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Strawberry Jam!

Strawberry Jam!

The kids and I made half our haul of strawberries into a tasty jam this afternoon. Rio and Serena were both great helpers, as was the morning preschool gang. They washed the berries, cut the tops off them with a safety knife, and put them into bowls for mashing. Rio even helped stir the sugar into the jam.

My two big discoveries for the day were that making strawberry jam is, wonderfully, one of those bits of domestic magic that is secretly much easier than it looks. We followed a simple recipe we grabbed from the internet, which was more formula than recipe: just match quantities of sugar and mushed up berries 1:1, add some lemon juice, heat it up, and put it in jars.

It sounds simple, and it is. Also forgiving. We made several mistakes along the way, and the jam still turned into jam. It did so in spite of our lack of canning equipment, our failure to own a candy thermometer, our messy hands and messier workspace. It turned into jam in spite of our using the food processor instead of the potato masher to mush the berries and our innovative “squish the big bits with your fingers” technique.

I confess, I was astonished. It wound being kind of runny, since we skipped the pectin, but it was delicious. Like eating the sun, if that wouldn’t be fatal.

Once we had conquered jam, we had a serious challenge to face: do we slather this stuff on the homemade sourdough boule Martin baked over the weekend, or the homemade banana-walnut-chocolate-chip bread he and the kids made?

Both, of course. And then we lick our fingers.

IMG_4206.JPG, originally uploaded by MzMuze.

Serena, like most toddlers, loves to mimic everything Mommy does. Especially the things Mommy does that are not generally available to toddlers. Like operating a spray bottle full of cleaning chemicals, or using the garden tools.

Today was her day to do it all, just like a grown-up. A few of our plants are infested with aphids. The cure for this, according to our Wise Gardening Neighbors? A very diluted solution of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Another neighbor gave us a big bottle of it, which I watered down and poured into an old 7th Gen spray bottle.

Toddler toy, meet pest control. How often do you get a chance to put those things together in a good way? Serena was delighted. This photo captures her focus and determination. She must have spent an hour carefully spraying everything in the garden. Those aphids and their ant farmers have met their match!

I took a lot of photos in the garden today, as well as some jammaking ones. They’re all up on my Flickr if you want to see more of what the girls and I got up to.

Strawberries, harvested

Strawberries, harvested

Today the girls and I went to Red Fire Farm, the organic farm that provides our vegetable CSA. The bulk of the CSA comes to us in the form of a weekly drop-off at the Growing Center, but we also have an open invitation to go pick some crops at the farm. It’s a long drive, almost two hours. It takes a lot to get me to drive that far with my kids, and this was totally worth it.

In addition to the amazing strawberries we picked, we also got peas, herbs and seedlings (we had to pay for the seedlings, but they were very reasonably priced. one might even say cheap, at about $1.75 apiece).

I had heard rave reviews of Red Fire, which prompted me to sign up with them even though they’re a little pricier than some of the other local CSAs. So far, my experience says it is all true. They really do put out more diverse food, and higher quality produce.

Our first week of the CSA brought us a wide variety of vegetables, not just an avalanche of greens like we’ve had with other farms. We got cilantro, kale, turnips, beets, spinach, green garlic and, yes, two heads of lettuce (but one of those was red!).

The farm trip really put it over the top though. The farm is idyllically beautiful, with pockets of woods breaking up verdant fields and a big, big sky. Being there felt like an opportunity to breathe more deeply and be more fully alive in my senses. It also gave me a great excuse to spend an afternoon alone with my girls, something I do surprisingly rarely considering I’m their full-time caregiver. It feels like we are so often socializing or learning or enriching that we’re rarely just on an adventure together.

We all had a blast, even when the thunderclouds actually broke out into pouring rain on top of us in the middle of picking our peas. We had our raincoats, and it turns out we’re all waterproof. It turns out Rio is an expert strawberry picker. She had a great eye for spotting clumps of truly ripe strawberries, and was diligent about staying inside the lines of the open pick-your-own field (unlike her Mama, who was occasionally lured under the string into the closed off section full of ripe berries). Serena is still at the nibble-and-toss stage of berry picking. She carried a basket around with her for most of the time, and put a few berries in it. Some of them might even have ended up in our stock pot.

