Essex

Thwarted by the weather, my friend and I gave up on our planned beach day and had fried haddock and clams by the Essex River marsh. This duck, thinking deep duck thoughts, took advantage of the muggy overcast day to contemplate his life. We stopped at a colorful, cluttered farm stand where the chatty Greek owner told us in great detail how to cook everything and chastised the women in front of us for never having tried heirloom tomatoes. Rookies.

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Peace and love

I head to Woodstock not as a pilgrimage (though Jimi Hendrix is playing on the local radio station and I wander through the village) but to see the animals of the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. From the cat that greets me assertively at the gate to the steer that, allowed to be full grown, is imposing yet sweet, I fall in love with every creature. Miss Piggy jumped off a slaughterhouse truck in North Carolina. Ducks Brian and Kath were saved from a foie gras factory. Goats and sheep sidle up to visitors for petting or a snack as volunteers provide a tour packed with anecdotes about the animals–their personalities and history of abuse or escape–and info about factory farming and how to be a successful vegan.  If I didn’t live three hours from here, I would volunteer at the farm and muck out the barn just to be with the animals, whispering to them how glad I am that they found their way to a sanctuary.

sanctuary sign

Cat greeter at sanctuary

steer

steer hide

shaggy sheep

sheep face

toy farm animals in rice

grains of rice

Woodstock sign

Woodstock flea market

Ride a bike sign

Dreams of river swimming

Beacon is still in the clutches of a week-long heat wave while I’m there. I stop at the farmers’ market by the train station and take a moment to gaze at the Hudson River, so wide, cool, and inviting. I nearly cry when I see a sign directing visitors to the “River Pool” and grab my bathing suit and a towel from the hot car and make my way through the park, envisioning along the way, a refreshing soak in a cold, cold river. I picture an Olympic size pool and recall a saltwater pool filled by ocean water I saw on TV once.

And then I see it.

The River Pool in Beacon in all its cute but disappointing glory.

The River Pool in Beacon in all its cute but disappointing glory.

A child is frolicking in the water with her father while I stand by feeling dejected and pathetic. And also hot. Still very hot.

“Is there a place for adults to swim?” I ask the lifeguard. “You can swim off the rocks, if you’re adventurous,” he says. I take one look at the thick carpet of lily pads and decide that I’m not adventurous.

Thankfully, Beacon has other things to offer: a tiny vintage shop with amazing finds, an eh flea market that is at least an interesting diversion, and a bagel shop where a dog knows just how close to the door it can sit before it is rewarded with a doggie bagel with peanut butter.

Beacon Vintage shop

Dog at bagel shop

I head over to Saugerties, another artsy town along the Hudson and linger in its sweet shops and cafes. Lucky Chocolates delivers what I need–a chocolate Buddha filled with caramel and Himalayan sea salt. What other chocolaterie crafts edible French bulldogs? The real question though, is how could you eat something so precious?

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Miss Lucy's

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I love (Tivoli) NY

Movie scouts, listen up. You should film something in Tivoli. It’s quite possibly the sweetest little town in New York. I walk past the book shop, the vegetarian cafe, the colorful Mexican restaurant, the corner laundromat and half-wonder if real people live here. Its small, four-way intersection has stop signs, no lights, and is the hub of the town–the type of place where your waiter yells out to the guy walking by, “You got a haircut!” then continues taking your order.

The library, located in a renovated fire station, is open on Friday nights for neighborhood kids to gather and make stuff. Couples bike through town on old-fashioned bikes and precocious kids order their steak quesadillas medium-rare. I realize later that Bard is down the street. The waiter at Santa Fe tells me that yes, real people live here, some families, some professors, some students who attend Bard and some who never leave. The restaurant has the requisite twinkly lights. The porches are reminiscent of New Orleans or Savannah. The street signs are funky. Gardens are in bloom. When I visit the restaurant later in the week, the waiter comes over to say hello, like we’re old friends. I really like it here.

