I get an email in my inbox: Your chicks have flown the coop.  I nervously wait for three days, constantly checking the tracking information with not a single change.  Finally the call comes in early (the 6:20 AM kind of early) Wednesday morning and a woman says, "Your babies are here."  I can hear them chirping through the phone line and that lump in my throat gets bigger.  Who knew little balls of chirping fluff could evoke so much emotion and terror.  I've given birth to two humans and have never once been nervous about caring for them. I guess my mothering instincts are good, but chicken on the other hand; I have no idea how to be a chicken.  Will I be a good mommy chicken?  Do I have to teach them to peck and scratch?  I hop in the car and drive to the post office.  I am met with another woman with the same look of happy nervous excitement on her face.  She is also getting chickens I quickly learn (and she divulged they are in fact legal in our town...whoo hoo!).  The post office worker finally brings out two boxes and we can hear the chirping getting louder.  Now there are three women all standing around prying open the boxes to take a peek inside.        
    I rush my three little girls home, snap a few pictures and take a little video.  All the while I keep noticing one of the chicks is not able to stand or pick her head up.  I didn't have to be a mother hen to understand that something wasn't right.  It took a few hours but despite my attempts to nurse her back to health, her little body finally gave up.  I was quite surprised at how remarkably calm I was.  Here was my first task at hand and I messed it up.  But, they are chickens after all and there are lots of things that can go wrong.  I scooped her up and quickly performed a little burial in the backyard, my oldest son watching from the window.  Then I got right back to the two remaining and made sure they were going to be ok.  * I write this after receiving three additional chickens today and after seeing their behavior, I can tell you that my first three were not in good shape when they arrived.     
    Our first two girls are Red Star chickens.  From what I have read the red stars are very good egg layers.  They will continue to lay through the winter, when most chickens will take a break.  We named them, Sunny and Cara.  My oldest son was instantly attracted to Sunny.  She is inquisitive, nosy and loves to be close to us.  She was the strongest of the three and seems to have risen to the top of the pecking order.  Sunny chirped the whole first day home.  Anytime I would walk away from the brooder she would chirp louder and louder until I would finally give up and walk back.  I have a feeling she is probably going to be more like a pet then the others.

    Sunny and Cara really took up most of my week but we were granted some beautiful weather this last weekend.  We got a chance to clean up the backyard, throw down some extra wood chips, build and paint a coop, and I even got a chance to set up my garden beds to plant the cooler weather vegetables.  We also decided to take a quick walk down by the river and I couldn't help but check out my ramp spot to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be.  It took me a while to find them. I was beginning to freak out a bit but finally they appeared.  The two pictured below are loner ramps, normally you find them in big clumps.  They seemed a little small for my liking so I decided to leave them until this next weekend when we can enjoy them fresh on Easter Sunday.         
* Yup...that's a bald eagle. You can find them in New Jersey believe it or not.  They live close to our favorite spot on the river. 
    Coop building was lots of fun.  If you are wondering where we got our chickens and the coop, they all came from My Pet Chicken.  They allow you to ship a minimum of three chicks at a time and they have everything you could ever need to take care of them.  And the place that I go for all my chicken information, recipes and general care is Fresh Eggs Daily.  This site is a wealth of information on how to raise your chickens naturally.  If you are seriously wanting to do this yourself, check out these two sites and read every bit of information you can.

        I still have a few finishing touches to make on the coop, but I will definitely share the finished product with you.
    Our next three little girls arrived today, in the same fashion as the last bunch.  Only I was a little more calm this time around. Maybe? 

    The reason I decided to order three more chickens is because they like to be in groups. Sunny and Cara seemed a bit lonely on their own and I really did start this adventure for the eggs (and the beautiful compost).  Having only two chickens would cut down the egg production on the "homestead".  Getting a few more would also help to keep each other company and more importantly warm in the winter.  Since I already got two great egg layers I didn't really need three more great egg layers.  I have always wanted to get chickens that lay different color eggs and now here was my chance.  This time I ordered a breed called Easter Eggers.  These girls have the potential to lay eggs that could be pink, green, blue, or brown or even white.  There is no way to know what type of egg they will lay, and whatever color comes out will be the same every time.  So fingers crossed that these three will lay a variety of different colors. They also won't lay as many eggs as the red stars, but this is actually a redeeming trait at the moment because I'm not ready to get into the commercial egg business just yet. 

