Spring in the Back Yard

Spring has finally sprung in Vermont!  We had a beautiful warm weekend to spend in the yard discovering signs of spring and cleaning up remnants of fall and winter.  Plants and animals are emerging after a long cold winter.

Last sap of the season drips out of my sumac spiles

Last sap of the season drips out of sumac spiles

A sweet and tangy batch of sap sumac camomile tea

A sweet and tangy batch of sap sumac camomile tea to start the day

Day Lilly shoots have emerged

Day lily shoots have emerged

I dug up some day lilly shoots and tubers.  Fry firm tubers and shoots in butter with salt.  Yum!

I dug up some day lily shoots and tubers. Fry firm yellow tubers and young shoots in butter with salt. Yum!


Chickens range free before the garden is planted.  They’ll eat ticks and grubs and loosen soil as they forage.

Early spring garden treasure hunt! Parsnips survived the winter under a layer of hay.  They are sweet and firm!

Early spring garden treasure hunt! Parsnips survived the winter under a layer of hay. They are sweet and firm!

Early spring parsnip harvest.

Early spring parsnip harvest.

The sour leaves of sorrel have emerged - a perfect fresh garnish for tonight's dinner!

The sour leaves of sorrel have emerged – a perfect fresh garnish for tonight’s dinner!

Our first crocus.  Happy Spring!

Our first crocus. Happy Spring!

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Make your own Butter

We love good butter in our household.  We’ve believed in the benefits of eating butter from grass-fed cows for some time, and now the mainstream media is now slowly catching on.  Both NPR and The New York Times reported on the recent publication from the Annals of Internal Medicine which concluded that saturated fat consumption did not increase chances of heart attacks or heart disease.  Furthermore, butter made of cream from grass-fed cows is rich in vitamins A and D, along with many other health promoting factors detailed by the Weston Price Foundation.

butter-makingButter can be easy to make (for adults) and fun to make (for groups of kids).  Making butter is a great way for students to learn where food comes from, taste test herbs in an appealing way, use up some energy, and have fun!  Here are several different butter making methods, along with recipes and suggestions for associated games and activities.  When buying cream, remember that the best nutrition will come from organic dairy from grass-fed pastured cows!

butter-in-bowlLeast Effort: Fill your food processor 1/3 full with heavy or whipping cream (if you fill it too full, cream may spurt out the top when turned on).  Turn on the food processor and wait for the liquid to turn into whipped cream.  Continue to blend until the contents separate into milk and butter chunks.  If you stay nearby, there will be a distinct change in sound when the butter separates out after about 10 minutes.  Drain off milk (can be used for cooking) and put your chunks of butter into a cold bowl.  Use a cold spoon or butter knife to push the butter around, squeezing out remaining milk.  Mix in sea salt, spices, or herbs as desired and refrigerate in a covered container.  Homemade butter will have a similar shelf-life to milk because it is unlikely you squeezed out every last bit of milk.

shaking-butterKid-Powered: Remember – each of these steps could be a task for a child… no adult labor is needed!  Fill a pint Ball jar 1/3 of the way with heavy or whipping cream.  Screw on the lid very well.  Turn upside down to make sure the lid is on correctly.  If you’re with a group of kids, stand in a circle or around a table.  As the first child shakes the jar, clap and chant:

Shake butter shake.  Shake butter shake.
__(name)__ is at the garden gate, mixing up a butter cake.
Shake butter shake.  Shake butter shake.
(chant from Project Seasons)

When the verse is done, the child passes the jar to the person standing next to them.  The jar makes its way around the group, getting shaken continuously.  If you are working with a new group of students, the chant can be a great way to learn and remember everyone’s name!  A big ball of butter should separate from the milk within about 10 minutes.  (*if working with a group of students, make sure to see “herbed butter” below*)

Cultured: If you’d like to make cultured butter, you’ll need to sour your cream first.  We do this the same way we make yogurt, except use cream instead of milk.  Once your cream is sour, continue with one of the methods above.  Your two final products will be cultured buttermilk and cultured butter.

chopped-herbsHerbed Butter: Herbs have a very strong flavor, and they’re hard to get excited about for most kids.  In our school gardens, we made and tasted herbed butters to learn about different herb flavors in a more palatable way.  Washed kids scissors can be used by students to finely cut up herbs.  Simply mix chopped herbs and a shake of salt into your freshly made butter.  We often made several varieties, spread them on crackers, and had the students vote for their favorites.  Some of the most popular choices were: garlic chives, chives, dill, oregano, basil, parsley, and sage.  At home, herbed butters can add a fancy twist to your dinner table or plate of hors d’oeuvres.


Want to learn more?:
Butter is Better via the Weston A. Price Foundation
Rethinking Fat: The Case For Adding Some Into Your Diet via NPR
Study Questions Fat and Heart Disease Link via New York Times
Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
My past blog post about Raw Milk, including our Yogurt Recipe

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Spring Projects with Kids

It’s still pretty white around here.  With warming temperatures come the wet and muddy conditions that define Vermont’s mud season.  Here are some things we’re doing to remind us that the flowers and fresh green leaves of spring will be coming soon:


signs-of-springTissue Paper Flowers: I followed the basic instructions found here, simplifying it by instructing the kids to use just four pieces of tissue paper.  They came out great and could be made by our wide range of students!

Make a Signs of Spring List: Post a large piece of paper in your classroom or at home.  When you play outside, keep an eye out for signs that spring is on it’s way!

Forcing Spring Branches: All you need to do is clip branches and put them in a vase filled with fresh water.  Change water regularly, as you would for cut flowers.  Blooming branches, like forsythia, are great for forcing.  At indoor temperatures, your branches’ buds will open into new leaves and flowers.  We clip the bright red branches of dogwood now for a beautiful table arrangement at Easter.

starting-pea-seedsStart Seeds: Even if you don’t have a garden, starting seeds can be a fun spring activity.  All you need is a container with a hole poked in the bottom, potting soil, seeds of your choice, and some sort of dish for your container to sit in.  Grow lights or windows with strong southern sun will make for stronger seedlings that will do better if transplanted into your garden.  Plants like peas, lettuce, spinach, and herbs can be eaten as sprouts or “micro greens,” making this project rewarding in as little as 30 days!

mud-playPlay in the Mud: Yes, the extra laundry is worth it.  All sorts of learning, experimentation, engineering, and play can happen in the mud. We’re still wearing our winter outdoor clothes up here in Vermont.  As temperatures rise, rain pants, rain boots, and rain coats will help keep indoor clothes clean and dry.  Hosing everyone off before coming inside can help keep that mud outside.

Happy Spring!


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Nourishing Chili and Cornbread

Though the sun does seem to be getting warmer and days are certainly longer, it’s been unseasonably cold this spring.  There’s nothing like chili and cornbread to bring some heat and comfort to a cold raw week.  The recipes below include soaked beans and grains to improve digestibility and increase nutrition availability.  Both require some brief set-up the night before, so plan ahead!

cornbread-up-closeCornbread:  I like mine crispy on the outside and moist on the inside!  Sometimes I add sage or poultry seasoning for a herb-y twist, or grated parmesan for a deep savory flavor.
-Mix, cover, and let sit for 12+ hours at room temperature: 3/4 cup yogurt, 3/4 cup water, 1/2 cup freshly ground whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup white flour

…12 hours later…

-Preheat oven to 425 degrees
-Mix dry ingredients: 1 1/2 cup masa harina (corn flour treated with lime), 2 teaspoon baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon baking soda, 3/4 teaspoon salt
-Warm in sauce pan: 1/4 cup melted butter and 3 tablespoons honey
-Mix wet ingredients: make sure butter mixture is not too hot and mix in 2 eggs and 1 1/2 cup sweet corn kernels.  Add in soaked yogurt flour mixture and mix.
-Grease a large iron skillet with butter or bacon grease
-Mix wet and dry ingredients.  Don’t over stir.  Plop into greased skillet and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a fork can be poked into the center and comes out clean.

chili-up-closeChili:  This is a very flexible recipe!  We love it because we can use so many frozen and canned veggies from last summer’s garden.   It’s always fun to tweak based on ingredients you have in your fridge or freezer.  Here’s our basic method:

-Soak about 1-2 cups kidney beans with plenty of water and a pinch of baking soda.  Remember that the beans will expand in size, so make sure you have plenty of water and a big enough vessel.

…12+ hours later (if much later, rinse and add fresh water mid-way through)…

-Drain and rinse beans. Add to pot and add water until beans are completely submerged.  Cook on medium-low heat until beans are tender (usually around 1 to 2 hours).
-In a separate pan, sauté 3 chopped onions in butter.  When cooked through, add 6-8 cloves diced garlic.  Cook for a few minutes longer.  Set aside in a bowl.
-In the same pan, cook 1 lb. ground beef.  Once the meat is cooked through,  add 2 tablespoons chili powder and 1 teaspoon cumin.  Combine spiced meat and sauteed veggies in a large pot.  Add two quarts canned tomatoes, 1 cup sweet corn kernels, 1 cup chopped bell peppers, diced hot peppers to taste, and a splash of olive oil.  We use peppers and corn frozen from the previous growing season.  All sorts of other veggies can be added depending on what you like and what you have on hand!  This is also a good time to add in your beans if they are cooked through and soft.
-Bring to boil, and then simmer uncovered for at least 30 minutes.  More time will allow the flavors to blend together and some of the water to evaporate making a thicker stew.  Add salt, pepper, and more spices to taste.  Chili powder can lose flavor if old, so don’t hesitate to add a lot if you’re not tasting it!



Click on these links to learn more about soaking and cooking grains and beans.