Santa Fe restaurant

Tivoli library

Children's room at Tivoli library

Tivoli library entrance

The Lost Sock

Painting of Tivoli four corners

Murray's

Horseshoe and plaque on Black Swan bar

Rural life

Why didn’t anyone tell me about the Hudson River Valley? What a beautiful, well-kept secret. Now that I’ve brought it to your attention, visitors by the millions will flock there–aside from Manhattanites who do seem to know about it, buying up old homes in towns along the river and renovating them into stylish weekend retreats. I rented a house in Red Hook for my birthday week, packed up the cat (no, into the crate) and headed west. A mere three hours later, we turned onto a dirt road with no street sign, signaled by a row of mailboxes on the main road, and bumped a slow mile to the end and where the house stood nestled in the deep woods. A deer welcomed us into the yard, then bounded away down to the creek flowing under an old trestle bridge. The place promised solitude and darkness and delivered both. The instructions said to bring a flashlight if arriving after dark; had I arrived in the dark, I probably wouldn’t have made it halfway down the road before turning around, terrified.

I took a leisurely drive (while it was still daylight, mind you) around the area dotted by farmland and thick with wildlife. Painted homemade signs announced farm stands or baby goats every few miles. Fresh farm breakfasts and pies abounded. Well, when in Rome.

Greig Farm

Gigi Market

Farm chickens

Deer in the backyard

Yard sale finds

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If you ever shopped at the original Filene’s Basement in Boston, you know if you saw something you coveted  you had to grab it, despite who was holding on to it at the other end. Bargains are strangers to politeness. At a yard sale today, I spied an antique wooden toolbox that another shopper had her grimy hands on. Not one to actually take it out of her hands, I waited until she walked away, debating the $20 price and what she would do with it. No debate necessary from my point of view; I got it for $15. It was my only find, aside from a $3 bag of potting soil that a guy nicely hosed down for me (you can keep the slugs, thanks) and put in my car. The soil will go right in the toolbox, which I plan to use as a planter, while the other woman berates herself for walking away. But given the sad state of my plants after the heat wave, she’ll probably get the last laugh.

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Note to the child selling lemonade: people do not like when you act as a personal shopper and follow them around, asking them if there’s anything they’re looking for and would you like to buy some lemonade? No, no I wouldn’t, because I’ve seen kids in the kitchen and you’re . . . germy. But I’m a sucker for an articulate kid who seemed disappointed that “nothing was too my liking” and gave him a quarter for his icky Crystal Light. Kid’s gonna be a salesman. At least when he’s older I can hang up on him.

 

Miscellany

* I don’t understand manicures. The smell is unbearable and all that filing grates on my last nerve. Plus, I feel bad for the woman who has to handle my feet. Not that they’re bad; they’re quite desirable from a manicurist’s point of view. But still, they’re feet and I wouldn’t want to scrape off someone’s dead skin or massage their swollen feet.

* It’s cold enough here today to crave soup. Like 30 degrees colder than every day last week. I was so chilly I had to wear a gray cardigan over my gray cowl neck and yes, it looked ridiculous. And yes, I was just complaining about how hot it was. But today, brrr. In my endless hunt for authentic ramen, which is a continual let down since I live about four hours from Ippudo in NYC–the spot for ramen, I tried a newish Japanese place around the corner from my office called Bento Express. They serve ramen in a bowl the size of a fish tank, steaming hot (note: steaming hot fish tank, not a good idea). Funny how the things you’re looking for are often right around the corner.

But not always, because you know what’s not right around the corner? Paris. An old-fashioned ice cream parlor. An affordable Whole Foods. Something that isn’t Dunkin’ Donuts.

* My frugalista co-worker sauntered in with a coral mini skirt bordering on neon that called to me. I heard it. You need me, it said. Not one to deny the voices in my head I bought it at H&M for under $20. “I promise not to wear it on days that you work,” I told my co-worker because 1) that would be lame, 2) she retains fashion ownership–the equivalent of intellectual property–on this skirt, and 3) I would lose the Who Wore it Better? contest, hands down.

H & M skirt

A 15-year-old blogger also wearing it better than I.

Yard sale finds

This weekend I headed to the Marblehead Art Walk, which was a bust. This was likely due to the fact that I missed it by an entire week (May is disappearing faster than I thought, apparently), so in wandering around looking for art or the art-making workshop I was keen to attend, I realized there was no art. But all was not lost. I hit up a few early-season yard sales and was pleasantly surprised to find (wait for it) art.

