Saturday, December 4, 2010

Life Beyond White Rice

Somewhere in the wee hours before last Friday's Novato Charter School Gardening Class it dawned on me that while we are always encouraging children to eat whole grains, going on and on about the higher nutritional value of whole grains...very few actually know what whole grains are.

My lesson plan for the day included a lot of prep work for beds we would use to grow a variety of whole grains in the new year.  I needed the students to help with the mulching and amending of these beds.  How much more interesting that work might become if the kids knew what the goal was.  So, we held a Whole Grains Tasting Feast.

This is a pretty healthy crowd.  I suspect their parents regualrly sneak barley into the soup or flax atop the cereal.  But when asked students if they could identify the grains, (pre and post cooking), they were stumped.  A few recognized millet from their bean and millet days in the NCS Kindergarden, but most didn't believe they had heard of the names of these grains

We tried the following:  millet, quinoa, flax, pearl barley and bulgar.  Qunioa wins, hands down!

Here's A Favorite Recipe -  found on a blog called The Friendly Veg (

Roasted Acorn Squash with Quinoa Stuffing

* 2 acorn squash, halved
* 2 tbsp. olive oil
* 2 cups vegetable broth
* 1 cup dried quinoa
* 1 bay leaf
* several small saffron strands
* 2 cloves garlic, minced
* 1/2 yellow onion, diced
* half a package of soy sausage, like Gimme Lean brand
* 1 bunch beet greens, chopped
* 1/2 cup walnuts, crushed
* 1 tsp. nutmeg
* 1 tsp. black pepper.
* pinch of salt
* pecorino romano cheese for sprinkling, if desired

The Hows:

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Scoop out seeds and stringy bits from acorn squash halves. If desired, rub the inside of the squash with just a little bit of olive oil and cinnamon. Cover a baking sheet with foil or  parchment paper, and roast squash cut-side down for 15 minutes. Remove from oven.

2) To make the quinoa: bring 2 cups of vegetable broth to a boil; add quinoa, bay leaf, and saffron to the broth and reduce heat to a simmer. Stir occasionally until broth is absorbed and quinoa is soft, between 10 and 15 minutes.

3) In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat; add onion and garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add veggie sausage to the pan, using a fork to crumble sausage as needed; cook for 5 minutes, or until sausage starts to brown. Add nutmeg, black pepper, salt, and chopped beet greens to the pan, and cook until greens begin to wilt. Bring heat to low, and stir in quinoa. Remove from heat.

4) Fill each half of roasted acorn squash with quinoa stuffing; sprinkle with grated cheese if desired. Bake stuffed squash for 15 minutes and allow squash ten five minutes to cool before serving.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fresh Baked Eggs: More Than A Fair Trade

Thirteen years ago we moved into our home in semi-rural Novato, and one of the first things we did was build a chicken coop. At the time  I could not say exactly why this felt more important than the so many essential improvements on our To Do list, but it was one of the things I most wanted for our family.

Last week our country vet came by to check in on our animals.  As he checked the goats' eyes and palpated their bellies, he told me he believes that people who learn to take good care of animals tend to be good at taking care of each other.  I thought of James Harriot, the  English country vet who wrote All Creatures Great And Small as well as dozens of other perfectly told animal stories.  My siblings and I grew up on these tales of  mischievous kittens and lost lambs, loyal sheepdogs and brilliant draft horses. I believe that the secret ingredient that drew our attention then, and what enraptures my own children still, is the essential element in each of these stories:  Harriot himself...a human who cares.

Caring is a distinguishing characteristic, one we humans should be proud of.  It is also a large part of why we have survived.  Caring for animals is part of a pretty basic agreement, a straightforward "fair trade."  We make a comfortable shelter, provide healthy food and a happy life, and they provide us with labor and/or something delicious to eat.  Oh, and animals often throw in a good dose of entertainment, as is the case with our playful goats.

After 13 years of tending our chickens and collecting their eggs each day, I can say with certainty, we get a phenomenal deal.  The ability of a hen to produce up to an egg a day continues, year after year, to be, in my mind, nothing short of a miracle.  How does a scrawny little cluster of feathered bones do this exactly?  Apparently it has something to do with nucleation points and mammillary protrusions and aragonite piles and columns of oriented crystalline calcite that grow up and around the egg and...well, let's just leave it at It's a miracle!

