31 August 2007

Cooking Fresh Experiment: Summertime Foods

Picture caption: Me in Revolutionary Attire

I came away from my vacation in Nova Scotia with a new mission. I wanted to integrate the natural world even more strongly into my daily life than I had been. Nova Scotians appear to be quite ahead of their U.S. cousins with regards to recycling, organic foods, and environmentalism. It's likely that because they have so much under-populated nature left to preserve that they simply aren't as blase as, say, New Yorkers or Marylanders.

Summer in Maryland is difficult weather for me because I don't feel so well in humid and hot climates. I feel languid and irritable. I needed to seek foods that are refreshing, cooling, and easy to prepare with little energy. As I planned my summer cooking strategy I made a trip to a local library to conduct some research on preparing seasonal recipes -- that is, meals prepared with local produce that is currently fresh and in-season.

I set my goal to make at least one seasonal meal each week, using local and fresh ingredients whenever possible. My experiments have yielded some recipes that I plan to use in summers to come:
  • Chilled Red Pepper and Tomato Soup with Cucumber Herb Salad by Chef Annie Wayte (see below). I really thought this was very successful and easy as far as soup preparation goes. Delicious and different from gazpacho. At my husband's request and in the interests of shorter prep time, I didn't strain the resulting soup, but left it the consistency of stew.
  • Fennel Salad with Mustard Dill Dressing by Chef Annie Wayte (see below). I had never seen a fennel bulb before and had to ask the Whole Foods stock clerk where to find it. The bulb is very much like celery and tastes richly anise, even more so than the fennel fronds I'm used to using in recipes.
  • I asked my mom for her delicious Celery Seed Cole Slaw recipe, which is not the mayonnaise-laden slaw, but a oil and vinegar slaw. It's tastes lighter which is good for humid weather.
  • I made a huge batch of Salsa Fresca. The gardeners of the historic site where I work said I could help myself to the bumper crop of tomatoes, chili peppers, and jalapenos. (Hey, there have to be some perks when working for a non-profit!) Even after my husband and I wolfed much of the salsa down with southwestern main dishes, I still had almost a full mason-jar's worth left to give the gardeners in thanks for their hard work tilling the soil the eighteenth-century way. I'm currently drying the remaining chilis. I have learned just why people have to can their produce when they have too much of it.
There are several local farmer's stands just south of Annapolis and I can also get some local produce or organic produce at Whole Foods. Rumor has it there's a farmer's market in Edgewater on Thursday evenings, but I still need to investigate. I'm concerned that by the time it might take to drive there after work, won't the best produce be gone by 5:30?

My library had a fabulous cookbook which I highly recommend to anyone else attempting seasonal cooking in North America: it's called Keep It Seasonal: Soups, Salads, and Sandwiches by chef Annie Wayte. What I like about this particular cookbook is that I'm not the kind of cook who likes to spend hours slaving in the kitchen. I rarely have time, especially in the workweek to create labor intensive meals. Plus my charming husband prefers simple foods, particularly sandwiches and often salads. Soups, well that's another matter, he likes the thick "stew" variety whereas I'm more flexible in that regard. I like the ingredients she chose, many of which are easy to come by in my climate. She offers recipes for fresh cooking in four seasons. The winter chapter is especially enlightening, because she focuses on root veggies and beans, plus a range of citrus fruits to keep you feeling sunny even during the darkest months. I find her approach refreshing; the ingredients simple and not difficult to find; the recipes easy to follow; and the variety of foods to try in each season inspiring.

I tried several other cookbooks that claimed seasonal affiliation in the titles, but found the actual list of ingredients to be not precisely seasonal. There are also regional cookbooks for seasonal foods in the Southwestern U.S., California, etc. which would be wonderful resources for folks in those areas. I took a Southwestern cooking class about five years ago at L'Academie de Cuisine from Susan Belsinger. Now I've adopted southwestern cooking my personal speciality. Many of the recipes from Susan's class are classic summertime fare. I also have a particular fondness for Mediterranean cooking and Spanish tapas dishes, so I recently hunted for books with those cooking styles.

