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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

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.

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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 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
Water

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.

 

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.

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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…

 

Project:

Bean Mandala

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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.

bean-mandala

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.

Bread!

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.

sorrel

sorrel

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.

IMG_3656

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.

IMG_3624

 
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’.

IMG_3652

 
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.