I do know how much we all hate those blog posts that begin with the sniveling apologies for the unexcused absences, and yet it's a bit hard to sit here, enveloped in the guilt of three weeks with no posts, and not even mention it. I am a bad, bad blogger, but I'm hoping to either become a better blogger or quit this game altogether. The end of the school year was rather grueling for both G and myself, but as of Wednesday last, that's history.
The good news is that I've taken a sabbatical leave. This means many things, one of which being that for the first time in my adult working life, I will not be tied to a workday schedule, school-mandated vacations, and the schoolmarm slavery of a 5:30 a.m. alarm. My thoroughly trained internal alarm is another story, but I'd warrant I'm capable of sleeping all the way to 7:00 a.m., or even 7:30, if I give it a shot. I do love getting up early to bake, however, so I make no promises.
What am I going to do with my year (14 months, actually, since it's bookended by two summers)? I have plans for myself, and others apparently have plans for me as well: helping set up a friend's foundation, "volunteering" at my current school at least one day a week, spending more time with my rapidly aging dad, spending more time with my newborn niece and nephew -- and even more important, spending more time with my very own brand-new husband, and spending more time writing.
The parameters of my leave demand that I take some coursework, so there will be that. Nothing fun -- I'm going to turn my administration license into a second masters' degree, which would entitle me to eventually become a system bureaucrat. This is rather unlikely unless somebody lets me create a new Department of Education job like Czarina of School-Related Urban Sustainability (under which title I would command schools with strong roofs to plant rooftop organic gardens, thus eventually producing at least part of the school's lunch program. I would create school-to-farm partnerships, where students would see where food came from and small farmers could have guaranteed venues for produce. Food served at school would be fresh, high-quality and organically produced, as local as possible. High-fructose corn-syrup would be against the law. THEN we'd see what would happen to those test scores).
But in the meantime, I'm not allowed to have gainful employment while on sabbatical, although I'm only drawing a percentage of my salary. It could mean a bit of belt-tightening, but the future may bring all kinds of things our way, so we'll just see about that. In any case, I do have plans to bake more of my own bread and see what else I can produce on my own. Someone recently came through with a late wedding gift of the pasta roller attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer, so we'll be giving homemade pasta a whirl, too. Maybe even cheese, since I recently read the Kingsolver-Hopp family's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is about their year of eating (with only a few exceptions) what they could grow themselves or purchase from local farmers. Of course, reading this book has caused me to talk avidly and earnestly and with what is apparently quite annoying frequency about eating locally and the Kingsolver-Hopps and what they do and do not buy and do and do not produce at home. I start babbling about how if everyone in the US made sure that just one of their twenty-one weekly meals was composed of locally raised meat and produce, we could reduce our dependence on oil by over a million barrels every week. I can tell that all of this is becoming slightly tedious because of the way in which G's eyes have started to roll back up in his head every time he hears the phrase "carbon footprint" or the name "Kingsolver", as in "Well, the Kingsolvers make their own mozzarella cheese..."
Recently it hit me -- what I'd really like to do with at least some of my time during my sabbatical year. If I could do as I liked, I'd spend some time volunteering on a local farm. Even better, I'd spend time with a family that had a big working garden -- big enough for them to actually feed themselves -- if not completely, a pretty fair amount. I'd like to spend some more time at the Edible Schoolyard. And during any and all of these endeavors, I'd be trying to learn something about what I might actually need to know in order to help schools create urban gardens and relationships with local farms. I feel pretty hopeful that I can at least make some of these visits happen, perhaps for a week or so, here and there during the coming year. Maybe I could be an extra pair of hands during canning season, too.
In the meantime, I'm working on having us eat even more locally-produced foods, despite the fact that it will probably mean added expense at a time when our income becomes more limited. I know that others find that they either break even or do better when they make this switchover, but I'm not convinced the price break-down works in our favor here in NYC. I don't begrudge our local farmers a dime of their hard-earned money, but it does have a pretty big impact on the wallet when you realize that you're paying about $12 a pound for Greenmarket organically-raised local collard greens instead of $2.59 for organic collards from Fairway or Fresh Direct. This is not necessarily the case in other parts of the country, as our recent trip to Vermont can attest.
My current mania drove me to search out a restaurant serving local foods in the area of Shelburne, VT, since we were going to hear a favorite band playing nearby. The band we went to hear was opening for a band in whom we didn't have much interest, so I made dinner reservations for later on, instead of staying for the remainder of the show. My in-laws decided to drive up from Randolph and join us. One of the nice things about Vermont is that there are a LOT of restaurants that pride themselves on serving locally produced food. It's not just at the level of a quaint gimmick, which is sometimes how it feels at the few-and-far-between restaurants that do the same in NYC. Although our meal at the Inn at Shelburne Farms was not inexpensive, it was actually an excellent value. The setting is extraordinarily beautiful -- a century-old mansion, part of a 1400-acre working model farm with a sustainability ethic and and education mission. Their gorgeous Brown Swiss cattle, herds of which safely graze as you drive through the grounds to the inn, provide the rich milk for some of Vermont's finest cheddar cheese. The inn is nestled among breathtaking gardens on the shores of Lake Champlain, with a vista of the Green Mountains on the far shore. But of course you want to know what we ate. It was lovely, lovely food -- salads of varied and artfully arranged produce from the inn's garden, a delectable handmade pasta with tiny spring also-from-the-garden vegetables and herbs, delicious pork confit and fabulous, crisp-skinned lamb from local farms, fish from a sustainable fishery in Maine, and a hauntingly flavorful strawberry sorbet -- something that could only taste that good when with made with seasonal fruit.
