Nature’s Palette

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, paints an extraordinary picture of the changing colors in nature’s palette and includes fascinating notes on using plant dyes, including a DIY how-to…

After what felt like an almost never-ending winter, it is a great joy to finally enter the season of budding colors. Snowdrops, violets, and skunk cabbage might be the first signs of spring, but they never quite convince me that the winter is gone for good. It is when the leaves on the trees emerge that I feel assured: there is no way back to winter-land. The change of scenery is usually sudden. With it, nature bursts into color. We leave behind the lifeless shades of grey and brown and celebrate the   soft colors of spring. Shades of fresh green, with occasional dots of color, dominate the landscape. Comforting and calming colors of early spring slowly mature and change. Plants soak up the sunshine and richer colors come to life. The color palette of nature reaches near perfection on a wild flower meadow in June or on a field of wild lupine in July.

As the year progresses, the colors of nature become even more full and rich. The warm shades of the fall landscape bring another visual highlight of the year. The reds, golden yellows, oranges, and rusty browns radiate back the energy of the sun as if to charge us with energy before the world around us fades again into the greyish-brown realm of early winter.

Nature has everything we need, including color. In fact, there were no synthetic dyes until the mid 19th century.  Still, the world of humans had not been colorless. Until then, dyes and pigments came exclusively from nature. Think of old masters: Michelangelo, Botticelli, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bosch…. They painted with the colors of nature. The fibers of traditional oriental rugs and renaissance tapestries were all dyed with natural materials. So were the luxurious dresses of emperors and empresses of the past. Fabrics of rich colors symbolized status, and their cost was high. Lower classes dressed in browns and grays, shades that were the easiest and cheapest to create.

Dyeing is not unlike cooking. It involves applying heat to extract, in this case, not flavor but color. A large pot is utilized to make a dye bath. The plant material gets simmered in water in order to extract pigments. Then fabric or fiber is immersed in the (warm or cold) colored liquid to absorb the dye. Some dye material might be hiding in your kitchen. Tea, coffee, turmeric, or onion skin all contain pigments that get easily absorbed by natural fiber or fabric. Henna used for tattooing and dyeing hair also creates beautiful rusty reds on fabric.

The process is fun and satisfying. We can start by collecting plant material suitable for dyeing (marigold, goldenrod, black walnut etc.), then we cook the colored brew. If our goal is to create a solid color fabric, we just need to put the textile into the dye bath. Otherwise, we apply our artistic imagination and prepare the fabric by folding it to create pattern. I like to get inspired by the techniques of ancient Japanese Shibori.

When working with plant dyes, we get the satisfaction of knowing that the colors come from renewable resources rather than petroleum.  Natural material such as silk, wool and cotton absorb the dyes well. Although the use of mordants (solutions that act as binding agents) usually results in richer colors, for safety and environmental reasons, I prefer not to use them.

Feel free to experiment. Nature is forgiving. Even unexpected results have their beauty. Sometimes we end up with a color or pattern that is much more beautiful than anything we could have planned. Mother Earth provides everything we need.


Dyeing Cotton Fabric with Annatto

Annatto seeds come from Central and South America. Traditionally, they were used as body paint. Annatto is widely used today as a food coloring.  The orange color of the supermarket cheddar comes from these seeds!

Annatto dye bath produces yellow, golden yellow, orange-yellow, or orange hues, depending on the amount of seeds used, and the weave and thickness of the fabric. Silk and wool can also be successfully dyed with annatto seeds.

  • 1 cup annatto seeds
  • medium piece of cotton fabric or 2-4 cotton bandanas
  • pot and stirring spoon (used exclusively for dyeing)
  • iron for ironing the fabric, rubber bands, string, thread and needle (you may only need one of these, depending on the folding technique you choose)
  • plastic gloves to protect your hands

Choose white or off-white fabric/bandanas for your project. Unbleached fabric will produce deeper color.

Gently simmer the annatto seeds in about a gallon of water for one hour. In the meantime, fold the fabric using one of the Shibori techniques. This is a link to one of many videos showing how to use the Shibori folding techniques. In this video synthetic dyes are used, so please disregard their dyeing instructions.

Gently rinse the folded fabric in lukewarm water, making sure that it is wet throughout. This will assure even absorption of the dye liquid.

Turn off the heat under the pot. The dye liquid can be strained, but leaving seeds in the dye bath during the whole dyeing process will produce richer color.  Put the fabric into the dye bath and let it steep for at least 4 hours or overnight. Take the fabric out of the pot. Rinse under running water and squeeze out excess water. Unfold the fabric and be ready to be surprised! Put out your fabric to dry. Before further use, hand-wash the dyed fabric.

Emergency Sandwiches

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, ponders our recent storm and finds the bright side of a darkened home…

We were already getting ready for the spring when a late season snowstorm struck. First, there was light snow for hours with little accumulation. Then, suddenly, the snow started coming down fast. In just a couple of hours, our backyard turned into a winter wonderland. It was a beautiful sight. The trees frosted with freshly fallen snow looked majestic. Then there was more snow, and still more. Under the weight of the heavy, wet snow, the branches bowed and came closed to the earth; then, some gave up and met the ground. Large branches, one after another, were coming down. Then a large tree fell. The old mulberry tree was suddenly gone and, with it, the prospect of an early summer day mulberry feast. We will miss that tree, and so will the birds and deer passing through our backyard.

