Bicycle Race

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We had some excitement today to interrupt our usual quiet day. In the morning we started hearing sirens and horns outside our apartment. Later as we went out for our walk to the village we saw that all traffic was being stopped at the corner of our street where the main road passes.
It turns out that today is day five of a major bicycle race through the Algarve. For several hours bicyclists and their accompanying cars and motorcycles roared through town. All traffic through town was stopped and people lined the streets to watch. From our seat in a restaurant in the village square we could see the riders barrel around the corner into town and begin the climb up the hill toward Portimão. This apparently is the Portuguese version of the Tour de France.

It’s Sunday here in Ferragudo. We’ve just returned from a 3km walk to the nearby city of Portimão. It is still cool but sunny and clear with fluffy white clouds. During the week many restaurants are open only in the evening but Sundays are different. Sunday is when the shops close and families get together. Restaurants are filled with children, parents, and grandparents all sharing lengthy meals.
As we walked across the bridge into Portimão we could see on a street under the bridge, an open air kitchen where fresh fish was being gutted (sorry for the graphic description), rinsed, doused with olive oil and a handful of salt, and then placed on a charcoal grill. We decided we had to go there.
The restaurant was crowded but we found a place at a long table. Max asked for Sea Bass, the waitress explained that they were very big and charged for by the kilo. 44 euros per kilo in fact. He chose a Silver Bream instead. I thought I’d try the fried prawns, not the best choice as it turned out.
It is customary at the beginning of every meal to be served a group of dishes. There is always bread and butter along with small containers of sardine paste, much like our little containers of jam. Olives are usual along with marinated carrot slices. Today there was also a dish of chick peas with onions, garlic, and tuna. These are appetisers and charged for unless one sends them back.
We were brought a bowl of salad. Chopped tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and roasted peppers dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and sea salt.
Max’s fish was perfectly grilled and exceptional but my prawns were less successful. They arrived, fully intact, rosy-red in a pan with oil and garlic. There is no way to eat a whole prawn except with fingers, and then not easily. The head has to be pulled off and then the legs and shell peeled away. With all that work one gets a little meat.
At the table next to us a Portuguese couple were sharing a big pan of a sort of stew, chunks of smoked meat with tiny clams in a savory sauce. After asking them about it, I was urged to share a bit. It was delicious. That began a pleasant meal of conversation and laughter, trying to make ourselves understood. The man spoke a little English from working on cruise ships twenty years ago, his wife had only a few words but we managed to communicate. Our meal ended with them giving us a recipe for his favorite dessert, Arroz Doce (Sweet Rice) or, as we know it, Rice Pudding.
All in all, it’s been a perfectly delightful day.

After all the rather smug emails I’ve sent home to New England, buried under snow, it has turned cold and cloudy here. Yesterday we kept warm with a roaring fire in the fireplace. We had just gotten around to getting some wood.
This morning we decided a brisk walk would be a good way to warm up. We walked through a cemetery, just up the hill from us. It is not at all like cemeteries in the US. The graves are partially raised on marble or concrete. Most have a large vase of artificial flowers and a marble “book” inscribed with the name and dates of the individual buried there. Many also have photos.

Tombstones

One section of the cemetery is lined with small “houses” each containing the remains of a family. Looking through a little window we can see caskets on either side, like bunk beds. The caskets are not as deep as the ones we see in the US. They are covered with ornate cloths, some lace, others fringed. In some there was a chair between the two tiers of caskets.

Family tombs


Another section of the cemetery holds a long wall of stacked glass doors, behind each a space just large enough for a single casket, again covered by a cloth.

Space saver tombs

The separate family tombs reminded me of the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. It contains a whole village of family tombs.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’ve been fascinated with cemeteries since childhood. Perhaps it is the result of being the granddaughter of a funeral director but Smith Hill Cemetery, in Otisville, Michigan was a place I visited often growing up. Generations of my family were buried there and visiting the graves from time to time was expected. In addition, my father sometimes helped to dig graves and my grandfather was the overseer. In my travels around the world, I’ve discovered incredibly diverse ways to honor the dead. In Thailand, Vietnam, France, Belgium, Kenya, and Romania all have been different and meaningful in that culture.

Imagine spending months in a country where the only television programs come from another country many countries and languages away. Here in Ferragudo, on the southern coast of Portugal, we are living in a complex that seems to be mostly owned by British and rented by British. We are unable to get any Portuguese TV channels and hence, no sports.
The only programs that we get are reruns of old British drama and sitcoms. The better ones we’ve seen before on PBS, sans commercials. We also get British CNN and Sky News but everything is interrupted frequently for commercial breaks. Max had looked forward to coming to Europe so that he would be able to watch world football, the kind we know as soccer. What frustration! We looked into subscribing to a local channel or a British channel that carries sports but it seems that a satellite dish is needed and they aren’t allowed in our complex.
There is a good side to not having television sports though, I don’t have to listen to it.
We have are enjoying Heartbeat, a series that ran for 18 years, from 1992 to 2010 but takes place in the 60s. It has some great music as well as a charming cast of characters and situations. It is on nightly after our early dinner.
Not much excitement here but we certainly can’t fault the beautiful weather and village.

Fish

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Ferragudo is a fishing village. Early in the morning the main street, which runs along the water, is filled with small fishing boats bringing in their catch. Chefs from the restaurants come to get the freshest fish for the day along with housewives. The market is bustling for a few hours. Later in the day we pass it and see the steel tables and floor being hosed down until the next day’s fish arrive.
Restaurants all offer a variety of grilled fish, most popular are Sea Bass and Sea Bream. It is a bit disconcerting to sit down in a restaurant, as we did yesterday, and have a big basket of fish brought to the table for us to choose which ones we’d like. A short time later they arrived back at our table grilled to perfection with the head and tail intact. Then the task of boning them began. Max seems to be better at it than I am. I manage to get a bone or two in every mouthful. They are delicious however with crispy skin rubbed with oil and coarse salt.
In a more posh restaurant we were served fish, boned at our table. It was carried out with a flair by a waiter in a white apron over his black trousers and white shirt. Using a fish knife, a fork, and a big spoon, he deftly removed the flesh from the bones. The only time I haven’t gotten a bone for each bite.

We’ve had to get used to the shop schedules here. Open at 8 or 9 AM, close from 1300 to 1500 or 1600 (1 to 3 or 4PM) We go for our walks either in the morning or late afternoon. Today is Saturday. Most of the shops closed at 1300 for the day, or weren’t open at all.
There are lots of small cafes and snack bars that are open all day but most restaurants don’t open until 1800 (6PM) or later, except on Sunday when they open for lunch. That makes it difficult for an old man who like to eat at 5PM!
I like to walk to town down the hill from our apartment and then walk home along the beach. It’s only one short hill to climb that way. I’m getting better at the hills though.

Main Street of Ferragudo from across the canal


Today there were lots of people out strolling or sipping espresso at tables in the main square. We saw a couple of fishermen mending nets and dogs roam freely without seeming to bother anyone. It does mean watching where we walk.

The next three months Max and I will be living in the village of Ferragudo in the Algarve region of Portugal. We have rented a two bedroom apartment overlooking the beach and a castle, it is very picturesque. The center of town is a five minute walk to the bottom of the hill.
The streets leading down to the shops and the water front are steep, narrow, and cobbled. Everywhere we look we find little alleys branching off from the streets. Some include stairs and all lead down into the village. Houses are entered from these paths and seem to have no order, they are close together and on many levels.
Yesterday we shopped. At the butcher’s we bought a small chicken which he skinned and chopped into four sections. We stopped at the bakery for some fresh rolls and then on to the little grocery where we bought some vegetables and wine. Walking back up the hill we glanced into a tiny shop and saw fish. It was late in the day but a few still lay on a bed of ice. We bought one for dinner.
I have no idea what kind of fish we had but it was delicious. I put garlic, sliced onion, salt and pepper, and sliced lemon in the cavity, then rubbed it with olive oil and baked it with the head and tail intact. My first attempt at Portuguese cooking was a success.

The view from our balcony

I seldom make pies anymore. I’m only cooking for two and if I have guests there are such wonderful pies available at the orchard bakery that it doesn’t make sense. Just before Thanksgiving I suddenly had the urge. I made cousin Marlene’s pastry recipe instead of my usual. It makes enough for seven crusts. I decided to make 8 inch pies for the freezer. I made several apple pies but thought that a pecan pie might be good for my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner.
The mixture I usually use calls for dark corn syrup, something I try to avoid since reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I bought the corn syrup and then happened to run across a pecan pie recipe that doesn’t use it. It turned out to be a huge success. Unlike the corn syrup recipe, the pecans remained dispersed throughout the pie, rather than rising to the top. It also seemed less sweet, like it didn’t make my teeth hurt.
The recipe makes a ten inch pie, a deep 9 inch, or two eight inch pies .

Pecan Pie

1/3 cup white sugar
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
½ cup melted butter
3 eggs
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Beat eggs until well mixed then beat in the sugars and flour. Add the melted butter, mix well and finally add the milk, vanilla and nuts.

Pour into an unbaked pie shell and place in a 400 degree oven. Bake 10 minutes and then lower the heat to 300 degrees and bake an additional 50 minutes or until done. (Oven temperatures vary so timing is approximate. The pie is done when the center appears firm when shaken lightly)

A Night Out

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The shorter days and cold weather seem to take away some of my energy. I don’t look forward to getting out in the evening as I do the rest of the year. I start the day thinking that I’ll go to a movie in the evening, or perhaps get tickets to a play but by evening I only want to have dinner and read or watch a DVD.
Last night, I broke out of the lassitude and had a fun evening at one of Newburyport’s Invitation Nights. My granddaughter Crystal asked Auntie Laura and me to go with her. We found Newburyport teeming with cheerful people enjoying the festive atmosphere.
Shops were brightly lit and decorated, wine and other goodies were offered wherever we went and carolers strolled in the street. At the corner of Merrimack and State street different musical groups performed to the delight of onlookers.
There were lots families with young children and many had the family dog in tow. In one shop a little boy poked his head in to ask if dogs were welcome. “Of course,” was the cheery reply of the owner. I remembered how impressed I had been when visiting the city in the summer and finding bowls of water outside shop doors, placed there for passing pooches,.
Laura and I thought back thirty years when we moved to the north shore. Newburyport was a depressed, dreary city with little to recommend it, other than it’s illustrious history. Today it is a vibrant, fun place to visit and last night proved it.
It was an evening of warmth and camaraderie. One of the things that small towns do so well.