    Oh..and these three are named Luna, Phoebe and Seline.  Anyone know where the names come from?  I'd be very impressed if you did.
    We also tried to dye some eggs today.  My oldest hiding in the back there is really into Easter.  He told me today that he wants to wait up all night for the Easter Bunny so he can give him a hug.  Probably because he was not interested in giving the Easter Bunny at the mall a hug...who would be though, right?  I really wanted to try those "Natural" dyes out this year.  They did come out really pretty.  Unfortunately boys are not so much into pretty.  They were quite disappointed that the blue dye didn't work.  I think I need to boil the red cabbage a little bit longer next time.  Overall, I really liked doing it naturally, but it was hard for the little guys. Each egg had to sit in the dye for a really long period of time.  Not like the stuff in the box that works almost instantly.  I'm not giving up though because they might enjoy this little science project as they get older, and I would love to experiment with more types of natural dyes.   
    And finally, how about those hydroponic tomatoes; they are just now starting to ripen.  My son pulled the first one off proclaiming, "Look, they are ready!"  Now I know you are wondering, "Do they taste as good as a sun ripened summer tomato?" Ehhhh...not quite.  But for a homegrown tomato in the middle of a freezing April, they aren't too shabby.
"To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is."

    I sit and write in hopes to declutter my mind, to unload a winters worth of frustration.  Endless months finally accelerate and I find myself aged by the whole process.  I know what it is, and I know my response to stress...eat, EAT, and more eating.  My body has become proficient in protecting and comforting itself in the worst possible way.  There are those people that loose weight in times of stress, that's not me.  But, before I would have punished myself, an inner dialog insistent on beating the message into my head.  Now I know better.  I can look at the last few months and know it for what it was.  I can be gentle on myself this time around.  Because getting back into my skinny jeans is really not that important, and brussels sprout salads really do taste delicious.                      
    It is never hard to know those moments when the face of life is beautiful.  A little weekend breather was good for all included.  Getting some fresh air, though still chilly, did wonders.  Not only did it lift spirits, it also had an aftereffect on the sleep schedule of two busy little boys (read that as...I finally got to sleep in one morning).  If you aren't already familiar with our little retreat on the bay, this is where summer fun happens. Even lacking the warmth and bright green sea grass, the Great Bay is still a beauty to behold.  Walking over mussels exposed from the grass, passing fishermen hoping to catch overwintered stripers and small planes rumbling overhead....back to my home, I dare not go!
    So, brussels sprout salad?  I can tell you this is one of my favorites, and it fit the bill since lately all the other greens in my grocery store were looking quite sad.  I am really aching for the farmers market to start up again and to finally get my garden started.  But even with a lack of good salad greens, it is still possible to make up a delicious fresh salad.  For some reason raw brussels sprouts taste amazing when paired with beluga lentils, pecorino romano, toasted pine nuts and a little lemon juice and olive oil.  The best way I know how to get myself back into the swing of "eating healthier" is to start with something that tastes great no matter how you are eating.       

Brussels Sprout Salad

Serves 2-4

1 lb of brussels sprouts
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup cooked beluga lentils
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano, plus extra to shave on top
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice from one lemon
Salt and Pepper to taste

Using great care, shave brussels sprouts into very thin slices on a mandoline.  Discard the stems.  In a large bowl place the shaved brussels sprouts, toasted pine nuts, cooked beluga lentils, grated pecorino romano, extra virgin olive oil, juice from one lemon and salt and pepper to taste.  Toss everything together and divide salad among bowls.  Top with extra shavings of pecorino romano and a extra drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.   

    In our house we are popcorn connoisseurs.  Sounds a little stupid, right? But, after you purchase a whole lot of GMO-free gourmet popping corn, it becomes hard not to notice the subtle differences.  Popcorn is our go-to snack, along with fresh apples and the typical fruit snacks (I had to give in on something).  We have been making and trying every color popcorn you can think of over the past few months.  I even grabbed some locally grown corn in the fall and let it dry out so we could add it to our taste tests.  I've always been a big fan of popcorn, but it wasn't until my oldest son also started showing interest did we really get into it.  We ditched those horrible microwave bags years ago and started using a Whirley Pop.  I got (stole) my Whirley Pop during a grab bag game at Christmas a few years back.  One of the best things I have ever stolen from a family member.  

    You might be thinking, is this woman really wasting my time on a "how-to" make popcorn?  Well, not entirely... 
    I also wanted to share with you some big news.  Big news for me at least.  Some of you might think I am completely insane, but that's ok, my husband does too.  So I did some research, I brought a book and finally decided that it is time that I get CHICKENS.  Yes, my super-suburb Jersey backyard is teeny tiny and not quite farm-like.  But, I learned that with only three chickens I would get more eggs then I could go through each week.  Which is good because I'll probably need some extra to bribe my neighbors with.  With the breed of chicken I chose we will actually be able to get eggs year round (most breeds take some time off during winter months).  I really don't see how it could get any better than fresh organic free range eggs year round from my own backyard.  I wonder why I didn't have the guts to do this sooner.  I guess I finally found some confidence at thirty (almost thirty one, ughh) 

