Saturday, August 29, 2009

Exploring--Right Near Home--Return to Big Talbot Island

I hope you will indulge me as I repeat a couple of posts from the beginning of this blog. Since there are many new readers (and most readers, I suspect, do not read all the posts going back to the beginning), I will occasionally repeat a post that has generated some interest. Welcome back to Big Talbot Island State Park.
Wherever we have lived, I have enjoyed playing tourist near home. It doesn't cost much (sometimes is free, especially if one can walk or bike there) and often reveals delightful new surprises. We are fortunate to have many friends and family members from other parts of the USA or other countries who come to stay with us. Spending time showing them our home town and surroundings takes us places we might neglect to experience otherwise. How many of us hear about nearby interesting places we would like to explore and yet postpone doing that month after busy month?
Here's a thought. Even if you don't have visitors, promise yourself an outing sometime soon. Choose a place and put it on your calendar. Or step out the door right now, stroll around for a few minutes or more with all your senses on high alert. Take a camera and make like a tourist. What if you were paying money for your "lodgings"--wouldn't you explore the area?
Or, imagine yourself hosting a visitor from someplace quite unlike your region. If it is hard to see the farms around you with fresh eyes, pretend you are guiding visitors from Saudi Arabia. Wouldn't they be amazed at the rolling hills or vast plains in lush greens or rich golden tones? Or if your city neighborhood is seeming drab and uninteresting, imagine giving small-town visitors a tour of the ethnic food stalls and lunch counters in some surrounding blocks. Wouldn't they love hearing multiple languages and savoring the varied aromas and flavors?
We had lived in Jacksonville, FL for several years before a visit from a brother who lives in Cleveland, Ohio prompted me to explore Big Talbot Island State Park. A stark contrast to the endless, wide Jacksonville beaches most visitors flock to, the shore of Big Talbot is a quiet, somewhat ghostly walk along low bluffs. Over time, the battering of storms and storm tides has toppled and sculpted oaks, pines, and other vegetation into a unique atmosphere (begging for artistic photographers--and for us amateurs, too). The shady, wooded trail from parking to an overlook is short and easy, and another short trail leads to a path down the bluff to the shore. There are other hiking trails in the Big Talbot Park preserve, through heavily wooded areas dripping with Spanish moss or along the fascinating, varied habitat of salt marshes--bird-watching and just breathing deeply made an afternoon here feel like an extended vacation.
Question of the day: Why did I wait for an out-of-town visitor to explore this nearby natural wonder? What will you explore for the first time or see in a new way soon?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Exploring--Wisconsin's Beautiful Lakes & Precious Family Time

For the third and final post answering the age-old question, "What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?", I have a taste of our visit with members of our extended family.
Late in June, we enjoyed a delightful change of scenery from our coastal North Florida home visiting people we love in Wisconsin. My husband's siblings and their families live in the Chicago area and in Wisconsin. A festive high school graduation party for Mark's niece provided an opportunity for all of us to gather in Wisconsin. Since he and I could get away for a couple of weeks, we made it a road trip and took the dog. Having written about our side trip to the Apostle Islands, this post covers the majority of our time away.
Mark's brother and wife have recently purchased a lake cottage near Oshkosh, a relatively short drive from their home, fulfilling a long-held dream. They generously offered it to us as our headquarters for our visit, so we felt totally pampered. Of course, it did mean that we were in the chosen gathering place for any and all that were free during the day or evening--but that was super, since precious family time together was the reason for our journey.
Their lake home faces west, and I have more sunset photos than you ever want to see. Every evening provided a different, majestic display while we sipped cool beverages and felt like royalty. During our stay, we played in the refreshing, clear water, took walks on nature trails, enjoyed boat rides, and feasted on scrumptious, fresh-caught fish. This lake is part of a chain of lakes along the Fox River. Boating along the chain provides a variety of scenery, from marshy or forested preserve land, to vacation cabins old and new, to impressive full-time water-side homes, to trendy city waterfront with dock-side restaurants and clubs.
We, and our adventure-loving Shih-tzu, Magnolia, aka Maggie, are thankful for Dick & Marlys' generous sharing of their lake home, for all the members of our beloved extended family, and for the varied beauty of our wonderful nation. Our time in Wisconsin this summer provided a well of memories to keep us going during less enjoyable or less relaxed days in the future.
Question of the day: What good times with friends or family and/or experiences of natural beauty from recent months have filled your well with memories and gratitude?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Exploring--Wisconsin, Lake Superior's Apostle Islands, Part II

Last post, I began describing a side trip we took during a visit to relatives in Wisconsin. Even though we have explored many areas in this lovely state, we had not yet seen the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. After telling you about our home base in Bayfield last time, it is time to show you the islands themselves. 
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, part of the National Park System, includes 21 heavily wooded islands. We took a narrated cruise to see them and to hear about their history, including sagas of fur traders, missionaries, shipwrecks and ghostly, howling sea caves. Exploration by Europeans dates back at least to the mid 1600s. The weather was beautiful, warmer than normal on Lake Superior, with bright sunshine early and beautiful clouds building during our ride. The lower left photo shows a typical wooded island, in this case, the shore of Hermit Island with beautiful, rosy sandstone cliffs. The remains of fish camps dating back to a thriving industry in the 1800s dot the shore of a couple of islands; we could see the remains of sandstone quarries on others. Another photo shows the Raspberry Island's light station and outbuildings, parts of which date back to 1864; there are 7 lighthouses on the islands. Other islands boast sandy beaches, large blueberry and raspberry patches, and sites where artifacts have been found dating back to human settlements from 3,000 or more years ago.
Another afternoon, a short ferry ride took us to Madeline Island, the largest island in the chain (not a part of the National Lakeshore), where fewer than 200 year-round residents enjoy living in charming bungalows or some of the stately homes that were the fashionable summer "cottages" of the wealthy for a few decades in the early 1900s. We enjoyed a long, lazy stroll in the village, with its historic Catholic church, old library, and former town hall, topped off by scrumptious homemade ice cream in one of the shops. The top left photo shows our view of the island as we approached it by ferry. 
For a peaceful, laid-back break from a busy vacation to see family members, exploring the Apostle Islands was perfect for us--there is little appeal here for vacationers looking for parties, night life and glitz. Visitors also enjoy camping, bird watching, fishing, water sports, winter sports, and several seasonal festivals. 
In spite of the number of times we have visited Wisconsin, we find creative travel opportunities and new areas to explore every time we go. Of course, we love the familiar, memory laden places, too, and were pleased that including some of each provided relaxation and balance during our time away this summer.
Question of the day: If you have vacationed often in the same area, do you most enjoy renewing your love of the familiar places and activities or do you seek out new sights--or some of each?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Exploring--Wisconsin, Lake Superior's Apostle Islands

Creative travel includes discovering new places to explore in frequently visited areas. As we planned a trip to visit relatives in Wisconsin this summer, Mark suggested that we allow extra time to see the Apostle Islands, just off Wisconsin's Lake Superior coast. Although we have seen much of Wisconsin over the years, we had not yet ventured all the way north to see these remote, historic, and beautiful islands.
Our home base for exploring was Bayfield, a charming, artsy mainland town perched on Wisconsin's northernmost point, overlooking Chequamegon Bay and some of the islands. The photo above on the right shows this picturesque town, looking back from the main ferry dock. We found a small, reasonably priced motel with a relaxing view of the bay and this dock from our balcony. In town, we enjoyed choosing from a range of restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops for meals, browsing a variety of fascinating galleries and a few shops (there are many, but we are not tourist shop devotees), and simply strolling the streets and lanes. Some homes and shops date back to earlier years in this 150 year old village, and each corner turned--especially as we strolled uphill on the winding streets--provided a lovely new glimpse of water, harbor, islands, and sky. Sunrise or sunset walks were refreshing gifts for our souls, with some of the freshest breezes you can imagine. The other photos show a few of the working and pleasure boats we saw as we explored Bayfield, WI. Next post, I will show you the islands themselves.  
We both love natural waterscapes. At home, we spend time at nearby Atlantic Ocean beaches, or small lakes in our parks, exploring salt marshes, or sailing on our magnificent St. Johns River. Away from home, we also tend to seek out bodies of water, marinas, harbors, fishing boats, and sailboats. You may have noticed that many of my landscapes also include a view of water, sometimes as a major feature, other times just glimpsed somewhere in the scene. I never really planned to paint water so frequently; it just happens as I paint what I love.
Since my childhood years near Lake Michigan, I continue to seek out water and am deeply nourished simply by being near water or gazing out over it. On some primitive level, I need river, lake, or sea to feel whole. Although I love to explore a variety of natural environments and have been fascinated by visits to desserts, mountains, valleys, and so much more, coming home to a rich variety of water environments and habitats brings me peace and gratitude.
Question of the day: Do you have a preference for one favorite, personally nourishing natural kind of place, or can you thrive in a variety of environments?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Learning & Growing--Magnolia Floral Painting

After several posts about cooking, which I call my other art form, I have another painting to show you. Since childhood, I have been nurtured by the beauty and variety of natural scenes. So landscapes, many with some water in view, are my first love in painting, and creating them is deeply satisfying to me. However, I  also paint florals and enjoy the different challenges they pose as a change of pace.
The magnolia painting shown here, which is a 9" X 12" acrylic piece on canvas board, evolved over a period of time. The vaguely Asian arrangement of the branch, buds, open blossom, and leaves emerged early in my sketching and changed little. Similarly, the splotchy purple background came early. Other aspects of the piece required more thought--and even some serious wrestling and reworking.
In general, I prefer creamy, buttery whites to purer cool whites. So my first blossoms reflected that preference--and simply looked wrong. Although hints of butter tones remain, I adjusted most of the whites to crisper, cooler tones, touched with blues, purples, and hints of pink. The improvement was dramatic (in my opinion). The open blossom and bud really "popped" and acquired more depth; the yellow ochre tones in the magnolia's center gained drama with the increased contrast; and the entire piece gained a new glow. 
The other aspect that required considerable reworking was the "lay" of the lower and side petals of the open blossom. Since I had taken most of my reference photos looking down at magnolias on low branches of a neighbor's tree, I had to modify their size, shape and angles for my intended side view. I often encounter challenges like this in adapting photo information because I am continually snapping photos for possible painting subjects or details without knowing how I might use them in a future painting. Unfortunately, I put the partially completed piece away for awhile while I completed some larger landscapes. As a result, magnolias were no longer flowering here in North Florida as I struggled to correct the perspective. If I could have studied real blooms, my task would have been simpler. Oddly, I couldn't even find artificial magnolia blossoms to purchase out of season, or posing them could have helped.
I am pleased with the result of my reworking and hope you enjoy seeing this painting. Working on an occasional floral refreshes me to return to landscape painting with new energy. And all painting efforts--including wildly unsuccessful ones--provide valuable growth in my skills, vision, and insight.
Question of the day: What creative endeavor enriches your days and gives you pleasure, even when the creative process is difficult--or perhaps at times, precisely because it is difficult?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Savoring Good Food III--Enjoying Eggplant & Eggplant Recipes

For our final eggplant post (hasn't this been fun?), I will provide a recipe or two. Eggplant is good in a variety of sauteed or stewed vegetable mixtures, combining well with summer squash, sweet peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and onions (as in ratatouille, pictured here), but is also delicious and attractive with green beans, tomatoes, fresh herbs, and corn, or with garlic, onions and mushrooms. Whatever sounds good to you is worth a try, in my opinion--and you may create a new family favorite.
I won't repeat the tips from last time, so check that post for ideas to reduce both the oiliness and calories of some recipes and the bitter edge cooked eggplant can have. The recipes will make this post longer than usual, but I hope they will be of interest to some of my readers.
Here is my modified version of the classic vegetable stew called ratatouille (simpler and less fattening than the original). It can be made a day or two ahead of a meal and reheated or can be frozen. The photo in our last post showed the main ingredients. I will list the amounts of each ingredient I used in the dish pictured above (which makes enough for two or three meals for the two of us, even though we are big vegetable eaters); it would probably serve 8 people. A very flexible recipe, ratatouille can have more or less of any of the vegetables, to suit your preferences.
Health Spa Ratatouille
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
1 medium eggplant, lengthwise strips of peel removed, then cut in thick crosswise slices
2 zucchini, lightly scraped, in 2" chunks
2 yellow summer squash, in 2" chunks
cooking spray
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 medium sweet onions in 1/2" chunks (Vidalia onions are wonderful when available)
3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed & chopped
1 large sweet pepper (any color), in 1/2" chunks
2 large tomatoes, cut in chunks (I had a couple of pounds of grape tomatoes and used an equivalent quantity of them instead, just tossing them in whole, crushing some with the spoon while cooking.)
1/4 - 1/2 cup (according to your taste) chopped fresh parsley
dash sugar
salt & pepper to taste
1) If you wish, sprinkle eggplant with salt, sweat, and rinse (see previous post). I skipped that step this time.
2) Spray a large cookie sheet or two (easiest if they have a rim) with cooking spray and fit eggplant slices and squash chunks on. Spray top of all vegetables with cooking spray. Then bake at 425 degrees until lightly browned & slightly softened--about 8 - 11 minutes.
3) Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in a large heavy skillet (12" X 2-3" deep), then saute onions and sweet peppers over medium-high heat for 5 minutes or so, stirring well a few times. Add garlic and saute 1 minute more.
4) Add eggplant & squash to skillet with another 1 Tbsp. olive oil (no need to cut up the eggplant slices; they will break up as you cook and stir). I sprinkle 1/8 tsp. or less sugar over the vegetables to bring out the sweetness (optional). Cover & simmer for 10 - 12 minutes.
5) Add tomatoes to skillet & simmer 5 minutes more, stirring a few times, or until vegetables break up and are quite soft. Of course, if you wish, you can reduce the cooking time, but this is more typically a stew texture rather than a tender-crisp texture.
6) Add parsley last minute or two of cooking. Salt and pepper to taste and serve right from the skillet. It waits well if your guests or your entree are delayed.
Ratatouille freezes well, so you can make a big batch and get several meals from it. It is good served hot, room temperature, or cooled. Delicious for a simple meal with grainy bread and cheese wedges, or with any meat, poultry, or fish -- or for vegans, with a whole grain and nuts dish.
We also love eggplant stuffed with a ground meat mixture and baked. Eggplant is the perfect shape to stuff with any mixture you can dream up, whether brown rice, herbs, and nuts or barley & cooked chicken--or whatever--then steam or roast. Beyond these ideas, good sources for eggplant ideas are Turkish or Mediterranean cookbooks. When we were in Turkey, we enjoyed a variety of eggplant treats, including dishes that were grilled, stewed, roasted, sauteed, pickled, salad combos, appetizers in phyllo with eggplant and cheese fillings, baba ghanoush, and more.
Turkish Stuffed Eggplant (serves 2)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
1 medium-large eggplant
cooking spray & olive oil
1/2 # lean ground beef or turkey
1 medium onion, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
salt & ground black pepper
1 medium tomato, in 6 thin slices
Those are all the ingredients in my Turkish cookbook. I always add:
fresh chopped basil, and sometimes rosemary or oregano
1) Peel the eggplant in lengthwise stripes. Cut in half lengthwise and scoop out most of the flesh, leaving a 1/2" shell (looks like a canoe). Coarsely chop flesh and set aside in large bowl.
2) Spray a large oven-proof skillet with cooking oil, heat over medium-high burner and cook the meat, onion, and tomato paste together until meat loses pink color. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and herbs if desired, adding chopped parsley last minute of cooking. Drain off grease and add to bowl with chopped eggplant, stirring well.
3) Re-spray skillet well, add a little olive oil, and lightly saute the eggplant canoes on all sides until lightly browned.
4) Remove skillet from heat, turn eggplant canoes open side up and fill with eggplant/meat mixture.
5) Top with fresh tomato slices. Pour 1 cup water into the skillet. Roast uncovered in oven for 25-30 minutes. Serve with your favorite rice or couscous dish and a green salad or vegetable.
Question of the day: What is your favorite, versatile vegetable? How do you prepare it?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Savoring Good Food II--Enjoying Eggplant & Eggplant Cooking Tips

Since many readers expressed interest in the vegetable post from last time, I will continue a couple of posts with kitchen hints for enjoying vegetables and some recipes, including stuffed eggplant and ratatouille. Today, some tips. Next post, some recipes. I'm getting great blogging mileage out of one vegetable in a photo, don't you think?
It was fun to hear from all of you who commented or emailed me about my most recent post. After all the praise for her beauty, the eggplant is turning diva on us. She disliked being pictured here with the other ingredients for ratatouille, but finally agreed.
Peggy Montano is a gifted painter with a lovely blog (click to see it). On my last post, she commented that she loves vegetables, except that she is less fond of eggplant (that purple diva was prominent in my photo last time, too) and wondered if a different recipe might change her mind. Peggy, it may be that the way eggplant is cooked would make little difference to you. But for what it's worth, here are a few ideas from my kitchen.
I suspect that Italian-style eggplant parmigiana is the most popular eggplant dish in the U.S. and may be the only form in which many people have eaten it. My method for considerable cuts in the fat and calories of this delicious meal is to pre-bake rather than saute the eggplant slices. Eggplant really drinks up oil when you saute it, and most parmigiana recipes call for sauteing it before making layers with the other ingredients and baking. Instead, I spray a large cookie sheet or jelly roll pan (a flat 11" X 14" baking sheet with 1" high sides) with cooking spray (use olive oil flavored spray, if you have it), fit thick slices of eggplant onto the sheet and spray the top of the slices again. Then bake at 425 degrees (I convection bake it, but standard baking is fine), until it is lightly browned and a bit softened. Continue with the rest of the recipe. Your meal will be much less fattening and still really delicious.
I do the same thing to cut the calories and fat in making ratatouille. For anyone not familiar with this lovely dish, my venerable cookbook describes it as a vegetable mixture stewed in olive oil. Then, it proceeds to suggest that for 1 medium eggplant, 2 yellow summer squash, some chopped garlic, green pepper, and onion, you will use 1/2 cup of olive oil, first to saute all the vegetables and then to stew them together. I know olive oil is one of the good fats, but 1/2 cup!?! Next time, I'll provide my less oily adaptation of this versatile dish.
Three other tips for cooking eggplant, any or all of which will cut the slightly bitter taste: 1) Before cooking, with a vegetable peeler or sharp paring knife, peel off strips of peel (the long way), leaving equal strips between the peeled "stripes", so that you serve only about 1/2 the peel. 2) If you have time, salt slices of eggplant and let them sit for 30 minutes, then rinse or wipe off and cook. Some of the bitterness "sweats out." 3) Sprinkle just a dash (1/8 tsp. or less) of sugar into the mixture when you cook eggplant (I do the same with cabbage, and other non-sweet vegetables)--just enough to cut the bitter edge, but too little to actually taste in your dish.
Question of the day: What tip can you share for making eggplant (or any other vegetable) appealing, even to reluctant vegetable eaters?