Wednesday, August 28, 2013

No place like home

As a kid, whenever I watched The Wizard of Oz, I was always frustrated with Dorothy because I couldn't understand her crisis. She wanted to be somewhere over the rainbow, then her wish is granted and she wakes up in this magical, beautiful, exciting, exotic place. And immediately she wants to go back to drab Kansas. Why couldn't she just stay with the Munchkins? That's what I would've done.

In my younger years, I longed to travel to exotic places that would be more interesting than my native North Carolina, which could've been the twin sister to Dorothy's Kansas in my mind (far less evolved than James Taylor's). The older I get, the more I relate to the post-twister Dorothy, although home for me is now Michigan.

Traveling back from Montreal a couple of weeks ago, I wondered why we felt the need to go there at all. Sure, I knew the motivation: give our daughter the opportunity to practice French while having fun in a vibrant city we enjoyed visiting previously. But once there, I kept feeling as if practicing French was the only thing we were doing in Montreal that we couldn't be doing at home.
botanical bike culture

I'm not knocking Montreal by any means. It's a lovely city with a cycling infrastructure among the best in North America, and it has numerous pedestrian-only zones. Montreal's botanical gardens, or Jardin Botanique, are the finest I've ever seen and well worth a visit; we were fortunate to see the spectacular Mosaicultures Internationales exhibit.

But aside from bike and botanical culture, Montreal did not make me want to expatriate. Traverse City has more than enough charms to lure me back: music festivals, a film festival, beautiful lakes and rivers, farms, orchards, forests, dune climbs, craft breweries, wineries, cheese makers, sandy beaches, and the friendliest people this side of Minnesota.

And we have better food. Really. Admittedly, I didn't dine at the most famous Montreal restaurants as that was beyond our budget, but in the moderate and cheap price ranges, Traverse City has Montreal beat. Montreal's $14 burgers are no better than TC's $8 burgers. Montreal's poutine is tasty, but I prefer the dirty fries at the food truck in my neighborhood. Admittedly, Traverse City still lacks great Asian food, but I didn't find much better in Montreal. (I enjoy excellent Asian fare at bargain prices in the Twin Cities.)

We procured a dozen Montreal bagels on our way out of town, and those were interesting enough that I've looked up recipes to try making my own. But other baked goods in Montreal disappointed, especially the morning croissants, which were nowhere near the perfection of 9 Bean Rows'.

Once I read an essay, probably on voluntary simplicity, listing vacation as an unnecessary expense. If the place you live is so unpleasant that it must be vacated regularly, the author reasoned, perhaps you should consider living elsewhere. I recognize that travel offers many benefits beyond respite and recreation, but I appreciate living in a place so pleasant that I rarely wish to leave. Except in February.

I haven't decided to store my ruby slippers and stay home for good, but the older I get, the more I agree with Madeleine L'Engle, who wrote: "Maybe that's the best part of going away for a vacation -- coming home again."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cantaloupe seeds

For all of my life, until today, I've been scooping the seeds and pulp from the center of the cantaloupe and discarding them before slicing the melon. I've never seen anyone do otherwise, even when I lived in North Carolina and had a grandmother in the neighborhood of the famous Ridgeway cantaloupes. I knew of no other use for the seeds than to feed the compost bin.

Silly me. If only I had had a Mexican auntie.

Last night, pondering what I might do with my farmer's market cantaloupe other than chunk it up and eat it, I started browsing my vast cookbook collection. In Gourmet Today I found a recipe for a cantaloupe cooler, or agua de melon, which uses only that middle stuff I had been scooping out.

As I'm on a quest to reduce and hopefully eliminate all food waste, the option of keeping the seedy stuff out of the compost bin was compelling.

So I scooped it into the blender container and added two cups of icy water:

After whizzing on high speed for about 30 seconds, I strained the results, although with a Vitamix there really wasn't anything to strain out.

The Gourmet recipe specified adding a half a cup of sugar to the blending process, but I'm trying to avoid sugar, so I sweetened it with several drops of stevia and added another cup of water to thin.

The final result:

I enjoyed a glass with my gazpacho, and I have three more servings of each in the fridge for future meals or snacks. Isn't summer fabulous?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Japanese Pickles

I've been pickling all summer. More accurately: I've been fermenting things. So far, nothing has been ruined and it has all been tasty.

But in the past couple of days, I've tried a pickling technique that may become my next obsession because it is just that good.

Let me tell you about Japanese miso pickles.

I heard about this when I was catching up on Splendid Table podcasts during a long car ride from Montreal to Traverse City. Karen Solomon described the method enough to pique my interest, and after the CSA box arrived on Tuesday with another large patch of pickling cucumbers, I mixed up the miso paste and tried it out.

Because I'm always eager to minimize waste, I immediately decided to go with the pickling bed technique. It sounded strange: how would the cucumber slices pickle if they not only were not submerged in brine but were separated from this miso paste by a layer of cloth? I couldn't imagine, but I followed her instructions to see what would happen.

First, I cut two rectangles of cloth from an old (clean) thin dishcloth:

I mixed the miso with mirin and sake. I tossed the cucumber slices with a little kosher salt and set them in a strainer for about an hour:

I spread half of the miso mixture on the bottom of a small pyrex dish, covered it with one layer of cloth, arranged the cucumber slices in a single layer on top of the cloth, covered those with the other cloth, spread the rest of the miso on top of that, and waited.

I didn't wait very long because I was eager to find out what would happen. After the minimum recommended time (an hour), I peeled back the top cloth and pulled out one of the pickles.

Oh, yum! These may be my favorite pickles ever.

As I discovered, a brine seeps from the miso paste so the cucumbers are basically submerged in it. And removing them is as easy as rolling up the top cloth and lifting them out with a fork. Add more sliced cucumbers, roll the cloth back down and re-spread the top paste, and make another batch. This is awesome!

If you try this, you'll have to keep making more because each batch will disappear almost immediately.

After one batch, I sliced a baby eggplant and tried it in the pickling bed, but I didn't like it as much as the cucumbers. I plan to try carrots next.

I was so excited about this method that I downloaded the e-book so I can try other Japanese pickles. I'll report back on future experiments.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Announcing TC Fitness Pals!

Hey y'all, hope everyone's been having a pleasant summer.

My news today will be of interest primarily to those in Traverse City, but I'm hoping a few friends in other places will pop in from cyberspace occasionally.

I'm starting a small support group for friends interested in losing weight and eating well. The blog for the group is TC Fitness Pals and I've created a discussion group at MyFitnessPal. For local friends, I'm hoping we will meet weekly for delicious food and check-ins. I'll be cooking! Check the new blog for more info.

And for this blog, I'll be back shortly with some cookbook reviews. Stay tuned!