Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Let it Be

South shore of Lake Erie. December 28, 2013.
 December 31.  A new year is on the horizon as the holiday season begins to draw to a close.  And the world is busy.  There were gifts to exchange, family members to visit, flights to catch, miles to drive. There were cards to mail, cookies to bake, gifts to return, and pictures to take.

Instead of pausing to catch our breath, we plunge ahead. We make resolutions, and we resolve to do more.  We think of the things we should be doing, could be doing, would be doing, if we just had more time/money/energy/smarts.

Rarely, rarely, are we ever told to stop. Rarely, rarely, do we ever hear the word, "Enough."

I am not against making resolutions or setting goals.  Goals help us accomplish tasks or take action.  I personally start each day with a to-do list (even on the weekends or on days when I'm not at work.)

Here is what mine looked like this morning:

1. mail mom's calendar
2. mail check to dad
3. mail thank-you notes
4. change dr.'s appt
5. kickboxing - 12pm
6. send receipt to Chrissy
7. blog
8. make grocery list 

I skipped kickboxing and went to the pool instead, but everything else on that list, except #7,  has been accomplished.  I even walked the dog and fed the chickens, who at last have been bequeathing us intermittent eggs.

Yet goals alone do not provide purpose. They are only increments that show progress, not the destination itself.

So today, give yourself a break. Pause. Stop looking for something to do or feeling guilty because you aren't doing something that you could. Dare to rest. Dare to breath. Dare to say that for today, you yourself are enough.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Playing Chicken

6 months, 11 days

4 hens

3 bags of layer feed

1 state-of-the art, handcrafted chicken coop

0 eggs

They say good things come to those who wait.  I've been waiting for eggs since March, raising our day-old chicks through the cute peep phase and then the hideousness of chicken puberty, letting them roost in the sunroom and spread their dust and feathers everywhere until the coop was finished and it was warm enough for them to move outside, and then dutifully saving kitchen scraps for them all summer. We culled out the roosters and now we are left with two Americuana hens and two Delaware hens. And never have I seen animals do less to earn their keep.  The ROI on this chicken enterprise has, to date, been pitiful.

They have food, water, and fresh air. During daylight hours, they can leave the coop and wander into the chicken run at will. They are not too cold or too hot. They are not overcrowded. And yes, they are all hens.

At the end of the day, all I am left with is patience. In the urban world, things happen on a schedule, and time is money. With growing things, whether they are plants or animals, that schedule is turned on its head.

So yes, patience.

I'll close with a dedication the flock, with the words of Guns n' Roses:
"Take your time, 'cause the lights are shining bright...never break it, 'cause I can't take it..."

Friday, August 30, 2013

Jamming, or Life as a Disgruntled Bourgeoisie

The results of an entire day's work.
When I last posted, I was happily on about the joys of baking with freshly gleaned berries, and eating wild-caught Alaskan fish.

With an appetite for berries, I decided to go to a local farm where I could pick my own. We spent hours gathering blackberries, red raspberries, and just because they were there, a peck or two of peaches. Yes, peaches and other orchard fruits come in pecks!

It was far more fruit than we could eat fresh, so I decided to turn the blackberries into homemade jam. I'd made jams as a teenager at home in my Little House on the Prairie phase, but it had been over a decade since I attempted any sort of jam making. I geared up by buying a fresh set of jars, lids, sugar, and pectin, and set out all my equipment on the counter. Then I realized the pectin I'd purchased not an hour ago expired in 2011. Curses.

I turned off the pot of water I'd set out to boil, grabbed my purse, got in the car, and went posthaste to the nearest grocery store. Eventually, I located their pectin - luckily, still in working order. Once home, I again laid out my tools and got the pot of water back to a boil. It felt like I was either preparing to deliver a baby, or concocting a science experiment in the kitchen.

Jams can be made several ways. The fruit can be lightly cooked and the jam mixture kept in the freezer (aka "the freezer method"), or the fruit can be cooked for a longer period of time and sealed into sterile glass jars. I was using the second method, which was more complicated but also more traditional. I told myself freezing is for amateurs.

I sterilized my jars and lids in the boiling water, mashed my blackberries, added tons of sugar, and set the mixture to simmer gently, adding some of my new pectin. Meanwhile, I removed the jars and lids from the boiling water -- not an easy task, as someone really needs to invent non-slip tongs -- and laid them on a clean towel. Then I scooped the hot jam into the hot jars, put the lids and bands on them, and gently lowered the jars back into a pot of water to boil once again. The second boiling, if done correctly, creates the vacuum seals that keeps the jam fresh. Once the second boiling is completed (in about 10 minutes) the jars need to cool, and if you're lucky, the lid has created a nice, tight seal. If the jars haven't sealed, the jam in still edible, you just need to keep it refrigerated and eat it immediately rather than storing.

