Archives for posts with tag: education

Do you have rice phobia?

According to a recent article in the New York Times Dining section, it’s “a thing” (actually, rice phobia is a thing according to someone quoted in the article; see “Fluffy. Tasty. Tricky. Learning to Cook a Good Pot of Rice.”).

I don’t think I have rice phobia but I don’t cook it often, either. That’s not because I am afraid of rice or even that I don’t like it. It’s just that I prefer pasta on those relatively rare occasions when I eat a big plate of carbohydrates (and, to me, potatoes fall into a different category).

When I do eat rice, it is usually a variation on risotto, a dish whose traditional preparation technique—standing by the pot, constantly stirring—suits my temperament (what can I say? I like boring and repetitious). Also, I’m pretty good at it (although most Italians would likely disagree).

On those rare occasions when I do cook standard rice (by which I mean American white, long-grain rice), I follow the “recipe” that my mother taught me many, many years ago, before I even realized I was learning to cook: one cup rice, two cups water; bring to a boil; cover and reduce to a simmer; remove from heat 20 minutes later. No rinsing the rice beforehand, no butter, no salt (my mother almost never added salt during cooking).

Prepared this way, the rice has never burned. Nor has it ended up gummy (at least, not exceedingly so; rice is by its nature somewhat gummy). Every once in a while the pot has boiled over because I didn’t reduce the heat enough but after I have corrected the gas level, the rice resumes normal cooking and comes out more or less the same.

Most likely, my rice is not the perfect rice that Kim Severson is striving for. It’s probably not even good by her standards. For me, it is good enough.

But, really, what can you expect? I grew up on Minute Rice.

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Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.

I have found that it is too easy to take for granted things that are right under my nose, even things I really like.

That’s the case with Stonecrop Gardens, the public garden and school of practical horticulture located only a few miles from our house. We first visited in 2012 (see March 30, 2012) and, after becoming members, returned twice that year to view the grounds at different stages of growth (see June 2, 2012 and September 16, 2012, part 2).

We were off to a good start towards a goal of touring the extensive gardens (which cover 63 acres) in each of the four seasons (as a minimum). But for a variety of reasons, or maybe no good reason at all, we only managed to get there once last year (see July 27, 2013). We made the most of it, though, and thoroughly enjoyed the eye-popping array of flowers (lilies, most notably) that were in bloom at the peak of summer (I took many photographs). Still, we hadn’t been there since.

Now, granted Stonecrop is closed from November until April (except for special events) and that is one reason why I tend to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But that is also why I was delighted to receive a postcard from them inviting us to today’s Spring Open House. The event is subtitled “Garden Walk Under Glass” because at this time of year, all of the action is going on indoors.

The walk starts in the Conservatory, a glass house built in an English country architectural style. The tower and wings, laid out in a cross arrangement (from above, it looks like a church, a temple to formal gardening), are literally crammed to the rafters with more than 250 potted plants that originate from all around the world, mostly from places with hot to moderate climates.

Each specimen is tagged with a number that corresponds to a printed list. The information—plant name, family classification and country of origin—is interesting (so that’s what a bowiea volubilis looks like!) and useful (can we get camellia japonica at the garden center?). It is also overwhelming, a lot to absorb all at once.

We moved from there to the potting shed (cum office) and passed through it to the Tropical House. In a vestibule to this traditional greenhouse, work was in progress to propagate cuttings from established plants (to supplement the onsite garden beds, I suppose, and to sell). Much of it looked familiar to me—short lengths of stems stuck into growth medium—but I was intrigued by the leaf propagation, a method I had never seen before.

As we exited the Tropical House, we were distracted by the warm cider, hot chocolate and assorted cookies (almost as varied as the plants) on offer in the barn. The day was warm and bright so after making our selections, we parked ourselves on a bench to bask in the sun and nibble our treats.

There is nothing like a field trip to make my day, especially when it starts early, includes breakfast and takes me to another national park.  I’ve always loved the incomparable beauty of their locations (for the most part), the optimistic (some would say naïve) outlook of their educational exhibits and, most of all, the friendliness and earnestness of their park rangers (who are often the most naturally gregarious people).

So, with friends visiting for the New Year’s holiday, we decided to spend the last day of the year on the road and headed up to the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park.  It is one of the National Park Service’s more unusual properties (technically speaking, it is a National Historic Site) in that it is not directly focused on the natural environment (like Yellowstone or Yosemite) or a person or event in our government’s history (such as Gettysburg or the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt just down the street).

Instead, it highlights the lifestyles of the rich and famous—of the early 20th century.  Of course, the Vanderbilts had a huge impact on the U.S. economy and their significance in our history (along with other extremely wealthy families) cannot be discounted.  But perhaps the main reason the mansion makes sense as a national treasure is that it is a monumental example of the physical works that can be achieved by people when given sufficient motivation, resources and money (all the same thing, sometimes).  In that regard, it is more akin to, say, Hoover Dam (operated by the Bureau of Reclamation) only with more gilt.

The Vanderbilt Mansion also differs from many Park Service venues in that its main features are indoors.  Given the cold and snow left over from Saturday’s storm, an alternative to outdoor activities was desirable.  Plus, by making our visit prior to New Year’s Day (when the site will be closed), we were able to see the mansion decorated for the holidays.  On Wednesday, the staff will begin to remove the trees and wreaths that brighten almost every one of the 54 rooms.

