August 25, 2018

Happy Places and Secret Spaces

It's hard to believe that summer is bolting past...literally bolting. It has been a bit of an erratic one -- either very hot and humid (90s were not unusual and more expected this week) or raining. Only in the past few days have we had some heavenly days with warm, sunny weather and lovely cool evenings - great for sleeping after some pretty uncomfortable nights in the past month or two.

I don't want to get into global warming, but, boy, this is not the typical summer weather of my childhood, so, clearly, something is happening here. Mother Nature does NOT lie and when she starts shifting the norm, she is not her usual self. Just sayin'...

August always brings me to one of my most happy places in the world (that is not my home) and it is located not far from me in Saratoga Springs. As a horse person, I grew up going to the races there in August from the time I was about 7 years old. (I began riding at age 9.) Over the past several decades since my early years at the track, the racing season there has been extended from just 24 days in August to 40 racing days over six weeks from mid-July through Labor Day. And what was, in my childhood, a popular attraction has since become a massive one, attracting upwards of 25,000 people to enjoy the races on an average day, to a maximum of 50,000 on it's biggest racing day, Travers Stakes Day, which is usually the next-to-last Saturday of the meeting.

I still love going to the track, but I prefer a quieter time over wrestling with huge crowds on the venue's biggest day, and along with that, I really love finding special places in the area that many people either don't know about or just don't notice. Among them are three of my favorites over the years, including:

The Courtyard Garden at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame located on Union Avenue - a beautiful tree-lined boulevard that separates the main race course grandstand and grounds from its Oklahoma Training Track. This "vest-pocket" dedicated space, just east of the museum's main entrance, is on the east side of the building and is defined by a low iron fence that encloses this tiny garden's perimeter. An inviting oasis along Union Avenue with its bubbling tiered fountain, the garden is a delightful haven away from the fray just beyond its soothing environs.


One of the featured elements within the garden is the large, historic wrought iron gate from legendary Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland - home of the second jewel in racing's "Triple Crown" - the Preakness Stakes. This elegant and elaborate gate dates to 1870, when Pimlico was built, and it stood there until 1966 when a fire destroyed the clubhouse nearby.     




Just a short stroll to the east of the museum is the Oklahoma Training Track.
A special favorite place and time of day are the early morning hours at the aforementioned Oklahoma Training Track that is near (across the street) the main race course. This training facility is called "Oklahoma" for its "far-flung" distance from the main track. It's actually nearby, but for some - probably those who had to walked from the backstretch of the main track to one of to the barn areas at the training track - which can take a good 20-30 minutes, depending on one's pace - must have seemed as far away as Oklahoma is from New York state many years ago...and the name stuck.

There is, at Oklahoma (the training track), a lovely newer structure that calls to mind the facility's historic past in the form of the Whitney Viewing Stand. It is a structure built and dedicated in 2013 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of racing in Saratoga. Yes, horses have been racing there for more than 150 years - and I've been going there for 55 of them! (I remember the celebration of the centennial of racing in Saratoga that occurred back in 1963 - I was, of course, a child.)

The newer Whitney Viewing Stand is modeled after a traditional "judge's viewing stand" where race track officials once stood overlooking the main race track in the era long before cameras and digital video. The original viewing stand is long gone (though the track still employs patrol judges stationed at stands - elevated platforms - at points around the race track, along with an array of cameras recording the action during each race, to ensure that the sport is conducted fairly and in accordance with the rules of racing.

This newer viewing stand was built at the training track to provide a raised vantage point for horse trainers, owners and visitors to stand to enable them watch their horses train in the morning hours. THere were one or two much smaller stands - maybe 3 feet off the ground - for trainers to use, but there was nothing designed to invite the public to join them when the training track is in operation and open to the public visitors. (This is a training facility only, so there is no grandstand.)

The Whitney Viewing Stand is hard to miss - it stands high above most of the buildings and barns nearby that house horses, stable staff and maintenance facilities for the race courses, designed in the style of the distinctive Victorian architecture that characterizes the main race course.         