Like many others, we lost power. We were in the dark for two days and two nights. Considering all that can go wrong in extreme weather, we were just fine. No one was hurt, there was no damage to the house. We were a little uncomfortable, but safe. A room temperature of 50 F is not desirable, but again it is not a tragedy either.

The first night without electricity was even fun. The children were running around with flashlights preparing extra blankets for the night. They built a hideout under the table and moved in, flashlights and all. The house suddenly seemed to them much more interested and exiting. It felt like a campground. No screens, or devices, not even books. The goodnight story was told, not read.  My son promptly suggested that we should have a night without electricity every week. Well–a night without lights and devices, but with the heating and the refrigerator running.

The second night without power was harder. The novelty of the situation had worn off, and the house no longer felt cozy. It was cold. We fantasized about our old house and its wood burning stove that had, in similar situations, provided not only comforting heat, but also light entering the room through its glass door. It had even provided a surface for cooking. And now here we were with no heat, no lights, no internet service, no power to operate appliances and gadgets.

Do we rely on electricity too much? ‘Yes’, is certainly the answer. We can, for sure, implement measures that would lessen our dependence on electrical power. However, to what extent these measures would be possible and practical varies household to household. To eliminate the need for electricity entirely does not seem like a realistic solution at all. We can certainly be better prepared for the next short-term power outage like the one we just had, but there is little we can do as individuals in case of a long-term power outage, which would very likely cause significant distress to the fabric of our society.

While having these scary thoughts, and feeling helpless, I found some comfort in the idea of making a chicken soup to warm us. Luckily, the stove in our kitchen is a gas one, so the burners were working. I just needed a match to light them.

While I was putting up the big pot of chicken soup to simmer for our evening meal, the kids opted for grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. We sliced the bread, prepared the cheese and took out the panini press. Everything was ready to go. Oops! Not the panini press. It needs electricity. It was time to improvise. That day, we made grilled cheese sandwiches in a cast iron skillet on the stove-top. Although emergency-situation meals are often a far cry from their regular selves, these sandwiches actually tasted much better then their panini press relatives. Snowstorm or not, we will surely make them again.

As it often happens, there are tiny crumbs of something good lurking even in unpleasant or difficult situations.

 

Stove-top Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

For 4 sandwiches:

8 slices of bread
1 cup grated cheese (you may need more or less depending on the size of your bread slices)
2-3 tablespoons finely minced onions or green onions
1 clove minced garlic (optional)
some cream cheese or mayo
2-3 tablespoons olive oil for the skillet

Use good-quality stale bread. Soft fresh bread will absorb too much of the oil, resulting in greasy sandwiches. This is a perfect recipe to use up bread that is no longer fresh.

For the cheese: cheddar, jack, Swiss, fontina, or muenster can be used (or a combination of these/whatever cheese your fridge has to offer).

Mix the grated cheese with minced onions and garlic, if using. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese or mayo on all the bread slices. Spread grated cheese mixture on four of the slices. Use the other four slices to cover the sandwiches.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron skillet.  Place the sandwiches in the skillet. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip, add more olive oil if needed. Cook until golden.

For a full meal, serve the sandwiches with a salad and an egg sunny-side-up.

Simplicity

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, takes stock of her lifestyle around food and cooking, and encourages us all to embrace simplicity…

How we manage our time is an important factor in our daily lives. Re-evaluating my daily routines, I came to the conclusion that I have been spending way too much time with cooking and subsequent kitchen cleanup.

It was time to simplify my kitchen activities. Inevitably, many questions crossed my mind: How do others do it? What is wrong with my approach to daily food preparation? How can I simplify things for myself while still serving a homemade meal for my family every night? Is more planning the answer? More improvising? Would an instant pot save me? Or should I start cooking huge batches of food that will last 2-3 days?

I considered the eating habits of my family and those around us. As eaters, we are global citizens for sure. We have access not only to local and seasonal produce, but fruit, vegetables, spices, seafood etc. from all over the world. Without having to travel, we can enjoy cuisines of different nations in local restaurants.

In our culture, eating has become much more than sustenance. We don’t only eat to provide nourishment for our bodies—sometimes we eat for the sake of the experience itself. We try exotic foods we haven’t had before.  We are drawn to haute cuisine offering combinations of flavors and textures that are intriguing, surprising, even provoking.  Celebrity chefs often take dinning to conceptual levels where cooking borders art. A chef engaging in molecular gastronomy seems to be far removed from a cook. They are partly an artist, partly sort of an alchemist trying to extract the true essence of the ingredients. These chefs might serve things that go far beyond unusual: flavored airs and vapors, or a hot cauliflower ice cream that melts as it cools. These are exciting trends, but they certainly can not be reproduced in my kitchen, and to me they stand in sharp contrast with food as a necessary fuel for our bodies.

