All posts by Laurie Graves

I write about nature, food, the environment, home, family, community, and people.

November 14, 2014: More Snow

IMG_6995Time was in Maine when November was a cold, dry month, where the ground froze solid by the middle of the month, and as long as leaves were raked by Thanksgiving, you were pretty much all set. Hunters prayed for snow by Thanksgiving, to make it easier to track deer. Sometimes they got it, but more often they didn’t.

Nowadays, the snow can come as early as the end of October, and it falls on green grass and unfrozen ground and unraked leaves. As the snow melts, which it usually does, it makes a muddy mess, and the wet leaves are that much heavier to rake.

This morning we woke up to snow, and after breakfast, I went outside to get some pictures of the snowy yard and woods. It is pretty. I will give it that. But I miss the old days of cold, austere November, which prepared us for December, where the snow often didn’t come until Christmas. I remember my mother and grandmother expressing the hope that we would have a white Christmas. Then, in January, the snow would come for real, and nobody worried about having a green landscape.

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We must take what comes, of course, and work around it. Still, it’s a little odd to be old enough to remember what was and note how much things have changed.

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A Macaroni and Cheese Tale

IMG_6982I have a husband who really, really loves macaroni and cheese.  By his own admission, Clif could eat it once a week—twice, actually, if you consider leftovers, which we certainly do at the little house in the big woods. Over the years, I have developed a simple but tasty recipe that includes using a good tangy cheddar, a bit of nutmeg, and a fairly thin cheese sauce that will allow the macaroni to swell and still be saucy. Fresh bread crumbs for the top? But of course!

Because the macaroni and cheese is baked, I seldom make it during the summer. But summer is over, and as soon as fall came, Clif began hinting that he might like macaroni and cheese for supper. Soon, I promised, soon. Somehow, though, when fall came, I made other things for supper, and macaroni and cheese never made it on the menu. Until last night.

Every once in a while, procrastination is a good thing. A couple of weeks ago, from none other than Mario Batali, I picked up a good tip for making a white sauce, which always requires a fair amount of constant stirring. (When you have creaky knees, cutting down on stirring time is a good thing.) His suggestion was so simple that I wondered why in the world I hadn’t thought of it myself. That is, heat the milk so that it is hot before adding it to the flour and butter roux.

Last night, I fulfilled my promise to Clif and made macaroni and cheese for supper. I heated the milk, as Batali suggested, and it worked like a chahm, as we Mainers would say. The heated milk cut the stirring time in half, and my knees were grateful.

When it was done, I said to Clif, “Use some restraint. I want enough mac and cheese for two suppers.”

“Fat chance,” Clif promptly responded. “I have been macaroni-and-cheese deprived for too long.”

I couldn’t argue. After all, I hadn’t made macaroni and cheese since spring. Clif, however, did use some restraint, and we have enough left for our supper tonight.

And the next time I make a white sauce, you can bet I’ll use Mario Batali’s tip of heating the milk first.

 

Here is my recipe for macaroni and cheese. Although I have posted it a couple of times, I figured that for new readers it would be convenient to post it again.

Macaroni and Cheese

9 oz. of uncooked macaroni
2 1/2 cups of milk, heated
2 cups of grated cheddar
3 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoons of flour
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
1 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of pepper

Butter a casserole dish. Cook the macaroni until firm in a big stock pot. Drain when done, and pour the macaroni into the casserole dish. In a big sauce pan, using medium heat, melt the butter, add the four, and whisk until bubbly. Whisk in the hot milk, the salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and then stir until thickened. The sauce is done when it leaves a line across the back of a wooden spoon. Add the cheese and stir until smooth.

Pour the cheese sauce over the macaroni. This mixture will look very thin, almost like a soup, but I promise it will bake into a perfect mac and cheese. I always like to tear up a few pieces of bread into crumbs for the top. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until the mixture is bubbly at the edges.

 

Problem Solving 101: Shannon’s Buffet

A while back, Shannon and I were discussing cooking. I went on, as I frequently do, about how cooking is one of the best skills a person can have. (Notice I didn’t write “woman.”) Not only is it healthier to make most of your meals from scratch, but it is also much, much cheaper than eating out, even at places such as McDonald’s or Burger King.

Shannon agreed, but she mentioned how hard it was to cook in her long, narrow kitchen, where counter space is practically non-existent.  She added that in such cramped quarters it was hard to get excited about cooking.

Shannon does, however, have a buffet in the kitchen. What about working on that?

