we made a cookbook!

natural simple healthy
By Erin Martineau an...

Anne and I decided to eschew the big box stores and do some creative things for Christmas gifts--Anne felted soap, made liquid soap, and baked cookies, and we both worked to create this cooking guide, entitled Savor: Natural, simple, healthy.

It's a little book filled with tips about really easy ways to prepare fresh food, and lots of photos to whet your appetite.

If you click on the picture to the left, you'll be taken to the website of Blurb, which printed the book.  You can click through the first 15 pages and get a taste.  And if you like, you can order one!

It was a fun and relatively easy project, and we were thrilled with the quality of the photos and with the book as a whole.  If you ever want to make your own book, you can just use their free software, your own photos, and their page templates, and hey, presto!  You've made a book!  And if you have any questions, feel free to contact me and I'll walk you through the process.

beyond the imagination

Woven glass sunflower, by Thom Norris and Eric MarkowLast night, Anne and I were walking to the guest house, where we stay here on the farm, and were admiring the moon and the stars. I  breathed deeply and said, "It's so nice to be back here in the dark!" We had only been gone two nights, but that big open starry sky with that bright shining moon felt to me like long lost friends, and I was so glad to find them again.

Of course, they didn't go anywhere; I did.  After a lovely, reverent, sometimes hushed and sometimes exuberant service on Christmas Eve, and a festive little party afterwards, Anne and I ventured out to visit my family for Christmas. It was wonderful to spend time with my folks and my sister and brother-in-law, and to visit with my large extended family, now with SEVEN little ones running around. My cousins' children are sweet, funny kids, and I was privileged to participate in a lights-out dance party with some of them, ages ranging from 11 to just 2.  I loved talking with my aunts, learning about my grandfather's love of gardening, and it warmed me to feel that I am somehow more connected to him through this path I'm taking.  And I learned a bit more about my uncle's family, who were dairy farmers, and talked with the husband of one of my cousins, who yearns for a little homesteading plot himself.  All these connections, I'm just now discovering. 

And then on Sunday, we went to my parents' church, St. Patrick and St. Anthony, a Catholic Franciscan church in Hartford, CT.  We walked in, and I realized that for two whole days, I had been swept up in the gift-giving, family-seeing, cookie-eating parts of Christmas--and as for the spiritual grounding of the holiday?  Not so much.  It was as if the meaning of the holiday had basically slipped away the further we drove from the convent, and was completely faded by the time we began our big holiday family get-together.  It shocks me, how easily I can just slide into regular life, how hard it is to maintain the spiritual focus and appreciative mindset that envelops me at the farm.  I realize more fully, right at this moment of writing, that part of the purpose of having a spiritual practice, whatever it may be, is that it helps one maintain one's moorings, no matter where one might be.  Looking back on this holiday, I'm a little more cognizant that I've been relying too much on the structures of the convent, and the schedules of chapel and meditation time that are kept; it's time to work on developing my own spiritual practices that I can take with me wherever I go.  

So, back to last night:  there was some relief in my statement, a feeling of coming home to the dark night and starry sky of these hills.  I felt a little in awe of how much the farm now feels like home, and remarked to Anne that pretty soon, it will be a year since we first visited the farm.  And she replied, "Do you think you ever could have imagined that this would be your life, a year ago?"  

We laughed, because a year ago I was struggling and frustrated and wanting to make a big change, but I just didn't know where to go or what to do.  I was cooking and baking and learning how to be frugal, and wanting to be engaged in more creative work.  I had no conscious desire to delve into my spirituality, I had no idea I even liked gardening.  I was reading books about career changes, and just spinning, spinning, because many possibilities seemed interesting, but none grabbed my heart.

And then, on a whim, because our trip to Honduras made me remember how much I love being out in nature, Anne suggested we visit the farm.  And my whole world opened up again.  

There is a kind of hope that comes from knowing that life can change dramatically, that your longings--even the ones of which you aren't fully aware--can be fulfilled, that nothing is as fixed or set as it might seem to be.  This is what I am trying to inscribe down in my deepest bones, so that I will remember this feeling whenever I worry about "what comes next."  It is entirely possible that I cannot even imagine at this time what life will look like a year from now.  My experience tells me that if we remain open--to unseen possibilities, to feeling when our hearts leap, and to following that which makes us come alive--then anything is possible.

May 2010 bring you love and light and joy, and all that which lies beyond your imagination. 

root cellar salad, and the value of a potato

root cellar vegetablesOur root cellar is a thing of wonder: boxes of sawdust and sand filled with roots from the garden: carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, mangels, and salsify.  Parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas are full of flavor, and complement potatoes really well--if you haven't tried them in awhile, it's worth a venture.  You can even make mashed parsnips just like mashed potatoes, just with a bit of a peppery flavor.  Mangels are related to the beet, and are sweet and delicious.  And salsify is like a long, skinny parsnip, with a mild flavor that's great in soups or roasted dishes.