In the past, just several generations back, homemade food was the only option for most people. As I wrote last month, it was mostly women who cooked every day. We would probably label the everyday food of those days as a simple and possibly boring fare. The majority of households had access to only seasonal and local produce, which meant that the menu was simple and without too much variety.

Food that was relatively expensive, rich in calories, and required elaborate cooking methods, was reserved for special occasions and holidays. Wait! What? Realizing all this, I came to understand the root of my cooking problem: We eat almost every day, as it was a holiday. We need to simplify.

The question that needs to be answered is how to embrace simplicity without the feeling of loss. If simplifying feels like “giving up” something, then it is not sustainable long-term.

I have decided to give it a try. Simpler cooking and eating saves time, money, and environmental resources. Simple meals and simple techniques make it easier to pass on cooking skills to my children. And most children will certainly enjoy a piece of roasted chicken served with plain rice more than my elaborate chicken biryani that (beside the monetary expense) comes at the cost of half a day of my time anyway.

Like trying to appreciate the overlooked details of everyday life, I will try to value earthy, rustic, and simple foods because they fit into the puzzle of a wholesome life.

 

Polenta

This is a simple porridge-like dish made with coarsely ground yellow corn marketed as polenta (although polenta is really the name of the dish). I prefer to use organic polenta found in the bulk section of health food stores.

This recipe serves 4.

For the polenta:
1 ½ cup polenta (not instant polenta or ready-made polenta)
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

Serve with:
1 cup feta cheese or blue cheese
1 cup sour cream

In a heavy saucepan, bring water to boil. Gradually add polenta, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add salt.

Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until polenta starts to thicken (about 5 minutes). Cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Polenta is done when texture is creamy and it starts to pull away from the side of the pan.

Divide polenta onto four plates. Top with cheese and sour cream. Serve immediately. For a dairy-free meal use caramelized onions as a topping.

 

Cooking: Beyond Gender

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, talks about her own experience as a woman in the kitchen, and suggests ways that we can break down stereotypes by involving children in cooking, regardless of their gender…

I love to cook, but I am not always ready to admit to this. Although growing interest in quality food and the cooking experience itself is bringing more and more home cooks of both genders into the kitchen, the daily food preparation for a family is still often viewed as mostly a “women’s job”.  Women who embrace this activity are unfortunately still seen by some as ‘homely’, possibly not emancipated, or even not skilled to do anything else. I am often reluctant to talk about my hobby because of this negative stigma—a result of patriarchically established gender roles.

The notion of cooking as a gendered activity has been strongly present in our cultural tradition. Cooking was traditionally perceived as a woman’s mundane job—one that almost anyone can do—not as a true skill or craft, thus underscoring the subordinate position of women in society. Cooking, in the realm of the domestic life, was reserved for women, while food production outside of the sphere of private life belonged to men.  The bakers and butchers of patriarchal societies were always men. The low status of domestic kitchen work stood in sharp contrast to the much higher status of the work performed by these ‘skilled craftsmen,’ who were always men.

Recently, I stumbled upon a book called The Working Wives’ (Salaried or Otherwise) Cook Book by Theodora Zavin and Freda Stuart. The book was published in 1963. The primary assumption within is that the wife is the one who prepares the family dinner, even when holding a full-time job. As for husbands, we read the following: “The nonworking wife may be able to send her husband to the supermarket or give him the job of doing the dishes without repercussions.  But the working wife must, of necessity, always be aware that the mere fact of her working may to some degree impinge on her husband’s feeling of masculinity. She must be doubly cautious about not heaping ‘women’s work’ on him. We have the impression that most working wives are so sensitive to this that, whoever that beleaguered, emasculated, domesticated husband may be whom the magazines are always decrying, he is not the husband of the working wife.”

These lines sound amusing or sad today, depending on the perspective. No doubt, a lot has changed since The Sixties. Men not only venture to the supermarkets to do the weekly shopping, many men cook. Some of them share kitchen activities with their partners, and there certainly are families were the man is the primary presence in the kitchen. But, often, men interested in food and cooking don’t take on everyday cooking projects. Rather, they engage in occasional and distinctly ‘masculine’ activities, like making and smoking sausage or jerky, curing bacon, or cooking meats outdoors. With these, they are clearly not entering the world of ‘housewives’, but – one could say – they are embracing the ‘hunter’ within. These manifestations of traditional gender roles raise the question: how can we navigate the kitchen with our children of any gender, and how can we cultivate a love of cooking that continues to break down limitations and stigmas for future generations.

My first and only rule is to engage my children.  Chores and tasks should be assigned based on their age, interests, and personalities, rather than on gender. Children love hands-on activities. Most of them are happy to participate if they feel useful. If engaged in simple kitchen projects from an early age on, cooking becomes a “normal” part of a child’s repertoire of activities, a habit that won’t be question later in life.

I recommend not taking risks at first. Start with activities your kids will like for sure. A young child will love to wash salad greens, a variation on water play. Washing dishes might can be made into a fun activity for an older child. Working with bread dough is very much like playing with play dough. And mixing is always so much fun! Yes, it would be much faster and much less messy for us adults to complete these jobs, but we need to exercise patience and let them do the work. This is how our children learn. The cleanup time is our long-term investment in their lifelong habits and hobbies.