My husband may indeed be getting sick of the word "local." But that doesn't for a moment impede the immense wellspring of his love for me and his desire to please my every whim. Good husband, indeed. This was made manifest early the next morning when, after he told me that he loves me, as indeed he does every morning, he asked me if I wanted to go to the Saturday morning farmers' market in Randolph, the Vermont town where my in-laws live. His own idea, I swear. My mother-in-law decided to come along -- it would be her first time at the market this season.
At first glance, the market was a bit disappointing. It looked as if there were more baked goods and jams and handcrafts than anything else. But I walked a bit farther, to see what I could see. I found quarts of strawberries from a local farm. And there were eggs, beautiful blue-green Araucana shells among the brown, only $2.50 a dozen for extra-large. Quite a bargain for hours-old free-range farm eggs, especially when one considers NYC prices for comparable eggs.
Then I struck gold. Cool Running Organic Farm announced the sign, flying the bright colors of the Jamaican flag. "What I can be doing for you, man?" lilted the skinny fellow behind the table, glinting a few gold teeth at me. "Spinach," I said. "A pound would be good." "Ah, t'sall good, " said he. "Me growin' all these t'ings right here, purely organic." "Great," I said. "Me from Jamaica, man. I been transplanted," he chortled. That much I could already tell. "How do you like it in Vermont?" I asked. "Oh sure, the winters cold here. But I go one winter Jamaica, one winter stay here." "What are these greens?" I wanted to know. "Calaloo, man," he said. Calaloo! Something I'd only seen on the menus of West Indian restaurants, and this guy was growing it organically, in Vermont. As interested as I was, I forewent it in favor of sugar snap peas, not knowing how calaloo would go over with G -- or with me, for that matter. I 'd save experimentation for another day, and rejoice in my good and thrifty finds -- organic spinach for $1.50 a pound (which is a lot), and sugar snaps for $3.50 a pound.
After a long day's drive, we hauled our Vermont produce as well as some other pickings from the Lebanon, New Hampshire food coop (I justify it all by thinking that even though we're spending fossil fuel to bring food home from Vermont, we're not increasing our carbon footprint since we were going to make the trip anyway) home to NYC. And the next day I cooked, inspired by the haul from our Randolph farmers' market visit and the flavors of Shelburne Farms -- as well as by a few things I happened to have in the house. There were some potatoes and shallots in the closet, and the fridge yielded a big bulb of green garlic from my last Greenmarket trip, as well as a bunch of mint that had survived our days away. With the greens and a touch of Butterworks Farm cream, a soup that is one of the finest dishes to grace our early summer table became dinner. "Pass me some more of that nice, local, sustainable, transplanted-from-Vermont, Kingsolver-type soup," G said. "Oh, you like it?" I asked innocently. "Well, it doesn't have any beans or meat or cheese in it," he said thoughtfully. "But considering all that, it's still pretty good."
Cream of Summer Green
Makes about 12 cups; serves 6 - 8
Most soups made from something like snap peas would have you strain, double-strain, and pass through a chinoise. I feel that if you blend really, really thoroughly, this is not necessary. Our preference is for a slight bit of rusticity anyway, which is why I add back some vegetable chunks and spinach leaves at the end. And besides, the fiber's good for you. Just blend it up well.
This soup is good both hot and cold, although G says not as good cold as hot. But he doesn't believe in cold soup, so don't trust his opinion.
1 pound sugar snap peas
4 large shallots, finely chopped
1 head of green garlic, chopped
1 pound new potatoes, diced or sliced (peeled or unpeeled)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 pound spinach, cleaned, stemmed and roughly chopped
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock, or water (I had a wonderful stock made from leek greens and pea pods)
1/2 to 1 cup cream (heavy sweet or créme fraîche)
handful of fresh mint leaves
grating of nutmeg
whisper of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
Put up a large pot of water to boil. Snap the ends off the peas, and remove any strings or tough areas on the pods. Plunge them into the boiling water, and cook until tender but still bright green -- don't let them turn drab. Plunge them into cold water to stop cooking, and reserve.
Heat olive oil in a large pot. Sauté shallots and garlic for a few minutes; add potatoes and cook for a bit longer. Add enough vegetable broth to cover, and simmer until potatoes are tender. Scoop a couple of spoonfuls of potatoes out of the pot, and reserve. Add half of the cooked snap peas and 3/4 of the spinach to the pot. When everything is hot and the spinach has wilted, turn off the heat. Add the handful of mint leaves. Purée directly in the pot with an immersion blender, or put into a regular blender (close tightly; hot soup projectile-spraying itslef out of a blender really hurts). Add more broth or water if it's too thick. Stir in cream; add nutmeg, cayenne, salt and pepper. Add reserved snap peas, potatoes and raw spinach. Heat gently -- or chill thoroughly. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.