My kitchen counter is now ensconced with two gallons of freshly picked strawberries, a flat of jam jars and a few boxes of pectin. Recipe suggestions welcome. I’ve never canned anything before, so tomorrow will be a whole new iteration of adventure. Today all I managed was tying up the herbs we picked at the farm to dry and setting the seedlings out in the garden so they’ll be easy to plant tomorrow.

I’m sure we’ll go back to the farm later in the summer to get a wild abundance of tomatoes. In the meantime, I expect to keep enjoying our weekly haul from the CSA.

The girls are playing house. Rio is the mommy. They are apparently getting ready to go for a picnic, and are packing their lunches.

Rio-as-mom, “You have to show me what you packed so I can see if it is healthy for you.”

Her friend/baby shows her.

Rio, “No, no, no. Just gum is not a healthy snack.”

Her friend, “What about gum and something else.”

Rio, “OK. Gum and something else. Here, have a donut. Gum plus a donut is healthy.”

I’m trying to stifle my laughter while they set off on their journey to the music room with their healthy donuts. Clearly my work here is not quite done. I love how she’s figured out that:

  • what the kids put in the picnic basket probably does not count as a healthy meal on it’s own, and
  • a healthy meal requires more than one type of food,

while totally failing to register in any way that:

  • certain foods are healthier than others, and
  • donuts are not food

On the plus side, they have learned that gum is not food. There’s hope for them yet.

In the run-up to Rio’s birthday party, we bought Too Much Food. Like you do when you aren’t sure how many people will be coming to your party, or what they’ll bring to contribute, and your friends are foodies who you don’t dare serve bad pizza to even for a kids’ birthday party.

We also had not been grocery shopping in a month and had a lot of empty shelf space and not much food. Since we were at the store anyway…you see how this goes.

I have spent the past week frantically prepping and preserving in order to guarantee that not one bite of that bounty is wasted. I’m sure I will fail in my mission. We already threw away a huge chunk of leftover birthday cake, but I’m not sure that monstrosity was actually food to begin with. More like “edible sculpture”. And the “edible” bit might only apply if you’re under ten years old.

Today, my fridge is as full as it was a week ago, but the food has been transformed. What’s in there?

– guacamole (two pints)

– pickles (three quarts)

– hummus (two pints)

– sun-dried tomatoes (yes, you can make your own! one pint of these)

– sourdough bread (two loaves)

– banana bread (one loaf)

– yogurt (one quart)

– the usual crock pot of soup

It was fun to dust off all those old recipes. Next stop: salsa.

When I was a child, one of my favorite snacks was Peanut Butter Balls. The recipe for these is delightfully simple:

  1. Wash all the hands that might go in the mixture. This includes your own, any child helpers, and any children who claim they do not want to help but might get drawn in once they see there is honey and chocolate involved.
  2. Scoop 1 cup of peanut butter into a mixing bowl.
  3. Add 3/4 cup nonfat dry milk
  4. Start squishing these together.
  5. While mixing, add chocolate chips and honey to taste.

This is my mother’s version of the recipe, anyway, carefully written in the margins of the cookbook. As a kid, the next step was always to carefully roll the dough into balls and arrange them on the tray. And then of course to eat them.

Doing this for snack with my homeschool kids the other day, I ran into a problem. Serena is too little to make balls, and the three-year-olds in the group are too impatient to leave them on the plate for more than a second or two. Which in turn upsets the older kids who want to Do The Project Right.

So I got out the cookie cutters and child-size rolling pins and let them play with the mess they were making, instead of fighting for control. The peanut dough turns out to be malleable and not very sticky. It was like edible play dough. Each kid had a decent portion to play with, that they could safely nibble as they went. Unlike cookie dough, there’s no need to bake it and no raw egg to fret over.

Need I saw how awesome this was? Let me repeat: edible play dough!

Thanks, Mom! I owe you big, for writing down the recipe, for letting me run off with your cookbook, and for raising me to think of creative ways out of sticky situations. We’ll be doing this one again for sure.

What are your favorite cooking activities with kids? Do you have a creative way to make messes in the kitchen? Let me know in the comments below.