    Now, is it really legal to have chickens in my backyard?  Well, lets just say that there is a lack of mention to chickens in our zoning laws so I'm just going to assume that it is sort of legal.  Sort of like the six foot solid fence we had installed in our yard.  Lets just say our town has a "don't ask, don't tell" kinda policy about things.  As long as you don't bother anyone, they don't come poking around.  So I'm just crossing my fingers that these three little girls will forgo any "egg songs" and possibly not be bothered by two running screaming toddlers that they will have to share a backyard with.  I still have some more preparations to make before they arrive early this April, and they will actually be spending their first eight weeks inside with us under a very warm heat lamp.  If you want to know how this all came about, it was actually this website that started my obsession and gave me the courage to give this all a try.  I didn't realize how much you have to do, so it is actually a good thing that I can't get my chicks until April.  I'm just holding my breath until then.    
    I was trying to grab some interesting popcorn shots, but it wasn't long before a certain little someone couldn't hold back any longer.  Those little fingers can't ever seem to help themselves.  Especially if they are waiting for some crazy lady with a camera.  Lets face it, this post was really more about the chickens then the popcorn anyway.

Popcorn our way

1 Whirley Pop (Stove top popcorn maker)
1/2 cup corn kernels
2 Tablespoons coconut oil
3 Tablespoons butter
few pinches of salt

Place the 1/2 cup of corn kernels into the Whirley Pop along with 2 tablespoons of coconut oil.  Cook over high heat, turning the crank slowly until you start to hear the kernels popping.  Continue turning the crank until you stop hearing popping.  Immediately remove the Whirley Pop from the heat.  Melt your butter and drizzle over the popcorn and sprinkle on some salt.  I normally do this while it is still in the Whirely Pop and I turn the crank a few times to toss everything around a bit.  Serve warm, although I actually do enjoy stale popcorn as well!

This is our little brooder all set up and waiting for our girls to arrive.  Beware, there are going to be many more pictures involving this brooder and cute little fluffy yellow chicks.  I'll apologize now, but I'm not entirely sorry.  Baby chicks are so darn cute, you'll see!
    We make a mad dash to the grocery store.  Snow is on the way and ice there soon after.  Grab the milk, eggs, yeast, oranges, fruit snacks and apple juice.  A five minute drive at the most, in super-suburbia.  All the while the snow topped branches and roofs are beckoning.  I turn around and see those two little faces staring back at me... 

Do you want to go for a walk? 

"The park with the water, Mama?"

Yeah, why not? And remember it's called a RI-VER  

Throw the eggs, milk, cheese, whatever in the fridge and grab the hats, snow pants, gloves and...oh we will be fine, just go.  Warm and dry that's all that matters.  Camera. Check.  Five minutes more and we're there.  Big open blue skies and snow, the most beautiful snow I have seen in years.  Spring is more then welcome to arrive next week, but for right now I am completely content living in a fairy tale of snow and ice.           
    I am grateful for so much right now.  Unburdened from the normal struggle to unearth the cars, fight the traffic, only to arrive at a place where you dissimulate any real feelings just to survive.  I worked hard for years to get where I am today.  Always planning for what I wanted my life to look like when the time arrived.  Now I am trying to be mindful and enjoy what I never could before.  The ability to be spontaneous is a gift unlike any other.  To wake up stress free on a snowy morning and quickly hop outside to feed the birds our leftover bread crumbs.  My husband safe at work in our spare bedroom, and my little boys enjoying their crepes.  Will my situation change in the future? More than likely it will, but I will be forever grateful for the time we have now.  
    Lemon bars have been on my mind lately.  We just celebrated my great-grandmother's one hundredth and third birthday.  A constant thought in my mind has always been to make and document all her beloved recipes.  I would love to have a collection with notes and pictures to share with the rest of my family in honor of her one day.  On the top of her collection is these amazing lemon bars.  Everyone's favorite dessert, no matter who you ask.  I had tried this recipe once before and we quickly learned that even though her recipe states to bake in a 9 X 13 inch pan, she did in fact divide this recipe into two pans.  When you have a large family to feed there are always little tricks to make the most of what you have.  This critical step made all the difference and suddenly her iconic lemon bars were now in my possession.        
    The recipe you will find below is basically a small batch of these original lemon bars.  Since I would be stuck inside my house for a few days with these, I knew that having too many would be quite detrimental to the size of my thighs.  All I did was half the recipe, so if you are looking for something to take to a large party, follow the amounts in the original recipe and divide it into two pans.  Her original recipe also calls for regular lemons, but why not use Meyers if you have them.  The season is coming to a close and I am happily eating my way through the last of the twenty one pounds I purchased from The Lemon Ladies Orchard.

    There are a few little things I did differently for this recipe.  I added some powdered lemon peel to the crust and I included the zest from one Meyer lemon into the filling.  I also increased the amount of lemon juice even though the recipe was halved.  Meyers are not as tart as regular lemon so I wanted to make sure these bars would have enough zing as the originals.  I also decided to use parchment paper to line the pan because it helps greatly when taking the bars out of the pan, trust me on this one!    
    It just so happens that I have a nice little supply of powdered Meyer lemon peel.  I like to add some of this to the crust for additional flavor.  Making powdered lemon peel is quite easy (see here) but you could also purchase some regular powdered lemon peel from Penzeys Spices.  It is a nice thing to have around and I hear that it is great to use when making cheesecake.

