Monday, June 27, 2011

Today's Nature Sighting: Wild Turkeys

My son woke me early this morning to tell me about this little family sauntering through our back yard. Through bleary eyes, I took a few photos. This is the best I could manage. Unfortunately, the Papa isn't in this shot, though he was proudly leading the way.

Even though I would have like a bit more sleep this morning, it's hard for this "Nature Mama" to be upset about my son doing what I always do. He just happens to be an early bird and I'm a night owl.

If you haven't "liked" my writer page on Facebook, yet, please do. You can click this link  or the one on my right sidebar. I post content on Facebook that I don't post here, including interesting books I find that relate to my blog's mission.

What topics would you like me to blog about in the future?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Garlic Scapes

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that gardening is a passion of mine. (You can click one of these links to read some last year's posts about Gardening Without a Yard , our First Harvest, and later Garden Progress)  I especially enjoy growing plants that nourish my family. Harvesting food from my back yard is satisfying (not to mention healthy)  for me.

This weekend's big find...garlic scapes. And when I say "find," I mean it. Despite the fact that we eat lots of garlic in our house, this is the first time we've grown garlic. How is that possible, you may wonder?  Well, it's simple. You plant garlic in the fall, mulch it well over the winter, and harvest it in mid-July. Somehow, I never got organized enough to plant in the fall. This year, however, we took a few baby steps by planting our cold frame and some lovely garlic (thanks to my mom for buying the garlic for me last fall and giving me the "hint...hint" get planting nudge).

So how were the scapes a surprise find? I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I didn't quite understand the biology of garlic scapes. For some reason, I thought that scapes were just the green tops (sprouts) of the garlic and that picking them would end the growth of the garlic bulbs. Now I know better! I've purchased scapes from the farmer's market so I knew what they looked like. When I saw the little shoots growing on the plant I could easily recognize them as a flower stem and bud. I quickly grabbed my garden scissors to clip them out. I made the connection to the herbs in my garden- to get the herbs with the best flavor, you prevent them from going to flower.  Some quick research later, I learned that a similar situation is true for garlic scapes- if the scapes are allowed to grow and bloom, the garlic bulbs stop growing. Cutting them out actually does double duty- we'll get larger garlic bulbs, plus we get to enjoy the scapes now.

This is all a perfect example of why getting your kids involved in gardening is a good idea. I grew up on a farm and have grown my own vegetables for years. Yet, even I learned something new by going out to check on my garden this weekend.  I brought my kids out and showed them, too, so not only did they learn from the experience, but they got to see that I learned something , too.

Our first meal using the scapes was some extra-delicious scrambled eggs. I simply washed and chopped the scapes, sauteed them in a little olive oil, as with garlic cloves, then added the eggs and cooked as usual.

Now is the time to find scapes at your local farmer's market, so keep your eyes open.

Have you ever eaten garlic scapes? What's your favorite recipe or use for them?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Photographic Inspiration

Here are some photos I've taken over the last few weeks. (Click the photos to enlarge). I hope you'll get outside and enjoy a little of what nature has to offer in your neck of the woods today.

What nature sightings have you made lately?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Turtle Investigation

A couple of weeks ago, this little guy scuttled through our yard.
We didn't want to bother it too much. We watched it for a few minutes...

Handled it briefly...

then left it alone. (Note: turtles can carry salmonella, so it's important to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water if you handle one).

Then, last Monday, this much bigger turtle seemed to charge through our lawn.
Check out the coloration on her neck: (Click the photo to make it larger)

 She stopped by to check out my daughter who was watching her...
then headed for the flower bed in front of our house. I had just weeded it and turned over the soil. I suspected she would lay eggs in my garden, so I watched closely. She didn't. Instead, she made her way to an area in our back yard that was freshly mowed and began digging a hole. I was amazed by how indifferent she seemed to our presence.