The root cellar is chilly enough that you wouldn't want to slowly browse, but not cold enough to freeze.  Imagine: you just run downstairs and grab what you need for the soup, or throw together a pan of veggies to roast.  

Gives a new meaning to the word "store."

The roots need watering just about once a week, and the sand and sawdust hold that moisture and keep the roots in good condition.  But as you can see from the picture, little greens pop up from the crown of the root, as the plant continues to grow, even under such different conditions.

root cellar salad greensAnd lucky for us.  

These little root greens are a tasty reminder of the summer that's passed.  Sister Carol Bernice, who cultivates the lettuces, went down to the root cellar the other day to harvest.  The salad that was made was delicious, with a crisp and a crunch that are hard to find in the wintertime.

Living off what we grow means taking a long view, thinking ahead to how best to preserve food for as long as possible.  We use up the roots first, because the cellar can't preserve them indefinitely; then, the foods in the freezer; and finally, the dried, dehydrated fruits and vegetables.  We processed these crops as they came in, beginning with the spring peas, which await in the freezer, to give us a taste of May, even in the coldest of winter.

The amount of thought and care that goes into these crops vests them with value, and my close connection to the work that cultivated them means that I see these foods in new ways: in a potato, I see much more than a golden oval starchy root, I see Sister Helena Marie on her knees, "hilling" or pulling dirt over the potatoes in the early stages of their growth; I see Bill spraying the plants with a milk and water mixture, to try to prevent blight; and I see Sister Carol Bernice and Sister Emmanuel out in the garden with potato forks, turning soil to find little treasures, and their smiles when they bring a full basket into the barn.  And in the barn, I see Sister Catherine Grace, who heads up our preservation and storage efforts, sorting through the potatoes, leaving them out to cure.

In every stage, there is our hope and our toil.  And so we admire what we've cultivated, gathering around the kitchen table, praising the particular yellow-gold of this potato, how easy it is to slice, how delicious it tastes.  This love of food--not just as an ingredient for culinary skill, but as part of the amazing diversity and beauty of creation--was one of the first things that attracted me to this Community.

Recently, I saw a sign in a grocery store window advertising 3 pounds of potatoes for $1.00.  It was shocking.  How could all that effort and care be worth, or even just be exchanged for, only a buck?  I know that grocery stores lure people in with cheap staple goods, counting on people buying processed foods at inflated costs when they get inside.  But I was saddened, nonetheless, that most of us are so disconnected from the experience of growing food that such a price seems reasonable.  How could a farmer make a living selling potatoes at that price?  How could they be grown with care and attention, at that price?

The answer is that they can't.  Prevention Magazine recently asked the experts which foods they'd never eat, and non-organic potatoes are on the list.  Here's why: they're sprayed with fungicides when they're planted as seed potatoes, the plants are sprayed with herbicides during the growing season, and then the potatoes are treated with some other chemical to prevent them from sprouting while they sit in the warehouse or grocery store.  That's thrice-doused, not twice-baked.  That's a commodity potato, with all the energy going to making each plant produce as much as possible with as little human attention as possible.  

removing potato eyesRemoving sprouts from shriveled potatoesWe've got a weird expectation that all our food look perfect.  I was surprised to learn, for example, that potatoes that have grown long sprouts and are all shriveled up are still perfectly good to eat.  You just remove the sprouts, boil them to rehydrate them a little bit, and then cook as normal.  But until now, I've always thrown out sprouted potatoes, thinking they were no good.  How much food do we all just throw away?

There's a difference, I would argue, between a commodity potato and a potato grown with care. This is why I hope more and more people will start to patronize farmers markets, and get to know the people who are growing your food.  

If we can re-establish the connection between the farm and the table, between growing, preparing, and eating food, perhaps we can revitalize the role of family farms in local economies, move toward more nutritious meals, and improve our health through more mindful eating.  

To take a minute, and really see our food, to appreciate it, to become nourished by it . . . this is what I'm learning here at the farm, working in the dirt, learning about how food grows.


antiphons and anticipation

CHS Melrose chapelThis is the first Advent season that I've ever really paid attention to, probably in my whole life.  The quieting down of farmwork, and shorter days, have made our time in chapel all the more prominent these last few weeks, and for that I'm glad.

Sister Helena Marie, a classically trained musician, has created beautiful "Offices" for us to observe throughout the four weeks of Advent.  (An Office is a daily prayer, sometimes called the "Liturgy of the Hours" or the "Divine Office". They are sung at specific times of day; for example, Lauds in the morning, Vespers in the evening.)

For our Advent worship, there are specially chosen psalms and antiphons (short phrases sung before and after a psalm, that frame the text), and carefully selected hymns.  For some reason, I find this manner of worship inviting and meditative, which is so wonderful after all my angst about religion and "The Church" for the last twenty-five years!  Perhaps it has something to do with the intimate nature of the setting; we are usually only six or eight gathered in this little chapel.  The energy that's created when people are fully present and focused is a powerful thing.

plainsong Lauds

We sing "plainsong," which is an ancient musical form developed in the early days of the church, and then elaborated over time.  Lines are sung in a kind of chanting style, sticking mostly to just a few notes, except for a few more elaborate phrases that mark feast days and special occasions in the church calendar.  

