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.

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.


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.  


breathing in this vivid world

I often feel like such a newbie here at the farm, having so little experience with growing things...  I think this is why I enjoy my time in the kitchen so much, as it's one place where I can bring a little skill.  This week I made a wonderful beet soup, and a gratin made from Osaka purple mustard greens (the gratin was a modification of this recipe).  I can't take too much credit, though: it's pretty hard to ruin a dish here, given the quality of the ingredients!~


Gingery beet soup
Roast a bunch of beets (scrubbed, trimmed, and then in the oven at 375 for 1.5 hours in light coating of olive oil, salt and pepper). When beets are done: In the bottom of a soup pot, sautee two big onions (chopped), and when they've sweated a bit, add a little garlic and two tablespoons of grated ginger.  Add a quart of soup stock, and then add the beets.  Bring to a boil and then remove from heat.  Let sit for 1/2 hour.  Then puree; to serve, add a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.  Delicious!!


But back to being a newbie:  A friend came to visit me at the farm this past week, and after I showed her around the gardens, and explained the tasks we're currently occupied with, she asked if I had gardened much before moving here. The answer is no: I'd pretty much had zero experience gardening.  She remarked that it seemed kind of overwhelming, and I realized that during our walk I had been spouting off all these little bits of information that I've learned: the names of different varieties, how to plant or tend certain vegetables, how to put the garden to bed.  Hearing her reaction, at the end of the tour, I first felt happy to realize how much I've learned in the last six months, but, then, I worried that I was presenting gardening in a way that was alienating, rather than inviting and accessible to anyone.  

It's true that farming engages with a great quantity of information--practical, scientific, historical, experiential.  But I do think that we all can grow food, and that we can learn a little bit at a time.  I'm lucky to be here with people who've been learning through direct experience (and reference books) for the last five years, and so I can learn from them, as I go.  I can talk about many of our crops here, but have direct experience only with a few of them: I've really only planted onions, celery, garlic, and beans.  I listen and ask a lot of questions, and I take comfort in the fact that I can look up information on the internet, if I need to remember how many inches apart something should be planted.  In fact, I carry my iPhone with me at all times, and refer to it in all sorts of situations...Such as: can you store apples and onions together in the barn?  No, apples give off a gas as they ripen which will hasten the aging of other vegetables...Or: how much mulch should you apply around the base of a tree?  Ideally, for young trees, all the way to the drip line (as far out as the branches stretch), but not up along the trunk of the tree, because that can rot the bark at the bottom of the tree...And so on, and so on.  

So, I've been feeling pretty secure knowing that I can look up information that I don't readily remember or know off the top of my head.  But then, when I went to start writing this post, I spent about half an hour trying to figure out the correct spelling for a tree that's common around here, and my guesses were so, so, so unbelievably wrong!  And my newbie-ness just became plain as day once again.  (I had heard people refer to the tree, saying something like "wingawanamus"...and after much searching I finally found the species they were talking about, the Winged Euonymus tree.  LOL!).  This tree turns amazing magenta, pink, and fucshia colors in the fall.

Winged Euonymus, in fall

It's amazing how much I don't know.  It's humbling, exciting, frustrating....  I'm humbled by it, realizing that I could continue farming for the rest of my life and always have more to learn. There's the basic information about plants--the qualities of the different varieties, what they need and who they like to live near. About how to plant:  where, how far apart, what time of year, under what conditions.  Then there's information about soil health, mineral composition, soil amendments, manure, mulch...  And then there's the whole world of biology, how plants actually grow, what kind of beings are alive in the soil, what they do and what they need, the process of photosynthesis...And the list goes on and on.  But the truth is that I could grow lots of things with just a basic level of information.  Although there is tons to know, you don't actually have to know a lot to start.

And it's entirely exciting, at the same time.  I feel like a little kid sometimes, exclaiming, "Look at that!"  I mean, who knew that brussel sprouts grew under the stems of leaves, in the "armpits"? That carrots can be four or five different colors, all in the same vegetable?  Atomic Red carrotWho knew that asparagus stalks, when left alone, can grow four feet tall, with delicate fronds and small berry-like seeds?  Who knew that you can harvest a few leaves at a time from a kale plant, and have that plant feed you for months and months?  I am astonished by the beauty and the design of the natural world, and my appreciation just grows and grows...

And I realize, glimpsing how little I know, that I'm also a little frustrated...I wish I had more time every day to read all the books on my nightstand, to sit down and talk at length with the Sisters here about their experiences farming, to go to local and national conferences about farming and the good food movement, to explain to everyone I know about what I'm learning about the production and politics of food and the implications for our health, our economy, our environment, our world...

