All posts by Laurie Graves

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

Another Year Begins

IMG_7181The holidays are over, and as Shannon has aptly noted, it is both a let-down and a relief. At the little house in the big woods, there was a flurry of cooking and family and friends and dogs and movies. The fever-pitch activity reached its peak on New Year’s Eve, when we didn’t go to bed until 2:30 a.m. because of all the cleaning up that had to be done. (I simply cannot go to bed if the kitchen is a mess.)

This New Year’s Eve for dinner, I made cheddar cheese soup for family and friends. It was good, it was rich, and it was mostly gone by the end of the night. However, next year I am thinking of just having snacks and drinks so that when guests leave around 1:00 a.m. or so, clean-up will be a snap. I might even use paper plates, something I hardly ever do. The one consolation is the paper wouldn’t go to waste—the plates could be used to start fires in the wood furnace.

Now that all the hubbub has settled down, it is time to for Clif and me to return to our daily routines, and I am not sorry to get back to our quiet schedules. Clif works at home on Mondays, and I can hear the click of his keyboard in the next room. I have begun thinking of what I want to accomplish over the winter months—with my writing, with my constant project of decluttering, with indoor projects, with photography, with reading.

Even in the cold, dark of winter, there is much to do.




Here Comes Christmas and with it Some Snow

The box on the front porch

There are two days until Christmas. It’s snowing, and all the ugly hard snow has been softly covered. The evergreen branches are frosted, and the view from my office window looks like a winter wonderland. Unfortunately, rain is predicted later in the day, and the beauty might be short lived.

Whatever the weather, there is much to do today and tomorrow. The list includes making thumb print cookies, pie knots, spicy pumpkin soup, and stuffed shells. There is vacuuming to be done—a regular chore for a home that has one dog and two cats—as well as other cleaning. Fortunately, Clif is taking the day off tomorrow, which means I’ll have some help.

Dee will be coming from New York and will stay in Maine until the New Year. Therefore, I’ll be taking a break from this blog for a week or so. But to get readers in the holiday spirit, I’ve included some winter pictures in this post.

Merry Christmas to all and a very happy New Year.

Into the woods
Into the woods
In a little deeper
In a bit deeper
Little tracks in the snow in the woods
Little tracks in the snow

A Trip to Boston

Me, Saranya, and Shannon
Me, Saranya, and Shannon

Yesterday, Shannon and I went to Boston to reunite with Saranya, whom we haven’t seen for seventeen years. (In previous posts, I have written about Saranya—an AFS student—and how she stayed with us for a year when she was a teenager.) We had such a wonderful day  in Boston that I hardly know how to describe it.

First, there was the bus ride, which doesn’t sound like much of a thrill, but it was a treat to be with Shannon for the trip—two hours from Portland and then back again—and to chit-chat about this and that. We see each other often, but usually there is a flurry of food, husbands, dogs, and friends involved. We seldom have two peaceful hours—four actually—to just talk.

At South Station, we met Saranya, her sister Eve, and Eve’s friend Anan, and although Saranya was the only one Shannon and I knew, we all came together as naturally as if we had known each other for years and were in the habit of getting together. After hugging and greeting each other, we walked from South Station to Union Oyster House, less than a mile away.

Saranya wanted boiled lobster—from Maine, of course—and that was one of the reasons why we chose the Union Oyster House. Saranya insisted that Eve and Anan have lobster, too, and the dinners were a big hit.  The service at Union Oyster House was what you might call leisurely, but that suited us just fine. Basically, all we wanted was to be together and to talk.

And talk we did, as we walked the streets of Boston. The skies were gray, and a fine sprinkle of snow fell on us. We wandered around Faneuil Hall Marketplace, admiring the big Christmas tree and all the lights on the other trees. We had drinks and dessert at a Starbucks—alas, we couldn’t find a local shop that was open—then it was back to Faneuil Hall just in time for an outside light and music show.

To the thundering strains of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, the lights on the trees flashed and alternated colors. It was completely over-the-top and utterly enjoyable.

All too soon, it seemed, it was time to return to South Station, where Saranya, Eve, and Anan would take the train back to New York City, and Shannon and I would take the bus back to Maine. Before we parted, Saranya told us how much her time in Maine as an exchange student had affected her. It not only broadened her outlook, but it also made her more independent. I suspect this is true for most exchange students. After all, to live in another culture for any length of time is bound to stretch and change a person, especially one who is on the cusp of becoming an adult. We saw a similar change with our daughter Dee when she spent time in France.

