Monday, May 31, 2010

Sea Lettuce, anyone?

Why yes, thank you.  When we went to the beach recently I collected some sea lettuce. Today I cooked some up and am currently drying the rest to use as a spice for soups later.  Apparently sea weed is some sort of super food containing more vitamins and minerals than land veggies and also carrying a heavy dose of protein and soluble fiber.  Sounds good, but how does it taste?  I sauteed up garlic in olive oil and added some chopped bok choy so the dish would have some crunch.  I added the rinsed and chopped sea lettuce and then powdered ginger and sesame seeds.  I am pleased to say that it was really great! I will definitely eat it again.  Next I'll try soup. 

Recipe for Sauteed Sea Lettuce:

1 Tablespoon of olive oil
2-5 Cloves garlic, chopped
1 Small head of bok choy, chopped
2 Cups rinsed and chopped sea lettuce
1/2 teaspoon of ginger powder (or if you have fresh, chop and saute with the garlic)
1 Teaspoon sesame seeds

In a medium skillet heat the olive oil and saute garlic 'til tender.  Add bok choy and cook until just wilted, about 2 minutes.  Add Sea lettuce and cook for about 1 minute or so.  Add ginger and sesame seeds, stir it up and cook for about another minute and serve!

Helping Hands

My kids thumped though the door of the kitchen carrying between them a large basket of dry laundry.
"Did you guys take the laundry off the line?"  I laughed.
They had, and then my oldest put some more on.  It was really cute, and really helpful.  Really.  I'm totally against child labor in the real world, but here, at the house, I am all for it.  I believe in an entire family working together doing jobs that make them feel a part of things and gives each a sense of accomplishment.  I definitely get some push back.  My 4 year old will say things like "Why do I have to do everything around here."  Luckily this is too funny to rile me up.  One of her unofficial jobs is to let the cat in when he meows at a door.  This is pretty annoying, as he can come in and out many many times during the day, but I think that because Noodles is alive she can see that doing this job actually takes care of something that needs her.

Anyway, they did the laundry and helped clean up outside without being asked and it was extremely adorable. 

That black plastic is my pile of Japanese Knowtweed that is actually still growing under there!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sea Lettuce, a Mermaid, and Rockets

Yesterday we were invited to a friend's beach house right on the chilly Atlantic.  The girls were beyond excited to get in the water and run free.  I was excited to see them enjoy themselves and maybe get into the sand myself.  My grandmother lived about a five minute walk from the beach, and during my childhood I spent every summer walking to the rocky New England beach, collecting rocks,visiting tide pools, and searching for the perfect sea shell. 

Now a days I tend to look for oceanic wild edibles.  One of my favorites is sea rocket.  It has the incredible taste of wasabi, and although I usually don't like spicy foods, this I can manage.  I have been meaning to invent a good chicken salad recipe especially for this wild food.  So, yesterday when I crossed over the dunes and found that the whole beach was lined with the stuff I was pretty excited.  I also found a lot of sea lettuce.  I collected a couple of zip lock bags full, it's in the fridge now waiting to become soup (I'll let you know how it turns out).

I've never noticed this before, so maybe I've never collected sea lettuce during this part of the summer but many of the plants I pulled form the shore line had clusters of eggs of some kind on them.  I threw them back and think I manged only to pull egg-less lettuce form the sea....I am curious to know what animal will emerge form these tiny wonders. 

This was the mermaid I made.  I wish I could say that I made it with the kids, or even for them.  They did become interested once she really took shape.  My big girl collected all the seaweed and sea straw from the beach in huge armfuls for her hair. 
...and then the ocean took her back.

Friday, May 28, 2010

First Wild Strawberry of the Season!

There it is....
There it went....

Long Car Rides

Our town has a small children's museum within walking distance from our house.  They run a lot of wonderful programs and we visit about once every couple of weeks.  They offer a reciprocating membership to a bunch of other museums that we can get into free.  My husband is very goal oriented, so if we are within 40 miles of a museum we have a membership to, we nearly always go.  Because of this, we are something of children's museum connoisseurs.  So far we have been to The Children's Museum in Easton in Massachusetts, Kidcity in Connecticut, Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut, The Providence Children's Museum, Boston Children's Museum, Hands-on House In Pennsylvania, Children's Museum Pittsburgh, The Children's Museum at Saratoga in New York, and The Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.  Don't get me wrong, we still have a long way to go, but we're steadily making our way down the list.  Many of these museums we have been to multiple times.  The main reason for this is we do a long drive once a year out to western Pennsylvania.  And we do this trip DVD-Free. 