Everyone needs a pineapple oil painting, no? This one is heavily textured, like a pineapple, but the frame is a little staid for my tastes, which I probably should not have said to the seller after she gave it to me for $5, but no worries; I went to the paint store and they mixed me up a sample of an avocado green for $3. That little sample tub is my tip of the day, people; if you have something small to paint, samples are a bargain. Or does everyone know that already? Anyway, this weekend will involve funkying up the frame.

Turns out the seller is a poet so we chatted about people and organizations we had in common (You love Grub St.? I love Grub St.) and she even invited me to join a local writing group, which I must say, I hadn’t expected when buying a pineapple painting.

pineapple painting

But why stop there when I could dig up a second piece of art–this one of a madame that will go in my bathroom, if you must know. The style of the drawing (or watercolor? This is how little I know about art) is reminiscent of Toulouse Lautrec, yet it’s signed something like Lilead or Iliad, which must be wrong, because the Interweb turned up zilch about the former and a million references to Homer for the latter. Who cares. The vibrant red frame is perfect, no painting necessary.

madame drawing

I also found a packet of Bookmarks for Cooks (can’t bring myself to write in my cookbooks), which should help when I make a note like “Add more cheese.” I expect most bookmarks will say “Add more cheese.”

Finally, I scooped up this gold, worn heart locket, which is as oversized as it looks, for 25 cents. Come on! I don’t yet have the right dangly chain, so if you have one, get in touch. I need to wear this puppy before the steampunk movement passes.

heart locked

Musings

* At last, a genuine flip-flop day. Not a day masquerading as a flip-flop day (and working at a college, I can attest that students think every day in a flip-flop day until the snow bites their toes and they break down and break out the Uggs), but a bona fide sunny day that calls for the least amount of shoe you can wear.

* I lunched on pork buns from the Fugu food truck, plunked down in the park in Post Office Square, and dug into the buns and a book. The fact that the semester ended last week and that today was the perfect spring day, combined to form a dangerous vortex in which returning to work was, let’s say, a challenge.

Post Office Square

* Rational for today’s post-dinner snack: guacamole does not keep and those pork buns were small. I will finish off the tub with half a bag of tortilla chips.

* Tonight, even from the humble and not-particularly-beautiful parking lot of Target, the sun set stunned in shades of lilac. Just picture it.

The line forms around the building

The prospect of the Shake Shack opening in my state (not even my neighborhood, but my state) excited me so much that I forgot I don’t go to things when they open. Movie premiere? You risk moviegoers talking too loudly, tickets being sold out, a packed house; I’ll wait a week. New restaurant? Dying to try it, but not if I have to wait two hours in the cold.

So the NYC-based Shake Shack that’s creeping its way into CT and other random locations (Miami, Turkey) has crept, rather oddly, into Massachusetts. But not into Boston where you’d expect, and certainly not into the Boston Common where I lobbied hard for it to take over the most perfect little structure in the park that would have drawn crowds like their Madison Square Park location in NYC where you can watch the line on a live cam online. No, it opened in a schmancy new development in Chestnut Hill, a tony burb that most people will have to drive to, unless you’re attending Boston College around the corner.

Still, when I was in the area around lunch, I swung by to enjoy a burger and a shake. Only to remember why I avoid new places. The Shack was one of the few storefronts open in the new development, but that didn’t stop a line from forming around the building amid hard hat workers constructing, ironically, a gym next door. The line suggested “You will not see any food for at least an hour.” I balked. And then caved. And waited for an hour before carrying a petite tray with a Shack Burger, fries, and vanilla shake to a table in the sun where I ate every last crinkle fry and thought about getting in line again.

Shake Shack

Shake Shack (Photo credit: Kwong Yee Cheng)

Spring musings

* We’re on the cusp of that season when you come home to a stuffy house and realize I can open the windows and snow will not drift into the living room.  To say it’s a revelation is not to overstate the situation. Soon, the curtains billow in ecstasy and the cat rediscovers her window perch, and all is right with the world. Or, in this tiny corner.