This year has passed in a flash, it seems like we were just starting to pick strawberries and now the apples are all off the trees and we begin our final week at the orchard store. It is a big week for the bakery. Watching Pam and her pie crew prepare for the Thanksgiving pies makes me think of the first few years in the bakery.
The store in 1980 occupied just the small room with the fireplace. The main barn held the apple sorting tables and storage. A small tack room from a much earlier era had been transformed into a kitchen.
It was exciting to have our pies become so popular and we were happy when the orders came in but to have them all fresh and on schedule for pick-up was a challenge. We had managed to buy an oven that would hold 16 pies at a time and 16 was about the number of apple pies that we could make in an hour.
My mother had been famous for her pies and I learned how to make them at her side from the time I was a little girl. I was determined that the pies from the bakery would be as good as those that I would serve at our own table.
Thanksgiving meant apple, pumpkin, mince, and pecan pies.
In addition to the apples, peeled by hand, we had grown pumpkins that year so, no canned pumpkin. I baked up dozens of pumpkins, scraped out the flesh and pureed them in the food processor. Mince meat was also a challenge. I made it also using a recipe from an ancient cookbook. The preparation to be ready to actually make the pies was daunting and labor intensive.
Customers started picking up their pies on Tuesday, Wednesday was a busier day but Thursday morning we had the crush. The ovens were going around the clock for days. By the time we closed at noon on Thanksgiving Day, all we wanted to do was fall into bed.
Thirty years later, we’ve discovered that canned pumpkin actually makes a better pie, an automated peeler peels the apples, and there is a “pie crew” that can turn out dozens of pies in a few hours. The Thanksgiving pie baking has become organized an efficient.

Celebrity Chef

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Last weekend was the annual Apple and Wine Festival at the orchard with lots of special activities in addition to the wine tasting. I was asked to be one of the “celebrity chefs” and give a cooking demonstration. I chose to make miniature crepes filled with caramelized apples. They were fun to do and a big success.
The apples and batter I had prepared ahead of time and then cooked the crepes on an electric griddle while people watched. Crepes are basically thin pancakes and incredibly easy to make. The batter is fool proof and can be made a day or two ahead. They make great breakfast foods, equally good desserts, and can also be filled with something savory for a main course.
I still had five small crepes left when the apple filling was gone. I sprinkled cinnamon sugar on them to the approval of the five people who finished them off.

I folded these little ones into pockets to make them easier as finger food but the filling is usually put across the center of the crepe and then it is rolled.


Crepes with Caramelized Apples

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, melted
A blender makes short work of these and the batter will keep well in the refrigerator. If no blender, whisk in a large bowl.
1.Blend eggs and milk/water together with salt and sugar. Add flour and then melted butter. Blend or whisk until smooth.
2.Ladle batter onto a hot griddle or frying pan, smooth into a thin layer with the back of the ladle or swirl by tipping the pan. When the surface is set, turn and cook the other side. Remove to a plate. Crepes may be stacked and filled later, or filled and served immediately.

Caramelized Apples

4-5 tart apples
2 tablespoons sugar, white or brown
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup cider

Peel, core, and coarsely chop apples. Melt butter in a 12 inch skillet. Add apples and cook over high heat until bottoms starts to brown and carmelize. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon. Add cider and cook down until thickened. Cinnamon or vanilla can be added with the cider.

Fresh strawberries with a little ice cream or whipped cream makes crepes a great dessert. Spread them with jam and a sliced banana or try any other fruits that you like.
Leave the sugar out of the crepe batter and fill the pancakes with a meat or vegetable filling and they’re good for a main course. I’ve made them with a mixture of scallops, crab, and shrimp in a Bechamel sauce with a bit of sherry added, or chicken and mushrooms. Arranged in a baking pan, a light layer of the sauce on top and then sprinkled with a bit of cheese, they can be made ahead and popped into the oven just long enough to heat them through.
I’m always surprised that people are impressed by something so easy to make.

Perhaps there weren’t really a million people there, but it seemed like it. I’m in our nation’s capital savoring the experience of having joined a wonderful event.
The morning after Jon Stewart announced his Rally to Restore Sanity I received an email from Dixie, my political junky friend from Tennessee. She had just booked three rooms in DC for the rally, did I want to join her. Yes, definitely.
On Saturday my daughter Laura, daughter-in-law Susan, and granddaughter Claire joined 100,000 (or maybe 200,000) people from all over the country to laugh and cheer and enjoy the camaraderie of the day.
The rally was due to start at noon, by the time we arrived at 9:30 the mall was already rapidly filling. Everywhere we turned were buttons, stickers, plastic megaphones, and even towels being handed out.
Dixie had arrived even earlier and staked out a place for all of us. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of leaving the others to explore a bit and was never able to get back to them. The tightly packed crowd made navigation nearly impossible but still, just being part of the event was fun.
We met people from all over the country who had traveled from Maine and California and Michigan and Iowa and every other state to be a part of the rally and show their support for reason and sanity in this period of political craziness.
The rally was perceived as a response to the Glenn Beck rally a few weeks earlier. Chatting with a bartender last evening I was told that the restaurant had had diners waiting in line for as much as two hours after the rally. The Glenn Beck rally had been only a bit busier than usual, no lines.
Here’s a link to the Washington Post article covering the rally.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2010/10/25/ST2010102500055.html?sid=ST2010102500055

One of the most striking and memorable things about the food in Japan was the presentation. Restaurant windows show plates with tasteful displays of the available meals. On more than one occasion I ordered in a restaurant by taking the waitperson outside to show them in the window what I wanted.
Everything looks good enough to eat.
Bento boxes, common takeout lunches are also tastefully arrange with attention to color, form, and texture. I had never heard of them until my trip to Japan but now I see the boxes for sale and recipes to fill them on websites. I wonder if I just never noticed, or if they are a recent discovery for other Americans.
Maybe a Bento box?
My Japanese friends seemed disappointed when a few times I opted for a sandwich at lunch, not typically Japanese I was told. I sometimes got hungry for something familiar but the sandwiches were not what we would find at the corner deli. Slice after slice of different breads were layed with a variety of fillings,maybe tuna, egg salad, super thinly sliced meat, and vegetables mixed with some sort of spread. These stacks were then sliced through all the layers to form tall slim sandwiches.

Whether in the shop windows or street stalls or restaurants, every kind of food seemed to be a work of art. Vegetables and fish and meat that look too good to eat, one might spoil the arrangement.
Where to begin?

My recent post about the Haggis I didn’t eat has made me think of the foods that I have eaten around the world.
I had the good fortune to be a guest in several Japanese homes. I had carefully read up on Japanese customs, not wanting to offend anyone with a thoughtless action or remark. One caution was not to completely clean ones plate unless you want it to be replenished immediately. My appetite is small so I was careful to eat most but not all of a meal. It didn’t matter, my plate continually piled high with food.
I had also read about the fabulous fish market in Tokyo and begged my friend Shizuko to take me there. She thought I was crazy. Finally she took me to a whole street of fish markets, not the big one that I had read about, but lots of smaller ones.
She bought some eel for our dinner. It looked like a small filleted fish and I expected it to taste like fish. The flavor was good but the consistency was soft and mushy, a unpleasant sensation in my mouth. Miso soup and octupus were also new foods for me. I can’t say that I came home planning menus including either, but I enjoyed trying new flavors and textures.
One food that was a winner is a dish called Okonomiyaki. My hostess called it a Japanese pizza. It’s round and has a variety of foods piled on top but I’d say that’s the only resemblance. It is a sort of crepe or pancake cooked on a griddle along with a mound of cabbage and assorted other vegetables and meat. When all is cooked, the pancake is slathered with the dark, thick, sweet and pungent Okonomiyaki sauce. Then the meat (or fish) and vegetables are placed on top and it is served. I liked it so much that I carried a quart of the sauce home with me but have never opened it.
Fish Market

Last month we traveled in Scotland. It is part of my commitment to travel that I try the local food. I had set off with the intention of trying the Scottish national dish of Haggis. My intentions were the best but when faced with reality, I fell through.
I know that it must be edible. It was on every menu. Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties, it sounds like something from Harry Potter books. Now that I think of it, I believe J. K. Rowling is a Scot or at least she lived there.
I figured it was a sort of sausage, and I guess it is but I made the mistake of looking it up. According to Wikopedia, Haggis is made of,

sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver, and lungs) chopped together with onion, oatmeal, suet (that’s fat) spices, and salt. It’s mixed with stock, and traditionally simmered in the animal’s stomach for three hours.

A little too much information.
Neeps are turnips and tatties, as one might guess, are potatoes. Both foods that I like. Most menus also offered Chicken Breast stuffed with Haggis. I skipped that too but did have some excellent lamb and fish.
Now that I’m home and didn’t take the opportunity to try Haggis, I’m thinking of all the sausages I did eat there. Bangers and Mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) are something I always eat in the UK as well as all those Traditional Scottish (artery clogging) breakfasts with sausages, eggs, bacon, fried bread, and for health, half of a grilled tomato. I’m guessing that if I saw the list of ingredients in those sausages, I’d not relish them so much either.
Oh well, Haggis is something to look forward to if I’m ever in Scotland again.