This is a drive of many many hours that my brother and I were subjected to as children.  My mother seems relatively sane, so I don't think it caused too much permanent damage. As for my brother and me, I think we cherish the memories of the drive almost as much as arriving and playing in the freedom of my grandmother's rural Pennsylvania acreage.  My most memorable car event occurred when we were probably something like 3 and 8 years old (I am older).  I don't know how long we had been fighting, the drive is something like 8 -10 hours, so probably for about 6.  My mother abruptly pulled over, got out of the car and started throwing the luggage from the trunk onto the roadside.  We, of course, assumed we had gone too far and now lived on the side of the road.  When she was through, she looked at us, eyes glowing with frustration, and said, "OUT!"  Trembling we slid out of the back seat and hung our heads, preparing to shield our eyes from the dust the car would kick up as she sped to the safety of her mother's house, childless and free. To our surprise she began repacking the luggage into the back seat.  Obviously, she was so mad she was going to leave us abandoned without so much as a change of clothes.  She stacked the suitcases up in the backseat and when she was finished she fumed, "Get. In." She had built for us a kind of backseat Berlin Wall, I sitting on one side of the seat to ceiling stack and he on the other. We couldn't see each other, couldn't communicate, and we certainly weren't going to try to chat with my other at this point.  I can remember being immediately allied with my brother and we attempted to "drill" holes in the luggage so we could see each other once again. Now that I'm a mother myself, I am inspired by this creativity in problem solving and I cringe to think of how annoyed she must have been to go though this spectacle.  But regardless, it is probably one of the funniest traveling memories I have.

I watch my oldest sit in the backseat and chatter away to us actively looking out the window.  She is absorbing the sights, the climate difference, the change in the architecture, and landscape.  These will become for her actual memories and not just another environment in which to watch a movie.  I don't want to seem high and mighty here, and believe me there are plenty of frustrating moments. The words, "You'll know when we're there because we will be out of the car." or, "Ok! it's a quiet ride now!" are said, but it's worth it.  We're not crazy though, so we do have a strategy that will hopefully prevent road-side child abandonment. We break up the trip with children's museums and Grandmas house.  My mother lives in New Jersey so on the way to her house we stop at Kidcity in Middletown Connecticut.  I think this one is my favorite.  The artists they have working there are extremely talented and everything, and I mean every detail is thought out.  The colors and imagination of the place are so vibrant.  If you are anywhere near this museum I highly recommend it. 

Here is an example of the thoroughness of the designing.  These three pigs have air coming up though them so, as you can see, the yellow balls float in mid air above the piggies' backs.  However, if you were to hold them in (and really what kid wouldn't) they shoot up when you let go hitting...ready?...little drums set in the ceiling!!

  Look, even the lights look like apples in the tree!  And the mama pig on the right is also a seat, and don't think that you can't climb in the box and barrel and go though them like a tunnel, 'casue you can!
This is in the fishery, there is a big ship and a harbor and all kinds of conveyor belts and pulleys and wheels to mess around with to get the fish allover the place. 
Notice they both have the same concentrated look on their faces...also notice the water painted on the floor.
See how she has the fish sorted by color and also into the basket that most resembles that color?  That's no accident, she is a sorting sort of kid, all business. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pink Mashed Potatoes

One of my secret food loves is mashed potatoes from a box.  Really.  When I'm sick I want potato buds with a dollop of butter.  I often fantasize about going into school cafeterias and ordering the stuff because really, the cardboardy-butter flavor and grammar school paste-like texture all wrapped up in the magical "this was served with an ice cream scoop and a frown" shape is like heaven to me.  But, of course, we never really have them in the house because I tend not to buy boxed foods.  But for my birthday my hubby served me up a big plate for lunch.  We didn't finish the whole box so I had decided to make some for the girls for lunch. I am also trying to finish off the last of the preserved harvest from last year.  This includes little vacuum sealed packages of dried beets.  What I thought I'd do with them I don't know, but if they are soaked in some water the water turns a wonderful pink.  I've been using it (the water that is--the beets get thrown in the compost) to cook with.  So far I have had the best results using beet water in my tortillas, they make a real true pink tortilla.  My other experiments--pasta, crackers--haven't been so pretty, not bad, just not really pink.  But put them in some mashed potato buds and you get a really stunning result! They are HOT PINK. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dandelion Wine