Meyer Lemon Bars

one glass cake pan 8 X 11 inches or 9 X 13 inches

1/2 cup (one stick) melted butter
1 cup flour
1/2 (scant) cup of powdered sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
5 Tablespoons Meyer Lemon juice (about two large Meyer lemons)
Zest from one Meyer lemon (optional)

Additional powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Line a glass baking pan (8 X 11 or 9 X 13) with parchment paper and set aside.  In a large bowl mix the melted butter with the flour and powdered sugar until combined into a dough.  Press the dough evenly into the parchment lined baking pan with your fingers or the back of a spoon.  Bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes.  While the crust bakes whisk the remaining ingredients in a large bowl until combined.  When the crust is done pre-baking, pour the lemon mixture over the top and return back to the oven to bake for an additional 20-25 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven and let the bars cool completely before sprinkling on some powdered sugar.  Cut and serve.  

    Yesterday was a good day.  No, it was a great day.  In an avalanche of bad news days, yesterday was the one when something actually took a turn for the best.  In 2013 we had to say goodbye to so many family and friends that we had to start using our toes to count the heartbreak.  There is a phrase, "not out of the woods yet."  But now there is hope and there is healing, where for so many others, there has been none.  I'm taking a few deep breaths and continuing to hope for the best, but right now things are looking beautiful.    
    I have been a bit of a bird watcher lately.  No reason in particular, but if you get the chance you take the shot, right?  This guy keeps grabbing my attention in the backyard.  I see a flash of red and I run to get my camera.  He was just as curious as we were that day because he didn't move from that very spot for a good half hour.  We were actually trying to scare him away for a big "action shot" but he didn't flinch, even with two little boys screaming out the window at him.        
    The jars continue to empty as we work our way through summer tomatoes, peaches and relish.  As soon as they are washed and put away I am back rummaging through my stockpile in anticipation of filling them up again.  I made strawberry Meyer lemon marmalade and some plain Meyer lemon marmalade so far this winter and both are lovely.  Since I just recently purchased 6 pounds of fresh frozen lingonberries I knew some of my stash would have to be made into jam or preserves.  Every time I opened my freezer to grab the bag of lingonberries there were the bags of tart cherries and strawberries staring me down.  They were saying, "Please use me too!" And then it dawned on me, when do you ever see a mixture of lingonberry anything jam?

    I have only been able to find plain lingonberry jam in some select stores so I figured since I have all this beautiful fruit frozen waiting to be used, why not just throw it all together.  I decided to go with preserves, which by nature have a softer set then jam and normally contain large chunks of fruit.  It is sort of like a chunky berry syrup that just begs to be laid atop Saturday morning crepes or Swedish pancakes.  The lingonberries are full of pectin so there is no need to add any commercial products.  I also wanted these preserves to be as natural as possible so I sweetened them with honey and two whole vanilla beans instead of white sugar.
The berries defrost and macerate in honey overnight.  

Vanilla Cherry Berry Preserves

makes 4 pints

5 lbs frozen fruit (2 lbs strawberries, 1.5 lbs lingonberries*, 1.5 pounds tart cherries)
2 cups of honey
2 whole vanilla beans

*You can purchase fresh lingonberries here.  But you could also try using regular cranberries instead.

