Growing Up


I live in an old, tiny house. We sleep in strange rooms of ill fitted sizes. We tiptoe through the night or lie in bed holding our breath because one misstep on a creaky floorboard will do us in and wake the children. Every parent knows you do not wake the children.

 

5:30 a.m. Writing session sabotaged by two early birds.

5:30 a.m. writing session sabotaged by two early birds and a toy cat.

 

For many years, New Prairie Kitchen was written in strange places, not the least of which was a cubbyhole in a wall next to the washing machine. So, in that dank little space I wrote myself a note. A reminder that my children are the only part of my life in the fast lane. They will grow before I notice the plant in the kitchen has gone without water for too long, or that I forgot to workout for so many years that my opportunity to claim anything as baby fat has long since passed me by. I wrote myself the note, so I could give myself permission to go slowly. To watch my children, and, accidentally, myself grow up.

In the midst of all of this life, a little book was written, an author was created, but more importantly an adult was made. I was reminded of this on Sunday night when I ran into two acquaintances who later became friends. We first met at an Outstanding in the Field farm-to-table dinner hosted at Branched Oak Farm. It’s a lovely place owned and operated by the husband and wife team, Doug and Krista Dittman. They feed cows and make cheese, but they also support, guide and nurture other dairy farmers in the region. At this dinner two years ago, I met a couple who had recently left the coast and moved to Omaha. They came to support one of their children, and stayed because they fell in love with the culture, community, and food scene in Omaha. I would dare say they’ve become Omaha’s greatest ambassadors.

When I first met them, I was feeling a bit like a kept woman. I was in the throws of trying to carve out some kind of a career while potty training a two year old, learning how to parent a strong-willed four year old and feeling a bit bogged down by the commotion of it all. One glass of wine in and I discovered a good listener in my new found, recently adopted Midwesterner at the dinner table. I could try to make myself look good by saying I vented a bit about motherhood, but the truth is I complained. I felt stunted even with my note telling me to be patient. What I really needed was a note telling me to get over myself. I felt frustrated, and I blamed my children for that, not my own bad attitude. I’ve looked back at that dinner with remorse, not because I cornered some unsuspecting couple, which is bad enough, but because I didn’t look inward long enough to realize I was throwing myself a pity party and it had nothing to do with my children. Believe it or not the couple didn’t run and hide. We stayed in contact and have become friends. She’s a mother too, although her children are grown now, and was kind enough to empathize with my stage in life at the time.

Fast forward two years to Sunday night when we all attended a fundraiser for the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society. We had drinks in hand, and they asked about the children. I said I’ve enjoyed this stage of parenting much more than the early years and actually have quite a bit of fun with the kids these days. She said, “Yes, children have a way of growing us up, don’t they?”

They certainly do.

That night I returned home, my kids and husband were sound asleep, and walked across our old and aching floors, grateful for life lessons, friends and renewed perspective.

 

 

Like bumblebees we are a social. We need each other to build restaurants, write books, and care for families. We move in, and almost instinctively, come together, assume roles and build.

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As much as I want to preserve the open spaces where I have spent most of my adult life, I am also happy the city has moved in a bit closer to me. I am a city girl at heart and moving to the country for the love of my husband took a bit of adjusting. I am not accustomed to so much distance between places. City girls, even if they are from small, up and coming cities, are used to a certain amount of busyness that comes with proximity to movement — cars traveling to one place or another, neighbors going in and out of doors and accessibility to 20 places in the matter of a day. The stillness of the country can be unsettling to newcomers.

I have spent nearly a decade surrounded by fields rather than houses. A gravel road leads me home and springtime winds are often harsh and crushing in a place such as this where there is nothing to stop it. I keep the windows closed on days that may be beautiful, but too dry, for fear that a thin layer of road dust will find its way into my kitchen cupboards and coat my dinner plates. Learning to find comfort in the stillness of things, to make peace with the wind and dust came with time.