A few weeks ago, my daughters and I dipped off the main road that runs through our town into a field to pick dandelion flowers.  Risking social scrutiny and limes disease we waded through the tall grass and filled a canvas bag so Mommy could make "a grown up drink." I had got it in my head while walking home from my four-year-old's first field trip to make dandelion wine.  I have been informed by my husband that it isn't really dandelion wine because the dandelions are not actually being fermented, but dandelion flavored wine.  I have also been informed by Rico Check's book Making Plant Medicine, that some of the medicinal qualities of dandelion are preserved in the wine, so it's all a wash and good old-timey fun.

I wasn't sure how much we were supposed to collect so we just collected until the kids started complaining.  When we got home I set to de-bugging and making sure all the stems were off.  If you use just the petals it results in a less bitter wine. It's really time consuming to remove just the petals, so I thought I could find an easy medium. I just used my fingernails to pinch off most of the green part of the flower.  This also was really time consuming and it resulted in a completely blackened thumb and forefinger nail, which looked really gross for a couple of days no matter how many times I scrubbed with boraxo. 

When all was said and done and the inch worms had crawled away I had about 3 quarts of mostly petals.  These were then supposed to be steeped in boiling water in a  non-reactive container and covered with a cloth (I used a crock from a crock pot with the lid).  So I boiled up a gallon and a half of water and poured it over the flowers and let it steep.  When I informed my husband that I was "now making dandelion wine," he--being an experienced beer and mead maker--informed me that we are without much of the equipment needed to progress to the next stage after the flowers had steeped for two days.  So once again a project was begun on a whim and then the exciting scramble to get what is actually needed to finish said project had begun.  It wasn't really as dramatic as all that, but we did have to drive into Cambridge to the Modern Brewer to get a 2 gallon bucket and an air lock.  Let it be said that this can be done with a wine bottle and a balloon, but apparently the quality "is for suckers."  

After the flowers have steeped they are put back into a pot with some other fun things like orange peels with no pith, a couple of lemon peels with no pith (pith makes the wine bitter), the juice from these fruits, a couple of cloves and brought to a boil for ten minutes.  We then strained the mixture into a large stainless steel bowl, added four-and-a-half pounds of sugar and let it cool a bit. When it gets to a temperature yeast likes (which is usually about 110 degrees) I added the juice, champagne yeast and yeast nutrient.  We poured the whole thing into the 2 gallon fermentation bucket and then let it sit.  I basically used the second recipe on this site, but changed it up a bit, as you can see.
In the morning, we looked at it and didn't believe it was doing anything, even though the air lock buoy had risen and we could hear the sound of bubbles popping. So we opened up the top to see and it was of course doing something.  We then called the Modern Brewer  and they said it was doing something and opening up the container was the worst thing to do but that it would be fine and we would in fact have wine of some kind at the end of this adventure.  They also said that we could do something called "back sweeten" the wine which means adding sugar after the wine has stopped fermenting.  The sugar that is added at this point is not eaten by the yeast, as the four-and-a-half pounds we already added will be. The new sugar can then behave in a more traditional way for sugar and sweeten the drink, making what my husband called "dandelion wine coolers." Do you think he was making fun of me?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Wild Lettuce

I picked some wild lettuce the other day. You can eat the young leaves and the developing flower heads, although it's too early for them just yet.  The Peterson Field Guide for edible wild plants say that they're a little bitter, but I found that compared to most wild greens they were pretty mild.  They also don't have that "planty" taste that many wild foods have.  I am aware that plants taste like plants because that is what they are,  but I'm talking about a flavor that makes your untried American taste buds ask your brain, "Hmmm, are you feeding me grass?  Because this salad taste like a mowed lawn. No? OK, just checking."

