Kale-A-Palooza

End of season bachelor buttons

End of season bachelor buttons

This week, I signed up for my fifth growing season at the Community Gardens, while almost two feet of February snow drifted down to cover the ground.

But back in mid-November, there was that look of fall about the garden. A slight wind tripped brown leaves up the hill behind us; in the other plots, with corn stalks and fencing gone, minimal crops remained: brussels sprouts and fountains of purple, Russian, and curly kale.

In my own stripped plot, where we had gone to put the plants to bed, where we expected only the dead ends of things?

Surprise! Lacinato kale. Lots of it.

Not huge forests of kale, like that which flourished for my more accomplished gardening-neighbors, palm fronds off tall woody stems. But mine was beauteous, dark green and standing proud, though short in stature. A miniature field of somewhat miniature lacinato kale.

Broccoli, presumed spent, had also revived while I wasn’t looking, and grown several small wonderful heads. In addition, the chard had sprung up again. Like those weeds we had anticipated.

Beautiful broccoli.

Bounteous broccoli.

The garden mate was a little grumpy and tired in the November cold, but my joy over un-anticipated produce, in addition to the afternoon sunshine, soon made him grin.

We tugged up the ugly but functional orange fencing, along with the dirt that matted it down. Splattering soil across our faces made the work curse-worthy, and we did: splatter and then curse. Again and again. We yanked out the wilted but sturdy stalks of cosmos and bachelor buttons, noted that some purple alyssum still colored the ground, and used the picnic table to lay out fencing and roll up, roll up, roll up.

The sun went behind clouds just as the last bundle of fencing went into the shed; we gathered the reusable plant markers and piled up the rocks and bricks that had pinned black weed-suppressing fabric between the rows.

I had grand plans for follow-up soil amendment, garlic planting, and weed abatement. They didn’t happen. The sun stayed behind the clouds and within a few days, it dropped well below freezing.

At the end of my fourth year, I’d gotten good at fencing and set up, more-regular weeding and harvesting—but the end of season jobs? Like the rest of my life—still working on it.

Late afternoon sun on lacinato kale.

Late afternoon sun on a floral arrangement of  lacinato kale.

The overflowing harvest basket sat in my dining room for a few days before I bundled the huge haul into the fridge. Bunches and bunches of kale and chard were washed then stir fried lightly or blanched, and packed into freezer bags. The first one came out at Thanksgiving when my daughter and I mixed some chard and kale to make her favorite “spinach” au gratin.

Thanksgiving with kale au gratin in the background.

Thanksgiving’s gravy-splashed corn bread with kale au gratin in the background.

After her too-short visit, a piece of bad news slammed into my life and sank me in a pool of old grief, where I sat like a drowned stone. None of the activities that had appealed just hours before seemed worthwhile. Soft sleepiness from holiday exhaustion along with that day’s prospect of a lovely nap all dribbled away.

What To Do. Or Not Do. Radio? TV? No distractions promised help.

I chose instead to consider the frozen leftovers from Thanksgiving. I pulled out broth, simmered carefully from the carcass of the very expensive, very local, very delicious turkey (roasted with an onion inside and basted every thirty minutes for five hours), a good portion of which had been devoured with that yummy kale au gratin, and also cranberry orange relish, sour cream mashed potatoes and veggie-studded cornbread stuffing.

To the broth I added some trimmed cauliflower previously destined for curry. Then little nubs of carrots from my garden, also trimmed carefully.

Turkey, kale, carrot, cauliflower soup.

Turkey, kale, carrot, celery, cauliflower soup, after it was packed up for the fridge.

As the soup began to bubble gently, so did the thoughts:
You grew this. You harvested and washed it. You made this.

….You can make things again!

Next I added an onion, and diced the package of celery left over when multiple people provided it for the Thanksgiving stuffing.

Finally, lacinato kale, again, that unexpected end of season harvest, when I thought it was all gone and there was a trash bag full, handful after handful harvested just before a hard, hard freeze.

Turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup.

Even later–January’s turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup, whisked with steamed winter squash, and a few white beans thrown in.

You grew this; you cared for it, just like your life.