My favorite tapas restaurant of all seasons is Jaleo. It's a Washington, D.C. institution by now and it's made Chef Jose Andres well-known. Jaleo's food is really that good, especially the paellas, patatas bravas, gambas al ajillo, and seafood dishes. I've rarely had any tapas there that did not suit my taste buds. Chef Andres also opened other branches of Jaleo in Maryland and Northern Virginia. He also has Cafe Atlantico in DC where I recently dined for DC's Restaurant Week. Scrumptious! Mr. Andres has a cookbook called Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America that I may purchase in the coming months.

The main results of my experiment in the past month has been confirmation that I can, in fact, live more seasonally by eating available local and organic foods. I feel better and am less bothered by the heat when I'm eating fresh, summertime food. I think we spend so much of our time today changing our environment to suit ourselves that we forget that not too long ago people did not have opportunities to consume any foods they desired in any season. The local economy and finances of some meant they needed to grow their own food and eat what was available. Choice has spoiled us. Foods that are cheap, easy, and fattening shorten our lives and expand our waistlines.

I plan to continue my seasonal cooking experiment as fall approaches. That should not be difficult for me, since I love the fall and I love the aromas and flavors of harvest veggies and fruits. I can hardly wait!

Do you have any favorite seasonal recipes? Any favorite summertime comfort foods or cookbooks? Please share your thoughts with me by posting a comment.

29 August 2007

Make Sail

Last Sunday evening I did something that I had only dreamed about in the past.

I cruised on a sailboat and, for a brief few minutes, actually had the opportunity to steer. We were cruising on Schooner Woodwind II on the Chesapeake Bay, approaching the mouth of the Severn River near Annapolis Harbor. I had to use the dome of the State House as my point of reference for keeping the sails steady as she goes.

Under the easy wind conditions and light of remaining dusk, the schooner was not harder to steer than driving a car. It isn't like the tall ships of old, in that it does have a motor and it also has modern steering and components. For a few brief moments, however, I might have been sailing a fishing ship into that well-known harbor at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay.

I asked the Captain, Jen, a very gregarious lady to be sure, if a person had to grow up around sailboats to learn how to sail. "No!" said she. And she even gave me the name of a local sailing school and told me about an Annapolis-based sailing club where you share ownership in a sailboat so that you can take your turn cruising, even if you don't own your own ship. Wow!

I grew up near several large rivers, but in a very landlocked part of south-western Ohio and northern Kentucky. To be behind the wheel of a boat, any boat, is a dream come true. I always dreamed of sailing and sailboats. I think that's what lured me to Annapolis. But I was always too timid to ask people if I could go out on their boats. I supposed that I figured someday my chance would come. Well, thanks to my very generous husband who liked the idea of a Thai Dinner cruise on the Bay, I finally had my wish.

Sailing was even better than kayaking!!!! I just love being out on the water.

Here's a link to a photo of our vessel returning to Annapolis Harbor at twilight behind the Harbor Queen. See the Church steeple in the background? That's St. Mary's Cathedral.

19 August 2007

Harlaxton College Remembered

It doesn't seem at all like 20 years have past since my freshman year of college. On this date in 1987 I was packing my two allotted suitcases and bursting with anticipation of spending my freshman year abroad in England.

I had grown up in a small town in Northern Kentucky near Cincinnati, Ohio and I never fit in with 98% of my high school classmates. My 11th grade guidance counselor looked at me as though I sprouted horns when I clearly stated my intention of studying in England for my first year in college. "You mean, you don't want to go to UK [Univ. of Kentucky]?" he asked incredulously. A large percentage of my college-bound classmates were headed there. I was furious with him, but then I was furious and impatient with people in general in those days. So I embarked upon my own mission to find a college program where a freshman could study abroad. My mother and the Cincinnati Public Library's resources helped me in my quest. From the library I found an address for the Council on International Education Exchange. They sent me a 3/4" catalogue of study abroad programs. I narrowed it down to three programs that permitted freshman to enter their program, but one of the three leaped out at me from the page and said something like this:

Study in a stately home built in the 1830s by industrialist Gregory Gregory. Take liberal arts classes taught by British and American faculty in state rooms and live on a manor with 6.5 acre walled garden and formal gardens. . .