I chopped them up with some violet leaves and added them to some bulger I had made with carrots, raisins and a little cumin.  I just waited until the bulger was nice and hot and the carrots tender and added the greens on top and covered the pan.  That way they were just lightly steamed and kept their color.  Although I did notice that the leftovers sported a decidedly hunter green wild lettuce, but still, it tasted fine.  It was really nice to bring home dinner in this way again. I'm not sure what's next on the menu, I have to look at the calender, but I'm excited that our cold spring is finally starting to produce some lunch!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Every Year, starting in early spring, I can be found competing for the illustrious title of "Town Crazy Lady." You can see me in fields off the side of the road, cozzying up to old abandoned barns, or trekking into the over-growth behind parking lots in search of various wild edibles. This juice was made from last year's harvest of dehydrated Staghorn Sumac. Before you even get a chance to ask--no, it's not poison Sumac. Yes, I am sure. There is a big difference in the plants and it is pretty impossible to confuse, let me show you:

This is Staghorn Sumac. It is bright red, fuzzy and grows everywhere.

Above are pictures of poison sumac. It makes white berries that are in no way similar to the yummy staghorn sumac.

After the berries are soaked it makes a juice that taste a lot like pink lemonade. The berries (which are really fuzzy seeds) are high in vitamin C and tannic acid. So it's good for you too. I prefer to sweeten it a little, but it doesn't take a ton of sugar (or other sweetener) to make it drinkable. In fact, you can drink it unsweetened, but it's just a little tart for my taste.

Around here (Eastern Massachusetts) the "berries" are ready in late summer/early fall. You want to harvest them when the clusters are a deep red, but before any heavy rainfall has a chance to wash the flavor away. Russ Cohen, a local wild edible guru, says the way to tell if it's ripe is to lick your finger and shove it into a cluster. If it then tastes tart and tangy, it's ready. You will know if it's not ripe, it just won't taste like much. If you're in doubt, it's probably not ready.

Take about a dozen to 2 dozen clusters, depending on taste, and break them up into a bowl or pot, add about a gallon and a half of cold water. The water must be cold as hot water can leach out too much of the bitter tannic acid. I weight the sumac down with plates because they float and I like to be sure that they are submerged. From what I understand, this juice can now be ready in about 5 minutes. I however, like to let it soak over night. But to be honest with you, I'm not sure how much stronger this extra time makes the juice. I haven't done extensive experiments.
Justify Full

Once the berries have soaked (or five minutes or 12 hours, depending) you need to stain them through a cloth or old coffee machine filter. The clusters are hairy and it is pretty unpleasant to drink the hairs so you just want to be sure you've got them all. After that the juice is either ready to be consumed or sweetened and then consumed. I use about 1 cup of sugar dissolved in 2 cups mildly warm water to a gallon and half of strained sumac juice. That's really not a lot of sugar, and i feel like it just makes it's a little bit more delicious. And shouldn't everything be as delicious as it can be?

Over the summer I also canned black berry juice concentrate into jelly jars. I use one jar to about 7 cups of water and 1/2 a cup of sugar. I like to mix this juice with the sumacade. It gives it a juicier color and taste really really good. (You can see the color difference in the first photo. The juices on the left are pure sumac, the ones on the right are about 25-50% blackberry juice).

For the record both of my children (2 and 4) will happily drink either of these juices all day long. So they are kid approved.

So the recipe is:

12-24 Clusters of ripe sumac clusters broken up into
1.5 gallons of cold water, weighed down with a plate and left to steep overnight

Strain juice well

Dissolve 1 cup sugar into 2 cups warm water mix with sumac juice and enjoy!

