Archives for posts with tag: restaurants

As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.

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It turns out that when I was describing the benefits of crop rotation two weeks ago (see May 4, 2014), I was only half right. The process can be much more complicated—and substantially more advantageous—than merely planting different families of plants in different plots each season. The key is choosing what to plant and the order in which to plant it.

A good example of a more scientific approach to crop rotation is described in an Op-Ed piece by Dan Barber, chef of the restaurants Blue Hill (in New York City) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Pocantico Hills, New York), that appears in today’s New York Times (see “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”).

Chef Barber buys his wheat from a farmer in upstate New York. On a visit to the farm, he learned that the wheat is only planted at the end of a four-year cycle of carefully selected crops, each of which performs a specific task for conditioning the soil. The procession follows a basic order which can be modified as soil response and weather patterns dictate.

First up is a cover crop such as mustard, which cleanses the soil and adds nutrients. Next is a legume to fix Nitrogen. Rye follows which, apparently, crowds out weeds (and also “builds soil structure”, although no explanation is given as to what exactly this means). Last to be planted is the wheat, the crop that outsiders (and until recently, Chef Barber) would think of as the whole point of this enterprise.

What is lamentable in the wheat farmer’s case is that the market for what those outsiders might call the off-season crops—the mustard, peas and rye—is scarce. While the wheat commands high, New York City prices, the other vegetables and grains go unwanted and often end up as feed for animals raised as food. Such use is not considered by most experts to be a very efficient use of resources.

Chef’s response to this situation was to develop menu items at his restaurants that incorporate the lesser crops and thereby elevate their stature and, presumably, their price (I hope that he pays his farmer as much for the mustard, peas and rye as he does for the wheat). It’s an elegant solution—a no-brainer, in retrospect—and also a win-win. Really, it’s a win-win-win because not only do the farmer and the chef benefit but the patrons of Blue Hill get tasty meals out of it, too.

So, how might this concept apply to the backyard gardener? Well, I’m not sure about growing an entire planter full of rye or mustard but half of a planter mixed with other like vegetables or grains might work (especially if Chef shares his recipes). And I never feel like we have enough Sugar Snap peas so the year of legumes would not be a problem. The primary issue is space, something we never seem to have enough of.

Maybe the question for me is, where can I put two more planters?

Perhaps it is because some of the vegetables have lasted longer this year than in the past or maybe it is because my memory is getting worse.  Either way, I’ve been noticing colors in the garden that I do not usually associate with fall.

First, there are the tomatoes.  Yes, some autumn leaves turn red.  But their shades are often muted pinks or magentas or darker shades of red tinged with black.  The tomatoes, though, their roots stubbornly planted in summer, still glow with a radiant red-orange hue; it is as if they are lit from within.  Just looking at them makes me feel warm.

Next to the tomatoes, the peppers and bell peppers add their rich jewel tones of orange and purple.  The mix of colors makes me think of Mexican food, even though I do not usually associate eggplant with that cuisine.  The bright and cheery colors remind me of the festive atmosphere of Mexican restaurants decorated with piñatas and banners of papel picado.

The most surprising color still in the garden is light green:  the basil plants are sending out fresh growth from the base of their stems.  The warm weather must have them fooled.  And unbelievably, there are still a few bright yellow summer squash.

Speaking of which, maybe the leaves are starting to fall sooner than in previous years or perhaps it is because my memory is getting worse (am I repeating myself?).  Either way, those long-lived squash vines are getting buried by fallen and wind-blown leaves.  It is the only downside to a late-season garden.

We couldn’t visit Saratoga Springs without spending some time at the racetrack.  After all, it is one of the main attractions—if not the main attraction—in town.  The purebred horse trade, which includes polo and horse auctions (see “The Hamptons on the Hoof” in the New York Times for a discussion of the latter), ensures a steady flow of tourists at all income levels and fuels the local economy.

The New York Racing Association has done a great job of making horse racing—and gambling—at Saratoga Springs a wholesome family activity accessible to novices and bookmakers alike.  There are plenty of seating options and many food choices that range between the cheap and casual to the formal and expensive.

What the NYRA has not done is make their pricing structure transparent and straightforward.  Because there are so many variations on seating, they are all priced separately.  And surprisingly, a ticket for a seat will not get a spectator through the entrance gates; admission is an additional charge.  We purchased tickets for our grandstand seats in advance online but had to buy our admission tickets at the will-call window.  The only thing more complicated is the betting but that would take an entire blog to explain (after I figured it out, that is).