I like to think of kitchen as (among many other things) a place where children can learn how to collaborate, a place where we can strengthen family relationships, and even gently fight gender stereotypes.

 

Creamy Carrot Dressing

This is an easy recipe to make and a very impressive one as far as salad dressings go. Anyone can make this one. No cooking experience is needed, but you will need a blender.

Make sure to supervise your children while they use the blender.

This wholesome dressing works not only on salads, it can also be used as a dipping sauce for raw and steamed vegetables, or even served over meats.

1 inch fresh ginger
4 medium carrots
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
2 cups canola oil (add up to ½ cup more oil for a less thick dressing)
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon miso
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 tablespoon lemon juice
black pepper to taste

Put all ingredients into a blender. Cream until smooth and creamy with no chunks.
This is a very large batch. Feel free to halve the recipe.

The Gingerbread House

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, suggests the healthy-risk-taking holiday activity of gingerbread house making from scratch, giving us building advice and a recipe.

The popularity of gingerbread has a long history. Research suggests that gingerbread houses originated in 16th century Germany, but they gained popularity later thanks to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, in which an evil witch lures two hungry children with a house made out of gingerbread.

The story of Hansel a Gretel has many interpretations and symbolic meanings; one of them being fear of hunger and the fear of being abandoned by loved ones, more specifically by parents. In the fairy tale version most likely found on the bookshelves of our children, Hansel and Gretel simply get lost in the dark forest. This is the edited, child-friendly version of the story adapted to our cultural sensibilities. In the original version from the collection of Brothers Grimm, the children are left in the forest by their parents intentionally. During a time of famine, the evil mother/stepmother chose self-preservation over the children.

Even young children know that at the end of the fairy tale, good will triumph over evil. In the cycle of the year and the seasons, light will triumph over darkness again. To fill the (literally) darkest days of the year with light, it seems appropriate to find ways to express gratitude for love, food, and everything that sustains us and gives meaning to our lives. One of my favorite ways to do this is by spending time in the kitchen with my children.

As we planned our pre-holiday baking projects, my daughter suggested that we make a gingerbread house. Although gingerbread cookies have always been on our holiday menu, we have never tried to make a gingerbread house.

First, I thought it was a good idea. But after considering all the work involved, the mess, and the relatively high probability of a baking disaster, I wasn’t so sure anymore.
Of course, my child insisted, and it seemed wrong to cause a disappointment just because I was not in the mood for a big project. Soon, both children were excited about the prospect of having a homemade gingerbread house, and they were ready to do their part. We decided not to take any short cuts and not to buy a gingerbread kit.

We looked up several instructions online. It seemed the most challenging issue was the structural one: how to make the bond between the walls strong that the house would not cave in. Some websites suggested that the only way to achieve a sturdy structure was to use crazy clue instead of icing. This, of course, would make the house inedible. I did not want to take that road. I like food to stay food, even when it takes on another form and function. Pairing gingerbread with glue seemed unfair to the yummy gingerbread. We had to figure out a way to make it work with icing. My son, who is interested in architecture and engineering, was responsible for the structural design.

My first suggestion was to make a simple chalet-style house. This would mean having only two triangle-shaped walls for the front and the back of the house, and two rectangle pieces for the roof, coming all the way down. No structural problems here. My son objected: “No one gets anywhere without taking a risk.” I had to reconsider. After all, trying to make a more elaborate house was a reasonable risk to take.

Using pieces of a construction set, my son built the skeleton of the house. This would later be placed inside of the gingerbread house to support the walls, and to prevent it from caving in. Then, based on the size of the prototype, we drew the pattern. Making the dough, cutting out the pieces, and baking, followed the next day.

This is a project requiring patience. There is no instant gratification here.  For us, it was reasonable to complete the house in the course of three days. A lot of planning and prep work was needed. At the same time, we had to be ready to give up the original plan in certain situations, to solve problems quickly, to be ready to troubleshoot and improvise, because things didn’t always go smoothly. On many levels, it was a great lesson for the children.

On the third day, it was time to put it all together and decorate. As for decoration, we opted for a simple solution free of artificial colors: white icing. While it was not easy to apply icing in a preplanned manner, icing did save the look of our house. Snow and icicles not only added a seasonal appearance to the house, they helped us to cover up the imperfections and mistakes. Thanks to icing, our first ever gingerbread house turned out just fine.

 

Gingerbread House Recipe

This recipe will make enough dough for a medium-sized gingerbread house. You should have enough leftover dough to bake some gingerbread cookies for the “builders”. You can design your own house or find a template online. Remember to bake a piece for a base to hold the house.

