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Gardens & Nature

garden salad

When Luke and I moved back to the US from England three years ago, the thing we agreed we were looking forward to the most about being settled for a while was, oddly enough, having a garden. It became an obsession, really. From our apartment overlooking the city of Bristol, we (fine, I) searched real-estate listings of cheap old farmsteads in rural parts of my home state. We didn’t really have any intention of buying and settling down on a farm of all places — being, as we are, slightly phobic of the word “settled” — but the idea did appeal at the time. We were coming to the end of one season — being students, living abroad, traveling, owning very little — and moving into another — marriage, work, building nests — where the thought of cozying down with someone and making a home, even for these nomads, had a certain appeal. And chief among them, was having our own garden. Hard to do when you’re living from a suitcase. salad leavesWe’ve had two somewhat successful gardens in three years, which are not bad odds, me thinks. Actually, I’m including this year’s garden as one of the two, so I hope it doesn’t go and die now that I’ve said that. Even if it does, we will have enjoyed a number of tasty salads, not to mention the countless uses we’ve found for basil, parsley and mint (Juleps, I’m looking at you).

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Back from vacation and not wanting to get in the car again to drive to the grocery store (I know, life is hard), it was a pleasure to be able to forage a healthy and tasty meal right from our back door. Homemade dressing could easily become my thing, y’all. This one combines the tangy, dillyness of champagne mustard with the sweetness of strawberry jam (I know, right? Brilliant!). Fresh minced shallots give it a kick and good olive oil holds it all together. Throw on some chickpeas from a can or, in our case, thawed from a hummus-ready batch in the freezer, plus some fresh mozzarella, olive and tomatoes, and you have yourself a delicious and super healthy (let’s not mention that strawberry jam) post-vacation lunch.
salad presentationWho can say how long this putting down roots business will last? There’s been talk for a while now about the next chapter — and, no, I don’t mean babies. All the more reason to enjoy the fruits of this season we’re currently in.

 

Green Garden Salad Tips (I can’t call this a recipe, can I? I mean, it’s salad.)

A handful each of spinach, baby kale, and baby swiss chard.

A combined handful of mint, Thai basil and Italian basil, to taste — herbs in salad is the secret to happiness.

Wash greens. Throw into a big salad bowl. Slice 1/2 one red onion (or to taste). Add to greens. Two tomatoes cut into eights. A few Kalmata olives. Toss all together.

Fill two plates with salad. Add a few spoonfuls of cooked, salted chickpeas. Tear a few slices of mozzarella over each salad.

Brassy Strawberry-Mustard Dressing

(“brassy” because, don’t know if you noticed but I’m obsessed with Braswell’s condiments. You guys! The empties can be used as classy European-looking drink wear.)

2 teaspoons of your favorite Dijion mustard.

1-2 teaspoons of strawberry jam

3-4 Tablespoons of olive oil (coconut would be beautiful, too)

1/2 shallot minced

black pepper to taste

Mix into a creamy (not runny) consistency. Better if allowed to sit in the fridge over night. Eat up!

mommy&melibraryeslstudentlibraryI was six. I was in first grade, my sister was in third. We’d been tagging along with my Dad on some errands in Charlotte and, I guess, as a treat, were rewarded with a trip to the city’s glistening main public library. Here was the Emerald City of libraries. Outside was a fountain that stretched the length of the building, water toppling down the marble steps like a Slinky. Inside were four stories of open, light-flooded space, a cheerful children’s section complete with squishy bean bags and reading nooks. This was not our 1970s suburban library with the shag carpet and crumbling paint. I remember my trepidation penning my name on the back of my white and burgundy card, carving out the letters like initials in tree bark, afraid, perhaps, that someone would notice my first grader’s penmanship and bar me from this most adult of activities. No one ever did, thank God.