When I applied to the University of Evansville for admission to Harlaxton College all those years ago, I had no idea how much it would change my life. For the first time I felt like the world was huge and mine for exploration. I found my profession, art history, there influenced by one of Harlaxton's eminent faculty members, medieval scholar Lady Wedgwood [Dr. Pamela Tudor-Craig]. Even though my parents are professional artists, I had no idea that you could think, talk and write about art as a job before attending Harlaxton and sitting-in on Lady Wedgwood's amazing lectures. I also took four courses in British history and literature, and a wonderful science course on Physical Geography of Great Britain. I absorbed quietly like a little sponge and adored every minute of starring up to a ceiling of gilt Victorian grandeur or stone masonry.

And I traveled. Every weekend I went somewhere, all around the island of Great Britain, including North Wales, Edinburgh, York, Lincoln, the Cotswolds, the Lake District, and of course, many trips to London. Each semester were had two four-day long weekends for travel and so I went to the Ile de France, to Venice, to Rome, and explored the seaside town of Ramsgate where my great grandmother Anne left behind those shores for the New World.

I met some wonderful people art Harlaxton and found myself immersed in diverse cultures. It was truly an international community with students from the UK, Europe, the Middle East all blended together. I went to pubs and imbibed good British cider and bitter. I ate Indian food for the first time. I became friends with students from Chicago, rural Indiana, and Germany. I'll never forget the evening that the Turkish students invited us to share strong coffee and Turkish delight with them. I won't for get the fall evening of the Guy Fawkes Night Bonfire and an evening ramble to explore Harlaxton's creepy gatehouse. My friend AC and I explored the punk clothing stores in Nottingham and played Warhammer role-playing games in the evenings. The American students put together a haunted house for Halloween and a one-mile line of British teens were lined up to go inside (back then, haunted houses were an oddity in England). We rented costumes and enjoyed a fabulous masquerade ball in the great hall each semester.

It would be impossible for me to encompass that entire year into one short essay and do it justice, but I can only hint at the richness I learned by seeing, touching, hearing about things that were far older than any European settlement in the United States. I had such a hunger for anything antique or ancient. The tangible contact with all that history changed me. It grounded my future and raised my awareness to things beyond the tiny, provincial community where I had lived most of my then 18 years.

Now sitting here twenty years later it is difficult for me to separate the strands of my life that were affected by this grand tour experiment of mine in my freshman year. I would be a different person now, if not for Harlaxton. I would venture to guess I am a more interesting and better education person for having been there, too.

16 August 2007

Knitting Project Check-in

I have been keeping a hand-written knitting journal. I spent some time on Sunday afternoon taking stock of all the knitting projects on which I'm currently working or that I plan to begin between now and the winter holidays. My project list is quite daunting at first look, but I decided to divide it into three handy categories:
  • Small Projects for Me

  • Big Projects for Me

  • Projects for Others
There's also a 2007 Holiday Gift Ideas sub-category under "Projects for Others."

Just sitting down to list my current projects and ideas for future projects felt very reassuring. I'm actually not in as over my head as I thought I was. Now I feel ready to divide and conquer! The "Small Projects" include smaller projects that I can easily take on-the-go and those easy patterns don't need to think to hard in order to complete. The "Big Projects" list included a short-sleeve cardigan that is in-progress and a really cool vest pattern kit from Hand Maiden that I saw on vacation, but restrained myself from impulse buying. I will order that vest pattern kit for the holidays.

I managed to complete one of the "Small Projects" on Wednesday night. I'm calling it my "Carnivale Scarf" because the colorway reminded a friend of mine of Mardi Gras. Actually, to me it's also the colors of Carinvale in Venice. This was my first time knitting with viscose, which I finally learned is a synthetic version of silk. The yarn was the Saturn colorway by Mango Moon in 100% Nepalese viscose. I'm very pleased with the way the variegation in the hand-dyed yarn created a diamond pattern. Everyone who has seen it so far has thought it very successful. I'm grateful to my friend A for taking this photo of me this morning.

In the "Projects for Others" category I have several baby gifts to make. I'm making a pair of festive lime green booties with swirly ties for a friend who had a baby in July. The first pair is coming along nicely and I hope to have them complete in time for her third month. They are supposed to be stretchy and warm, but not really for infants who are ready to crawl too far and certainly not for walking. Cute, nonetheless.

I think keeping track of my projects is really going to keep me from having too many going at once. I also is a record to keep me from forgetting wonderful patterns that I want to try out.