For the Dough:
2 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1 ¼ cup molasses
3 eggs
7-8 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ginger

Cream the butter and sugar. Add molasses and eggs. Mix until smooth.
Sift 5 cups of flour with the baking soda, salt, and spices. Gradually work into the egg mixture. Add 2-3 more cups of flour. Your dough should be heavy and stiff. Form into 4 balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 2 hours).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cover the baking sheets (you will need more than one) with parchment paper. Roll out a ball of dough to 1/8 inches thick. Place a paper pattern on the dough and, using a knife, cut out the shape. Gently put the shaped dough on the baking sheet.  Continue rolling and cutting until you have all the pieces needed for the house. Bake the pieces for 10-15 minutes.
Gently place the baked pieces on a cooling rack. Allow the gingerbread to cool.

For the Icing:
 3 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 egg whites

Beat the sugar and egg whites until thick and smooth.
Use a small round pastry tip for piping the icing. The parts of the house should be decorated before assembling. Allow the icing to harden. “Glass” windows can be made by “gluing” (with icing) a piece of wax paper over the window openings from the inside part of the walls.
Ideally, you should have a helper for the next step. To assemble the house, apply plenty of icing on the bottom of the front wall and on the bottom of one of the sidewalls, then on the inside angle of the walls. The walls need to be held in place until they dry. Repeat the process with the back wall and the other sidewall. You may need to wait several hours for the walls to dry fully before putting on the roof.
Use icing to cover mistakes or small openings between walls.

 

The Holiday Menu’s Story

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, traces the history of the Thanksgiving menu and gives us ideas of how to incorporate the past into our present fare, including a recipe for acorn squash custard.

I was always interested in history. Becoming an archeologist was one of my childhood dreams that did not come true. With Thanksgiving approaching, I decided to do a little digging. Together with my children, I wanted to learn more about what food historians have to tell us about the origins of the Thanksgiving menu.

Food history seems to be a fun interdisciplinary field. It examines food in the context of cultural, historical, social, and economic circumstances. Its methods include archeological research and go as far as, for example, studying pollen found at the Plymouth Plantation. The goal of this particular inquiry is to find out what the Pilgrims grew in their gardens. I am not sure how hundreds-of-years-old pollen gets preserved, found and identified, but I find this kind of research fascinating.

As we all know, the origins of Thanksgiving celebration go back to 1621. The three-day feast of Pilgrims and the local Native Americans was, of course, not called “Thanksgiving”, and it was not intended to start a tradition. It was simply a harvest celebration (present in most cultures in some form) with festivities that we hardly miss today (think: hunting). Thanksgiving was later celebrated on and off, but only became a tradition and a national holiday much later. This was partly thanks to the perseverance of a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. I have learned in the course of my “digging” that she was the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book—sort of the Martha Stewart of her time—a trendsetter for everything household related. Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned 13 presidents (beginning in 1827) with the idea of establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday. President James Polk hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner in the White House in 1845, but the holiday wasn’t officially established yet. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Hale pitched the idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. This time it worked. Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Food historians tell us that they are quite sure about the foods that were not on the table during the 1621 harvest festival, but there is less certainty regarding what foods were actually on the menu.

We know that a lot of meat was eaten; the kind of meat and poultry that most likely won’t be part of our Thanksgiving dinner.  We would like to think that the Pilgrims enjoyed some turkey as we do today. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. There was an abundance of wild turkeys in the area, but there is no proof that turkey was actually served during the 1621 harvest celebration. If it was served, it certainly wasn’t the centerpiece of the dinner table.  Local wild fowl (ducks, geese, possibly swans) were prepared, and we know for sure that there was plenty of venison to go around. Seafood was certainly part of the menu; most likely lobster, oysters, clams, and possibly bass.

As for the preparation of the food, boiling and roasting were the two methods employed. Big pieces of meat or whole birds were roasted on spits, while the open hearth in the house was used for other cooking.

The birds might have been stuffed with onions, herbs and nuts, but not wheat bread stuffing. The Pilgrims did not have wheat flour, so bread stuffing was off the menu and so were pies. Not only there was no flour, there wasn’t any butter for the pie crust or even an oven for baking. At that time, the Pilgrims hadn’t constructed an oven yet. But they did not give up on pumpkin based desserts. They improvised by filling a hollowed out pumpkin with milk, honey and spices, and roasting it in hot ashes. Voilà, pumpkin custard!

Locally available vegetables such as wild onion, leeks, squash, Jerusalem artichokes, and beans were cooked. Probably some English crops (turnip, cabbage, parsnip, onion, thyme, rosemary, carrots) grown from seeds brought from Europe were available. To know for sure, we need the above mentioned pollen research.

As for other side dishes, corn in the form of porridge and sweet corn pudding was served (but not corn on the cob). Two of our favorites, potatoes and sweet potatoes, can be ruled out. Potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean, had yet to reach North America. Cranberries were available and perhaps present on the table, but not in the form of sweetened cranberry sauce. Today we take the availability of sugar for granted, but the Pilgrims had none, since by the fall of 1621 they ran out of the sugar brought from overseas.

Over the course of history, The Thanksgiving menu has evolved into what it is today. There was a roasted turkey and there were mashed potatoes on the menu printed in The 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. At the same time, this menu included many items that we hardly associate with the Thanksgiving dinner (oyster soup, sterling sauce, chicken pie, and fruit pudding).