A friend, planning a visit to Ipswich, asked if there was a good place to eat in Ipswich. As I started naming my favorite restaurants I began to think of the size of Ipswich in relation to the number of eateries.
We have a population of roughly 13000 residents and 25 actual restaurants with five additional locations where prepared meals can be purchased for take-away. That doesn’t count the two donut shops, and three ice cream shops. I figure that makes one food establishment for every 433 people, children included. I’m amazed.
It started me wondering who supports all these places? I wonder if people come from all around the area just to eat in Ipswich. Or do lots of people eat all their meals out? This is a puzzle.
Another thing that I think is extraordinary, there are three high-end restaurants where a meal for two with wine can easily exceed $100. These seem like special occasion places but do Ipswichites have that many special occasions?
Last weekend we celebrated a special occasion with a fabulous dinner at Zabaglione Restaurant. It was the 55th anniversary of our marriage. We haven’t actually been married all that time of course. There was the twenty year hiatus.
Zabaglione and Ithaki are our choices for special occasions, we like Choate Bridge Pub and Stone Soup for casual meals. That means we haven’t actually had a chance to try the other 21 places. Maybe it’s time to start making the rounds.

It’s been a hectic and lovely summer (if we don’t count the heat and humidity). Between our granddaughter Leah’s wedding, house guests, two trips to Europe and a big project, there hasn’t been much time for writing.
I mentioned in my last post that we would be traveling to Whitby in North Yorkshire, England for another wedding party. Whitby is a charming town on the sea. We enjoyed sightseeing and visiting with our new grandson-in-law’s family but the highlight of the visit was the party.
About a hundred guests met at the Whitby Museum where we mingled and viewed Whitby historical artifacts. We had champagne, cake, and toasts there.

Seaside Wedding Cake

Top tier

The cake was a sensation, an original masterpiece depicting the seaside where Whitby is located. It was baked by a local bakery and just one of the surprises of the evening.

Leah and William outside the Whitby Museum

Exiting the museum we were awed by the view from the museum hilltop, across the harbor to the 15th century ruins of St Hilda’s Abbey, founded in 657!

Charabanc

1931 Steam Bus


An unusual antique Steam Bus and a Charabanc provided transportation to the party in the hall of a nearby village. There we had a dinner of typical English foods; whole salmon resting on a bed of greens, sausages, meat pies, fish cakes, scones, and much more. Following the dinner were more toasts and then the tables and chairs were cleared away for a Ceilidh, a dance of Irish or Scottish tradition, akin to our square dances. Guests from eight to eighty were soon promenading, spinning and bowing amidst much laughter and gaiety.

The Minter family were wonderful hosts and the party a smashing success. It was a fun way to end the wedding festivities.

Long Pause

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I’m tired of looking at Green Beans every time I log onto the orchard website but I’ve been focusing on another project. We have been celebrating the marriage of my granddaughter, Leah Russell to a lovely young man from Great Britain. There has been a whirlwind of activities on this side of the Pond and today, I’m leaving for the UK for more wedding festivities.
Leah and her new husband, William Minter live in Brighton where they both teach Chinese but William’s parents live in Whitby. It is a seaside town on the Northeast coast, we are looking forward to seeing that area and attending another party for the newlyweds.
As long as we are there, Max and I will spend some time in Scotland the homeland of my Great-Grandfather. I’m looking forward to trying all sorts of new food, maybe some Haggis or Treacle Pudding.

This hot weather has made cooking a challenge. Last night we celebrated our son Aaron’s birthday with dinner on the terrace. Steaks on the grill were no problem but I wanted to have everything else ready.
The pea pods seem to be finished but there were some beautiful green beans from the vegetable garden, what to do with them? It was too hot in the kitchen to be cooking late in the afternoon. I’d made potato salad and torn greens for a garden salad but didn’t want to be doing the green beans when I could be with everyone else outside.
Googling Green Bean Recipes turned up hundreds, many with sauces or baked with other ingredients. I wanted something simple that could be made ahead and served at room temperature. There wasn’t any single recipe that was just what I wanted but I ended up with an idea. The beans were a success.

Green Beans for a Summer Evening
1/2 pound fresh green beans (I had about 10 ounces)
2 tablespoons chopped, toasted walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon vinegar (I used Purple Basil from the orchard)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey

1.Cut stem ends from beans and drop into boiling water for about 4 minutes, until tender crisp.
2.Drain and cool quickly in cold water. Drain.
3.Toast walnuts in a wide pan on high heat for about two minutes. Remove from pan immediately to cool and prevent scorching.
4.Whisk oil, vinegar, mustard and honey together and toss with cooled beans.
5.Top with walnuts, scallions and mint just before serving.
(Serves four)
If made far ahead they can be refrigerated but they should be brought to room temperature for serving. These would be good served hot too.

Green beans are one of our favorite vegetables but I usually just boil to tender-crisp, in salted water, drain and serve. Now I’m inspired to try some different combinations, maybe sesame oil and sesame seeds or melted butter and fresh thyme.

I don’t know where sugar snap peas have been all my life but now discovered I can’t get enough of them. I know that I’ve eaten them occasionally in Chinese food but had never cooked them. I’ve mentioned before the paucity of vegetables in my early life. Nearly every vegetable we ate came from a can. In the summer my grandfather had a vegetable garden but everything was allowed to get too big and then boiled to tastelessness. When we started our own garden in Andover we never even thought of growing sugar snap peas. We did grow peas but the task of shelling a mountain of pea pods and ending up with a little bowl full for our family of seven was too much work.
On Wednesday when I returned from my trip I was eager to get to the orchard and see if there were still strawberries. There were not only beautiful strawberries but baskets of sweet cherries, raspberries, and blueberries. And, right next to all the bounteous fruit were boxes of sugar snap peas.
I brought a box home and started checking cookbooks. My cookbooks have been around for a lot of years and I didn’t find many recipes but when I looked on-line, there were dozens. For the last three nights I’ve prepared them in three different ways. The sweet flavor and crunchy texture go perfectly with almost anything.
One night I sautéed them briefly with olive oil and fresh thyme, the next night with julienned carrots in a little sesame oil and a drizzle of honey, last night I used a bit of bacon fat and basil. Delicious in every case.
Tonight I think I’ll use butter and a bit of chopped fresh mint over them. I’m also thinking of other combinations. Maybe cumin seeds and then there are all the different herbs that abound in the summer.
They’re easy to prepare, I remove the stem end and in the bigger peas, I pull off the string along the back. I’ve been boiling them for exactly three minutes and then chilling them quickly with cold water. They’re ready then to be quickly reheated in a little butter or oil or orange juice or stock with herbs, maybe a bit of grated ginger would be good too. So many possibilities.

I arrived in Helsinki, Finland ten days ago to find the lilacs and lily of the valley in full bloom, but strawberries no where near ready. That was the only disappointment though. The time has been filled with new friends, new experiences, new foods, and history lessons of this part of the world.
With two Massachusetts friends I’m traveling with an English friend and a German friend as we explore common interests and learn together about ancient cultures very different from ours.
An Internet cafe isn’t a very good place to reflect on the trip but I hope to write something about it when I get home. In the meantime, enjoy strawberries.

Strawberries here at the orchard usually start ripening about the 10th of June with good picking beginning about the 15th. I’ve mentioned here before my “strawberry rule”; no strawberries that aren’t local or in season. That means that I eagerly await mid-June.
Last Sunday Hunton arrived with a basket of berries that he had just picked, it was May 23rd! Nearly three weeks early. They were fabulous, still warm from the sun, with the sweet, intense strawberry flavor that only the first of the season seem to have.
We will soon have an abundance of berries and I’ll be trying out new recipes and enjoying the old favorites. I just started to use the remaining jar of last summer’s strawberry jam from the freezer. It is so good on toast or mixed with some plain yogurt.
The weather this spring has been unusual. For the first time in the thirty years we’ve had the orchard, the trees blossomed three weeks early. It’s a bit disconcerting and worrisome, a late frost can do major damage to a crop. We can only keep our fingers crossed.
Here’s one of our favorite recipes, especially for these early berries. I like it covered with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

STRAWBERRY GLACE PIE

1 quart fresh strawberries
1 12 ounce package frozen, sliced strawberries
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 9 inch baked pie shell
Make glaze by placing thawed, frozen strawberries in a saucepan with sugar and water which has been mixed with the cornstarch. Cook over low heat until thickened and clear. Cool for 20 minutes.

Arrange whole fresh berries in the pie shell, pointed end up. Pour glaze over fresh berries and chill for at least 3 hours before serving. Makes 6 servings.

The Orchard store opened for the season last Saturday. There have been a lot of changes over the winter with Doug and Miranda updating and trying new things. One thing that hasn’t changed is the donut recipe.
Yesterday as I sampled my first donut of the season I thought back to 1980 when Max had the brilliant idea (he was great for ideas) of making donuts to sell. Donuts were one of my grandmother’s specialties and I remembered them fondly. When our children were growing up I had occasionally made them myself.
Making them to sell sounded like a good idea . We bought packaged donut mix from a commercial food distributer, used cider as the liquid and called them cider donuts. I bought a plunger affair from a restaurant supply house. It operated manually, dropping batter into hot oil in ring shapes.
Since this was something untried we bought a small commerical fryolator. It held nine donuts at a time. We set up a donut station in a corner of the barn, near the fireplace (that room was the entire store in those days) and proceeded to fry donuts. One by one I pushed the soft dough through the plunger. Each donut took three minutes to cook, 90 seconds on one side and then another 90 seconds on the other side. I used the handle of a wooden spoon to turn them.
To my dismay, the donuts were an instant hit. Soon people were waiting patiently in line for hot donuts. I dreaded the people who wanted a half dozen, or worse, a dozen donuts. We needed a better system.
In visits to orchards in Michigan we had seen automatic donut makers. We had also tasted rich, dark, spicy donuts. They made ours seem pale and tasteless. I had always hated the idea of using a mix. Mixes were simply flour, sugar, baking powder and some kind of shortening with a lot of chemicals to make them shelf stable. I could do that myself without the chemicals.
I got out my Joy of Cooking and the recipe that I had always used. It called for flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, shortening and milk. The batter had to be soft enough to make a cakelike donut but firm enough to roll out and cut with a donut cutter. I started the task of adapting it to the taste that we were looking for.
Substituting cider for the milk was just the beginning. Molasses added flavor and color. It also helped make the batter softer. Spices were the other key to the kind of donut we wanted. I increased them dramatically. Once the flavor was right, the ingredients had to be adjusted for quantity. It wasn’t just a matter of quadrupling ingredients, the consistency had to be right for the plunger and for the cooking time.
The donut machine frys them in a specific amount of time. If the consistency is not right the donuts will be over cooked or under cooked. A lot of too crisp or raw in the center donuts went into the trash before we got the recipe right.
It occurs to me as I write this that in the past thirty years we have sold millions of donuts. I could never have guessed, when I turned nine donuts at a time in a little fryolator that it would lead to these amazing numbers.