You can come back again, regardless of setbacks. You have the ingredients.

Your life is rich, with not only your own garden’s production, but other people’s plenty. Look in your cabinets and freezer: basil and apples and sage and parsley, peaches and rhubarb and collard greens, all gifted to you.

There is enough. More than enough.

Along with some surprises.

Remember that.

***

SPINACH AU GRATIN, adapted from Makeover Spinach Gratin at Skinnytaste.com

Preheat the oven to 425°. Sauté until translucent 1 cup finely chopped onion, in 2-3 TB butter, light butter or margarine. Mix in 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add 3 cups milk and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Defrost three pounds of frozen chopped spinach–or a mix of spinach, chard, kale or other chopped mild greens. More is possible, too! Squeeze out as much moisture as possible (you can save for cooking soup later if you want) and mix it into the onion roux.  Then stir in 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Put in large baking pan and top with  1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese.  Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve hot. Makes a little over 6 1/2 cups–or more if you are generous with your greens!

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Right Relationship with Food–Lessons from Kripalu

Sweet potato and hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Glazed sweet potato with hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Two problems:  we were on a schedule (breakfast at 8, lunch at 11:30, dinner at 6:15). And it was a buffet.

Granted, a buffet heavy on vegetables: kale and pepitas–kale and other steamed vegetables at every meal actually!–, saag (spiced spinach), curried cabbage, whipped squash, salsa and guacamole, and so on. Heavy on fresh fruit, too. Some meat if you wanted. Tofu baked and seasoned with sesame seeds, soft chunks in curry, cutlets, diced. Salads and soups at every meal.

Also more carbs than available in my kitchen: banana bread and pappardelle and rice, quinoa and egg rolls and kamut and millet and loaves and loaves of bread. Not to mention my favorite, the maple-nut scones. And the ginger ones. And those scones with the currants. Oh my.

Spanakopita, beans and greens.

At lunch, phyllo covered spanakopita, along with squash, saag, beans and greens.

–All food I didn’t have to research recipes for, shop for, haul up three flights of stairs, chop/slice/dice, sauté/steam/boil, measure then serve. No dishes to wash. No dealing with leftovers.

This was problem number one.

The second one? At home, the meal “schedule” is: wake with the sun, drink water and tea until fruit calls, usually around 10 a.m. Slowly prepare scrumptious dishes on the cooking days, nibble and nosh on them for lunch and dinner, attending closely to hunger and fullness.

At Kripalu we were up way before the sun, on the yoga mat at 6:30 for an hour and a half, followed by the first meal, morning session, lunch then afternoon session followed by afternoon yoga, dinner, then evening session, shower-bedtime-boom.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad with red onion, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

With these unfamiliar food and time boundaries, desperation set in:

What if I get hungry? 

I am working very hard, after all, pushing myself physically, mentally, and spiritually!  Eating keeps me awake and alert.

I have paid for all these meals. 

Such nifty recipes deserve a taste; then if they’re good I can try them on my own.

What if I don’t like what’s served tomorrow? 

The cafeteria line closes at 7:30, then there are just things to drink. What if I get hungry before bed? In the middle of the night? Before morning yoga?

(Whining) Because I AM pushing myself physically, mentally and spiritually, I want to have fun food!

So I started having three full meals–breakfast just a little vanilla soy yogurt–and some granola and soaked prunes, that’s good for me. Of course the daily egg dish was comforting and warm. Ohhh, better try the scrambled tofu, it looks good. Don’t I need vegetables too?

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes.

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes for breakfast–and then some.

Even though it was Silent Breakfast, I found myself shoveling in big mouthfuls, swallowing before really chewing thoroughly.  We only have an hour before class and I have to do my writing! 

During other meals, I laughed and ate, chatted with one person and ate, got serious with someone else–and ate; at the end, surprised, each time my plate was scraped clean. Already? Is that all?

Comfort food after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce.

Comfort food  I gobbled down after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce. Yes, I felt comforted. Very.

Feeling bloated the umpteenth day in a row (for some reason, I wonder why?) one breakfast I decided to take a small bite of yogurt-and-seeds, deliberately put the bowl back on the tray, pick up my keyboard and write a while while chewing; then lean over and pick up another spoonful, and so on.

