Pancake Dreams, Childhood Memories

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There were two things I never experienced knowingly until I went to college: fake butter, and fake maple syrup. Furthermore, whether you call them pancakes, griddle cakes, flapjacks, or hot cakes, most of us share the same image of this popular American breakfast dish. This was not the case for me.

We called them pancakes. We ate them for breakfast. But in fact, I grew up eating crepes. My grandmother learned to make them for my French grandfather; my father took over the tradition, and today for the first time in quite a while, I am returning to it. I haven’t made crepes in ages, but yesterday the craving took me over, and I realized that the “pancakes” that were commonplace in my household were foreign to my children.

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stack of homemade cornmeal pancakes, my son’s favorites.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good American pancake! We make them all the time with variation: whole wheat, buttermilk, cornmeal, white light & fluffy, and so on and so forth. Growing up, eating thick pancakes was a novelty, in which we would daringly engage at a diner (almost always disappointing), or at a friend’s house where the concept of chocolate chip pancakes or pancakes from a box was an uncontemplatable yet delicious sin. But back to the real story…

There was never a recipe. We learned by watching the various ingredients go into the blender, and we appreciated the results with the first bite from that thin little pancake with the perfect balance of creamy tenderness and golden crispiness. My grandmother wielded two small non-stick skillets in her house and she would make crepes in tandem. My father’s pan of choice, and mine as well, is a low-lipped cast iron frying pan, perfectly seasoned, never washed, and used exclusively for crepes.

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My cast iron crepe pan

The tradition, however, was the same in both households. Crepes in my family are served fresh and hot, and eaten right away while they are still at their most delicious. Whether we were offered “pancakes” for breakfast or we requested them, the system worked as follows: The quickest child would claim the first pancake, even with the knowledge that sometimes the first one would not be sheer perfection while the pan temperature was adjusted and the cast iron fine tuned its seasoning with the current flame. The claim was staked by simply shouting “I get first!” In turn, someone would call second, and the last child (there were three of us), would obviously be third. At my grandmother’s, she would make crepes just for us, perhaps eating one for herself at the end. When my dad made crepes, he worked furiously providing crepe after crepe, with my mom in fourth place, and my dad eating his fill only if there was a lull in the lineup or if we had all eaten our fill.

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The lineup of plates in the crepe serving frenzy

It wasn’t that we each ate in isolation. The flurry of activity in the kitchen meant that we essentially ate together, moving from table to the serving lineup and back again, keeping our place and the system running smoothly, with only occasional arguments about who was next.

Looking at recipes and uses for traditional French crepes, there is no doubt that our crepes and how we eat them have been hybridized. I am not afraid to add a hint of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt to my recipe. We enjoy them ladled with melted butter and authentic maple syrup. Bon appetit!

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Wheat, a journey of pride

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Yesterday, I ground wheat berries from our own harvest! My family and I have been experimenting with the highs and lows of growing our own supply of hard red winter wheat. This is our second harvest.

We’re not farmers by any means, just a family on a journey to self-reliance with a passion for food that is homegrown and natural. We went into this knowing the labor and agreeing that we were not going to invest any money in fancy equipment. We’ve made many mistakes and learned from each one. Our original 1/32 acre plot has since grown to a whopping 1/8th of an acre (and switched locations to allow the original plot to rest). I sometimes wonder if it’s worth all the labor, the trial and error, when I can order a 50 lb. bag of hard red wheat berries online for a very reasonable price.

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hard red winter wheat berries, harvested late summer 2015

It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it in my opinion. To grow something, to await the wonder of germination from something in stasis and ostensibly barren of life, never ceases to amaze me. After planting our winter wheat in late September, days later we witness a carpet of vivid green. It grows for a bit, and then it stops with the arrival of the short winter days. Winter wheat needs this cold period, and in the spring it takes off again, this time continuing its journey upward to becoming a mature plant with offspring of its own. We watch the stalks turn golden and the heads start to bend sideways, an indication that the seeds are ready for harvest. Then the real work begins (the labor that makes me doubt this endeavor sometimes!). We harvest, we thresh, we winnow. And then we have something amazing — pride in our work, a sense of accomplishment. Oh, and of course bushels and bushels of nutritious wheat!