So I go to bed each night, amazed and a little dazed at how little I know.  It's a good feeling, when all's said and done.  While it can be overwhelming to be such a newbie--and not just in terms of farming, as I'm simultaneously a newbie at living in community, at spiritual practices, at believing in abundance, at integrating scientific knowledge into my worldview (I mean, have you seen Carl Sagan's series, "Cosmos"?  Holy Moley!!)--I'm also thankful to be so inspired, to be experiencing so much joy in learning, to realize that as I'm turning 39 this year, I am breathing oh so deeply in this vivid world.  The colors, beauty, scope and scale astound me. There is so much to learn.

knowing, forgetting, and making change

As the fall season settles in, I'm finding myself with a little more time to read in the evenings.  I've got a few things on the bedside table, but the one that's occupying my thoughts most right now is a book by Elizabeth Kolbert called Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.  It's a journalistic account of what's happening to our planet, with first-hand reporting and interviews with residents and scientists around the globe, in the Arctic, in Holland, in Costa Rica, in Vermont...

I've just started the book, and I'll tell you, it's a challenging read. I had read a series of Kolbert's articles in the New Yorker, a few years ago, and they were shocking, actually.  I mean, we hear about global warming and climate change, and we have been experiencing increasingly unsettled weather in recent years. I've read about vanishing glaciers, and endangered polar bears.  But this knowledge hasn't really penetrated my visceral, immediate worldview.  Somehow, it's possible to know something--in this case, the vast dangers of global warming to our planetary ecosystem--but then to compartmentalize that knowledge away from everyday decisionmaking.  Kolbert's articles were shocking, they hit me hard, and I tried to share them with people ("You've got to read this!"), but soon thereafter, I forgot about them.

Our ability to forget such things, or compartmentalize them, is one of our real human weaknesses.  I smoked cigarettes for years.  I knew they were toxic, I knew they were lethal.  Yet I continued.  In the final year that I smoked, I would treat myself to a smoke after going to the gym, some kind of sick reward.  We humans are strange and complicated beings.

When we allow ourselves to fully integrate such scary knowledges--like the dangers of smoking, and the vulnerability of our planet--we can make real changes in our behavior.  But this is hard work, and perhaps why there is so much resistance to acting to slow down climate change.  (I'm referring here to change at the individual level, not the corporate/organizational/political level, which has another order of challenges...)

Personally, I'm working to integrate the knowledge that I've been gaining about eating meat: the tremendous strain placed on our environment from producing a meat-heavy diet, the miserable and fetid lives of animals that are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (and the diseases that thrive unders such conditions), the difficulty in finding meat that is sustainably and humanely raised and slaughtered...

We can take smaller steps, like participating in Meatless Monday, a campaign to cut out meat one day a week in order to improve our health and reduce the stress on the environment.  We can make sure we understand the manifold connections between food production and climate change (watch Food, Inc, if you haven't already), and pass on what we know.  We can support local farmers, and get to know the people who produce our food (check out the USDA's new website, "Know Your Farmer" and find farmer's markets near you).  We can choose organic, pesticide-free and heirloom varieties of food, to diversify our food supply and reduce the number of toxins added to our food and to the earth.  And we can start, all of us, to grow a little of our own food.  (There's an app for that: "Botanical Interests" can help you start gardening with your iPhone; thanks Urban Gardens for the find!) 

There's so much more we can do--we can step away from plastics, carpool and buy fuel efficient cars, press our government to invest in public transportation, and compost our vegetable waste, just for starters...

But mostly I think we have to let ourselves deeply integrate the intellectual knowledge we already have, and let a global perspective shape our vision.  The scientific community is very concerned, as each year, new research is outpacing earlier projections.  The icecaps are melting faster than we thought, there are redoubling effects that were unforeseen, and each year we are breaking more and more funky weather records...(If you haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth, the movie explains why weather will get more and more extreme and unsettled, rather than simply getting hotter.) 

All the knowledge in the world, though, isn't going to change our behavior, until we see ourselves as part of, integrated into, the natural world, rather than separate from it.  We are each of us organic matter, part of the universe, connected through the air we breathe and water we drink.  These elements cycle through us and swirl around us.  What I do to the air and the water impacts that planetary swirl.  We are woven together, and we are creating our future, at every moment, with every breath.

(This post is in alliance with Blog Action Day, focused on Climate Change)