Monday, October 29, 2007

The Birds

The fact that thousands of grackles descended upon my neighborhood on Friday is probably pretty timely given that Halloween is Wednesday. It was like I was in the middle of the Hitchcock thriller, The Birds. Stunned by all the birds, I managed to collect myself enough to put together this little bit of footage.

Have you ever seen anything like this?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Buttery Corn Bread

I've had some white corn meal in my fridge for a while (and needed the space), so I went to my current favorite baking book, King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking for some inspiration. I followed the directions pretty much to the letter except for the honey. For that I used agave nectar. If you've been keeping track of my other blog, you'll know that I've had quite a bit of luck baking with the stuff.

I went for the crispy crust, so I melted a tablespoon of butter in the pan (which had been preheating in the oven) right before I poured the batter.

It had me a bit worried -- all that butter pooling on the top -- but all was well. It came out fluffy, corny, and very tasty.

My friend Richie said it would be perfect with chili. I think next time, I'm adding cheddar cheese and red pepper flakes for a bit more pizazz.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Field Trip with Mom -- Cross Estate Gardens and Willowwood

In honor of Mom's birthday back in August, we planned a day of doing things she really enjoys -- visiting gardens and spending time together. Of course, since we're such busy people, our first day free was 13 Oct. (hence the warm clothes--it was a chilly day, unlike the balmy weather we've had lately). Our top two choices were relatively local to Mom: Cross Estate Gardens in Bernardsville, NJ, and Willowwood Arboretum in Chester, NJ.

We stopped at Cross Estate first, taking a tiny hike from the parking lot to the actual house. Cross Estate is actually part of our National Park System (and FREE), so you should go see it if you're a taxpaying American. It's our land, after all.

Mom was enamored of this giant silver maple in the back of the house (view is from the rear of the field in the back of the house).

There she is, giving us a bit of perspective.

We walked around to the front entrance of the gardens and were greeted by a long pergola draped with wisteria. It probably looks amazing in the spring when in bloom.

It's longer than it looks.

You wouldn't think so many flowers would be blooming in October, but there were plenty of colorful blooms on display for us.

Even irises.

Lots of lavender Russian sage.

You probably can't tell from the photos, but there were bees everywhere. All different kinds, too, from yellow jackets and bumblebees (one in the center of the photo below) to wasps.

Always the teacher, Mom must have said, "Look at it!" about a hundred times. "Make sure you take a photo of this. People should see this!"

"OK, Mom."

"Can you believe these colors?"

After enjoying all the colorful flowers at Cross Estate Gardens, we programmed Mom's GPS to find Willowwood. Unfortunately, we had to take a pretty big detour, but the path led us through some pretty swanky estates. I'm always amazed at the affluence in New Jersey. What do these people do? Or, are they "old money?" Probably a mix of self-made folks and the perpetually wealthy. Regardless, they have lovely homes (as much as we could see from the road) and land.

Willowwood Arboretum is on the land formerly owned by the Tubbs brothers. There are gardens extending out to the road from the front of the Tubbs' house as well as hiking trails with rare plants and trees in the rear of the house. All told, 130 acres are available for exploring.

First thing first, though. We had to use the restroom (go before you go to Cross Estate Gardens because there are no services there). Decorating the outside of the restroom wall of the shingled barn was this amazing staghorn fern.

180 degrees from the staghorn fern was this trumpet vine with blooms that had to extend at least a foot!

Mom was happily surprised that the Tubbs brothers had planted redwood trees in their garden.

Walking around the back of the house, we saw Pan's garden (and more pergolas).

We also witnessed a giant nest. It must have been a squirrel condo. It was at least 3 feet square.

There were many plants sporting colored berries. Mainly, we saw the usual red berries.

But we also were nearly knocked over by these vibrant, sapphire blue berries from Japan.

Mom and I broke from the other trails and walked to the end of the property to a tree-line walk filled with yellow berries.

To our right was a very large meadow, but since it was bow-hunting season (not to mention deer tick season), I suggested that we keep to the path.

Did I mention that we also saw plants with white berries and red stalks that almost reminded us of capillaries?

Finally, we headed back to the cottage garden and out to the car to decide where to have lunch.

We drove into Chester to discover that we were smack in the middle of the town's Apple Harvest Festival!

There, we witnessed a marching fife and drum corps as they played on every block along the main drag.

We eventually had lunch, but the highlight of the day was spending it with my Mom.

How do you spend time with your Mom?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day. It's a day when bloggers concerned about the environment should be posting about it in whatever way they choose.

We have to ask ourselves, what are we doing to help improve our environment?

