Saturday, December 29, 2012

Party Food

The season of endless parties is winding down. One last, big bash of the year is just a couple of days away, and then the long, quiet month of January will settle in. I welcome the slower pace, but wish that the parties and dinners of December could be spread out a bit into the New Year. For most of the year, our weekends are pretty relaxed, but come December Chris and I often find ourselves double booked on both Friday and Saturday, rushing from one gathering to the next. They’re all fun events that I look forward to each year—traditional celebrations that we don’t want to miss. And I guess this flurry of activity is a big part of what makes the holidays the holidays.

For these fêtes held either at our house or elsewhere—someone else’s home, or a restaurant, or even out in the woods (a Solstice celebration), food is central. Its tastes, scents, and textures draw people together. It's no wonder that the kitchen is always the most popular place at a party, despite how much the hostess or host tries to spread the revelry around.

Friday, December 21, 2012

To Market, To Market

The second best thing to a summer farmers market is a winter farmers market. In fact, it’s sometimes even more of a treat because it’s a less common occurrence. Plus the vision of fresh, local vegetables piled high when you step in from the cold is even better than holiday sugarplums.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

'Tis the Season

For those of us who celebrate Christmas, putting up the tree is a highlight of the season. I had never cut down my own tree until moving to Vermont, and we’ve since followed this tradition every year. It would be a heck of a lot easier to just walk across the street to our neighbors who sell trees as a fundraiser. These trees are already cut down, of course, but also trimmed, shaped, cleared of debris, and ready to plop right in your stand. But whenever Chris and I raise this as an option, Isabel and Faye always insist that we cut down our own.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Soup, Glorious Soup

During this season of overly rich foods, soup offers a healthy alternative meal when we’re not indulging in holiday excess (not that I mind a little indulgence every now and again). Soup leaves me feeling satisfied, but it’s light at the same time—unless it’s a cream based soup, in which case it qualifies as more of an indulgence. But hey, ‘tis the season.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Giving Thanks

Now that the cooking extravaganza has passed and the relatives have gone home, I have some time to reflect on what makes Thanksgiving one of my favorite holidays. There’s the food, of course—traditional dishes that I only make or eat at this time of year.

But much more important than the food are the people you share it with. When I was growing up and continuing well into my twenties, my mom usually made the meal for our extended family. Some of my best memories are from around that table. In more recent years, my own family’s Thanksgivings have been less predictable, but no less memorable.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Vermont's Other Berry

Cranberries from Vermont? Really? The Green Mountain State isn’t usually the first to come to mind when cranberries are mentioned. That honor usually goes to my former home state of Massachusetts. But cranberries do grow in Vermont, and in fact the Vermont Cranberry Company in Fletcher produces more than 15,000 pounds of these little beauties each year. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In Praise of Brussels Sprouts

I’ve never met a vegetable that I didn’t like. Even the lowliest of peasant fare. In fact, one of my favorites is the much maligned Brussels sprout. With the first hint of fall, I crave this humble vegetable. Maybe it has something to do with my own peasant roots on my father’s Irish side of the family, often in conflict with the Polish nobility on my mother’s side. According to family lore, we're descendents of Napoleon and his Polish mistress the Countess Marie Walewska, and the son they had together (hence my affinity for France and my taste for haute cuisine perhaps?). 

Marie Walewska

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Trick or Treat

Young Frankenstein projected onto the faded clapboards of an historic home. Intricate mazes in front and backyards. People in costume shoulder to shoulder on village sidewalks. These happenings can only mean one thing: Halloween in Bristol, of course. Halloween is the biggest night of the year in our small Vermont village. And residents go all out to create an extravagant celebration of the ghostly and ghoulish, with a characteristic creative flair that draws hundreds of visitors each year.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Du Pain et du Fromage

Two years ago at this time, I was living in Paris with my family. We had arrived on August 1st to begin a five-month sabbatical—Chris was on leave from Middlebury to work on a new book, and I could do my work anywhere there was a good internet connection. Relocating to Paris was my idea, and at first it garnered mixed enthusiasm from the rest of the family. We were moving from our comfortable house into a tiny, but charming, two bedroom apartment with one Lilliputian bathroom.