* Walking through Beacon Hill this morning, I take a deep inhale of bread and think, even the toast smells better in this quaint, historic neighborhood. And then I realize that the aroma is coming from the Subway on the edge of the neighborhood where fresh bread is baking every day. So they say.

flowers

* Do you remember when May Day meant dancing around the maypole and homemade paper baskets filled with flowers left on your door? I miss that.

* A pigeon pecking at bread crumbs in the park tried to woo me with its iridescent green neck. I am a little beautiful, he says, and he is right.

Homemade Devil Dogs

By my count, there are about four million people mourning the loss of Twinkies (quick math), and about two dozen lamenting the loss of Devil Dogs, the dry, chocolate counterpart to its more popular older brother. It’s natural to assume that the predicted rise in milk prices can be attributed to the fiscal cliff debacle. Actually, that wouldn’t be my natural assumption, but it’s true. If Congress doesn’t pass a new farm bill, milk prices might rise like fuel prices. But forget all that. The real reason that dairy farmers might be out of work: no Devil Dogs, no need for a gallon of milk.

I miss the occasional dry dog, even if I only bought a box once a year. Since I was denied this indulgence, I got online pronto to research how to make my own. Caveat: the following recipe will not taste exactly like a Drake’s Devil Dog (can you really recreate that factory-made, unnaturally long shelf-life cake of exceeding dryness?), but it’s pretty darn good. Think whoopie pie in a Devil Dog shape.

I found several recipes online but chose to make the cake recipe from one and the cream filling from another. Shaping the cakes was a clumsy mess and I’m no expert with a pastry bag when it comes to piping the cream, but whatever. Close your eyes, pretend it’s 2012, and devour.

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Things I learn from eavesdropping on college students

I love working at a college where the conversations are, yes, about parties and like, crushes, but where discussion also ventures into the intellectual realm.

Passing students on the stairs the other day, I hear one say something about the delicateness of a fabric.

“Wait, is it ‘delicateness’ or ‘delicacy’?” he asks the girl.

They analyze it, and I have to say, I do too. The state of being delicate can be delicateness but then delicacy works too. Except we use it more to mean a special dessert. I like these kids.

At the dining hall, students can post comment cards with questions and complaints. I’m heartened to see a fair amount of goodwill: “Thanks for my grilled cheese, friendly grill guy!” or “Thanks for the soy milk!” There are complaints of course—no college can escape complaints about the food that is, I’d like to remind students, bought, prepared, and served to them—but it’s also a forum where sketch comedy majors can try out new material.

One card reads “Can we get cuddlefish and vanilla paste?”

“The water was very wet today,” says another.

“I love you guys!” says one surrounded by hearts.

The manager’s response: “Glad to hear you’re drinking your water. It’s good for you. And we love you too!”

It’s a place where I can discuss the finer points of The Newsroom (I love you Sorkin, but you’re so damn preachy) and feminism in Girls with students who love and hate Lena Dunham. A place where I can hear two girls gushing over Brené Brown, which turns me on to her TED Talks on vulnerability and shame.

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So, my friends, this is the cliché part where I say it’s not only the students doing the learnin’. There, I said it.

The new man bag

I rarely date, but when the mood strikes, I’ll give it a whirl when the guy sounds nice. Or brilliant. Like this guy I talked to recently on the phone who shared my foodie obsessions.

“So what’s your favorite pizza on the North Shore?” he asked.

“There is no edible pizza on the North Shore,” I said. And yes, I heard the food snob in me. “I go to Regina’s in the North End when I need a fix. What about you?”

“The best pizza place is twenty minutes away,” he said. “It’s rough.”

I sympathized. Ferrying that pizza home would not end well. We have standards.

“So that’s when I discovered a pizza delivery bag on eBay. It’s really increased my pizza radius,” he said. “Wait, does that make me sound weird?”

No, I thought. No, no, no, no no no! That makes you sound like a genius. Here was a man who cared deeply for optimal pizza temperature; this was a man worth getting to know.

“I love it,” I said, emphasizing the it so he wouldn’t misread my enthusiasm as We’re getting married tomorrow. “We should meet for pizza.”