Training at Oklahoma occurs from mid-April to mid-November and is open to the public at no charge on weekends only during the "shoulder seasons" when the race meeting is not operating (usually from 8-10am, but they'll usually let you in a little earlier). During the racing season (mid-late July through Labor Day), the Oklahoma track is open on racing days (Wednesday through Monday). Even if you're not in the area during the racing season, if you're nearby on a weekend, make the effort to get up early and check out the scene at the training track...it's a fascinating place!

If you're ready to move on, a short stroll (less than a mile) to the east is the rose garden at the renowned artists' retreat known as "Yaddo." Established at the historic property built by financier Spencer Trask in the late 1800s. Many a celebrated writer and artist have spent periods of productive time in the quiet idyllic surroundings of thie beautiful estate. Although the main buildings are not open to the public, the adjacent rose garden is open daily from dawn until dusk and, as with the other sites mentioned above, there is no admission cost to visit them.


Find more information on each of my favorite special places in Saratoga Springs on their respective websites (and in the case of the viewing stand, local tourism sites, since the race track's site isn't very detailed regarding either the training track or its viewing stand):

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame

Saratoga's Oklahoma Training Track and Viewing Stand (Note the information is dated, but it's worth checking with the security guard on site if you wish to visit)

Yaddo Rose Garden



July 1, 2018

Hot, Hot, Hot Heralds July's Arrival


It's hot, hot, hot and steamy in the Northeast, and in upstate northeastern New York, with temperatures pushing the 90s for the past two days and expected to continue for five more days. It's just plain hot and not normally this hot in late June/early July, nor for such an extended period. Call it global warming (I'll say!) or whatever you want, but it is not typical at this time of year. Sure, we can get some hot and humid days in summer, but usually they don't arrive until late July and August, so this is not the nicest time to be suddenly so warm and uncomfortable. But we endure...

Despite the unseasonable heat, I pulled out the July 4th storage box of goodies, including this lovely pair of bunnies all decked out for the Independence Day holiday this week, along with a few other items I keep for holiday celebrations. In the past, I've put them on my rockers on the front porch, but I think it's a bit too hot to leave them out in the blazing sun this year, so they're staying nice and cool sharing a lovely weathered folding deck chair indoors.

As many have noted, July 4 falling on a Wednesday is slightly awkward timing this year, though many folks still enjoy having a mid-week celebration to break up the work week or summer vacation period. I'm happy to have a nice shorter work week and will be attending my favorite local parade early in the morning on the 4th before it gets too hot for man or beast!   

On a related note, my aged washing machine's drive belt gave up the ghost about two weeks ago, so I finally had to bite the bullet while awaiting a replacement belt and took my laundry to the -- ugh -- laundromat nearby early this morning, when it was both cooler (and air conditioned) and fairly empty. I'm not a fan of laundromats, but when push comes to shove, I needed to have some clean clothes so I took my wash to the big machines and just ran them through a full cycle. I brought them home to dry, since the dryer is working fine. Still, I don't love doing laundry or running the dryer when it's so unbearably hot outside, but I got it done as early as I could so as not to have it throwing off any heat in the house for too long. Needless to say, I won't be doing any cooking that requires the use of the oven during the next week, either. It's just too hot for that, too, so cold items and salads are the order of the week now.

After a short trip to do some grocery shopping and then returning home to water my plants and veggies that I'm growing (or summering) outdoors - the radishes, leaf lettuce, herbs and annuals (some of which have survived the winter indoors for two years!) are all doing well, I'm staying squarely parked indoors and doing a bit of indoor sorting, tossing and organizing. It is an endless task, but I'm keen to make a dent in the accumulated stuff and keep the volume under a bit better control.

Stay cool and enjoy a safe and pleasant July 4th holiday!     


March 25, 2018

The Promise of Spring...


One would be hard-pressed to believe that Spring actually had arrived earlier this week, when the snows of winter seemed to resist the appeal of the new season by depositing yet another deluge of the frozen white stuff on coastal New Jersey, New York, and New England areas - the fourth Nor'easter of the previous fortnight! It was enough.