Most of us perceive Thanksgiving not only as a harvest festival but – more than anything else – a family celebration.  On our Thanksgiving table, food history meets family history. Each of our menus is most likely a combination of the usual Thanksgiving menu items with those unique to our family. Like every family, every menu has its own story worth “digging” up.


Squash Custard in Squash Shell

My children were intrigued by the idea of pumpkin custard baked in a pumpkin shell. We decided to improvise and to create our own recipe for acorn squash custard. We liked what we made. This recipe is a tasty and healthy alternative to a more conventional seasonal dessert.

1 small acorn squash
1 egg
¼ cup milk
1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
tiny bit of ground cloves

Cut the squash in half. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds. The seeds won’t be needed for this recipe, but they can be roasted and enjoyed as a snack.

Scoop out about half of the squash flesh and put it in a small mixing bowl. The squash shell will serve as a baking and serving “dish” for the custard.

In another bowl whisk the egg, then add milk, maple syrup, cornstarch, vanilla extract, and the spices. Mix together.

Put the two halved pieces of squash into a small baking dish.  Carefully fill the squash with the milk and squash mixture. Bake in a preheated oven on 350 F for 30-40 minutes or until the filling is set and the flesh around the shell has soften.

The custard can be enjoyed warm or cold.

 

The Season of Squash

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, describes one of fall’s most notable vegetables and some imaginative uses for it.

If summer is the peak in the circle of the seasons, then winter is the valley, and fall is a gentle stroll downhill into the land of winter. Fall is a season that brings no promises, but instead, it gives a lot on the spot. To compensate for cooler weather, it warms us with colors of gold, orange, rusty browns and reds, and nourishes us with an abundant harvest. The dominant taste of the season is sweet. Fall treats us with the sweetness of ripe wine grapes, fresh apples and apple cider, roasted squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, and parsnip. Towards the end of the growing season, peppers in the garden turn not only red, but also sweet; so too do many leafy greens, as temperatures drop.

There is a lot one could do on a nice fall day, and there are lots of ways to engage children in seasonal activities. So much can be done with just some winter squash and pumpkin (which is also a type of winter squash). One could carve a pumpkin of course, visit a farm for a pick-your-own pumpkin event, decorate the house with pumpkins or squash, or use them as materials for craft projects.

Any type of pumpkin or winter squash will bring the feel of autumn into our homes, but gourds are especially sought after as a seasonal decoration. While not edible, they can be used to craft functional objects; such as birdhouses, bowls, vessels for liquids, instruments, or even gnome homes. With a little imagination they can be turned into improvised toys. Their unusual shapes will make our kids think of dinosaurs, daisies, dumplings, swans, and who knows what else.

A French heirloom pumpkin, Rouge vif D’Etampes, also known as a Cinderella Pumpkin, will transport us into the realm of fairy tales without the magic touch of the Fairy Godmother. It is a fairly large pumpkin of vivid orange color, with a flattened and heavily lobed shape, resembling the fairy tale carriage of Cinderella–hence its name. I imagine it would be fun to use one of these to create a carriage for a favorite doll or a dwelling for a magical creature visiting your backyard. According to some sources, this variety had been cultivated by the Pilgrims and served at the second Thanksgiving dinner. Besides being the perfect pumpkin pie ingredient, it can serve as a lovely biodegradable serving dish for a squash soup. If simply put on a table or shelf it will be a statement in itself. Another French variety, Musque de Provence (or Fairytale Pumpkin), has similar great looks and qualities.

The sweet harvest is waiting to be embraced in the kitchen too. Winter squash can be enjoyed simply roasted, or mashed with a bit of cream and a dash of nutmeg for a side dish, used in soups, or in muffins and sweet breads. Acorn Squash or other smaller types like Baby Hubbard and Japanese Futsu can be filled with a variety of stuffing and baked. The flesh of pumpkin and succulent winter squashes works well as a filling for pumpkin pie. Seeds and fiber of any edible winter squash can be used for stock or as a snack for a flock of chickens. Pumpkin also offers edible seeds that taste great roasted. Aside from the high fat content, pumpkin seeds have abundant protein and lots of trace minerals (zinc, manganese, magnesium, copper and iron.) Even better for seeds than pumpkin is Kakai Squash. This medium-sized, slightly oblate squash with orange and dark green stripes is grown and valued for its hull-less or naked seeds. Instead of a shell, the seeds are covered with a thin cellophane-like membrane. Since they do not require shelling, one is tempted to eat them fast, and the possibility of overeating is very high for everyone who loves the taste of freshly roasted pepitas. If there are any left after snack time, they can be used as an addition to your granolas, salads, pumpkin soup, breads, or rolls.

While munching on a handful of pumpkin seeds the other day, I found myself thinking about winter, and realized that I felt a certain melancholy about it being just around the corner. I sometimes find it hard to enjoy fall, because winter is next, with its cold and short days. But I’d like to be fair to this season of abundance, so I am reminding myself of all of Fall’s sweetness and gifts; stay in the moment, stay present to all of the beauty that is in it.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

 (From A Fresh Pumpkin)

Do not discard seeds from your pumpkin intended for carving. You can make a Jack O’ Lantern and a great snack from the same pumpkin.