Do you know, though, I had to think for a minute before that story came back to me? I almost didn’t remember getting my first library card. I remember the ones that came later. In high school, feeling very unbalanced about the fact that I’d lost my card some years before and driving myself to the nearest library to renew it. In a new city, walking into town, filling out an application, getting a cup of coffee afterwards. There’re all really mundane memories. It’s actually a pretty mundane activity, when you think of it. At least for those of us who grew up with public libraries and parents who valued them.

mommy&melibrarianeslstudentslibraryrefugeestudentlibrarycardrefugeestudentslibrarycardsThese days I teach English to a group of refugee women at an intergenerational family literacy school. The women I teach live in a town where over 60 languages are spoken in the 1.2 mile radius that forms the city center. They live in crowded apartment complexes with neighbors from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They decorate their walls with posters of tropical paradises. This particular class — almost all of them Burmese from the Chin province, though there are others from South Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo — are all adventurous gardeners. They grow pumpkins, burmese eggplants, green beans, and chillies in the medians and along chain link fences in their apartment complexes. They eat chillies like potato chips and laugh at me when I explain that most Americans only cook with a few cloves of garlic at a time — they cook with them by the bulb. They walk to school two days a week, pushing their children in second-hand strollers or carrying them in slings on their backs. They sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes with their children at the end of the school day and mispronounce the words “kitchen” and “chicken” with regularity. They crack themselves up every time. They swirl thanaka on their children’s cheeks and smile mischievously when I ask them what it is, why they do it. When they are not at school, they spend their days perpetually in waiting rooms, at the doctor’s office, at the Georgia Department of Human Services, at the DMV, at the chicken plant. What are they waiting for? Interpreters, mostly. A lull. Someone with time. Back home they were weavers, teachers, and farmers. Many of them lived most of their lives in refugee camps in countries not their own. The ones who remember, talk about the forest, the river, the roses.
IMG_5651 IMG_5653 IMG_5652 mommy&mereadingThe other day we went to the library for the first time as a class. These are not provincials — they’ve been to a library before (we have a small one at our school that they use every week). And they’re not completely newly arrived to the United States, either — they’ve been here for fewer than five years. So they know about libraries. Do they use them? No, probably not. Possibly because, well, where do you begin? Having lived in the States we know librarians as a whole don’t bite, that they love to help you find things. Burmese refugees don’t know that.

I’m wondering: do librarians ever phase out of that stage where they seem to genuinely enjoy talking about awesome kid’s books? Does that excitement ever die? It’s actually adorable to watch.

I won’t say adorable, but do you know what else is spectacular to see? An adult getting her first library card. Also, seeing a group of ESL learners demolish an entire shelf of the coveted Picture Dictionaries. Picture Dictionaries that don’t cost $25 like teacher keeps telling them. This time they’re Free.

Mind. Blown.

IMG_5200 IMG_5213 IMG_5176 IMG_5169 IMG_5166 sweetwater park eharwood IMG_5216 IMG_5218 IMG_5156sweetwater park eharwoodComing up to our two year anniversary in the Atlanta area, it seemed only proper to finally visit the park that so many of our green-seeking friends rave about on the regular. For good reason, as it turns out. Luke and I periodically crave the outdoors — as in, always — but living in the city you can feel miles away from them. Mostly because you are, though not always. But then, occasionally you remember that Stone Mountain is literally just down the road, and oh by the way, so is Sweetwater Creek State Park. And so you tootle on down the road, make your donation to Georgia’s conservation efforts and you let the white noise of the river clear your fuzzy brain. You admire the dappled river light glowing through the skeleton of an antebellum mill (burnt down the same time as Atlanta). You watch a heron for far too long expecting to see it do something clever like catch a fish. You walk along a shady river-flanked path and agree it would be the perfect place to read Huckleberry Finn. The perfect backdrop. And wasn’t it smart of your husband to pack it? But in the end, you’re too distracted with newts and turtles and herons and there’s so much to see, to soak in before it’s time to return to the city. And speaking of, you are getting hungry. So you promise yourselves to come back the next week and find out where that other trail leads, and then to come back another time after that and rent a canoe for a couple hours. When it’s cooler. Forty minutes later, you’re back in some hip neighborhood drinking craft beer and munching on heirloom veggies dipped in cheese fondue. Served on a slate, naturally. There are perks to the city life.

vietnamese balm face tonerIn the warmer months, when my thoughts turn frequently to that bit of green on our back balcony and what I’m going to do with all those herbs growing out there (Mint Juleps, anyone?), my bookstore peregrinations change course ever so slightly, veering less toward fiction and more toward the gardening section, the cooking section, and, when fortune would find me in a really good bookstore, the herbal and natural medecine section. My love for folk medicine is well documented in these pages. Equally, my love of a good bath (here and here). While I’ve found some true gems of recipes from various sources over the years, I’ve yet to find my herbal skin care Bible. I would love to have a well-loved, dog-eared tome sitting on my shelf, full of pioneering wisdom and my own notes scribbled in the margins. But until such a book turns up, I continue to float. vietnamese lemon balmIMG_4893 IMG_4895 IMG_4896vietnames balm steamer tab