And of course, the Advent candles.  Four, each one symbolizing one of the weeks of Advent; we light one the first week, two the second week, and so on.

Advent is a time of waiting, preparing.  I think I was particularly primed for Advent, as I had been desiring to turn inward, to start meditating...and to stop checking websites for job listings and real estate, to stop pushing and prying and trying to force the future to make itself plain to me ahead of time.  I'm thankful for the prayerful practices of Advent that have helped me turn away from my frenetic worry and toward stillness.

simple Advent centerpiece

Here at the farm, the Sisters have a different way of anticipating Christmas.  We don't decorate the tree, or sing carols until Christmas Eve.  We don't exchange presents.  There's no stress of dealing with shopping crowds or harried clerks.  Instead, the Sisters contemplate and pray.  The snow adds a blanket of quiet beauty to the woods.  The winter solstice, happening today, marks another turn, and we begin another anticipation, of the longer days that are coming, of the seeds that will need to be started and nurtured, and eventually planted . . . but I'm learning that you have to go easy when anticipating--if you're not careful, you can throw yourself all the way clear to May, with the advent of asparagus and green leafy lettuces.  In the same way, most of us spend so many weeks anticipating Christmas, to the point of focusing all our attention on the 25th, on gifts and feasts, and lists and shipping . . . and speeding past the pleasure and fullness that comes from waiting, from savoring the present moment.

The time for celebrating is coming, but it's not here yet.  We are still in the darkness, our faces illuminated by candlelight, singing, and waiting. 

stuff and space and simplicity

It's been a busy "rest day" here at the farm, as I spent most of the day cleaning out and rearranging an old bedroom that was being used for storage.  The room was quite full, containing some of the left-behind belongings of two elderly sisters, who now reside in nursing homes.  I found boxes of useful sewing, crocheting, knitting, and crafting supplies, in addition to a couple lifetimes' worth of recipes, which I plan on perusing carefully!  While going through these things, I got to wondering about my own possessions, the life-stuff I surround myself with.  The books and books and magazines, the vases and candles, the hobby projects I start and often never finish . . . Our stuff documents how we pass the time, what we value, what we think is beautiful.  

Over the years, I've struggled to reduce the amount of stuff I own, in great part because we've been living in a small apartment in New York City.  We've only got two regular-size cabinets for storing food and plates, and only a couple of small closets; we simply don't have a lot of room for stuff, or shelf space to display knick-knacks. Whenever we visit friends or family for the first time, we "ooooh" and "aaaaahhh" at the closet space, built-in shelving, and kitchen cabinetry.  Dwell, a contemporary architecture magazine, with its layouts of modern homes, perfectly organized and beautiful, made me drool.  

But since I've been living here at Melrose Convent & Bluestone Farm mostly full-time, since August, I find that I need even less stuff than I thought.  I've got a few sets of farm clothes and a few good pants and shirts, but only about 1/4 of the clothes I have in the NYC apartment.  A few books and magazines.  Some warm slippers and boots and hats and gloves.  A travel bag of toiletries.  And my computer.  So I've come to find, after too many seasons of wanting a bigger apartment and more closets and more clothes and more stuff, that I am happier having even less.  I think that I'm coming to see that living simply is itself beautiful. . . I do think that it's easier to cultivate this perspective when I'm away from the city, where the pace is so intense, and there is so much to do, and so much to buy.  Here, I can go for many days without even picking up my wallet, or thinking, "You know, I could really use a . . . "

One of the benefits of cleaning out that storage room is I got to create a little meditation area in my living space, with a small table on which to put a candle and a bell.  (There had been an extra bed in my living area, which got moved to the storage room.)  Creating that bit of spaciousness, marking aside a spot for meditating feels like such a gift.  A spot intended for my spiritual growth, a present to myself.  At this moment in my life, more than any material thing could, having this space fills me up and makes me content.  I'm so very grateful to the Sisters here for sharing their lives with me, for giving me this space in which to work and rest and pray and grow and be.  

And in this vein of appreciating simplicity, I thought of sharing the following cooking idea with you.  I realized recently that mostly I don't use recipes, but just go by broad guidelines in my cooking.  So bear with me while I figure out what to call these things, for now "cooking idea" will have to do.

Sunny-side eggs in sauteed greensThis idea is based on a recipe I read in Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which, if you haven't read, you really should!  It's beautiful and interesting, a great read.).  

Take some of your favorite leafy greens (spinach, kale, beet leaves), and saute them in olive oil with whatever spices or seasonings you like: garlic, red chili flakes, salsa, ginger, or soy sauce, for example.

Then, after a few minutes, when the greens are wilted, make little divots and crack an egg into each hole.  Let the eggs slowly cook on low heat; you can separate out each egg and its surrounding greens, and flip, if you like.  Serve alone or with some good crusty bread.  

Simple and delicious.