December 30, 2018

Holidays Overdrive: Thanksgiving to Christmas and the New Year en Route

When I looked back recently on the last three months of 2018, I realized I had quite a LOT going on, which is why I never got back to posting after mid-summer. I'm sorry about that, as I so enjoy reading others' blogs, and so many of those I follow year-round are totally diligent about posting and sharing regularly - a few times a week, if not more often. Some of those folks generate real income from their blogs, and my hat is off to them. Unfortunately, my life at the moment doesn't allow me the time to pursue that approach to my blogging, as evidenced by my lack of posts since summer.

While it might seem disappointing, as writing is something I do and have done professionally, it just isn't the time for me to dedicate a lot of energy to a personal blog, but I didn't want to give it up entirely. I will, however, get to posting more often at some point - maybe in 2020 after I've stopped working for others - finally! - and because seasons - spring, summer, autumn and the holidays - are among my favorites and are always rich with inspiration. (Winter, I'm sorry to say, isn't my favorite and probably never will be until I can spend it somewhere a bit warmer than upstate New York.)

Autumn, in fact,  probably is my most favorite season of the year, but this autumn was loaded with other activities for me, and the most unseasonable autumn weather that I've experienced here in the Northeast in years, if not ever. It was damn cold and snowy far earlier in the year than we normally was frigid, snowy, icy and, in a word, just plan awful more than it was lovely and gorgeous. The only saving grace was the autumn color, which was quite late to emerge into peak foliage this year, but we did see it, for a while anyway.

By early November, I had survived the siege of Halloween (never my favorite holiday for various reasons), but I have to say, I was very impressed with the politeness of the young trick-or-treaters who rang my doorbell this year. That was quite a pleasant treat for me, so, while I might have questions about the GenXers, this latest generation of young adolescents does give one hope for the future. I hope those I encountered are the norm and not the exception in their generation. And the doorbell ringing ended fairly early (by 7:30pm) at my home, which was a blissful relief. I think the more overzealous teenagers, who, to be honest, are too-old-to-be trick-or-treaters, might just have "aged out" in my neighborhood and did not appear this year as they had in the past. I'm thankful for that small favor, for sure.

One of the more fun things I do like to do in mid-October is an annual country church sale to benefit the local congregation. It's a fun sale and auction that offers something for everyone and I'm happy to say I have become an ace "picker" of vintage items, so I was thrilled to find, at the bottom of a box of dusty and dirty pots and pans, a perfect, bright yellow enameled saute pan. I wasn't certain, but I suspected, at first glance, that it was a bonafide Dansk enamelware pan covered in a thin layer of dust and grime. That might have been a bit daunting to some, but I usually can tell, despite the dust and grime, whether an item is a true "diamond in the rough" and there no other indication of damage or use on this lovely pan, so I knew that it would clean up beautifully. I snagged it for the astounding price of $3! Truly a steal! These older pans from Dansk usually sell for upwards of $50 as they are becoming increasingly hard to find in such pristine condition. What a satisfying score!

Along with this nice pan. I also purchased a couple of older, vintage cookbooks in the burgeoning book tent, for a whopping 50cents total! That's what makes the sale so great -- simply great stuff for very little money. So little, in fact, that I often give the salesclerks at each area of the sale where I purchase items more than they're asking for in payent - it's all for a good cause in one of my favorite communities, so I appreciate the insane bargains.

I always have had a special affinity for housewares, particularly those involving cooking and dining. I still have a classic, fabric covered ring binder in which I'd saved decorating and cooking/dining pages from old issues of Glamour and Mademoiselle magazines from when I was a young teenager (we're talking mid-1960s here - when Julia Child's program, "The French Chef", was just beginning to appear on public television.) I think I have been "nesting" mentally since I was about 13 and my tastes were just starting to forming. Of course, my taste in decorating and cooking/dining certainly have changed and evolved since as I have aged, but I've always been drawn to classic items with traditional style. I liked contemporary when it was the thing in the 1970s, but by the early 1980s, my taste (and lifestyle with horses) had evolved to the point of preferring the English country manor house style as I traveled more in my 20s and 30s. I've pretty much stayed in that genre ever since from an architecture and decorating perspective, and have gradually edited my collection of items - plates, linens, etc - to refine that taste and add only very well made and well designed, classic items. That said, even though Dansk is considered a mid-century modern brand, I've always liked their items for their clean simplicity, hence the appeal of the yellow saute pan.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were literally a blur of activity for me - no travel involved, fortunately, but way too much snow way too early in November, which kind of took away a bit of the glow of the holiday season, making the first snow a bit less special than it would have been with the arrival of Thanksgiving and early December. Notice also, that given the calendar this year, Thanksgiving arrived on what I think was its typically earliest date on November 22 -- a good 9 days before the first of December, so it pushed the arrival of the "holiday" season fairly early in November.  That seemed a bit odd, but I'm sure is what contributed to a robust holiday shopping season for most retailers.

My Thanksgiving celebration centered around dinner with three other long-time friends I've know through horses for decades - we've all known each other for between 15 and 30 years, so a genial group and a fine dinner that I helped to prepare. We are all meat-eaters and the turkey provided by our hostess was cooked well and happily enjoyed. As I often do, I used some of my left-overs to make several turkey mini-pot pies, which has become one of my favorite ways to use up left-over turkey. I don't follow any particular recipe and confess I do use store-bought crust because I don't usually have the energy to make a crust from scratch. To the cooked meat, I add whatever I have readily available - some sauteed onion and celery chopped into small pieces, chopped roasted carrots, some herbs - thyme, primarily, salt, pepper, garlic powder and some gravy - whatever is ready to go and easy to add. I often cut out a turkey-shaped piece of pie crust to put on top of the pie, so it adds a festive touch and helps identify what type of meat is included. So far, I haven't had any complaints on these tasty little "personal pan pies" so far.

 Christmas was, after a frenzy of activity leading up to the holiday, a blissfully quiet day for me. No complaints about that at all after a busy late summer and autumn season. I'll take it as a quiet time to savor the season and reflect on my many blessings. And we even did get a bit of snow - just a dusting, fortunately - on the morning of Christmas eve to add a festive touch to the holiday flavor, but not so much snow as to make travel hazardous here. Phew.

Above are a few scenes from the holiday decorations outside my home this December. I had to trim some low-hanging branches from a cedar tree next to my house and I decided to use them as a big, pot of seasonal greenery on the bench on my porch. I also had gotten some pre-lit faux greenery garland and strung that on the fencing beyond my patio - that gave a nice glow to the yard each evening. I'll be pulling it down and putting it away after New Year's...but it has been a treat to enjoy these nice seasonal holiday touches.

Now, the new year is upon us. No resolutions for me - I'm just resolved to do good things for others and be kind. I have much to be thankful for in my life, and much to look forward to in 2019, so I'm wishing you all the happiest and healthiest of years ahead - and thanks for reading along!

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'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'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: 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 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!