Which is not always a bad thing. Sometimes you find a project on a blog or in a book that clicks as the perfect use of whatever ingredients you have laying around. This time it was a fragrant bouquet of Vietnamese Lemon Balm (or Mint Balm) from a friend’s herb patch. What to do with this mysterious herb. Actually, not so mysterious in East Asia as a bit of research into the plant revealed. A common herb included in salads, soups and curries, Vietnamese balm is often brewed as a tea for treating hangovers (useful after a few Mint Juleps), and is added to steam baths for clarifying the skin. Sounded like a good place to start and as I had a bunch of the stuff, it was time to get to work.IMG_4918 IMG_4919 IMG_4923

Toner tabs are made the same was as bath bombs — baking soda, citric acid, essential oils and witch hazel — just with more attention paid to choosing ingredients for specific skin concerns. For me that meant adding a few drops of Tea Tree oil for cutting oils and killing bacteria, mixing some fresh aloe vera gel in with Thayer’s Rose Witch Hazel, and of course, adding a few spoonfuls of chopped fresh Vietnamese balm. The result was a fragrant and potent brew that opened up my pores and cleared my troublesome skin.
IMG_4907 IMG_4910 IMG_4943 IMG_4950 IMG_4948Homemade skincare is too good to keep to oneself, and a piece of twine does a tidy job tied around a stack of herb-specked toner tabs. We may be starting a little bartering system with our Vietnamese balm providers. Herbs in exchange for product? Not a bad exchange at all.

Herbal Toner Tabs

1 cup baking soda

1/2 cup citric acid

2-3 Tablespoons of fresh or dried chopped herbs

10-15 drops of an Essential oil of your choice (I used Tea Tree. Lavender, rosemary or juniper berry would work very nicely as well.)

1/4 tsp aloe vera gel

Witch hazel for spritzing

Mix dry ingredients and herbs thoroughly. Add drops of Essential oil, stirring often to keep citric acid from fizzing. Shake aloe vera and witch hazel together in a spray bottle. Using one hand to spritz and the other to mix, spritz the dry ingredients with the witch hazel mixture, while stirring continuously with your other hand. If the mixture starts fizzing, slow down and keep mixing. When you can squeeze the mixture together and it holds its shape, stop spraying. You don’t need a lot of liquid, just enough to bind the mixture together loosely. 

Fill molds with tab mixture. Press down until compacted. Leave to dry over night. The next day, pop out of molds gently. 

To Use: Drop one tab in a sink or bowl full of hot water (not boiling!). Use a towel to make a tent over your head. Steam your face under the towel for a few minutes. Great to do before a face mask or at night after cleansing. Retain toner water and use either to wash off your face mask or keep in a spray bottle in the refrigerator and use as a toner for 2-3 days. 

Do you have any recommendations for really good herbal remedies and skincare books? I’m all ears. I got the inspiration for this recipe from Maria’s Self, though there are tons of recipes online.

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IMG_4860{Hearts-a-burstin’}

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There is at least one welcomed side effect to the nonstop rain we’ve been having here. In our desperation for Vit. D and fresh air, we our prepared at any moment to be impulsive. Gap in the rain? We drop whatever we’re doing and go on a walk. Even if it’s just to the mini nature preserve across the street.

I’m ashamed to say that in the two years we’ve lived in our current apartment, we’ve made the five minute journey on foot to Woodland’s Garden a mere two times. One of those times was yesterday. What we found was a well-watered native plant habitat and a woodland sanctuary for us nature-starved city dwellers (and a swarm of mosquitos, but let’s keep things romantic.)

It must be a sign of adulthood when suddenly plants go from being those pretty, generic things that have names our grandparents know, but so long as I can spot Poison Ivy I’m happy not knowing too many of them, to being a source of on your knees in the dirt fascination. That was me yesterday. On my knees, reading the labels for wild ginger, sassafras root, mountain blueberry, climbing hydrangea, toadshade trillium, and hearts-a-bursting.  Fist bump to the volunteers who put out all those labels. Also for the volunteers who trail blazed the winding labyrinth that may soon become my go-to walk in future. And another fist bump to the folks who put out the fairy villages (I’m not making this up) and built the screened-in woodland pavilion (complete with fire place), that I will shortly be reserving for up coming small group meetings.

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