Scrape the seeds from the pumpkin with a large spoon. Clean away the stringy flesh. Rinse the seeds with water if needed. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet, and let them dry for several hours in your kitchen or on a sunny spot outdoors. The seeds are now ready for roasting and seasoning.

I prefer my pepitas dry-roasted without any seasoning, but they can be flavored with a variety of spices.  Most children will appreciate Pumpkin Spice Pepitas.

Dry-Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Spread the seeds in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through. Seeds should be golden and crunchy when done.

Pumpkin Spice Pepitas

  • 2 cups raw pumpkin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 – 1 ½  teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • ¼ teaspoon fine salt

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Combine all ingredients and spread in a single layer on a prepared sheet pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through.

 

The Way We Cook

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, serves up a thought-provoking piece about the ‘ways’ and the ‘whys’ of cooking, along with a refreshing recipe for an autumnal equinox elixir of sorts.

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are, ” goes Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s famous aphorism. Besides being a lawyer and a politician, Brillat-Savarin was also a gourmet and one of the founders of the gastronomic essay genre. I can’t resist mentioning the charming and very long title of his famous Physiology of Taste, published in 1825. The full French tittle is Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savants.

Brillat-Savarin’s famous quote popped into my mind during a cooking class this summer while I was listening to an exchange between a group of campers. Inspired by what I heard, my thoughts went in a bit of a different direction. I was thinking something along the lines of “tell me how you cook, and you will tell a lot about yourself.”

The cooking class conversation involved a group of teenage campers. As one boy was chopping onions, a few pieces fell to the floor, and some jumped from the cutting board to the table. This minor mishap resulted in some friendly teasing from fellow campers. The camper was jokingly called a messy cook. Luckily, he did not feel intimidated, and he had the perfect answer for his friends: “Well, my mom always says that there is no good cooking without a mess in the kitchen.” It did not end here. Another camper offered a very different quote from his own mother: “My mother says that it is very important to always be organized in the kitchen.”

How do you cook? Do you follow a recipe without changing anything? Do you read recipes for inspiration, then close the cookbook? Maybe you don’t use recipes at all. Do you usually stick to several well-tested recipes or does your repertoire always involve something new and adventurous? Do you wash the dishes continuously or do you let them to accumulate? How do you feel about immersing your fingers in sticky dough? Would you avoid a recipe because its preparation comes with a lot of mess? Do you like having company or help while cooking? Are measuring tools your friends or are you just fine without them? Do you plan menus well ahead or just go with the flow?

We are all different and we like to do things differently. The kitchen is not an exception. I always try to remember this when I cook with kids.  When deciding how to engage our children in cooking activities, what tasks to delegate or share, we have to, of course, consider their age first. We need to ask ourselves, ‘what are they able to do and what activities would they enjoy?’. Some children prefer little tasks and want our help, others want to do everything by themselves. Repetitive tasks work for some, but not all. A quiet, patient child will enjoy neatly forming piece after piece of dough into a desired shape. A high-energy, active child will prefer working with a mortar and pestle, or to invest a lot of energy into cranking a manual grinder. Some prefer to imitate the parent and do exactly as told. For others, open-ended tasks are more suitable.

Let’s remember that cooking is a sensory experience. Consciously incorporating this aspect into our projects works especially well with young children. Let them smell, taste, touch, and explore texture. They will take in much more than we would expect.

When we cook together, we cultivate not only good eating habits, but more much: patience, perseverance, creativity among others. We have the opportunity to teach our children about environmental responsibility, the nutritional value of foods we make, and even time management. Cooking also creates an opportunity to improve hand-eye coordination and fine motors skills. Observe your kids as they roll out dough, pour, spoon, chop, measure, decorate, spread, or peel. Do they need help? Are they more skilled than a few months ago? Hands-on experience with food preparation makes for adventurous eaters. By involving children in an activity that makes a difference, we help to build their self-confidence. Most importantly, cooking is a bonding opportunity with our kids—an opportunity to cultivate social skills. We cook together, and while we chop and stir, maybe even teenagers will open up. Maybe we will hear something unexpected; maybe we learn something new about our children. (And, of course, there is a possibility that none of this will happen, but we will still have a nice meal!) It is never too late to start to cook, and never too early to begin to cultivate a lifelong habit of those long conversations in the kitchen.

 

Pear and Lemon Verbena Soda

Summer meets fall in this refreshing drink. Lemon verbena brings the taste of the warm season, pear: the promise of the upcoming harvest. As we say goodbye to the summer and welcome the fall, this is a great drink for the last outdoor gathering of the season, or the celebration of the fall equinox.

Older children should be able to prepare this recipe without help (make sure to supervise them when they handle hot water.)  Ask the younger ones to squeeze out the lemon juice, to measure out the liquids and the sugar, to stir the sugar into the hot tea and watch it “disappear”. Don’t forget to let them smell and touch the fresh herb!

6 sprigs of fresh lemon verbena, about 5’’ long
5 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 bottle of sparkling pear juice

Pour boiling water over lemon verbena. Let it steep for 10 minutes. Strain the tea. Add sugar. Stir to dissolve. Let the tea to cool.

