Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day? It's a Love/Hate Thing

My "Valentine"

I grew up hating Valentine's Day. I found it very embarrassing and the source of much tension in my life. "But why?" you might ask. You see, my parents moved our family constantly throughout my school years. Each year, I seemed to be in a new school where I barely knew my classmates so giving cards for boys and girls that I didn't know or maybe even want to know was not fun. On top of that, there was no budget for buying cards so I had to handcraft them. Sure that's fine, unless the tendency was for everyone to bring in their store-bought cards, and then guess who felt like dirt! Even worse was when I grew into my teen years and the day became the uncomfortable time for unsolicited gifts from guys trying to win my affection. Silly me. 

Okay, so let's get away from my life and look at the history of this awkward holiday. Or maybe not. Have you done any research? Talk about weird. Men beating women with the fresh hides of their hunt, expecting extra fertility? And that was just the beginning of the strange tales from many pagan countries. No wonder we were taught the day was some sort of remembrance for a Catholic Saint called Valentine who died in prison. Folks back then were just trying to change the pagan holiday into something a little less crazy. 

So let's skip to life in America and our beautiful commercialism. If it wasn't for Hallmark cards rolling out their pink and red cards in the early 1900's, we probably no longer would have this holiday. Now, the candy industry, the flower industry, the jewelry industry along with card companies all work feverishly to make Valentine's Day a great day, but just remember, it's our money that fuels it.

I don't like the idea that someone wants me to join in the fuss and use their words to express love to the person I work hard to have a relationship with all during the year. But let me stop complaining.

Did you know I was engaged to the love of my dreams on Valentines Day? Do I get flowers and chocolates and go out with him on Valentine's Day - yup. So why do I fuss? I love being loved but I hate the idea that someone else tries to dictate the how and the when and where. Eric and I are spontaneous in our love, like most people. We give gifts and notes to each other when we think about it on our own, depending on how we feel at the time.  

So, I guess I will go on with my love/hate relationship with this funny day. Chocolate, romance, flowers - they are all wonderful. Every year, I will try again to fight the system by at least making my own card and not buying anything red or pink. For today, I am happy to have someone that loves me and I will have fun loving him. 

How can I not love him?

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Big Purple Bubblegum

You might be wondering why this post has such a strange title. It is with a smile on my face that I am able to write that I have published my first children's story.

Wahoo! Do a little dance, twirl around and clap your hands! Okay, maybe you are not as excited as I am, but at least smile!

For years, actually decades, I have been saying that I wanted to start writing children's stories. My love of telling stories started when I was a child and I would have to babysit younger children. One of my favorite ways to keep their attention was by telling stories. As I got older and had children of my own, I told them stories. As an adult, I went on to tell stories to whole classrooms of children. I found it very fascinating to be able to take a group of kids and watch their faces as they entered into my world of make-believe and live out an altered reality for a few minutes.

The challenges of a children's book are finding a way to get them to hear "my voice" as I tell the story on paper or on their e-reader.

I don't remember most of my stories from over the years, but that is okay as I have plenty of imagination left. 

My book, The Big Purple Bubblegum is available on Amazon now for a paperback version or for download here. I personally like children's books on paper, but I understand there is a real market for electronic versions as well.

Watch out for new children's books as I explore this fun new area of creativity. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A View From my Window

A view from twelve stories up.
Today I am twelve stories up looking out over the Atlantic Ocean from a hotel on Virginia Beach. As I am sitting here watching the tiniest little dot on the horizon, I realized this is probably what it feels to be on an oceanliner out in the middle of nowhere - of course the minor exception being that I can look down and see the sand.

Yesterday was warm but stormy and the waves were too much for the surfers to even get out far enough to catch a wave. We stopped in to have dinner inside last night at a place we have been to before, Lager Heads. They have a great beer selection and fun appetizers and to make our visit perfect, we had a friendly and efficient waitress. They have a really beautiful place right on the beach.
The sun is coming out!