With this slowed-down approach, I could feel tender resistance from the sunflower seeds between my front teeth, spreading sweetness from the soft prune, savory egg on my tongue. Ahh, this is better! Not just flavor but sensation, and a sense of fullness earlier than anticipated. Choosing to leave some on the plate, in the bowl, especially if it didn’t appeal.

Take some, just a little, a few.

Take just a little, some, a few. Space on the plate is OK.

Then to myself–Remember your old habits? YOU put your fork down between bites. YOU pay attention to the texture and flavor. YOU ask: am I full now? am I putting this in my mouth merely because it is on my plate?

Smaller portions each day, I took bowls instead of plates, so the meal wouldn’t look so overwhelmed by empty space around it.  The daily menu board helped: is the  emphasis today on lunch or dinner? Do I want the Thai lunch–or the Mexican dinner instead? 

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Tofu with kale and pea pods here...

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Sesame tofu perfectly crisped with kale and pea pods here…

Indian curry cauliflower and peas, here,

Indian curry cauliflower and peas with chutney here (note the kale)….

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper.

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper (kale was in the other bowl).

I stopped eating the salads. Usually when dining out, I choose something I wouldn’t or don’t make at home–sudden lightbulb! I make leafy green combinations at home, easily.  So I took the things I don’t do as much on my own: julienned beets. Fresh peas. Risotto. Home-made naan (just one). Chilled cucumber soup.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad with raisins and walnuts.

I skipped lunch and took a stroll one day, after “hoarding” a scone from breakfast in case I got hungry. And a banana. Then I didn’t even want them, not until long after the hike, during the mid-afternoon break.

Next longer walks to the pond or around the lake settled my stomach, as I decreased the load of comestibles, helping my sleep as well as digestion. I began to feel more myself.

Then I realized I love interacting with people but actually need quiet and writing and aloneness to feel safe and sane.  Now at some mealtimes I chose a blanket on the grass, a nap in my room. Even photography on my own.

Heavy June rains on peonies outside Swami Kripalu's meditation garden.

Heavy June rain on peonies outside Swami Kripalu’s meditation garden.

Reflections at Monk's Pond

Variations of green at Monk’s Pond

More than half the days gone, to figure out the food piece, and then the personal space piece–I’ve had these revelations before.

But I hadn’t run into these particular challenges before–not for this long, not under these circumstances–with the skills I’d been developing for years.

At a certain point, I paid attention, saw the need for change, and acted on it. I celebrate finally seeing what I was doing, regardless of how long it took me. My knowledge is now reinforced.

But wait, there's more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables....

But wait, there’s more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables and parmesan….

The colors were spectacular!

And a plate of pretty colors! I don’t have to eat them all–but I’m gonna be more aware of color and texture again, when I cook for myself.

School over, I am coming back to a home routine:  doing my own shopping, steaming my garden kale (yes, I still love kale!) and yellow beans, fiddling with local cheese and watermelon and new recipes. Being aware. Thinking about my choices, then making and enjoying them.

Maybe I’ll stop eating after 7:30 pm like at yoga school. Maybe I’ll soak prunes for my mid-morning yogurt.  Maybe–no, for sure–I’ll remember that “problems” are actually wonderfully sacred learning moments.

Clouds over the Mohawk River.

Summer abundance of plants and clouds at the Mohawk River.

**Recipes for many of the dishes here can be found in the series of Kripalu seasonal cookbooks or at http://kripalu.org/article/270/  .

To Plan a Garden, And a Life

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

It flew in through my postal slot this week, a stiff green mailer I’ve received twice before: Continuing Gardener Sign-ups. It means that in February, I’ll toddle down to the public library, pay my small fee, re-read the rules, and confirm my plot.  Ok, so I knew the mailer was coming since I am a Garden Coordinator, but it’s satisfying to jot the date on the calendar anyway, marking the beginning of my fourth growing season with the Capital District Community Gardens.

We are in the midst of deep winter here in upstate New York; when it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves the minute you step out of doors or else risk wind-burned and skin-split fingers; when billowing road salt coats our cars and our street and our pants when we lean over those cars, even flies into our mouths if we are thoughtless enough to open them before tossing ourselves shivering back into our homes.