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weighing the freshly ground flour to make bread dough

We haven’t purchased store bread in almost six years, except occasionally while I was pregnant with my now four-year-old daughter, when the smell of yeast made me even more sick than I was in general during those months. We’ve been grinding our wheat for the past two years, but this is the first year I will be baking extensively with my own homegrown wheat. The first year yielded little more than enough to save for seed the following year. We’ve been gradually building a supply of heirloom seed over the past two years, and this year there is surplus!

For many this journey may not be worth it, but I enjoy a challenge and I enjoy hard work.

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stretching & folding the dough before a second rise

We’ve always kept a big garden that provides fresh vegetables throughout the summer and enough surplus to put by for leaner months. Growing wheat has been something my husband and I have always talked about. I love the sense of accomplishment of working the land and producing food myself. It’s one of the few things that always makes sense to me.

There’s nothing more satisfying than the smell of baking bread. And there’s nothing harder than waiting for freshly baked bread to cool enough so everyone can enjoy that first warm slice with butter!

 

[edit: after posting this on Facebook, a friend commented with a link to this very interesting article, called Bread is Broken. It seemed appropriate to post it here as well!]

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four 13″ loaves, baked in un-lidded pullman pans.

 

Here’s to You, Little Red Hen

I’m so busy right now with a wide selection of seemingly random affairs–things related to gardening, harvesting, homeschooling, book editing, education advocacy, as well as other small tasks. The last thing I should be doing is writing a blog post. But here I go, putting it all aside to tell you that I just ate the most delicious slice of bread, freshly baked and still warm from the oven. This isn’t just any slice of bread. This is bread from the flour of hard red spring wheat that my family grew, harvested, threshed, and ground ourselves! The feeling I have is satisfying. No, it’s exhilarating!

from plant to wheat berries to ground flour

from plant to wheat berries to ground flour

Growing small grains has been on our to-do list for some time. We bake all our own bread, and have for the past four or five years. For about a year, we’ve been buying whole wheat berries and grinding our own flour. My gift for Christmas was a Nutrimill. I gave my husband five pounds each of hard red spring wheat seed and hard red winter wheat seed, to start our first plots of each.

Spring wheat means you plant it in the spring and it is ready for harvest by the end of the summer, and that’s what we started with. This was a trial plot (we didn’t even know if it would grow here!), and it was filled with some success (I’m eating bread, aren’t I?) and a lot of failures. Not knowing if growing wheat would suit us long term and our plot too small to necessitate special equipment, we decided to broadcast the seed and rake it in, one method recommended for small scale grain growers. Keep in mind, we’d never done this before and were really experimenting, learning through the entire process. I calculated the viability rate of the seed and took into account average loss, and we prepared a plot just the right size for five pounds of seed. We made two mistakes: First, I don’t think we seeded the plot densely enough; and second, I don’t think we raked it in deep enough. As a result, when the wheat finally germinated and began to grow, we noticed right away that our wheat field was a bit on the sparse side. Because of this, weeds had plenty of space to grow up around the wheat. I tried to weed in the beginning, but it quickly became apparent that come harvest time, we would be searching for our wheat amongst the towering undesirables–so much for our dreams of casually scything down large swaths of golden wheat swaying gently in the breeze.

Harvesting the weed infested field was a nightmare and a challenge, but one my husband luckily took on whole-heartedly. Pushing aside the weeds, we (mostly he) located the wheat and harvested it. We found the easiest way in our situation was to cut off the wheat just under the heads. Painstakingly, we did this while imagining that our neighboring farmers were watching from their barn, laughing all the while.

Our next challenge was to remove the wheat berries from the seed head and separate them from the surrounding chaff. We anticipated that this task would be yet another obstacle that would put another check mark on the side of harvesting your own wheat is not worth it. But it turned out to be quite easy! The chaff came right off with just a little friction or beating. Then my husband devised a DIY wheat threshing system based on something he found online: a bucket with a bearing attached to a rod that ran down through the center of the lid.  Attached to the rod were several lengths of chain. Using a drill attached to the visible end of the rod, the rod turned threshing the wheat inside the bucket with the chains. It was brilliant. The wheat berries were free. Farmers of old used to separate their just threshed wheat berries from its chaff by tossing it in the air on a windy day.  The heavy wheat berries would fall back down while the light chaff would blow away. We replicated this with a box fan and shortened the job drastically.

