The Traveler and the Cook: Winter Vacation in the Rockies

OUR COOKING INSTRUCTOR, EVA SZIGETI, TELLS ABOUT HER FAMILY’S WINTER VACATION AND SHARES A DELICIOUS RECIPE THAT’S PERFECT FOR A WINTER BREAK STAY-CATION…

Planning a family vacation often starts with a discussion about the destination. For a winter trip, we might consider two very different types of travel destinations.

Some might want to embrace the season and opt for a ski trip. While those longing for a break from the cold and the darkness, might choose a trip to the sunny tropics.

As my family considered the idea of a family trip, our discussion wasn’t so much about the destination, but about participants. The two experienced snowboarders in the family have been planning to conquer some “real” slopes for a while. The question was whether my daughter (an inexperienced snowboarder) and I would join them on this trip.

I must disclose that winter is not my favorite season, and when it comes to mountains, my feelings are mixed. Growing up in an area where the landscape resembles the flat plains of the Midwest, the most memorable hill of my childhood (and the only hill around) was a small artificial sledding hill on the playground.

From a safe distance, I do like to admire the beauty of mountains, but when experiencing them close-up, my respect for them often borders on fear. As for my skiing skills, they are minimal. Because of the lack of opportunity, my hometown wasn’t exactly a town of ski enthusiasts either. Although I’ve tried skiing, I have never acquired skills beyond a beginner level.

The idea of a family ski/snowboarding trip made me more nervous than excited. For me, skiing and snowboarding come with too much hassle and worries (Does everyone have goggles? Where is my daughter’s left glove? Did we leave the helmets at home? Is the lift safe for the kids? Is the slope too icy?). My worries never seem to end…

After a few discussions, we came to a decision everyone was comfortable with: The boys would travel to Colorado and enjoy the mountains, while the girls would have a special “girl time” at home. The division of our family into two groups happened this time along the gender lines: it was time for some father – son, mother – daughter bonding!

My son and husband packed their bags (so much gear!) and embarked on their adventure. My daughter and I enjoyed our time together at home. We had been getting pictures and news from the boys every day. During our calls with them, the adventures of the day were usually summarized by my son into short sentences—exciting shouts from a high-altitude ski resort.

First day: “We gave up after two hours on the slope. We couldn’t breathe. There was no air! This place gets 11 feet of snow per year!”

Second day: “We went down a black diamond! The trail was more than two miles long! The Continental Divide runs through the top of the ridge!”

Third day: “We were really high up. More than 11,000 feet! Can you imagine? Above the tree line!”

Fourth day: “We went to a bar! Really, no kidding… Haha, an oxygen bar.”

Fifth day: “We are coming home tomorrow!”

 

I was glad to hear from them every time. For me, the most important piece of information was that they were well, because to me the majestic Rockies seem a little dangerous even from a great distance.

If being on vacation means, breaking away from the usual daily routines, then my daughter and I had a vacation too. We “camped”, along with our dog, in the guest room, watched movies (something we don’t do too often) during the snowstorm, we stayed up later than usual, enjoyed craft projects, and played lots of board games. I mostly neglected cooking, because this week after all was a departure from our everyday lives. We all had a good time, and we concluded that having a one-on-one parent – child ‘vacation’ experience can be as valuable as a trip involving all members of the family.

Through my son and husband’s experience, I had a taste of their snowboarding trip. It seemed great, but I still don’t long for a winter vacation in the mountains. Perhaps one day I might want to travel to the Rockies in the summertime. I am quite fascinated by the idea of standing in the rain on the imaginary line of the Continental Divide, knowing that the raindrops coming down on the Eastern side of the mountain might one day meet the waters of the Atlantic, while the precipitation trickling down the West slope is destined for the Pacific Ocean.

 

Mushroom Soup for a Winter Day

We eat mostly home-made food. That means lot of time spent in the kitchen. During our unusual vacation-at-home week, I gave myself a little break from cooking. We had mostly salads, sandwiches, and soups. Most soups are not labor intensive and can be made in large batches that last for few days. Many taste even better reheated than fresh.

3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound Portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, plus extra to garnish
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
salt to taste
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 – 2  teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a large pot heat the butter and oil. On medium heat, sauté onions until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic, cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add mushrooms and thyme, cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle mushrooms with flour, mix well, and cook while gently mixing for 2 minutes. Add stock, mix and bring to boil. Reduce the heat to low. Add salt and pepper.

Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add cream and bring back to simmer (not boil). Adjust seasoning if necessary. Mix in parsley and lemon juice.

Garnish with parsley. Serve with toast or fresh bread.

 

 

The Traveler and The Cook: Rockland Lake’s Epic Ice Operation

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, keeps it local while taking us back in time to an incredible business operation right here in our backyard. Plus she provides a recipe for the most delicious wintertime treat (historical context included!)…

Travel doesn’t have to be only about far away destinations. There are plenty of places worth visiting close to home. Day trips or even outings that are just a few hours long offer refreshing departure from our routines and open doors to something new and surprising. The travel package becomes even more exciting if a little time travel is part of the deal.

Our local time traveling took place in the Rockland Lake State Park area, at the foot of Hook Mountain. Rockland Lake is a 256-acre spring-fed lake. The trail around the large lake is a popular destination for joggers, bikers, roller skaters, or those who enjoy a relaxing walk. When we think of the lake, we think of recreation; a family picnic, a walk or a boating excursion. It is hard to imagine that, in the past, the area was home to a major business operation, an industry belonging to times long gone.