 First she'd dig down with her right leg, then her left leg.  My husband and son carefully placed markers around the area and we went to eat dinner. I checked on her a couple of times as she dug the hole.
Thank goodness my husband and son had marked the place because this is all we could see when she was done:

 We never would have found the exact spot.

So now what? We do a little research and wait. We need to learn the species of turtle so we'll have a better idea of how long those eggs will take to hatch. Once we know that, we'll know when to watch that spot for action. The chances of seeing them hatch are slim. But, even if we don' t see them hatch, we may see evidence that they hatched in the from of disturbed soil or eggshells. 

We will NOT attempt to dig them up. I know turtle eggs must remain at a consistent temperature in order to hatch. Once, we accidentally disturbed a bunch of turtles eggs that had been layed in our mulch pile. We only discovered them once the pile was removed and the conditions were altered. We attempted to help them hatch with no success.  That mama turtle chose the place to lay her eggs carefully, so we're not going to mess with them.

Challenge: Can you identify the species of the little turtle? How about the big one? How long will the eggs take to hatch? Do you know any other interesting facts about turtle eggs?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Haying Season

Right now, in rural towns all over the Northeast, farmers are haying. Basically, that means they cut down their hayfields, let the hay dry, and use machines to bale it. Those haybales are then put in the barn and used as feed for domestic animals such as horses, sheep, and llamas during the winter months when there's no pasture for them to graze on.

I've been slinging haybales ever since I can remember. When you grow up on a farm, you have no choice in the matter- everyone has to pitch in. Last Friday, I got the call from my dad. 

"Hey Michelle. I just wanted to let you know I have a hayfield down (meaning cut). I expect to bale it tomorrow afternoon." 

I made a note of it and planned to be there the next day.

Twenty minutes later, Dad called back. "I just came home to rake the hay (speeds drying) and it's already dry. So we'll be taking it in around 5 today instead." This call came at about 3:45. 

A call like that means we need to head down there to pitch in if at all possible. Several of my parents' friends received the same call. As you can see from the pictures, some of them came, even at that late notice. When you're making hay, you are at the mercy of the weather. Luckily, when you live in a farming community, folks pitch in as needed. A few nights before, when they brought in the first loads of hay, some neighbors were driving by and saw them out there working. Of course, they stopped to help.

What kid doesn't want to ride on a haywagon?

Especially when they get to sit up high.

This machine picks the haybale off the ground...

and coveys it up and onto the wagon. Much easier than lifting them off the field like we did when I was a kid.

The metal track on the front guides it in.
Now, here's an interesting fact you may not know... because farmers need help bringing in hay, many will gladly accept help from folks who offer. If you have kids who love seeing tractors up close, this is a great opportunity. Or maybe you're a homeschooler looking for a more hands-on way to teach your kids about farming. My dad loves showing kids how it's done. When parents come to help bring in hay, the kids get to ride along (that's my two kids, plus a friend's kids in the photos).

So, if you live near a farm, drop by some time and ask if they need help bringing in hay. You never know...if they're like my dad, they'll welcome your help and you and your kids will get a great education in the process.

(Tip for those who have horses or other domestic animals that need hay: if you buy the hay "off the field," meaning you load your truck or wagon by picking it up off the field, you pay a lower price. My dad loves this arrangement because he doesn't have to handle the haybales. Buyers like it because they save money).

Haying tips:
  1. If you have allergies, this may not be the field trip for you. If you really want to go, I'd suggest taking any allergy medication you normally use before you go. (Note: I am not a doctor. Seek medical advice as needed).
  2. Wear long pants and long sleeves, NO MATTER HOW HOT IT IS. Even if it's 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity Trust me, please. Hay will prick your skin and make you itchy for days.
  3. Wear work gloves.
  4. Blow your nose several times after haying. Using saline may help remove the bits that get in there. Go back and enlarge my second photo (of the kids at the back of the wagon) by clicking on it. You'll see why.
  5. Apply bug spray.
  6. Pace yourself, especially if there's no conveyor. There's no need to race ahead of the wagon trying to outdo the other workers. Let the wagon come to you. (We always laugh at the newbies who do this...teen boys are the most apt.)
  7. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
  8. Laugh.
  9. Have fun.
  10. Ask questions.
  11. Learn together as you experience this new bit of nature and culture rolled into one.
Maybe the farmer will even let your kids climb up to the top of the haybales in the barn.

