Gardens hold the secrets to unconditional love and to life, and to giving.
In our home, this Feast of St. Valentine's Day week has, as do most official and unofficial holidays, and family milestone days, become rooted in food, gifts of food, growing food, and exchanging food. And that food increasingly, comes from our garden.
This week, the kitchen table nook is strung with cheesy heart garlands, now balding after 25 years of dutiful service. The small glass place-holder votives that I painted 20 years ago with cherry red hearts and the initials of my husband and children make their brief annual appearance, and a small stack of shoe boxes and recycled take-out containers, each nesting layers of heart-shaped sugar cookies, accumulates at the back of the table, awaiting distribution to loved ones.
This year, tabletop real estate is particularly scarce, over-run as it is with newly sterilized seed trays and domes, seed packets, and seed catalogues. I am multiplying my indoor seed starting efforts by 10 thereabouts, so our kitchen and home office could well be described as intentions in transition. Ironically, this week is when I am planting several varieties of love apple - a.k.a. tomato - seeds for transplanting into our gardens, and for gifting to the gardens of friends and family. The food-love connection is constant, embedded, undeniable. I cannot imagine a life in which our kitchen table and the gifts of physical and spiritual nourishment it represents, is not the centre of our universe.
Yesterday I received by mail, a small shipment of seeds from The Incredible Seed Company of Pleasantville, Nova Scotia. Maritimers are such gracious people, as evidenced by the handwritten note inked in green, accompanying the seeds, "Thank you Laura, the Aunt Molly's ground cherry seeds you requested were sold out, so we replaced them with Goldies :-) " Already, I love Goldies.
A second package arrived from The Seed Company by E.W. Gaze of St. John's Newfoundland, another small family-run Maritime business with deep roots in their community, and in mine even though I live 4400 miles away.
A third package from Renee's Gardens in California contained an impressive assortment of vegetable and herb seeds designed specifically for growing in containers.
The seed packets are spread out before me, on my desk, every one intended as a gift for someone, or in memory. I will start many of the seeds indoors these next many weeks, revisiting friendships and memories daily as I water, thin, pot up, and eventually transplant or gift the seedlings.
I know that the plants that I gift will be celebrated by the recipients, becoming hopefully, eventually, essential ingredients in their own culinary love stories. The share of seedlings that I keep and plant here at home will help feed my family, and become ingredients in preserved food for sharing and gifting, and for celebrating official and unofficial feast days, and milestones. Love grows, it is unstoppable.
Gardens of any size, indoors or outdoors, give us the opportunity to grow love and connection. We just need to slow down long enough to pay attention, and to give our gardens the time and basic nourishment they need to love us back. I believe that this tragedy of a global pandemic, while unimaginably devastating to millions, has gifted millions more of us with a revelation. A revelation with the power to heal ourselves and heal the planet. What a beautiful gift.
Why not, this St. Valentine's Day, give a homegrown gift of food, or seeds of hope for the future? It's not like we don't have time. A mason jar and a packet of herb seeds could find pride of place on any windowsill anywhere in the world, and find its way eventually, into many happy meals and memories. You can't say the same about a box of chocolates.
Yesterday morning, most of the St. Valentine's Day cookie boxes were distributed by foot, by ground, and by air, to my children, friends and family. A few dozen cookies remain, under a chipped glass dome on the table, gifted to our son who is home for a gap year. Eventually our children will have children, and we will add more boxes, more votives, and more memories.
Our homegrown sugar cookie tradition started 57 years ago, when my older brother was in kindergarten. Our parents started making decorative sugar cookies for him to take to school and share with his classmates on St. Valentine's Day. The tradition repeated itself eventually with me, and continued for decades, even after my brother moved far away. Shortly after my dad passed almost a decade ago, I became the maker of the cookies. Baking isn't my first love, but loving my family through this culinary continuum, is a privilege I embrace.
This tradition, and many of the others we have celebrated as a family, will outlast me. When I'm long gone, my children will remember me in the garden and at the table, and know that my love is perennial, perpetual.
I am grateful to know in my heart, that gifts of the heart are the ones that matter most to those who matter most to me. Imagine if the whole world embraced this fundamental ideal -- what a wonderful world it would be.
Love grows if we nurture it. It is contagious and unstoppable.
My St. Valentine's Day gift to you is our family recipe for heart-shaped sugar cookies. This recipe makes at least 48 and up to 60 cookies. You can double or triple it very easily, as I do.
St. Valentine's Day Sugar Cookies
1/2 cup (125 ml) butter, softened to room temperature (don't be tempted to melt it)
3/4 cup (188ml) white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons (7.5ml) excellent quality vanilla
1 1/2 cups (375 ml) white all purpose flour
1 teaspoon (5ml) baking powder
water, milk, or juice of one lemon or lime (more or less), strained (for icing)
natural food colouring (for icing)
candy cinnamon hearts or sprinkles (optional)
pinch of salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 350F (175C).
In a mixer or by hand, cream softened butter and sugar - starting with butter and gradually adding sugar - until light and fluffy.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a separate bowl, then add the flour mixture to the butter mixture - a third at a time works for me.
Divide the dough into two halves and pat each half into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic - recycled bags work great for this, as do the extra large sized beeswaxed wraps. Refrigerate for at least one hour; overnight is just fine.
Remove cookie dough from the fridge, and let warm to room temperature in its wrap. Working with one disc at a time, place dough between two pieces of parchment paper and roll out until about 1/4" (3/4cm) thick. Peel off parchment the top sheet of parchment and tip the dough onto a very lightly floured board. Peel off the bottom sheet. **This first step helps the dough stay tender and pliable as you can avoid adding too much flour during roll-out.
Lightly flour the rolling pin, and roll the dough until it is about 1/8" (1/4cm) thick (it puffs up a bit during baking). Using heart shaped cutters, cut shapes very close to each other, then lift with a spatula and place dough on parchment lined cookie sheets (with sides if possible, so cookies bake more evenly). Gather dough scraps and shake excess flour off, then massage dough into small ball and repeat until spent, flouring board and rolling pin lightly as you go.
Bake the cookies for 8-9 minutes, rotating the sheet pans half-way through. Because oven temperatures differ by brand, age and elevation, I set the timer for 7 minutes initially, then add minutes incrementally after that until done. Remove the cookies from the oven when 'slightly' golden around edges. Cool on a sheet pan for five minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. Ice only when cool.
To ice: Sift icing sugar, then thin sugar with lemon juice (we love the tart/sweet combination) or milk, or water, or a combination of lemon juice and water - to desired thickness - and add colour as desired. We like to flood our cookies with light pink or white icing, then decorate with a darker pink or contrasting colour, and of course cinnamon hearts.
Kids love to decorate and the doing of it makes for memorable family time. Let the icing dry completely before stacking in boxes or cookie tins, between layers of towel or wax paper.
The cookies will store nicely for several weeks, but they won't last that long!
**My family is divided on their favourite icing -- the girls prefer the tart-sweet contrast of sour lime juice and super sweet icing sugar, and the boys prefer traditional all-sweet icing thinned with milk. Both options are delicious. Perhaps make some of each, as we do.
For the original sugar cookie recipe, and for other family recipes, visit ChefatHand.com
To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, such as those relating to traditional environmental knowledge, and adherence to nature's logic, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.
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