We watched—and bet on—the first four races.  The first was a steeplechase on the innermost turf (the track has three concentric ovals, the outermost of which is dirt while the inner two are grass) with four jumps, located at each end of the turns.  The horses were started from a walk without the use of gates (I’m not sure how they handle false starts) and were at full speed by the first jump.  The field was mostly well matched and remained closely grouped for the entire race.  When they encountered each gate, they seemed to flow over it rather than jump.  Our horse, Alajmal, came in second to last.

The second race, a five-furlong sprint on the outer track, was over in a flash (well, 58 seconds).  The horse we picked to win, Pure Sensation, was part of a three-horse group that led the field by several lengths for the duration.  The colt could not hold on, though, and lost to Corfu by half a length.  In the third race (another sprint), the saucily named filly Chase My Tail won handily while our horse, Handshakesnkisses (we chose her for her name) came in last.  According to the race analysis, she was “no factor”.

Easily the most exciting race for us was the fourth.  A friend had asked us to bet $10 on the third horse in the fourth race.  Number 3 turned out to be Miss Valentine.  She (and her jockey) came out of the gate strong and led for most of the race.  After fading in the home stretch, she appeared to be boxed out by the front runners but with a last burst of speed, made a dash for the win.  At the line, it was Miss Valentine, Clear Pasaj (No. 2) and Willet (No. 5), nose to nose.

The race too close to call, we waited—with great anticipation—for the photo finish to be reviewed.  Sadly, Miss Valentine came up short.  The final result was Clear Pasaj with the win, Willet to place (by half a head) and Miss Valentine to show (by another half head).  A disappointing outcome but it was a lot of fun to watch.  Those horses move fast!

A day at the races made for a nice break from gardening but we had had enough of it (and only lost $30).  We left before the fifth race bell and, after stopping at Hattie’s Chicken Shack (highly recommended) for fried chicken (what else?) and hushpuppies (the best I’ve ever eaten), headed for the Thruway south and home.

Yesterday, we drove up to Saratoga Springs, New York, for a quick getaway, a mini-vacation, a brief respite from the everyday.  We haven’t planned much—our idea is to keep it simple—and spent yesterday afternoon walking up and down the main street in town, Broadway, and taking a nap (I never claimed to be the life of the party) before going out for a delicious pasta dinner at Wheatfields (highly recommended).  The heat wave finally broke and we were actually able to eat outdoors.

One of the things we did plan was a visit this morning to the gardens at Yaddo, an artists’ community founded in 1900 by a wealthy couple who, sadly, lost all four of their children.  Without heirs, they decided to convert their estate into a sanctuary where young artists, writers, composers and other promising creative types could work without interruption or concern for such mundane matters as room and board.

Most of the 400-acre property is off-limits to those who have not applied to the organization, been reviewed by its trustees and found qualified for residency.  However, the gardens, which comprise a formal rose garden and more rustic rock garden, are open to the public on a daily basis.  The gardens are tended by the volunteer Yaddo Garden Association, several of whose members were busily at work during our walk-through.

We were a bit late for the roses which probably peaked about a week ago.  Nonetheless, most of the bushes were still in bloom, even if the flowers were becoming a bit ragged.  I am always amazed by the sheer variety of roses whose flowers exist in seemingly infinite combinations of color, size, shape and scent.  My favorites are the more delicate pinks and peaches, especially the clusters of diminutive tea roses.

The rose garden is carved out of a stand of spruces which shield visitors from the unfortunate presence of the Thruway, only several hundred feet to the east.  Unfortunately, the trees are not dense enough to attenuate the constant drone of trucks and automobiles racing by at 70 miles per hour.  One has to use some effort to imagine oneself at the turn of the last century when the surrounding countryside was less populated and much quieter.

The rock garden, located west of the rose garden and divided from it by a classical colonnade, is somewhat more serene and much more shaded (fewer trees were removed to create it, apparently).  The flora here are much more familiar to me (in appearance if not in name) and include an impressive array of hostas, most of which were in full bloom.  The dense canopy of the woods must have protected them from the merciless sun of the last few weeks.

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

Last week’s New York Times Dining Section included an article about dinner kits, one of the latest trend in convenience foods (“Everything but the Cook”).  It’s an interesting idea:  After browsing menus on a website, the customer orders dishes online.   The next day, a box containing recipes and all of the necessary ingredients—pre-measured and individually packaged—is delivered to the door.  All of the prep work has been done but the customer does the cooking.  The concept falls somewhere between the traditional approach (plan, shop, prep and cook) and ordering in (choose, telephone and wait).  Services like FreshDirect and Peapod fall to both sides, providing either the ingredients (in normal supermarket quantities) or prepared foods (just like take-out).

Dinner kits have some definite advantages.  For people who feel they are too busy to cook, they can raise the quality of the food in a higher proportion than the additional time required to prepare them.  Less food is wasted because only what is needed for the recipe is included in the kits.  And the expansive selections and detailed instructions can help broaden a cook’s repertoire and increase cooking skills.  A dinner kit is also a relatively low-risk way to explore a new cuisine or ingredient.

Of course, one cook’s asset is another’s liability.  The cost of dinner kits is higher than cooking from the larder (no economy of scale) and is more comparable to eating in a restaurant.  The use of pre-packaged ingredients greatly increases the amount of packaging, much of which is not recyclable (I suspect that a lot of polystyrene is involved).  Pre-measuring makes the recipes less flexible—if the cook decides a dish needs more smoked paprika, he or she is out of luck—and means that the food is handled by more people, increasing the risk of contamination.  Further, depending on the cook’s baseline skill set, nothing may be learned from cooking this way.

More significantly, though, the dinner kit concept opens up a debate about what constitutes home cooking.  Few would argue that ordering delivery from a restaurant is any different from eating it out, even if the dishes arrive unheated.  But if they arrive unassembled as well, do they cross the line into the realm of the homemade?  Or is something lost from the home-cooked experience when half of the work has been done by others?

I think it is less a question of what is done and more about how it is done.  For example, a multi-course meal prepared from scratch might not qualify as home cooking if it is performed perfunctorily or without any thought for or involvement of the diners.  Similarly, a dinner out can have significance to and emotional resonance for the guests if the host puts some conscious thought into the choice of restaurant, makes an effort to add to its warm, convivial atmosphere and takes whatever other steps are necessary to insure a positive experience.

The key ingredient, of course, is love.  The more of it that is thrown into the pot, the less the other ingredients matter.  It helps to start the process with attention and thoughtfulness, in the same way that sautéing a mirepoix forms a flavorful basis for soup.  And adding playfulness, adventurousness, or even nostalgia can spice things up, whether it takes place in the home kitchen or at a restaurant.

We’re visiting my family in California this weekend.  One of my sisters suggested a day trip to Santa Cruz (her daughter is considering a transfer to the University of California campus there) and we jumped at the chance.  Rachel lived there for five years while she got her PhD and I joined her for the last two of those years.  We have many fond—if somewhat fuzzy, after 25 years—memories of the town and campus.

We made an early start, setting off on the three-hour drive a little after 5:00 am (when we travel west, jet lag actually works in our favor).  The first two-thirds of the trip were on Interstate Highways 80 and 680, roads that have become so popular (if that’s the right word) that they are trafficky at any hour of the day.  Still, we made it to San Jose before the morning rush began in earnest and crossed over the Grapevine (California Highway 17) into Scott’s Valley and then Santa Cruz without much trouble (easy for me to say, of course, I was not driving).

We arrived at 8:00 am which was fortunate because that is when Harbor Café opens for breakfast.  We frequented this joint when Rachel lived here—it is just down the street from a former apartment—and we were relieved when a web-search confirmed that it is still in business.  The day before we left home, we spent an afternoon looking things up on the internet and there were some disappointments (our favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants, for instance, closed long ago).

After a hearty breakfast, we made our way up to campus.  It appears to be mostly unchanged—still beautiful and serene, nestled amongst the coast redwood and eucalyptus trees—but it is noticeably more crowded.  When Rachel was attending UCSC, College Eight consisted of one building; now, additional classroom buildings and dormitories have been built around it.  Two new colleges, imaginatively named “Nine” and “Ten”, have been constructed as well.

From there, we drove down the western edge of town—stopping by another former apartment—to Natural Bridges State Beach.  I’ve mentioned it before (see May 27, 2012) and have been thinking about it more since reading some of the recent posts from Late Bloomer (see, for example, “Monarchs and Milkweed—Episode 16”).  A eucalyptus grove adjacent to the beach is the winter destination of Monarch butterflies who migrate from the Rocky Mountains.  They start arriving in October and by late November, there will be thousands of them hanging from branches, clustered together for warmth.

When we first reached the end of the boardwalk which traverses into the heart of the grove, we did not see many butterflies.  There were only a dozen or so early-birds flitting between the limbs of the eucalyptus trees and the occasional laurel.  But as we stood and watched, our eyes adjusted to what we were seeing, not unlike when stepping into a dark room after being out in the sun.  Gradually, we could begin to make out the wings of Monarchs that had alit on the overhanging branches.

When resting, Monarchs fold their wings together so that only the undersides are visible.  The brightly-colored topsides are hidden and the muted undersides blend in with the pale, tan-colored eucalyptus leaves.  The effectiveness of this natural camouflage is increased by the dim lighting caused by dense coastal fog.  When the fog burns off in the afternoon—always a magical moment—the Monarchs should be easier to see.