How about where you live? Have you seen farmers bringing in hay? I'm interested to know what's happening in other parts of the country/world. When I was in Morocco in the month of July, I saw a truck loaded with hay bales just like the ones we make here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Adventurous Eating and Cooking

Look at the beautiful color in the scales.
For the past two weeks, a vendor at our farmer's market has been selling whole Black Sea Bass and Scup. When I lived in the Philippines, nearly every piece of fish I ate arrived at the table with the head and tail still attached and its eyes still in its head. I've also ordered fish cooked this way in Thai restaurants here in the states. Despite these experiences, however, I had never cooked a whole fish before. Making a purchase took a leap of faith on my part.

My kids looked to me for my reaction when the vendor opened the cooler and revealed the whole fish. I confess, I feigned being totally comfortable in my ability to cook a delicious whole fish, knowing that if I seemed hesitant, they would be, too. Don't get me wrong- I told them this was new territory for me, but I didn't let on that I was not completely comfortable.

I asked the vendor for cooking advice (a real benefit of shopping at a farmer's market or local fish market- they all have tips for you!), purchased a black sea bass, and brought it home.
Here's the basic recipe:
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Line a cookie sheet with tinfoil.
  3. Stuff the cavity with fresh herbs (it was already gutted). Any herbs will do. I used thyme and sage since that's what was growing in my garden.
  4. Bake for 35 minutes (check at 30 minutes) until the skin gets a bit crusty and peels right off in one piece. That's it!
  5. Serve it on a platter. Gently remove the flesh from the bones. Of course, be extra careful of the bones.
And the verdict was... everyone loved it! My kids were so excited to go back this week and purchase a scup. (My husband cooked it on on the grill using the same basic method). My husband was less excited about the scup but the kids liked it.

So, what's my point? I am NOT suggesting that all of you need to go out and buy a whole fish to cook. I realize everyone has their own level of comfort with food. What I AM suggesting is that you push through a bit of discomfort and try something new. I know my way around a kitchen and have a wide variety of spices and herbs and my fingertips. Cooking across cultural or ethnic styles is comfortable for me. Cooking a whole fish was not (though it is now!) For you, cooking brussels sprouts, or kale or (Moroccan) tagine may be outside of your comfort zone. Figure out where your comfort is and then decide to stretch.

You'll model safe risk taking for your kids and expose them to new flavors in the process. In some small way, you may open their pallets to new flavors so that they will be willing to eat more widely. Or perhaps they'll be more willing to try the foods of a friend from another country or region of the US. Or perhaps, like me, they'll be willing to travel far and wide and try the foods each country has to offer. Childhood lays the foundation for future life choices.

Growing up, my family did not eat particularly unique foods like the ones I cook in my house, but my mom was definitely concerned with cooking homemade foods and baking "from scratch."  She modeled many of the cooking techniques that made their way into my cooking. One particularly adventurous night, however, my mom made this new-fangled recipe for something called "pesto." I had never seen pesto nor had any of my friends. I admit, I was skeptical. I'm not even sure I enjoyed it all that much the first time I had it. BUT... I sure do love it  now and my kids have loved it from the time they were really young. My mom taught us to try new foods. Both my sisters are adventurous eaters like me.

So, take a little risk with your kids. Go to the farmer's market and buy a veggie you've never had before. Open a cookbook and try a new recipe. Ask your Cape Verdean neighbor to make you some Jag or go to an Ethiopian restaurant and try Injera and Doro Wot. Take your taste buds on a little adventure!

Have you tried a new food lately? Did your kids try it , too? Tell us about it. Or, perhaps, try something new today and report back.