“It’s too low,” Shannon replied. “It would hurt my back.”

I could see her point. Shannon does indeed have a touchy back, and after our visit, I continued to think about ways the buffet could be improved and thus used.

“What if we put something under it to make it higher?” I asked my husband, Clif, who not only is a geek extraordinaire but is also very handy. (Lucky me!)

“Sure,” he said. “I could make little risers for it. Have her send me a picture so that I can make the risers blend with the buffet.”

Shannon sent Clif a picture of her buffet, and Clif picked up a 2 x 4, cut eight little blocks, glued them together in twos to raise the buffet by four inches, sanded them , stained them a dark color to match the buffet, and gave them a coat of polyurethane.

Last weekend when we went to visit Shannon and Mike, we brought the finished blocks with us. Mike was at work, and with great difficulty the three of us moved the very heavy buffet closer to the sink and stove. Then, we lifted the sucker—as a Mainer might say—and slid the four blocks underneath the buffet. Clif had done such a good job matching the stain that it almost looked as though the blocks were part of the buffet.

But best of all was the height, which was exactly right for Shannon, and the additional working space it added to her kitchen. When Shannon first got the buffet, she had had a long glass top made to protect the surface. Unfortunately, this glass is not heat proof, but no matter—trivets and pads can be used.

That very night, the benefits of this project were immediately apparent. I was actually able to help Shannon with dinner and not be in her way.

“What a difference!” I said. “This is going to make it so much easier for you to work in this kitchen.”

Shannon concurred, and we all felt pretty pleased with ourselves. Now, lest readers think we became too swell-headed by our ingenuity, I do want to add that it took us three years to come up with this project. Fast thinkers we are not, and we all humbly acknowledged that the blocks should have been added years ago.

Nevertheless, even though we are slow thinkers, the risers for the buffet illustrated how for some problems, especially for home improvements, the solutions can be rather simple. But first the problem must be defined. Then solutions can be considered.

Today, I called Shannon to see if she still liked using the buffet for counter space.

“I sure do!” she said. “And even though it makes the kitchen more narrow by the stove, the gain in workspace is more than worth it.”

Another good lesson. Sometimes compromises must be made, but if the overall results are better, then the project really is worth while.

Shannon will be hosting Thanksgiving this year, and the additional counter space will come in very handy. Now, on to those shelves that we have been talking about for the past couple of years.

 

An Apple Crisp Kind of Weekend

This weekend was a busy one where we visited with friends and family on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And with each visit we had apple crisp—two that I made and one that our friend Judy made.

“Too much apple crisp?” I asked Clif before making the second one to bring to Shannon and Mike’s home.

“I could eat apple crisp every day,” Clif promptly replied.

Quick as can be, out came the apples, cinnamon, cloves, butter, sugar, and flour. I use a recipe from an old New York Times cookbook, and it has a pleasing ratio of crunch to spiced apples.

Judy, on the other hand, used oats in her topping, and Clif and I concurred: When it comes to apple crisp, it’s all good.

On all three visits, we talked about the election, and everyone was as broken hearted as we were about the results. This post, I hope, will be one of the last where I dwell on the election. I much prefer writing about rural life and environmental issues. The people in this country and this state have voted, and I have to regain my balance. Moping and being depressed serve no purpose.

Still, I am moping, and I am depressed. Last night I even dreamed that Winthrop had been captured by Nazis, and that I was a prisoner. What a relief to wake up!

Now, I know it is a cheap shot for my unconscious to equate the current political situation to Nazi Germany. But the unconscious is not subtle, and it goes where it will.

Soon, I hope, this country, this world, will wake up to the fact that we are running out of resources, that climate change makes the situation even worse, and that we are heading for some very rough times if we don’t learn to work together, on both a personal level and on a political level. Once upon a time—say, two hundred years ago—there might have been some merit in the rugged individual pulling himself (or herself) up by the bootstraps. But those days are gone, and many of the problems we face are too big for individuals to tackle on their own. From medical care and research to public transportation to alternative energy—to name a few—we need an active government leading the way and providing subsidies for worthwhile projects that will help people and the planet.  (On the other hand, do the oil companies, which make huge profits, really need tax breaks? )

As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

And so it does.

 

Library Update: Walls, Walls, Walls

IMG_6966I took these pictures on Monday, a sunny day right before the election, and today, another gray day, seemed like a good time to post them.  In Maine, the bullies might have gained the upper hand, but wonderful progress has been made on the library’s addition. You can actually get a sense now of just how much space we will have when the addition is complete.

