Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hello Muddah...

Jackson has been gone for 11 days (not that anyone's counting).  Before he left, he solemnly promised to write every day, although I told him that if he was busy having fun, he didn't need to write every day.  Nana had purchased personalized fill-in-the-blank camp postcards to facilitate the writing process, and we gave him  stamped envelopes pre-addressed to everyone he wanted to write--Nana and Papa, us as a family, and Kenyon and Alex individually. 

I, of course, had written him starting a few days before he left for camp so he'd have one waiting for him on his first day.  Throughout the first week, I asked questions about his tentmate, what activities he's chosen, if he had made any friendship bracelets yet?  I included a puzzle here and there, along with some of his favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  I wrote a letter in a spiral to make it more fun to read.  His Nana has written virtually every day as well, including fun puzzles from books she bought just for this occasion.  Various friends and family members are sending letters and postcards (thanks everyone!).

We opened the mailbox each day like Charlie opening up a Wonka bar--slowly at first, and then superfast.  Our thought process went like this--he wouldn't write on Monday, the first day of camp--probably Tuesday, after he's had a day to reflect on everything so far.  So we should get a letter from him by Friday, right?  Friday came and went, although we did get a phone call from the camp director letting us know that Jackson was doing great.  She told us the kids have to write on the weekends--sweet, although we thought Jackson would surely write more often than the Required Writing Time.  It didn't take too much effort to fill in some blanks on his personalized camp postcards and place it lovingly into a pre-addressed envelope, right?  

Or as his Nana so eloquently put it, "How hard is it to fill out a fucking card???"

At the very least, we were comforted by the fact that Required Writing Time meant we were sure to get something--until I heard it's common practice to send an empty envelope to your parents.  What kind of parental torture are these children capable of?  I pictured campers chortling around the campfire, regaling others with their stories of sending glaringly empty envelopes home to their child-starved, sobbing parents.  

We rested assured that a letter would be on its way on Monday, and we should get it by Thursday.  When I left the house this morning, Sam promised that he would wait to open the letter until I got home (which is much nicer than me, because there's no way in hell I would have waited if the situation was reversed).  

I walked in the door from work, and there it was, sitting right there on the counter.  A letter from my oldest son, who I miss so much.  I couldn't wait to open it and find the answers to all my questions--has he tried anything that he liked more than he'd thought?  Has he built forts or hiked down to the beach?  Has he played Capture the Flag or gone to Slingshot Alley?  Would he have enclosed his pages of completed puzzles?

With great anticipation, I opened the envelope, pulled out a full length sheet of paper (oh good, he wanted to write more than would fit on the card!), and saw this:
Ok, there were words--another good sign.  No empty envelope for these parents!  Sam, Alex and Kenyon have all been really looking forward to a letter, too, so it would have been awesome if Jackson had included their names as well.  But at least he didn't forget his Mommy. :)  I read on...

"My first night at camp was great.  I passed the swim test!  I'm going to a canoe camp for 2 days."



We waited nearly two weeks for this??  I turned the page over, looking for more.  No dice.  Using forensic investigative techniques, we deduced that he wrote this on his second day of camp, shoved it into his trunk, and then forgot about it until Required Writing Time.  Then he dusted it off, shoved it into an envelope and sent it off.  We examined the scribbled out portion at the bottom and saw that he had written 'P.S.' but then obviously decided he couldn't be bothered to include any more details about his life and hastily scratched it out.  

Also in the envelope was this little dried flower.
Cute, but I'd rather have words.

We also got a postcard from Jackson's counselor, who wrote that Jackson is a wonderful kid, well-behaved (whew!) and always excited to learn.  He also said that Jackson is a leader in his group and has been helpful around the unit.  

He's clearly having the time of his life, and we would much prefer to not hear from him than to get a daily letter detailing all the things he hated about camp.  We're all thrilled for him.

Here's hoping he'll break the 30-word barrier in his next letter.  14 days until he comes home (not that anyone's counting).  sigh.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Pioneer Kitchen

I go through periods of getting in touch with my inner pioneer woman, and right now she’s coming out through the food I make. I know you can just picture me now wiping my brow on a flour sack apron as I toil in the kitchen, kneading homemade bread dough and grinding wheat into flour with a mortar and pestle. Um, what’s that old Brylcreem jingle—‘a little dab’ll do you’? Well, I guess a little dab of pioneer woman will do me, because I’m not exactly embracing everything about a pioneer woman’s kitchen life.