Eating well and good nutrition have been a major focus for most of my life. Well, maybe I should amend that, eating well has been my focus and I’ve tried for good nutrition. Once upon a time, if it tasted good, it was okay. Over the years, as we are reminded continually by the media, our the population has grown more sedentary and fatter. Much of the responsibility falls to the mega food industry. Additives to tantilize the taste buds have addicted us to sugar, salt and fat. Restaurants have up-sized portions and the ease of just opening a package instead of cooking completes the cycle.

I’ve learned to shop the sides of the supermarket for dairy, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables. The aisles get a fast run through for baking supplies, paper products, and a few other staples like olive oil, vinegar, and canned tomatoes. Otherwise, I try not to buy prepared foods.

All this is a preface to telling about our scrumptious pot roast last week. It was sooo good, a recipe that I used frequently when feeding a family of seven but seems almost decadent today. It was an inexpensive beef pot roast. I put it in a heavy dutch oven and sprinkled it with a packet of onion soup mix then covered all with a can of cream of mushroom soup. I added some more chopped onion and some leftover canned tomatoes just because I had them. Covered tightly and baked at 325 degrees for three hours the smells soon coming from the oven were divine.

When I opened the pot, it was a thing of beauty. Meat so tender it was falling apart nestled in rich, brown, delicious gravy. Have I mentioned before that I love gravy? Served over mashed potatoes with fresh asparagus and salad, it was pure bliss.

There were leftovers and I’m not even going to think about all the salt, MSG, and other unspellable ingredients while I enjoy them.

Asparagus

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We had the first asparagus of the season last night. I’m afraid I broke my “strawberry” rule and didn’t wait until it came from our own garden. It was still delicious.
Before moving to Massachusetts in 1960 the only asparagus I had ever eaten had come from a can.  A mush green unpleasant vegetable.  My grandfather always had a garden but never planted asparagus and I don’t remember ever seeing fresh asparagus in a store.
It wasn’t until I received Julia Child’s first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as a Christmas gift in 1961 that I discovered this wonderful veggie. We promptly planted it in our home garden and ever since it has been the much awaited first vegetable of the season.
In Mastering the Art, Julia said that she had tested every asparagus method that she’d heard of and the French method was the best. The asparagus was partially peeled, tied into bundles and placed in a kettle of salted, boiling water until it is just tender, but not limp, then drained and served immediately.
It doesn’t matter whether the stalks are thin or thick but the thick ones are easier to peel. The stalks should be crisp and moist on the end. If it isn’t used immediately, it should be stored upright in a glass with a little water. Peeling is the key to having it perfect every time. I’m frustrated when served asparagus that looks beautiful but has woody ends that turn into stiff strings when chewed.
This is my own variation of Julia’s method. It eliminates the tying but otherwise follows her directions. I agree that it retains its color, texture and flavor best cooked this way.
Fresh Asparagus
6 to 10 spears per person, more if they are very thin
10 or 12 inch frying pan of salted boiling water (I like the wide
flat pan for vegetables)
1. Cut any very woody ends off and then, holding with the butt end up,
use a small, very sharp knife or vegetable peeler to peel the outer skin off the lower part of the stalk leaving the tender center. The upper part of the stalk doesn’t need it.
2. Wash the peeled asparagus quickly in cold water.
3. Drop into boiling water and cook until a fork pierces the butt
end easily. Do not allow to get limp, the stalks should be tender
crisp when served.
4. Drain and serve, either plain or with melted butter, lemon juice or
other sauce.
The stalks can be peeled a few hours in advance and kept refrigerated
wrapped in a damp towel.

Our wonderful trip to Mexico is a nice memory but life goes on and the latest adventure was a week in Southern California with my granddaughter Claire. I was delighted that she wanted to spend Spring Break with me.
We spent four days in Hollywood. Standing in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater we noticed a stir. An excited family had corraled a young man, a boy really, and were having their pictures taken with him. In answer to their questions he told them that his career is doing well and he’s appeared in three films. He was smiling and gracious and very good looking but neither Claire nor I had any idea who he was. A few days later, Claire saw his picture in People Magazine, his name is Sterling Knight.
Home again, when I was telling the family about seeing him, nine year old Kristen knew him immediately! He’s on the Disney channel apparently.
Claire and I also toured Warner Brother’s Studio. We enjoyed the tour and seeing the sound stages and inner workings of film making. A number of TV shows are filmed there as well as movies. The guide pointed out where different shows were filmed and whose houses we were passing but Claire and I discovered that neither of us knew any of the shows and few of the actors.
One night we had dinner at a restaurant called “uWink”. It was a new concept for us. There are touch screens at every table and at the bar. The menu is displayed there and food and drinks are ordered via the screen. Then there are dozens of games to play singly or against another person. The food wasn’t terrific but we enjoyed playing Geography Trivia for a couple of hours.

Lunch in Santa Monica

Lunch in Santa Monica

Warner Brother's Studio, set of Central Perk

Warner Brother's Studio, set of Central Perk

Warner Brother's Studio, car used in Harry Potter film

Warner Brother's Studio, car used in Harry Potter film

At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway with Cousin Norma

At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway with Cousin Norma

When we started talking about our trip to Mexico a common response was, “Aren’t you afraid to go there? It isn’t safe is it?” I didn’t have any concern about our safety. I was sure that as long as we didn’t linger near the border where most of the violence seems to be occurring, we would be safe.
I must admit to being a bit apprehensive about driving in Mexico though. I pictured long stretches of road with no gas stations, places to stay, or restaurants. I worried about parking in towns and cities where the car might be stolen or damaged. I imagined roads that were narrow with drivers who ignored any semblence of order. I insisted that we buy a three gallon jug of water before crossing the border in case bottled water wasn’t readily available.
The things that I worried about didn’t exist. Gas stations were frequent (although some were still under construction and occasionally one was out of gas), restaurants were abundant, in fact there was food for sale along the road and in the many small towns that line the highways. Every town had at least one hotel and most had several. Parking was never a problem, if there was no on-site parking, there were secure parking lots nearby. Bottled water was provided in every hotel, except the one that cost us $15 for the night, and for sale in every little shop.
Although most of the highways are two lane, they are wide with lines defining the road but plenty of room on the shoulder. In fact, drivers straddle the line on the shoulder, effectively turning the road into three lanes making it easy to pass. The exceptions were the roads through the mountains. They were narrower but well maintained. Occasionally we found short stretches of road that were broken and potholed but that was rare.
Traffic in every village and town is controlled most effectively by means of speed bumps. Usually a town has a series of speed bumps slowing traffic to a crawl in settled areas. Only in the large cities did we find traffic lights. Unlike city traffic signals in the US, pedestrians wait for green.
Wherever traffic is slowed, vendors can be found selling food of some sort, tortillas, chilies, oranges, garlic, anything that is abundant in the area. We passed through two major orange producing areas. The roads were lined with nearly identical stalls selling bags of oranges and at the speed bumps people were selling plastic baggies of orange juice. I wondered how so many competing stalls could exist.
Along the Gulf Coast densely populated areas alternate with fields of crops. Inland where it is mountainous and arid, the land looks very unfogiving. We might drive for miles without seeing anything but cacti and then see a few goats on a hillside, tended by a shepherd. No sign of a dwelling or other indication of habitation. Wherever we drove goats, burros, horses, and cows graze on the edge of the highway.
Our Mexican experience reinforced my belief that there is no point in worrying about “what might happen”. Chances are it won’t, and if it does, worrying in advance doesn’t help!

