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Coming to Fruition

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The world is full of coulds, woulds, and shoulds. Some of which exist in truly meaningful ways.

But many of them:

Oh, I really should…

If I just could…

I really would…

They only seem to perpetuate invisible barriers.

Who says I should?

Who says I can’t?

Then why don’t I?

Who says I can't climb a tree?

Who says I can’t climb a tree?

We all have dreams, and there is no good reason these dreams cannot be part of our reality. No matter how big or small. No matter how silly or strange.

You want to do something?

Then why don’t you?

I know it is not that easy. In fact, just a month ago I felt trapped by my own invisible barriers.

Terribly trapped in a silly conundrum.

I wanted to pick fruit, but yet everything seemed to stop me.

Chokecherries grow on small to medium sized trees, often found on the edges of wooded areas or standing alone in the open. Their tart fruits have a single small pit and make you pucker at the first taste.

Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) grow on small to medium sized trees, often found on the edges of wooded areas or standing alone in the open.

The fruit beckons from a far.

It is wild.

Yet that is not what stops me.

I know it well. Its name: common, genus, and species.

Leaf patterns and ecology.

Even uses and recipes.

What stops me is fear.

Fear that regulations might state that I cannot pick there.

Fear that those trees might belong to someone else.

Fear that I might be confronted with threatening words and gestures.

Fear that someone might come with questions,

Whatcha gonna do with them?”

“Um, eat them kind sir….” (please don’t eat me!!)

“Howsya know them berries ain’t gonna kill ya?”

“Er, I study these plants, you see, ma’am. I’ve even taught about them.  Plus I always double check my identifications.”

“Why go to all that trouble, when you can just buy some fruit at the store?”

“Well you see, I can’t buy these in the store. And I really like them.  I think they might be better than anything you can buy in the store.”

“Why don’t you just give me MY berries, and we won’t have us any trouble…”

“Am I getting mugged? For wild fruits?”

“Why don’t you just get the hell out of here…”

“Is that a shotgun? Oh shit…”

These delusions seem to quickly escalate out of control. They became paralyzing. Keeping me from doing what I wanted.

But because it was something I wanted to do, somehow in my mind, it must be wrong.

I created a barrier, to keep me from doing what I really, truly wanted.

That barrier was fear.

The day I overcame that fear, I was with my husband, out alone for a North Dakota drive. We were stopping along little lakes, thinking about future places for family camping and seeking out a nice little fishing hole for the afternoon.

First, I saw a chokecherry tree, then about three more.

Beautiful and bountiful.

I discretely picked some and put them in an empty water bottle.

Then I saw some rosehips, and always having wanted to make rosehip jelly, I collected another pint or so of them.

I felt so sneaky and cautious. I was on high alert.

Certainly, I was doing something wrong.

All the while, Hubby was getting out his rod and tackle box and began searching the shoreline for a good place to test the waters.

“Rachel, you had better come see this!” He hollered.

I was convinced he had found a sign that stated the area was a protected nature preserve, and that anyone found disturbing any animals, plants, or rocks would be fined $10,000 and spend up to a year in jail.

My heart sank.

Walking toward him, holding my breath, I failed to see what he wanted me to see.

Black Currants.

All along the shoreline.

Bushes loaded with the earthy, rich sweetness of black currants.

I must have been dumbstruck, because he had to urge me on,

“We have some plastic bags in the car. You should go get some.”

Excuses ran through my head.

Someone must have planted these here.

No, someone’s grandpa planted them here 120 years ago.

I’m sure of it.

Heck, the lake is probably even named after him.

BUT WAIT- BLACK CURRANTS.

I looked again, thick along the shoreline, into the trees.

And on and on.

I looked for evidence to show they had been picked before (and by extension, it would be okay for me to pick some too.)

Indeed. Some branches and clusters showed signs of picking.

And since I didn’t think there were many bears around that had been gorging themselves on currants, I took a gamble that humans had indeed been picking these currants.

I would not be thrown in jail if I picked these fruits.

On I went down the shore. Bag in hand. Ready to work.

Picking currants is not easy work. The fruits are barely noticeable from overhead, as they cluster beneath the leaves.

Black Currants

Black Currants (Ribes americanum) thrive along
stream banks, in moist ravines, wet meadows, floodplains, and woodland edges.

Two hours of bending, sitting, kneeling, and gently pulling the leaves back yielded just over a quart of berries and a criticism came to mind,

“That’s an awful lot of work for just a couple berries.” 