Today, the rain is gone and the skies show promise of letting the sunshine through this afternoon. I find the ocean calming and can sit and watch it for hours, somewhat like I do at home in front of the fireplace watching the flames. I enjoy letting my mind wander. The waves are a little brown from the rain runoff and sometimes the wind catches them as they break and sending spray flying into the air. The seagulls never tire of circling around and I notice that there are actually several different species.
When I see a cormorant or a pelican, I feel like the ocean gave me a treat. This morning a few dark dolphins swam along the beach in front of me, doing their normal zigzag in and out of the water.
Friendly seagull

The tiny spec in the distance is now just a little bigger. Since I am near the Navy Station Norfolk, every few minutes I will see or hear a fighter jet screaming through the sky overhead and I wonder what kind of a thrill is it for the guys or girls who get to fly them?

Fighter jets flying overhead
How is it they can fly two planes so close together without swerving into each other with a strong gust of wind?
There is a surfer just entering the breakwaters

I walked along the boardwalk this morning for a couple of hours and was really glad I was wearing my warm ski jacket as the damp wind was just bitingly cold, but I didn't want to have to sit inside. Landscapers were busy cleaning up after the Nor'easter. I even saw a man standing on top of a fifteen story building that was under construction and hoped he was secure as the wind was pushing me around and I was on the ground.

Man walking his dog along the beach.
Beautiful skies!
I keep thinking I am seeing eagles like we have at home in North East, with their bright white tail and head, soaring over the waves, but then they turn and I can see their underside is the white of a large seagull.
See the spray coming off the waves.

My eyes play tricks on me as I stare at the waves, watching the rays of sunlight breaking through way out from the shore turning the water a bright green - and I think I see something moving in the water but then it's gone. The horizon is a mix between periwinkle and slate gray with a blanket of puffy clouds just floating in place. When I let my gaze relax, I can sense that the whole mass is moving, but so slowly.

This town is empty. I can count on one hand how many people walked by me during my two hours of walking. They seemed to be people like myself, just enjoying the winter ocean, although there were a couple of folks just wearing shorts and t-shirts - guess the day looked warm outside from inside their hotel room window.
I love the beach in winter.

During my jaunt this morning, I stopped in at the Golden City because I was craving some broccoli and rice. I found walking there was easy enough when my Google app told me it was a 10 minute walk. Their store was clean and pleasant and my order went through quickly. My portions were very generous so I saved half for tomorrow. A little of their spicy oil kicked my lunch up a notch - quite satisfying.

See how far away he is...
I think the tanker or freight carrier that I have been calling a tiny dot might not be coming any closer. I have been watching him for over an hour and he still is barely perceptible - maybe he is heading to Nova Scotia...but three fighter jets just flew over heading towards his direction. I wish I brought my binoculars. You probably have the same feeling I just had - there could be a good story here...Two more jets just flew in that direction - possibly a pirate ship coming into our waters? Or maybe, I guess, that is just the direction of their flight plan.

The surfer is standing on the wave!
So I just looked out and there was a surfer down on the sand getting his gear on to go out surfing. He actually got out past the breakwaters and rode a wave. I tried to take a couple of shots but he was pretty far down. I was freezing out on my balcony - I can't imagine how cold he must have been in the water!

Anyhow, the dot on the horizon is still out there and the surfer has moved out of my line of vision and Eric has returned from work so I will sign off for now...

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Saving the Green Tomatoes: Spicy Green Tomato Chutney

Today is halfway into November and last night, my tomato plants finally froze. We have seen several frosts over the last three or four weeks, but they never crept into our yard, until last night. My fig trees threw off their leaves like they couldn't wait while the peppers and tomato plants just shriveled and hung their leaves like wet socks. Little green figs still hang out there naked but I don't have any uses for them. The green tomatoes will make an awesome chutney, perfect for spicing up dull fall meals.

I am using a Russian recipe as my inspiration but adjusting it a bit with fig leaves, thyme, dates and wild crabapples. Fig leaves add such a tropical coconut flavor while the thyme adds butteriness and the crabapples add pectin. My yellow crabapples are from a tree I rescued from the woods and I use it as the bee attractor for my early blooming apply trees.