As I’ve mentioned before, in my fanciful imagination I can hear Bailey going “A-h-h-h-h” as the library expands from its tight quarters to its more spacious ones.

A-h-h-h-h.

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A Gray Day After the Election

IMG_6972Today, the gray skies exactly match my mood. For a liberal and a progressive, yesterday’s elections brought little to cheer about. Come January, the U.S. Senate will be controlled by Republicans, and Republican governors were re-elected in far too many states, including Maine. I was so hoping that Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate, would win. While Michaud is neither as progressive nor as liberal as I would like, he certainly beats the alternative, and one of his campaign platforms was to increase funding for alternative energy.

Instead, we got Paul LePage, who, among other things, seems to be a real fossil-fuel enthusiast.  If Maine were an oil-producing state, I expect LePage’s mantra would be drill, baby, drill.

The really depressing thing is that 47.9 percent of the state voted for LePage. In my own town of Winthrop, a majority voted for him. I’m not sure whether I feel as though I live among a group of aliens who have been hoodwinked by our bully of a governor, or if I am the alien who has been dropped in. Either way, it is not a good feeling.

You would think that at fifty-seven, I would be used to these upsets. After all, they happen with depressing regularity. A friend even called to tell me that the last three presidents who were in office two terms had the same thing happen to them in their sixth year. But somehow I never get used to it, and I have to let the despair burn through me like a fever.

In a day or two, I’ll regain my equilibrium. I’ll be thinking of ways to be part of the solution to the terrible problems the world is facing. Because I am not a political animal, it will probably be through reading, writing, lifestyle, and community involvement. Perhaps these things aren’t as effective as political involvement, but it’s just not in my nature to become a gung-ho political activist. I see too many things wrong with the Democrats to be that kind of ardent supporter.

This afternoon, I’m going to make chocolate chip cookies to sweeten this bitter day. Tomorrow, Clif will bring most of them to work—Megan, I haven’t forgotten you—and we’ll keep a few to munch on. Tonight, Clif and I will watch something light and fun—no dystopian movie for us.

Onward if not upward! And by gum, the sun even seems to be coming out.

Gunshots and Voting

This morning, I woke up to gunfire. Hunting season began last Saturday, and today in the woods a hunter was getting an early start. This is not my favorite time of year, when people—mostly men—dress in orange and carry loaded rifles in the woods. It is always a relief to me when hunting season is over.

I, too, wear orange when I work in my yard during hunting season, and I usually have a radio with the volume turned up very loud so that hunters will be aware they are near a house.  In November I am grateful that Liam is such a noisy dog who will bark at everything and nothing. More noise to alert hunters.

Today is also election day, in Maine as well as in the rest of the country. Clif and I voted early—a little after 8 a.m.—and already the parking lot was full, with cars lined up on both sides of the drive leading to the town office.  Upon putting my ballot in the machine, I was told I was voter 51, and between all the cars in the lot and the people inside the town office, I was not surprised. Winthrop not only cooks, but it votes, too, it seems.

Normally, I don’t write very much about politics in this blog. I prefer to focus on nature, people, food, the environment, libraries, and other small-town matters. But as someone who freely and proudly admits to being both a liberal and a progressive, I feel as though I must stray, at least a little, from my usual topics. Simply put, today is a real nail-biter day for me and my family. In varying degrees, several family members have been adversely affected by the state’s current administration—I’m not going to go into details—and four more years with the same people in charge is a discouraging thought.

The bigger picture is no better. From health care to the environment to social services to the economy, it feels as though Maine has taken many, many steps back. Nowhere is this clearer than with alternative energy. Because of Maine’s location by the sea, we are in an ideal position to not only produce our own electricity, carbon-free, but to also export it to other states thereby reducing their carbon footprints. Unfortunately, we seem to be no closer to accomplishing this than we were four years ago. Given the state of our planet and the warming climate, this cannot be counted as merely being stalled in one place. This has to count as regression.

And for those who think that Maine’s recent spat of cold winters disproves climate change, think again. Apparently, the melting Arctic ice affects the jet stream, which, in turn, has made our winters colder. Yes, it’s complicated, but it’s a clear case of a warmer world and climate change.

But I digress. All over Maine, people are going to the polls, and if Winthrop is any indication, then voter turn-out should be quite high.

My day began with a bang. Let’s hope it ends with a bang and a new direction.