I silenced the critic within by popping a few more fruits into my mouth.

I was overcoming that barrier.

Even the point that a truck came down the dirt road, I resisted the urge to jump into the bushes to hide.

I acted as though I paid no mind.

But I was focused on my breathing, so to not have a full blown anxiety attack.

I destroyed the barrier.

I no longer had to dance around with the shoulds, coulds, and woulds.

“I would love to collect wild fruit to make jelly, someday.”

“I know I could identify them, afterall, I taught ethnobotany for two years.”

“I should just get enough courage to go do it.”

“Or maybe I shouldn’t bother.”

No more.

I tapped into my strengths and knowledge.

I found a resource and harvested it.

I overcame the barrier. And opened a door.

I found a truer, happier version of myself.

I ventured into new possibilities.

Soon I saw opportunities all around.

In campgrounds, parks, fairgrounds, vacant properties, and along the roadside.

Suddenly the world offered a bounty of crabapples, chokecherries, Chokecherries

rosehips, currants, wild plums, buffalo berries, American cranberries,High Bush Cranberries and wild grapes.

Wild Grapes

Even cultivars of raspberries, apples, grapes, and plums came our way.

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The world is full of possibilities. What a valuable lesson and sweet reminder. A bounty that will last far into the future.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

– Paulo Coelho

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All things are possible, with tomatoes

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Some days are better than others. But any day with tomatoes can be a good day. Because when it comes to tomatoes, all things are possible.

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

With or without tomatoes, one thing remains certain each day, that there is something for us to learn.

The day my boys and I went out to the garden to bring in summer’s first big haul of tomatoes, we learned just how heavy a tub of produce can weigh. Good thing there was three of us.

(This was the small tub.)

photoMy oldest son learned that he was not going to be rewarded for picking the green tomatoes.

I learned that grilled green tomatoes are equally divine as their fried counterparts.

Later that night, as a family, we had the opportunity to truly witness the fruits of of labor. Six varieties of tomatoes had yielded nothing short of a bounty and in just a few days of steady summer heat. Our counter tops were full and we were blessed with tomatoes.

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

We had a plan, sort of, to savor every ounce of homegrown goodness.

Cherry tomatoes were for fresh eating. They sat in a bowl. Ready for snacking. They went fast. Even though my youngest son preferred the mellow and sweeter flavor of yellow pear tomatoes. To his despair, those have another purpose.

Yellow Pear Tomatoes

We grow the profusely abundant yellow pear tomato with one purpose in mind, to make yellow-tomato basil jam. Yes. Jam. It is sweet and savory and delivers a strong essence of summer. We first came upon this recipe in the wonderful cookbook Preserving the Harvest.  Last year, I learned that it is best to prepare this divine preserve in small batches. The two hour cook time for a double batch simply does not work. This year I learned that using Greek Basil takes the jam to a whole new level of delight. While the recipe is time consuming it is not difficult. The hardest part is waiting to enjoy this. But it is the darkest days of winter that benefit most from a little sunshine in a jar.

Next on our priority list was to use the very very ripe tomatoes as soon as possible. I paired the tomatoes with garlic, onions, kale, and a pinch of red pepper and served it over grits for dinner. I am, at heart, a girl of the southern states. Grits are a part of that, but the dynamic flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes cooked down to a sauce and topped with crispy kale leaves… ooh goodness. I felt like I was home.

Along side of the dinner preparations was another preservation project for late summer months: tomato juice. I cut and cored my tomatoes, put them in a pot with a little onion, salt, and celery and mash and boil, mash and boil until it is all a pretty red mash of savory goodness. Then I add a handful of parsley for an extra boost and let simmer for a bit.

Tomato juice in the process

Tomato juice in the process

Typically I prefer to use the yellow lemon boy tomatoes for this juice recipe. But it is a good way to use up lots of well ripened tomatoes up quickly, so this was a bit of a mix. I then strain the juice through a sieve and bring to a simmer again. The tomato juice can then be frozen for later use, cooled and enjoyed, or if I plan on preserving it in a water bath canner, I test the pH and add lemon juice to ensure the juice is acidic enough for safe canning.

In less than 24 hours we had taken care of at least half of the tomatoes. But there were still more. We needed to act fast, or the invasion of fruit flies would begin. But the next day would be a new day. image

As we started our new day, I was thinking about tomatoes and teaching. After all, we had begun our first official week of homeschooling. It hit me then- Tomatoes can be a teaching resource!