The economy of the Village of Rockland Lake (the village no longer exists, only a few houses remain on the east shore of the lake) was driven through a good part of the 19th century by the lake itself. The frozen water of the lake was a valuable commodity in the pre-refrigeration era. In 1831 the Knickerbocker Ice Company formed. Rockland Lake was known as “the icehouse of New York City”.

Blocks of ice harvested from the lake were transported to New York City and far beyond. The harvesting usually started in January when the ice was thick enough. First, blades pulled by horses “drew” a grid into the ice. Then, workers with machinery pulled large blocks of ice out of the lake. The ice was stored in a nearby icehouse. The double-walled building insulated with sawdust assured that the ice lasted, amazingly, until the summer! The ice was needed most in the summer and that is when it also fetched the highest price. The ice was used to preserve food and for sought after cold drinks, which were the new thing.

A lucrative industry developed here not only because of the purity of the water, but also because of the location of the lake. The lake is a half a mile from the Hudson River, at an elevation of 150 feet above the river. The proximity and access to the Hudson assured that the ice could be relatively easily shipped. The ice was transported down the mountainside to the river on inclined gravity-driven railroad cars, then shipped on barges to New York City. Some of the ice was put to use in the Meat Packing District, some was distributed throughout the city by special ice wagons, and – as unbelievable as it sounds – part of the harvest was shipped to faraway destinations in Asia!

Ice harvesting deeply impacted the local economy. It provided jobs for farmers in the wintertime, and by the 1850s the Knickerbocker Ice Company employed about 3,000 people. After buying out a competitor, in 1869 the Knickerbocker Ice Company became one of the largest companies in the world. But, its decline was inevitable. Outcompeted by commercial refrigeration, the company closed in 1924.

After a winter walk around the lake and a cool experience viewing the remains of old ice-harvest-related structures, we wanted to treat ourselves with a hot drink. We went for the kind that the inhabitants of our region might have drank in the 19th century. Digging into the culinary history of the region, we have learned that frothed spiced hot chocolate was a drink popular in the Hudson Valley area as early as the end of the 17thcentury. Cacao was a commodity shipped from Curacao in Lesser Antilles, sometimes in exchange for dairy, wheat, and preserved meats from the Hudson Valley!

Times certainly change; industries come and go, but a cup of hot chocolate remains a delicious treat.

 

Rockland Lake ice operation

Painting by Andrew Fisher Bunner ca. 1890 (Image source)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hot chocolate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiced Hot Chocolate

The difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate is that the former is made with cocoa powder while the latter uses chocolate. As opposed to cacao, chocolate contains cocoa butter, which makes hot chocolate more rich and creamy.

2 cups whole milk
¼ cup sugar
½ cup chopped semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, over a medium heat, bring milk to simmer. Make sure not to bring the milk to boil. Whisk in sugar and spices. Add chopped chocolate and vanilla extract. Gently whisk until all chocolate melts. If you prefer your chocolate with lot of froth, use a hand-held frother to aerate the hot drink.

Pour into mugs and enjoy!

 

The Traveler and the Cook: Christmas Market In Vienna

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about the nostalgia she feels around the holidays, particularly for the joys of the ‘holiday market’…

The holiday season is a time when we seem to be especially prone to nostalgia for childhood, for the magical time of hope and anticipation that brought light into the darkest part of the year. Nostalgia magnifies moments from childhood and leads to reminiscing about positive experiences. I miss the Christmas seasons of my childhood. No matter who hard I try to recreate the feeling of ‘Christmas’ every year, the holiday never seems to be the same as it was when I was a kid.Adults, do you remember snow globes? Those heavy glass (or plastic) spheres with a winter scene? When they are shaken, snow starts quietly coming down on the town or the landscape encased in the glass. Did you ever hold one as a child and feel mesmerized by the miniature world where snow was just one shake away? I always imagined myself being part of the scene. As the soft snow slowly came down inside of the glass-covered world, I was transported into the kingdom of imagination and dreams. How delightful! But seeing a snow globe as an adult, it seems more tacky than enchanting. I had to remember all the magic it brings, when my daughter asked for one few years ago.

As a child, I loved the Christmas market. I remember a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts warming my hands and the aroma of roasting chestnuts filling the town square. Enjoying the spirit of the holiday in a market is a nice way to spend a weekend day with children. For those who happened to be in Central Europe during the holiday season, Vienna is an excellent choice. Although I never went to a Christmas market in Vienna as a child, I had been to many others that provided a similar experience.

Vienna’s famous Christmas markets were likely the first place where snow globes were sold (and are still sold). Like many other inventions, the first snow globe was an unintended byproduct of a quest for something else – in this case, for a surgical lamp. The snow globe (Schneekugel) was patented at the end of the 19th century by Erwin Perzy, an Austrian surgical instruments mechanic. The hand-painted, manually assembled glass globes encasing a miniature St. Stephens Cathedral were a hit. The Perzy family continues to make a variety of snow globes to this day, and the family business still operates in the same house in Vienna.

Of course, there is no Christmas market without food and holiday treats. In a Christmas market in Vienna, this means stalls with grilled sausage, pretzels, sandwiches, roasted chestnuts and almonds, potato wedges, donut-like sweets (Krapfen), apples covered in red sugar glazing, cotton candy, and marzipan. Some stalls sell nothing but gingerbread decorated with colored frosting; hearts and stars with inscriptions of Christmas wishes.