Roadside grazing

Roadside grazing

Tlacotalpan truck, note ladder

Tlacotalpan truck, note ladder

Sugar Cane

Sugar Cane

Mountain road block

Mountain road block

I’m sure that it comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever traveled in Mexico that the Mexican food we get in the States bares little resemblance to the real thing. Tacos, enchiladas, burritos, all take a very different form there. Max asked about getting chili at a restaurant. A puzzled waiter replied that there were chilies in the food. “No, No,” Max tried to explain. “Like a thick sopa or calda (soup/stew) with meat and beans and tomatoes.”
“No,” the waiter said, “We don’t have anything like that.”
Along the Gulf coast we ate a lot of excellent fresh fish; most often filettes but several times whole red snapper. No matter the fish, it was seasoned and pan fried and served with a puddle of black beans and a shredded lettuce, tomato salad. Usually French fries were served with it but occasionally seasoned rice. A side dish always holds a steaming pile of tortillas wrapped in a napkin.
No matter where we traveled, the tortillas were freshly made, thin, and delicious.
Tacos seem to come in two ways. We’ve had them arrive hot and covered in a picante sauce, more like the enchiladas that we get at home. More often they come as a tightly rolled cylinder with a little filling. These are crisp.
Some of our best meals were on the road. We always avoid chain restaurants but that wasn’t even an option in Mexico. Except the city of Puebla where we saw a Domino’s and a McDonald’s, we didn’t even see one. We stopped at little family run restaurants along the road. Invariably there are a few tables covered with oil cloth and a woman or women in the kitchen wearing the kind of coverall aprons that my mother used to wear. Several times children took our orders and served us.”Mama” came from the kitchen if we had questions.
In Oaxaca after an excellent restaurant meal, we found a stand buzzing with activity parked near our guest house. People were lined up around it, cars were double parked and motherly looking cooks (wearing the usual aprons) were placing huge tortillas directly on glowing charcoal. They were making Tlayudas, a traditional food of Oaxaca. One of the young men helping showed us how refried beans were spread on the tortilla, then the choice of all kinds of fillings were added, shredded chicken or pork, chorizo, tomates, lettuce, onions, avocado, salsa, the options seemed endless. Once added to the tortilla, it is folded over and placed on the hot coals until it is hot in the center and crispy around the edges. It is eaten by hand.
It looked delicious but we were already stuffed. We said we’d be back the next night but were disappointed when we learned that it was only there between 9PM and 6AM. It serves cab drivers, waiters, and all the other people who work until late at night or early morning. We never managed to wait until that late to eat.
Our Sweet Little Waitress

If you’ve been reading this blog you know that we are back in the States but I just found this, I had written it and never posted it. I like it so I’m posting it belatedly.
From January 22nd:
My fantasy for this trip was that we would find a little cottage or apartment, someplace lovely, perhaps on a beach or in a small town. Once we arrived and discovered that none of the people we encountered speak English, it seemed unlikely. We were resigned to staying in hotels, which abound, where we could ask for a habitacian doble (double room) and be understood.
Imagine our delight to wake up this morning to the sound of birds singing in the treetops outside our screened porch. I stepped out of bed onto a floor painted the color of a Caribbean sea and opened the wall of glass doors leading onto the porch.
We are on the second floor of a little house. The courtyard below the porch is a jungle of flowering plants and towering palms. Narrow stone steps lead to our tiny apartment. It is a large airy room with white walls and a few colorful paintings, two comfortable beds (a miracle, decent pillows), satellite TV (at last CNN in English), a bright red table for meals, and the sea foam green floor.
The miniscule kitchen has a shelf full of rustic Mexican pottery and has everything necessary to make an elegant meal, if we wish. It has a freezer for ice cubes, high end coffee pot, and to Max’s delight, even a microwave.
We spent last night grinning at each other and saying “Isn’t this perfect? Are we happy or what?”
A chance encounter with an American couple was our good fortune. They told us that if we came to the Vera Cruz area we should visit the old colonial town of Tlacotalpan. They described it as colorful and a UNESCO World Heritage site. If we went there we should look up Casa de la Luz, a guest house owned by Bill, an American.
We found Bill and yes, the rooms were available. He showed us a tiny room on the first floor and then the apartment on the second floor. Yes, Yes, Yes, exactly what we’d hoped for.
And so here we are, happily ensconced for a week in our own Garden of Eden.

Mexican Food I

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Eating along the road was interesting and fun. We learned to decipher menus well enough to order in restaurants. The challenge came when we stopped at tiny roadside cafés where there was no menu and no English spoken.
Driving through desert one day along a dusty, sand swept road, we pulled over at a tiny, unpainted, cement block building. Restaurant was painted on the side and the door stood open. We entered a small room with a half dozen oil cloth covered tables. There were the usual plastic chairs with Corona written on the backs. ”Buenas dias,” I called. A surprised looking woman came out from the kitchen area. We made motions for eating and she nodded. She then rummaged around in a freezer at the back of the room. She returned carrying a tightly rolled taco in one hand and a sort of empanada in the other. We nodded and she disappeared. Two bowls of steaming noodle soup was soon on the table along with fresh limes. She indicated that we should squeeze them into the soup. Delicious!
Just as we finished the soup she brought two nicely presented plates with the tacos and empanadas along with beans sprinkled with the lovely soft cheese that is common there, and a shredded lettuce and sliced tomato salad. She reappeared with an avocado and a knife, eyebrows raised in question, did we want some on our salad? Yes we did.
Max had a beer but I hadn’t ordered a drink. She brought a tall glass with a clear rosy drink, along with a bag of hibiscus flowers to show me what it was. The flowers provide the delicate flavor and color the drink. It is barely sweetened and a good contrast to the spicy food.
The entire meal was ordered and eaten without words except for our murmured, “Gracias” each time she appeared with something. She wrote the total, 85 pesos, on a napkin. Our lovely lunch cost less than $7.
We started to leave with many expressions of thanks, I was out the door when she motioned me back. At first I though she was waving goodbye but then she wrapped her arms around herself. I returned for an enormous bear hug and, her first words, “God bless you.”

Our final night in Mexico couldn’t be more different from our three nights in San Miguel de Allende. That was the first place where we saw great numbers of Americans; in fact, they seem to have taken over the town. We’re told that 10,000 Americans have retired there besides all the snowbirds.
San Miguel is in a valley surrounded by mountains. The streets are steep leading out of the center, and cobbled with stones making for teeth jarring rides. We saw a number of American driven ATVs on the streets, easier to climb the hills I guess and easier to park on the narrow streets.
There are many hotels, restaurants, and shops catering to tourists. Everything is much more expensive than any other place we visited, even the cosmopolitan city of Puebla. I couldn’t find one shop though, where I could buy a pair of socks!
The charm of the old colonial houses, steep streets and lovely parks didn’t make up for the feeling that we might as well have been in Florida or Palm Springs.

San Miguel from our hotel balcony

San Miguel from our hotel balcony

Steep street

Steep street

Terrace overlooking park.  We have coffee here

Terrace overlooking park. We have coffee here


Street, San Miguel de Allende

Street, San Miguel de Allende


From San Miguel we drove through high desert to the city of Victoria, just 200 miles from the border. We stayed in an older hotel across from the Zocalo in the center of town. Walking along the main street in the evening we mingled with whole families out strolling and shopping. We didn’t hear a word of English or see anyone who did not appear to be Mexican. Driving in and out of the city we did not see a single strip mall or shopping area but the entire downtown area is lined with small shops and the sidewalk crowded with stalls.
We were intrigued with the blocks of shoe stores, one after the other. Some for men, some for women, sport shoes, dress shoes, all kinds of shoes. We had noticed the same thing in Puebla. It is hard to imagine that much demand for shoes. Also, in all the town centers there are many shoe shiners.
Our hotel room was basic, small but clean. It was a surprise when we pulled back the shower curtain and saw the tub. All the porcelain was gone, at least we didn’t have to worry about slipping.
Bathtub in Victoria

Bathtub in Victoria

Our hotel in San Miguel de Allende is half way up a very steep hill. From our balcony there are incredible views of the town below with the pink tower of the parroquia dominating the landscape.
On this morning though, the view from the balcony is of a policeman standing by our car below. Our license plate is missing. We assume that it has been stolen and I immediately begin to picture trying to communicate that to the cop. Max goes down to find out what is happening, I watch as the cop turns to the next car and begins to remove the screws holding the license plate. Oh, oh, he’s got our plate.
We are in luck that this morning the clerk at the reception desk speaks English. He accompanies Max to the car. I watch as he and the cop yell and gesture and then the clerk returns to his desk. A short time later, the license plate is back in place and I can stop imagining the worst.
Across from the hotel is a scenic vantage point with one hour parking. The hotel however has an arrangement with the city for guests to use it. We had placed a hotel sign on the dash but the policeman of the day didn’t know the deal.

Leaving Oaxaca

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We had an inauspicious start to our departure from Oaxaca. Our car was parked in a lot a block and a half from our B&B. Max left to pick it up while I waited with the luggage. After thirty minutes, I began to be concerned; it really was just around the corner. After an hour I was seriously afraid that something had happened to him. The scenarios I imagined varied from his being totally lost, to a fender bender where he was trying to communicate with an irate Mexican.
After seventy minutes he arrived, sheepish and laughing. The streets in Oaxaca are all one way and many are completely dug up for sewer work. The streets are narrow and traffic is heavy. He had been going around and around, often passing our street but at the wrong end for one way traffic.
At last on our way we stopped at a couple of interesting old monasteries undergoing renovation. By late afternoon we were in a small town with one hotel. We spent the night in an immaculate room with two beds and a single light high on the ceiling. No outlets in the entire room or bathroom. The shower was hot and the beds comfortable and the cost for the night was less than $15.
Dinner that night was very good, a typical Mexican meal of meat, salad, beans, and tortillas. It cost $6.29 for the two of us including beer. It was the least expensive day of our trip.

