Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fresh Eating: Home Grown

When Terza asked for a composter for her seventh birthday, I knew I had to really pay attention to this girl's love of plants. I mean, just six months earlier she exclaimed, "I know what I want for my birthday! I want new flowers to plant in the front yard because the ones we have are kinda meh."

"Kinda meh" is what you get from pansies pummeled by snow all winter, but I digress.

Time and again her connection to gardening showed up ("Can I go plant these seeds I found in the garage?"). So we visited a neighbor to get a lesson in composting. We thought about how we could compost at our home, and we decided on worms.

Worm food! And a worm! See it?
Worms snug as a bug in the garage. No odor, so it goes in the house in winter. No one wants frozen worms.

All that wormy compost goodness needs somewhere to go, right? So we pulled out the old potato grow bags and planted some stuff. Terza and Second picked some seeds from my old and not-properly-cared-for collection and decided on corn, sunflowers, and some other vegetable. (As Seconda said the other day, "We should have used one of those little sticks to mark the plants.")

Grow bags with corn, sunflowers, and something else - I don't remember what.
Gardening takes - and teaches - perseverance, but I suppose at some point even the most seasoned gardener gets a little twitchy from all that waiting. We sure did, so we bought some seed potatoes. Our process has been less-than-conventional. No seed starters, no heat lamps, no transplants. Something has germinated, but we're still hoping for the best with the others.

A germinated something
There's a spirit of adventure to our gardening that I kind of like. I used to have a kind of narrow idea about food gardening. There are ways to get the highest yields, and all those "right ways" of gardening kind of boxed me into thinking that my yard just wasn't suitable. Yet, I'm not aiming to feed my family all summer from the bounty of my backyard, so I don't need to follow those rules. Once I opened up to other possibilities - thanks to Terza's repeated interest in planting something, anything - I began to see even more options. Maybe some mint in the front porch containers. Maybe some beans along the garage. If I see an interesting plant at the Howard County Farmers Market, I may just have to find a home for it. Oooh, the possibilities.

This is the what happened to the seeds Terza found in the garage.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Fresh Eating: A Shopping Challenge

As this article in The Baltimore Sun suggests, farmers markets are becoming more and more popular around here. I've shopped sporadically at the Howard County Farmers Markets over the years, as well as the Olney Farmers and Artists Market and the Second Sunday Market in Ellicott City. A few years ago I heard about South Mountain Creamery, a dairy and meat farm in Frederick. They have a delivery service, and I've been a happy customer for three or so years. When I got into canning, I shopped heavily at Larriland - a pick-your-own fruit farm in Lisbon. I filled in with veggies from Gorman Farm's produce stand, then went all in with a CSA membership.

When I saw that Ellicott City and Maple Lawn each have a Saturday market and the Howard County markets often offer bread and coffee along with produce and meat, I wondered if I could get all of my family's fresh food directly from the farmers. It's a challenge I'm excited to meet.

It will take a little time and revision of old habits to shop this way, but I'm up for it. I've got a few tools at my disposal - a fabulous cookbook and CSA/market resource called Cooking Your Local Produce, written by my friend Greta Hardin. (You can read my review of Greta's book on HowChow.)

Two of my favorite bloggers will be my other go-to sources for skill and inspiration. HowChow, of course, highlights some home-cooking from local farms from time to time. The main fresh-shopping, fresh-cooking tips come from Annie Rie. She has already turned me on to freezing fresh produce for use in off-season cooking. She also seems to know all the farmers personally, as she's been a market patron for a long time and relishes their wares. Read her blog. If you just went to the market yesterday and didn't know what to expect, start with this post. Garlic scape pesto is pretty great, if you ask me.