Place the frozen fruit and honey in a large bowl and let it defrost and macerate for several hours or overnight to release all the juices from the fruit.  Prepare a boiling water bath canner and enough jars to hold about 4 pints. Place lids in a small saucepan and bring to a bare simmer.  Place the fruit In a large dutch oven or jam pan.  Split open the vanilla beans and scrape out all the seeds with a knife.  Add both the seeds and the split bean to the fruit.  Bring the fruit to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally to avoid burning.  Watch the pan closely because strawberries and honey will create a lot of foam.  Continue to boil the preserves until they become thick about 15-30 minutes more. (My preserves were ready when they reached 215°F)  You can perform the freezer test to make sure of the set.  Remove the split vanilla beans and skim off any foam.  Funnel the preserves into prepared jars.
  Wipe rims, apply lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.  Allow the jars to cool completely.  Store sealed jars without rings for up to one year.
    I start and stop. Backspace. Backspace. Start again.  Write a paragraph and delete once more.  How do I explain where I have been, how do I pick up where I left off?  It might have only been a month, but lifetimes have passed and my heart has been through hell and back again.  The worst may not yet be over and I try to brace myself, but there is no way to prepare for what life brings.  One frigid morning I couldn't take it anymore.  I needed a break from the constant chatter inside my own head.  A thermostat reading one degree did not manage to deter me from what I needed to do.  I needed to take a walk, get some fresh air, and still my heart.   
    I knew where I wanted to go so I grabbed my camera and hiking boots.  Have you ever walked in the woods after a snowstorm?  I take a few steps off the marked trail and the rest of the world just fades away.  I instantly find tracks, lots of them.  All the creatures that live here can no longer hide.  These impressions quickly expose warm dens, hollowed out logs and dark holes in the ground.  Some tenants are home and others prefer to be left in peace.  I eventually pick up deer tracks.  My father is a hunter and visions of him teaching us as children momentarily keep my heart warm.  The tracks, though unmistakable, are reaffirmed by a quick whiff of musk.  I walk on, not wanting to disturb anyone further.  I was only out for about two hours, but that short amount of time in the chilling silence was all that I needed.  A transitory escape.  The weight of the world lifted for an instant.  A chance to loose myself in the majesty and surrounding beauty.  Gently reminding me that I need to do this more often.   
    So if you made it this far with me and are wondering where granola came into the picture, your guess is as good as mine.  After my little walk along the river, for some reason I started thinking about lingonberries.  There is actually a perfectly cromulent reason, but lets just continue on anyway.  To my delight I found a website that sells wild lingonberries, but the price of shipping such beauties from so far away was a little more then I wanted to pay.  If the order was over a certain amount shipping would be free.  So I added some huckleberry syrup and dried lingonberries to my order of six pounds of fresh frozen wild lingonberries.  And there you have it!  I'm still not sure why granola was first on my list, but I did tell you that it was only inevitable.  Inevitable granola, that is what I should have titled this post.
    How adorable is that little jar with the face on it.  It is for separating eggs.  A little gift from one of my sisters on Christmas.  This is the pottery shop she brought it from.  I think everyone should have one! 
    There are so many granola recipes out there, and so many of them don't work.  I have tried countless recipes with no success until I stumbled upon this one about a year ago.  I have made it several times, always changing the ingredients and it never disappoints.  If you aren't ready to ship lingonberries across the country then by all means substitute regular dried cranberries.  Throw in some coconut or pumpkin seeds.  Use chia instead of flax.  Be bold, be adventurous, and by all means make some homemade granola, any food blogger would tell you the same.       

Granola with dried Lingonberry (Low Bush Cranberry)

adapted via Whole Living Going Granola

6 cups of old fashioned rolled oats (I used 4 cups of oats, 2 cups of flaked spelt and an extra 1/3 cup of quinoa flakes) *Want to keep it gluten-free - use 6 full cups of certified GF rolled oats
1 1/4 cups of chopped nuts (I used 3/4 cups of pecans and 1/2 cup walnuts)
1/3 cup flax seed meal
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of cardamom (optional of course)
3 large egg whites
3/4 teaspoon flaked sea salt
3/4 cups of organic brown rice syrup
(or use honey)

1/3 cup coconut oil in liquid form
1 cup dried fruit, coarsely chopped if large pieces

Preheat oven to 350°F.  In a large bowl combine the oats, nuts, flax see meal, cinnamon, and cardamom and set aside.  In another bowl, whisk the egg whites and the salt until frothy.  Continue to whisk in the brown rice syrup and coconut oil.  Add the wet ingredients to the large bowl of dry ingredients and stir until all the oats are evenly coated.  Spread the mixture out onto two rimmed baking sheets.  Bake for twenty minutes.  With a spatula toss the granola moving the outer edges to the center and carefully spreading it back out.  Place the granola back in the oven and bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until golden brown.  Let the granola cool completely on the pan, then transfer to a large bowl and toss in the dried fruit.  And then toss some more for the heck of it!

    I hate kale. I really do. Well, at least I thought I did. One particular weekday while on a shopping outing with one of my best friends, a kale salad suddenly sounded so appetizing.  We stopped at Agricola, a farm to table restaurant in Princeton, NJ.  I'm not really sure what caught my attention about this particular salad that day, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with the pickled pumpkin.  I'm a sucker for seasonality.  As much as I wanted to continue hating kale, this little unassuming salad forever changed my mind.  Those unexpected life changing moments, now include kale, and some local artisan ice cream (but don't get me started on that one).

    I always said that I would never post a recipe for a kale salad.  Almost every blogger on the internet has some version of kale salad and they each look more horrible than the next.  I would sneer, yes sneer. Who does that? No one likes eating kale.  It's peer pressure I tell you.  It's the same reason why every food blogger has a recipe for homemade granola (you know it's coming, it is inevitable).  I just can't help it.  It hurts a little to say this, but I'm going to tell you how amazing this kale salad is.  Yes, it is amazing and quite frankly I could eat this salad once a day, every day, for the rest of my life. But I am also going to tell you that you need to be making some pickled pumpkin too.  There in lies the difference.  I do understand if you still think I am deceiving you on the kale part, but at least believe me when I say how awesome pickled pumpkin is. Now go make some. No really. Quickly, because pumpkins are almost out and cookies, cranberries and eggnog are moving on in.               
    The key to this salad is in the dressing.  You all know that you need to massage your kale right?  If not, just ask any food blogger.  Massaging the acid and oil into the kale makes a world of difference.  In fact it makes it edible, imagine that.