Total time: 5 hours. *Including berry picking, the pectin dash, and actual jam production.

Yield: 3 small jars of jam.

And this, my friends, is why we have an agri-industrial complex. Yes, you can make your own food. But under our current system, is faster, cheaper, and easier to buy it. If I were selling this jam, fair market price for the amount of labor, cost of supplies, and actual product would be $25/jar. No one is going to pay that, not even for the most exquisite jam in the universe. So we have Smuckers, for $3 a jar, that looks and tastes like the manufactured goo that it is.

PS Jam Day was also the day I cooked the last of our backyard roosters. This was a last-ditch effort to make the birds actually tasty. We pulled out a coq au vin recipe from Alton Brown that included wine, herbs, and even a little bacon. I'll tell ya what, if you soak something in wine overnight, douse it in herbs, onions, and bacon fat, and slowly braise it in the oven, and it still doesn't taste good, then you have done all you can. Make some pancakes for dinner and call it a night.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Next to travel, food is my other great love, so its no surprise that my writing often turns to cooking, eating, and recipe-collecting.

Last week I was lucky enough to combine both in a quick jaunt over the border to Toronto. Ok, it wasn't so quick. We spend 11 hours in the car, conveniently divided by a stopover in Pennsylvania.

But Toronto is a great city for people who like to eat. Our first night there, we went to Little Italy and gorged on homemade pancetta, pasta, osso bucco, and red wine. After that, we had to stop into one of the neighborhood's numerous gelato shops for dessert. The next morning, we were off to the St. Lawrence Market for a famous peameal bacon sandwich and hot coffee. Delicious! Thus fortified, we set off for the Toronto Islands and spent a lovely afternoon nattering around on bicycles, soaking up sunlight along the shores of Lake Ontario, and finding quaint little cafes for lunch. Come dinnertime, we were back at the market buying up sweet corn, fresh asparagus, basmati rice, a few bottles of a local vintage, and $5 bacon-wrapped filet mignon (Seriously? Canada, I love you.) We then cooked up our feast surreptitiously on my friend Lori's grill. Lori, if you noticed anything amiss, that was us.

Idyllic, n'est pas?

Back home on the ranch, we've been taking a far more pragmatic approach to food. We're eating what has been raised, caught, or foraging either by ourselves, or someone we know. Case in point: one of the backyard chickens that had been "harvested" was transformed into a pot of adobo con pollo. It has been the most successful preparation of a backyard chicken so far. It actually tasted like chicken, and overall was pleasant enough that we could stomach leftovers the next day. But these birds, even at the tender age of 5 months, are chewier than a bran muffin composed of wood fibers.

Next up was some halibut, caught in Alaska by relatives and shipped to us in dry ice. I've never cooked halibut before, but thanks to this recipe, we grilled those filets up and had a blast messing around with the accompanying herbal pistou. I didn't even bother with the walnut butter. Anything that requires fennel pollen is just a little too precious for this gal.

Finally, the foraging. Just like Willoughby and his wildflowers in Sense and Sensibility, I acquired some blackberries from an obliging field.* These were duly baked into a cake, which will be consumed momentarily.

There is something very satisfying about food that is acquired through effort, and not just dollars spent at a grocery store. If I'm honest with myself, my efforts at this point don't amount to much more than dilettantism.  But my curiosity has been piqued. A subscription to Organic Farming may not be far off in the future.

* The neighbor's yard. But they weren't using them.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Downton Dinner, Part Deux

In March, I got ambitious in the kitchen and decided to make a Downton Abbey-inspired dinner. It was great fun! Last month, by request, I gathered some of my girlfriends together for another night of haute cuisine. Or, as haute as you're going to get with an amateur cook in the suburbs.

As before, I visited the wonderful Downton Abbey Cooks blog for inspiration. For a summer menu, I wanted cool, complimentary flavors that were light, seasonal, and filling.

Le Menu

Chilled Strawberry Soup
Paired with a German Moselle Valley Riesling (Carson would sack me for not remembering which one!)

Asparagus Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette
Paired with 2011 Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Chardonnay

Also served with chardonnay, or a lovely wine from South Africa that one of the guests brought!

Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables
Paired with 2011 Carmel Road Pinot Noir

Lemon Tart with Seasonal Berries
Paired with 2010 Enotria Moscato 

All went swimmingly! The guests arrived, I got to use my fancy wedding china for the place settings, and we moved through the first three courses with alacrity.

Then disaster struck. With a loud click, my oven suddenly shut off. The chicken and vegetables were only halfway cooked. I checked the fuse box. I called my husband. We tried all methods we could think of to resurrect the stove. Nothing. Meanwhile, my hungry guests polished off the rest of the salmon. We all had another glass of wine. (Remember the Downton Abbey Season 3 opening episode when the oven goes?)

I had no reserve supplies in the larder, or an army of servants to put together an impromptu picnic. But I did have a grill. And charcoal.

I lit the coals, pulled the still-warm chicken from the oven, butterflied the meat, popped the root vegetables into a separate pan, and began to grill, baby, grill.

It was unconventional, but it worked. Dinner was saved. True, it was a trifle later than I would have liked, but it was far better than ordering Chinese take-out.  I was grateful that the ladies went along with my plan! I'm not sure if I would have had the courage to try this with anything other than old friends.

Tonight, I'm feeling just crazy enough to make homemade ice cream and a chile-honey glazed salmon.  Because once you've grilled a chicken in a cocktail dress, you're ready for just about any kitchen challenge.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Room of One's Own, aka Cache

Virginia Woolf  wrote that for a woman to write, she needed an independent income and a room of her own. While exceptional women authors have emerged without those two advantages, I do see Woolf's point. Quiet is nice. Solitude is nice. And I imagine that I could write a whole lot more if I didn't need this thing called a day job to pay my bills.

This is my first morning writing in the room I have made my office. Birds are chirping outside the window. I'm sitting in an old wooden chair that I used when typing essays in graduate school. My laptop rests on a desk that my dad found in some antique store and painstakingly refinished. The desk has a drawer with a lock - and a key. It feels old and secretive. I love this desk.

So my immediate writing zone is good. However, boxes lie on the floor, and I have a suitcase, an ice cream maker, and piles of assorted gift wrap keeping me company. It feels more like an attic than an office at the moment. But we'll get there.

Earlier this spring, many of the materials now in my room were in boxes for temporary storage in our sunroom. A flock of 8 adolescent chickens were also resident in the area. What I learned from this unfortunate juxtaposition is that chickens are terribly dusty. Notebooks, papers, letters, souvenir brochures, newspaper clippings of articles that I'd written  -- things collected over a lifetime -- were all sprinkled with a fine layer of white, smelly chicken dust. Some of these things could be salvaged. Others could not. I spent hours sorting, saving, going through my past with a fine tooth comb. Throwing some of it away.

What's left is mostly collected in this room, my writing room. I am slowly making order out of the chaos. I'm starting clean. I'm making happy discoveries.

For instance  - my National Insurance card from my time in England, last seen in 2007. It disappeared during a move, and I felt sure it was lost forever. It unexpectedly turned up in a box of papers, along with my student ID cards from various institutions. My access card for the British Library (now expired), and assorted library cards. The tally looks something like this. Major credit cards: 1. Library cards: 7. Student ID cards: 3.  

This room is where the past catches up with the present. Amy the student, Amy the traveler, Amy the writer are all here, working on the same story.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Born to Run

Over the course of the last several months, this blog has taken a turn from the western frontier into equestrian pursuits. Yesterday, I made a serendipitous visit to the Belair Stables, an unassuming building located a stone's throw from my house, yet deeply connected to one of colonial America's most intriguing stories.

Selima, first champion racehorse of the American colonies, at the Belair Mansion in Prince George's County, Maryland.

As a child, I read (and loved) Misty of Chincoteague as well as King of the Wind, both by Marguerite Henry. For those unfamiliar with the plot, King of the Wind tells the improbable yet true story of a horse of unknown pedigree that was brought to Europe from Morocco, where the horse and his faithful attendant experience a series of misfortunes before finally coming into the home and stables of Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin. There, the horse--known as the Godolphin Arabian--became a cherished stud and the sire of outstanding racehorses; his progeny Lath won England's Newmarket races 9 times. The racing records failed to impress my mind as a 10-year-old, but I was enchanted by Henry's rags-to-riches story involving a horse.

Only a few weeks ago, I learned that Selima, a filly sired by King of the Wind, came to America around 1750. Selima's new home was none other than the Belair Stables, a site that I had passed many times, never knowing the connection it bore to a beloved tale from my childhood.