So, how else does one make the transition from grocery store to market shopping?
  1. Sign up for newsletters from the markets and farmers. You'll get a heads-up about what products they'll bring to market that week, and you can meal-plan accordingly. Almost all of them have sign-up sheets at their booth.
  2. Start small. You can plan to pick just one type of food from your weekly grocery list, like salad greens, to purchase from the farmer instead of the grocer. Or, you could pick one day a week where you shop for that night's dinner ingredients at the market. Last Wednesday, I came home from the Miller Branch Library market with baby kale, spinach, turnips, radishes, and two types of sausage. We had sausage, braised greens, and roasted turnips (with carrots and onions) for dinner. Easy peasy.
  3. Get a good cookbook. Cooking Your Local Produce is my go-to, but most vegetarian cookbooks have great recipes for veggies you'll see at the market that you've never tried to cook on your own before.
  4. Be brave. Buy something you've never seen before. Ask the farmer how they like to eat it. Try it that way at home. You could ask another shopper, too. "What's that you're buying? How do you cook it?" Markets are about community, too, so don't be shy.
  5. Consider the time. Our busy, fast-paced lives often do not allow for even one more thing on the calendar. So, make your market trip a twofer by pairing it with another activity. You could shop the Sunday market in Oakland Mills then have lunch at the Second Chance Saloon. On Wednesdays, plan a library visit to the Miller Branch, then pick up dinner ingredients at the market across from the Children's Garden. Alternatively, set aside a Saturday to stroll and shop in historic Ellicott City. The Ellicott City Old Town Market has live music and prepared foods as well as typical market fare. Visit the market, the B&O Railroad Museum, and the many Main Street shops and restaurants while you're there. Bring a date or make it a family day. 
  6. Be patient. Maryland's growing season and conditions don't allow for tomatoes or corn just yet, and you'll never see bananas at the market. Part of the joy for me will be to appreciate the seasons and the farmers' mastery of our local growing conditions. While I enjoy my greens and root veggies now, I know my days of cooking fresh and canned salsa are right around the corner. Peaches, too. Mmmm.
Do you have any great market tips or farms to recommend? What about recipes? Questions? I hope to see you at the market!


Friday, May 16, 2014

Computer Mania for Girls at Fulton Elementary

Isn't it funny how something you start can grow beyond your first imagining? That's how it's been with the home-based computer club I started almost two years ago. It began as just a fun thing to do with my daughters, but a conversation with my neighbor set it on a new course.

Katie Egan is a neighbor of mine whose two daughters attend Fulton Elementary with my girls. Our kids are each in different grades, so we had only recently met. We were chatting over coffee one day, getting to know each other. Katie's background is in secondary education and instructional technology, specifically online learning.  She is passionate about technology, education, and opportunities for girls.

This is when we serendipitously connected Katie's long-held dream of starting a computer science-based after school program for girls with my home-based club. Her kids joined us for several months, and the conversations continued.

Flash forward to the fall, when we met again with a Fulton teacher, a computer science professor, and some business leaders from the technology sector. The brainstorms coalesced into something to act on.

We met a few roadblocks as we worked to get approval for Fulton Elementary to host the program. The path around one of those roadblocks, though, connected us with a wonderful champion of girls and women in technology. Dr. Kimberly Brown is the founder and CEO of Amethyst Technologies, a biotechnology consultancy in Baltimore. Her company's non-profit arm, Global Outcomes, promotes healthcare, education, and economic empowerment. In 2011, Global Outcomes hosted the first Computer Mania Day to introduce middle school girls to technology-related careers. In 2012, they expanded the event. Dr. Brown liked what we were doing, saw a connection to the Global Outcomes mission, and agreed to sponsor us. From a name and a logo, to all manner of important organizational structure, Dr. Brown's support is what brought our vision forward into fruition. We can't thank her enough!

We launched the program in February with 22 students in grades 3-5. The appetite for this kind of program is so great that even we were surprised by the response. Our guest speaker series, which began each club meeting, provided the girls with tremendous information about the varied careers in which computer science plays a role. Teacher Clair Wise led the girls through a series of computer science lessons and Scratch programming activities. 

When you read more about the program in this Howard County Times article, you notice that the program's reach extended to high school students, as well. We owe their involvement to Linda Pchelka, computer science teacher at Reservoir High School. Thanks to her and the support of her fabulous administration, computer science and National Honors Society students came to assist the girls with their programming projects. In addition, Ms. Pchelka demonstrated the LEGO Mindstorms robots her students use in their computer science classes. For one of our sessions, we traveled to Reservoir High School's computer lab, where Ms. Pchelka taught the girls to program the robots. Ms. Wise's excellent teaching became evident as the girls applied their previous programming knowledge to the new-to-them Mindstorms application. 

This entire experience has been phenomenal for us. The support of local businesses has blown us away. OmniTI sent two of its team members to serve as guest speakers. Read about their thoughtful presentation here. OmniTI also invited us back for a tour and follow-up discussion.

So, what's next? Well, we hope to hold more sessions at Fulton Elementary next year. We also want to see the program expand to other schools. To that end, we are holding an information night on June 17th. Guests will hear about the program in more detail, view the projects made by our students, and have a discussion about moving forward. Please visit this event page for more details. 