Still it was lovely to hear Saranya mention this and to know we played a major role in her life. Actually, it was a great feeling. All too often we just blunder through our days, not thinking of the ways we affect people.

“Seventeen years is too long,” Saranya said before she left. “Could I come and stay at your house sometime?”

“Of course, of course!” came the immediate reply. “You are always welcome, along with your husband or your sister or anyone else you want to travel with.”

“When is the best time to come?”

I told her to come in August or September, when the weather is fine, and we could spend a lot of time on the patio. Clif could grill chicken and bread, and I could make homemade ice cream. Or maybe we’d have a fire in the fire pit and make s’mores. As dusk settled over the backyard, we could listen to the crickets sing, and then as the sky became really dark, we could look at the stars. Late summer is one of Maine’s most beautiful times.

So come to Maine in August or September, Saranya, and don’t wait seventeen years.

Saranya, Eve, and Anan
Saranya, Eve, and Anan

Blue Sky, Perfect Pumpkin Bread, and a Trip to Boston

Upside down pumpkin bread with parchment paper on the bottom
Upside down pumpkin bread with parchment paper on the bottom

The title of this post indicates a perfect pre-Christmas trio—blue sky, pumpkin bread that didn’t stick to the pan, and a trip to Boston to see our Thai student Saranya, who is no longer a student but instead is a lovely woman. As I noted in yesterday’s post, I haven’t seen Saranya in seventeen years, and what a treat it will be to get together with her after such a long time.

All else dims compared with the excitement of seeing Saranya, but I have to admit it was a great feeling to make pumpkin bread that didn’t stick to the bottom of the pans. I lined the bottoms with parchment paper, and out came the bread with no trouble at all. The bread is in the freezer, where it will stay until the day before Christmas.

Then there is the blue sky. There are some clouds, but who cares? The sun is out, and it is not raining. My friend Margy is coming here for tea, and she will be walking from her home, about a mile from the little house in the big woods.

Later, I’ll be taking the dog for a walk in the woods. How nice it will be  not to come back with wet hat and mittens.

Finally, this afternoon I plan to make a double batch of gingersnaps—Rochelle’s gingersnaps as they have come to be called around here.  (In honor of my mom who made them all the time. I still use her handwritten recipe.) The cookies are good keepers, and I plan to give most of them away.

Busy, busy, but what fun!

A Christmas Surprise

IMG_7148Another gray day, but instead of rain there is light snow. This meant that the dog and I took to the woods this morning.  Good for him and good for me. We are both homebodies, but there is a limit to how much we like staying inside the house. In the woods, after all the rain, the water was running—not very seasonal for Maine in December, but lovely in its own way.

Yesterday was a very productive day. I made ice cream pie, yeast bread, and cooked two pumpkins. Today, I’ll make the pumpkin bread. Count down to Christmas.

During this busy season, I got some news that made it even more exciting. I found out that Saranya, who is from Thailand and who stayed with us during her senior year in high school, will be coming to New York for ten days. I haven’t seen Saranya for seventeen years, not since she left Maine to return to Thailand.

Shannon and I are hoping to meet her in Boston for lunch and a long, long chat. Ever since I heard the news, I’ve hardly been able to think of anything else.

A walk in the woods, pumpkin bread, and the possibility of seeing Saranya. My day will just hum along. Life can bring many surprises, and what a nice thing when the surprise is good.

Christmas Cooking on a Rainy Day

img_4090More rain. Yes, yes, it could be a lot worse—freezing rain or mounds and mounds of snow. The snow, at least, would be prettier than this rain, which makes the December landscape look like March. Did we ever have such weather in the olden days, say, when I was a kid in Maine? No, we did not. Well, we humans have changed the climate, and now we must cope with what we have wrought.

On a more positive note…Today I will commence with Christmas cooking. My plan is to make one of the two ice cream pies that have become a tradition for dessert on Christmas day. The whole family agrees that homemade chocolate ice cream is good any time of year. Add a graham cracker pie shell and some hot fudge or caramel, and you have a pretty tasty dessert. But the best thing about this dessert is that it can be made ahead of time. One less thing to do Christmas week.

I’ll also bake two pumpkins so that I have purée for a spicy peanut soup I’ll be making for Christmas Eve and for pumpkin bread. This time around, I’ll be lining the bread pans with something—foil or parchment paper—so that the loaves won’t stick to the pan the way they did at Thanksgiving. The bread was still tasty, but it looked sorry and hunched over, as though it had traveled too many miles to get to the table.