Oaxaca

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I wrote about Tlacotalpan out of sequence. After our trip through the mountains, we arrived at The Oaxaca Learning Center guesthouse owned by our Tlacotalpan host’s friend Gary. He is an American who has lived in Mexico 18 years and started the Learning Center five years ago to tutor local students. Most are from low income families and from a school system that is much like our inner city schools.
The center is staffed by other students and volunteers. It operates seven days a week and serves over 100 students. It is financed by the rental of two small rooms and an apartment, as well as some donors. Our room was small but comfortable and opened onto a pleasant courtyard where some of the tutoring takes place.
Breakfast was included, fresh fruit, granola, and yogurt, a nice change from eggs and black beans and tortillas that is the usual fare at restaurants.
Oaxaca is quite a contrast to the other places we’ve stayed. It is much more international with quite a few Americans. I finally found a bookstore where I could by a decent Spanish-English dictionary and throw away the one I’d brought with me which was useless. I found about one out of five words I looked for.
One day we took a small tour bus for a day trip to some interesting sites. Despite being jammed into the far back seat, especially difficult for Max who was by far the largest person on the bus, we had a good time. We saw El Árbol del Tule, supposedly the “stoutest tree in the world”, greater in diameter than the largest Giant Sequoia.
We saw the process of making mezcal, (tequilla is mezcal but all mezcal is not tequilla) sampled some and of course bought a bottle. Another stop was at a weaving village where we saw how wool was processed and dyed with different plant colors. Our final stop was Hierve el Agua, (Spanish for “the water boils”). It is set of natural rock formations that look like waterfalls. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierve_el_Agua

In this once thriving port of Tlacotalpan, fishing and tourism seem to be the main employment opportunities now. There appears to be a thriving underground economy.
It’s World Heritage status has rules to be followed. There are no plate glass windows in shops, or large signs, so it is hard to know where the businesses are operating. As we walk around town it seems like every third door we pass has some kind of shop in the front room. Windows are small and often covered with cloth mesh to keep bugs out but the doors stand open.
Most common are small shops selling some soda, a few chips, a few candy bars, maybe some toilet paper, or other sundries and not much else. Others contain electrical shops or tire repair businesses, all hidden behind house doors. Many houses contain two or three tables and a little sign identifying the place as a taco shop or cantina. At the door of one house we watched a man raking coals out of a brick oven and shoveling bread into it, a panaderia (bakery). Another was a furniture factory, a single room with a man sanding a rocking chair. It had a lovely wood frame with caned seat and back, completed ones stood against the wall.
Walking home from the Zocalo (town square) after dark, we could peer into houses and see those same rocking chairs lined up in front of the television set and whole families watching together.
One morning we wakened to the sound of a squealing pig. Our landlord tells us that the man two doors down has an abattoir in his back courtyard. It isn’t exactly legal but no one complains; just one pig every few days. A day or two later in another part of town we passed an open door and saw a partly dismembered pig in the courtyard behind the house.
Another morning we were wakened at 6:40 by LOUD music in front of the house next door. It is a custom to waken people on their birthday by serenading them. In some places a three piece band is customary, here it was a loud speaker mounted on a car.
The Town Crier, a beat up VW bug with a loud speaker mounted on it, crisscrosses the streets all day providing the news of the town as well as advertising.
Other than taxis there are few cars. Bicycle driven carriers are the common means of transporting goods. A two wheeled open box-like structure composed of steel pipes is mounted on the front of a bicycle. They were also widely used in Tecolutla.
All day we hear the calls of vendors coming down the street with something for sale. Each afternoon a boy riding a bicycle with a big flat basket attached to the front, rides down the street calling “pan”. For a few pesos we buy pastries for our breakfast. The pastries are nothing like the rich coffee cakes, muffins and sticky buns found in the US. They are barely sweetened making them the perfect breakfast food.
A Tlacotalpan version of the milkman comes by daily; his cart holds two large silver milk cans. Women come out of their houses holding pans or jars that he scoops milk into. Otherwise, the only milk we’ve seen comes in boxes stored on the grocery shelves.
Another common form of transportation is horseback. We hear the riders passing on the cobblestone streets. Ranchers in the outlying villages ride into town and we see many horses tethered in front of houses.
On two different evenings we had dinner at one of two upscale restaurants on the square. Suddenly a man rounded the corner, wearing protective gear and a gas mask, accompanied by a cloud of mist from a sprayer. A mosquito fighter, he passed the tables while the mist descended on the diners. People casually covered their drinks with their hands and spread napkins over their food until the mist had cleared. No one seemed to think twice about it.
This town is similar in many ways to Tecolutla, the small shops, the bicycle driven carriers, and little traffic, but very different too. Tecolutla is a beach town, a popular resort for Mexicans with most businesses catering to tourists. It seems like every fourth building is a hotel or restaurant.
Tlacotalpan has been preserved in time. It is charming and is a tourist destination but on a smaller scale. A few hotels, fewer restaurants and it felt to us like a funcioning small town.

Tlecotalpan, once the largest port in Mexico is now a sleepy little town barely touched by time. In population it is a little smaller than Ipswich, about 11,000 we’re told, but the entire town covers a few blocks in any direction. One side is bordered by a deep river that made the port viable for nearly two hundred years. It was eventually replaced by Vera Cruz.
The apartment that we rented for the week in the center of town is surrounded by single story, brilliantly colored stucco homes. The town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998 because it retained the colonial homes and atmosphere of a century ago. Exterior facades cannot be altered without permission, no plate glass windows on the shops but the owners are encouraged to be creative with paint. No pastels here. Emerald green, lime green, purple, magenta, violent yellow, fire engine red, intense blue, bright aqua, shocking pink, and every combination imaginable adorn the houses.
The town is preparing for the Candelaria celebration. It is a nine day festival that starts every year on January 31st. Thousands of people descend on the town; every room is taken, including the great apartment that we’ve enjoyed for the past week.
For the past two days there has been feverish activity in the central part of town. The main road through town and all streets leading to the central square are closed. Workmen are putting covered structures over all the streets, some big tents others made of wood. These are already lined with booths and shops, vendors of all kinds.
Platforms are being built in one of the squares. Bands from all over Mexico will play music 24 hours a day. The highlight of the second day of the festival will be the running of the bulls. They swim from ranches across the river and are herded into a corral near the river. At the appointed time, they are released to run through the streets.
Barricades are erected on the route of the bulls but they often don’t respect the rules. Two years ago a man, walking down a side street, taking no part in the festivities was killed by an errant bull.
The third day the statue of the Virgin is taken from the church, placed on a boat and floated out onto the river to bless the fishermen and the people. There are fireworks nightly and partying around the clock.
Our information came from our host Bill Pandolf.

            I have some other things to post about Tlacotalpan but want to send this while it is fresh.  We decided to visit Oaxaca, about 170 miles away, and were advised to take the beautiful drive through the mountains.  It would take six or eight hours, depending on who told us.  Yesterday morning we left at 8:45.  The first thirty miles or so followed the river through many small towns filled with people and “topes”.  Topes are the speed calming bumps found in every town, large and small.  They are extremely effective at slowing traffic to a crawl.
          At the last town before entering the mountains, we stopped for a couple of delicious tacos at a roadside stand.  Fortuitous as it turned out; it was our last food for nine hours.
          Once leaving the city of Tuxtepec the road begins to climb, twisting and turning in never ending sharp curves.  From there it is 70 miles to Oaxaca.  Our usual rate of speed was 25MPH, never getting over 40.  The vegetation became tropical with much of it reminding me of the Costa Rica rain forest.  There were breathtaking vistas around every curve and terrifying drops along the road.  The road itself was surprisingly good, although narrow.
        There were no villages although we occasionally saw corn planted on hillsides so steep that I couldn’t have stood on one and a couple of times we could see the tin roof of a structure below the edge of the road.  It was a wild and desolate place with barely any traffic.  Ferns as tall as trees grew in places and other lush trees and shrubs overhung the road.
            Rounding a curve we nearly ran into a tractor-trailer semi blocking the road.  It was hard to imagine how he had made it so deep into the mountains but he could not negotiate the curve.  He tried to back up and got crosswise stopping traffic in both directions.  The tractor itself went off the road into a gully and stuck there.
          Within two hours there long lines of cars backed up in both directions and dozens of men, each with his own idea about what to do.  Since Max doesn’t speak Spanish, he couldn’t add his advice but he was convinced that the trailer couldn’t be moved.
          First they tried hacking down the brush around the tractor wheels and rocking it out like we do when stuck in the snow, but that failed.  Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of putting oil under the rear wheels of the trailer.  Most of the men got on one side and started pushing.  The trailer rocked off the dual wheels and it looked like they would tip it over before it would move.  Suddenly it started to slide.  They finally slid the rear of the tractor far enough to the side to allow a narrow path around it. 
         Those of us in cars and pick up trucks were able to squeeze around the trailer.  On the other side we passed a long line of vehicles waiting, most with no idea what was holding things up.  There were two big buses and several big trucks.  I can’t imagine that they could navigate the narrow space.  There was a steep ditch on the side of the road.
         We finally reached Oaxaca after dark.  It had taken us 10-1/2 hours but we felt fortunate that we weren’t camped in the middle of the mountains. 

I’ve never thought much about turtles but we had read about the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project in our Lonely Planet book.  The project is run out of a shack on the beach.  We walked past it several times before asking a local how to find it.  It was started 35 years ago by Fernando Manzano Cervantes.  He continues to be the driving force of the project and is known locally and by his volunteers as Papa Tortuga.  He is gregarious and charming, totally dedicated to conservation and education.  I was completely engrossed by his description of the work. 

Every April, thousands of green and Kemp’s ridley turtles arrive to lay their eggs on the beach.  They dig a deep hole and lay as many as 100 eggs before covering them with sand and heading back to sea.  Turtle eggs are considered to be good food and the shells are valued as an aphrodisiac and for tortoise shell products.   People and other predators watch for the turtle tracks in the sand and dig up the eggs. 

The foundation relies on dozens of volunteers to patrol 59km (35 miles) of beach during the laying and hatching seasons.  They dig the eggs, move the nest 50 feet, away from the tracks, and rebury them, first with a layer of sand, then mesh screening and then more sand.

Fifty days later they watch for emerging turtles, gather them up and place them in a large wading pool for a couple of days before taking them to the water’s edge and releasing them.  Volunteers and school children release the turtles.  They get to name their turtle and get a certificate of adoption.

The project is supported completely by donations and the sale of tee shirts and turtle trinkets.  If you’d like to know more www.tecolutla-turtle-preservation-project.org

Papa Tortuga (center)
Papa Tortuga (center)

2010 Mexico 121

            We entered the tiny barber shop with Hector a wizened 84 year old man who had become our self appointed “good friend”.  He introduced the gaunt elderly shop keeper to us as his bien amigo.  Two other men in the shop rose to shake hands and then we found ourselves being embraced by each of them.