View from our apartment’s courtyard. We were on the third floor.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Ultimate Comfort Food

During this month of endless political polls, I’m conducting my own survey—on The Ultimate Comfort Food. What’s yours? Many of you prefer to email me directly instead of leaving a comment, so feel free to do either, although other readers may find your choices interesting and inspiring. One of the best parts of fall in my opinion is the shift to cozy, heartier foods. What foods do you choose to make or eat to warm your soul?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Turn, Turn, Turn

You can’t live in Vermont without being fully aware of the seasons. There’s a dramatic shift as we cycle through the year, and right now is one of the most striking, when we transition from verdant, steamy summer to autumn’s chill and its astonishing display of colors. Addison County is at peak foliage this week, with crimson sugar maples stealing the show among the oranges and golds.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Say Cheese

There’s nothing like a high school reunion to stir up a giant pot of memories. Moments with friends that still make me laugh with abandon. Dates that went awry. Romances that never got off the ground. The sting of old catfights. Misadventures and mishaps and misperceptions bubbling to the surface. I just returned from reconnecting with the Goretti Class of ‘82 down in Maryland where we roasted and toasted and laughed late into the night.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ten Reasons I Love My Food Co-op

Not only has the UN declared 2012 to be the International Year of Cooperatives, but the month of October has also been deemed National Co-op Month. So what better time is there to celebrate my favorite cooperative, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (affectionately known as MNFC or the Co-op)? Here are ten reasons to show your local co-op some love:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mellow Fruitfulness

If you know me or if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’re probably aware that I have an appreciation for wine. It’s an appreciation I’ve been cultivating for a good, long while and that has led me to taste many a wine.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Good Stuff

It’s been one of those months when I’ve had too much on my plate—and not the good stuff. I’ve been overloaded with metaphorical canned peas. But now they’ve thankfully been swiped into the compost, and what better way to celebrate than to throw a dinner party.

We’ve had a string of beautiful late summer days here in Vermont, with a hint of fall in the air and clear, slanting light that reminds me of the South of France. I like to celebrate this time of year by inviting some friends over for dinner under our pergola.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Halibut Cove, Alaska

A family of grizzly bears foraging berries by the side of the road, bald eagles soaring overhead, breathtaking glaciers cutting through ancient rock, Mount McKinley’s majestic peak bright white against an immense blue sky—Alaska inspires awe and wonder in its many drop-jawed visitors. And then there’s the fish. Salmon and halibut like you’ve never tasted before, so fresh that it was swimming in the icy waters hours before your meal. A common t-shirt slogan reads "Some people come to Alaska just for the fish," and I believe it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Profuse weeds, tendonitis, and tainted compost—the garden has presented more than its usual share of challenges this year. Weeds are nothing new, but with the record-breaking warm weather they’ve been more out of control than ever. Keeping up with the weeds brought on a flair-up of tendonitis in my elbow, something I’ve dealt with before but this time it’s been particularly tenacious. And then there was the contaminated compost, a mysterious occurrence that has devastated hundreds of Vermont gardeners who thought they were buying organic compost, only to find out that it was polluted with two herbicides that are banned in the state. Not the best gardening season by a long shot.

Despite the setbacks, the garden has had its rewards. Early crops of French breakfast radishes,

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Dinner with a View

I can’t think of a better place to have dinner than in a vineyard. If that vineyard has a stunning view, all the better. Add to that good friends and local food prepare by a talented chef, and you absolutely can’t go wrong. Especially if the weather cooperates.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Heaven Is a Farmers Market

You can tell a lot about a town from its farmers market. Who the vendors are and what they’re selling—and who the consumers are and what they’re buying—are both accurate indicators, I’ve found in my casual, ongoing research, of the health and vitality of a community.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Not Just Any Farm

With a sculpted landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and buildings out of an English fairytale, Shelburne Farms is no ordinary farm. Situated on the shores of Lake Champlain, it’s stunningly beautiful; no wonder this spot was selected by Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb in the 1880s as the site for their model agricultural estate.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