    The scenery has changed a bit, and I am hoping everyday that this year will bring snow for my boys to play in.  I watch the world from my windows.  The bright red cardinal against the grey trees.  He moves to quickly.  I plan on setting out some food to capture his attention a little longer.  Time enough for me to change my lens and snap a few pictures.   

    We are resolved to activities inside, yet each week I dash off to the farm, always trying to hang onto our spring and summer routine.  At this point all that you can find are apples, kale, broccoli, cider, pumpkins, squash and popping corn.  It hurts to think that at the end of the month we will have to wait another three before asparagus, ramps and rhubarb will make their appearance.  But, no rush.  There is bread in the oven, slippers on my feet and several cups of hot peppermint tea to be had each day.  We build forts with couch cushions, pop big bowls of popcorn and grab as much sunlight through the windows as we can each day.  With the holidays right around the corner there will be plenty to keep mind and hand occupied until we can finally relax into those cozy winter days.      

Kale Salad with Pickled Pumpkin

Serves 2

4-5 stalks of Kale
1-2 Tablespoons pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
, toasted
1 bunch of cilantro
Juice from three limes
1-2 very small cloves of garlic
1/3 cup of pumpkin seed oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
salt and pepper to taste

2-3 spoonfuls of pickled pumpkin chunks (recipe below)
shaved Pecorino Romano (optional)

Remove the stalks of the kale, tear the leaves into bite sized pieces and set aside.  Toast the pumpkin seeds in a saucepan over medium heat until they are fragrant and slightly browned.  In a food processor or blender add one bunch of cilantro (stems and leaves), juice from three limes, one or two small cloves of garlic, pumpkin seed oil, honey and salt and pepper to taste.  Process these ingredients until they are thoroughly combined.  Add a few spoonfuls of the dressing to the torn kale leaves and massage it into the kale.  Making sure that each leaf of kale is coated in dressing and giving it a slightly bruised look.  Add more dressing as required.  Divide the kale onto two plates and top with pickled pumpkin, toasted pumpkin seeds and shaved Pecorino Romano if desired.  Serve.  Store extra dressing in the refrigerator.

Pickled Pumpkin

one (4-5 lb) pumpkin (not the jack-o-lantern type)
2 cups white vinegar
1 cup pure maple syrup
4 cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
8 peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
2 bay leaves
1 clove garlic

Peel and seed the pumpkin and cut it into small cubes.  Sprinkle on a heavy amount of salt and stir to coat the pumpkin chunks.  Set this aside for 2-3 hours to draw out the moisture from the pumpkin.  Meanwhile prepare a water bath canner and sterilize 4 pint jars.  Place the remaining ingredients into a saucepan over medium heat.  Bring everything to a boil and then reduce the heat to simmer for 5 minutes.  Rinse the salt off the pumpkin chunks and pack them into hot sterilized jars.  Pour the hot brine over the pumpkin chunks, leaving a 1/2 inch headspace. Wipe rims, apply lids and rings and process in a boiling water bath canner for 20 minutes.

*allow two weeks for the pumpkin chunks to cure before eating.

    Turkey day is around the corner and there have been a few changes as of late.  Good changes.  A chance to regroup and take a little time for moments normally barred by routine.  A hike in the woods was the perfect adventure for a warm November day.  Even though the world may seem stripped bare of all color and life there were still remnants hiding among the dead leaves.  Little hands make quick work finding treasures hidden along the way.  Pieces of mossy bark, interesting sticks and rocks, mushrooms, pine cones and small red sticker-bush berries.  I am quickly flooded with memories of the things that captured my interest as a child. 

    My mother would take us on walks or bike rides around our neighborhood every day.  We would race down the hill and make the first turn left.  On this corner I remember there was a chestnut tree, long since gone. I recall picking up the chestnuts and placing them in my pocket, taking time to admire the smooth skin and interesting shape.  We never ate them, and they very well could have been horse chestnuts anyway, but to me they were still treasures.  I guess that is why I have always been interested in chestnuts.  I remember on several occasions making my mother purchase some for me so I could roast them "Christmas carol style."  You know, roasting on an open fire but not really because you don't have a real fire place and they have to cook in the oven anyway.  Then they burn, and no body eats them. Needless to say that Chestnuts have not been on the menu for a long time since. 
    I'm really not quite sure why I thought of chestnuts this fall.  Perhaps it was this recipe I discovered one day and just knew I had to make.  Had I known what I was getting into I might have passed up that big basket of chestnuts in the grocery store.  Chestnut peeling is definitely a test of patience, will power and finger strength.  It is frustrating even for me, the extreme lover of repetitive and tedious tasks.  But the outcome is well worth it, which is why I wanted to make one more chestnut condiment that I could share at Thanksgiving.  I'm not sure why I went with a chutney, because I'm not actually big a fan.  However, I am a big fan of all the ingredients in this particular chutney, so why the heck not.  Grab a few handfuls of chestnuts and get in the season.  It almost makes me want to throw on a few Christmas carols. Almost.

