Thursday, September 30, 2010

Don't Judge an Apple by Its Worm Hole...
On one special day each fall, my family packs into the car and drives west to go apple picking. After miles and miles of cornfields, we finally reach the big red barn and tidy rows of trees marking the entrance to Honey Hill Orchard. This year, we decided to go early to beat the rush. Instead, we nearly missed apple-picking season all together.

“Where are all the apples?” my middle son wondered as we pulled up to the barn. The trees seemed empty. “Orchard clean-up day,” a farmer explained. “Anything you can find-half price.” It turns out an overabundance of rain and hail early in the season did a number on this year’s apple crop. Still, we hadn’t driven nearly an hour to turn back empty-handed. We marched over to the first row of trees, determined to fill our reusable Trader Joes bags with those last, perfect Jonagolds, Goldens, and Cortlands clinging to hidden branches. As a bonus, we had the orchard nearly to ourselves.

“Got one!” my youngest son yelled, holding up a Red Delicious riddled with black spots. “Hmm,” I said. “Let’s keep looking.” After searching a few more rows, we realized that every apple left on the trees was damaged in some way. A bruise here. A bug bite there. I quickly lost my picky air. If the skin wasn’t too badly pierced and the texture still firm, the apple passed inspection. Before long, our bags were filled.

This year, the apples we brought home weren’t perfect-looking, but once we peeled the skins, cut off a few brown spots, and cooked them with a little cinnamon, they sure made some perfect apple sauce- for half the usual price. Orchard clean-up day may be our new family tradition!

If you live in the Chicago area, check out Honey Hill Orchard:

Otherwise, to find an orchard near you, visit:

Coming soon: A review of some perfect apple-picking picture books!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Farmer's Market Treasure: The Pawpaw

Some people rummage for treasures at antique stores. Others comb beaches with metal detectors. My family's favorite treasure-hunting haunt? The local farmer's market. Each week during the summer and fall, we visit different local markets, searching for new and unusual produce. Our favorite markets are green markets, like the Geneva Greenmarket on Thursday mornings in Geneva, Illinois, and the Green City Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays in downtown Chicago, across from Lincoln Park Zoo. Green markets require vendors to be local (usually within 100-200 miles) and use sustainable growing practices. At green markets, your more likely to find heirloom and little-known varieties of fruits and vegetables, most of them grown organically. A basket of golden raspberries, a bunch of cosmic carrots with purple skin, orange pulp and yellow core, a sticky slab of honeycomb- you never know what booty you'll plunder at the market.

Recently, on a trip to the Green City Market, my kids and I discovered a rare jewel. We nearly marched past the elderly lady waiting behind her simple card table. Her stand was wedged between a fruit grower and heirloom tomato farmer, both with impressive spreads. All the lady had were a few paper plates holding what looked like elongated, misshapen, and badly bruised pears. "Try this pawpaw," she said, cutting one of the "pears" and offering us a slippery slice. Intrigued, I tasted the fruit. Immediately, I felt transported to someplace tropical- the creamy flavor of banana, mango and vanilla filling my mouth. I'd never tasted something so exotic produced in the Midwest. We bought half the lady's supply, feeling giddy with our new find.

Back home, I did a little research on pawpaw. It turns out the pawpaw is hardly "new." It's the largest fruit native to North America and is a distant cousin to the cherimoya, a fruit you’d encounter while exploring a farmer’s market in Hawaii, or maybe Ecuador. Pawpaw was cultivated by Native Americans and enjoyed by early settlers. Chilled pawpaw fruit was even a favorite dessert of George Washington. But you won’t find pawpaw in the produce aisle of your favorite grocery store. Its splotchy appearance and extremely short shelf life have shunned pawpaw from commercial favor. Don’t be fooled by pawpaw’s deceptive looks. This fruit is a prize worth finding. But you better hurry; this gem is only in season for a short period between mid August and October. Happy hunting!

For more information on a greenmarkets, visit:

To learn more about pawpaw fruit, visit:

Friday, September 17, 2010

School Bells and Butterfly Wings, Part II: Good Reads

Check out the following books to learn more about butterflies and starting a butterfly garden:

The Butterfly Book: a kid's guide to attracting, raising, and keeping butterflies, by Kersten Hamilton. Packed with facts about butterflies! Learn about butterfly life stages, body structures, and habits, as well as the best plants to add to a garden to attract these winged jewels. As a bonus, the book includes a field guide for 20 common North American butterflies.

A Place for Butterflies, by Melissa Stewart. From the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail to the Oregon Silverspot, this picture book highlights twelve North American butterflies and their habitats. With an emphasis on conservation, the author suggest specific actions people can take to help these insects “live and grow.” Richly detailed paintings show close-up portraits of each butterfly against their specific habitats. A great book to introduce children to the concept of habitat protection.