I love the colors of the green tomatoes as some are solid green while others have a touch of pink or orange. They are slightly sweet with a touch of acidity and more meaty than ripe tomatoes. They should be perfect for a preserve.

My first job was to wash the tomatoes and then chop them up into somewhat small bits. I started with my knife and quickly realized chopping would take me forever so I switched to my food processor. After a couple of pulses, I had the perfect uniform size. I tossed them into my largest pot.

In the meantime, I decided to cook my crabapples separately so I could put them through a food mill to remove the seeds and stems. I use an antique food mill I have had for decades, but you can find new models at lots of stores. I covered the crabapples with water, brought them up to a boil and let simmer until they were soft. They were easy to process and the soft yellow mash blended perfectly into the colors of my green tomatoes.

Chutney needs spice and to bring out more of the flavor, I toasted them over a medium flame for a couple of minutes while trying to keep the mustard seeds from popping out. The heat seems to intensify the flavors of dried spices. Some recipes call for the spices to be ground but I decided to leave mine whole as I love the pop of mustard seeds and the spiciness of black peppercorns. Besides, after grinding spices and cooking them, they can seem a bit more bitter in the end product.

My recipe called for a mash of ginger, garlic and chilis and while I had all the ingredients, I didn't quite make a mash. Instead, I used a microplane to grate the ginger, chopped and mashed the garlic and coarsely chopped the peppers with my regular kitchen knife.

Since all the ingredients would simmer away for a couple of hours, I knew the garlic and peppers would soften but heat doesn't soften the ginger fibers. I needed to break down all the fibers beforehand - hence the microplane.

Now for the heat. I had a couple of chili peppers from my now dead garden as well as a couple of jalapenos and habaneros from the bottom of my frig. I looked around for a pair of gloves to protect my fingers from the oils, but...oh well.

I deseeded them as the texture of pepper seeds is almost never desirable, and chopped up the peppers coarsely. My fingers were so spicy even after washing them with soap and water.

Now I don't know how many people know that fig leaves give off a coconut flavor. I personally found out the first year I grew the plants. When we had our first freeze, the leaves fell to the ground and smelled strongly of coconut. After a little research, I found that I could use them in cooking. I remove the center stem and then chop the leaves so that they will blend into whatever I am cooking. I added a little thyme too.

I knew I needed sweetness to cut the heat of the peppers and wanted more of an earthy sweetness so I used raw sugar cubes and chopped dates. I did try using the food processor for the dates, but they just stuck to the blades. My knife worked just fine.

I kept adding each ingredient to the pot which I had on a low flame. By the time the vinegar was added, there was only about a half of an inch of room to the rim. I kept the heat very low and let the chutney simmer for a couple of hours, stirring every thirty minutes or so.

 Finally, I jarred it up into wide mouth pint jars and processed them in a hot water bath for about ten minutes. A quick wipe and tightening of the lid and they were ready to rest.

Here is the actual recipe:

Spicy Green Tomato Chutney

3 kg green tomatoes
125 g crabapples
2 heads of garlic
75 g minced ginger
4 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
6 green chilies- or similar
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp fenugreek
1 tbsp cumin seeds
5-8 cardamom seeds
2 tbsp chopped fig leaf
125 g chopped dates
500 g raw sugar
2 tbsp sea salt
1 tsp thyme
500 ml red wine vinegar

Use a food processor to chop tomatoes. Pour into a large pot and place on low heat.

Place crabapples in pot, cover with water, cover and cook until tender - about 12 minutes. Process through a food mill to remove seeds and stems. Add resulting mash to tomatoes.

Toast the spices in a dry pan over medium heat until their fragrance is released and the mustard seeds start popping. Add to tomatoes.

Mince ginger with microplane. Chop garlic and chili peppers. Add to tomatoes.

Remove center stems of fig leaves and chop finely. Add to tomatoes.