Selima was a champion racehorse herself. In 1752, at the age of 7, she won the most significant race of the colonial era at Gloucester, VA. Astonishingly, she is believed to have walked almost the entire 150 miles from Maryland to Virginia for the race, and then still emerged the champion! The purse was a whopping 2,500 pistoles (a typical race of the era might have a prize of 30 pistoles). Selima eventually retired from racing and had 10 foals, many of whom became champion racehorses themselves.

I visited the Belair Stables and stood near the spot where Selima lived out her days, a place that many racing historians credit as the birthplace of professional horseracing in America. I viewed the stables and racing memorabilia, and thought about this mysterious horse named Selima, and the family who owned her, and how happenstance had suddenly brought me into such close proximity with a fascinating tale.

In digging around for more on Selima, I turned up this interesting article, originally published in Smithsonian. But I am sure there is more to the story, and luckily, I may not have too far to go to find it.  

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ellis Island

It's hard to believe that it's been two full years since I stood on the shores of Ellis Island. That visit itself was long overdue. The site had been on my New York City bucket list since high school, but for one reason or another, I never seemed to be able to make it out there during my visits to the Big Apple.

Finally, in March 2011, I managed to get myself and three accomplices onto the ferry and out to Ellis Island. We'd had to hop between various modes of transit - car to the train station, train into NYC, subway down to the harbor, a long line for tickets, and finally, the boat to the island. Although we'd started in the early morning, by now it was mid-afternoon. I was tired, hungry, and cranky. In other words, probably feeling a lot like the immigrants who were waiting for their first glimpse of America.

Like them, I was impatient. I wanted the journey to be over with already. After all the waiting, I just wanted to get there.

I wish I could say that there was a moment of epiphany when it was all worth it. Instead, we had less than an hour to spend at this place that had occupied my imagination for over a decade. You see, Ellis Island was the entry point my grand-grandparents had passed through on their journey to America. I had never met them; both sets had died before I was born, but Ellis Island was such an important part of their story that it became integral to my search for my own story. I was looking for my own American beginnings.

Upon arrival, I bypassed the museum (although I really wanted to go through it) and went straight to the Family Research Center. I had only two names and a rough date, and with that, I began searching.

And searching. I tried spelling variations. I tried different date ranges. I got creative with the country of origin. My forebears were of Polish and Slovakian stock, countries whose boundaries shifted considerably in the early 20th century. Would an immigration official have considered them Polish or Czechoslovakian or even Hungarian? 

Despite all my efforts, I left with no more information that what I had arrived with. My great-grandparents and all the details of their arrival remained as much a mystery as ever.

This winter, I'd planned to go back to Ellis Island, but it sustained serious damage from Hurricane Sandy and wasn't open, to my great disappointment.

I'm still searching. One day, I'll find a name, a date, a ship's manifest. I'll have pieces of a story, and from those pieces, I'll trace an online of the story of grandparents, my parents, me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Upper Crust

During the winter months, I have to mostly content myself with dreaming of Western adventures. Until my next travels towards the sunset, I have been working on a couple of articles about cool frontier stuff like ghost towns and the Oregon Trail. I've dabbled in learning to ride English, and watched a whole lot of Downton Abbey. As a finale for Season 3, I decided to indulge in a Downton Abbey tribute dinner, inspired by Canadian food historian Pamela Foster's totally awesome blog, Downton Abbey Cooks.

For my menu, I kept things simple. I did four courses, and had ambitiously selected a wine pairing for each. From watching another PBS show, I'd learned that German wines were apparently quite the thing in the early 1900s. We dutifully hunted up a Reisling to serve with dessert, since it seemed that Carson would be hanging on to tradition rather than embracing cocktails and modernity. The rest of the menu is as follows:

Oysters a la Russe - paired with a 2011 Paul Thomas Sancerre "Les Comtessese"

Asparagus Salad with Champagne-Saffron Vinaigrette - (we had the sancerre again)

Roast Chicken with Lemons and Root Vegetables - paired with a 2010 Philip Carter Meritage

Apple Charlotte - with the aforementioned Reisling, or the option of boutique, locally sourced coffee

First, I was in love with the names of the dishes alone. Simply saying "oysters a la Russe" aloud sent little shivers down my spine. Explaining that I was making a "champagne-saffron vinaigrette" to my mother, who was duly impressed, made the weekend feel 10 times more elegant, even as I went off to the supermarket that morning in sneakers and sweats to pick up my ingredients.

