Thursday, November 6, 2014

What I'm Thankful For

Every year at Thanksgiving we begin the meal by going around the table and saying what we’re all thankful for. We’ve been doing this since our girls were little and were first starting to talk (a popular contribution at that age was “Pie!”). Our guests are always invited to join in, and they always do, bringing their personalities and varying levels of comfort to this family tradition. What I’m thankful for each year hasn’t really changed over time, although in an effort to not allow the food on our plates to grow cold, I usually compress it into a sentence or two. But here on my blog, I have ample room to elaborate. So elaborate I shall, in the spirit of the upcoming holiday. Here goes.

I’m thankful for my family. That’s always first. For Chris—and nearly 25 years of marriage to my best friend. Who, notwithstanding some challenges along the way, loves and accepts me—weaknesses, flaws, and all. He’s still my dreamboat, and life is rarely dull. 

For our daughters Isabel and Faye who, despite more complicated pressures than I faced growing up, are more well-adjusted than I ever was at their age. I’m thankful for their interesting, strong, beautiful, loving selves, and how they each manifest those qualities in their own unique ways. 

And for the rest of my family, especially my mom and sister Lynne. I don’t get to see them very often, but in some way they’re always with me.

I’m thankful for good health. I make healthy living a priority in my life, but sometimes things are out of our control. As I traverse middle age, I’m all the more aware of being grateful for good health.

I’m thankful for meaningful, fulfilling work. It won’t make me rich, but it’s challenging and satisfying and just the right amount so I can maintain balance, another priority. Plus I get to be my own boss. I’m really thankful for that.

I’m thankful for good friends near and far. It’s not a big circle, but I’m more into quality than quantity when it comes to friends, and just about everything else. You know who you are.

I’m thankful for our pets, Callie and Chocolat. In my next life I wouldn't mind being one of them.

I’m thankful for the ability to travel, not only as a tourist, but for the extended travel I’ve had the opportunity to do. It’s when I’m settling in and discovering a place gradually, like I’ve had the opportunity to do a few different times, that I feel like I learn the most about the world.


I’m thankful for a home I love in a quirky, little village in a quirky, little state. It’s one of the most diverse places I’ve ever lived—not racially or ethnically perhaps, but in most other ways. And it’s gorgeous ten and a half months of the year.

Finally, I’m thankful for good food, much of it produced right here in Vermont. I’m thankful I have access to quality food grown and raised in a thoughtful way by people who care about their impact on the planet. Most of what is on our Thanksgiving table will have been produced on small-scale farms within about 50 miles of our home, whether it’s turkey, vegetables, or the makings of a pie. Yeah, I’m thankful for pie too.

To help support those in need, I hope you’ll join me in donating to your local food shelf this holiday season, and throughout the year.

Classic Apple Pie with Buttermilk Spice Ice Cream

Makes one 9-inch double crust pie with ample ice cream

To make the ice cream:
2 cups real buttermilk
½ cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
pinch of cloves
pinch of cardamom

In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sugar, and salt until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the cream, vanilla, and spices. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight, stirring occasionally to distribute the spices. Follow the instructions on your ice cream maker to make into ice cream.

To make the pie:

Prepare the crust:
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ pound cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup ice water

You can make the crust the old-fashioned way with a pastry blender, but I find that a food processor works just as well and is a heck of a lot easier. Put the flour, salt, and butter in the processor and process about 10 seconds, until the mixture is grainy. Add the ice water a little at a time, while the machine is going, and process up to 30 seconds. Be careful not to over process. The dough should just hold together when you pinch it. If it doesn’t add a little more water.

Remove the dough onto waxed paper (or your preferred surface) and shape it into two flat disks (do not over handle it). Wrap each disk in waxed paper and chill for an hour.

Prepare the pie:
9 apples (I like McIntosh), peeled, cored and cut into eighths
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
pinch of cloves
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. In a large bowl, combine the apples and lemon juice. Sprinkle with the sugar and spices and stir gently until the apples are well coated.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough disks out with a rolling pin until they’re even and about ¼-inch thick. Transfer one disk to a pie plate. Put the apples on top of the crust, mounding them toward the center. Add the butter pieces, distributing them evenly over the apples. Cover with the second crust and trim off any extra. Seal the rim (I like to pinch it together in a crimped pattern, but a fork works well too), and vent the top with a fork or knife.

