Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thanking my lucky stars

Sometimes in these busy, busy times it's important to pause and give thanks. I am grateful for the chance -- and the freedom -- to be able to take a month to explore what I may in Ireland and Scotland. I am thankful for the enthusiasm of friends and friends-of-friends who have helped me get ready (and get really excited) about my upcoming trip, from the loan of an international cell phone to recommendations of towns, hikes, pubs, and more.

Thank you, Zach, for linking me up with some awesome local farmers in southern Ireland. Thank you, Vanessa and Kathryn, for helping me connect with friendly folk across the pond. Thank you to Bernie for giving me the gorgeous Irish cookbook that has my mouth watering for much more than potatoes and Guinness (though I am excited for those, too). Thank you, Ronn, for recommending an awesome bike touring company with whom I'll be exploring western Ireland. (Shhh, don't tell Ollie! Though she might have suspected something when I packed my bike lights.) Thank you to my awesome intern, Jordan, for tending the school garden while I'm away.

Thank you, Katie and Joey, for cooking up a delicious, traditional American farewell dinner for me tonight -- I have a funny feeling I might not be eating stewed greens or hamsteak or corn on the cob for the next month, so it was good to have a giant plateful, with good red wine and homemade ice cream to round things out. Thank you to Mike, the friendly stranger who surprised me by treating me to a really nice whiskey when I stopped into Southern Efficiency for a little pre-packing farewell drink and last-minute single malt education  on my way home from dinner. And thank you to mom and dad for taking me to the airport tomorrow...even though it's totally metro-accessible and I just have a little rolling suitcase. Gotta love parents.

Dad, I know you're petrified that I'll fall in love with the Emerald Isle (land of vibrant greens, good storytellers, and deep history) -- and/or an Irishman -- but there are worse fates. If my travels around Ireland are nearly as wonderful as the excitement and joy leading up to them, well....

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Minding our peas and queues


So I've been a teacher in some official capacity on and off since the early 2000s, initially working with high schoolers, then middle schoolers, and finally a handful of years ago I began to focus on elementary school aged kiddos. The past year has been my first foray into working with preK students and let me tell you that while I was initially a little nervous about my ability to create and teach meaningful lessons to kiddos who still can't tie their shoelaces, I've found that 3 and 4-year-olds are a LOT of fun. I find that there is a lot more singing and dancing and hand holding (literally) when I work with my youngest garden stewards and cooks at Tyler Elementary. They are definitely the best students in the school at making a straight line to go outside to the garden, but that's not all....

We've had lessons where we imagined we were seeds sprouting in the soil, soaking up the sun through our leafy hands and water through our rooted feet. We've pretended we were tender lettuce and hardy kale growing out in the garden beds -- which one do you think enjoyed our long, cold winter? We've shaken up our own homemade ranch dressing and devoured it drizzled over salads the size of our respective heads. We've made seed balls with native flower seeds. We've dug up a bed of potatoes....

I must say, more than any other group I've worked with, they are the best at patiently looking for camouflaged snap peas, helping to schlep plant bits to the compost bin, and being willing to taste just about anything in the garden. I can't wait to see how they (and our garden) continue to thrive in coming years!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

How does our garden grow?

Well, it's looking like another one of those bipolar DC summers: 93 and sunny one day, 62 and rainy the next. (I am not such a huge fan of the torrential downpours like the one Ollie and I biked home in yesterday afternoon, but I suppose it's good training for Ireland and Scotland, where I'll be kicking around in about a month.)

The plants are LOVING it. The snap peas and broccoli are exploding in the garden beds, potatoes are blooming, the herbs are going bonkers, and the spinach is experiencing some kind of miracle extended season now that I've won the battle with the leaf miners (and maybe the coverage from the volunteer sunflowers is helping the shade-loving greens), and even the kale is thriving.


How does our garden grow? Like a weed. (Not many of those, thankfully, since I've also managed to train an avid bunch of recess-time weeders. Nice.)

Every time I am in the school garden, there are about a dozen kids who stop to pick and eat mint, and I've been showing every kid who walks by how to harvest and eat lettuce and peas. Even with kids "accidentally" pulling up radishes and eating underripe strawberries, there is almost too much produce for us to utilize in FoodPrints classes. I'm going to have to start sending home kids with bags of vegetables again....

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Luck be a ladybug

Yesterday I got a phone call from a fellow FoodPrints teacher that went something like this:

"One of the teachers accidentally ordered too many ladybugs for our garden. Want some?"

"Sure. It'd be great to knock down the aphid population over here."

"Great. There's about 5,000 of them. One of the parents will drop off the box in the main office. Put them in the fridge for a week if you aren't ready to release them yet."

"Oh. Okay." (Who orders five thousand too many? And is it normal to keep live beetles in the fridge on purpose? I wondered. But I am not one to look a giftbug in the mouth.)

I've ordered worms in the mail before -- three times, actually (and, no, not because I killed the first two batches, thank you very much) -- so I consider myself pretty experienced when it comes to the creepy crawly package opening. I could not have prepared myself for the tickly joy that was the release of thousands of ladybugs in the garden that afternoon. And since I had opted not to refrigerate them back into hibernation, they were ready to go as soon as I opened the two little baggies they were packed into. I was fortunate to have many dedicated garden assistants to help gently spread them around the 15 raised garden beds at Tyler.