Coarsely chop dates. Add to tomatoes.

Add raw sugar, thyme,  salt and vinegar to tomatoes.

Stir tomato mixture and simmer for 2 - 3 hours, stirring well every 30 minutes.

The finished chutney will be thick but still have a saucy aspect. Pour into sterilized pint jars, cover and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

That's it! Try this spicy green tomato chutney on your next turkey sandwich. It might be your new favorite condiment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi
For months, My husband, Eric and I dreamed about our trip to Europe and then specifically, to France. We originally were thinking of going to Greece, based upon the recommendations from a lot of fellow travelers, but the struggling economy there scared us off for this trip. Instead we settled on southern France. 

This was a big deal for us. We have four adult children and after thirty years of marriage, we felt like we really deserved to splurge on ourselves, but like most folks, our finances were limited.

We settled on renting a boat that would take us along a section of the Canal du Midi. The pictures on their website were breathtaking and although we did not speak any French, we felt this was a way to enjoy the area without having to do a ton of dialog. After shopping around for a few weeks, we chose a company, Nicols, to hire the boat from as they seemed to have the newest models and lots of good reviews. Thankfully, they had a broker who worked out of Florida to help us work out all the details.

Train Station in Narbonne

I got creative and scratched together all the credit card points I could get my hands on and was able to get flights to Germany with just points, saving us a lot of money. Slowly, we chose each section of travel to get to the port in the south of France, just north of the Mediterranean Sea. We booked trains, shuttles, buses and taxis and a hotel room. Most of the businesses did not have much of an internet presence, but we figured it out. 

The day finally came and we headed to the airport. Of course, our flight was delayed, but we were not concerned and we made it out only a couple of hours later. We hoped to be able to sleep as it was an overnight flight, but a screaming baby kept us all awake right up until our landing. Flexibility and patience is a very important part of traveling! Our flight attendants were kind and wine and beer was free so we all managed.

Ryan Air Lobby in Germany
Ryan Air was our next stop, but we had almost ten hours to kill. We wandered around the airport in Frankfurt, took our shuttle and hung around the airport in Kirchberg. We couldn't find a comfortable place to chill so we actually found a nice grassy spot outside and napped with our luggage for an hour or so. Then we checked out the curry sausage stand - rather interesting; then the beer spot - pretty decent but no variety; the empty upstairs until finally, we were in line to board our flight to Montpellier!

A fast moving storm blew in and all we could hear was the noise of the water on the corrugated metal roofing, or at least we thought it was water. Come to find out, it was a mix of rain and hail. So much hail that there were piles of it along the runway. The rain was intense and as we waited we saw firemen rushing about dropping boards across the bases of the doors to stop the inflow of flood waters. We were all hustled to another higher part of the airport and got off the ground before the next round of rain started.

The Citadine Hotel in Montpelier
Montpellier was dark when we arrived but we found our way to the shuttles that would take us to our hotel, the Citadine. The streets were well lit, but almost no people were to be seen. Thankfully, we found our hotel just a short distance away even though our phone had spotty coverage. The concierge greeted us in French but quickly changed to speak to us in pretty clear English. We were surprised that more people didn't speak English but we managed. Our room was a shock when we walked in to find a couch and a bathroom. A fold-out couch? Thankfully, it was really the best fold out we had ever encountered and although we could not locate any place to get a bite for dinner, we slept quite peacefully after a hot shower.

Montpellier Train Station
Our alarms went off from our newly charged phones (we didn't forget to bring our inverter and plug converter) all too early, but we had a train to catch. After finding some French coffee in the lobby, we set off on foot to find the train station, listed as being about half a mile away. There were several folks about, some seemingly on their way to work and others just enjoying the cool morning air. After one correction from a gentleman, we found the steel and glass dome-shaped station. We struggled to understand which platform or how to get our tickets, but one of the managers spoke some English and helped us get tickets and we figured out which platform to get on just in the nick of time. 