For the sake of childhood nostalgia, I had to have a Schaumbecher which is an ice cream cone topped with marshmallow cream dipped in chocolate when I last visited a market. As children, we called them ‘winter ice cream’. It was nice to taste one again, although as a child, I had not been a big fan because they failed to deliver the taste of real ice cream.

Possibly more than by food, children at a market in Vienna will be enchanted by old-world wooden toys like pine cone animals, wooden birds, porcelain bells, and especially wooden figures that jump or fly (without batteries) when a string is pulled. And don’t expect to meet Santa in Vienna. In Austria and the Central European region, Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind (Christ-child or Little Jesus).

In Central Europe, there is no Christmas without what the Austrians call vanilla kipferl (vanilla crescents). We decided to make a batch with my daughter recently. As we were baking, suddenly the wise-woman-persona of my nine-year-old daughter came to life and spoke, “You know, it is the small things that matter in life, like baking cookies or being with your family.” After my initial shock, I had to acknowledge that she was perfectly right. I hope she feels the wonder of the holiday, and one day she will yearn for the magic of her childhood Christmases.

Vanilla Kipferl or Vanilla Crescents Recipe

These are typical Austro-Hungarian Christmas cookies. In Austria, they are usually made with almonds, whereas in Hungary, ground walnuts are preferred.

Vanilla sugar is available at European grocery stores, or you can made your own by burying a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar. Let it sit for about two weeks until the vanilla releases its flavor into the sugar. Nicely packaged home-made vanilla sugar also makes a good gift!

2 cups flour
1 cup finely ground almonds or walnuts
2 sticks unsalted butter
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar (for the dough)
1 egg yolk
½ vanilla sugar (to coat the bake cookies)

Beat the butter until smooth. Gradually work in the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the egg yolk. Stir in the flour and the ground almond or nuts. Make a stiff dough. Divide the dough into two parts and form two large rolls. Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 35 degrees F. To form the crescents, cut about two teaspoons of dough. Gently roll the dough to form a rope with tapered end. Form the rope into a crescent. Put the cookie on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough. This batch will make about 50 crescents. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until the cookies are light golden around the edges. Cool the cookies on the sheet for about two minutes. Roll each cookie in the vanilla sugar to coat. Enjoy!

The Traveler and the Cook: At the Airport

In her new series, our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about airport experiences that went beyond the expected…

At the Airport

For the weary traveler, airports are rarely fun. Usually, we don’t think of airports as places where the real travel experience happens. They are just the unavoidable necessary steps toward our travel destinations, where all the fun and experiencing is supposed to happen. If time spent at an airport becomes memorable, it is usually for the wrong reason: a missed plane, hours of delay, lost luggage…

That being said, I’d like to share two very different airport-related experiences that don’t fit this equation.

One of them happened years ago in Paris Orly Airport. As I was absent-mindedly hurrying through the airport, I suddenly became a witness of a tiny moment in some strangers’ story and felt deeply touched by it.

I had very little time to catch my connecting flight. Navigating the corridors as a little piece of an anonymous moving crowd, the only thing on my mind was to get to the right gate on time. But then, suddenly, I had to stop. We all had to stop, and readjust our minds, our perception of the world—because the following happened: The column of people in front of me stopped moving.  Something was wrong. I could see the escalator at the end of the narrow corridor—the only available exit route in front of us. The escalator was running and there was a crowd of people seemingly waiting to get on, but the steps of the escalator continued their rhythmic ascent without carrying any people.

The group at the very front seemed to be traveling together. Their clothing stood out. They weren’t dressed for the cold Parisian winter day. Rather, some wore short-sleeved T-shirts; others wore traditional African clothing made for a warm climate. They seemed scared and indecisive. The older members of the group were discussing something. Suddenly a teenaged boy stepped out of the group and turned back as if asking for the approval of the elders. He then stepped onto the escalator and went up. Shortly after, the others hesitantly followed the young boy. I realized that escalators were not part of their experience prior to this moment. Confronted with one for the first time, they did not know what to do until the curiosity of the young boy grew stronger than his fear, and he showed the group the way…

I do not know what was to follow for these families after they arrived at the top of the escalator. Perhaps they were on a vacation, or perhaps they were fleeing their homeland. I have often wondered how their lives unfolded since that cold day in Paris. I hope they found their way and their place.

The other very different and cheerful story involves travelling with my children and their perception of a country, based solely on its largest airport. We were changing planes in Zurich, Switzerland. This time, I didn’t have to worry about not making it on time to the connecting flight, as we had a five-hour layover. I was worried about having too much time. Spending hours in transit after an overnight flight is usually not fun.

I had prepared. We had plenty of snacks packed to fight hunger and also serve as a distraction. There were a few small toys, books and activity booklets in my backpack, ready to provide a little entertainment. But, in the end, we never took them out. The children vastly enjoyed the airport. The sleepiness was gone and the boredom was lifted as they looked out of the airport windows and past the runways. As far as the eye could see, there was forest, and only forest. We were at the largest airport in Switzerland and it wasn’t surrounded by an urban or industrial landscape, but rather, endless trees. The children noticed it right away. They pointed it out, and they loved it. They appreciated how clean everything was, too. We enjoyed the view for a while, and then it was time for lunch. We chose a deli that imitated the looks of a rustic small town bakery. The soft pretzels with ham a cheese looked so good and tasted even better. A piece of Swiss chocolate for dessert followed. We learned and experienced that there is such a thing as a good airport food – at least in Switzerland. Of course, one pays the price, as Switzerland is anything but inexpensive.

The natural question for my children to ask was: “Why don’t we live in Switzerland?” This country, experienced only through its airport, somehow made so much sense to them. My children now often talk about Switzerland. Since spending five hours at the airport in Zurich, this country has become one of their dream destinations. My daughter started learning Italian, and explained her decision among others things with: “It could be useful in Switzerland”.

So we keep saving for a ‘real’ trip to the country of the majestic Alps, delicious chocolate, and yummy airport sandwiches.

Airport Pretzel Sandwiches

This is a recipe for the sandwiches we enjoyed at the airport in Zurich. Butter, ham, and cheese are a combination typical for Germany and German speaking regions of Europe.

If you are in the mood, you can start with baking soft pretzels from scratch. Pretzel dough is basically yeasted bread dough with a bit of butter in it. The Internet is a good source for pretzel recipes and instructions on how to properly form them. Compared to baking bread or rolls, making pretzels involves an extra step: immersing the formed pretzels in boiling water before baking. This process creates the typical chewy texture of pretzels (and bagels too).

Making pretzels from scratch at home requires some time and a bit of patience, but it can be done, especially if you have helpers interested in playing with dough.

  • For each person/eater, you will need:
  • 1 soft pretzel
  • some butter
  • 1 slice of good quality ham
  • 1 slice of Gruyere cheese

Slice your pretzel in half. Butter both sides. On the bottom part, layer the cheese and ham. Cover with the top half on the pretzel. Enjoy for lunch or pack for your next road trip.

The Traveler and The Cook: Visiting Familiar Places

In her new series, our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about visiting her childhood hometown with her children, and about the fruitful discoveries they make along the way…

Traveling with children usually results in a very different experience than getting on the road with adult company. It is not only that when children come along we adjust the pace and the activities to meet their needs and interests. What is truly unique is that we get to see our travel destinations from a different angle, with the refreshing eye of a child. The whole travel experience takes on one more extra layer when we decide to take our kids to places that have a special place in our personal history; when hometowns, college towns, broader areas of our childhood become destinations. We are hoping to include the children in our story, one that is the precursor to their own.

We traveled to Central Europe last fall to visit family, friends, and participate in a harvest in the vineyard (the first one ever for my children). On most of our day trips, we kept crossing paths with the Danube. For me, the Danube is ‘The River’. I was born in a town on the Danube, learned to swim in its waters, and I spent my college years in two cities on the Danube. The river had been part of everyday life, just as it was part of those moments that stood out. There was no New Year’s Day during my childhood without a family walk to the Danube. I always saw it as a New Year’s pilgrimage to experience the cleansing effect of chilling wind carried by the river.  So naturally, encounters with the Danube were part of our recent trip.

With the children, we strolled on the banks of the river; they threw pebbles, watched ships. We talked about history: times when these parts of the world were the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. “Wait, what? Romans here?” the children wondered. So we went to a museum to see some artifacts and to learn more. Turkish invasion was the next subject….

From my hometown, we walked through a bridge over the Danube and crossed to another country. As history has redefined borders, one town has turned into two: one on each side of the Danube and each in a different country. Luckily, both countries are now part of the European Union, so we were able to enjoy ice cream on the other side of the river without needing a passport.

During our trip we stood on several castle hills, all overlooking the Danube. The children imagined themselves to be knights watching the approach of the enemy. They felt lucky to be strategically well positioned and protected in their castles. They were enjoying themselves. But I kept wondering during the whole trip: Are they unimpressed? Does this experience really sink in? Or are these only fleeting moments of fun that will be soon forgotten?

After many day trips came the long anticipated day of the harvest in the vineyard.  The harvest of vine grapes has a special place in my personal mythology for a simple reason: I was born on the day of harvest in my grandfather’s old vineyard.

The bulk of the grape harvest in that area happens around Saint Michael’s Day (September 29th). The exact time is determined by the skilled eye and taste buds of the grower/vintner. The right levels of sugar, tannin, and acid are the first step to a good wine.

On the day of the harvest, the grapes were plump, ripe, and ready. Probably like my mother’s belly on that day many harvests ago. I was happy that we were there, that my children get to see the vineyard in its full autumn beauty, that they will savor the many tastes of different grape types, all of them so distant from the supermarket varieties.

Grape harvest is quite a sensory experience. It is not only the smell and taste of the berries, but how aware we become of our hands. The super ripe berries are no longer able to contain their juices. With each picked cluster, the hands of a picker get more and more sticky from the sweet juice that, like a magnet, attracts dirt, resulting in a gray sugary second skin.

Like everything else, grape harvest has its traditions. As for lunch, we had the traditional: roasted duck prepared on the day before (because who has time to cook on a harvest day?) with pickles and bread, and sweet bread for dessert—the perfect food to eat while sitting in the grass at the edge of the vineyard or under one of the peach trees dotting the rows of wine grapes.

The life span of grape vines is 50-100 years. Although the vineyard where harvest took place on the day of my birth no longer exists, we went to visit the place where it oncegrew. We looked around in the trees, and there they were: old, woody vines climbing up the tree trunks in search of light, and still bearing grapes. We picked a basketful of this surprise fruit for my grandparents, so they could taste and remember their lost vineyard.