But before I bake the pumpkins, I will make yeast bread, one loaf for immediate use and one loaf to tuck in the freezer. I hope to make another batch this weekend so that I have extra for French toast over the holidays. (Let’s just say that French toast is especially delicious when it’s made with homemade bread.)

Anyway, damn the rain and on with the cooking!

Cheddar Cheese Soup and a Gathering of Friends

Last Saturday, we had two sets of friends over for dinner, and it was one of those special gatherings that brings a happy glow to the cook. We’ve known these friends for many, many years. Our daughters are the same age and graduated from high school together. So perhaps part of the reason for the glow was that we are all so comfortable together.

Then there was the beer and wine. Clif had an assortment of beer from Craft Beer Cellar in Portland, where our son-in-law works. Craft Beer Cellar sells hundreds of different kinds of beer, which has become as specialized as wine. Not all of our guests are beer lovers, but the ones who do like beer were impressed with Clif’s selection. For the wine lovers, there was a nice bottle of a white wine called Viognier, from Meridians in Fairfield. There’s nothing like good wine and beer to bring a happy glow to a party.

Flickering candles and a tree with blue Christmas lights provided an actual glow in the little house in the big woods. While perhaps they weren’t essential, candles and tree surely set the stage for the food and the wine.

The centerpiece of the meal was cheddar cheese soup—creamy and rich and adapted from a Moosewood recipe. This soup is a  favorite with the family, and it’s one I make for the holidays. For gatherings, I put the soup in a crock-pot, and nearby I have big bowls of cooked broccoli and tortellini so that guests can serve themselves. That way, they can have exactly how much they want of the soup, broccoli, and tortellini.

“Very, very good,” was the consensus about the soup. There were seconds for some of our guests and requests for the recipe. Now that surely brings a glow to the cook’s cheeks because one of the chief delights of cooking is to feed and please people.

To add to the meal there was also the brie appetizer that one friend brought and the chocolate and coconut squares from another friend. Surely they contributed to the happy mood of the party.

In the end, I truthfully I can’t say whether it was the beer, the wine, the candles, the soup, the appetizer, or the dessert that made this gathering such a success. Whatever it was, there were kisses and hugs as everyone left and a promise to get together after the holidays.

All in all, it was some party, as we Mainers like to say.


Cheddar Cheese Soup Recipe
(Six hearty servings by itself; Eight with the addition of broccoli and pasta)

10 medium size potatoes, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of oil
2 large cloves of garlic, cut in thirds
6 cups of water
2 teaspoons of dried dill
8 ounces of cream cheese, sliced in four or five segments
2 cups of grated cheddar cheese (Go for a good, sharp brand and please do not buy the pre-shredded cheese. The taste of this soup hinges on the quality of the cheddar.)
Salt and pepper to taste. (I use two teaspoons of salt and liberal grinds of the pepper mill.)

In a large stockpot, heat the oil and sauté the potatoes, carrots, and onion for 5 minutes or so. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds, then add the water and the dill. Let simmer for 45 minutes or an hour, until all the vegetables are really soft.

If you don’t have an immersion blender, buying one before you make this soup would be a very good idea. Immersion blenders are not expensive and are ever so much easier to use than one with a glass container. Directions for an immersion blender: Place the stockpot in the sink and blend the potatoes, carrots, garlic, onion, and water. When this is smooth, add the cream cheese in chunks and blend until smooth. Return the pot to the stove and on a medium heat, add the cheddar, salt, and pepper. At this point, the soup must be kept warm enough so that it is hot but low enough so that it doesn’t boil. No matter how careful you are, it will probably develop a skim on the top. No need to worry. Just stir it into the rest of the soup, and the skim will melt.

Directions for a blender with a glass container: In four batches, blend the potato, carrots, onions, garlic, water with a slice of cream cheese that has been quartered. Be sure not to fill the container too much and to cover the top with some kind of cloth as you blend. This soup is hot, and it will burn you if it spurts out the top and onto your hand. I speak from experience from my pre-immersion blender days.

Any kind of pasta can be added to this soup as well as broccoli. I serve them on the side so that the pasta and broccoli don’t swell or get too mushy in the soup.

Happy holidays and happy anytime that you have this soup.

Beet Gratin at the End of a Gray Week

IMG_7117Since Tuesday the skies have been gray. There has been sleet followed by rain—lots of it—now capped by a bit of snow. I’m not complaining, mind you, especially when I consider what we might have had—an ice storm that could have knocked out our power for days or more. Then I think of the deluge the West Coast is dealing with, the floods and the landslides, all just before the holidays.