Secondly, although I had chosen dishes that were relatively simple and didn't require a lot of hands-on time, and although I was only cooking for myself and my husband, doing a multi-course meal is exhausting. I cannot imagine how Mrs. Patmore would have cooked for an entire family, and their guests (and probably a lot of the servants) night after night, without any electric appliances and no modern refrigeration. By the time dinner was actually on the table, I was feeling a bit done in.  I still went upstairs and put on a fancy dress, because at Downton (even make-believe Downton), dressing for dinner is the right thing to do.

As far as the food itself, it turned out far better than I would have imagined. The oysters were a combination of Outer Banks and Chesapeake Bay oysters, and the rich flavors of the tomatoes and pepper made a very savory combination. Although the Sancerre was just a touch sweet, overall it went fairly well with the dish. And since the Loire Valley has been a wine-producing region for ages, we felt it was in the spirit of Downton to go with a French vintage for this course.

We really should have had another wine for the asparagus salad, but we stuck with the Sancerre as there was still plenty in the bottle. The saffron flavor was very subtle, but the color combinations of this dish made it quite pretty to look at. It may also have been the healthiest thing on the menu!

Now, the chicken. Quite simply, this is the best roast chicken recipe I've seen, hands down. The meat came out very moist and flavorful, and perfectly cooked after an hour and 45 minutes. I put herbs and butter AND lemon slices on and inside the chicken, and boy, it did the trick. I realize that serving a red, American vintage was a bit of an unusual choice for poultry, but there was a lot of white wine being served at other points in the meal, and I wanted something a bit earthy. Secondly, the Philip Carter winery is old, like 1762 old. In fact, the wines were awarded a Royal Society medal in the late 1700s. Maybe its a bit of a stretch that the Downton cellars would have included a New World vintage, but not impossible. And if they did, I suppose there are worse options than a Virginia-grown blend of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

The apple charlotte was also a pleasant surprise. This was my first go-round making this dessert, and I decided to fancy up the recipe a bit. Apparently cinnamon was not used widely around the WWI era, but I threw in a few dashes of nutmeg to liven things up.

Amy's Apple Charlotte:

6-7 slices buttered bread
4-5 peeled and thinly sliced Granny Smith Apples
1/2 c. white, granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the nutmeg and white sugar in a bowl. Stir the sugar mixture and the apples together. Place a layer of buttered bread in the bottom of a pie plate, buttered side down. You may need to use partial slices of bread to cover the plate completely. Add two layers of apple slices. Sprinkle a portion of the brown sugar on top. Add a layer of buttered bread, and more apple slices, covering the bread completely. Sprinkle again with brown sugar. Bake for 45 minutes. Allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, beat the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Top individual servings of the apple charlotte with freshly whipped cream - and a little nutmeg, if desired. Serve at once.

The end result? I'm not quitting my day job for culinary school anytime soon, but it was a tremendously fun experiment. Maybe I'll kick Season 4 off with a special "downstairs" menu in honor of the folks who really keep Downton going. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Proper Seat, Part 2

This blog has taken an unexpected turn towards England. I'll be back to the West soon enough, but in the meantime, here is the conclusion of my riding adventures this past winter.

Like most things, English-style riding looks easy. In practice, it's not. I'm not sure if I ever looked graceful and elegant in the saddle, but I sure tried.

As I wrote in my earlier post, it was quite an adjustment moving to English tack, and an English saddle.  I found that I was using my legs in a real way, first to give commands to the horse, and later, to try the gait that had always eluded me, trotting.

For me, being able to trot was at about the same level of probability as finding a unicorn. Walking is easy. Cantering is fun. Trotting made me crazy, and I inevitably ended up bouncing like a sack of potatoes. I could not get my motion aligned with the motion of the horse.

I tried to post, rising and falling in the horse's rhythm. But something was off, and I ended up just making my legs tired. The instructor yelled something about diagonals. I had no idea what she was talking about.

Finally, I was told to watch the horse's outside leg, and time my upward motion with that movement. I watched, and I did. It was awkward at first - part of my attention diverted to watching the horse, part of my attention diverted to keeping myself balanced, and part of my attention making sure I was still using the reigns.

There was a moment, though, when thought was suspended, and all the parts snapped into place. It was effortless. I was gliding, moving as easily as a feather in a stream. Gone were the jolts, the bounces, the dissonance that rattled my teeth and left bruises down my thighs. I flew, gently and gracefully.

It wasn't a perfect lesson, and I am by no means a perfect horsewoman. But now I know what perfect feels like.

What's next? Jumping, I should think.