Chestnut Chutney with Red Onion and Fennel

makes 2 pints

1/3 cup olive oil
5 large red onions, thinly sliced
4 small fennel bulbs or 2 large, thinly sliced
2 cups cooked, peeled chestnuts
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup sherry

1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cook and peel the chestnuts by scoring the skins with a "X" and placing them in boiling water for 20 minutes.  Peel the chestnuts making sure to get the secondary layer of skin.  Set them aside.  Heat the oil in a large skillet, add the onions and fennel and cook gently for a half hour, until the onions are very soft.  Coarsely chop the peeled chestnuts and add them to the pan along with the sugar, vinegar and sherry.  Season well with 1 teaspoon of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.  Let the mixture simmer, stirring occasionally for about 1 hour or until the liquid has thickened.  Take this time to set up a water bath canner. Funnel the chutney into clean, hot jars and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.  Allow chutney to cool completely before serving. 

-If you would like to avoid canning you can store chutney in refrigerator for 3-4 months.

-This chutney is lovely with a little cheese (think really good blue cheese) or bread.  It can also be used to spruce up some thanksgiving leftovers.
    Fall is here. You can feel the difference in the air, and the crunch underfoot.  Thinking back to the end of summer when most mothers were signing up their children for pre-school.  Should I be doing the same? He is only just three years old, and perhaps I still want to be selfish.  This is my favorite time to explore the world.  There is so much changing, so much beauty.  I'm not ready for schedules.  Not ready to get up early, get dressed and drive to put my child inside a building.  I know it is important, socialization, right?  But, right now my heart tells me that this is most important.  There is always next year, four years old, maybe he will be more willing to leave me and his brother to join in the fun at school.  But for now we live in the forest by the river.  Collecting rocks and caterpillars underneath the leaves.  We pick berries and hunt for black walnuts.  Riding bikes along the banks, watching the geese huddling up together for warmth.  We take the right twists and turns to arrive at our favorite spot for throwing rocks into the river.       
    The bubbling of the water over smooth stones.  The firm breeze blowing leaves down from tree tops.  My scarf tied firmly up to my lips and my camera slung over my shoulder.  Out in the woods, boys are free to run and throw, dig, get dirty, and use sticks for swords.  It may not be learning to write their name or cutting with scissors, but it too plays an important role in their development.  I don't regret my choices, but like every mother, I can't help but wonder if I am doing the right thing.  This feels right to me, it always has.  The boundaries and walls are broken, you can feel the freedom the same way you can feel the gloves on your fingers.  There is no one on earth that could convince me that this is not important.  To learn to love nature and be comfortable in it.  I pity those that find no comfort in the arms of mother nature.  The ones that look at a river and see only that.  They cannot see the life in her, they cannot see the new adventures waiting around every bend.       
    I have always been drawn to the woods.  Plants are my thing I guess you could say.  Which is why when I found out what black walnuts look like, I literally screamed, "THAT'S WHAT THOSE ARE."  I know where to get those, and I know where to get those right now!  So after watching a quick tutorial on YouTube, I hopped in the car with the boys and headed down to the river of course.  There they were, and it was only a matter of a few seconds before the boys had some in their hands.  All I had to do was open up a bag and they instinctively knew to start collecting

    When we got them home I started off, heeding the warning about using gloves, but like most of my projects they came off quickly.  I had brown stained fingers for weeks.  I was seriously starting to doubt this little project, until a few days ago when I started opening up the black walnuts and picking out the nut meat.  The smell is amazing.  Reminiscent of a regular walnut, but something a hundred times more intense.  A sharp spicy woody scent that is also dark and musky.  I hear they are great to bake with so my first thought was towards scones.  Something with maple syrup and buttermilk since I just got finished making some butter.  In total I got about 8 oz. of black walnuts so I might have to try some cookies next.  If you are not thrilled about the time and effort it takes to get black walnuts you could always buy some online at Hammon's Nut Emporium.  And if I have peeked your interest in black walnuts and you want to find out how Hammon's is able to sell this wild nut, then take a look at this video.             