It’s hard for me to say because my memory is vague (at best) but it seems like the boardwalk (the one on the Monarch trail, not the famous one on the main Santa Cruz beach) is farther from the butterflies than it used to be.  I can recall being practically within arm’s reach but now, the nearest branches are twenty feet away.  Of course, this is probably a good thing.  The Natural Preserve is visited by many people—including busloads of field-tripping school kids while we were there—who could still be a nuisance to the resting Monarchs, even when using their “butterfly voices”.

In spite of yesterday’s excitement, we made it safely to Seattle.  We decided to forgo renting a car this trip and instead have been using public transportation which is quite extensive.  Travelers here can choose between buses and light rail (among the more mundane modes of transit) or the monorail and ferries (of the more exotic varieties).  To keep payment simple, they have instituted a farecard system called ORCA (for One Regional Card for All) that works on most of them.  It is like a debit card that you load with money (electronically) and then tap against a reader as you board or exit a bus, train or ferry.  It also simplifies transfers within and between systems.

Photo by Rachel

So, after dinner at Revel (“urban-style Korean comfort food”) in the Fremont neighborhood, we planned on taking the bus back to our hotel downtown.  Service is frequent (more so than the last time we visited, several years ago) but even so, we had to wait a quarter hour for the next bus.  The bus stop was near a taco truck about a block from the restaurant and as we stood by, we watched as a young couple approached the truck from a side street.  They ordered a couple of tacos and proceeded to scarf them down.

When they had finished their snack, they walked away from the taco truck and down the main street; when they reached Revel (the restaurant in which we had just eaten), they disappeared inside.  What was up with this, we wondered?  Why eat a taco before going to dinner at what we knew to be a nice restaurant?  With time on our hands, we gave this some thought and discussion.

Photo by Rachel

My theory was that because the restaurant does not take reservations and because the couple arrived during the dinner rush (still on east coast time, we had eaten unfashionably early), they loaded up on calories to carry them through the wait, which they expected would be long.  By the time they were seated (the couple would have rationalized) they would be hungry again.  The food is worth waiting for but why suffer, right?

Rachel had a different take on the situation.  She hypothesized that the couple were meeting others at the restaurant—new acquaintances, perhaps—and either did not care for Korean food (which is boldly flavored and not for people with timid palates) or felt that the prices were too high to make a full meal economical.  With a cheap taco or two in their bellies, they could order minimally and pick at their food, all the while remaining sociable with their dining companions.

Photo by Rachel

Or maybe they were just a couple of gluttons.

We’ll never know.  After a few more minutes, our bus arrived and we focused our attention on getting home.

While eating breakfast at a nearby diner (a recent and welcome addition to our greater neighborhood), we noticed many RVs passing this way and that, most of them with cars, scooters or bikes on racks or in tow (one fully-equipped vehicle had all three!).  My first reaction was wonder that the denizens of this town are so mobile or perhaps, I mused, they just like to be prepared to make a quick getaway.

But then I remembered that the diner is near a freeway offramp and that most of the people in the RVs are probably on their way to or from somewhere else and, like us, only stopped here for breakfast.  To me, this stretch of highway is the road that connects our town to the next.  To people driving on the interstate, it is easy on-and-off access to food, gas and lodging.

Rachel suggested that some of these RVers may be in a continual state of going somewhere, a group for which getting there is all the fun.  Many of the campers looked to be older and one approach to retirement, I suppose, would be to liquidate most of one’s possessions—including the house—and invest in a comfortable and well-provisioned RV.  Then, all of one’s time could be spent roaming around, seeing new places and making new memories.

The idea is not without its attractions.  I sometimes feel weighted down by the material goods in my life, too many things to store and maintain and way too many to be enjoyed at once.  Do I really need all of it?

And certainly, there is no shortage of places I’d like to visit in this country, not to mention Canada and Mexico.  Rachel and I took a driving tour of the country in the summer of 1985, looping north as we traversed from west to east (we lived in California at the time) and dropping south to return home after visiting Rachel’s parents in New Jersey for a few weeks.  We covered a lot of territory but it was just a beginning.  It’s a big country we live in.

Nonetheless, although one might meet many interesting people in many diverse places, one would not likely make any deep connections and even if one did, after a short period, it would be time to move on.  It’s would be a lot of reaching out and embracing but also a lot of leaving behind.

Rachel and I agreed it would not work for us and both came to the same conclusion, almost simultaneously, that we need to feel rooted, just like the plants in our garden.  We enjoy traveling and hope to do it always.  But we will always need a place to come home to.