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In a bucolic setting, along a less traveled road, standing steady against modern housing sits an 1847 historic home. It is surrounded by an equally historic small farm where one can step back in time in the potager and vegetable gardens, learn of newly introduced produce, rediscover old garden favorites , and learn that what you thought to be a weed, purslane, is really a herb rich in omega 3 fatty acids as well vitamins.

So it was, in a heavenly spot called Country Garden Cuisine, which is owned and operated by Penny Newkirk, that I took a local park district day trip with my friend Sharon and a busload of other good souls.

Country Garden Cuisine was a life-long dream of Penny. As she sold her culinary shop in nearby St. Charles, a nearby convent came to the point in DSCN9558time when they needed to close their doors. When they learned of Penny’s interest in their house and that she wanted to open a culinary school, the deal was sealed, the house was moved to a historic farmstead that had a 1860s barn and outbuildings, and her dream became a reality.

Some years ago, I read about Country Garden Cuisine in a house and garden style magazine. It was a lovely article, but, it was the name that popped out at me. You see, Penny and I went to the same university and managed to land on the same dormitory floor. Both of us being Penny’s, and Pennys being hard to find, we struck up a friendship. That friendship eventually became one of yearly Christmas cards, a few visits, and eventually time and space did what it often does in life, widening the tide of contact. When I saw the article, I cut it out, my heart went pit-a-pat, and I vowed to self to try to contact her and see her school.

Of course, more years went by until one day my friend Roz mentioned, then made happen a field trip for our garden club out to Penny’s school and I finally was able to see her and her wonderful farm. Recently, my friend Sharon mentioned a trip to Country Garden Cuisine and thought I might like signing up for it. I did.

On Wednesday, I was fortunate to visit Country Garden Cuisine again. Penny demonstrated to the group of women in attendance how to make appetizers; grapes covered in Roquefort cheese and a delicious kale pesto, which eventually went into the squash “bowl”, just brought in from the garden.

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We took a stroll around the herb and vegetable gardens, “oohed” and “ahed” over the sunflowers and zinnias, that are excellent pollinator attractors in the gardens, and took in the scent of the many herbs that abounded, even as the season ends. The squashes and pumpkins are coming to harvest and, oh, dare I tell you of the treat we were directed to? Yes. Yes, I will, for it is too good to keep to oneself. At the end of the vegetable garden was a large bed of raspberry bushes, their tempting red heads beckoning us to come and eat up a handful of sunshine. Joy supreme.

Then, time for lunch, we wandered back in where Penny demonstrated and prepared a raw beet salad and quinoa pilaf that would accompany a pork tenderloin (topped with a peach salsa). We ate in the dining and sitting rooms of the old and welcoming house.

Food, history. and connections with the past linking to the present. A moveable feast.

This is actually a Kobocha squash, just about ready to pick from the garden.

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned a book we received in one of the private gardens during an Open Day for the Garden Conservancy. I meant to post on it sooner, but life, in the form of young grandchildren and lots of great family time, filled my days until now.

And do, once upon a time in a garden  . . .

When we approached to ticket table at Mettawa Manor, we were given a raffle stub, along with a map of the estate and some general directions. Our delightfully informative greeter invited us to return with the stub to the ticket table when we finished our garden visit and to return it in exchange for one of the many books the estate’s owners were giving away from their personal library.

What a generous gift – and a great idea to file in my revolving folder of a mind –  perhaps to use sometime in one of my activities.

There were still many lovely books about gardening, landscaping, cooking and such when we wandered back to the table. As soon as I saw the cover of “A Glorious Harvest”, I knew it was destined to follow me home. Poor Tom. He didn’t have a chance.

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“A Glorious Harvest: Robust Recipes from the Dairy, Pasture, Orchard, and Sea”, by Henrietta Green, is filled with enticing recipes, informed text from the author, a culinary writer, and the most delectable photographs.

From entries like Paper Bag Potatoes and Roulade with Asparagus, to Tarte Tatin and Whole-wheat Bread, I am putting on weight just browsing this engaging cookbook/reference book/instruction manual on all things gastronomical. As I sit here putting words to screen, a recipe, really quite simple, called Paper Bag Potatoes, is calling to me. Perhaps I will visit a farm stand tomorrow, dig up some new potatoes from one of the bins, pull out some parchment paper, and see what aromas and tastes issue forth.

Ah, the many wonders of visiting gardens on Open Days.

Have you eaten, I mean read, any good cookbooks lately?

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DSCN9324 - Version 4A delightfully unplanned, but heartedly welcomed family of visitors descended upon the Cutoff last week. They filled our home with laughter and curiosity, playfulness and adventures. It has been a week of blissful family time and all that comes with having small children about, as well as our own daughters and sons-in-law.

 I am so grateful.

While we have taken walks in the woods, had picnics and playtime and plenty of meals that I would love to share with you, it is children and water that flows in my thoughts right now. So, dear friends, I hope you won’t mind if I take you to a few of our recent watering holes.

The Little Red Schoolhouse Woods is a favorite spot of ours, so, we were thrilled when son-in-law Tom suggested we go to the nature center there and take a walk. I think it is a spot that will build some memories for our Kez and Ez, and appreciate Tom’s willingness to go there, especially with his very short turn-around time before returning home.

Kezzie noticed this frog eating Cheerios in a pond in the woods. She also noticed a water snake and some interesting dragonflies, but, those are stories for another time.

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Water features are prominent in the Children’s Garden at the Morton Arboretum, and really, what child can resist the lure of dripping water and walking barefoot between stones in a creek?

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Then, there was Ezra’s unbridled glee in a splash park near our house.

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I am a wee bit tired right now and have much catching up to do, but, I wanted you to know I wasn’t all washed up. I’ve just been enjoying family time and all the joy that it brings.

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There were two open gardens at the Garden Conservancy Open Days this past Sunday. One was Mettawa Manor, the other was in Highland Park.

The Highland Park home does not have the celebrity of Mettawa Manor, but, it is rich in architecture and lush in texture. The wooden bench, above, is just one of many features in this garden that were both beautiful and inspiring.

This bench also provided these two characters, who were flitting about, a quiet spot to rest their feet after oohing and ahhh-ing as they strolled about and had a delightful time talking with the homeowner.

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Since I was one of those characters, the one who talks too much, I’ll be silent now and show you a few highlights from the Highland Park garden,

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“I think I hear someone calling your name, Penny” said Tom.

“Look who it is”

How nice it was to run into Jan and Mike.

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Meanwhile, back at the Manor . . .

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Speaking of manor houses, look what’s coming to Chicago’s Driehouse Museum.

Downton Abbey (PBS) Season 1, 2010 Shown from left: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern

Downton Abbey (PBS) Season 1, 2010
Shown from left: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern

image from here.

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°IMG_7518 - Version 3On a recent, misty, Saturday afternoon, I took a trek in a nearby woods. It was a murky walk on muddy paths over fallen trees; a route less traveled except by an army of mosquitoes attacking from all fronts. I had on my “cone of protection“, but, they found my skin just-the-same, especially my ankles and the meaty mounds of my aging forearms.

There was an eclectic collection of participants; citizen scientists of uncertain age, students of nature as well as history buffs and those interested in conservation efforts. A few younger participants, at least younger from my perspective, appeared to be summer interns who came armed with pens and intelligent questions and there were those with sophisticated cameras, sketch pads and notebooks.

We were at McDowell Grove and the subject of the presentation in the stone shelter and the walk was how this forest preserve came to be. It was private property a century or so ago. By the 1930’s, now a forest preserve,  it took on a newer purpose. The stone shelter we met in was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was part of FDR’s New Deal. A corp of men resided in a location not far from the shelter. They built bridges,  as well as stone structures, fire pits, dams, and trails. It was later taken over by the military and the OSS. Today, it is a peaceful forest preserve, still growing and changing in its use and significance.

My mission being equal portions of curiosity and field work, I went to determine if this would be a fitting outing for my garden club, I found the tour fascinating with a lingering sense wonder at how much more I wanted to know.

This walk in the woods and presentation in the stone shelter were interesting and awakened my curiosity about how our forest preserve districts have come about, what other purposes they may have had, and curiosity over who walked the paths before us. It also increased my gratitude for the men and women who deeded their properties for public use and for the citizens who saw the value in preserving valuable tracts of land so that generations of those who love nature or will come to love nature will have a place to walk and wonder.

I live close to many of woods of the Forest Preserve Districts of Cook and Du Page County. They house nature centers and equestrian trails, bike trails for the casual ride through the woods as well as staging areas for mountain biking. Canoeing and kayaking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, groves for picnics and for family reunions, and now, even camping is allowed in some locations.

The State of Illinois, more often known for its crooked politicians, crime, prairies and skyscrapers, actually has more acres of forest preserve than most other states. These public places with acres upon acres of wonder and welcome are also places of both solitude and recreational gatherings. They provide safe harbor to wildlife and healthy living in equal measure for the weekend wanderer or the life-time outdoorsmen and women.

Have you been to a forest preserve or nature center lately?

Have you learned some new,  historical, scientific, environmental?

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Ever since reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Secret Garden” as a child, I have been intrigued by garden doors, imagining myself as Mary Lennox, wondering what is beyond a locked door.

So it was upon entering the Rotary Gardens in Janesville, Wisconsin that my imagination grew like Jack’s beanstalk and I squealed in girlish glee “oh, this is wonderful“. There I was, hopping around, opening and closing garden doors, peering into windows and otherwise embarrassing Tom who, after all these years, is used to my childish ways about these bookish gardening “things”.

There were doors opening on doors as groomsmen in gray – and senior citizens in greige -averted their eyes to the gleeful granny and her indulgent companion.

Isn’t it grand to discover something creative and open your imagination for a bit? Maybe it was because we had just spent several days with our darling grandchildren who love to pretend that images of Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy and Toto following a yellow brick road came to mind.

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Well, dear reader, when one door closes another opens, and so it did as something else caught my eye.

Can you see it? Click on the photo for a better look.

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Scattered about the gardens were many of these boxes. They reminded me of the Little Free Libraries and were painted in all manner of whimsy and creativity.

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A volunteer in the gardens told us that the boxes were made by a group of men. They were sold at a nominal cost to be painted and appointed however the artist saw fit. They will be raffled off (or was it auctioned?) and I, of course, imagine them filled with gardening books and secret doors.

What would you fill them with?

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IMG_0771 - Version 2A toad lives under our house. Not exactly UNDER the house, but in that threshold of habitation between the screen door and the sill. One of those smallest of spaces that tend to inhabit a creaky old house in a cut off woods where deer wander and chew up the scenery like a hungry ham on vaudeville stage and where toads and frogs and walking sticks can find opportune spots to survive.

This is the third year, or is it fourth?,  that we have discovered toads residing under the doorsill, even though I plant toad houses in and about the garden beds. I forget their cohabitation all the time, then squeal in surprise, then delight, when they hop into view – just as I’m carrying in a bag of groceries or a china tea cup full of hot tea as I mosey on out to the arbor.

I sometimes wonder who laughs more , me or my toad, for I do laugh. You know I do. My sense of humor about life’s little things often pops up like a frog on a threshold.

Take last Saturday, for instance.

There I was, heading home, driving through the western suburbs of Chicagoland. It was mid-afternoon on a most magnificent June day, when I spotted two women in a front yard. Both were of “a certain age”, only even older that. They were rather pear shaped, more Bartlett than Bosc. Rather like me. There they were in plain view. One of the women was pushing an old push mower. The other women was pushing the woman pushing the mower.

I laughed out loud. Not a LOL, but a real, hearty, tear-producing laugh out loud. I admired their spunk and their ingenuity at getting the job done, but, I must confess that I laughed, all the way home, then more, much more, as I tried to explain to my family, who know my eccentric ways, exactly what it was that had tickled my funny bone.

I had other things I wanted to tell you, but this old stone is gathering moss, so off I go to pull some weeds, hunt for four-leaf clovers, and wander along this road called life.

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