Maple Black Walnut Scones

makes 8 scones

1 1/2 cups of old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup of chopped black walnuts
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1/4 cup of pure maple syrup
1 1/2 cups of sprouted spelt flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (5 oz.) butter

    Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Spread oats and black walnuts evenly on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 7-9 minutes or until lightly browned and fragrant.  Let the oats and walnuts cool completely.  Increase oven temp to 450°F.  Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper.  Whisk the buttermilk, egg and maple syrup together in a bowl until incorporated.  Reserve 1 tablespoon of the liquid in a small bowl for glazing the scones later.  In a large bowl place flour, baking powder and salt.  Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or your hands until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.  Stir in the cooled oats and walnuts.  Using a rubber spatula, fold in the liquid ingredients just until large clumps begin to form.  Continue mixing the dough by hand until you can gather everything into one large ball.  Dust counter top with some flour and turn out the dough onto the counter top.  Gently pat the dough into a 7 inch circle about 1 inch thick.  Cut the dough into 8 wedges and place them on the prepared baking sheet, making sure to space the pieces about 2 inches apart.  Brush each wedge with the reserved egg mixture and sprinkle on some extra chopped black walnuts.  Bake for 12-14 minutes or until golden brown.  Transfer scones to a wire rack to cool for about 30 minutes before serving. 
Well, hello there. No, you're not imagining things -- that butternut mac and cheese photo really is much crappier than what you normally see here! It's because I'm not Sandra and that's my craptacular photo.

I'm Jules (aka, The Ninj) and I normally blog over at Yankee Kitchen Ninja, where I write from my home in Vermont about what I call "stealthy homemaking" -- healthy recipes that are easy to prepare, how to use CSA produce creatively, gardening tips and the occasional DIY project, with a heavy dollop of humor and snark.

I'm a big fan of Sandra's recipes and photography, so when she suggested we do a blog swap for a day, I jumped at the chance.

Originally, we decided to each pick a recipe involving pumpkin for this blog swap, given that we planned it for October. Hilariously, we both realized soon after that we were already completely sick of pumpkin (and assumed you probably were, too) so instead opened our topic up to all fall squash.

Even more hilariously, out of “all fall squash”, we both ended up choosing butternut squash.

But come on, who can blame us? It's the squash that, with a little butter and maple syrup, can nearly taste like candy.

(Not quite like candy, I realize. But more like candy than, say, a paper bag though, right? Bear with me, I tend to be dramatic when it comes to trying to get you to make a recipe I like.)

I'm totally jazzed about this butternut mac and cheese recipe -- largely because my husband actually ate it.

Little back story: My husband is not a fan of vegetables and claims that it's not often the taste but the texture that turns him off (he is genuinely afraid of asparagus). It's sort of like having a 3-year-old picky eater, to which I'm sure many of you can relate. So when he saw the roasted butternut squash sitting on the kitchen counter as I pulled this dish together, he freaked. I assured him that, because it was being incorporated into the cheesy sauce, he'd never even know it was there.

I was lying, of course.

But, holy smokes, it turned out to be true! The mashed squash almost melts into the cheesy sauce, yielding a pasta dish that truly earns its "mac and cheese" monniker. This is like sneaking beets into chocolate cake: it tastes delicious and comforting and you don't even realize how loaded it is with good-for-you vegetables.

With respect for Sandra's largely vegetarian focus, I resisted adding bacon to this butternut mac and cheese (believe me, it almost killed me, as I generally refer to myself as a meatasaurus). So if you're not strictly a vegetarian, throw some bacon in there – trust me, you'll be extra happy.

Another thing that's handy about this butternut mac and cheese is that, if you're pressed for time, there's a squash prep shortcut that can make this fast enough for even the busiest night of the week: if you don't have time to oven-roast the squash, simply steam it until soft and mashable in a veggie steamer basket on the stovetop or in your microwave.

Thanks for reading and I hope you're inspired to give this butternut mac and cheese a whirl. And feel free to drop by anytime and see what else The Ninj is cooking up at www.yankeekitchenninja.com

Butternut Mac and Cheese by The Yankee Kitchen Ninja

(adapted from Better Homes and Gardens)


10 ounces curly pasta (something with enough curves to hold the sauce – I used cavatappi)
3 ½ – 4 cups peeled, “gutted” and diced butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cups sliced mushrooms (about 8 ounces)
I bunch green onions, sliced and divided
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup skim or 2% milk
¾  teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
pinch of nutmeg
2 cups shredded fontina cheese


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Bring a small amount of water to boil in a pot with a veggie steamer placed inside. Add the squash, cover the pot and steam for about 10 minutes or until the squash is very soft when poked with a fork. [NOTE: Alternately, you can roast the squash, tossed with a little olive oil and salt and pepper, on a baking sheet at 450 degrees for about 25 minutes or until mashable. This can be done in advance.] Mash the squash well and set it aside.

Cook the pasta until al dente. While it is cooking, heat the butter and olive oil in a large pan until hot and foamy. Add the mushrooms and ½ cup sliced green onions (more, if you are an onion fan) and cook for a few minutes until tender (the mushrooms will just begin to brown). Add the flour; cook, stirring continually, for about a minute, until the mixture is well combined. Add the milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook until thickened (this only takes a minute or two). Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the mashed squash, forming a creamy, orange sauce. Add the cooked pasta and stir gently to coat.

Put half the pasta mixture into a prepared 2 or 2 1/2-quart baking dish and sprinkle with 1 cup of cheese. Add the remaining pasta and top with the remaining cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes until the cheese is melted and it looks yummy to you. Serve sprinkled with green onions.