But it would be nice to see blue sky and sun. It would be nice to not have another storm until after the New Year. It would be nice to have bare roads for the holidays. All right. Maybe I am complaining. Just a little.

On a more positive note…I made a beet gratin last night from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I’ve been wanting to make this gratin for a while, but I was afraid Clif wouldn’t like it, and we would be left high and dry for our supper. But Farmer Kev keeps bringing us beets, and it was time to do something with them.

Bittman suggesting cooking the beets whole in a covered roasting pan in a 350 degree oven, and that’s just what I did. It took a long time—almost an hour—for the beets to cook, but there was no fuss and little mess. (The beets were scrubbed but not peeled.)

When the beets were done, I let them cool and cut them into slices, which I then arrayed in the bottom of a 9 x 12 baking dish. I sprinkled salt, pepper, and dried thyme on the beets. Then I crumbled an eight-ounce log of goat cheese on top and covered the whole thing with fresh bread crumbs—I used three slices of homemade bread.

Bittman suggested broiling the gratin until the crumbs were brown and the cheese was melted. I followed his advice, but unfortunately the top became too brown before the beets were heated through.

However, the overall taste more than made up for the lukewarm dish. The tangy cheese was a perfect compliment to the sweet beets, and the overall effect could even be called elegant.

“Pretty darned good,” Clif said, going back for seconds.

I nodded, relieved we wouldn’t have to resort to scrambled eggs and toast.

“But you might want to bake it next time rather than just broil it,” Clif added. “If need be, you can broil it a little at the end.”

I agreed, and next time I make beet gratin, I will bake it so that everything is piping hot.

Still, I was pretty pleased with the way the dish turned out, especially after such a long, gray week.





The Ice Storm Didn’t Cometh—At Least Not Yet

A Christmas ornament from Ireland
A Christmas ornament from Ireland

This time, luck was with us in central Maine. Instead of two days of freezing rain and almost certain power outages, it was warm enough so that we got plain old rain that did not coat the trees and roads with ice. While the rain makes an awful drizzly mess, at least it isn’t an ice storm. How I hate ice storms.

I am hoping we can make it to the New Year without any major storms and power outages. We have lots of holiday plans, and much of it involves cooking and baking and visiting with family and friends. Once again our daughter Dee will be traveling from New York to Maine, and it would be great if wasn’t a nail-biter of a trip.

Winter, of course, will do what it wants, and all we can do is be prepared for terrible weather. The soup and beans remain in the pantry; the water is at the ready in covered buckets. The cookies? Well, I have to confess that Clif and I broke into the Pepperidge Farm cookies last night, and they are unlikely to make it to the next ice storm, unless—heaven forbid—we have one in the next few days.

In yesterday’s gray and gloom, I received a package from Shari Burke—all the way from Ireland—and in it was one of the sweetest Christmas tree ornaments I have ever seen. A little book dangles at the end of it, and this ornament was the first to go on the tree last night. Shari also sent us a coaster, which is under a candle in the living room, and a bookmark with blue embroidered Christmas trees. The bookmark is in the current book I’m reading.  All the gifts were homemade, and what a treat to receive them.

So for the moment,  all is calm, snug, and warm at the little house in the big woods. I am hoping it will stop raining this afternoon, and I can take Liam for a walk in the woods.

This might be hoping for too much, but you know what they say about hope.

More Winter Bite

IMG_7111Another storm is blowing up the East Coast, and the prediction for central Maine is sleet and freezing rain for the next two days. Oh, joy!

It wouldn’t surprise me if we lost our power again, and I am prepared. I’ve stocked up on canned soup, canned beans, bread, and, most important, cookies—Pepperidge Farm shortbread. We have lamp oil, propane tanks for our camp stove, and water in buckets in the basement.

But what a winter we’ve had so far, and it’s not even officially winter yet. Lord! When I was growing up in central Maine, I don’t remember the power going out at the farmhouse in North Vassalboro. I suppose we must have lost power from time to time, but it was not a regular occurrence the way it is now each winter. I think it’s because the nature of winter storms has changed in Maine. When I was young, we got lots of snow, but it was mostly light and fluffy and easy to manage. Now, all too often we get freezing rain or very heavy snow, just perfect for knocking down trees and big branches and power lines.

Onward! And thank goodness for the wood furnace and plenty of wood under cover.

The dog and I went for a walk before the weather got too bad.
The dog and I went for a walk today before the weather got too bad.