When ready to serve, put a few ice cubes into each glass. Pour in one part lemon verbena tea and one part sparkling pear juice. Garnish with slices of lemon and lemon verbena leaves. Enjoy!

Summer 2016 Cookbook

If you have a hunger for more of Eva’s stories and recipes, you’ll want to check out our digital version of Eva’s cookbook from this past summer. A recipe corresponding to each of summer 2016’s weekly themes is included, as well as pictures, and plenty of kitchen magic.

We can’t wait to see what kinds of new Nature Place specialties get created this summer…

Summer 2016 C

The Sun-dried Earth Meets the Fire

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, inspires us with her family’s story of building a cob rocket stove in their backyard, and includes a recipe that can be made on an outdoor stove, as well as in your kitchen.

I am looking forward to the summer and the prospect of outdoor activities associated with the warmest season. For our family, these include outdoor cooking and dining whenever possible. Cooking and eating in the open air connects us to the outdoors in the most comforting way. The fire, fresh breeze, and simple seasonal food, often prepared with the most primitive cooking methods, create an atmosphere that breaks the monotony of everyday cooking and everyday life. Taking the kitchen activities to the backyard is a good first step in embracing everything outdoorsy.

In preparation for the upcoming season, our family decided to do a rather ambitious project – building a cob rocket stove in the backyard. The crew of builders consisted of a small group of children (8-12 years old) and myself. After being inspired and educated by a short how-to video, we got to work. The first step was sourcing the building materials. We didn’t need much: some clay, dry grass, a little sand, and water. Our budget for the project was zero dollars. Instead of money, we invested time, creativity, and lots of manpower. The acquisition of clay was the most physically demanding part of the job. Luckily, it was the first step of the process, and everyone felt very inspired and full of energy.  Getting clay meant digging down to the subsoil. Digging in Rockland County goes just as you might imagine it would: meeting lots of stones on the way. It can get challenging and frustrating at times. A spade isn’t enough to do the job. The kids didn’t seem to mind the hard work. Those old enough to handle real tools in a safe manner, enjoyed taking turns using the pick-ax. We had a contest: who could dig up the largest stone. No one won. Getting out the largest one took a group effort.

The next step was scouting the property for some dried grasses. Then the clay-based soil was put on an old tarp, mixed with some chopped dry grass and sand ‘stolen’ from the unused sandbox. Water was added and the ‘kneading’ could begin. We started working with plastic gloves on our hands, but soon the gloves were being pulled off by the weight of the sticky wet clay. We gave up on them and confronted the mud with our bare hands. From there on, it was a full immersion into the process. The mud sort of became part of us, the strange feeling on the hands disappeared, and no one was bothered anymore by being muddy all over. A couple children, tired of ‘kneading,’ cleaned the ground and drew the outline of the future cob stove with a stick. As soon as the mud dough was ready, we started to form the base of our rocket stove. Everything was going well until the wall was about 10 inches high. Then we had to stop. According to the instructional video, the whole stove can be build in a couple hours. But our experience proved otherwise. The wall was slowly slipping to the sides under its own weight. We needed to wait for it to dry before continuing. The prospects for drying were grim. There was a strong rainstorm overnight. I was almost afraid to go out in the morning. I braced myself for a disaster, but our emerging structure was still there. It did not melt away in the rain.

It took us two more days of building, with days of waiting (for the clay to dry) in between, to finish our project. Then, it was time to test our creation. Utilizing survival skills learned at camp, my son built a fire and gave a small lesson on how to do it to the rest of the group.

Finally, the sun-dried earth met the fire for the first time. Nothing cracked, nothing collapsed. Our cob rocket stove was ready for cooking….first we enjoyed the warmth and light from the fire. Soon after, we delighted in the aromas escaping from the heavy cast iron pot, and in a couple of hours, we feasted on the fresh, pleasantly smoky bean chili, made all the better by the satisfaction of a job well done.

Cowboy Beans Recipe

This is a vegetarian child-friendly (not spicy) bean chili.  I named the dish Cowboy Beans to inspire my kids interest and appetite. Cowboy Beans can be cooked outdoors or on a stove top.

1 LB dry pinto beans
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 whole garlic cloves
2 chopped garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
1 cup diced red peppers
½ cup diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons red paprika
1 ½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano or few springs of fresh oregano
¼ cup ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
salt to taste

Soak the beans overnight. Discard the soaking water. Put the beans in a pot, add 2 cloves of garlic and 2 bay leaves. Cook the beans for about 25 minutes or until about halfway done. Strain and discard the cooking water.

In a heavy large pot, heat the olive oil. Add onions and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the diced peppers and chopped garlic; sauté for 5 more minutes until onions soften. Add tomatoes, sauté for 2 minutes. Mix in the spices, stir for 1 minute. Add beans, ketchup, Worcestershire Sauce, water, and salt to taste. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are fully cooked and the flavors blended. If you are cooking on an outdoor fire, make sure not to burn your dish. If the fire gets too hot, keep replacing the evaporated water. Adjust seasoning if needed.

Ladle into bowls. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and chives.