Velma Gratch and the Way Cool Butterfly, by Alan Madison. With two “practically perfect” older sisters, Velma can’t help but feel a bit overshadowed. When she starts first grade, Velma struggles to find a way to become as memorable as her sisters. At first she misbehaves, but then she becomes fascinated with butterflies in science class. Velma pours over library books to learn fabulous facts about these way cool insects. A trip to the butterfly conservation gives Velma the chance to prove she is way cool too. Factual information is woven into this delightful story, making it a nice companion to a unit on butterflies.
Visit the Good Green Read page of this blog for more books on butterflies!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Recess Bells and Butterfly Wings- Supporting Natural Habitats at School

There’s a new splash of color outside of my children’s school. Where once only a plain patch of green grass grew, now bright fronds of goldenrod and purple spikes of Blazingstar sway in the breeze. Look closely, and you’ll even spot a flash of orange as a Monarch flits between the flowers. Both insect and human visitors are enjoying the new butterfly garden.

Plans for the garden began last spring, when a PTA committee contacted the Conservation Foundation, a local not-for-profit environmental protection organization, and asked for help converting an area of the school grounds into a natural habitat. The Conservation Foundation designed the garden, suggesting the best types of native plants to include to attract butterflies. They also helped us selected the best spot for the garden- a sunny area where students often gathered.

Before digging in, the area had to be cleared of grass. Time to call in the eager grade-school troops! Armed with piles of old newspaper, shovels, and mulch, the students went to work. They spread newspaper 6-7 layers thick over the grassy area designated for the garden. Atop the newspaper, they piled mulch 3-4 inches of mulch. The smothered grass died, leaving plenty of space for a new garden.

After a few weeks, the troops were summoned again, this time to plant. A local organic gardeners club donated native plants, including milkweed, liatris, and black-eyed Susans. On planting day, students had a wonderful time digging holes, planting, sprinkling compost, and even adding a few wriggling guests to the garden to help aerate the soil. When the school year ended, families signed up for weekly summer shifts to water and weed the young plants. All of the hard work paid off. By September, students were welcomed back to school by a garden bursting with cheerful blooms.

As time passes not only will the garden grow more colorful, but it will be easy to maintain. Native plants can withstand drought, so they don’t need extra watering. The garden will also do the important work of helping butterflies. Many types of butterflies are disappearing because of loss of habitat. This natural habitat garden will supply food and shelter butterflies need to survive and reproduce. Our school hopes to expand its garden as time goes on, not only to nurture butterflies, but also kids who care about and help protect nature.

To learn more about how to start your own butterfly garden or other natural wildlife habitat visit:
Illinois residents can get started by contacting the Conservation Foundation:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hooray for CSA's Part 2: Growing Little Locavores

The following is an article I recently wrote for the Green Earth Institute, the Community Supported Agriculture program of which I have been a member the past 8 years...

When I first discovered the Green Earth Institute’s CSA program in 2002, I thought it would be a great way to expand the limited, and somewhat picky palates of my two young children. Each Tuesday night venture to the farm that first season became a lesson in new and unique produce, items not normally found on my grocery list. “No that’s not a leafy octopus. It’s a kohlrabi.” “You’re right fennel does look like feathers and taste like licorice.” Thanks to the CSA, my kids soon learned to enjoy snacks such as kale chips and hakurei turnips, where once only peeled and sliced apples would suffice.

As our family expanded to include a third child the lessons my children gleaned from the CSA expanded as well. Through the farm’s camps and u-pick days my children came to appreciate the hard work hidden behind the peas and carrots dished onto their dinner plates. They learned how organic farming helps keep the earth and people healthy. They also discovered the rhythm of the growing season. They began to anticipate the treasures waiting in the pick-up bins from week to week: lettuce first, tomatoes later, and the coveted watermelon just in time for school to roll around. After a long winter of bland supermarket veggies, my youngest would jump for joy when he spied French breakfast radishes in our CSA order. He’d crunch into the radishes with a huge grin, understanding with each bite that in-season produce simply tastes better.

This season, my children have been learning something new from our CSA involvement: how to cook. On Tuesdays, my oldest daughter surveys the week’s bounty and peruses the newsletter for enticing recipes. Then she plans and prepares a meal, challenging herself to use as many local ingredients as possible. She enlists her younger brothers as sous chefs, and soon everyone is measuring, mincing, and mixing, turning my kitchen into a disaster zone. But the mayhem is worth it when the three young chefs serve up their creations with huge I-made-it-myself smiles. Recently, after a successful meal of fennel apple soup and eggplant dip on crackers, my daughter declared “I’m going to open a restaurant someday and grow all my own ingredients so everyone can enjoy fresh and healthy foods.”

I joined the CSA hoping to teach my children not to grimace at green veggies. I never imagined they’d receive such an education in eating healthy and caring for the earth. Thanks to the Green Earth Institute, I know my families’ enthusiasm for fresh, local produce will continue to grow in the seasons to come.

Check out the Green Earth Institute's website for more information and some great recipes using fresh, local produce: