Foodie Tuesday: And now for something not entirely different!

Did you think that I would never, ever be done talking about lobster and lobster rolls? You might be right. A summer with trips to both the American northeast and Nova Scotia would be woefully incomplete for me, despite all of its charms and treasures, if it weren’t also a fully loaded lobster pilgrimage. So even though I made quite the pig of myself eating as many lobster rolls as I could lay hands upon while dashing through Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, I had no compunction about keeping my eyes—and jaws—open for further lobster attractions on reaching Halifax.

This being my first visit to the Canadian Maritimes, I didn’t know for certain what to expect in this regard, although I was confident there would be some place I could get a bit of fresh Canadian (Atlantic) lobster. What I didn’t in the least expect was that it would be at the local outpost, right next door to our hotel, of a continent-wide and not especially high-end fast food submarine sandwich chain. That’s right: fresh lobster salad at SubWay. I’m just gonna go on record as saying that I have a new dash of respect for SubWay.

I like sandwiches and eat them reasonably often, but SubWay had fallen very low on the roster of places I opted to find my fix when I wasn’t making my own sammies. There are, in addition to any number of bistros and soup-and-sandwich specialty shops and cafes nearly everywhere in the western world these days, plenty of competing sandwich chains and most of them, in my opinion, more reliable for fresh ingredients and those, not as heavily processed as what I was getting for a while at SubWay stores. If this apparently annual offering of lobster salad (lobster meat with a minimum of mayonnaise binding it) ever moved close to where I was living, I would have to change my stance entirely, at least during the lobster event.

This is not to say that their sandwich would supplant, or even fully competes with, the lobster rolls that became objects not only of admiration but outright obsession at such places as Neptune in Boston—this, boosted, admittedly, by the house’s swell hand-cut fries—and Libby’s in Brunswick—my current chief heartthrob of lobster roll-dom, on the strength of a butter-toasted bun, options for cold-with-mayo or hot-with-melted-butter, and most importantly, the unsurpassable fresh and sweet perfection and massive quantity of lobster meat—these will not be usurped in the lobster roll pantheon by a mere sub shop lobster salad sandwich. But I owe the corporate sandwich emporium sincere admiration and kudos for giving an affordable and eminently edible, credible lobster sandwich. Not anyone’s run of the mill SubWay offering, that.

And if the chiller is refilled by the next lunchtime when I’m near enough to do it, I’ll buy it again. Because, as I’ve said before: Lobster.Photo: Lobster Again

No Man is an Island, and Sometimes Going to an Island is a Good Reminder

photoWe had this adventure, my man and I. Went to an island. A lovely one called Puerto Rico. We spent a week on that beautiful piece of Caribbean land and enjoyed the break from our everyday Real Life, the immersion in nature and its marvelous native birds and insects and flora and the wash of its rolling waves on luxuriant green shores.

The quiet was exceedingly welcome.

But our reason for the trip wasn’t isolation and retreat. We went for the wedding of dear friends. And the wedding of a Puerto Rican woman with a big, loving family and a lot of friends to a North American man bringing his own contingent of supporters from Canada and the US is not a place to go and lie low with the covers pulled up over one’s head.

As if it weren’t already too warm and humid to be curled up under a duvet.

So we had the fantastic experience of being drawn into this jolly, joyous gathering and treated like more members of the extended family, and along with our enjoyment of being on that wonderful island, we had the perfect reminder of what’s so great about being surrounded by dear and tremendous people and how the pleasures of the place, the travel, the newness and beauties not previously experienced, all are enhanced so richly by the good company.

It’s why I spend so much time in the good company of my blogging and blog-reading companions, of course, but as always, it takes a change of scenery to remind me of what I should already know. It’s good to be home, and all the more so when I’ve been away. Here, I am once again awash in a sea of friends and loved ones, and I am doubly glad.

Foodie Tuesday: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.

Foodie Tuesday: Pie Eyed

photoSince we don’t always make a big deal out of holidays, my husband and I, and even when we do get the urge to celebrate we’re not huge sticklers for partying on the officially designated day or with the popularly traditional foods and events. This year we’re being a little more predictable, perhaps, by having a Thanksgiving gathering with eight musician friends. We’re doing our dinner on Wednesday rather than Thursday to accommodate schedules, but otherwise we’re being more predictable than not. There’s a big pastured turkey, spatchcocked and dry-brining, in the fridge and it’ll be accompanied by plenty of at least somewhat traditional sides and garnish treats, and most fittingly of all for this particular American holiday, we’ll have US-dwelling friends from the Netherlands, Estonia, Austria, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Canada and yes, stateside gracing our celebration with their presence. A great way to remember part of what’s best about this country and what I’m most thankful for–and not just on this holiday.

I’m going with pies for dessert. That’s the real reason for today’s post title, not that I’m planning on getting plastered to celebrate, if that’s what you were wondering. Ahem!

Apple pie, as any of you who’ve been around here for any length of time know, is not just a supremely suitable dish for the season but my spouse’s first choice for dessert any time there’s the slightest possibility of having it. Easy choice, clearly. Another thing that’s wonderfully fitting for the season and my tastebuds is maple syrup, and since we have a jug of gorgeous dark Grade-B-heaven maple syrup, a gift from another friend, just beaming at us with its heavenly come-hither look from the pantry, I deemed it a sign that I should get around to trying my hand at another pie I’ve long wanted to make, Tarte au Sucre. Here goes!

Meanwhile, there’s other stuff to get ready. Spiced apple cider is in a big pot, infusing at room temperature overnight until I heat it tomorrow. Potatoes are [literally] half-baked and will get finished on the day as well, smashed with cream and butter and a little salt before going to table next to the chicken-white wine gravy I put up last week and am storing. The appetizers of Gouda, homemade beef pate and crackers, nuts (including some Marcona almonds I set a-swim in olive oil a couple of weeks ago) and pickles–homemade beetroot pickles along with southern style pickled okra, green beans and green tomatoes–are all ready to set out as we sip some bubbly and cider for a start. Since the turkey’s ready to roast all I have to do is take that big, handsome bird out of the fridge and bring it up to room temperature right in the pan it’s in now and roast it on the rack of celery, carrots, apple chunks, cinnamon sticks and lemon pieces it’s been resting on overnight.photo

I’m using store-bought bread but will hope to have time to make our friend Jim’s southern corn bread and sausage dressing, so ridiculously tasty that when he made it for me the first time we two ate most of the batch which I later learned from the written recipe is meant to serve twelve. Not kidding you.

I’m keeping the vegetable sides exceedingly simple, serving steamed green beans with bacon I crisped up and froze earlier, plus sweet coleslaw, so those will practically make themselves, being so easy and quick. What the others bring, if anything, will be entirely a surprise, with the exception of one person saying she was likely to bring some pureed squash and cranberry sauce, either or both of which would be deliciously appropriate. All of this, regardless of whether anyone does bring more, means that we will very likely have heaps of leftovers, one of the true treasures of the occasion and certainly one of the reasons we give thanks!

I will share pictures after the fact–not much to show for the process that will thrill or impress you for now–but first I would like to share with you my wish that whether you are planning to celebrate this American holiday this week or not, you will all be blessed with immeasurable reasons yourselves to be thankful. As I am, indeed, thankful not only for my many other privileges and joys, but most of all for the wonderful people filling every corner of my life, including you, my friends in Bloglandia. Thank You!photo montage

Going Places without Getting Anywhere

Summer holidays allows some of us lucky folk to indulge our inner travel junkie. This summer was pretty much the lottery winner for the Sparks household in that regard, and it helped to scratch my perpetual go-somewhere itch more than a little. We went on a Road Trip. By that I mean a 6000+ mile loop from Texas to the west coast, north to Canada, and back again, over five weeks.

I won extra, since I got to make that trip with my favorite partner-in-crime, my husband. And he likes driving and I don’t much, so he did nearly all of it. I just got to watch the world go by, cities, states, countries, plains, hills, mountains, rivers, forests, and much more. I sat there mesmerized, my camera propped on my lap or–more often–shooting away virtually aimlessly as we buzzed by at 85 mph/137 kph (yes, there are some places where that’s the speed limit in the US) in hopes of catching some of the amazing, beautiful, weird, wonderful stuff we passed along the way. Thank goodness I didn’t have to try this kind of photography on the Autobahn.

Being dyslexic in so many helpful ways, I am the last person who should be navigator on any trip, but I was reminded that maps of any sort have their limitations anyway, and GPS only adds new layers of complexity and adventure, as when our perky GPS announcer lady (affectionately known as Peggy Sue) calmly informs us from time to time that we are in Undiscovered Country, or as she likes to put it, Not in a Recognized Area. The fun part of it is that the map on our GPS just goes blank at that point except for the little red arrow that is us, which thereupon floats through the air with the greatest of ease. That’s when I really call on my fantastic piloting skills, of course.

Mostly what I learn from maps of any sort is how far we are from where we intended to be and how many complications lie in the space between. But that, too, is part of the thrill and amusement of road-tripping or, for that matter, travel of any sort. The planned and well-known aspects are seldom as exciting and interesting as the things found by accident, the experiences had in passing and the ‘scenic route’ that is a fixable mistake. If we never made any U-turns or wrong guesses or took any side roads instead of the Main Drag, life and travel would be ever so much duller. And this trip was anything but dull. I’ll share some of the adventures with you when the dust settles!digital illustration

My Baroque Gesture

The first time I heard Early Music performed in period-appropriate style I experienced, not surprisingly I suppose, a full mixture of amusement, bemusement, mild horror and deep curiosity. It was in a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s seminal opera Orfeo at the English National Opera; I was a mere college stripling who had probably not even heard the phrase Early Music at the time let alone known what it might mean, and ‘performance practice’ was in something of a time of transition. Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang the title role with, if I remember properly, a rather nice overall sound, but a straight-tone and senza vibrato style and a strangely stuttering kind of ornamentation that might well have been an authentic recollection of the opera’s original character and an accurate and historically informed version of the way it would have been presented by its composer and first performers. I, having never been taught such things, merely heard sounds quite foreign not only to my ear but to my concept of skilled and artful performance, let alone prettiness. I do remember thinking that either this was all far over my head (entirely possible) or it was a pointless and poor imitation of what the ENO imagined the average amateurish opera company of Monteverdi’s day must have been capable of doing (less likely), or poor Mr. Johnson, who later went on to receive his OBE, just plain wasn’t up to the job despite a naturally pleasant voice.

Years later, I may not be much smarter than the young squirt of those days, but I’m far more experienced and have heard worlds more music, both the great and the terrible and, of course, a massive quantity in between. And I’ve been taught a thing or two about the fine points of what is beautiful and magical when it comes to singing or playing with any amount of vibrato–or none–and the many elements that combine to create tone and color and variety and character in a performance. I’ve learned some useful stuff that changes how I perceive both the level of virtuosity in playing or singing and its aesthetic appeal, two aspects that do not always coincide in my ear, mind and heart but when they do, that combine to create a kind of joy that is virtually unattainable in any other way.

When my husband conducted a production of Orfeo over a quarter century after the first one I’d heard, I had a whole different understanding and appreciation for what the many performers were doing and why the stage director would expect them to do so both from a visual standpoint–training them, along with other coaches, in appropriate ways of moving and posing and gesturing as well as in those of vocal ornamentation, since she is a superb and well-trained Early Music singer herself–and an historically suited musical one. Just as there are countless styles and types of music known to us nowadays, which you can multiply by the number of individual teachers, performers and audience members to get a rough sense of the variety you’ll encounter, there were historical strictures and structures and stylistic trends and ideas that shaped earlier generations (centuries) of music and musicians and listeners, and while some have perhaps remained relatively unchanged since their inception, many more evolved over the ages. Our expectations of music have certainly changed, and our guesses as to how it was first conceived and perceived are only as good as the lines of scholarly inquiry and oral tradition can attempt to make them.

In all, it makes rich fodder indeed for both the ear and the imagination, and I for one am mightily pleased that I have had the opportunity to live a life immersed in all kinds of music and to learn along the way. I still like much of what I heard, whether ignorantly or not, in my younger days, and much of what I like now I learned to love along the way. While my form may be far from historically accurate or artistically impressive, I will still happily bow and curtsey to all the musicians who have shared their gifts with me in my life, and to all of those who work and are inspired to play more, to sing onward.graphite drawing