            One of the men asked if I was Hector’s sister.  “No, no, solo amigo”.  This taxed the extent of my Spanish.  Hector and the men carried on a brief, incomprehensible conversation and then we bid them adios.  More hand shakes and hugs before we were on our way again.

            Hector had befriended Max on our second day in Tecolutla.  He arrived each morning on his “little car”, an ancient, junior-sized bicycle.  He was eager to show us around and wondered if we’d like to take a boat ride on the river or go fishing or visit a vanilla farm.  He had learned a bit of English as a boy; later he worked at a hotel with English speaking guests.  His English was basic but we managed to communicate fairly well.

            He was curious about the United States and asked many questions.  He usually started, “Max, more or less, would you say…?  If we asked a question he answered, “More or less…”  We learned that he doesn’t think much of the Mexican government, or of George Bush.  He approves of Obama and is a champion of most things American.

            Hector talked of his boat and the years that he’d spent fishing.  We agreed, with some trepidation to a boat ride on the river with him to see the Mangrove swamps.  We were greatly relieved in arriving at the river to find a charming young man in a well constructed boat waiting for us with life jackets.   

            Another day we had a private tour of a vanilla farm with Hector.  We saw vanilla beans drying in the sun and then went to the orchard to see them growing.  We donned masks and caps and went through the processing plant.  Throughout it all the young woman guide gave detailed descriptions.  Hector listened intently and asked her questions but wasn’t great as an interpreter.  We did get the general idea.

            Hector joined us for breakfast our final morning in Tecolutla.  We were sad to say good-bye.

A 24 Hour Room

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           The end of our second day in Mexico; it was time to find a hotel.  We drove slowly through the town of Naranjha.  We passed a new, attractive complex with a huge Motel sign, there appeared to be an enclosed courtyard and a garden.  There were several other hotels but none looked nearly as inviting.  We returned to MOTEL (no other name in evidence).

            Driving into the courtyard we saw a puzzling sign. $120 por 2 hora, $210 por 4 hora.  We asked a young man in front of the office if there were any habitacions libre (rooms available).  He seemed confused.  He spoke no English, we speak no Spanish but I had carefully written the question on a card.  Two other men arrived, they conferred and then they led us to a beautiful room, tiled floors, king sized bed, toilet and shower in separate spaces, and a garage with an automatic door.

            The older man wrote down the very reasonable price for 24 h.  An unusual way to rent a motel room but hey, what do we know?  We’re in Mexico.  Everything is immaculate, I turned down the bed, and there was a bottom sheet and a thin bedspread.  No top sheet, no blanket.   Next to the bed was a small dish holding some mints, and…a condom.  We were beginning to think things were not as we’d thought.  Max turned on the TV, oops, a selection of porn, the clues were mounting.

            A visit to the office was, well, no office more like a linen closet, just shelves of sheets and bedspreads.  I managed to collect another sheet and regrets that there was no TV.

            Over the bed there was a 6x6x10inch black box that looked like a speaker.  The bedside lights were on dimmer switches and the garage doors, once closed, open only if we dialed 0 on the bedside telephone. 

            Oh, one more thing.  There was a small door in the wall that opened to a space accessed from the outside by another small door.  Like the milk delivery boxes of generations ago.  We couldn’t figure out what this is for.  Maybe pizza delivery?

            We slept well, despite the Latin music that came from someplace during much of the night.  In the morning we discovered that the speaker over the bed would pipe the music into our room, loud only.  The shower was fabulous, better than any of the motels in the US.  As we packed up in the morning, we discovered the reason for the small interior door. 

            A car arrived across the courtyard, drove into the garage and a young man shut it, then walked to the small exterior door and waited.  Shortly he collected money.  Maybe M$120 or M$ 210.  This was at 9AM.

            We packed up, dialed 0, and waited for our door to open.

           

We're introduced to a Peek-A-Boo Hotel

We're introduced to a Peek-A-Boo Hotel

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            Arriving in the south from New England is always a surprise.  Suddenly people everywhere are smiling and greeting me with, “How’re you-all?” and “nice day isn’t it?”

            In the supermarket, I walk through the produce department with employees asking if there’s anything I’m looking for.  The deli person starts with, “Good morning, nice day.”

            The clerk in the post office has a big smile and asks if there’s anything else they can do for me, and hotel reception wants to know if there is anything more we need.  When we ask for a coffee pot it arrives, with a smile, within minutes.

            I had forgotten my surprise last year when I spent a few weeks in South Carolina.  Afternoon walks were marked by greetings from all the other walkers.  No one averted their eyes when passing. 

Conversations spring up easily, the kind that don’t require any commitment but make me feel like I’m not invisible, one of the hazards of independent travel.

            Our meal in a restaurant was like visiting a friend.  The waitress asked where we were from and then told us the city highlights and where we would get the best dinner in town.  Remarkable.

A New Year

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A New Year

            The holidays are over and New Year’s resolutions already broken.  Answer all the notes received in Christmas cards…. not done.  Maybe I can write Valentine greetings.  Lose the extra five pounds that December brought… not done.  I did have to eat the food in the fridge before leaving.  Sort the stuff piled on my desk… not done.  It will be there when we get home.

            Max and I are on our way to Mexico for a few weeks.  We have no set itinerary and hope to roam, finding small towns where we can rent an apartment or small house for a while.  I bought four books on Mexico as well as doing a web search.  All in all, it’s too much information.    

            I’m sitting in a Galveston, Texas motel room across from a lovely beach on the Gulf of Mexico.  The sea is gray with crashing waves, the temperature is hovering around freezing and the wind is fierce.  Not what we had expected to find this far south.  Nor had the people who live here been prepared for the cold.  At least there’s no snow.

            Yesterday we visited a couple of museums and then stopped at a place on the beach for Happy Hour.  We had Shrimp Kisses; shrimp stuffed with pepper jack cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep fried an instant.  They came on a bed of Sharks Teeth, battered deep fried onion rings.  To finish off this definitely unhealthy snack, we had Puffins, Jalapeño peppers filled with crab stuffing (like crab cakes) rolled in crumbs and, you guessed it, deep fried.

Moving to the orchard in 1979 was the beginning of many changes in our lives. Thanksgiving celebrations soon became the responsibility of someone else. I had always roasted the turkey and prepared the meal as my grandmother and mother had done. Suddenly, Thanksgiving meant days of making and baking pies, hundreds of pies. By the time we closed the store at noon on Thankgiving Day, I just wanted to crawl into bed. Others had to take over the dinner preparations.

Over the years each member of the family has created his/her own Thankgiving rituals. For me it means dinner with our son Matt’s family. They are joined by several other families and it is a happy occasion.

In my childhood we always celebrated with my mother’s family. In my memory it was a Norman Rockwell occasion. When I was eleven years old, my grandmother had a stroke and was an invalid the rest of her life. Thanksgiving dinners were held at our house or one of my uncles. The one that stands out in memory was going to take place at Uncle Dean’s house sixty miles from us. He and Aunt Alice had a new baby that we were eager to see.

Mother had made pies, ground the cranberries, oranges, and apples for the Cranberry Relish and baked rolls. Aunt Alice was preparing the rest of the meal.

We bundled into our 1939 Plymouth for the twenty mile drive to Flint where we would pick up Grandma from her nursing home. The weather was very cold and it was spitting snow. The roads were covered with slush that splashed up onto the engine. We were only half way to Flint when the car stalled. Daddy and Grandpa worked under the hood drying something off until it started again. Just before getting to Grandma’s, it stalled again.

Getting Grandma settled into the car was a feat. She was in a wheelchair that had to be negotiated down the front porch steps of the nursing home (no ramps there) and pushed through the slush, by this time it was snowing quite heavily. She was lifted into the front seat and we set off. It wasn’t long until we stalled again. It took some time to get it started. Mother and Daddy decided that it wasn’t safe to drive to Uncle Dean’s with the car in that condition. They stopped at a pay phone and called to say we couldn’t make it. By this time it was a real snow storm and our progress was very slow. Eventually we reached home.

There wasn’t any food in the house for a festive dinner but Mama set about putting together a meal. She always had some canned salmon in the house and potatoes and, being child of the depression, she could make a meal of almost anything.

Shortly before we were to eat our rather meager meal, the door burst open. Uncle Dean, Aunt Alice, baby Aldeana, and the entire Thanksgiving dinner had arrived. They had plowed through the storm to be with us and celebrate the holiday with our family. It was a joyous day.

Turkey Time

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It is a fact that time speeds with age. I know this is a fact because the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas were once interminable, now they fly. Summer flashes by and then the really busy season begins at the orchard and before we know it, the holidays are nearly here.

Most days I listen to WBUR, the local public radio station. The mid-afternoon program is Talk of the Nation. On Friday, the program is called Science Friday. I swear to you that Science Friday happens every third day! The year flys by like a speeded up film.

Every year we raise some turkeys at the orchard. Early November it is time to take them to a farm where they get turned into the form found at the local supermarket. Our turkeys seem to get huge. I mean really, really, huge. This year three of the turkeys were over 40 pounds, too big for the oven and too much meat unless one is feeding forty or so people.

Max and I cut up those three birds, ending up with over 75 pounds of meat. The breasts were cut into roasts and cutlets and the thighs boned for dark meat roasts. Doug ground up leg meat and small bits for ground turkey and the rest, bones, skin, and scraps, went into two huge pots where, covered with water, they simmered for a day. After straining the broth, I added several chopped onions, chopped carrots, and celery. A few bay leaves, a big spoonful of herb de Provence, a spoonful of peppercorns and some salt for flavoring and the pots went back on the stove for another long simmer. Finally I turned the fire on high and reduced the stock to ½ of one pot. That was strained and reduced more.

The last step was to pour the reduction into two 9×13 inch cake pans and place in the refrigerator where it turned into stiff gel. Once the fat was skimmed off, the gel could be cut into cubes and frozen. These are intensely flavored and will make rich base for turkey soups and to enhance the gravy for the smaller turkeys when they’re roasted. There can never be too much turkey gravy.

The best condiment for turkey has to be something cranberry. Here’s my favorite recipe.

Cranberry and Apricot Chutney

1 ¼ cups sugar

½ cup water

1 package cranberries (12 oz.)

¾ cup snipped dried apricots

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

3 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

In a 3 quart heavy saucepan combine sugar and water. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil without stirring.

Stir in cranberries, apricots, vinegar, brown sugar and ginger. Reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes or until berries have popped and mixture starts to thicken, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate, this also freezes well. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before serving. Makes 3 ½ cups.

Last weekend was the annual Apple and Wine Festival. I wandered through the barn watching hundreds of people sampling the wine and foods prepared for the occasion, making their own apple pies, and munching on donuts. There were demonstrations of cooking and cider pressing on a small, old press, crafts for the children and myriad other things to do and see.

Walking past the blazing fire I overheard a woman telling a group about when she had worked at the orchard twenty-four years ago. The small fireplace room was the entire store. All the apples were pre-bagged for sale in peck and half peck bags. We sold cider, apple pies, cider donuts, and some candy. Except for the busy months of September and October, we often left the store unattended. A basket on the counter held a few dollars in change. Customers would come in, make their selections and leave money in the basket.

In our early years I peeled apples by hand in the house kitchen, baked them three at a time (all the oven would hold), and carried them to the barn store hot from the oven. Our first cider donuts were made nine at a time in a small fryolator. The batter from a hand plunger and turned with the handle of a wooden spoon.

The main part of the barn was used for apple sorting and storage. By 1981, we had installed a larger oven in a corner of the barn in what had once been a tack room and purchased an automated donut machine. An apple peeler made pie making much easier and the bakery was on its way.

It’s hard for me to believe that it has been thirty years since our first season. Another generation of Russells is now carrying on with the dream, trying new things, expanding the orchard production, and husbanding the land.

I picked up Organic Gardening magazine recently and found a piece by Maria Rodale, daughter of Robert Rodale, organic gardening guru of the 60s and 70s, and founder of Organic Gardening Magazine. She was recommending The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It: The Complete Back to Basics Guide by John Seymour. I was reminded that forty years ago we were avid organic gardeners, composting and mulching, raising quantities of vegetables that we then canned and froze and dried and pickled.

Self-sufficiency was the by-word. We raised a pig and a few turkeys that were butchered every fall. We had chickens for meat and eggs and kept hives of bees for honey. Max baked a dozen loaves of bread each weekend. We drove to New Hampshire to buy unpasteurized milk for cheese making and sought out grass fed beef at the few butcher shops that carried it. There was usually a quart jar of homemade yogurt in the refrigerator. Max had built a small window greenhouse in an upstairs window where he started the seedlings for our huge vegetable garden.

Little wonder then that the prospect of owning an orchard was tremendously appealing. What we hadn’t considered was the amount of work required to revive an orchard of ancient trees. The tractors and equipment were aging and faltering. There were run down buildings to be repaired and tasks enough to keep the whole family working ten hour days. There was no time for vegetable gardens or bread making or searching out grass fed beef. The family focus was on learning how make a living growing apples.

Happily, over the years we have been able to resume composting, growing vegetables without chemicals, and keeping chickens for eggs and meat. It’s been years since we’ve canned anything and Max hasn’t baked bread or made cheese for thirty years but we still remember the wonderful food and tremendous satisfaction that providing so much of our food brought.

Eating fresh, eating local produce, and eating organic isn’t new but I’m so happy that the pendulum is swinging back toward healthier less processed food.

Choosing food in a country where you don’t speak the language can lead to some surprising meals. Unlike most European countries, English is not widely spoken in Argentina, especially the areas where tourist aren’t found.

Visiting Buenos Aires last winter I had one of those surprising dinners. The restaurant was small, only a few tables were occupied when my friends and I arrived. We spent long minutes with our Spanish/English dictionary trying to decipher the menu. Nothing on the menu seemed to resemble any of the words in our Spanish foods dictionary. No one there knew any English.

Vegetarian Kim eventually managed to convey to the waiter that she wanted anything as long as it didn’t contain meat. Sadie settled on something and it was my turn. There were a number of dishes listed under Carne de Vaca. According to the dictionary, carne is meat and vaca is beef. Argentina is known for its beef and I had determined to try steak while I was there so, my choice was Lomo de Vaca Asada. The waiter raised his eyebrows and wrote it down.

At the open grill and I noticed the waiter and cook looking my way. From where I was sitting it looked like the cook put a huge slab of bacon on the grill. That could not be what I had ordered. I assumed that someone else had ordered that streaky looking piece of meat.

Kim and Sadie’s food arrived looking tasty, modest portions served on dinner plates. The waiter returned, with a smile and a flourish he placed a strip of meat, both ends hanging off the platter in front of me.  Just meat, not even a garnish.  The cook was smiling broadly from his station at the grill.

DSCN1809Lomo de Vaca Asada

It turns out that Lomo means spine, indeed, down the upper edge of the steak there was a row of bones.  I managed to eat about three inches of it before I was full.  The flavor was excellent but the meat was pretty chewy.

Soups On

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October seems like soup weather. I’d been thinking about making some for days but hadn’t done it. I noticed a container of squash in the back of the fridge that needed to be eaten or tossed. My depression era mother taught me that food is not to be thrown out lightly but that squash had been a disappointment. The flavor was not bad but it was so dry that it was barely palatable. We had eaten a little and the rest nearly filled a pint container. It had baked unevenly so that there were still some hard lumps in the mashed squash.
Maybe I could salvage it by making soup. I sautéed a chopped onion in some butter and then added the squash with three cups of chicken stock along with some salt and pepper. I added a clove of garlic and a couple small knobs of fresh ginger root. I noticed a half an apple on the counter and added that too along with ¼ teaspoon curry powder. It simmered until the hard lumps were soft and the flavors blended.
I cooled it a bit and then pureed it in the food processor, added a little milk, then refrigerated it. The next day Matt was unexpectedly with us for lunch. The soup, with a dollop of sour cream, was perfect for a quick meal, and good.
The nice thing about soup is that the combinations are endless. A couple of days later I diced about a quarter pound of bacon and sautéed it with an chopped onion and a couple of leeks. Along with a quart of chicken stock, I added several unpeeled potatoes, a couple of carrots, salt and pepper and a little thyme.
This simmered until all was soft, then I drained the stock into a pot, pureed the vegetables with a little of it, and then combine the puree with the  reserved stock . It made a nice dinner on a cold night.

Our Lovely Day

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Picture us on a cloudless September day, warm sun, slight breeze, sitting on a grassy slope at the base of Loon Mountain. That’s where we spent Saturday with Hunton and Cecelia watching the Highland Games. A gathering of Americans celebrating their Scottish heritage. There were bagpipe competitons and fiddlers and dancers. Whiskey tasting was on the agenda but as responsible grandparents, we didn’t participate in that.

A large area was set up with booths for the different Clans to display their tartans and maps of Scotland were marked with their areas. Bearded and kilted men were in the booths talking about their Scottish heritage. The children were given “passports”, blank books that they carried to each clan booth for a stamp repesenting the clan.

A living history area was devoted to interpreters, in costume, explaining about early Scottish life. One woman had a collection of herbs used for medicines, another was carding and spinning wool. Over an open fire an iron pot held simmering food while more women chopped vegetables with primitive tools.

Men dressed in colorful military uniforms from different eras demonstated weapons of the period and talked of Scottish history and the wars between the Scots and the English, All fascinating to young (and old) boys.DSCN3241

The most intriguing part of the day were the athletic events that we watched from the side of the mountain. The Caber Toss kept our attention as athletes from around the world competed to flip a 22 foot long log at a precisely 12:00 angle (the winner tossed to 11:30). Then they competed to flip an 18 foot log over and then the farthest. Less than half the logs actually flipped.

The morning games had started with putting 22 pound rocks, and another event of whirling a stone and letting it go. To end the day, after the amazing physical feats all day, the competitors were required to lift huge concete balls, carry them several feet and lift them onto six foot high platforms. There were six balls ranging in weight from 240 pounds to 340 pounds and they had to be finished in 90 seconds Most of the men stuggled, two didn’t finish but the amazing Dan Ford hoisted each one on his shoulder, dropped it easily onto the platfom and finished in 54 seconds.Balancing and running with the caber

Tossing the caber

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t give a fig about sports but I was impessed. The childen followed the action intently, lying on the grass with their heads in Grampy’s lap. What nicer way to spend a Saturday in September?DSCN3313

A Romanian Picnic

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Last summer we visited friends in Romanian village. One morning we set off to visit a salt mine and a spectacular gorge some distance from the village. We would have a picnic on the way. I noticed that the preparation for the picnic appeared to be a bag of cucumbers and green peppers from the garden, a metal grate, and a jar of mustard.
After touring the salt mine (another story) our hosts made a detour to a small market where they bought bread, sausages, and some paper plates. Off we set in the direction of the gorges. There were two vehicles packed with people, American visitors and villagers. Suddenly our hosts pulled off the road along a sloping meadow bordered by woods. We spilled from the vehicles, navigated over a ditch and a low fence to get into the meadow. Wild flowers were scattered across the field and a tiny stream flowed at the base of the slope. It was an idyllic setting
Within minutes the Romanians had gathered wood, found some rocks to hold the grill and had a fire going. Soon sausages were sizzling, the wonderful smell wafting across the grass where we had spread blankets for sitting.
When the sausages were cooked, slightly charred, the way I like them, they were wrapped in a slice of bread, slathered with mustard and devoured eagerly by the hungry group. ucumber spears and pepper strips, cut with a knife that appeared from someone’s pocket provided the vegetables. The food was delicious and it was the most memorable picnic of my life. DSCN1079