Many people ask why we don't simply buy eggs in the store.  This is a great question, considering the work it takes to set up for and maintain chickens, and also the abundance of excellent egg choices in the stores these days.  Every once in a while in the winter, when the chickens have slowed down their laying regimen,  I do buy store eggs, and that is when I notice the difference.  Store bought eggs have pale yolks that fall apart more easily (I'm assuming this is the time in transportation and on the shelf), you never know if they are as healthy (no matter what the label claims) and, mostly, they don't taste rich and creamy.

Because our eggs taste so good, I have become an egg junkie.  The whole family has.  If it's not a Dutch Baby (which we have always called "Puff The Magic Dragon") it's french toast or croissant egg sandwiches or crepes or very eggy waffles.

Lately, I have been on a baked egg kick.  In this case, the fresher the egg the better because the yolks must hold together sturdily in their little nests of sauteed spinach or arugula or whatever green strikes your fancy.  Then they bake for 12 minutes or so (sometimes less, depending on the size of the egg) and leave you with the just set light whites and a yolk that has held firmly together but runs with the slightest prick of a fork tine.

My favorite breakfast cookbook is called Brunch by Marc Meyer and Peter Meehan. I have made many variations of their  "Baked Egg With Spinach and Brioche" recipe.  I love arugula, and almost always add that somewhere along the way.  Also, I saute the greens with a touch of white truffle oil, shallots and plenty of garlic.  And I've found that if I don't have creme fraiche available, its fine to just drizzle a touch of heavy whipping cream over the whole dish before placing it in the oven.  These eggs are absolutely delicious, every time, as AJ will attest.

Baked Eggs with Spinach, Brioche
Adapted from Brunch: 100 Recipes from Five Points Restaurant by Marc Meyer and Peter Meehan

1 tbls olive oil and/or White Truffle oil
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 shallot
1 bunch spinach (about 3/4 lb) washed and stemmed)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbls unsalted butter plus additional butter for baking dishes
4 slices brioche, 1/2 inch thick
6 large eggs
1/8 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and when it simmers, add shallot and garlic. Cook until fragrant and golden, about 3 minutes and add the spinach. Reduce the heat to medium, add a pinch of salt and a few turns of freshly ground black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is just wilted, about 3 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a bowl to cool (it doesn’t have to cool completely, just enough so as not to cook the eggs before they get into the oven).

Lightly butter the brioche slices on both sides. Lay them on a sheet pan and bake in the oven, turning them in mid-toast, until lightly browned and crisped - 3 to 5 minutes (or toast in toaster and butter after).

Lightly butter two ramekins or baking dishes large enough to hold brioche in one layer. Arrange the brioche on the bottom of the dish and scatter the wilted spinach around and on top of the bread, making rough little nests to hold the eggs in place. Crack the eggs into the spinach nests and season with slat and pepper. Drizzle creme fraiche over the dishes, sprinkle with grated parmesan, and set on the lowest shelf of the oven. Cook until the whites are just set but the yolks are runny, about 12 - 15 minutes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ode to Blueberries


Some things are sweetened by longing.   I put love and freshly picked blueberries in this category.   Falling in love, and finally having that love reciprocated, is at the top of the list of life experiences, of course.    At long last making it to the East Coast to eat ripe blueberries straight from the bush as the sun rises to warm them?  Right up there.

We recently returned from a tour of the Northeast where we were fortunate to spend a week at our relatives’  farm in upstate New York.  We arrived just as the blueberries made their vigorous deep violet appearance. We were in heaven. True blue heaven.

Each morning the youngest cousins woke and ran outside to fill several pints for the farm stand. I tried my best to help, but found that a one for the basket, two for me rhythm felt most comfortable. They soon learned that their aunt is not at all reliable in the Blueberry Picking department.

Here in Northern California I have tried a few times, both in our school garden and at home, to grow blueberries.  The southern highbush variety of blueberry is most successful in the Bay Area.  People claim great success with varieties such as "Revelle" and ""Misty" and "Bluecrop." Like their cousins, Rhododendrons and Azaleas, blueberries love acidic soil. They also like plenty of sun and a sandy well-drained bed.  The key, however, is that their roots must be kept moist as they grow. And they like a nice long, cold night. At the school I have had success with some small bushes producing fruit (before the gophers did their gopher thing) but nothing has grown more and more vigorous each year so that by the third year (which it was at the Neff family farm) you literally cannot keep up with the ripening fruit, glistening pearls of that irresistible sweet and slightly tart taste, bursting with high health and waiting for your nimble fingers, day after summer day.