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Today, I ground several pounds of our spring wheat and baked my first bread with it. The Little Red Hen would be very proud of me, but unlike her, I had help. I couldn’t have done this without my husband’s support (especially the back breaking kind) and his own excitement to see this project through. Furthermore, even the kids are proud to have produced. My 6 1/2 year old son and my almost 3 year old daughter helped harvest the wheat and took it upon themselves to thresh their own small supply of wheat berries (These have become very sacred and I am not yet allowed to grind them–maybe we’ll save those for seed next year!). My reward from the hard work and dedication it takes to produce what society normally takes for granted as something packaged at the end of a processing line is knowing that my food is safe, natural, nutritious, and sustainable. More importantly, my entire family has a connection to their food, a characteristic that I feel will one day benefit my children greatly as the world continues to change. When I asked my children, “who wants a slice of freshly baked bread made from our wheat that we grew?” They responded with a immediate and exuberant “Me, me, me!”

risen loaves, just before being popped into the oven

risen loaves, just before being popped into the oven

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Just out of the oven

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loaves cooling

I’d say the success outweighs the failure. Learning from one’s mistakes is an important part of improvement. Our real goal is to grow hard red winter wheat, which is sown in the early fall to begin growing. It requires a cold period as part of its growing cycle, and in the spring will continue to grow to be harvested at the end of summer. Because of its longer growing period, winter wheat tends to produce higher yields than spring wheat; and the gluten content of hard red winter wheat is the highest of all wheats (spring v. winter, soft v. hard), which is ideal for bread baking. We have already seeded a small plot of winter wheat, this time sowing the seeds more densely. We did a better job raking them in as well. We intend to seed a second small plot in a few weeks to compare the different sowing times. Growing winter wheat will again be an experiment (will it overwinter alright?), but we have learned much and are confident that the process the second time around will be much easier. That will be a post in another year’s time.

Peach Madness

It’s Friday. If you were to drop by, I’d be embarrassed, and I’d ask you to keep your shoes on! My kitchen is a disgusting mess of sticky peach residue. Every bowl, every surface, every button on the microwave is affected (I use it as a timer). Thirty half pints of peach jam stand sealed in my island. What will amount to seven pints of peach chutney currently simmers on the stovetop. I spent my morning peeling, pitting, and chopping half of the bushel of peaches I bought from a farmers market the other day. Although I haven’t the energy to deal with the remaining half bushel today, it will be destined for jarring in light syrup in the coming day or so.

just made peach jam

just made peach jam

If you’re not accustomed to making your own food on this scale, you undoubtedly think I’m nuts. But in my defense, once you endeavor to make food from scratch and avoid the over-processed, chemical laden products that have been mass produced for our convenience, you can never go back! You’re probably thinking, Ok, I get that. But who needs thirty jars of jam? You’re right, I don’t– I actually need much more than that. Several weeks ago, I made about thirty half pints of jam from freshly picked blueberries. And several small batches of strawberry and raspberry jam line the shelves in my basement. I make jam with whatever fruit is fresh and in season.

We eat it on toast and on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but most of our jam usage goes into flavoring and sweetening fresh homemade yogurt, made from raw milk from local farmers. With homemade jam containing little sugar and made from fresh fruit, and fresh yogurt, I know that my food is natural and that it contains nothing unnecessary.

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homemade yogurt with homemade peach jam

Making jam is easy, and it’s a wonderful first project for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the world of food preservation. Some fruit, jars, some basic kitchen equipment that you probably already have, some pectin (and the recipe on the box/ jar!), and some common sense hygiene is all you need. You could add sugar to that list, but it isn’t necessary if you’re using a low/no sugar pectin. These types of pectins will set without sugar, and also allow the user to sweeten with honey, or another type of sugar alternative.

If you’re like me, you’ll start with a few batches of jam, perhaps move on to tomatoes (which are also very easy), and then experiment with other recipes such as salsas and chutneys, which like jam, do not require the use of a pressure canner to seal food safely. All of these foods can be processed in a boiling water bath!