My grandfather is fond of grape vines. He made sure his descendants would have no lack of them in the decades to come.  At the age of 90, he decided the time had come to plant a new vineyard. And that’s what he did.

There is one single grape vine growing in my garden as a fill-in for a vineyard. I bought the plant four years ago in an Italian gardening center without being aware of its variety.  The plant bore fruit for the first time this season. With great expectations, I picked a plump berry, and to my surprise, I tasted something very familiar. I recognized the cultivar right away: sweet, aromatic with a thick slip skin. Isabella: one of the varieties that had grown in grandfather’s old vineyard.

Eva’s Recipe for Traditional Braised Cabbage

On the day of the harvest in the vineyard, roasted duck is eaten picnic-style with only bread and pickles. When served properly on the dining table for a fall Sunday lunch, roasted duck and goose are often accompanied with a side of braised cabbage. Braised cabbage is also a nice side dish to be served with pot roast, roasted ribs or any other roasted meat, including game.

1 head of cabbage (3-4 pound), shredded
1 medium onion, sliced
3 tablespoons canola oil or lard
3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
½ cup water

 

Sprinkle the shredded cabbage with 1 ½ teaspoon of salt and let it stand for 30 minutes. Squeeze out the cabbage and discard the liquid.

Using a large heavy-bottomed casserole, heat the oil or lard and sauté the onion until limp. Add the sugar, stir and let it lightly caramelize. Add the cabbage and seasonings. Pour on the water, bring to a simmer, and cover. Gently simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 3 hours or until tender. Great fresh, and even better reheated the next day.

 

 

 

The Traveler and the Cook

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, introduces her new series in The Dirt, writes about a breathtaking blueberry farm, and shares a recipe for a frozen blueberry treat…

Who doesn’t sometimes dream about faraway places, thrilling escapes, change and new experiences, about being a stranger in a welcoming place?

Most of us probably do here and there. Although partly for different reasons, the idea of travel excites children as well. And that is why we travel, and why we take our kids along. We cultivate their curiosity; we want them to see and experience; we give them the possibility for learning, for transformation and for reevaluating their self-concept. Travel suggests hope, things to discover and find, change, and a new perspective.

As we say farewell to summer, we are also leaving behind the season of vacation and travel. Wanderlust might stick around though, and we have to cope with it. Having good food is always helpful and comforting. Enjoying food that evokes faraway destinations is an even better remedy for a traveler who must stay put! The traveler can become a cook. With a little imagination, the cook (and their helpers) can go places without ever leaving their kitchen. The traveler/cook may know the desired destination and reach it, or they might be on a wonderful journey without ever arriving…

In the upcoming issues of The Dirt, we will travel through cooking. The road will take us to countries, towns, and villages that I have visited or that I, along with my children, dream to see someday.

The Traveler and the Cook in Maine

It took us more than eight hours to get to Downeast Maine. It was a long car drive – uneventful in a good way. A flight of a similar length could have taken us to Rome, Italy; Helsinki, Finland; or Lima, Peru. But we didn’t leave our continent, our time zone, and not even the country. We did, however, leave behind some of the summer heat and our everyday life.

Not too much planning went into this trip. We wanted to take the children to Acadia National Park, to see some friends, to visit a goat farm we have been to once before (because their cheese was simply unforgettable), to relax and do whatever felt best on a particular day.  The minimalistic plan seemed to work well. The children were the most happy engaging in unplanned simple activities like seeing a harbor seal (well, just its head) or a starfish, collecting shells on the beach, looking for sea glass, jumping the cold waves, petting goats and kittens on the farm, harvesting blueberries with an old-fashioned blueberry rake, or watching fisherman unloading their catch. They enjoyed the beach, which was so different from their idea of a beach or the familiar Jersey Shore: rocks instead of sand; no palm trees or grasses, but tall, dark conifers. These were not the balmy waters of the Caribbean but the rough and raw northern coastline. The space seemed so big, so stretched out. Even in the midst of the tourist season, it wasn’t hard to find a beautiful beach that we could have just for ourselves.

It was mid-August, and it was blueberry season in Maine. We couldn’t miss a visit to a blueberry farm. Our journey took us to a quite unusual one. The farmer was a former New Yorker who, I suspect, decided to trade the unpredictability of markets and corporate life for the unpredictability of nature and its elements. He was not only a farmer but also a sculptor. He cultivated his fields, and gave form and meaning to enormous pieces of basalt rock. After all, in both capacities, he was taming the nature.

Even more unusual than this man was his field of organic wild blueberries. I would have never identified that piece of landscape as a cultivated land. I saw a mild slope full of rock and some boulders. In a way it looked ordinary, but there was something breathtaking in it: a feel of sacred space. I imagined a place of ancient rituals, not a crop producing field. This was land formed by a receding glacier, the farmer explained. That made sense, but the explanation did not fully satisfy me – there was something there that simply could not be explained…

We left the farm with several pounds of wild blueberries. Some got eaten fresh and we froze the rest. The frozen ones made the trip back to New York with us and became part of our winter provision.

Every time we will take some out of the freezer to make a sweet treat, they will remind us of Maine and the mysterious field that gives life to wild blueberries.

Frozen Blueberry Treat

Recipes will be the maps on our imagined journeys. With the addition of common sense and a little bit of imagination the

results will surely be yummy.

This is a quick frozen (or almost frozen) dessert for a warm autumn day.

The recipe is so simple, even your six-year-old could prepare a treat for the family.

For 4 servings:
2 cups frozen wild blueberries
1 cup vanilla yogurt
nuts , fresh fruit or whipped cream (optional)

In a mixing bowl, combine the frozen blueberries with vanilla yogurt. Work fast and make sure the berries get covered in yogurt. (The yogurt will freeze over the blueberries.) Fill four small dessert bowls with the mixture. Decorate with fresh fruit, nuts, or whipped cream. Serve and enjoy immediately before the blueberries get defrosted.

 

For the Love of Lovage

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, muses about lovage and what’s in a name…

As parents, we make many important decisions. Among the first is the naming
of a child.  Finding the right name for a new baby is often a long process full of careful considerations. Many factors play a role: our origin, cultural and religious background, education, and our hopes regarding the future of our offspring. Finding a name for a newly born baby means naming without knowing who that baby really is as a person. We can only imagine the personality or ‘grown-up looks’ of our newborn. We hope that the name will be a good fit for the child’s personality and a good fit within our family and society (regardless of whether our priority is  “to fit in” or distinguish our child from the crowd).

The Latin proverb “Nomen est omen” captures he predictive power of a name, and is certainly at least partly true. A name puts a person in a social and cultural context. Unfortunately, it can result in stereotyping people, and can lead to assumptions, not only about our origin or social status, but also about our behavior.

I was walking in my garden admiring the newly emerged plants when these thoughts about naming began to occupy my mind. It was because some lovage had caught my eye. A lovely plant with an even lovelier name. Lovage is an old European herb widely used in medieval kitchens and herb gardens, but largely forgotten today. So forgotten, that the word didn’t even make it into the spell-check dictionary on my computer. As I was writing this text, the spell-check constantly indicated that there is an error in the word lovage.

My mind kept wondering about the origin of this strange word and whether “Nomen est omen” applies to plants.  Lovage looks little like a celery (although unlike celery, it can grow up to 5 feet tall). Its flavor also reminds most people of celery, but it is stronger, more complex, and more aromatic. Personally, I like it a lot. Beneficial insects like it too.  If lovage were widely known, my guess is that its strong flavor would generate either a “love it” or “hate it” response in most people; nothing in between.

The plant belongs to the same family as carrots, parsley, and dill.  Its leaves, stalks, seeds, and roots are all edible. In the past, candied stalks and roots were used as a remedy. Leaves work well in salads, soups, and stews. Ancient Greeks chewed the leaves to improve digestion. Hildegard von Binden used lovage as a culinary herb, and recommended it as a remedy for colds, heart problems, and abdominal pain.

Thanks to its name, lovage also has a reputation as a love potion. I am not sure about the effectiveness ofthe potion, because it turns out the name of the herb is the r

esult of a semantic mix-up.  As I have learned, the original Latin name of the plant was Ligusticum, meaning ‘from Liguria’ (a region in north-western Italy). Ligusticum somehow later morphed into Levisticum. Subsequently, the plant was called loveche in Old French and loveache in Middle English. The non-poetic truth is that modern English ended up with the word lovage due to a distortion of the plant’s Latin name, and not because it had anything to do with love. Folk etymology was wrong, but regardless I still love lovage…

Spring Potato Soup Recipe

This soup gets its unique flavor from lovage leaves. If you can’t find lovage, use parsley or celery instead. Your soup will be tasty in a very different way.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 quart vegetable stock
5 whole leaves of lovage
2 finely chopped leaves of lovage for garnish
1 tablespoon dill, finely chopped
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
sour cream, optional

In a soup pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and gently cook until translucent. Add the potatoes and stir well. Add the vegetable stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the whole lovage leaves and simmer for 5 more minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Take the soup off the heat. Remove the lovage leaves and use a hand blender to puree to soup. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Add dill and vinegar, and return the soup to the heat for a few minutes. Do not boil.  Put soup into serving bowls and garnish with chopped lovage. Serve with a dollop of sour cream if desired.

Nature’s Palette

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, paints an extraordinary picture of the changing colors in nature’s palette and includes fascinating notes on using plant dyes, including a DIY how-to…

After what felt like an almost never-ending winter, it is a great joy to finally enter the season of budding colors. Snowdrops, violets, and skunk cabbage might be the first signs of spring, but they never quite convince me that the winter is gone for good. It is when the leaves on the trees emerge that I feel assured: there is no way back to winter-land. The change of scenery is usually sudden. With it, nature bursts into color. We leave behind the lifeless shades of grey and brown and celebrate the   soft colors of spring. Shades of fresh green, with occasional dots of color, dominate the landscape. Comforting and calming colors of early spring slowly mature and change. Plants soak up the sunshine and richer colors come to life. The color palette of nature reaches near perfection on a wild flower meadow in June or on a field of wild lupine in July.

As the year progresses, the colors of nature become even more full and rich. The warm shades of the fall landscape bring another visual highlight of the year. The reds, golden yellows, oranges, and rusty browns radiate back the energy of the sun as if to charge us with energy before the world around us fades again into the greyish-brown realm of early winter.

Nature has everything we need, including color. In fact, there were no synthetic dyes until the mid 19th century.  Still, the world of humans had not been colorless. Until then, dyes and pigments came exclusively from nature. Think of old masters: Michelangelo, Botticelli, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bosch…. They painted with the colors of nature. The fibers of traditional oriental rugs and renaissance tapestries were all dyed with natural materials. So were the luxurious dresses of emperors and empresses of the past. Fabrics of rich colors symbolized status, and their cost was high. Lower classes dressed in browns and grays, shades that were the easiest and cheapest to create.

Dyeing is not unlike cooking. It involves applying heat to extract, in this case, not flavor but color. A large pot is utilized to make a dye bath. The plant material gets simmered in water in order to extract pigments. Then fabric or fiber is immersed in the (warm or cold) colored liquid to absorb the dye. Some dye material might be hiding in your kitchen. Tea, coffee, turmeric, or onion skin all contain pigments that get easily absorbed by natural fiber or fabric. Henna used for tattooing and dyeing hair also creates beautiful rusty reds on fabric.

The process is fun and satisfying. We can start by collecting plant material suitable for dyeing (marigold, goldenrod, black walnut etc.), then we cook the colored brew. If our goal is to create a solid color fabric, we just need to put the textile into the dye bath. Otherwise, we apply our artistic imagination and prepare the fabric by folding it to create pattern. I like to get inspired by the techniques of ancient Japanese Shibori.

When working with plant dyes, we get the satisfaction of knowing that the colors come from renewable resources rather than petroleum.  Natural material such as silk, wool and cotton absorb the dyes well. Although the use of mordants (solutions that act as binding agents) usually results in richer colors, for safety and environmental reasons, I prefer not to use them.

Feel free to experiment. Nature is forgiving. Even unexpected results have their beauty. Sometimes we end up with a color or pattern that is much more beautiful than anything we could have planned. Mother Earth provides everything we need.


Dyeing Cotton Fabric with Annatto

Annatto seeds come from Central and South America. Traditionally, they were used as body paint. Annatto is widely used today as a food coloring.  The orange color of the supermarket cheddar comes from these seeds!

Annatto dye bath produces yellow, golden yellow, orange-yellow, or orange hues, depending on the amount of seeds used, and the weave and thickness of the fabric. Silk and wool can also be successfully dyed with annatto seeds.

  • 1 cup annatto seeds
  • medium piece of cotton fabric or 2-4 cotton bandanas
  • pot and stirring spoon (used exclusively for dyeing)
  • iron for ironing the fabric, rubber bands, string, thread and needle (you may only need one of these, depending on the folding technique you choose)
  • plastic gloves to protect your hands

Choose white or off-white fabric/bandanas for your project. Unbleached fabric will produce deeper color.

Gently simmer the annatto seeds in about a gallon of water for one hour. In the meantime, fold the fabric using one of the Shibori techniques. This is a link to one of many videos showing how to use the Shibori folding techniques. In this video synthetic dyes are used, so please disregard their dyeing instructions.

Gently rinse the folded fabric in lukewarm water, making sure that it is wet throughout. This will assure even absorption of the dye liquid.

Turn off the heat under the pot. The dye liquid can be strained, but leaving seeds in the dye bath during the whole dyeing process will produce richer color.  Put the fabric into the dye bath and let it steep for at least 4 hours or overnight. Take the fabric out of the pot. Rinse under running water and squeeze out excess water. Unfold the fabric and be ready to be surprised! Put out your fabric to dry. Before further use, hand-wash the dyed fabric.

Emergency Sandwiches

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, ponders our recent storm and finds the bright side of a darkened home…

We were already getting ready for the spring when a late season snowstorm struck. First, there was light snow for hours with little accumulation. Then, suddenly, the snow started coming down fast. In just a couple of hours, our backyard turned into a winter wonderland. It was a beautiful sight. The trees frosted with freshly fallen snow looked majestic. Then there was more snow, and still more. Under the weight of the heavy, wet snow, the branches bowed and came closed to the earth; then, some gave up and met the ground. Large branches, one after another, were coming down. Then a large tree fell. The old mulberry tree was suddenly gone and, with it, the prospect of an early summer day mulberry feast. We will miss that tree, and so will the birds and deer passing through our backyard.

Like many others, we lost power. We were in the dark for two days and two nights. Considering all that can go wrong in extreme weather, we were just fine. No one was hurt, there was no damage to the house. We were a little uncomfortable, but safe. A room temperature of 50 F is not desirable, but again it is not a tragedy either.

The first night without electricity was even fun. The children were running around with flashlights preparing extra blankets for the night. They built a hideout under the table and moved in, flashlights and all. The house suddenly seemed to them much more interested and exiting. It felt like a campground. No screens, or devices, not even books. The goodnight story was told, not read.  My son promptly suggested that we should have a night without electricity every week. Well–a night without lights and devices, but with the heating and the refrigerator running.

The second night without power was harder. The novelty of the situation had worn off, and the house no longer felt cozy. It was cold. We fantasized about our old house and its wood burning stove that had, in similar situations, provided not only comforting heat, but also light entering the room through its glass door. It had even provided a surface for cooking. And now here we were with no heat, no lights, no internet service, no power to operate appliances and gadgets.

Do we rely on electricity too much? ‘Yes’, is certainly the answer. We can, for sure, implement measures that would lessen our dependence on electrical power. However, to what extent these measures would be possible and practical varies household to household. To eliminate the need for electricity entirely does not seem like a realistic solution at all. We can certainly be better prepared for the next short-term power outage like the one we just had, but there is little we can do as individuals in case of a long-term power outage, which would very likely cause significant distress to the fabric of our society.