Eric enjoying the comfortable train ride through southern France.
The trains in France are wonderful. They are clean, cost efficient and punctual. There were electrical outlets for charging our phones and we could easily get up and walk around. Riding across the countryside, we watched the terrain go from very Spanish looking clay homes in an arid landscape with olive trees and yucca plants to vineyards and more lush gardens.

Fantastic bread display in Narbonne
The train took us about 90 minutes to get to Narbonne - almost to our destination. The area was much busier than Montpellier and we decided to check out the town for some lunch. We found a little cafe and the menu had English translations. Of course, they served wine with lunch. I ordered a tuna sandwich and was surprised and delighted to find they made it without mayonnaise, just lettuce, tomatoes and onion in a baguette.

We loved the vast spread of olives 

After a tiny cup of espresso, we headed out to check out the Les Halles de Narbonne, an indoor market of many vendors recommended to us by our travel broker. Talk about phenomenal products! So many cheeses, olives, fruit and vegetables, fish and meats, breads and candy! We feasted with our eyes on the freshest foods imaginable and massive displays. Nothing commercialized about shopping there. Mostly men were doing the shopping with cloth bags or baskets. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience even though we only walked away with a little cheese, some olives, a dried sausage and fresh strawberries, and the unforgettable baguette.

Incredible displays of fresh meats
There was a little bar in the middle of the Hall where several men were drinking wine and talking so we pulled up a couple of chairs to a large wine barrel converted into a table. We sipped Rose wine like the locals and enjoyed watching the French folks doing their shopping. No one was speaking English and it was fun not understanding their words but still being able to understand pretty much what they were talking about just by their body language.

After the respite, we headed on to find a taxi for the last leg of our trip before we boarded the boat. We read that you have to call for a taxi since they are not just waiting around busy areas. We walked to where a taxi company address was listed to be and found nothing - no office, no taxis, nothing. Perplexed, we went into a bakery and asked the girl behind the counter if she knew where we could get a taxi but she didn't speak English. Another customer came into the shop and thankfully interpreted for us. But she still didn't know! We did a little internet searching and found the phone number which we called, only to find out that they didn't speak English either. By this point, we were finding our situation a little comical but we figured out that we could get the shop girl to talk to the taxi and have him come to her shop. It worked and a few minutes later he drove up to tell us he had to pick up someone ten minutes away. It gave us time to buy a croissant from the baker and hang out on the curb watching little cars buzz by on the cobble streets.

Cafe in La Somail
Le Somail was a tiny little intersection with a cluster of beautiful old stone buildings along the edges of the Canal du Midi. Since we were a little early to pick up our boat, we stopped in a cafe' with outdoor tables and ordered one of their handmade pizzas and wine of course! Little children were all dressed up and running around while their parents ate and drank wine with their friends. The atmosphere was quite relaxing.

Eric piloting from the top of our boat.
Our boat was ready on time and we stepped aboard after sighing all the paperwork. The next stage of our journey was about to begin!
Our houseboat for the week

We dropped off the couple of bags we brought in the boat and filled out the final paperwork in the rental office. There was a real sense of festiveness as a small band was playing outside. Eric assumed the position of captain and once papers were in hand, he started up the diesel engine and pulled our little boat out into the canal. Fantastic hardly describes the fun of it. We had fresh bread, cheese and some strawberries from the market in Narbonne in our refrigerator, a snugly bed down below, our own bathroom with a shower and a 360 degree view from our dining room table. The air was fresh and only around 65 degrees out and we were in France!

The canal was rather narrow in spots, so narrow that sometimes we had to almost come to a stop to let another boat pass. Everyone was quick to wave and call out greetings to us. Our first little town was right along the canal and a winery with a huge barn from the 1500's was selling wine by the gallon jugs (actually 4.5 liters) and with the advice from previous travels we stocked up with three jugs that ended up lasting us the whole week.

500 year old castle selling wines

After that we boated on for a couple of  hours just soaking in the bucolic French countryside. Our first lock was a little nerve wracking as we had only two sets of hands to work the boat and the ropes. We would wait for a signal from the lock keeper to enter the lock and then proceeded with caution. 