Though large by mere-mortal standards, the Vanderbilt Mansion was considered modest by its original inhabitants and was used only in the spring and fall (summers were spent in cooler seaside locations and the only acceptable location for the winter social season was New York City).  Still, a lot of expensive architectural details and fancy furniture are packed into its 55,000 square feet of real estate.

Most of the rooms (not counting the servants quarters) are hopelessly ornate but I found it interesting that both the main kitchen and the one bathroom on view (on the second floor) are decorated in a functional style that is still popular today (open layouts; stainless steel, copper and marble fixtures; white subway tile).  The bathroom includes what is perhaps the most beautiful sink drainpipe that I have ever seen.

Outside, the views of the Hudson River were spectacular even on this wintry day.  The only downside to visiting at this time of year, however, is that we were unable to properly tour the grounds which include dense woods, expansive lawns (polo, anyone?) and formal gardens (modeled after those in Italian villas).  I do not know whether anything remains of the vegetable gardens and livestock farm that originally supplied the mansion with food but on a future visit, when the ground is not snow covered, I intend to investigate.

While browsing through the local paper, Rachel noticed that Glynwood, a nearby farm center, was conducting a tour this afternoon.  Looking for an outdoor diversion on what had started out as a gray and dreary day but which was turning sunnier (if not exactly sunny) as the afternoon wore on, we decided to give them a call to ask whether they had room for two more.  It was short notice (less than a half hour!) but they told us to come on over.

We pass the turnoff for Glynwood every time we drive into Fahnestock State Park for a hike and, more recently, when we make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.  So we were excited to finally make the turn and see where the road led us.  Their driveway is two miles long, a windy one-lane road that follows a meandering stream through the woods before reaching a large clearing (225 acres, we later learned) where the farm, fields and pastures are located.

When we arrived at the farm office, we were told that today’s tour was the last of the season and that we were the only guests.  Waiting for us was Donald Arrant, recently promoted to Farm Manager (congratulations Donald), who was pulling on his jacket and would lead the tour.  He was dressed in layers—clearly someone accustomed to working outdoors—and well-prepared for the blustery weather.  Fooled by the sun, I had only brought a light sweatshirt.  I would have to keep moving to stay warm.  Fortunately, our tour would be on foot.

Donald gave us a brief history of the farm and it turns out that it is no coincidence that Glynwood Farm, Stonecrop Gardens and Fahnestock State Park are located in close proximity to each other.  The surrounding lands—2,500 acres—were once owned by a conservation-minded family.  Glynwood Farm started as the family’s country house and Stonecrop was the home of one of their daughters.

When the last family member passed away, the bulk of their woodlands were donated to the State of New York to become a part of Fahnestock State Park.  The main family home was transformed into the current Glynwood Center, a working farm that develops policies for and promotes the establishment of farming communities to maintain local and sustainable food systems.  Stonecrop is now a demonstration garden and school of practical horticulture.  Originally united by geography and bound together by family, all three organizations still share the principles of conservation, sustainability, education and public outreach.

Walking downhill from the farm office, we passed Glynwood’s orchards, where flocks of chickens were enjoying the sunshine and a late afternoon snack of grubs and other insects.  Beyond the orchard is the original chicken coop, a long and narrow building that steps down the hillside.  (Although still functional, the coop is poorly ventilated and Donald would like to see it replaced.)  Turkeys share the building with the chickens, who also take turns grazing in the surrounding pastures from mobile coops.

Adjacent to the orchard are the vegetable gardens—Glynwood sells its produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program—and two hoop buildings.  The larger hoop structure is still half-full of tomato plants which will be protected from tonight’s expected freeze once the sides are rolled down.  Friday is the CSA’s distribution day and as we strolled past, members were arriving to pick up this week’s allotment.

Continuing our tour, we passed the pond we have often visited from the Fahnestock side, most recently on August 12, 2012 (we had previously thought that we were viewing Stonecrop Gardens on the opposite shore).  South of the pond are the pastures (the majority of the farm’s 225 acres) where Glynwood’s herd of cattle graze.  They were in a distant field this afternoon and because the terrain is hilly, we could not see them.

Our last stop before heading back to the farm office was Glynwood’s newest barn.  It is here that the livestock spend the winter, protected from the elements and kept warm in beds of straw and hay.  During the cold season, the accumulating manure is carefully managed and layered with fresh straw (and other materials, on an experimental basis) to produce nutrient-rich compost by the winter’s end.

After the animals move outdoors, the compost is removed and spread on the pastures and in the gardens.  This process takes the entire summer (the compost reaches a depth of about two feet over the entire barn floor) and its completion is celebrated with a gala Barn Dance in September.

Today, the barn was empty except for several huge bales of hay stacked in one corner and an extremely vocal—and adorable—herd of goats.  Besides providing entertainment, the goats are participating in a study of the efficacy of their grazing for controlling invasive plant species, such as multiflora rose, that threaten to overgrow the farm’s pastures.  It’s a simple concept but complicated in its execution (considerations include movement and feeding of the animals, impact on other plants and livestock, and control of parasites).

We were impressed by the smooth operation of the farm, its holistic and common-sense approach (backed by science) and natural (if not officially organic) farming and gardening practices.  As evidenced by Donald, the staff are very clear about, very consistent in and very committed to what they are doing and how they are doing it.  Their success is apparent in the healthy and happy plants and animals (and humans, too, for that matter).  We left in an upbeat mood, buoyed by the positive feelings around us and happy to have found another reason for loving where we live.