 

 

Snow, Snow, Go Away!

IMG_6953Like a most unwanted guest, snow came to Maine yesterday. At the little house in the big woods, the snow fell on the patio tables and chairs, the unraked leaves, temple dog in the back garden, and my collection of toads and frogs in the front gardens as well as many other ornaments.

Clif and I were out before breakfast, before the snow really got started, and we hauled in the tables and chairs. How lonely the empty patio looks, and there will be no more nights in the backyard until next summer.

As we hustled to get the furniture in, I thought about this early snow and how common it has become for the East Coast to get funky weather the end of October and the beginning of November. A few years back, when Clif and I visited Dee in New York, there was a raging blizzard where the snow flew sideways as it pelted us. Folks in Connecticut lost their power for a week or more. A year or two later came Hurricane Sandy, which was even worse.  Now this.

As we inched our way with the heavy table down the bulkhead steps, I said to Clif, “We better make plans to visit Dee the middle of October. That way, we can avoid the end of October “treat” that we seem to be getting. After all, once is a fluke. Twice is suspicious. Three times is a trend.”

“Good idea,” Clif agreed.

In the afternoon, I went back out to collect my frogs, the temple dog, the citronella torches, and various other garden ornaments. I threw snowballs for the dog, who loves the snow and would stay out with me as long as I wanted. By the time we came in, my hair was plastered to my head—no hats for me until I absolutely have to wear one—and the dog’s fur was wet, but not all the way through. His thick coat gives him ample protections from the cold and wet, which makes him a perfect northern dog.

When we came in, I made popcorn. Clif and I settled on the couch in the living room. The dog was between us, all the better to beg for popcorn, and the yellow cat was on my lamp. All was cozy, but the dark came so soon and with it the long night. We’ll adapt, of course, to the short, short days, but it always takes us at least a week to do so, to stop feeling so closed in.

This morning when I woke up, the sun was shining, and the meteorologist on MPBN promised that in most places the snow would melt by tomorrow. I am holding him to his word. There are leaves to rake, perennials to cut back, and a few more things to bring in. I can only hope that the true winter snow has enough sense to wait until the end of November or the first of December, the way it did in the old days, when I was young.

Snowy Day Pictures

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And finally, Liam, dog of the north.

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New York Trip: Libraries

A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever.   

From the time I was a young child, libraries have been an important part of my life. In North Vassalboro, where I grew up, there was a tiny library made from a converted cottage that had been hauled by horses across an icy China Lake. My family regularly went to this library. Once a week, we also went to the Waterville Public Library, a bigger library with a much larger and more enticing selection of books. So I guess you could say we were fools for libraries, and this perhaps explains why I so enjoy seeing other libraries when I travel.

On my recent trip to New York City, Dee and I visited two libraries in the New York Public Library system—“the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building,” and the much smaller Hudson Park Library. The contrast between these two libraries couldn’t be greater, but both have their appeal and place.

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A temple for books

The Schwarzman Building—the one with the lions—is nothing less than a temple devoted to books and words and learning. There are pillars and marble and frescos and chandeliers and statues, and as I tiptoed through the hallowed halls, I looked up, down, and around until my neck began to hurt. I’m sure my mouth was agape as I took in the splendors of this magnificent library. I felt like a country bumpkin in the big city. Is there a more splendid library in this country? I can’t imagine it, but I would certainly be interested in finding out if there is one.

Laurie by the lion
Laurie and the lion

At the Schwarzman Building, we saw two exhibits: Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind and Sublime: The Prints of J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Moran.  Over Here illustrated how posters, songs, books, and even movies, a new technology at the time, were used as propaganda to encourage the American public to support WWI. And apparently the public did need to be persuaded. On one side was the progressive activist Jane Addams, who maintained that war “affords no solution for vexed international problems.” On the other side was Theodore Roosevelt, who decried “flabby pacifism” and urged America to join the fight. We know who won that argument.

From a historic point of view, Sublime was interesting, but there is no way around it—the prints lacked snap. Both Turner and Moran had a vision of nature that hardly resembles nature at all. With only a few exceptions, the prints were stiff and lifeless yet over the top at the same time. A difficult combination to achieve, but somehow they managed. I’m not sorry I saw the exhibit—Turner’s vivid paintings are completely different from his prints, and I was fascinated by the contrast. Before this exhibit, I had never heard of Thomas Moran, and it is always good to learn about an artist, even if his work doesn’t exactly speak to you.