Put the pie in the oven and lower it to 375˚F. Bake about 40 minutes, until the crust is golden brown (be careful not to over bake and burn your crust). Serve warm, topped with ice cream.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Vermont Hard Cider Tasting Project

The sweet-tart crunch of an apple straight off the tree is hard to beat,

but it’s also one of those rare fruits that tastes just as good—and sometimes even better—baked, 


and pressed into cider. 

Cider’s cousin, hard cider, is all the rage in Vermont right now, although it’s really a resurgence of a once thriving colonial industry. I have to confess I’m a little late to the party. Doubtful that I would like it, I only tried my first hard cider this past summer. I was intrigued, and it inspired me to embark on a Vermont Hard Cider Tasting Project, similar to the Beer Tasting Project I undertook back in 2012. Chris enthusiastically agreed to join in. 

We started out at Citizen Cider in Burlington, venturing into their industrial-meets-cozy tasting room on a drizzly afternoon. The garage door windows open onto an elevated deck overlooking  artsy Pine Street, infusing the space with a comfortable, cool vibe—a “Cider for the People, Made by the People” vibe, as their logo states. We settled in at one of the communal wooden tables and ordered. Chris had done some advance research and zeroed in on a glass of The Full Nelson. I decided to go in without preconceptions and ordered the $6.00 tasting flight of five ciders on tap. 

Beginning with Unified Press, their popular flagship cider, I quickly determined it’s too sweet for me, even though it’s categorized as off-dry. It might be just right for many other palates, but it’s the kind of cider that made me previously think I wasn’t a cider person. Not giving up yet, I moved on to the Wit’s Up. Made with a Belgian beer yeast, it’s pleasantly dry, perhaps Citizen’s driest. It tastes more like a beer than a cider to me, but not as heavy. On a warm day, it would be especially quaffable. This was promising.

The Stan Up was next, a lively, bright cider, on the tart side. It’s made from an heirloom apple blend by Stan, the owner of Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury. We’ve been picking apples there for years, since our girls were little, so that connection endeared it to me. I also sampled the B-Cider, a blend of cider and honey from Happy Valley’s own bees, described on Citizen’s menu as “a taste of the full circle of life on the orchard.” That’s a beautiful thing. B-Cider has a wonderfully floral perfume, and although sweet at first, it has a dry finish, almost like a wine, and a slight fizz. I was coming around.

My favorite one, though, is The Full Nelson, a rare new taste sensation for me. I have to admit I was skeptical when the menu described it as a cross between an IPA, a champagne, and a hard cider, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t accurate. Aged and finished with Nelson Sauvin hops, it’s yeasty and complex and left me wanting more from Chris’s glass. It’s the cider that won me over.

We’ve made it back to Citizen twice since then, bringing some friends along, enjoying more of The Full Nelson and some tasty pub fare, and once catching an excellent band in town from Philadelphia. Overall, it’s a welcome addition to the food and drink scene in Burlington, and I’m glad we can pick up a bottle of The Full Nelson right in Bristol when we want to enjoy it at home.

The next stop on our Tasting Project tour was Woodchuck Hard Cider in Middlebury, one of the largest cider makers in the US. This wildly successful company just opened up an impressive new facility that can fill 600 bottles a minute, or 3 million a year, according to the friendly server in their elegant tasting room. 

They give you four samples on the house and after that you need to pay for them, a more than fair deal.

I started off with the Local Nectar, made with 100% Vermont apples. Unlike Citizen who sources all their fruit from within 150 miles, Woodchuck, given the volume they produce, has to look elsewhere for many of their apples. This homegrown cider, though, has a subtle mustiness and goes down easy. Next up was the Ciderbration, a very apple-y cider but perhaps a bit too much like juice. The Hopsation, a “hop forward cider,” is their original small batch cider infused with Cascade hops, a winning combination in general, I’ve discovered.  Very clear and light, it’s their driest, but not quite dry enough for me. I prefer a more hoppy contrast to the apple’s sweetness, although I think my palate is drier than most. But for those who like a mildly sweet beverage that’s lighter than a craft beer (and gluten free; ciders are riding that wave) and much better for you than a soda or sugar-sweetened juice cocktail, this cider would be worth checking out (we tried some at home too). 

The server added a fifth cider for us to sample, the Amber, saying it was the original and everyone should try it. Crisp and balanced, it has a classic cider taste. My favorite of the batch, though, was the Smoked Apple. Infused with deliciously smoky applewood, it has just the right amount of smoke. For those who like flavored ciders, Woodchuck has a wide array, from Chocolate Raspberry to Pumpkin, to Coconut Pineapple. That’s not really my thing, aside from the Smoked Apple, which I will seek out again. Besides, I like Woodchuck’s motto: “Give a ‘chuck.”