Our first year here was terribly dry and the grasshoppers had their way with home and land alike. Munching plants and screen doors, and hopping their way across my path just to let me know I didn’t belong. I hated them. They interfered with my desire for order and clean lines. They are like antagonistic humans who jump out to startle you each time you pass an open doorway. I hated them the most for that. Never knowing when their crunchy bodies would flutter out at me, and bounce off my leg, or worse yet, stay there. I still hate them, but like a recovering codependent learning to love a drunk, I’ve decided not to let it bother me and get along with my business. I’ve shown them the garden will grow, the screens will be replaced, and best of all, their jumping no longer makes me flinch. I feel that way about life as well, and all the joy and sadness that comes with the territory.

If grasshoppers are the dastardly neighbors everyone hates to have, bees are the neighbors from down road who show up with cake and sweet tea while you figure out life, then quietly go away and allow your friendship to develop slowly over time. We have tiny sweat bees, honey bees, and other bee like insects, but I love the big, fat and furry bumblebees most of all. I think of their buzz while whooshing by my ear as a courtesy, like a cyclist announcing his approach, “On your left!” I look up to see where my bi-colored friend is off too, then go back to trimming zinnias, clipping roses or yelling for my children who are inevitably doing something perilous and terrifying to me.

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As spring went on its way and summer tumbled into its place, I spent most of my days revising stories, reviewing images, and organizing the pages of, my book, New Prairie Kitchen. I have also longed for the rhubarb and the time spring gave me with my son. Little more than six months ago he hopped out of my car and walked into kindergarten wearing his brand new running shoes tied with his own two hands. There was a time when he was a screaming, colicky baby and I walked the halls for hours trying to calm us both down. That was when his school days seemed so far away, and now, those first day jitters have come and gone like spring.

Somehow and seemingly without warning my tomato plants that spent the summer feeding the deer decided to wither and die with the first touch of frost. I can’t say I blame them, I was equally ready for the reprieve that fall brings — warming spices and squash, apple cider and oatmeal.

Now winter has forced its way here just as the book has entered its final stages. The manuscript was sent to the printer on Friday and the cover jacket was tweaked and fine-tuned then sent chasing after its insides across an ocean. It will come back this way in the spring when the bees will once again vanish into the cups of balloon flowers, and the mouths of snapdragons, and I will stifle my own first day jitters signing books and celebrating those who supported me through the process.

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The 10 p.m. news anchor had just announced a hard frost. The only sane and logical thing for me to do was to leap from the couch, grab a few ziploc bags, a pair of clippers and run outside in my husband’s jacket and a pair of slippers.

Maple tree with herb garden

Maple tree with herb garden

 

I had pushed my garden to its limit. It was cold and getting colder the herbs would not make it through the night, but I couldn’t bare to let them go to waste. So there I stood in the dark, hunched over my herb garden frantically cutting woody branches of rosemary, clipping scraggly stems of thyme and praying that the parsley and sage would make it. My hands were freezing and my husband was shaking his head in the doorway, but 10 minutes later I ran into the house victorious with four huge zip loc bags full of herbs. Well, herbs and dead leaves.

Little did I know on that fateful night three years ago that procrastination and a little bit of crazy would lead to the best way of preserving fresh herbs.

My herb garden is planted under the shade of a teenage Maple tree. As the weather cools the leaves drop and insulate the plants a bit. I like to think it extends the growing season for me. When I clipped all those herbs and shoved them haphazardly into the ziploc bags, I scooped up quite a few fallen leaves in the process. I was eager to reclaim my spot under a blanket and on the couch so I didn’t bother to pick the leaves out of the bags. Ever. Thanksgiving arrived and I retrieved fresh rosemary, parsley and sage from the bag to make stuffing and dress the turkey. Christmas came and I did the same. Sage is the first herb to die off followed by parsley but it lasted until the end of January and some even made it until Valentines day. The rosemary and thyme made it until March, by then I was only weeks away from the early growth of a new herb garden and didn’t mind the wait. My theory was that something about the decaying leaves some how preserved the herbs and kept them fresh. I repeated this process for the next two years and it worked both times.

I highly recommend adding dead leaves to your herbs when you cut them down for the year, maybe do it a little before the hard frost so you don’t freeze.

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Herbs shoved in bags by a crazy woman.

 

 

 

Apple Cinnamon Cake


Apple Cinnamon Cake

Six fruit trees arch and bend near the last place I stood before I became a wife. Steve and I planted them the year after we were married. We intended no significance, it was just a flat spot at the bottom of the hill.  Now that we are years into this rural existence, I realize we picked a terrible spot for a grove of trees, but such is life — we learn as we go along.