Saturday, May 10, 2014

5K Thoughts

I want to tell you that I have been in love with, or at least seriously crushing on the idea of running since I was 14 and my new neighbor from Colorado talked about running track. She'd be training as a sprinter since at least age 10, maybe earlier. I didn't like to run far, but I joined the indoor track team with her in winter of freshman year.

This is where the idea met reality, the reality being that I am not athletically gifted in any kind of way that requires speed or endurance. I'm flexible, so I have no trouble with yoga and was a decent rock-climber back in the day, but that's about it. I did not like track practice, and I developed HORRIBLE shin splints, but I kept with it into the outdoor season because I loved my team mates. I loved the camaraderie of runners.

As our team got more competitive, I was counseled out of joining again in junior year. Or was it sophomore. Anyway, I didn't do track anymore but got in to indoor rock climbing. Just a hobby, nothing serious.

I was in a car crash during the summer after graduation. My femur snapped in half, canceling my summer job and my planned climbing trips. That crash changed my life pretty dramatically, and I had pain from my injury every day for at least seven years afterwards. I tried to get back into climbing during college, but I didn't have a lot of time for it. I tried going to the gym with friends now and then and always, always found it absurd, boring, and like just about the last thing I wanted to be doing.

Fast forward through a short career, birthing three kids in four years, a lot of stress, and a few periods of depression later to January 2014. I am five-foot-two, 175 pounds, and I can't run with my kids. My knees hurt going up the stairs in my house. When I am not exercising, I feel fine. Perfectly content. I feel comfortable in my own skin, and my body image hasn't really changed in the last 10 years. It's good. Then I try to run a mile, or I see a picture of myself and I realize that I would like to look the way I think I look and I would like to feel no agony about running a mile.

Sometime around New Year's, I decided that I would complete a running race sometime before my next birthday. Set a deadline, get in shape for it, make it happen. My next birthday is Tuesday. My race was today - the 5K at the Maryland Half Marathon.

That's me in the grey shirt, smiling like I like running or something.
I didn't train. I tried, but...excuses. I got some race day tips from a friend who runs. She leads training groups in my neighborhood and is the most encouraging person a newbie runner could wish for. "Take the first mile slow, jog down the hills and walk up the next. Walk up the last hill so you can run strong to the finish."

I hoped to finish the 5K in an hour. I did it in around 47 minutes. When I saw that clock at the finish line, I was elated. Truly, truly elated. I walked most of the race, but I ran some, too. I intended to do it with Prima, but when she saw a friend at the starting line I told them to stick together and I'd try to keep up. They lost me early and finished about 6 minutes before me. It was all good.

The energy of this race was incredible, from the course marshals to the water stop volunteers to the people watching from their porches cheering runners on, it was all so joyous. So celebratory is the camaraderie of runners. I ran into old friends. I spent most of the race alone, but about a half-mile from the finish I ran along with someone I recognized but hadn't yet met from my church. What a great introduction! 

May 10 is not an easy day for me, as I wrote about last year, but I can't think of a better way to mark the day than this.

(So tell me the truth - does everyone feel this large, in-love-with-the-world sappiness at the end of their first race? I'm thinking that must be what brings a lot of folks to their second.)


Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Oh, I LOVE This Place!"

As we left our car in the parking lot and walked toward the restaurant I'd picked for lunch, this scene came into view:

"Oh, I LOVE this place!" gasped Seconda and Terza, in the kind of unison common among siblings.

Well, didn't that make this Columbia-raised mama so proud!

We were headed to Clyde's for lunch, which is not one of our regular places, but I was in the mood for a meal with a view. As we walked down the steps and along the path to Clyde's, the girls shared their memories of the handful of times they'd been to the lakefront.

Picnics. Movies. Concerts. People on stilts. That time Terza got too close to the fountain.

I didn't realize this place had left such an impression on them. They are only 9 and almost-7 after all, and they only come here once or twice a year. We'll have to remedy that.

We walked along the lake after lunch, looking for clues to indicate just how high the floodwaters rose. I had heard the benches on the Petit Louis end of the dock were submerged, and standing near them it was impressive to realize Terza would have been submerged as well. We walked past the paddle boats and along the chain rail where the geese and mallards sunned themselves on the concrete. As we walked up the risers towards the green, we saw the three beds of red tulips.