Flavanols and reversatrol and proanthocyanidins…all sorts of crazy-good-for-you stuff is packaged in these  spherical treats. No wonder they are called Superfood. I teach elementary school gardening students to look for foods with the deep purple color-  this indicates cancer-fighting properties.

Home now, I dream I am picking blueberries. One for the basket…two for me.  This journey to the Northeast was a sort of pilgrimage.  I am grateful for the experience of traveling to a place where these fruits have always thrived and did especially well this year with the late rains, to savor them in their natural, exuberant state of well-being and bright blue productivity. Plus, the fruit of my dreams is only sweeter for my longing.

 Teya and her Aunt Nancy made pies

Here is a favorite "Peak-of-The-Season" Blueberry Pie recipe from an important cookbook called The Berry Bible by Janie Hibler  (only one cup of the blueberries are cooked, the rest are folded in, which gives the pie a freshly picked taste)

Makes 6 Servings:
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp coarse salt
1 1/2 (3 cups) fresh blueberries (plus a handful for garnish)
2 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 baked 9-inch pie shell
1 cup heavy cream
2-3 tbsp confectioner's sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in medium saucepan.  Put pan over medium heat and add 1 cup berries and 2/3 cup water.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly until mixture thickens and turns clear instaed of cloudy looking, about 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat and stir butter, lemon juice, and the remaining 2 cups blueberries.  Pour the filling into prepared pie shell and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

Before serving, whip the cream with confectioner's sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form, and spread on top of the filling.  Sprinkle a handful of berries on top of the whipped cream. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Big Goat Party

I’m tired.  Really tired.  But who cares…My kids, of both the human and goat persuasion, are happy. 
Let me describe day one with baby goats.  Theodore (Teddy) and Delilah (Lila) arrive at our home dazed and subdued, wondering one thing:  when do they get to nurse again?  They’re old enough and sturdy enough to wean, but that doesn’t make it easy to leave Mama Ceci and go cold turkey.  They’ve been sipping from the milk bar day and night as long as they’ve been alive. 

Slowly they shake off the car-sickness, wander around their new home (our donkey stable turned enclosed chicken yard) for a few moments, realize mama and that warm elixir are not nearby, and begin to cry.  This goes on all day, non-stop.  We distract them for short periods with lengths of blackberry brambles, or oak and pine cuttings, but mostly, they want mama’s teat and the milk that comes with.  And they will cry until someone brings it to them.
Suddenly I’m thrown back to the weaning days with my own babies,  trying to get something done for the first time in years and all I can hear is my sobbing  one year old, outside with a babysitter who can’t stop the moaning and howling …the special cry, reserved for the immediate and imperative need for mother’s milk. 
What to do about these sorrowful babies?  I start by calling all the neighbors to apologize.  Their responses could have been a tape-recorded message.  “Don’t be ridiculous,” they all said, "This is Indian Valley.  We’re not the least bit concerned with animal noises and if we were, we wouldn't live here.”   So, that was a relief.  But still…the sound, it was  so sad.  It truly seemed we had locked two babies down in the chicken coop for the night.
Teya graduates from 8th Grade in a few days, so that evening Sam and I took her to an end of the year parent-child celebration.  Jens and AJ decided they would go swim at a neighbors then bike home and put themselves to bed.  I only hoped they could fall asleep with all the noise, which only grew louder and more pitiful as evening fell.
Leave it to kids to figure out kids.  By the time I got home at 9pm, AJ and Jens were just  falling asleep in my room.  “Oh, it was a great night,” they reported.  “But we’re in here because we just got the goats down and didn’t want to disturb them as they were falling asleep,” AJ said.  I must have appeared confused.  “We tucked them into bed in my room,” Jens told me, “and we didn’t want to wake them up by going back in there.”
They had arrived home to a crescendo of crying, and being the practical children they are, they got straight to work.  AJ set up the old dog kennel.  Jens put the dog’s spiky collars on Teddy and Delilah and led them up to the house.  Then they sang them lullabies and petted them to sleep until everyone was happy and cozy, sleepy and...quiet.
Okay, I thought, having one of those moments where you the parent think that maybe, in fact, you do know nothing.  Maybe it is okay to have goats sleeping in your daughters' bedroom.  “Well…okay,” I said.  “That...sounds...good.”
All was well until around 3am.  I recall hearing something, but couldn't drag myself out of sleep.  I told myself,  "it must just be the ice machine."  Yeah, yeah, that’s it, the refrigerator’s ice machine making a racket.  I managed to sleep another  hour or so until AJ and I both woke up, realizing that there was a loud party going on.  Make that an unsupervised party.  Make that a big, unsupervised goat party, raging in the girls’ bedroom.  (When I walked in, Delilah was dancing on the top bunk and Teddy was butting himself in the mirror, reminding me very much of a frat guy I knew in college)
I don’t need to go into details, but suffice it to say that the dog kennel was not secure and that I’m doing lots of research on how to remove the smells of farm animals from non-farm settings.
I’m cleaning.  I’m tired.  But now, already on day two, all the kids are happy and playing, and everything is fine.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What is a Farmer's Market When you take Away The Farmers?