Fortunately, the "Four'easter," as the media cleverly dubbed it, managed to avoid my area of upstate New York, by about 30 miles, so we were unscathed (phew!) by yet another ocean blast of the white stuff, but there's still a decent amount of snow still on the ground, though gradually fading.

I fully expect the remaining snow to diminish in the next week, and perhaps be completely melted by Easter Sunday, with temperatures finally returning to the normal (40s-50s) range expected in late March. One can only hope for that, but there are plenty of other reasons to go ahead and readily embrace the arrival of the Spring season - particularly in the kitchen.

It has been a long and cold winter, so the prospect of replacing the hearty, warming appeal of winter's heavier "comfort food" (and the pounds they often can add!) to the lighter, fresh fare of the spring season - first of the season salad greens, lemon and asparagus, etc.

I also decided to use the seasonal change in menu to see if I could skip a routine trip to the nearby grocery store and whether I could make several meals out of the contents of my refrigerator and freezer, along with the pantry staples I already had on hand. It was a fairly easy decision to make a light and tasty pasta primavera with some pennette pasta, turkey bacon, sauteed golden onion, frozen peas and chives, and some grated Asiago cheese.

The good news is that I used only a half of the box of pasta, which resulted in enough pasta for several dinners and lunches. I also have a jar of creamy Alfredo sauce for pasta and some shredded cheddar and Italian cheese blend, so I'll add some of those to create a "primavera" variation on baked macaroni and cheese. A little heavier than the basic pasta primavera, but enough to make it interesting and a little different than the original.

And that's just the beginning. I've got some frozen salmon fillets, a bit of frozen shrimp, some frozen left-over vegetable lasagna, some frozen spinach and puff pastry for spanakopita, fresh carrots and plenty of frozen turkey stock and soup base for Florentine chicken soup with pasta and spinach, along with some tasty fish bakes or stews.



Sometimes it just takes a long-awaited change of season to inspire a change in approach to cooking and dining as the weather finally starts to warm and the birds begin to chip and sing!



    

January 3, 2018

The Holidays, Fine Art and Feasts

No sooner had Halloween come and gone and it suddenly was the holiday season. I know I've mentioned this before, but I'm not a fan of having Christmas decor infiltrate the brick-and-mortar stores in October, well before Halloween and more than two months before the actual holiday. I'm a huge proponent of Thanksgiving - that food-centric holiday that has no religious connotations and provides the simplest of sentiments: thankfulness and gratitude for our many blessings, and the opportunity to share those blessings with others less fortunate. I'm still disappointed, though, that this most wonderful of holidays continues to get short shrift in the holiday marketing agenda of the major retailers. It's a little sad, because Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest, and the colors and sights and smells of autumn...what could be more appealing and enticing? Alas, the celebration is primarily about food, not gifts (though food gifts for hosts/hostesses are always nice), so I guess I should be glad that the holiday marketing industrial complex hasn't gone totally overboard with Thanksgiving in the way that it has for Christmas.    

In my area, a long-standing tradition of one of the major human service nonprofits is to provide a huge Thanksgiving meal to anyone in the community who wishes to attend, and for those unable to get to the gathering, a literal army of volunteer drivers, pick up pre-packed dinners (all freshly cooked at a central location) and deliver them to those too fragile to venture out into the November chill. It serves several thousand people each year, thanks to contributions from individuals and major corporations in the region...it's a gratifying to see how it has grown each year as more people are served and more people and companies step up to help ensure no one goes without on this important holiday. 

I love Thanksgiving. It's hard to corrupt its simple message with "stuff." It celebrates the great bounty provided by our country's farmers. I am so fortunate to have grown up and continue live in a beautiful region of upstate New York where locally grown food is plentiful and where I love the late November scenery - stark, but not necessarily frozen, and full of evocative light and sights.

Speaking of scenery, I've discovered the gorgeous work of a marvelous contemporary American artist whose paintings of landscapes speak so directly to my own appreciation of natural beauty. Peter Fiore's works have such wonderful light and atmosphere and I love the way he interprets a scene. Here's a sample (no copyright infringement intended):

   

I'm a huge fan of Peter's work. You can see a wide selection of his work, read his bio, see where his work is being shown and where he's offering workshops and classes (mostly in the Northeast in NY and PA) on his website: peterfiore.com. Check it out. As it happens, I was, at one time, an art major in college, but I've found other creative outlets since then, and life and work and other pursuits intervened, so I haven't painted in years as a result. It's something I intend to do again, and I love the places and spaces that landscapes afford, so I think a workshop with Peter is in my future at some point.