The trees, five apples and one pear, are all that remain of the original grove. We had another pear and a couple of cherries, but they didn’t survive the hail storms, winters and late frosts, or the deer, the damn deer who nibble away at the tender branches in spring and fight to rub against the bark to mark territory and destroy trunks during the rut. When I agreed to shed my urban skin and move to the country nearly a decade ago, Steve agreed that the land we lived on would be a “no kill zone.” Contracts like that happen when a hunter falls in love with a vegetarian. Though my vegetarian days are long gone, I still protect those frolicking menaces while my hunter husband sits waiting anxiously for me to say, “Forget it, get the gun and let’s have venison for dinner.”

This year marks the first that our apple trees have produced. Rather than being a not so young bride standing in my front yard waiting to marry my not so young groom. This fall I stood in the middle of the trees as a fully indoctrinated wife and mother of two. The four of us hauling wagons of apples to the house where I made honey cinnamon applesauce, apple pie, apple crisp, and, the much awaited apple cinnamon cake. A few months ago, I wrote a post about a chef who made a cake for us when my husband was hospitalized just before Christmas a few years ago. Many of you asked for the cake recipe. I didn’t have the chef’s exact recipe, but I wrote my own and it’s close to the taste I remember on Christmas morning when my family and I indulged not only in its flavor but in the respite it provided us. I can’t think of anything more true to the taste of home than making it with apples from a tree my husband planted, when we were not so young but not as old as we are now.

Apple Cinnamon Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar (divided)
  • 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons cinnamon (divided)
  • 2 apples (peeled, cored and thinly sliced)
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon extract
  • 1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground clove

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Butter the bottom and sides of a spring form pan. In a small bowl combine 1/4 cup of sugar with 2 tsp of cinnamon. Take half of the mixture and sprinkle the bottom of the buttered pan with it. Save the rest for later.
Peel, core and thinly slice the apples so they are ready when you are.
In a medium-sized bowl, use a spoon to stir together the remaining 1 1/4 cup of sugar, oil and applesauce. Make sure it's mixed-in well. Next add the eggs and extracts, mixing it in thoroughly as well. In a smaller bowl sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and spices. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture and stir until almost all the dry ingredients have been dampened, but you still see pockets of flour. Add the apples and stir until coated. This step will make or break the texture of the cake. If you over mix, it will be tough. So take your time, fold a little here, stir a little there until everything is coated. Pour it into the prepared pan, sprinkle the top with the remaining sugar and cinnamon mixture. Pop it in the oven for about 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let the Apple Cinnamon Cake cool on the counter for about 15 minutes, before removing from the pan, cutting and serving this warm (its good at room temp too). If you want to get fancy, loosely whip some heavy cream and serve a dollop on top and dripping down the side.

 

 

A Little Bit of Honey


I accidentally watched the news last night, something I have worked diligently to avoid since I became a mother. The broadcast, of course, lead with crime, had an unnecessary amount of weather, then finished with crime because its cheap and easy to report. I went to bed thinking what a terrible world we live in.

This morning, I kissed my kids, went to work and called a honey producer in South Dakota. He’s not a fit for the book only because he gives away his honey rather than sells it. The chef is a friend so he is the lucky recipient of it. I won’t be writing a story on him for the book and shared that with him, but even still he invited me to dinner the next time I’m ready for a bite to eat in Sioux Falls.

The number of times I’ve been invited to sit a table with relative strangers for the simple sake of making new friends and swapping stories has happened more often than I can remember throughout the writing of this book. They have been little presents that kept me motivated on hour 15 of a 17 hour day. Everyone is SOOOOOOO friendly and kind and wonderful, it reminds me why I started writing this book in the first place. To show the world what we have to offer here in terms of food, yes, but also in terms of place and people. The quality of our human capital is high. It reminds me that the world is full of people who are kind for kindness sake, most of us live in the middle states (wink to my coastal friends) and that my sweet little babes are going to be just fine.

The other thing that strikes me is how this honey making man has no idea how he lifted my spirits today. Great gifts come from small actions.