“Oh, God. I’m too nervous to eat on dates,” he said.

That should have been a sign. He suggested we see a movie instead, which always strikes me as lame. To be fair, we both talked about our love of film, but if there’s no possibility of conversation, what’s the point? Still, I wanted to see Argo, so we made a plan. We weren’t a match, but the movie was gripping. I was, no exaggeration, on the edge of my seat chanting, Go, go, go go go! in one scene (if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean), while at the same time thinking if my date thought I was yelling at him, I would be OK with that. In the end, the promise of a man and his pizza delivery bag lost out to a movie about the Iran hostage crisis. And that, my friends, is the story of my life.

Turkey leftovers

* Day dreaming about the feast to come on the day before Thanksgiving, I stumbled on an episode of Nature on PBS about a naturalist who raised turkeys from the moment they emerged from their eggs. You might have flipped past the channel had you been sitting with me, but you weren’t, so I lingered, bonded with the turkeys, and may have wept at parts.  My Life as a Turkey recreates a year-long experiment between man and bird that is as beautiful as it is moving. Gorgeously shot, perfectly narrated, and scored with just the right music, the film converts you to instant wild turkey lover. Because you’re the kind of person who thinks, Uh, not in a million years, I’m sharing a link to the 50-minute program. Sweet Pea and Big Boy will win you over or you are dead inside. So, I’ll wait here while you grab a leftover turkey sandwich; come back and we’ll watch it together so I can watch you try not to cry.

* I have two old friends who send well wishes to the other through me, since in a way (after eight years), they know a lot about each other, even though they’ve never met. I go to my friend Sophia’s house for Thanksgiving; my friend Anthony volunteers for mealtime at a homeless shelter, which he’s done for years. This year, I’m at Sophia’s house, post-turkey, warming myself by the fire pit with her family. I go inside for a second where the TV is tuned to the local news doing its yearly story on the volunteers and guests of the shelter. Every year, I kid Anthony that I’ll see his mug on TV, and every year I do, always by chance. This year he’s upstaged by our senator, but not for long. When he flashes on the screen, I call to Sophia in the backyard.

“Come meet Anthony!” I yell.

“Aw,” she says. “Anthony!”

They meet at last.

* Driving home from Thanksgiving dinner, front doors everywhere are open wide, cooling kitchens—windows fogged from turkeys roasting all day. Houses are letting off steam, staving off naps, and pretending it’s early autumn and that the open windows of summer are not yet a memory.

The case of the disappearing turkey

Thanksgiving is not the time to try new recipes, but who has time to do a dry run of an elaborate meal? Plus, I’m a risk taker. A jump-out-of-a-plane skydiver. A zipline-over-the-canyon kind of gal. Well, not really. Regardless, I go foolhardily into new recipe adventures on Thanksgiving with total confidence—my first being Rachael Ray’s stuffin’ muffins recipe that failed. Hard. Instead of crunchy yet moist individual portions of stuffing, the muffins remained wet balls (go ahead, I’ll wait), uncooked in the middle. Still, I liked the idea of making stuffing in cupcake tins, so I brought them to my friend’s house anyway and we had a good laugh. Too ambitious, my desires.

Last year, I made gingerbread thinking it was a brilliant idea to swap out dried old ginger spice for the real thing, freshly grated. Calculations veering on trigonometry did nothing to achieve an accurate substitution amount. Result: ew.

This year, I tried a recipe I’ve had in my collection for a decade but have never made. A rich chocolate tart calls for a special occasion and Thanksgiving seemed just the occasion. But dough and I just don’t get along (it refuses to be dough), so while I managed to at least make a chocolate crust, I failed to note that cocoa powder is not the same as cocoa. You knew that? You could have told me.

I also realized halfway through (seriously, there’s a reason you should read recipes all the way through before attempting, but we’re stubborn, you and I) that the magazine clipping with the recipe was missing the part about how to make the chocolate filling. After Googling around and going for it, I had a rich chocolate tart that was half rich, half dry as unsweetened cocoa.