Eric buying some fresh produce in an open market

Once inside we had to pick a position along the towering rock walls, toss a couple of ropes up to the top where either I was waiting or another helpful traveler, secure them tightly and wait until any other boats joined us. The lock keeper would then release the water gates and fill the lock. Water rushed in, tossing the boat like a cork, then slowed as it leveled with the top level of the canal, the gates opened and we boated on. Somehow we never understood that we had to do 54 locks over the time of our week of meandering up the canal. Our advice for anyone doing this would be to start at the top and travel south on the canal. But we had a blast.

Beautiful canal boats line the canal 

We saw many amazing canal boats that folks lived on either year around or at least for months. We could pull over at any point along the canal and drive a stake into the ground and tie off the boat so we could explore the countryside. Old ruins scattered the countryside and our canal actually went over streams. Our first lunch was so fun sitting in our little dining room.

One of our lunch spreads on our boat.

Our mapbook was critical for learning about the little towns along the way. Also, we had perfect mobile service for our T-mobile cell phones even though we were way out in the country. One thing we did notice almost immediately in our interactions with the French people is that they did not speak English, or at least very little as in one or two words or expressions. We learned to use gestures and expressions and eat whatever they served us!

Some locks were centuries old

Along the canal were old, very old plane trees that looked like our sycamores. Many of the were cut down to stop the spread of a blight and a huge project is underway to replant the trees for miles along the canal. You can still see the remains of old roots hanging over the water like wooden fingers.

See the wooden fingers along the canal

We enjoyed finding little cafes along the way where people treated us like we were their guests in their homes and served us wonderfully fresh food. There was a notable lack of commercial products or labeled foods. Even wine was served in carafes not wine bottles and sometime for free.

The food was always fresh and creative yet simple and delicious.

The French are very practical at least where we traveled. Flowers grew everywhere as well as flowers, vegetables and fruits. Tiny little vineyards took up little corners of yards but there was very little lawn. I guess they valued their land too much.

Sitting in a little cafe along the canal.

We enjoyed traveling by day and stopping in at the little towns for lunch and to look around their shops. I was not used to seeing buildings that were 500 years old or more and still in use by small businesses, not museums.

Tiny cobbled streets in Castelnaudary

We heeded the advice of other travelers and made sure we always had bread and cheese and a little fruit or vegetables on board because restaurants were never guaranteed to be open for dinner. That way, we could enjoy exploring by day and still have a nice dinner at night.

Our little kitchen sink and stove

The weather was wonderful. At least that is how we chose to view it. We had rain for several days and got thoroughly soaked which was chilly in 65 degrees but we had heat in our boat and could always warm up between working the locks. We did rent bikes for the week but found that we didn't use them as walking was easier and most of the villages were right along the canal. 

A lockkeeper's house. Notice all the herbs and flowers growing naturally

Our trip along the canal was both relaxing and hard work. We did see older citizens on boats like ours and hoped they were able to make the journey as the locks did take a certain amount of physical strength. The views from the canal were constantly inspiring us. I can understand why the French people love their land.

What an awesome way to travel!

We spent a day in the town of Castelnaudary. The steep little cobblestone streets that ran through centuries old buildings up to the top of town where you could look out and see all the little neighborhoods as far as the horizon reached. We tried their famous cassoulet in a tiny little restaurant where the cook was happy to talk to us about his travels to Chicago. Fun times and great memories!

The last of the 32 Windmills from the 16th Century

History here is far different that the history of the United States! I won't take the time to mention all the little towns we visited but suffice it to say, each has their own character and is beautiful.  By the time we finished all the 54 locks and made our way into the base station, we felt like we had been comfortably immersed in the gentle and generous nature of the French people of southern France. 

This was an experience that we would highly recommend. Even if you don't feel up to captaining your own boat, there are plenty of companies that offer full service cruises. 

Fun decorations grace the canal boats.