24 Hours in the Life of a Town

A Photostory from the 4th of July: Celebrating Bristol's 250th Birthday

Getting Ready

Fresh from the Garden

Friday, June 29, 2012

Time for Tea

I’ve been thinking about friendship lately. How the people who come into our lives as children, teenagers, young adults, and not so young adults shape and enrich our lives. Some come and go; some we meet early and don’t see often, but always feel connected to; others come into our lives later in life and we feel an instant affinity with them. I became friends with Linda Hampton Smith relatively recently (seven years ago), not because we were thrust together in a classroom or college dormitory, or because we faced the challenges of parenting young children together. Strong friendships are often born of these shared experiences, but as we progress in life (in other words, grow older), they’re more often born of shared interests.

Linda and I met at les Boulangers, a French conversation group that used to convene on Saturday mornings at the Bristol Bakery. It still meets regularly, but has since relocated to Middlebury. This eclectic group gathers together under the guidance of Simon Barenbaum, a très gentil Frenchman and retired French professor who entertains us all with stories from past adventures and shows ample patience with our flawed French.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lakeside Picnic

When people from out of state think of Vermont, skiing, cheese, and maple syrup usually come to mind—and by extension, Vermont’s inspiring mountains and rolling farmland. Many people forget about majestic Lake Champlain that runs the length of the northern half of western Vermont, providing the lifeblood of the fertile Champlain Valley.

The lake is edged dramatically on its New York side by the Adirondack Mountains, which provide spectacular sunsets for us Vermonters gazing west. On the lake’s eastern edge, the gentler Green Mountains rise more gradually out of rich farmland.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Strawberries and Cream

Nothing announces the beginning of summer quite like fresh, local strawberries. These succulent jewels bear little resemblance to the tasteless gargantuans that tempt from produce shelves all winter long. It’s always a disappointment to give into that temptation. Better to wait for these few short weeks in June when strawberries taste like the real thing.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Putting in the Garden, Part 2

Seeds fascinate me. How a living plant is contained within a tiny capsule, sometimes no bigger than a pinprick, is truly mind-boggling when you stop to think about it. With a little water and sunlight and the right kind of soil, a whole plant, even a tree, can grow from this miniscule speck.

Some of my garden vegetables I purchase as plants, as I described in my post last week, but the ones I can start from seed right in the ground are even more satisfying.  I’ve tried different seed companies, but am most loyal to The Cook’s Garden. They started out as a family-owned mail order company based in Londonderry, Vermont, but have since been bought up by Burpee. While the catalogue has gotten glossier, I haven’t noticed a decline in the quality of their seeds. They still offer an excellent selection of organic seeds, European and American heirlooms, and their signature seed blends, such as their Provencal mesclun.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Putting in the Garden, Part 1

Ahhh, the garden. Dirt under my fingernails, the smell of soil, sweat, and sunscreen, and a soreness that lasts for days. It’s a wonder that I love it as much as I do. But I do love it, the whole process, from the time I order my seeds in late winter all the way up until I harvest the final Brussels sprouts around Thanksgiving. It’s my little corner of the world that I can control, to some extent, and beautify; my playtime and therapy all rolled into one.

The key to a healthy garden is of course the soil. When I started gardening twenty years ago after we bought our house, our soil was ok: previously neglected, but not in terrible shape because the yard used to be a horse pasture. Over the years, we’ve added lots of kitchen compost as well as composted cow manure, so the soil is now wonderfully fertile and friable.

Measuring  just fifteen  by nineteen feet, my garden is not very big. Each year when I put it in, the space always feels too small, but as the season progresses I’m amazed at the amount of vegetables it produces. It’s framed on the left by an unruly perennial bed and along the back by a pergola that Chris and I built around ten years ago, using cedar from a row of spindly trees we took down on the property.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Girls Weekend in NYC

Every spring for the past several years, the women of my family have gathered in NYC for a weekend of food and adventure. At first I went on my own, but as Isabel and Faye have gotten older, they’ve come along also. My cousins Seanna and Rachel both live in the city, and my Aunt Stanis lives just outside of it on Long Island. My mom comes up from Maryland and my sister Lynne from Virginia, bringing along her daughter Megan and often her friend Kathy. Sometimes other cousins join in, and a stray male or two, who are also always welcome. This year, Seanna’s baby Gideon participated for the first time.

With busy teenagers in our lives, we all had a hard time finding a weekend that worked for everyone, so Faye and I went without Isabel. She was away for the weekend attending a young writers’ conference, and since she’ll be spending a month in the city this summer at a Barnard program, she was willing to forgo this trip. I had been to New York with just Isabel a few times before, but never alone with Faye, so it was Faye’s turn for a mother-daughter getaway.

We arrived on Friday afternoon before the others. After settling in, we headed downtown to visit the 9/11 Memorial.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Brunch, Blooms, and Boules: Some Thoughts on Mother's Day

I’ve been a mother now for almost seventeen years. During my first pregnancy with Isabel, I remember feeling as if I was about to jump into an abyss. Looking back after all these years, my feelings were accurate. It has been an abyss, but the most joyous and fulfilling kind. Motherhood is a hotly debated topic these days, and women are quick to judge each other about the kinds of parents they choose to be. All I know is that I’ve made the right choice for me and my family and that I’m grateful to have been able to make that choice.

To celebrate the day, we went out to brunch like we usually do. It was the morning after the prom, so we picked Isabel up at her friend’s house and drove a few miles down the road to Tourterelle. A country inn and French restaurant, Tourterelle fuses classic French cuisine with local products to create a winning combination.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Dark Habit

Last summer my extended family, around sixteen of us, gathered in a beach house in Virginia playing a game. I don’t recall the name of the game, but the way it works is everyone takes a turn answering a question posed anonymously by one of the players. It’s a lot of fun and you tend to learn some surprising things about each other! One of the questions was: If you had to pick two foods to eat every day for the rest of your life, what would they be? I didn’t have to think too hard about this one. Bread and dark chocolate, without a doubt. I already eat them every day, and if I happen not to for some bizarre reason (like being incapacitated by a stomach bug), I sorely miss them.

I consume a few other foods pretty much every day too: salad greens, olive oil, and orange juice come to mind. But I don’t relish them in the same way that I relish bread and dark chocolate. Bread, “the staff of life,” holds no shame. When made from whole grains, my preference, it can be very nutritious. Chocolate is more questionable. In my defense, the chocolate has to be dark, preferably at least 70% cacao. Anything with a hint of milk or less than 60% is simply candy. Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is a food, and a magical food at that. Anyone who appreciates dark chocolate knows what I’m talking about (right, ladies?). Lately it’s been touted as healthy, and one of the beautiful things about dark chocolate is that it takes only a small amount to satisfy. The idea of consuming an entire bar in one sitting holds no appeal. But a square or two after a meal is divine.

In France, chocolate is an art form rivaling haute couture, for example these chocolate shoes we saw displayed in a Parisian chocolatier’s window.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Vermont Beer Tasting Project

Toasted caramel, resin, passion fruit…not the words that usually come to mind when I think of beer. They sound more applicable to wine to me. But I happen to be married to a craft brewed beer enthusiast who revels in the virtues of his beverage of choice, not unlike this guy from Beer Geek Nation.

Ok, Chris isn’t quite so effusive when he enjoys a beer. But this spring I thought it was about time for me to expand my appreciation of Vermont craft brews, so I asked Chris to embark on a beer tasting project with me and impart some of his hard-earned knowledge. He willingly agreed. After all, he’s been conducting research since he was introduced to craft brewed beer back in 1988, when his friend David Sousa sent him a mixed twelve pack from the West Coast as a Christmas present. After that, there was no looking back.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Stalking the Wild Leek