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Is it Spring yet?

snow-pilesI’ll admit it: I loved getting one more big snow storm before spring.  And it transformed into great packing snow, allowing us to build forts and snow creatures when temperatures rose above freezing.  What a lot of building material we had to work with!  Each morning this week when I wake up to sub-zero temperatures, however, I find myself yearning more and more for spring.

Ice crystals still form on the windows, blocking the view of the sunrise.

Ice crystals still form on the windows, blocking the view of the sunrise.

The good news about early spring in New England, is that it signals the start of Maple Sugaring Season.  We’ve had a few days when temperatures rose above freezing, allowing sap to flow.  I didn’t have great luck with my first sumac spile (a.k.a. tap), so I made a second.  I didn’t want my spile to completely plug my hole.  This time I shaved away the bottom tip, drilled a deeper hole into the tree, and didn’t hammer the spile in as deep.  This, I hoped, would allow sap flowing through the trunk to pool up inside my hole and flow out the spile.   I set my bucket under the tap on the ground so that it wouldn’t disturb the spile in its hole.  Success!  I collected about a gallon of sap before temperatures dipped back below freezing.


Here are a few more photos after the last snowstorm, which dumped over a foot of snow. Wild March winds created drifts that evolved through the day and caught the beautiful dark blue of the evening sky.



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Maple Sugaring from Scratch: Sumac Spiles

Sumac-GroveLast year I had a lot of fun experimenting with maple sap in the kitchen.  We made sap tea, sap beer, sap poached sweet potatoes, sap soda, and maple baked beans… mmm!  I had borrowed buckets and spiles from neighbors to tap several trees with the students in my after school program.  We harvested more than enough sap to taste test, boil down, and cook with.

This year I missed having  sap to cook with, so I decided to try to tap a maple in our yard without buying any supplies.  Buckets or milk jugs are pretty easy to find around the house.  What I really needed was a spile, or tap.  Using a method common before metal was widely available, I hollowed out the inside of a sumac branch.

Sumac-BerriesStaghorn sumac is a common small tree in eastern North America.  It has big red clusters of seeds that have a great sour flavor and can be used to make tea or a locally sourced substitute for lemonade.  The centers of its branches are very pithy, making them easy to hollow out and make tubing or spouts.

hollowed-tubeMaking sumac spiles was easy, but it went below freezing and I have yet to see if they work well.  With forecasted temperatures above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, sap will flow and I’ll find out soon!  For more detailed instructions for how to tap a tree at home or school, check out this blog post.  For games and activities to liven up and inform the process for elementary school students, check out this blog post.






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Marmalade Season


It’s getting to be the end of citrus season, so I made a point of fitting a marmalade canning session into my February vacation schedule.  My dad’s family has been making marmalade since the 50s, as proven by the old jar and handmade label that sits on one of our kitchen shelves.  It is nice to have a canning project so far removed from the crazy late summer food preservation season.  Here’s how we make a yummy fruity not-too-sweet marmalade:

Ingredients: 14 organic oranges, 2 organic lemons, 1 cup orange juice concentrate, 5 cups water, 3.5 cups fair trade organic sugar, 2 tablespoons Pomona’s Low Sugar Pectin and 8 tablespoons calcium solution (comes with the Pectin).  Yield, approximately 22 pints.

Orange-Preparation1) Slice, chop, and slice. This is the labor intensive part… it’s vastly improved by dividing between multiple people and having good music on in the background!  Wash oranges and lemons thoroughly (you’re eating the rind, after all).  Slice into wedges.  Cut peel off fruit (try to leave very little white pith on the fruit).  Slice the remaining pith off of the rind (for the compost heap).  Julienne the rind into thin matchstick pieces.

Cook-Peels-in-Juice2) Cook Rinds. Simmer rinds in orange juice concentrate and water, along with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, for 20 minutes.  We sometimes substitute fruit purées, such as peach, apricot, or mango, for some of the orange juice concentrate.

3) Sterilize Jars. We rinse our jars and microwave them for 5 or 6 minutes.  We simmer the canning lids in water.  You can do this prep now so that you’re all ready to can when your marmalade is ready.

4) Add in the Oranges.  Bring your mixture back up to a boil.

5) Add Pectin and Sugar.  Mix these two dry ingredients first in a bowl to avoid clumps of jelly-y pectin in your final product.  Then add the powdery mixture to your pot and stir quickly.  Simmer for 10 minutes.

6) Add Calcium Solution.  This comes in the Pomona’s Pectin box and is part of the process of jelling your liquid.  This is a good time to taste your marmalade and add more sugar if needed.

7) Pack and Lid.  Using a funnel and ladle, fill each canning jar up to the little ridge (about 1/2 inch down from top).  Screw on lids.

8) Can.  Use a canner to submerge your jars in a hot water bath for 20 minutes.  This increases the shelf life of your product and is not as necessary if you sterilized materials well and are planning to eat the marmalade right away.

9) Enjoy!  We love this fruity marmalade on toast, mixed into plain yogurt, on top of ice cream, and sometimes by the spoonful.


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