Along with Thanksgiving, I spent Christmas and New Year's on my own, but don't feel sad for me - it was my very deliberate choice and my desire. I politely declined invitations to join others as I've had a lot going on - including a rather disturbing flood in the house in mid-September that has had a lasting impact. (Check your washing machine hoses, people! Every 3-5 years you should replace them and you are far less likely to have water spraying everywhere that mine did, uninterrupted for 8 hours!)

These year-end holidays provided a valuable and hard-to-come-by opportunity for uninterrupted time at home dealing with the lingering residual effects of the annoying flood, along with other domestic tasks that had slipped through the cracks as a result. I took full advantage of that gift of time to deal with those things, but I didn't lack for either holiday celebration or sumptuous fare.

I made a turkey (of course) and my favorite accompaniments for Thanksgiving, though, alas, I neglected to take a photo of the bird. I did, however, make a tasty turkey pot pie with some of the leftovers...



For Christmas, I whipped up a very tasty Mediterranean fish stew with tilapia and shrimp on Christmas eve that continued as Christmas Day's repast. So good! No recipe, sorry - I've been cooking for decades, so I just winged it using some frozen home-made shrimp and lobster stock (always handy to have and a good way to use it up), half a jar of marinara sauce (so as not to overwhelm the fish stock), chopped and seeded fresh tomatoes (on the vine - they always seem to be a bit more red and appealing in the off-season than other hot house varieties), sauteed diced onion, cubed red-skinned potatoes, minced roasted garlic, thyme and basil. It was so hearty and tasty!   



For New Year's Eve, I made a lovely risotto with porcini mushrooms with a splash of truffle oil and topped with freshly grated Asiago cheese...so warm, tasty and comforting on a very cold winter's night! (We're in the middle of a rather lengthy and abnormal arctic freeze with temperatures in the single digits and below 0F overnight, so this was a perfect stick-to-the-ribs kind of dish full of flavor for these frigid days!) I confess, I started with a risotto mix from Alessi (with porcini) and simply added a bit of cooked chicken, topped with 3-4 tablespoons of sweet, unsalted butter and a splash truffle oil. It's a perfect compliment to the porcini, but don't overdo it...truffle oil is pungent and not everyone is a fan...use it sparingly if you love it as I do, and simply omit it for those who don't share your passion. Topped with grated Asiago, this is one of my go-to winter dishes.  




For New Year's Day, I made my variation on a classic quiche Lorraine, but without the standard crust and made with milk and a bit of heavy cream, rather than all cream. I love heavy cream, but I've been trying to moderate the fat and keep holiday food bingeing well in check. It seems to be working, so these little concessions don't really seem like a sacrifice, and isn't that the key to effective diet management? It's all about losing the fat, but not the flavor. I've been making these crustless quiches with an array of fillings - mushrooms, onions, broccoli, carrrots and other veggies, etc. -  for years. They work so well and are just a snap to make.    


 

So, while I was on my own, I wasn't alone, speaking with friends and family from afar throughout the holidays, cooking, cleaning, filing, sorting, tossing and making a great dent in the task list and starting the new year with a cleaner, if not completely blank, slate.

Here's to a happy, healthy new year for all and a fresh start for what promises to be an interesting, and potentially personally gratifying and rewarding new year for me from here. Stay tuned! 










October 29, 2017

Black Cats, Jack-o-Lanterns and Pumpkins

Miraculously, it has only been about 4 weeks since my last post...so I'm back to chat for a minute about Halloween. It's not one of my favorite holidays and I'm not sure why, because my birthday is the next day, but after childhood, it never really did much for me. I wasn't keen on going to Halloween parties for teens or adults...it just seemed silly to me. I don't love ghoulish, zombie-like make-up, either, but I do love kitties, including black kitties.