The standard picture of Gardener Dreaming About Spring is someone escaping that salty, snowy weather, cardigan-wrapped and hugged by an overstuffed recliner. The silhouetted figure, plush-slippered, pores over seed catalogs by a roaring fire, sipping hot chocolate or spiked cider as the wind screams outdoors.

I’m not exactly like that. Don’t own a recliner, fireplace, or seed catalogs, and slippers make my feet sweat. I clomp around the apartment in old socks and clogs and mostly I’ve used the seeds that are donated to the Community Gardens office or buy plants when the mood strikes me or they are on sale during the growing season.

However, this year I’ve been thinking hard about my planting choices. For example,  cherry tomatoes dominated my rows in the past–round red, little snips of yellow, some shaped like mini-butternut squash. I kept them because they volunteered from the first summer my garden was planted for me while I was recovering from surgery.

Now I think I want plum tomatoes instead.

The carrots were such a roaring success last summer, those tasty sweet morsels; if started early enough, multiple harvests would be possible.

I desire green beans, but don’t want to mess with the strings. Maybe I’ll grow lacinato kale along with my rainbow chard. And broccoli-one of my fellow gardeners shared broccoli with me, I could do that! I love broccoli. Perhaps I’ll plant the whole damn plot in flowers to cut for my dining table–then again, zucchini are not only traditional but useful.

I am practicing making choices, not just doing what I did before, not doing what is merely expected.

Last summer's zucchini shredded...

Last summer’s zucchini shredded…

...to make chocolate zucchini cake!

…to make chocolate zucchini cake!

Another envelope arrived this week, not through the mail slot but in my email queue (the way of so much these days), announcing my acceptance to a yoga teacher training program. Another spring planting to look forward to, drowse with by the metaphorical fire–though a more active drowsing, as my challenge now is not only to plan but to become physically stronger and more disciplined in my yoga, before I arrive mid-April. I also must battle my demons of self-doubt, in order for the A+ student to go back to school in a new and different way.

Like the garden, what do I plant?  What do I discard because it doesn’t work for me? How can I be publicly not-perfect, in a setting (learning) where I was so driven before? The plan: to be relaxed like I am about my garden plot: not the best and not neglectful, something in-between.

I’m going in as probably the worst student in Sanskrit names for poses, as well as a mediocre memorizer of everything else, with a life-battered body that hasn’t been doing yoga for very long. But my true subject matter will be one of the themes of Kripalu yoga: compassion. I will learn compassion toward myself.

When I am “not successful” at a particular physical or mental task, I will attempt to be successful at compassion for myself, and gentle even in discovering my lack of compassion. This I can do, and it is all I need to bring.

I vow to break out of my old gardener habits and make new ones, different ones, not sure what the harvest will be, but trusting it will be–something–something wonderful. Storms will come, and drought, and interruptions by the personal and political and societal–and the skills I’ve acquired in the garden will get me through what I’m calling “sleep-away camp” at Kripalu.

Here at the end of January I open the seed catalog of my life, once again dreaming the future into being.

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the end of winter, and then spring!

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the rest of winter, and then spring! Who knows what transformed things will come out of this ground?

Remembering Commodity Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Today’s Macaroni and Cheese, just after baking

Once again, Some Day came for a food item in my house–this time in the category Leftover Bits of Cheese Saved in the Freezer, Intended for Macaroni & Cheese Some Day.  The double wrapped packages included slices of dill havarti left from late summer sandwiches, chunks of Colby-Jack, and a half-used bag of shredded cheddar preserved from potential spoiling before a trip out of town.

This assortment made me think about cheeses of the past, specifically, a lack of variety in days gone by…

When my former spouse and I lived in student apartments, we received Commodity Cheese. The distribution of this calcium and protein source, otherwise known as Government Cheese, dated back to World War II when it was fed to soldiers; in the 1980s, we were told it served to purchase excess milk from American farmers (in order to stabilize prices), and also to assist the hungry. Our family income, clearing the high four figures, qualified us as hungry, or potentially so. Other commodity products included powdered milk, greasy pork and canned vegetables. But the most common item, and the rubbery backbone of the program, was the cheese.

It was so ubiquitous that the local grocery store sold keep-fresh containers for the 5-pound blocks of what looked like American or Velveeta, but was actually a variety of cheeses blended together with emulsifiers. A whole set of recipes grew around using this hunk o’ dairy, since each month we received at least one block. Several times we received two huge bars of cheese (ten pounds total), along with ten, count ‘em ten, pounds of butter. What the hell? we laughed. And they can’t figure out why poor people might have weight problems?

Sometimes that wrapped slab was the biggest thing in our fridge. We were lucky–relatives sent us grad-school care packages, and for years we’d been part of natural foods buying co-ops, so we were able to spend our very limited food budget on other, healthier items. In addition, our family received WIC coupons, which enabled me to vary the kids’ meals with cereal, juice, eggs, peanut butter and milk.

We used up our Government allotment in grilled cheese, cheesy rice, cheesy grits (for the southerners), cheesy potatoes, cheesy eggs. My favorite recipe, shared around by the industrious Moms, Dads & Tots Group, was “Pasta Salad.” Not many fancy ingredients—a box of white store-brand elbow noodles; diced Commodity Cheese; a chopped green pepper; if you had it, chopped up Spam; and a dressing made of equal parts mayonnaise and mustard. Sounds a little scary, but it actually tasted pretty good; served cold, it was a nice side dish, and heated, a filling dinner. Of course, we all had our recipes for macaroni and cheese.

I say “we” because it was a community blessing and curse, that cheese. Almost everyone in the cinderblock apartments received it. I don’t know what the international students thought of it, if they ever got used to this strange, squishy, egg yolk-colored American fare. Our other cheap go-to food (at five cents a package), Ramen Noodles, was at least familiar to some of them, albeit originally in a spicier, tastier form.

The parents’ group also hosted International cooking nights. We learned how to make dishes from Burundi and Pakistan, Ethiopia, China and Peru. We U.S. natives cooked our regional specialties and holiday recipes.

I don’t remember Commodity Cheese appearing in any of these showcases.

We used it when we had to, but weren’t thrilled with it; we might have been materially poor, but we were proudly not culturally or creatively poor.

Nowadays I don’t yearn for that situation of having fewer ingredient choices, but I do miss the comradeship of the particular community that received and dealt with those yellow bricks.  I am reminded of what can be accomplished when people of different cultures and backgrounds come together in a mutual task–whether that is making food you can stomach out of something odd, or greater goals.

****

My macaroni and cheese in 2012 is made with with more vegetables than carbohydrates, and carefully chosen smoked mozzarella, chèvre, Muenster, and so on–certainly none requiring a special Keep Fresh container. The carrier for these artisanal cheeses is Tinkyada brown rice pasta, or locally made Flour City noodles, accented with fresh garlic and herbs.

This sounds like food snobbery, but isn’t intended to be so; when given the option, of course we crave variety and subtlety in our food, to please our particular palates–and if we don’t have options, we humans make do, often with inventiveness and humor.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Broccoli is highlighted in this mac & cheese, along with red and green peppers.

Here’s what I made the other day, with those odds and ends. I brought back chopped sweet peppers from the good ol’ “Pasta Salad” days.

  • 8 oz Pizza Pasta from Flour City Pasta
  • 2 oz dill havarti slices, 4 oz Colby Jack slices, and 3 oz shredded cheddar
  • 1/2 diced green pepper and 1/2 diced red pepper
  • basil, Community Gardens dried parsley, garlic salt
  • 1 cup 2% local milk
  • 2 eggs (of course–brown, free range, local, from the farmers’ market!)

Cook the pasta according to directions but deduct a minute or two from the boil time, mix all the ingredients, and bake at 350 for 15 minutes in a toaster convection oven, until the top noodles are getting a little crispy and the cheese is all melty (adjust as necessary for your oven). Serve with big heaps of steamed sliced broccoli.

If you are wondering, it’s four servings @ 475 calories each.

And it's so good heated up the next day, too!

And it’s so good heated up the next day, too!