The next two tastings Chris and I conducted at home with ciders produced by smaller cider makers. Shacksbury Cider’s The Basque, is actually produced in Spain and then bottled in Shoreham. The owners also import cider from England, but have recently released in limited amounts a cider made from local “lost apples”—apples they’ve foraged from trees homesteaders planted specifically for homemade hard cider over a century ago.

The Basque is unfiltered and fermented with wild yeast, rendering it cloudy and golden, similar to an unfiltered pale ale, but without the carbonation. Its label describes it as extra dry, which is accurate; I’d say it’s a bit too dry even for my palate. It has a bold, citrusy tang with a musty finish, and is a whole different animal from the previous ciders we tried. A t$14.99 a bottle, it’s the most expensive cider for sale at the Middlebury Co-op. Shacksbury is getting a lot of media attention, so some people must love it, but for us it’s a yet to be acquired taste. We're interested though in giving their local lost apple vintage, called 1840, a try.

Finally, we picked up a bottle of Flag Hill Farm’s Vermont Cyder, “with a y,” that is. 

Perusing the shelf of local, artisanal ciders at the Co-op, I was swayed to buy this one by the sign underneath it citing a New York Times description: “cider with the soul of wine.” The packaging does resemble wine more than anything else, from the shape of the bottle to the cork that seals it (the same goes for The Basque). And the cider itself is indeed more similar to wine than to the sweeter ciders at Citizen and Woodchuck (except for The Full Nelson which really does, amazingly, resemble champagne). It’s definitely dry, but not as dry as The Basque, and I tasted sour apple and earth. As for the bouquet, the best way I can describe it is that it smells like fall. 

Made with wild, organic apples and no additives or artificial ingredients, Flag Hill Cyder is fermented with wild yeast and aged at least one winter. At 8.5% alcohol, it’s the most potent of the ones we sampled (the others hover around 6.9% or lower); again, like wine, a cider meant for sipping.  It sells for $9.99 at the Middlebury Co-op but, alas, is available only in Vermont, in limited release. I usually lean toward red wine and Chris toward craft IPAs, but I can see the appeal of mixing it up and sharing a bottle of this cyder along with a hearty braise or stew on a chilly fall evening. 

So I guess I could say I’m a cider convert. Vermont was dubbed the “Napa Valley of hard cider” in a recent article, although I think Sonoma is more apt, and more preferable to most locals. Either way, I’m glad that hard cider is back, and is here to stay.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Inconstant Gardener (or Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Gardening)

First official day of fall today, although we had our first hard frost a few nights ago, always a more definitive marker for the end of summer than a date on the calendar. It’s felt like fall for a few weeks now, though, with Isabel back at college and Faye absorbed in her busy high school life. Chris is back to teaching, and I’m trying to buckle down to a more productive work schedule myself. At the same time, September weather is usually the best of the year, with clear skies, crisp air, and a gentle sun. It drifts through the skylight above my desk, pulling me away from my computer and outside for a hike, bike, kayak or, so I can reassure myself I’m still being productive, to the garden.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Island Time

When most people think of Vermont, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Green Mountains, thanks to their popular ski slopes and hiking trails. But an equally notable natural resource, and a highlight of the state for me, is Lake Champlain. Friends from out of state are often surprised to hear that it’s the sixth largest freshwater lake in the country, after the five Great Lakes. Spanning 120 miles along Vermont’s western side, it’s flanked by New York’s Adirondack Mountains and also offers spectacular views of the Greens.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Southern Exposure

I’ve been on the road again, this time to the Southeast, specifically Virginia and North Carolina. We packed up the car and drove down, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line near the town in Maryland where I spent most of my childhood. Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as a Southerner. Maryland, despite being below the Line, was technically a border state during the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam, which resulted in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, was just down the road, but at the same time one of my high school acquaintances was a direct descendent of Robert E. Lee. And the street I grew up on has a former slave auction block, now partially obscured by some shrubbery, on one of its corners.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Big Boy

I just graduated—from a small, charcoal kettle grill, that is, to a 6-footer, gas/charcoal combo grill that I’m affectionately calling The Big Boy. It’s an impressive piece of equipment, with cast iron grates and a warming center in both sections, and a side burner that I haven’t even tried out yet.