The last in a long line of kitties with whom I've shared my life and home and consider family is the only all-black kitty (save a tiny spot of white on his neck) that I've ever had. He's my pal and nearly 18, I think. I've had him since he was born, and I've had black and white kitties - two great ones, in fact - but none all black, or nearly all black like him. What a good kitty he is, too. So, in honor of my nearly all black kitty, I have hung this cute little wooden ornament of a kitty with a jack-o-lantern. My late mother gave it to me decades ago and it now gets pride of place just under my mantel for Halloween.

 
Above this smiling black Halloween kitty is a bit of papercraft I picked up in a shop in the Hudson Valley that specialized in primitives. It's a simple little stiff paper banner that reads "Halloween...The Witch Is In...Halloween." It just amused me...so up it goes each year under the mantel with the black wooden Halloween kitty. Trick or Treat!

On top of the mantel I have the rest of small decorative items that I break out for Halloween each year - my ceramic pumpkin teapot that I posted about a few years ago here, a pair of simple metal votive candle holders with charming pumpkin cut-outs, and a terra cotta pottery candle holder with a slightly less charming jack-o-lantern face, and a couple of pretty ceramic pumpkins.


It's  not a lot of Halloween stuff at this point in life, but it's a few fun things to make me and my guests chuckle.

Years ago. being in upstate New York and a reader and collector of The New Yorker magazine covers for many years, I also have a few choice New Yorker covers that I've saved in my collection. You can see them online now on Pinterest and other places, but here is one of my favorites, from November 1, 1975 by artist Eugene Mihaesco, who provided 70 covers for the magazine from 1972-1992:



 
I like smiling jack-o-lanterns, or in this case, jack-o-suns...Happy Halloween!

October 2, 2017

Fast Forward Two More Months...and Fun Project

It has been a busy summer, leaving little time for posting, but thought I'd catch you up with a fun score I made over the weekend and the project that resulted...goodbye, September, hello, October!

I was out in the country on Saturday, doing my usual errands, and on my way home, I swung by a local Habitat ReStore. I've known of the store for years, stalked its merchandise on Facebook, and finally made a point of stopping in. I was looking for some interior doors, since a minor flood (caused by a spontaneous leak in the washing machine hose - ugh!) did some damage to some doors that I wasn't crazy about anyway. New interior doors are NOT inexpensive, so the reStore and comparable historic preservation organization parts warehouses are terrific outlets to find perfectly viable older items at reasonable prices.

I did find some door possibilties, but what I actually purchased - for a whopping $15 - was a nice, small but simple, though somewhat grungy, 5-arm metal chandelier in what I think was meant to be bronze. It was brownish, and not quite the color I had in mind, and definitely in need of some cleaning up, but the perfect size and style for what I wanted. I'd known for a while that I really needed to replace a grostesque monstrostity of a hanging light fixture that came with my home...it's a crystal and brass confection that is so ridiculous and huge that it's really not funny. Maybe it would work in someone's home, but definitely not mine. I'd meant to replace it right away, but just hadn't gotten around to it - and I don't use it since it's not on a dimmer and is MUCH too bright. 

My dining area is not large, and my taste runs to traditional simple lines - definitely not crystal and brass combined. So I wanted a traditional early colonial style iron chandelier, nothing too elaborate, and it had to be the right scale...5-arm was fine, 4 would have been even better, but the bottom line was the bottom line. I did not want to spend more than $20 if I could help it. (It can be done, but one does have to look around to find the right light at the right price.)
 
I'd perused eBay (where I buy and sell regularly, so it's a viable option for me), and the local big box home supply stores, but everything was more than I wanted to spend. I've found lovely chandeliers in the past for various homes that I've bought at auction (in person) and at thrift stores. I have a minor passion for them and, while screaming bright brass is so passé now, I can't pass up a classic chandelier with good bones. You can always age the brass or, if necessary, paint the fixture.