But no matter. All would be forgiven once everyone saw the adorable turkey figure I stenciled on the tart using a hand drawn turkey silhouette and powdered sugar. Before popping it in the car this morning, I took a peek at the tart only to realize that the turkey had disappeared; the sugar had dissolved into the chocolate, as if embarrassed. Back in the kitchen, I sifted more sugar around the salvaged stencil. Crisis averted. Until I arrived at my friend’s house with the turkey half dissolved again and fading fast.

But this is a day to be thankful. Thankful that I have friends who will pretend the bitter tart crust is delicious and that the cute turkey is still clearly visible even when it’s not. At least I snapped a picture of the sucker for proof. If you too want to attempt this tart using actual cocoa powder, and can somehow manage to roll the dough out to the recommended 4″ x 16 ”  rectangle and find a tart pan that size while not burning the edges and not watching your turkey shape disappear, by all means try the recipe.

On my drive home, a shooting star shot across the sky—a magical moment considering that it was, well, a star shooting across the sky to its death but more so because it was so clearly visible even from a city highway. You’d think I wished for more sense when it comes to baking, but I didn’t.

Yard sale finds

Today’s find: a dirty bird. As my friends will attest, I have exactly one coaster, which means I’m scrambling for a place for guests to put their drinks. I spotted this tile with an odd-looking, geometric bird for $2. Dusty and sticky, I cleaned him up like a duck plucked from an oil spill, where he now sits on the coffee table—coaster count doubled.

I also found a book titled Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas, which is handy because I’ve been working on perfecting grilled pizza of late (perfecting, failing, perfecting, failing, eating anyway) and am interested to try to make piadinas, a type of flatbread used to wrap sandwiches or as a crust-like bundle for something sweet.

In addition to a sparkly metallic bracelet and a couple of CDs that the DJ sifting through the same box thought fit to pass up (The Sinatra Christmas Album and Corinne Bailey Rae, if you must know), I picked up the book Plastic Ocean for my ocean-loving friend who likes to snuggle up with a good book about the ocean’s flotilla of garbage. I mean, don’t we all?

Squash blossom season

“Hi,” says an eager 10-year-old boy behind a table of greens—lots of Asian veggies—at the Marblehead Farmers’ Market. “Can I help you?”

I spot the basket of squash blossoms, rubber banded in bouquets and know immediately that I’ll be stuffing them with goat cheese and having them for lunch.

“I’ll take these and any advice you have,” I say to the boy and his grandmother.

“Just dip them in flour and an egg,” the boy says, “and saute them in olive oil. I really like them on pizza.”

“How do you know how to cook squash blossoms at your age?”

“My mom,” he says. “Don’t forget to take out the stamen.”

I like this kid. Like that he knows how to properly cook these blossoms that is not in everyone’s repertoire, especially a 10-year-old’s. I like that he knows the word stamen.

“You thinking of becoming a chef?” I ask.

“Maybe,” he says.

“I think you should,” I say. “I would come to your restaurant.”

I recall from last year’s failed experiment that squash blossoms don’t last. They’re fickle little things. One minute they’re perky, they next they’re wilting. I take them home and plunge them in water and get to work on making a simple mixture of flour, egg (a blue one that makes me ridiculously happy) and a little water. I start with this recipe for inspiration and realize I don’t have seltzer water or cayenne pepper, and crab meat seem too much for these delicate flowers, and I certainly don’t want to use ricotta when I can use goat cheese.

I gently rinse the blossoms, letting the water open them up, dry them, then stuff them with goat cheese. I dredge them in the pancake-like batter and saute them for a few minutes until they brown. I go a little too heavy on the batter—a messy presentation that my 10-year-old friend would not approve of—but they’re crisp and delicious and I eat every last one.

Summer bliss

Life is short and summer is shorter, so this month it’s all about

the beach, nearly every week

ice cream, nearly every day

long field trips at lunch

breakfast on the patio, complete with feathers

grilled lime and garlic chicken wings

the farmers’ market

casual or fancy sandals?

white pants

becoming an expert in synchronized diving and women’s gymnastics

pretending the purple-blooming flowers are not weeds

skirts, summer dresses, frocks and tank tops

soft hum of the ceiling fan