Here's a Wall Street Journal piece on the trouble some Farmer's Markets are having because some vendors, it turns out, are not farmers.

Wall Street Journal: Do You Need Farmers For A Farmers Market?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Tipping Point at the Novato Charter School

In environmental circles the phrase “Tipping Point” is usually referred to when speaking about the catastrophic effect of climate change and our inability to reverse our own exponential negative impact on the planet.  Pretty depressing.  And overwhelming.  But I’ve seen a different, hopeful version of the Tipping Point in action over the past years at my children's school. 
In 2001, when the Novato Charter School moved onto a stretch of former US Air force base - barren, hard pan, cement runway rubble -  things looked pretty grim.  Many parents who had helped form the school just a few years earlier threw in the towel, saying the land was “dead” and that we could never have a healthy school on that abused land. 
Nine years, thousands of loans, donations, workdays, classes, and staff, faculty and parent volunteer hours later, it is my opinion that the Novato Charter School grounds have reached a Tipping Point.  The property is now home to one of the largest school gardens you’ll find – over an acre of trees, pathways, natives, succulents, arbors, chickens, greenhouse, butterfly beds, scarecrows…and wildlife.  Our school has become a preserve.  Walk through the garden some morning and you will hear the call of bluebirds and hawks, the songs of crickets, and frogs.  Lift a log and you will find lizards and millipedes.  Stand near the bugleia bushes you might just have a butterfly or ladybug land on your hand.

About three weeks ago a couple moved into the area.  After looking around, they chose our little school for their young.  They seemed to have chosen  the school for the beauty of the natural environment,  and the sense that their children would be protected and safe to grow.  This couple just happened to be birds.   Mr. and Mrs. Killdeer moved right onto the middle of the school grounds to lay their eggs.  It was the Sunflower Kindergarten class who discovered them that first  morning, and they roped off a large area so the new parents would feel especially secure on their nest. 

Safe as they are, the Kildeers still perform all kinds of antics when someone approaches.  Dad hops around threatening with his remarkable size (at least he feels big) and serious peeps…and Mom wanders off the speckled eggs to flap around very dramatically, acting as if her wing were broken, just to pull our interest away from her offspring.
The twin eggs are due to hatch any day now.  The chicks will emerge, ready to go.  We’ll watch them run away to find their own food, and we’ll hope they come back and visit soon.  The school’s eco-system has reached a Tipping Point, and now this healthy land will compound itself, on its own. Maybe these Killdeer kids will be back when they’re grown up and ready to hatch their own chicks.  We’ll be waiting.

Here's a little video.  Not much happens, but it pans to Father Killdeer, taking a break over in the sand box, about halfway though.  The Killdeer Family

And here is more information about Killdeer and their unique behaviors - ground nests, fake broken wings etc  Killdeer

UPDATE! 4/22/10 The chicks have hatched.  Below are two videos.  Amazing how ready they are for the world when they are born.  These guys are only hours old.
Mother Killdeer with baby #1.
Father Killdeer with baby #2

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spring Happiness: Mini LaMancha Goats

The Indian Valley Farm class is a gift that just keeps giving.  Last semester I overheard Maria Kennedy and Leslie Adkins talking about their goats and the fact that they often have kids for sale in the spring.  We have been visiting with the goats down the way for the past thirteen years, just loving these wise, sweet, feisty, hungry and affectionate it seemed that being within earshot of this conversation between my classmates was a sign.  It was time for goats.

Last weekend Leslie called.  Her mama goat, Ceci, had twins, a boy and a girl, both sturdy and healthy. 

The little palomino girl is Delila.  The boy is Theodore.  They will stay with mama for a few months at Inverness Valley Inn, then come to their new home where they will share the donkey stable and back pasture with the chickens.  I have been reading up about their care on an excellent site recommended by Leslie and Alden - Fiasco Farms.  This is the place to start if you are thinking about raising goats.