But still, folks, I’m canning. Jam, that is. The latest issue of Sunset magazine—contrary to the title, it is not a magazine catering to retiree lifestyles, and if you live in the western states you should subscribe immediately!— features a great article on easy homemade jams and preserves. Upon reading it, my inner pioneer woman jolted awake and I got right to work. While my kids ate breakfast, I whipped up a batch of delightfully tasty blackberry-lime jam. The lime isn’t overwhelming, but does add a nice citrusy note to set it apart from standard jam. Sunset's recipe is below if I have piqued your culinary interest. Not interested in the canning part? Give some to friends, or halve the batch and keep refrigerated for a month—it’ll be long gone before it goes bad.

Blackberry-Lime Jam
2 1/2 tablespoons (half a 1 3/4-oz. package) Sure-Jell pectin labeled "For less or no sugar needed recipes"
1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
2 1/2 cups coarsely mashed blackberries (from about 1 1/4 lbs. fruit; I used frozen but thawed)
1 1/3 cups unsweetened berry juice blend (I used Santa Cruz Organic Berry Nectar)
Zest of 1/2 lime
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 teaspoon butter (prevents foaming)

1. Combine pectin and 1/4 cup sugar in a 5-qt. pot. Stir in berries, then berry juice, lime zest and juice, and butter. Bring mixture to a brisk boil over high heat, stirring often.

2. Add remaining sugar. Return jam to a brisk boil, stirring. Cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute. Remove from heat.
3. Ladle jam into heatproof jars and close with lids.

I also made a batch of strawberry-raspberry jam, so now we’ve got a 7 jar inventory of homemade goodness that will last through quite a few PB&Js.  I’ve got my eye on a peach-raspberry-lavender recipe as well; I’ll let you know how that turns out.

My trusty Sunset magazine also led me to what my pie-loving husband has deemed ‘the best fruit pie, or maybe the best pie’, he has ever eaten. The recipe, from Washington’s Anjou Bakery, technically calls for marionberries, but where the hell can you buy marionberries outside of the Pacific Northwest? I went with blackberries instead, and the shortbread-style crust makes this just about the tastiest summer dessert imaginable.

Husband-Approved Berry Pie
Crust Ingredients
2 cups flour
2 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 2-tbsp. chunks
(I sprinkled some chia seeds at the bottom of the crust so the pie felt ‘healthy’)

Filling Ingredients
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup granulated sugar
1 3/4 pounds (6 1/2 cups) fresh or frozen marionberries or other blackberries (for frozen, measure, thaw until somewhat softened, and use all juices)
Coarse white sparkling sugar (I used turbinado sugar)

1. Combine dry ingredients in a stand mixer. Add butter and beat with paddle attachment on low speed, scraping bowl as needed, until pieces are raisin-size. With mixer still on low speed, drizzle in 1 tbsp. ice water; beat until pastry comes together, 1 1/2 to 3 minutes. Form 1 1/4 cups into a disk and the rest into a smaller disk.
2. Preheat oven to 375° with rack on bottom rung. On a lightly floured board, roll larger disk into a 12-in. circle. Loosen with a long metal spatula, gently roll around a rolling pin, then unroll into a 9-in. pie pan (if dough cracks, press back together). Fold edge under, so it's flush with pan rim, then crimp. Chill 15 minutes.
3. Roll remaining dough into an 11-in. circle. With a cookie cutter, cut out enough shapes such as squares (I used moons) to cover most of pie. Set cutouts on a baking sheet; chill 15 minutes.
4. Stir together cornstarch and granulated sugar in a large bowl. Add berries with juices and toss to coat. Arrange evenly in pie shell. Lightly brush pastry cutouts with water and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Arrange cutouts over filling.
5. Bake pie until filling bubbles and pastry is golden in center, 55 to 60 minutes (up to 1 1/2 hours if berries were frozen); if edge starts to get dark, cover with foil, and if pie starts to bubble over, put a rimmed pan underneath it.
6. Let cool on a rack to room temperature, at least 3 hours.

With my kitchen assistant Alex helping me, we had this pie in the oven in no time. The finished product looked pretty awesome, if I do say so myself!

The final installation in this round of pioneer woman escapades is making homemade chicken stock. We go through a fair amount of boxed chicken broth, which adds up quickly. A couple of weeks ago, I started tossing onion, carrot and celery ends into a ziploc bag and storing it in the freezer. After using a store-bought rotisserie chicken for last night’s dinner, I threw the chicken carcass in a 8-qt. pot along with my bag of veggie ends. I tossed in some thyme from my garden, added a sprinkling of pepper, and filled up the pot with water.