The prize of my May schedule is a fermentation workshop with Sandor Katz. It’s next Friday at 2:30 at BU. His book, Wild Fermentation, changed my life. You need to pre-register for this event. If the admission fee is a too high and you’re a homeschooling family, let me know. The workshop was organized by another homeschooler who may be able to arrange a fee reduction.

Some other May activities my kids and I will likely be at:

Somerville Open Studios – This weekend, all over town. My plans to host a Kid’s Art Show fell through, which is a bummer but also frees up the kids and I to prowl the neighborhood and check out other artists work. There will be some lovely and amazing photography on display right in our very own house.

Fun With Logical Puzzles at the Somerville Central Library. This is a series of math and puzzle sessions geared to 6-13 year olds. It’s happening May 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th at 4 p.m.

And of course, being outdoors. We’ll probably be at the Growing Center playgroup on Friday mornings more often than not.

Most of my energy this month will be going into personal activities: a long-planned solo mama trip, my eldest’s 5th birthday, and the wedding of a dear friend. Hope to see you all out and about in the sunshine!

I’m reading the Tightwad Gazette, famed classic of thrift. Yes, I thriftily got my copy out of the public library. I had been resoundingly unimpressed for the first 30 pages, which were essentially all suggestions on how to “save” on things I don’t spend on: cigarettes, soda, new clothes, dryer sheets.

But then on page 30, things turned around. First, she offers a rule of thumb I like, that builds on my beloved 30-day list for non-essential spending:

Put something on your “to acquire” list, and then shop around for a freebie, a cheaper version, a bargain, etc…until it costs you not to have that thing.

A real life example: I need a wagon for my homeschool group to go to the park near my house. I have needed this wagon for months, but haven’t bought one yet because I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to acquire through Freecycle or another local barter. Now it is spring, and we are going to the park regularly, and it is a PITA. I will buy a wagon this week, probably from CraigsList.

The next great thing she offers is the concept of a Price Book. This is one of those money things so obvious and elegant I cannot believe I did not think of it. She keeps a book with the prices of all the things she normally buys written in it, for every store she shops at. So she knows, when she sees something on sale, if it’s a good deal or if she’d be better off going to Costco.

Now, that plan is brilliant, but a crazy lot of work. Who has time to run around comparison shopping for staple goods at a dozen different stores? Not me. But what I do have is an internet connection and friends. So, without further ado, I present: the Community Price Book. I’ve created a GoogleDoc spreadsheet for grocery and household items. If you live in my shopping area and want to play, just leave me a comment or e-mail me with the e-mail you want to use and I’ll share it with you. Then we can all add our items as we shop, and anyone with a portable internet or PDA can have the whole index with them at any store.

If you don’t live in my shopping area, please steal this idea and start your own community price book. This is the first thrift tip I’ve run across in awhile that I think can really save me some money, and I’m excited to share it.

crystal-powered garlic, originally uploaded by MzMuze.

I planted some garlic bulbs last fall, and used this crystal to mark where I’d put them so I wouldn’t accidentally dig them up come spring.

No fear of that; they were the first thing to sprout in our garden after the snow melted. I have half a dozen, and they are all doing great. But the one that came up immediately next to the crystal is twice as big as all the others.

Coincidence? Probably. But I’m tempted to litter the garden with more quartz just in case.

mud bucket

Last month, I presided over the creation of a large bucket of mud with my homeschooling coop. I threw a couple of towels on the floor, gave each kid a wooden spoon and a few dried disks of soil mixture that came in a science kit Jen dropped off for us, and we went crazy with it. For, like, hours.

When the kids finally tired of the mud (which made surprisingly little mess), we poured it into to the science kit. The kit is a window garden in which we are supposed to be able to see the roots of growing plants. We planted carrots, beets and radishes in it. Then the girls wrote labels for their sections, with little pictures of the veggies and the words spelled out.

The next day they could not stop checking on their garden, which was not doing anything the least bit interesting, so I got out the felt and we made felt gardens with little felt vegetables in them. The kids talked about all the foods they wanted to grow this summer, and another mom and I helped them cut out the shapes.

felt gardens

Now the little window garden has had a few weeks to take hold. The carrot and radish sprouts are doing great growing boldy up toward the sun with little thready white roots exploring the soil below. The beets never came up; we seem to be cultivating some kind of weird mold in their place. That’s science!

window garden

Flickr Photos

A little bird told me…

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