The next day we visited the Hudson Park Library, to see paintings by Elliot Gilbert. Where the Schwarzman Building is grand and imposing, the Hudson Park Library is small and humble. The Hudson Park Library is tucked on a tree-lined street in Greenwich Village. The reading room was small but filled with various people reading and using the computers. It felt cozy and homey and well loved, a community center for Greenwich Village, and while I admired the grander Schwarzman Building, I felt at home in the Hudson Park Library. In fact, given enough money, I could even see myself living in one of those brick homes next to the library, where I would be close to shops and good Chinese restaurants and cinemas that play foreign film such as the terrific Diplomacy, which Dee and I saw after going to the library.

Unfortunately, Gilbert’s paintings were shown in a little room where people where studying and reading, and we weren’t able to get a good look at the paintings. But that’s all right. It was still fun visiting the library and walking through Greenwich village, which is much more relaxed than other parts of New York City.

The little Hudson Park Library
The little Hudson Park Library

A final note: The quotation at the beginning of this piece appropriately comes from a fortune cookie I had the first night in New York. What a fun way to start a trip that was centered on libraries!

 

 

New York Trip: Food

IMG_6901Now, I would go visit Dee wherever she lived, even if it were in a place where chain restaurants reigned supreme, and the Olive Garden was the height of culinary attractions. (Actually, that description could apply to central Maine.) But Dee lives in New York City, where terrific food can be found on nearly every corner. Some restaurants are very expensive, but there are also restaurants that offer great deals, and every time I go visit Dee, we find good places to eat at a reasonable price.

This time when I went to visit Dee, I was on a Chinese food kick, and I have just cause. In short, Maine is a Chinese food wasteland. The state has many, many Chinese restaurants, but the ones I have been to can’t even be called fair, and some of them are outright terrible. (If anyone reading this knows of a good Chinese restaurant within driving distance of Augusta, then please, please let me know.) Chinese food, along with Italian food, is one of my absolute favorites, so it is especially discouraging that I haven’t found any decent ones in Maine.

As it happens, less than a block from Dee’s apartment is a little Chinese take-out, and it has been our tradition to get food there on the night I arrive. This time was no different, and we ordered steamed vegetable dumplings and mixed vegetables with bean curd, otherwise known as tofu. For the two of us, the meal came to $16, and that included drinks. The dumplings were moist and tasty, the vegetables were crisp, and the sauce was good. Can it get any better for that price?

It seemed that it could. Two days later, on our way to the Hudson Park Library, in Greenwich Village, we passed a little Chinese Restaurant—Grand Sichuan—and I saw a Zagat endorsement sticker on the door.

“If there’s time  before our movie, maybe we can come here after we see the exhibit at the library,” I said, even though we had already eaten Chinese food twice in two days.

“You’re just going crazy with the Chinese food,” Dee said.

I agreed and reminded her of the Chinese wasteland I live in. Dee, who knows very well what the situation is with Maine Chinese food, couldn’t argue.

As it turned out, the exhibit at the Hudson Park library was very small, and there was plenty of time to have lunch before our movie started. We were seated by a window where the light was great should I want to take a picture of my food. And I most certainly did. I ordered vegetable lo mein, and it had the kind of sauce that I crave but never get in Maine, a rich brown—but not sweet or cloying—sauce with a slightly smoky taste. The vegetables were cooked to crunchy perfection. The meal came with an appetizer, and we both ordered vegetarian egg rolls, which were all right but certainly not outstanding. Never mind. The lo mein was so good that the egg roll really didn’t matter. And the bill? A little over $13 for the two of us.

Lovely lo mein
Lovely lo mein

However, it wasn’t all Chinese food on this trip. The day before going to the Hudson Park Library, we did take a break from noodles, rice, and crunchy vegetables. After visiting the main branch of the New York Public Library, we went to Broadway Bites, “a seasonal culinary pop-up market in Greeley Square Park…” A friend of Dee’s had suggested we go there, and Dee knew it would be right up my alley. Indeed it was. Lots of little stalls selling different types of food? For me, it doesn’t get much better.

Everything we got was delicious. From the donuts made fresh on site

The birth of donuts
The birth of donuts

to the flaky, crunchy cheese sticks

Those cheese sticks!
Those cheese sticks!

to the hand-cut fries, cooked to order, with garlic and truffle oil.

Fries, fries, fries
Fries, fries, fries

What a way to spend the afternoon.