Go ahead, make your own jam! You won’t be disappointed! The results yielded will be immeasurably tasty, and the satisfying feeling of achievement priceless. Whether you cook from scratch, grow a garden, purchase locally from neighborhood farms or farmers markets, preserve food on a small scale as a hobby, or are the verge of a complete do-it-yourselfer like me, we are participating in a culture of real food. We share an understanding of the true value of knowing where our food comes from and that it doesn’t have to contain an infinite list of unpronounceable ingredients or come in fancy, individually wrapped packages.

I invite you to get involved in the food revolution. Know your farmers, keep your money local. At the same time, you’ll be playing a role in sustainable agriculture, and avoiding participation in an industrialized food system driven by corporate interests and a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

In his 2013 article, “Beyond the Barcode: The Local Food Revolution,” well-known food author Michael Pollan (author of bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma) describes the benefits of a local food economy citing reasons both political and sentimental for the values of a local farmers market. Not only is a local food economy safer and less prone to contamination, but we start to eliminate the vast amounts of fossil fuels that are used to grow large monocultures of cash crops and the fuel it takes to transport these food products thousands of miles. Beyond that, Pollan says, farmers markets are vibrant spaces where people come together to connect to their food.

We like what happens socially at the farmer’s market, which is quickly emerging as the new public square in this country. If you compare what happens in the aisles at the grocery store with the farmer’s market, think about what a world of difference that is. At the farmer’s market country meets city. Children are introduced to where their food comes from. They learn often for the first time that a carrot is not a glossy orange bullet that comes in a plastic bag, but is actually a root. How amazing!

I’ve grown my own garden for the past fifteen years, there was always a garden when I was growing up. I remember my first garden when my husband and I first moved to Buffalo, NY from the Netherlands.  It was a narrow patch of ground between the driveway and our side of the duplex we were renting. I grew only peppers and tomatoes. Across the driveway, in another duplex a mother lived with her three young children. I remember the oldest loved peppers, and he loved them raw! I remember even more his mothers reaction to this characteristic: She thought it was beyond strange, and commented that she didn’t know where he got that from. Anyway, this boy was fascinated with my pepper plants once the green fruits started growing. He was mesmerized. This was the first time he had seen a pepper growing, and had no concept of their origin beyond the grocery store produce shelf.

More recently, only a couple of months ago, friends of mine were visiting and I was showing them my (now much larger) garden at my home in Morris, NY. I saw the same fascination, the awe as one of them saw, for the first time, vegetables still growing on their plants. It reminded me of my neighbor boy in Buffalo. At the time, I had long let my asparagus grow for the summer, and she was amazed to see the plants in their non-spear state. She was so intrigued by the idea of where asparagus comes from that I was forced to search on my hands and knees through the tall plants to find an asparagus spear to show her.

We now grow all kinds of vegetables besides peppers and tomatoes, including a variety of summer squash, green beans and shell beans, greens that include different lettuces and mesclun, spinach, Swiss chard, bok choy, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, melons, sweet corn and dent corn, fennel, leeks, carrots, beets, eggplants, potatoes, and various other things depending on the year and/or the season. Recently, we experimented with growing hull-less oats and spring wheat (a post for another day!). In a few weeks we will plant winter wheat for the first time. Our gardens are thriving diversities of vegetables, flowers, blueberries, strawberries, fruit trees, and hops. I love to grow things and there isn’t anything I won’t try once! I hope to instill this love of growing in my children, as well as the wisdom of knowing where their food comes from.

Eating fresh yogurt

Eating fresh yogurt

From Plant to Plate: The Delicacies of Summer Enchant Us

 

 

 

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It’s that time of summer, when the bounties from the garden start rolling in. It is a satisfying feeling to know that the food on my table is so fresh, only hours or sometimes minutes since it went from plant to plate. It is this time of year that I start using my surplus vegetables to create delicious recipes that I preserve so that I can bring my family the fresh taste of summer throughout the dead of winter.

Today I made this year’s first double batch of homemade salsa. I had been looking forward to this day all week. Tomatoes had been ripening. Peppers had been growing bigger. The garlic had been curing. And the onions, still dirty from their garden row, had been filling the mudroom with a particular aroma that older onions just don’t have have.