So, there I was, looking for interior doors, when I saw the small but jam-packed lighting fixtures section. I looked around at the lamps, then I looked up to check out an array of hanging fixtures, including some chandeliers. And there, kind of hidden behind a few others, was a lovely 5-arm metal beauty. It was a bit dirty but the bones were there and the white plastic candle "sleeves" were all there, too, and easily cleaned up or, if necessary, replaced. I was delighted by its shape and its very reasonable price.

Here's the chandelier before I'd finished spraying it so you can see the original color nearest the camera...kind of brown and, well, definitely grungy:



I took it home and did some cleaning with a scrub sponge to remove the surface grime and let it dry. I removed and washed the candle sleeves, which cleaned up nicely. Then I covered each exposed bulb socket and wiring with a bit of newspaper so the electrical connections would be protected from any spray paint. I laid down newspapers on the floor of my garage and broke out my can of oil-rubbed bronze spray paint.  In a matter of minutes I had a fresh and new looking chandelier! 

Here's a view of the painting in progress...it's shiny where I'd just sprayed, but it dries to a nice, dark, matte finish:


And here's the refinished chandelier, with candle sleeves back in place, hanging on a plant hook on my fence outside so you can see the whole thing: 


 Here's a bit closer look at the finish:


I couldn't be more pleased with this chandelier and how it turned out. I'll be installing it soon in place of the crystal-and-brass monstrocity and can't wait to see it all aglow with new bulbs and some lovely shades. I'm thinking natural beige/tan linen for the shades...something like that..."country contemporary," of course, 'cause that's how we roll here at the Country Contemporary blog!

I'll share when the fixture is installed with its shades, so stay tuned!

July 16, 2017

Fast-Forward 4 Months: From Snows to Spring to Bunnies to Blooms to Summer to July 4th and a Patiotic Parade


Here I am again, very slow to update the blog (for a writer, I'm a very delinquent blogger)...but from the last post on late season big snows in mid-March, I managed to completely miss any blog posts on St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, and Father's Day. That brings us up to July 4th (nearly 2 weeks ago) and practically the first of August! I have NO idea where the time goes, but it seems to fly at warp speed lately. Maybe I should just plan to update the blog quarterly rather than monthly, so I'll have more to say, if a little less often. Anything has to be better than every 4-5 months!

After the annoying snows of March, I did manage to take a few shots of the flowering shrubs planted in front of my home that provided a nice burst of color in May, along with a large and fragrant lilac bush. I've forgotten what these two shrubs are called - each about 4 feet tall and nearly as wide - but I did look them both up and made a note (just can't find it at the moment)...
 



Thought I'd also share a few photos of a couple of bunnies that seemed to think my yard has the most tasty grasses of the spring in June. There was a large bunny (the mother, I suspect) and at least two younger ones. Usually, I would see just one munching, then skipping through to the next patch. Here's a view of one of the little ones through the branches of my potted rosemary and sage... 



I love bunnies, but I'm not inclined to have any as I am a cat person and have one of those, so I just don't want to go there, where bunnies are concerned. They're fun to watch, though, now that I've moved any potted plants that were particularly tempting. Here's another view of the same one through my somewhat foggy patio door - I didn't want to scare him (her?) away, so I shot the photos through the glass...





I have a window box planter (not attached to a wall, so just freestanding on a patio table) in which I like to grow leaf lettuce. My ruby lettuce has been growing nicely since late spring and is just too tempting for bunnies to leave the planter accessible to them sitting on the patio, so it's up out of their reach on the table nearby. It's an heirloom variety of lettuce called Salad Bowl Red and it's very tasty, so I do understand why the bunnies find it so appealing...



And, finally, I did make a short trek to my favorite annual July 4th parade at a small, upstate New York hamlet in the Hudson Valley. In the 35 years I've been attending this parade, it never fails to amuse - it is blissfully short, which is the nice part, but it's always a little bit loose and funky, so a hoot! Gotta love a patriotic parade with a vintage Ford pick-up truck, a pretty older mare (a Morgan for those wondering) nicely adorned for the occasion - the only horse in the parade this year (it's horse country, so prior years have seen quite a few from tiny ponies to full-size horses) - a wooden wagon with one small, bewildered child, and two little cuties with flags who were just too adorable not to include:

 


  

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 And, now, on to the rest of the summer!