Go get 'em, ladybugs!!


They are the coolest, cutest aphid devouring machines EVER.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hawkeye

It's been awhile since I've written. Lest you think I've been sitting around eating bonbons for the past month, let me assure you that this is not the case. It's springtime at last, and I've been up to my elbows in teaching, gardening, lesson planning, cooking, spring cleaning, watching the Nats, and watching the garden like a hawk for any pests that might get the misguided impression that I am growing food for them. Apparently the leaf miners in my spinach and chard patches are slow learners. And it seems he squirrels eyeing my strawberries were not deterred by my incessant swearing at them last summer. They're back.

I recently learned from a naturalist friend of mine that rodents don't take a big bite out of my homegrown, hard won cherry tomatoes and strawberries purely because they are jerks, but because they are seeking moisture during dry times. So I'm doing a little -- admittedly high-risk -- experiment to see if tonight's thunderstorms tide them over for a day or two. Otherwise I may have to break out the grilled squirrel recipe....

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Well, hello, little flower

Coinciding almost exactly with the birth of my niece, the garden is starting to flower.... It's my favorite time of year.

I know! I'm an aunt!!! Can't wait to meet our newest family member.

I wonder when I can bring over some of my homegrown strawberries. Hopefully soon. I mean, you don't need teeth to eat 'em. (Squirrels, if you're reading this, back off: no taking berries from a baby!)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The sweet life

Though I knew a gluten-induced backache would result, I could not resist the chance to make a batch of sweet potato gnocchi with my cousin's family while visiting Charlottesville for a few days. Lord, do I adore gnocchi. The tender, pillowy deliciousness.... Ohhhh....



The recipe is actually one that my lovely Foodprints intern, Emily, passed along recently. (I am not too proud a supervisor to turn down the offer of a taste when offered during our lunch break, and after that I simply *had* to try making it myself.) It didn't sound too complicated, but gnocchi are notoriously finicky and labor intensive, what with the boiling and mashing, and most experienced cooks know that there is a very thin line between light & delicious vs. dense & floury pasta.

Thankfully, Jenna was game, and young Lukas even helped to grate the cheese (and make some cookies, a few of which made it to dessert). Cousin Laith helped with the dishes and pouring me a glass of wine -- always welcome contributions. It was a great group recipe, and easier than we'd feared. Nice when things work out that way, eh?


Sweet Potato Gnocchi
It's adapted from this recipe, but with less microwaving and pointless ricotta straining.... (Oh, we did strain the ricotta for 2 hours, which yielded a total of about 4 drops of liquid. Not worth it, but it gave me a chance to slow-roast the spuds.) The irresistible brown butter, sage, and balsamic sauce remains intact, however.

Ingredients

2 lbs sweet potatoes (about 2 medium) 
1 (12-oz.) container fresh ricotta
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp salt
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

8 TBSP (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 handful of loosely packed fresh sage leaves (got some in your garden??)
3 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
Additional parmesan cheese, for serving

Directions

Preheat oven to 400F. Scrub and dry the sweet potatoes, then prick them all over with a fork. Place the sweet potatoes on a foil-lined cookie sheet and roast until fork-tender (about 1 hour). Cool, then peel and mash potatoes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and dust it with flour. You'll want this near your work surface when you start making the gnocchi.

Transfer 3 cups of the mashed sweet potatoes to a large bowl. Add the ricotta, stirring until thoroughly combined, then stir in 1 cup parmesan cheese and 2 tsp salt.

Start adding the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing with your hands until a soft dough forms. Shape the dough into a large ball.

Lightly flour your work surface and divide the dough into six equal portions. Take one portion and gently roll and stretch it on your work surface or between your hands until it's about 20 inches in length (about the length of a standard cookie sheet).

Cut the dough into 1-inch pieces to form each gnocchi (each "rope" should yield about 20 gnocchi). Using the back of a fork, press each gnocchi into the tines to form indentations (which will soak up the delicious sauce you're about to make), then transfer them to the floured baking sheet. Repeat the rolling and cutting process with the remaining five pieces of dough.


Prior to cooking the gnocchi, make the brown butter sauce... Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cook the butter until the foam subsides and it begins to turn a golden brown color, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the sage leaves, allowing them to cook for 1 minute. Remove the brown butter from the heat and stir in the balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.

When you're ready to cook the gnocchi, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add a portion of the gnocchi to the boiling water, stir, and then let the gnocchi cook until they float back up to the top, about 1 minute.

Remove the gnocchi with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl. Repeat the cooking process with the remaining gnocchi and toss your delicious little orange morsels with the prepared brown butter sauce. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and serve.

Note: uncooked gnocchi will keep in the fridge for a few days, or in the freezer for a few months. If you can resist eating them all that first meal, that is.


Oh those? Well, since we were having a glutenous extravaganza, I figured I might as well make some ice cream sandwiches -- featuring cinnamon ice cream from nearby Kirt's Ice Cream and freshly baked chocolate chip oatmeal cookies -- for dessert. Not a bad way to end a wonderful visit with family and friends!