You don’t want stock to boil; I kept it around 190 degrees and left on the stove overnight—can’t get much easier and it’s all done with scraps!
As you can see in the picture, it reduces in volume with the hours of cooking, so after straining out the solids I netted 5 ½ cups of stock. Not bad for little to no work, and I’ll start a new bag of veggie scraps for the next batch.

Maybe it’s because I’m desperate to do anything to pass the time while crossing off calendar days until I see my son again, maybe it’s because the daily cooking duties have shifted more towards Sam for the summer, or maybe because I’m procrastinating diving into the list of house projects before Australia(!), but I’m enjoying these bonus kitchen activities. Does the summer season bring out your inner pioneer woman as well, or do the hot summer days push you into takeout mode?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Camp or Bust

Yesterday, I dropped Jackson off at the airport; he flew from Denver to San Francisco, and he was very much looking forward to 'free TV, free food, and a free drink!'.  He is clearly seriously deprived at home if sitting squeezed in the middle seat of the last row of an airplane, munching on stale Chex Mix and sipping cranberry juice while watching Spongebob is his definition of livin' the high life.  Gotta give him something to work through with his future therapist, right?

At the airport I showed him the two books I had snuck into his backpack--Survivor Kid, a book he's had his eye on since reading the review in the kids' section of the newspaper, and Harry Potter Film Wizardry.  He didn't falter one bit hefting his backpack on his back, swinging Whaley (his beloved stuffed orca, which has accompanied him on many plane flights and camping trips) gently by the tail, and walking on the plane. 

Now that he's a seasoned traveler, I had only the slightest bit of a watery eye after saying our goodbyes; picked up by his grandparents, he was obviously going to be in good hands. He spent last night with Grandpa and Merry.  He fed horses, collected eggs from the chickens, and ate barbecued chicken with apricot-cherry pie for dessert out on the patio overlooking the redwoods and the ocean.  But unlike his recent travels to see his other grandparents, he won't be coming home after a long weekend.  In about three hours, he's going to Plantation Farm Camp for






You may be thinking, 'what kind of a parent would send their 8-year old away three states away where he doesn't know anybody for nearly a month??!?'  Before you call Child Protective Services, know that the camp is literally down the road from Sam's dad's property.  We visit the camp each time we are out there; in fact, the first pool Jackson ever swam in is the camp's pool, at the ripe old age of two months.  The pond where he will canoe and kayak is actually on Sam's dad's property, and the camp horses graze right outside of Sam's dad's house.

where Jackson will be sleeping

Despite all the familiarity with the location, 3.5 weeks is still an awfully long time to be without family.  Since the opportunity was presented to him, though, he has been unwaveringly positive and excitedly counting down the days as the date circled on our calendar approached. 

We spent the last few days leading up to his departure engaged in some very important tasks--I taught him how to make friendship bracelets, which everyone knows is an essential camp accessory.  Funny how at least 20 years have gone by since I made my last friendship bracelet, but it really is just like riding a bike.  I whipped a couple of those suckers out, and Jackson is now properly adorned with two bracelets from me and one made by him.

I also ventured down to the basement and dusted off my trusty Disney-issued carrying case with the VHS tape set of the first season of Bug Juice, a children's reality series about camp (that incidentally, features yours truly as a counselor).  I hadn't seen it in at least ten years, and the boys and I watched back-to-back episodes ("can we watch one more, mom?") showing all the glorious drama, excitement, and fun that is the summer camp experience.  Sam and I glanced at each other and cringed as campers dealt with homesickness, but it was helpful for Jackson to see that feeling homesick is completely normal.  At one point he turned to me and said that he thought he might feel a little homesick as well.  I said I think he might too, but he'd also be having a lot of fun.

I spoke with him briefly this morning, after his hearty pre-camp breakfast of three belgian waffles with strawberries.  From here on out, our communication will jump back a century, and I'll rely on his letters for details about his life until July 14.  I have always thought living in frontier times would have been cool, so here's my chance for a glimpse of it.

Everything has gone so smoothly so far, I had just about breathed a sigh of mom-relief.  And then I learned that Whaley--who Jackson cares for so much that he leaves his backpack opened enough to give him air--is not packed safely in his camp trunk or in his rightful place with Jackson holding him by the tail.  In all the excitement of landing in San Francisco, Whaley was left sitting in the back row of Flight 653, and is currently separated from the boy who adores him. 

Say a prayer to the Frontier Airlines Lost and Found gods that Whaley and Jackson will be reunited in the very near future, and that Jackson can rally through the first few days of camp without him.