Monday, May 3, 2010

The New Routine -or- Desperate Measures

I have a four-and-a-half-year-old girl who I really love. Really. She is smart and funny, super strong and capable. She's just about everything I would want a young girl to be in our society, one that is primed to not pay her any heed. All this is true, and at the same time I often have a hard time enjoying her company because everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is a battle. This is so pervasive in our relationship and in my household that it is pretty unbearable, and it start first thing in the morning! There is an argument about clothes, about breakfast, about getting hair brushed about this about that...I find myself yelling a lot of the time and completely exasperated by the end of the day. I know that this is not uncommon and it is probably a stage in her development that she will grow out of. Honestly I'm more worried about me and the changes I am making to my parenting ideals to try and cope with this situation. I feel like I am turning into a parent that I don't admire. I see people enjoying the antics of their children and I wonder how they do it. I also see mothers completely impatient with their kids, biting their heads off, and not noticing them. They are really not even seeing their children. As much as it hurts me to think of it, I bet I would be closer to these mothers in behavior at this point. I know we “all have those days,” but that's not what I'm taking about. I am talking about a pattern of lousiness that no one wants to be around. What worries me the most is that I feel like I am creating a pattern of distance with my daughter. Also, in general, I'm not teaching her to behave the way I would like her to.
So I did what any desperate parent would do, I went to the library and got a book. I mean, that's what anyone would do, right? I checked out Four Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child Breakthrough Discipline Techniques that Work -- for Children Age 2 to 10 by Cristine Chandler, Ph.D., with Laura McGrath. I am not quite done reading it, but it has some pretty good advice and techniques that might work for our family. Something that struck me when I began reading it was how much kids want structure. Of course, I already know this. I mean everyone tells you this all the time. They say, “Be consistent.” They say, “Have structure.” They say, “Don't let your kids play with knives.” All good advice in theory. But it's hard, at least for me apparently, to determine what is structure for me and what is structure for our children. So, as I look through the eyes of my girls, I see that maybe we don't have a reliable structure they can feel like they depend on. We do the basic same things every week on each day. It's not completely loosey-goosey, but the regular routine, the little things that must get done in a day can happen any which way. I's like the bricks are in place but there's no mortar.
Now, I am not a very disciplined person. I am not particularly practiced at finishing what I start. I start a lot, and I have even more ideas that I am too busy to beginning and then not finishing other ideas to start (and then not finish). I can name the amount of things I have conceived of and completed start to finish in a short list. If I make “on time” a part of the requirements for the list then I could name the number of things I have conceived of and finished in a short list on a gift tag. I'm not proud of this, quite to the contrary, I find it really embarrassing. I used to be very deeply ashamed of this character trait, and went to great lengths to hide, deny, ignore, this tendency all to my own detriment. But, now that I'm a mom and married, it's harder to hide. I am also determined to change this aspect of my behavior so that I can stop worrying about it and so I can be a better teacher to my children.
So, I decided to make a schedule. Usually, when something like this happens—there is a problem and I need to change something—I go way over board. I make a long complicated list of things that need to happen and a complete overhaul of my entire life, completely disregarding both my habits that took me 30 years to ingrain and my current life situation. I form, on paper, my new life and it looks awesome. In reality it is too complicated and unrealistic to manage and it remains unfinished like so so many things in my past. This time I have manged to not do that! I'm very proud of this. I did make a schedule of every task of every week day, but there is ample time to get it all done. I am also only focusing my real efforts on the morning. I figure I will start with a morning routine and work my way through the day slowly making it all habit as I become more capable of being a person who is capable of finishing what she starts.
So now, we all get up at the same time: 6:30 am. We all make our beds, then we brush our teeth and wash our faces, brush our hair and get dressed. No one (including me) is allowed downstairs until these jobs are done. I have an hour allotted for this, so there is no need to rush. We have a dry erase board with color coded days and pictures to let us know what is coming next and the tasks get a check when they're completed. We have been doing this for one week now and it is going great. The difference in my children's behavior is like night and day. There were so many first-thing-in the-morning arguments about getting dressed and brushing hair. There were also tons of annoying trips up and down the stairs to get all the necessary components together, and a little bit of forgetting to make the children brush their teeth (I know, crappy parenting, right?). Simply not starting the day with tons of little chances to argue, on top of my older one knowing exactly what is happening next and getting a chance to check tasks off a dry erase board is making for an awesome start to the day.
I have been paying attention to my schedule in secret. I just don't want to introduce the kids to a day-long schedule I'm not sure I can follow just yet. However, I am already finding that it has a similar effect on my behavior. I find just knowing what I am supposed to be doing now and immediately after is helping me prioritize the projects I start, resulting in a less frantic, less frustrated mama. I know this must all seem painfully obvious and simple to most, but I was never really taught how to do this, so it really is a learning process for me. I hope I can effect a real change in my own behavior, but more than that I hope I can give my girls a way of thinking that isn't such a hindrance to executing their ideas. If I can pull it off this will be one of the many lessons my children have taught me, or at least motivated me to teach myself.