parent do about peanuts? It seems that the list of questions never ends. We are lost in a jungle of information and we feel more confused than informed.

Feeling overwhelmed, I choose to step back, take a deep breath and using the best of my knowledge, I set up my own dietary rules. They are based on information I deem scientific, on common sense, and intuition. Of course I am aware that I am also caring the baggage of my upbringing, culture, beliefs, and my own dietary habits that will undoubtedly influence my decision. The balancing act starts.

Once decisions are made and rules are set, meals are planned, cooked and eaten. Well, hopefully eaten. Since most of us incorporate into daily meal plans foods that not all children are excited about, we face the next dilemma: how to motivate children to try foods they are resistant to eating, how much to encourage and push. Is modeling right eating habits enough? Of course, involving children in growing food and cooking is a great proven strategy for growing good eaters, but it is not always an option.

How we perceive food is based not only on its flavor and texture. Sometimes giving a dish a special name makes all the difference. When I had offered my kids a vegetarian bean chili and called it Bean Chili, no one was interested. I served the very same dish next time disguised under the name of Cowboy Beans. The children were very excited, seconds were served and we had no leftovers that day. Ever since it’s been one of my kid’s favorite meals.

When a young child is more likely to eat broccoli if I call the florets ‘little trees’, I am more than willing to call them just that. Rice and other grains can be made into ‘mountains’ by using a small porcelain cup as a mold. A rain of fresh herbs falling on the mountaintop makes the rice even more appealing. Just playing with words can sometimes be a tremendous help.

Then there is the aesthetics of food presentation.  I perceive it as the finale of the cooking process. The meal starts with a visual feast, then as we inhale the aroma of the food, smell gives us a hint regarding flavor and our taste buds are ready… I enjoy arranging food on a plate and on the table almost as much as eating it. With a nice presentation we honor the food and the work that went into preparing it.


Still, I do want my children to learn to value food for what it is, and I do not like to go overboard with making dishes look overly ‘child friendly’. The food on the plate should be visually appealing, but flower-shaped pancakes or sandwiches resembling hearts do not appeal to me. Perhaps a special occasion like a birthday or seasonal celebration can be an exception, such as the ‘duck pond” we made on a special spring day.

Since eggs have a green light on the list of my dietary rules, an egg dish is an obvious choice for the season. Eggs not only symbolize spring and a new beginning of the cycle of life, but they are also abundant at this time of the year. For the last few weeks we have been finding a nest full of eggs every day. Some of our hens lay brown eggs, while eggs of our Ameraucana chicken have an unusual green tint. Children like to collect eggs as much as they enjoy the dishes made out of them.


Duck Pond

4 hard-boiled eggs
2 teaspoons butter
½ teaspoon mustard
1 tablespoon sour cream
½ cup plain yogurt
salt and black pepper to taste

boiled potato
8 black peppercorns
piece of carrot

Cut the eggs in half, gently take out the yolks. In a small mixing bowl combine the yolks, butter, mustard, sour cream, salt and black pepper. Mix until smooth. Refill the eggs with the mixture. Combine the leftover egg yolk mixture with the yogurt. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread the yogurt on a plate. Arrange the eggs, cut side down on the yogurt “pond”. Mash the potato and form small balls, add peppercorns for eyes and pieces of carrot for a beak. Use a toothpick to attach the ‘head’ to the ‘body’.


Eva Szigeti operates Pinebrook Garden Day Care, child-care centered around hands-on homesteading activities and free creative play. She also offers cooking and fiber craft classes for children and programs for homeschoolers.  For the past three summers Eva has been teaching cooking at The Nature Place Day Camp.