I led my first grader through the process of sorting the tomatoes. We talked about plant varieties and characteristics. We distinguished Cherokee Purple from Black Krim based on the fruit shape. We distinguished Champion from Better Boy based on color variation. Thus leaving the Lemon Boys as the last option for those left behind through process of elimination.

We began counting our categories, using a simple spreadsheet to track our data.Tomato Spreadsheet

And then weighed the total of each variety. We even got to venture into decimals. The boy clearly got it when he said, “So 6.25 pounds of tomatoes is a lot like $6.25, right?” Right on my boy, right on! If tomatoes were currency, we may be rich.

When it was all said and done, we were able to determine which tomatoes we had the most of by number and weight. And even toyed with the idea of averages. On average, the Champion tomato weighed the most, followed closely by Better Boys and Black Krim. Cherokee Purples came in close behind. The lemon boys had by far the lowest average weight per tomato.

We had good fun, and I gained confidence in my homeschooling abilities.

We sliced two tomatoes and shared them for a snack when we were done. Because what fun is tomato math without taste testing.

The next day, we tackled another priority on our list– salsa making. Twelve pounds of tomatoes went into the salsa. DSCF4440

Along with peppers, onions, corn, white wine vinegar, coriander, salt, and cilantro. Oh how I love the cilantro!

imageWhen the salsa was done, I was astonished by the flavor the variety of tomatoes contributed. But I was so sad to see how pale the salsa was. Sure I used yellow tomatoes, orange peppers, and sweet corn, but the finished product was so less than vibrant. Then it hit me… I had forgotten one ingredient I had added to last year’s recipe: paprika. Paprika makes the salsa red. Well, this year, we’ll just have to learn how to love a flavor loaded, color muted salsa.

Finally, our tomato harvest became manageable. We prepared what was left for dinner, returning to our love of tomatoes and basil. Because some pairing never grow old.

DSCF4470Tomato salad with basil along with grilled eggplant, chicken artichoke sausage, and garden fresh kale, topped with balsamic vinegar. (Not pictured: fresh mozzarella cheese.)

This cycle will continue for the next few weeks as tomatoes ripen. This weekend we will likely prepare another batch of jam and some yellow tomato juice. We’ll likely try something new like homemade ketchup and eventually we will begin canning crushed tomatoes for winter spaghetti dinners. Along the way, we will have some fun. Enjoy the bliss of summer’s end. And learn something new, everyday.

Zucchini: In Abundance and Scarcity

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Zucchini: In Abundance and Scarcity

If Mother Nature has taught me anything, it is that success cannot be rushed.

Life happens at its own pace. It is up to us to try not to force it through commitments, deadlines, and expectations. Sometimes all we can do is our best, with what we have to work with.

Such as I am at this moment. I find myself riding in the back of the vehicle with two kids, who are happily enjoying their snacks. My husband is giving his mother the grand tour of small town North Dakota.

For the moment we are in Harvey. I admire the gardens that we pass by- gauging the height of the corn, the weight of the peppers on the plant, and color and ripeness of tomatoes. I am reminded of a request by the new local foods marketing specialist at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to participate in the Specialty Crop Blog Challenge.

SpecialityCropChallengeLogo

I am a bit delayed, just as so many things have been this growing season. July’s challenge topic was Zucchini, perhaps one the most prolific specialty crops. In fact, if I ever met any one who made a career of growing this green summer squash, I might question their sanity. But then again here I am, tucked in the backseat, writing my July assignment in August on my iPhone… so feel free to question my sanity as well.

But for the common vegetable grower zucchini is like a promise, never to be broken. There will be an abundance.

At this time of year, abundance can come in the form of boxes of bounty, jars of pickles, and loaves of bread. It is a time of year that takes me back to my childhood– back to my grandparents’ garden.  Their garden was one of my happy places as a child. I was always at peace there, comfortable in the scent of dill and tomato plants. Delighted by the textures of concord grapes, the sounds of the birds, the abundance all around.  My grandparents never let me leave their home without a box of tomatoes, and cucumbers, and of course, zucchini.

When I have the opportunity to visit now, I still seek out the garden, even though Grandpa isn’t there to make sure I notice the radishes and keep me from stepping on the beans. Also, I seek out the stories. My grandmother is a wonderful storyteller, even though she sometimes gets a little distracted.