"Oh, those must be love gardens," Terza said, knowingly.

A closer look revealed the lowest bed had been quite washed over by the rising lake. Tulip petals hung down from their stems, pointing to silt-coated leaves.

We continued our walk to a point on the other side of the lake and saw birds and daffodils and turtles. We saw people, too, and in not insignificant numbers. I thought to myself what I always think when I go to the lakefront - "Why don't we come here more often?" I remembered my reasons, and they boil down to there not being a reason TO go there. I imagine I'm not alone in that, because I hear a lot of talk about the restaurants being a draw or Whole Foods or LakeFest serving as reasons for people to go there. That kind of talk comes from a paradigm in which there must be a reason supplied to people in order for them to go to the lakefront. "Give them a reason to go there," the argument goes.

To some extent, that is true. I came up with some ideas to fill in the good weather season before and after the lunchtime lakefront concert series and LakeFest and the Festival of the Arts and movie nights and all that. How about CA works with the local music schools (Treehouse, School of Rock, Olenka, etc.) to host Sunday afternoon concerts at the lake? What if the Art Center held a plein air art day, or a photography group met to walk and shoot photos? How about morning yoga or evening Zumba?

As much as I would love all of those things, perhaps, though, it's time for more of us to make our own reasons. What if we make our own reasons and our own entertainment, at least until more of these things are supplied to us? Because, goodness, if we truly love this place we have a funny way of showing it.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Cookbook Recommendation

I've got a guest post over at HowChow Blog today. The CSA and farmers market season starts soon, so hop on over there to read about a must-have cookbook to keep your tastebuds happy all season long.

Coming soon!

Friday, April 25, 2014

From This Little Corner: Bus Riding

From this little corner, I can see why people ride the bus. If you ride the bus, you don't have to compete for a parking space at your destination. You can read or do other work. You don't have to burden your friends and family for rides.

I can also see why people don't. The bus doesn't go everywhere you might want or need to go. The bus comes only once an hour during the week. It takes a lonnnnng time to get from one place to the next. If it's too cold/wet/hot outside, you'll be too cold/wet/hot as well, especially at one of the many stops that just patches of grass on the side of the road, no sidewalk to stand on or shelter to stand under.

I took the bus between the mall, the hospital, and the Grassroots Crisis Center, and I took my kids with me. We boarded around lunch time, on a comfortable and sunny Thursday. The girls packed books to keep themselves entertained as we traveled, but I wasn't sure if that would be enough for Terza so I made up a scavenger hunt, too. We looked for signs of spring (daffodil, dandelion) and we looked for signs of human life (person pushing a stroller, person using a wheelchair, people holding hands). We looked for signs and iconic buildings. We found almost everything I thought we'd see. There was almost an hour to pass between visiting Grassroots and the next available bus, so we walked to the Hickory Ridge Village Center.

At home, I asked the my kids if they noticed anything about the other passengers. They noticed that a lot of young people got on and off the bus at Howard Community College, and we guessed that the man who strapped his bike to the front of the bus probably lives far enough from the nearest bus stop that biking makes better sense than walking. We agreed that except for the two people wearing Giant Food polo shirts, we couldn't guess anything about the other passengers' jobs. They noticed that almost everyone who used the bus had dark skin.

The whole ride made for great people-watching, except for the couple behind me who sounded like they were alternately dry-humping and fist-fighting on the ride from the mall to the hospital. At one point I had to say, "Prima, turn around so you don't get carsick, please." One bus driver took pity on me because I didn't use the transfer pass correctly. One bus driver didn't seem to care if anyone paid for their ride at all.  One passenger seemed to know the driver; she also seemed to know a passenger who got on separately from her. Another child got so excited when we pulled up to a stop and he saw his grandmother. "Mommy, it's Grandma! It's Grandma, Mommy! Mommy! It's Grandma! Let's go, it's Grandma!"

I was really nervous before the trip. My mind raced with what-ifs. What if I missed the bus and had to wait an hour for the next one? What if I didn't have exact change? What if I got on the bus going the wrong direction? It was all the kind of anxious thinking I've had before traveling with the kids to a new city. It was strangely similar in intensity to the thoughts I had before traveling to Beijing, which is extremely strange given that these bus routes were a tour of my childhood. I grew up in Hickory Ridge, for goodness' sake, so what was I so worried about? As soon as the first bus rolled away from the stop, my mind quieted and let me just notice.