Salsa has been among my repertoire of food preservation recipes for several years now, but this year was different. This was the first year that I was able to create the recipe using 100% ingredients that I had grown myself. In prior years, there was always something missing: cilantro that had already gone to seed, with a new crop not rightly planned; a pepper crop that had failed; or garlic that was not quite ready. This year, everything was perfect.

 

 

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I love hearing that sound of jars cooling on the counter, that one-by-one clicking pop when the lids spontaneously concave as the pressure difference between the jar environment and that of the room create a vacuum seal. I love that feeling of success when the jars audibly seal in the distinct taste of natural, fresh food. It’s a signal. It’s a voice that says, “You did it. Be proud.”

DSC_0642This year’s tomatoes are beautiful, with no cracks or blemishes, and oh so delicious. Eating the summer’s first tomato sparks a memory of how tomatoes are supposed to taste, and one that gradually fades as winter deepens and you’re forced to consume the mealy red hothouse globes utterly void of zest. Garden tomatoes provide the base for much of our winter eating. With their high acidity, they are very easy to put by. We choose from a variety of salsa recipes, delicious tomato-based chutneys, sauces with different spice combinations, or just jarring them whole, they carry us through the cold season when the concept of growth seems at times forever incomprehensible in upstate New York.

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DSC_0650I start all of my vegetables from seed, including a variety of hot pepper plants that have been generously producing a gorgeous palette of vividly colored fruits.  It doesn’t take much to give a dish a kick. While I like my salsa on the spicy side, my children do not and I am forced to halve the called for amount of these little gems.

DSC_0653The growing season has been good. My herb garden is a treasury of abundance. Each day we choose our particular palate from herbs such as parsley, basil, sage, mint, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and marjoram. My salsa recipe calls for cilantro and I was happy to oblige. I love the flavor of cilantro and I cherish the bouquet of  it freshly chopped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I grew a variety of onions this year: white, yellow, and red. They too did well… that is until two specific mother hens and their brood of chicks kept escaping and decided it was quite lovely to scratch around the organic mulch of the onion patch for insects and worms. Unfortunately, this disturbance damaged the delicate green part of the onion above ground and stunted the growth of the bulbs under the earth. These onions never reached the full potential of size, but none the less made a delectable homegrown addition to my salsa.

 

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We harvested beautiful garlic this year. After enjoying delicious garlic scapes while they were in season, the bulbs themselves continued to grow in their furrows, producing extra large cloves on some of the hardneck varieties. Most of the bulbs are still drying for longterm storage, but the fresh cloves were a delightfully spicy inclusion in this year’s salsa.

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This double batch of salsa used 20 cups of chopped tomatoes, 10 cups of chopped green peppers, 10 cups of chopped onions, 8 cloves of minced garlic, about 1 1/2 cups of chopped hot peppers, and about 1/2 cup of chopped cilantro. With the required addition of cider vinegar and some salt, we produced 16 pints of storable food. This is just the beginning! We await many more happy returns from our vegetable garden before the end of summer arrives. There are plenty of small peppers still growing. The tomatoes are really just starting. And summer squash, green beans, corn, eggplants, and more grow presently in our gardens.

Mmmm… a slice of heaven!

Everyone should have homemade pie for dinner every now and again–no appetizers, no entrees, no sides… just pie (naturally à la mode & whipped cream are acceptable additions). It makes life worth living! What a surprise yesterday at Frog Pond, when they were giving blueberries away by the case. Apparently they were too ripe to sell. But the 36 pints we took had lots of useable berries which were quickly converted into the most delicious 26 half-pints of jam, and two amazing blueberry pies with spelt-flour crust. I don’t like to brag but… YUM! Try a pie for dinner one night. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Homemade blueberry pie served a la mode with whipped cream. The butter crust made with 100% spelt flour is divine--with a toasty, nutty flavor, and the flakiest texture.

Homemade blueberry pie served a la mode with whipped cream. The butter crust made with 100% spelt flour is divine–with a toasty, nutty flavor, and the flakiest texture.

I couldn’t find Bob Dylan’s amazing original but here’s a pretty good cover: