When I began my backyard garden last October, a few weeks after moving into our new home, we were in the midst of a stifling heat wave. Despite oppressively extreme temperatures blowing in from the desert on the Santa Anas, I started sowing the seeds of cool weather crops. I was anxious about how they would fare, as I found it hard to prevent small seedlings with shallow roots from drying out in the hot, dry weather. With plenty of tender watering, sometimes up to three times a day, almost all survived and we were delighted with a harvest of fresh produce right through the winter. Many of the crops I planted finished long ago. The rapini, for example, was first to reach maturity and provided generously for our table, but started to weaken and fall prey to bugs as soon as the first warm weather hit. A few others, however, such as the kale and chard, never stop producing. They are proving to be wondrously plentiful even now, eight months later!
It would probably be easy to tire of kale if our only options were steaming, sautéing and shredding in salads. Having more than one type of kale in the garden lessens the likelihood of boredom, but still it I might have pulled out all the gorgeous Russian Kale and replaced it with another option. This would be a shame as it is so easy to grow and it is packed full of nutrients and anti-oxidants. Thankfully, no one in our family has complained of being sick of snacking on kale chips, which for the most part is how our Russian Kale has been served up through the winter and spring.
As is the case with many children who have the good fortune of a backyard garden or whose parents tend a community garden plot, we have no difficulty getting our son to eat his veggies. In fact, we find ourselves taking away his vegetables at dinner time, telling him that he can have more once he eats his other food. This is not how I ever imagined supper with a child would look like! I know we are tremendously lucky! However, if getting greens into my little boy was a problem, I am pretty certain that he would devour kale chips, easing my nutritional worries at the same time.
Kale chips are so popular around our home that it didn’t take long before I found myself dividing trays of chips from the oven into three separate containers, each tub bearing a name, to ensure that each of us gets our fair share. Embarrassing, but true! If I had a deep freeze, I would make even more chips and load the freezer full, in order to tie us over the season when the heat finally shuts down the kale. In the mean time, I’ll keep on attempting to keep up with everything my kale plants have to give. For now, they seem unstoppable!
Kale Chips by Mama is Inspired
1 large bunch kale, stems removed and torn into 2-inch pieces (10-12 large stems)
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
Juice of 1 small lemon (4 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp tamari (San J Gold Label is what I like best)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast (Red Star brand)
1/8 cup almond meal
1/8 cup flax meal
Place torn pieces of kale into large bowl. Add ingredients to kale and toss well with salad tongs so that mixture is thoroughly and evenly coating the kale.
Preheat oven to 170 degrees.
Lay out on cookie sheets as evenly as possible.
Place trays of kale in the oven. After 2 hours flip the kale chips with a spatula. Put back in oven and continue to ‘bake’ (they are actually dehydrated at this temperature rather than baked) until they are all completely dry. This can take up to 8 hours. After removing from the oven, allow the chips to cool on the cookie sheets. Then remove and store in a well sealed container in the fridge. I have found that nothing works better than a yogurt tub to keep the kale chips fresh. I also add one or two silica packs to each container.
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I have long loved to bake and play around with recipes. Lately, however, I have become more preoccupied with this. Not long ago I decided to eliminate all store bought snacks and treats from our cupboard and instead bake it all from scratch. Since I find it far more satisfying to create and continually tweak my own recipes than to bake from someone else’s, I also proposed to myself to work only from recipes that I am in the process of creating or have made up in the past.
So far, since taking on this challenge, I have been keeping our shelves filled with kale chips, muffins, cookies, and crackers. Soon I would like to add pretzels into the mix. Until about two months ago, I had never attempted crackers. Home made crackers intimidated me. I imagined that something so thin and so perfectly crisp had to lie far beyond my abilities. The thought of making crackers scared me so much because I sensed that I could only fail.
I rarely eat potato or corn chips. Even if they are sitting right in front of me I will often pass them over. However, I have another weakness. I believe that I enjoy crackers in the same way that most people love chips. Just as many people can eat a whole bag of chips in one sitting, I eat a lot of crackers. When I decided to stop purchasing snacks I had no choice but to face my fear of making something that could turn out to be inedible.
Not only do I like to make up my own recipes but I also want to know that if I sit down to a plate of food and then proceed to fill it again and again, that afterward I will not feel sad or guilty about having eaten a load of junk. If I am going to overeat, I at least want to make it count for something! More importantly to me, my son is young and developing and I want to ensure that everything he puts into his mouth contains the sort of nutrition that will help his body do its important work. My son is only at the beginning of building a body and is laying down the forms and structures that will serve him for a lifetime. I want his foundation to be strong. Therefore, when I look to alter a recipe, I search for ways to boost the whole-food content, add in some more protein and perhaps some ‘super foods’, and then decrease sugars and fat. At the same time I am not at all interested in losing taste and texture. When unsuspecting eaters (in order to be unsuspecting, they have to have met me only recently) find out that that what they ate was healthy I want them to exclaim that they can’t believe it, that “it doesn’t taste healthy!” Personally, I love the taste of healthy but I know that many people associate “healthy” with bland flavors and unfavorably dry textures. No baker wants to pull something out of the oven that can be described like this.
I did a search online and came up with a very basic cracker recipe that I thought I could work with. I looked it over and moved some ingredients around. First I created a cracker that my family loved the taste of, but that was still not as nutritious as what I would like to have on hand daily. I think this cracker is a great success, and I was thrilled at Easter when my step-brother declared that if I drew his name at Christmas all he wanted was a very large box of these crackers. It was a wonderful day spent with my family, and it was my son’s first Easter hunt, so I can’t say this comment made my day, but it certainly went a long way in making a special day even nicer for me. Not long after Easter I developed a second cracker recipe. This cracker is even more delicious than the first crackers. Better yet, I deem them healthy enough to be given a regular place in our pantry.
At our family get-together, I informed my step-brother that these crackers are simple to make. I don’t think he or his wife believed me. Crackers are easy. Truly, my cracker recipes are the easiest thing I have ever baked. (You don’t even have to grease the pan!)
Being so simple, crackers are also an ideal baking project to share with a toddler. My two-year-old son helps me add in the ingredients and stir the dry mix. A slightly older child could certainly mix it all up by her or himself. I flour a cutting board each for my son and myself. I also continue to throw extra flour onto my son’s rolling surface as we go along as this pleases him very much. I work away at rolling my ball of dough with an old, corked, water-filled wine bottle (like everything else of importance, my real rolling pin is in storage in another city) while my son stands on a stool beside me, flattening his own lump of cracker dough with an old, cylinder-shaped, herbal tea can. My little boy is thrilled to make crackers and it is a fantastic way to spend the last of our evening together before he goes to bed.
Rosemary Wheat Flax Crackers by Mama is Inspired
1 cup unbleached white flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
¼ cup flax meal
1 1/4 tsp sea salt
1 ½ tsp dried, crushed rosemary
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
sea salt for sprinkling
Whole Wheat, Almond and Flax Crackers by Mama is Inspired
1 ¾ cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (you can use whole wheat flour for the whole amount, if you don’t have any pastry flour on hand)
Both recipes use the same directions. They are as follows:
First add and stir dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and then stir in the oil and water. Form a ball of dough with your hands. You might require a little extra water to keep the ball together, but do not add any more water than is required. You want the ball only to be wet enough that pieces of dough are not falling off the ball. If you do add a bit too much water, however, I wouldn’t be too concerned. This recipe is quite forgiving.
I separate the dough into five smaller balls. Each smaller ball will become a cookie sheet full of crackers. If you don’t use all the dough at once (I never do), you can store the unused dough in a closed container in the fridge for several days.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface. You will need flour on your rolling pin, as well. Add more flour to your rolling pin if the dough begins to stick to the rolling pin. Roll the dough quite thin. 1/8 inches is as thick as it should be. I roll it out to the point just before holes begin to develop. If you roll the dough too thin, you can collect all of it or just a portion and re-roll.
I suggest that when you are close to rolling out the dough as thin as you intend, that you no longer roll the edges but instead focus the rest of your energy on the center. This will keep the edges from being thinner than the rest and will allow the dough to bake very evenly. This is especially helpful if you have an oven that heats unevenly. Again, though, don’t worry too much about this step. Your crackers will still be great even if they are unevenly cooked.
Transfer to a cookie sheet that is NOT greased. Use a paring knife to cut a grid into the dough. The lines are where the crackers will break apart after baking. Prick each square once or twice with a fork. Sprinkle sea salt on top. The extra salt really helps bring out the flavor.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12-25 minutes or until golden and dry. The baking time difference depends on thickness of the crackers and on individual ovens.
Cool on the cookie sheets and then break apart the crackers. Store in a closed container.
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My little boy loves to make coffee and tea in his own little kitchen. Any guest to our home can be sure that at some point my son will come around offering a round of coffee or tea. Before he became involved in serving hot drinks, he would use his empty peanut butter jar to grind coffee beans several times each day. He mimics every step perfectly. When Christmas was approaching my sister and brother asked what their nephew would like. It was easy to quickly come up with a list of ideas that I thought my son would enjoy playing with and that I felt philosophically close to. This list included a wooden broom, a children’s tool set, Melissa and Doug water and sand toys, and a wooden cutting board and food set. I decided I should also give some thought to what my son would like but that I would never consider buying him. Again it took only a brief moment to realize that my son’s dream gift would be his very own coffee maker. I would never purchase this. I find it a bit disturbing that my son watches his father and I drink so much coffee and that I have become so dependent since my son’s first birthday. In fact, I am so dismayed that I make a point of beginning each day with a tall glass of water and lemon juice right in front of my son. Another objection I have to a mini-me coffee maker is that I would like my son’s imagination to be strong enough that he does not require such a commercially perfected toy. The coffee maker I picked out for my son is not one of the sweet wooden toys reminiscent of a coffee maker and it is not made from post-consumer-recycled, BPA-free plastic. It is not made by a conscientious toy maker. It is manufactured by a leader in the coffee maker industry and is designed as a starter coffee maker in order to get children hooked before they are actually old enough to be hooked. However, I decided to pick out what my son wanted and I knew in my heart that he wanted the one that was as close to an exact replica of his parents’ as possible. My husband was a tad shocked when I shared the last item I’d included on the wish list. In return I was a bit defensive-but only because I was embarrassed. The present turned out to be perfect. On Christmas morning my son shook from genuine excitement when he un-wrapped this particular gift. He was thrilled and ecstatic.
Ever since, he has been making coffee. Then when he added tea to his repertoire I was both relieved and delighted. I have never discouraged my son from using his coffee maker, but herbal tea seems both more innocent and aligned with what I wish I was drinking all day every day.
Then we began to drink real tea together. Several nights a week I make us a pot of herbal tea and together we partake in this sweetest of moments. I really should not complain about how my son eats. He eats everything my husband and I do and we don’t experience the daily anxiety of ‘what will we give him tonight?!’ My little boy is, however, an extremely slow eater, laboriously chewing every bite thoroughly. He gets this from me. His dinner time usually lasts two hours and we have to prod him along the whole time. Therefore, as is the case in almost every family with small children, meal time is stressful. It is stressful every night. Tea time is different. Tea time frequently follows right on the heels of dinner and smooths over all the wrinkles that dinner time produced. I love tea time.
My son does not drink anything but water. As well, he had never been permitted to drink from a real cup all on his own before we started sharing tea time because I was not ready for the mess and multiple changes of soaked clothes. At tea time he receives his hot and darkened beverage out of an adult pot and he drinks this out of a real ceramic mug. We began with an espresso cup that was just the perfect size for his little hands and mouth and have since worked up to the ceramic Peter Rabbit mug he received as a gift. To a small child this is miraculous. He frequently lets out a high pitch squeal of delight while alternately flapping and shaking his arms in a fervor. After a particularly successful drink, where he imagines that he has not spilled tea down his front, he declares “Sip! Sip!” and smiles the largest grin he is capable of. Tea time also contains many calm moments and I ask him about his day and then continue to feed him answers to which he can respond yes or no. He adds in the odd word or phrase now and again when he wants to begin a new ‘conversation’ or point of interest to ‘discuss’. Occasionally, his father joins us and sometimes I learn particulars of the day they shared together which I otherwise would never have heard about. Shared tea gets people talking. I love tea time.
I hope that tea time will continue to play a role in our home as my son grows up. Currently he wants to live every moment glued to at least one parent’s side. One of us is with him every moment, every day. We know all that is happening in his life. We see his ups and downs. We know when he has had a great time at the playground and we see when his feelings are hurt or he is frightened. We know his favorite activities. We know all about his quirky habits such as the way pulls off his socks to search for toe lint. This will change. We will not always be this close. Gradually he will need us less and will grow more independent. He will have experiences of and on his own. He will probably attend school and spend the length of each day without us where he will engage in valuable interactions and friendships with people we do not really know.
My dream is that tea time will not be a passing phase that my son outgrows the way he has outgrown picking up his toys on his own and wanting to help fold the laundry. I would love to think that for many years to come there will be a time of day when we meet as almost-friends, we share a cup of tea, and he can pour out news he wants to share and I can actively listen. We can discuss his arising passions and interests. He can share the lessons he is learning in school and together we can explore these in more depth. As he grows up and becomes a man I imagine that tea time can once again draw us together, opening up a space for shared conversation. We can meet as equals over a cup of tea and I can hear again from him about the life he is leading-a life in which I am no longer a major player. Perhaps he will feel comfortable enough to share intimate details about his aspirations, successes, and heartaches. Maybe we will discuss current events as adults do and I can learn as much from him in that future as he is currently learning from me in this present. Or he might bring home close friends or his partner and our calming, relaxed environment of tea time may work its magic yet again. As sharing across a table often does, our visitors will be put at ease and they will invite me into their conversation and their world for at least the duration of tea time. I know it must seem that I am getting ahead of myself. After all, my son is still small. It is true that I am advancing much too far into the future and with far too much clarity. What is certain, though, is that with the best of fortune my young boy will grow into a man. Everything I do for him now is meant to lead up to that point where he is on his own. I dream that today’s tea time will help him to have a more beautiful life and that some day, when the power is all his, that he will remember me, the meaningful moments we have shared, and that he, too, will want a few more. Tea time, perhaps, will be the most ideal way. We love tea time.
Tea time sometimes includes a homemade treat. Here is the recipe for my son’s (and husband’s!) favorite cookies.
Recipe for Vegan Hermit Cookies by Mama is Inspired
3 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour (if you don’t have pastry flour, regular whole wheat flour will work fine. The cookies will not rise as much, however)
½ cup almond meal
1 Tbsp ground flax seed
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 ¼ tsp cinnamon
½ cup evaporated cane sugar
½ cup warm coconut oil (soft or liquid. If this is difficult, you can cut the sugar into the hard coconut oil with a knife. Or use 1/4 coconut oil plus 1/4 cup vegetable oil))
1/4 – 1/2 cup maple syrup depending on how sweet you like your cookies
1 cup chopped walnuts
½-1 cup shelled sunflower seeds
1 cup raisins
Optional: chocolate chips
Vegan milk curdling mix: 2 Tbsp in ¼ almond milk. Let sit for at least 5 minutes
4-6 Tbsp of water (Begin with 4 tbsp and add more once wet and dry are mixed together if needed)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Prepare vegan milk curdling mix (egg substitute) and put aside until ready for use. Mix dry ingredients together. Set aside. Mix wet ingredients together in the same order as ingredients list. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir together. Drop onto either oiled cookie sheet or cookie sheet lined with parchment paper (not wax paper) in heaping teaspoons. Use fork to push down as when making peanut butter cookies. If the fork begins to stick in the dough, rinse fork with cold water (you do not need to actually rinse any stuck dough off the fork). I place chocolate chips, about 3 or 4, face down in most of the cookies. My son doesn’t eat chocolate yet so I reserve a few cookies for him that do not have chips.
Bake for 10-15 minutes. Promptly remove from cookie sheets and place on cooling racks.
You can store unused dough in a container in the freezer.
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In September my family moved back to Southern California from Vancouver, Canada. We moved into a coastal community and into a bright little house with a patch of earth that was small but still large enough to put in a vegetable garden that feeds us pretty well. When we moved in, this ground was barren, except for a chile tree and a couple of straggly snapdragon plants. When I first turned the soil, there was not a single insect to be seen, neither friendly nor unfriendly. There was also a lemon tree here, loaded with ripening lemons. Initially, this was very exciting. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, the lemon tree turned out to be heavily infested with both citrus mealybug and scale. For a long time I thought that these two pests were just different life stages of the same insect. The tree was also covered in ants attracted to the sweet, sticky stuff the scale exposed. Sadly, our Meyer lemon tree was on the fast track to death.
I’ve given this tree tons of attention, all organic, of course, and I think we’ve now turned the tide, meaning that the next harvest of lemons will be healthy and unblemished. To rid the tree of bugs we have done successive prunings, starting out timidly and eventually becoming less fearful of harming the tree and losing the harvest. I pruned for the last time in February and the tree is now a shadow of what it once was. This feels fine, though, as it is still covered in blossoms and tiny maturing fruit and I had already noticed how quickly new branches and leaves sprout. I’m not at all worried that my aggressive pruning has been too much.
Every ten days for approximately two months I sprayed, or rather drenched, the entire tree with a contact insecticide that I made up and applied with a cheap spray bottle that I bought at the 99 Cents store. This spray bottle works great because it includes a ratio guide on the outside.
This concoction both suffocates and dries out the pests. The respiratory system of the pest is especially targeted. It is essential not to spray the tree while it receives full sunlight because this can be damaging. Therefore, I always applied my homemade insecticide just before dusk. We also worked hard to rid the tree and the surrounding area of ants. We used a variety of techniques that included pouring both boiling water on ant infested areas far from the tree and its roots, and also a solution of white vinegar and water. More effectively we placed piles made up of half white sugar and half borax in areas of heavy ant traffic. We have made a considerable dent in our local ant population and currently there are no ants on the tree.
As well, I mulched the tree line (avoiding applying the mulch right up to the trunk) with fresh seaweed that my husband, son and I harvested at a local beach. If seaweed isn’t available, a mulch of well-rotted compost also works well or you can check out a garden centre for an organic fertilizer that is good for citrus trees.
Now that things are looking up, we are again excited to have inherited a Meyer Lemon. Most of the lemons have fallen from the tree before they’ve reached their mandarin-crossed orangey color. Still, unripe, they have been delicious and I have a freezer full of lemon juice. I also managed to grate enough cosmetically unaffected lemons to fill an 8 oz jar full of zest which is in the freezer, as well. Although frozen, it’s easy to remove what I need with a spoon. I’m sure that the lemon juice would probably be better stored in ice cube trays, but I’m frugal and I also try to keep my consumption down. Since I don’t have extra ice cube trays, but I do have a lot of empty jars, I freeze my juice this way and transfer a jar to the fridge when I need it. It is unbelievable how much lemon juice my family is consuming-I worry that I am no longer able to drink water straight!
Our abundance of lemons has inspired me to experiment creating new recipes for lemons. I love the challenge of inventing a new cookie or cake. I have been met with success but also some failures. The following is my favorite recipe that I have thus far created for my lemons. I like to bake vegan and I like to keep my treats as healthy as possible. Unfortunately, I also have a sweet tooth. Here are the cookies I baked one recent afternoon:
Mama Is Inspired Lemon Cookies
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil cookie sheet.
3.5 cups Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (regular whole wheat flour also works well)
Chocolate Chips to place tip downward in the surface of formed cookies (optional)
Mix the dry ingredients into the wet and stir together with a large spoon. Using a teaspoon, spoon onto cookie sheets and use a fork to indent cookie as is done with peanut butter cookies (if the fork sticks in cookies, just rinse the fork in cold water).
Bake for 10 minutes. Cool on racks.
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