Although I was a girl scout back in the day, I don’t recall ever earning a badge in foraging and tend to be a little nervous about eating food I’ve found in the wild. Nonetheless last weekend Chris and I went out in search of ramps, or wild leeks, to cook up for dinner. We had seen them in our food coop and heard that they possibly could be found about five miles from our house on a 664-acre conserved piece of land called The Waterworks Property.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Crossing the Border, Day 2

After the Duck in a Can extravaganza Friday night, none of us was very hungry Saturday morning, so we strolled over to Olive + Gourmando for a light breakfast. Just a few blocks from our hotel, Olive + Gourmando is a popular bakery-café offering a full breakfast and a homey lunch menu of soups, salads, panini, and specials such as Moroccan couscous with mint and cilantro yogurt sauce. We were just seeking their coffee and baked goods today, however, both of which are outstanding. Their pastry is light and flaky and not overly sweet: true French pastry that is difficult, if not impossible, to find in North America.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Crossing the Border, Day 1

A cosmopolitan city of 1.6 million, the majority of whom are Francophone, Montreal is a world away from small-town Vermont life. It’s also a wonderland for food lovers. Chris and I try to make it up to Montreal at least once a year, usually in early spring around my birthday when there are fewer tourists and you can get a deal on a nice room in one of the chic boutique hotels in the Old Town.

This year, our friends Katie and Pete came along. They’re the kind of friends that you feel like you’ve known your whole life. I remember when they first moved to Bristol around thirteen years ago, when our youngest kids were both babies. I saw Katie on her front porch, a few blocks down the street from our house, and thought, I want to be friends with that woman. Not long after that we met, the four of us went out to dinner, and the rest is history. We celebrate Christmas Eve with their family every year, they came to visit us in France, we’ve been to their cabin in the Adirondacks with them, but mostly we just have a lot of fun together. Montreal was no different.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Après Yoga

I was talking with my high school friend Toni recently during our annual birthday call (our birthdays are three days apart), and she mentioned her daily hour and a half commute to her office in Washington, DC. She’s a successful businesswoman and is thankful to have weathered the economic downturn better than many, but leaving the house at 6:30 am and getting home after 8 pm day after day is wearing on her. It got me thinking about my commute, which is down the stairs to my home office. While I sometimes miss the camaraderie of a workplace, mostly I feel enormously grateful to work from home. One of the many benefits is being able to walk a few blocks to the Old Bristol High School to attend a morning yoga class on a weekly basis, and then swing by the Bristol Bakery and Café on my way home.

Janet Chill’s Tuesday morning class is an eclectic group. We’re usually about a dozen people, one-third of whom are men. Some attend every week; others more sporadically. The New Year always brings in a surge of new faces, but within a month most of them drop off, leaving our core group intact. I have to confess that I don’t know everyone’s name, but for an hour and fifteen minutes we’re all experiencing this very powerful thing together, led by our inspiring instructor Janet. While there are many talented yoga instructors in the area, something about Janet’s class always brings me back for more.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Spice It Up

Normally the week after Saint Patrick’s Day here in Vermont is cold and gray with an average high of around forty degrees. If we’re lucky, we aren’t pummeled by a series of storms slicking the sidewalks with freezing rain and coating our windshields with sleet. This year, however, the whole week has felt more like June, with temperatures up in the 70s. Birds are singing, tulips and daffodils are shooting up, and the air feels like silk on the skin.

Last Sunday, instead of catching up on indoor chores like I normally would in March, I headed outside to get a jump on garden cleanup. I’m negligent about fall cleanup chores, so come spring my gardens are looking pretty scraggly. Somehow it’s a lot more appealing to emerge in the spring to tidy things up than it is in late fall, when the air has a bite and the stove beckons me to put on a soup  for an all-day simmer. The herb garden, which during summer months invigorates with varying shades of green and a heady blend of eau d’herbes, is today a tangle of brown oregano branches and shriveled sage leaves.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sugarin' Season

Mild daytime temperatures and cool nights mean one thing in Vermont this time of year: Sugarin’ Season. Last weekend I went over to visit our friends David and Louse Brynn, who are some of the first people we met when we moved to Bristol twenty years ago. Louise is a 7th generation Bristolite whose ancestors seem to have had a hand in all aspects of local business and general running-of-the-town since their arrival. The Brynns live in a house that they built themselves (something I still find inconceivable and awe-inspiring) on 33 acres of family land that Louise has graced with stone art: rambling stone walls lead up a path to a tree house (which features hardwood floors and I can attest sleeps a family of four, and which they also built themselves); stone balancing sculptures rise up from an overgrown meadow and dot the lawn sloping down to their garden, bordered with espaliered pear trees. If it sounds idyllic, it is.