While having these scary thoughts, and feeling helpless, I found some comfort in the idea of making a chicken soup to warm us. Luckily, the stove in our kitchen is a gas one, so the burners were working. I just needed a match to light them.

While I was putting up the big pot of chicken soup to simmer for our evening meal, the kids opted for grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. We sliced the bread, prepared the cheese and took out the panini press. Everything was ready to go. Oops! Not the panini press. It needs electricity. It was time to improvise. That day, we made grilled cheese sandwiches in a cast iron skillet on the stove-top. Although emergency-situation meals are often a far cry from their regular selves, these sandwiches actually tasted much better then their panini press relatives. Snowstorm or not, we will surely make them again.

As it often happens, there are tiny crumbs of something good lurking even in unpleasant or difficult situations.

 

Stove-top Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

For 4 sandwiches:

8 slices of bread
1 cup grated cheese (you may need more or less depending on the size of your bread slices)
2-3 tablespoons finely minced onions or green onions
1 clove minced garlic (optional)
some cream cheese or mayo
2-3 tablespoons olive oil for the skillet

Use good-quality stale bread. Soft fresh bread will absorb too much of the oil, resulting in greasy sandwiches. This is a perfect recipe to use up bread that is no longer fresh.

For the cheese: cheddar, jack, Swiss, fontina, or muenster can be used (or a combination of these/whatever cheese your fridge has to offer).

Mix the grated cheese with minced onions and garlic, if using. Spread a thin layer of cream cheese or mayo on all the bread slices. Spread grated cheese mixture on four of the slices. Use the other four slices to cover the sandwiches.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron skillet.  Place the sandwiches in the skillet. Cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip, add more olive oil if needed. Cook until golden.

For a full meal, serve the sandwiches with a salad and an egg sunny-side-up.

Simplicity

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, takes stock of her lifestyle around food and cooking, and encourages us all to embrace simplicity…

How we manage our time is an important factor in our daily lives. Re-evaluating my daily routines, I came to the conclusion that I have been spending way too much time with cooking and subsequent kitchen cleanup.

It was time to simplify my kitchen activities. Inevitably, many questions crossed my mind: How do others do it? What is wrong with my approach to daily food preparation? How can I simplify things for myself while still serving a homemade meal for my family every night? Is more planning the answer? More improvising? Would an instant pot save me? Or should I start cooking huge batches of food that will last 2-3 days?

I considered the eating habits of my family and those around us. As eaters, we are global citizens for sure. We have access not only to local and seasonal produce, but fruit, vegetables, spices, seafood etc. from all over the world. Without having to travel, we can enjoy cuisines of different nations in local restaurants.

In our culture, eating has become much more than sustenance. We don’t only eat to provide nourishment for our bodies—sometimes we eat for the sake of the experience itself. We try exotic foods we haven’t had before.  We are drawn to haute cuisine offering combinations of flavors and textures that are intriguing, surprising, even provoking.  Celebrity chefs often take dinning to conceptual levels where cooking borders art. A chef engaging in molecular gastronomy seems to be far removed from a cook. They are partly an artist, partly sort of an alchemist trying to extract the true essence of the ingredients. These chefs might serve things that go far beyond unusual: flavored airs and vapors, or a hot cauliflower ice cream that melts as it cools. These are exciting trends, but they certainly can not be reproduced in my kitchen, and to me they stand in sharp contrast with food as a necessary fuel for our bodies.

In the past, just several generations back, homemade food was the only option for most people. As I wrote last month, it was mostly women who cooked every day. We would probably label the everyday food of those days as a simple and possibly boring fare. The majority of households had access to only seasonal and local produce, which meant that the menu was simple and without too much variety.

Food that was relatively expensive, rich in calories, and required elaborate cooking methods, was reserved for special occasions and holidays. Wait! What? Realizing all this, I came to understand the root of my cooking problem: We eat almost every day, as it was a holiday. We need to simplify.

The question that needs to be answered is how to embrace simplicity without the feeling of loss. If simplifying feels like “giving up” something, then it is not sustainable long-term.

I have decided to give it a try. Simpler cooking and eating saves time, money, and environmental resources. Simple meals and simple techniques make it easier to pass on cooking skills to my children. And most children will certainly enjoy a piece of roasted chicken served with plain rice more than my elaborate chicken biryani that (beside the monetary expense) comes at the cost of half a day of my time anyway.

Like trying to appreciate the overlooked details of everyday life, I will try to value earthy, rustic, and simple foods because they fit into the puzzle of a wholesome life.

 

Polenta

This is a simple porridge-like dish made with coarsely ground yellow corn marketed as polenta (although polenta is really the name of the dish). I prefer to use organic polenta found in the bulk section of health food stores.

This recipe serves 4.

For the polenta:
1 ½ cup polenta (not instant polenta or ready-made polenta)
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt

Serve with:
1 cup feta cheese or blue cheese
1 cup sour cream

In a heavy saucepan, bring water to boil. Gradually add polenta, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add salt.

Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until polenta starts to thicken (about 5 minutes). Cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Polenta is done when texture is creamy and it starts to pull away from the side of the pan.

Divide polenta onto four plates. Top with cheese and sour cream. Serve immediately. For a dairy-free meal use caramelized onions as a topping.