Seeing as I live more than 1000 miles away, I more often opt to hear her stories over the telephone. Our conversations are sometimes scattered, working in bits about children, chickens, and gardens in such away that I can’t help but smile.

We discuss the garlic and the chard. I tell her about the rhubarb festival we went to. DSCN9151She is so surprised that my youngest loved the rhubarb. And she tells stories about how when she and grandpa were poor and living in Montana, that they would always be on the look out for rhubarb along the roadside that they could harvest.

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It is hard to believe they once lived in a time when food was scarce. As they started to build their home and raise their family, having a garden meant something entirely different than it does to me now.

I have a garden by choice. Because it keeps me grounded.

Because I like growing my own food.

My grandparents grew a garden so they could eat.

But even with scarcity, they never ceased to be generous.

Three years ago when I began growing my garden, I had such a bounty of everything– corn, potatoes, eggplant, basil, tomatoes, and squash. I wanted to waste nothing, but was up to my ears in everything.
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I began to take a preventive approach, especially with the zucchini. The tricky thing about this squash is the more you pick it, the more it produces. It is all too easy to bite off more than one can chew. But rather than let the fruits grow to monstrous sizes, I began harvesting the blossoms.

I had read about fried zucchini blossoms in many cookbooks and often thought them to be a fine culinary pursuit. Zuchinni BlossomsI selected both male (above) and female (below) because at this point, I wanted to prevent more zucchini from coming on.

Female blossoms (not the minature fruit at the base)

Female blossoms (not the miniature fruit at the base)

We stuffed the blossoms with mozzarella cheese and basil. Then dipped them in a batter and fried them. The result was amazing!

As I told my grandmother about the culinary adventure and the crop management techniques, I was surprised to hear her voice calling up memories of a time when she had enjoyed zucchini blossoms,

Now long ago, before your daddy was even born, I think, we had zucchini blossoms deep-fried. Your grandpa and I had been building the house. It was early in the summer and we had planted a small garden, but of course we didn’t have much time to tend to it. We wanted to get the house done before the winter. So we were busy and all. I think we had planted some zucchini and tomatoes, and maybe some potatoes. Things that wouldn’t need much attention.

Well one day we got notice that the new pastor for the church was coming into town. At that time, your grandpa had been delivering the sermons and doing much of the work. So the pastor was going to come visit us before he got settled in.

And remember, in those times we were poor, but it was early in the summer and we didn’t have much in the garden. And of course we had some of the staples in the pantry. So I hurried out to the garden to see what I could find. The zucchini were blooming, but the fruit had not yet set. So I harvested the blossoms and served this new pastor fried zucchini blossoms. 

He thought they were the most wonderful thing. He was from Chicago and hadn’t had anything like that before. Oh my, he loved them. And you know, years later when he moved on, when he delivered his final sermon, those zucchini blossoms were still on his mind. He thanked us for our hospitality and the wonderful meal.

I think of this story often and how much it reflects our perspective of abundance, and our ability to make the most out of what we have. Whether we have too much, or not enough– there is always something we can offer the world. Male Zucchini Blossom

Complex Simplicities

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Remember those long summer days? When July seemed to drag on forever? Between riding bikes, climbing trees, swimming, playing at the park, watching summer movies, and enjoying family vacations, it seemed like we were able to do it all and still watch time move slowly. We lived in the moment, with Kool-Aid mustaches and drips of mustard on our shirts.  Those days were nothing short of fantastic!tree climbing

Summer isn’t what it used to be. There is too much to juggle. Not enough simplicity to slow it down.

I was really taken back this summer at the pace in which life can happen. I often was left feeling like I had been sucked through a time warp, uncertain of the date, still juggling away projects, responsibilities, and life events. It takes a certain kind of effort to slow it down and enjoy summer for what it is. That effort I could not employ through June or July. But maybe…

Maybe that is what August is for.

After our family endured a long month that included project deadlines, two birthdays, loss of an extended family member, a surgery, a train wreck, and a resulting 12 hour delay on Amtrak… maybe we can be grateful that July is over.

Maybe we can be grateful that we still have August to enjoy. Maybe we don’t have to be sucked into the “Back-to-School” frenzy. Maybe we can just keep on living our life and be grateful that the sun is still warm, that the days are still long, and we are together.

Maybe summer isn’t what it used to be.

Maybe it can be something different.

Maybe it can be what we make it.