Photo by Devon Brynn

The land is also abundant with sugar maples which, for the past twenty-two years, David and Louise have tapped to make maple syrup. At one point, briefly, they used rubber tubing to increase their production and sold some of their syrup commercially, but they prefer to do it the old fashioned way: collecting the sap in sixty metal buckets attached to the trees and carrying it down to their sugarhouse (also built by them) to pour into their wood-fired  “rack,” the apparatus that transforms the sap into syrup.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Love Buns and Pickled Shitakes

You can see the steamed windows from a block away, the glass foggy with oven warmth on this cold, late winter morning.

It’s a rare day when my two teenage daughters aren’t busy with friends, homework, dance (Isabel) or soccer (Faye). But they have the week off from school, so I’m able to pull them away from other demands and distractions to join me for lunch. My husband Chris had tucked a gift card in my Christmas stocking, knowing my enthusiasm for Vergennes Laundry, a stylish French bakery/café, in the former space of a dreary, little Laundromat. I’m finally getting a chance to cash in his gift, treating my girls to a delectable lunch, and myself to some uninterrupted time with them.

Lessons in Cheesemaking, Part 2

From the warmth of the cheese vat to the coolness of the cave, the process of making cheese involves multiple steps. After helping out with the transformation from liquid milk into solid cheese, I next would be introduced to the mysteries of the cave at Crawford Family Farm.
Donning rubber clogs and hairnet, I followed Julie over to the entrance. Before I stepped into the cave, which is simply a small room adjacent to the cheesemaking facility, she handed me a thick sweatshirt.
            “Here, you’ll need this,” she said. “It gets pretty dirty in there.”
            Dirty? I thought we were just going to be turning cheeses like we had the previous time, when the pale yellow wheels were new and smooth and clean. What I didn’t realize was that most of the cheeses, having been in the cave for longer than a few days now, were covered with a thick mold that needed to be wiped off.

Julie handed me a cheesecloth (they really are used in making cheese, despite their myriad other mundane uses) and picked up one of the wheels to demonstrate. It was gray and furry, growing what resembled mouse hair. She wiped the top off, revealing a mosaic of brown, beige, and gray, and then the sides and bottom. She wiped the spot where the cheese had been resting on the shelf too, before placing it back, this time top down. I picked up a wheel and did the same, coughing as the mold dispersed into the air. “You might feel it in your chest tomorrow,” she warned. “The intern who used to work here would wear a face mask.”

Photo by Linda Hampton Smith

Lessons in Cheesemaking, Part 1

A confession: I’m crazy about cheese. I’m one of those people who pack a smelly cheese in my lunch and don’t hesitate to open it on a train or in a small office. I eat it nearly every day, sometimes for breakfast. Fortunately, I also eat a lot of vegetables (roughage) and enjoy my share of red wine (resveratrol) to counteract the possible negative effects.

Since I’m so passionate about cheese, and am also a naturally curious person, a few years ago I volunteered at an artisan cheesemaker’s farm, Crawford Family Farm in Whiting, to learn how cheese is made. The Crawfords produce Vermont Ayr, a semi-hard Alpine tomme style cheese with a natural rind, which happens to be one of my favorite local cheeses. I wrote about that experience here in an article for Culture, a magazine devoted to, you guessed it, cheese. In addition to being fascinating, the experience got me thinking about cheese on a deeper level.
Before my forays into cheesemaking, I had never used the length of my arms to stir anything before, anything edible at least. The process felt both primitive and completely new. 

Photo by Linda Hampton Smith