Here are 20 ways I participate in positive change:

1. Use my own bags when I shop.
2. Drive as little as possible.
3. Unplug chargers, appliances, computers, etc., I'm not using.
4. Run around after John turning off lights.
5. Turn off lights when I leave a room.
6. Use a timer to set my heat/air conditioning.
7. Keep the heat set to 68 or lower to save energy.
8. Keep the AC set to 75 or higher to save energy.
9. Read No Impact Man and Treehugger each day to learn more about how I can leave a smaller footprint.
10. Reuse as much as possible (e.g., scrub ziplock bags, dry 'em, and use 'em again).
11. Recycle paper, bottles and plastic.
12. Convinced John to stop buying all those plastic water bottles, and now we're using refillable Nalgene bottles instead.
13. Committed to using Lunapads instead of disposable feminine supplies. (So much more comfortable, by the way.)
14. Instead of buying more things for people for holiday gifts, we make donations to the Nature Conservancy or the Audobon Society in their names.
15. Garden organically.
16. Buy organics and local foods as often as possible.
17. Buy recycled paper products (Marcal, one of the most underrated NJ companies).
18. Keep as healthy as possible so that I don't have to take antibiotics (and put more into the water supply from my personal waste).
19. Try to raise awareness whenever possible (without being a pest about it).
20. Cook as much from scratch as possible to avoid processed foods (they contribute pollution in a number of ways -- the processing, the shipping, etc.).

How do participate in positive change? Have you done something different today?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Telltale Signs of Fall

Lately, the weather's been more like August than October. Here in central Jersey, today's the first day it's dipped into the 70s for a while. Oh, and the leaves are falling, but not because there's a nip in the air. It's the drought. I'm praying for rain.

All that aside, there are bushels of crisp apples in hues from blushy pinks to sharp green on the shelves of my local grocery store. More importantly, the squashes have made their entrance -- their roly shapes and colors imitating the colors in the trees.

Of all the fall foods, my favorite has to be acorn squash. I love squash steamed, sauteed, boiled and fried. But, probably the easiest way to prepare it is by roasting it. Well, easy except the skinning part.

Both acorn and butternut squash can be roasted with their skins, but I prefer to carefully slice off the skins, cut them into cubes, spice them, then roast them.

Sometimes, I'll even season and toast the seeds, like we used to do after carving pumpkins for Halloween. This time, I didn't though. I just wanted the flesh of the squash in all it's golden glory.

I find that it's easier to pour the oil on top of the cubed squash, then sprinkle the seasonings into a ziplock bag before shaking it all together until the spices and oil have been evenly distributed onto the squash. I use this technique when making oven fries as well. The spices I used in the shake bag were: nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, and Pensey's Herbes de Provence.

We re-use our ziplock bags, so when cleaning them I pour a little dish soap in the bag, then half fill it with hot water before shaking it vigorously. Then, I wash the bag thoroughly with our Oxo dish brush. Works like a charm!

Since this is a savory dish (although you could easily make it sweet), I sprinkle paprika on top of the seasoned squash right before covering it with foil and baking it for 45 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees F.

If you wanted more carmelization, you could take off the foil after 20 minutes and stir every 10 minutes, but I wanted the squash a bit softer since I'm having so much dental work these days.

The squash tasted fantastic. I still have a serving left that I might just have tonight with dinner.

How do you cook your squash?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Back from Acadia

That's our well-traveled L.L.Bean moose waving to you from Cadillac Mountain in Maine. While we're happy to be home, we had one of the most relaxing vacations yet. It was good to travel with only a loose agenda. John and I were in Acadia two Septembers ago, so we had hiked and biked quite a bit of the park already. Our mission was to see places we hadn't seen before and do things we hadn't done before. We succeeded in that mission.

First, let me say that our journey north from New Jersey was a bit extreme. We left home at 5 pm with a goal of reaching Freeport, ME (home of L.L. Bean's flagship store which never closes its doors) by 2 am. Stopping only to use gas station or rest stop restrooms and to fill the Subaru's gas tank, we reached Freeport not long after midnight. We ate sparsely -- John had a small turkey sandwich I'd packed him earlier, and I had a Nectar bar.

As we did last year, we traveled with a cooler that can be plugged into a car lighter outlet as well as a wall socket. This was filled with food for the week. What we now know is that we didn't need the cooler or the food. There's a large grocery store located not far from where we stayed in Southwest Harbor.

After we shopped a bit in Bean (good deals on a few items), we were both exhausted, so we slept in the car until about 4 am. Achy and still groggy, we put on our shoes and trudged into the L.L. Bean hunting and fishing store to see if they had anything John wanted (he's a fly fisherman) and to use their uber-clean restrooms. We used the restrooms in every L.L. Bean store except the bike and ski store (new since the last time we were there). We also learned that the outlet store is moving to the location of the current hunting and fishing store and will be open 24-hours. Bean is building a new facility with access to the flagship store for the hunting and fishing store. They're really taking over the town.

Our first meal in Maine was breakfast at Friendly's. Have you ever eaten at a Friendly's restaurant? It reminds me of Denny's but the food isn't as good. But the service was fine, especially first thing in the morning.

We took our time dining, but it was still to early to shop anywhere else (Bean's outlet store currently opens at 9 am), so we napped in the outlet parking lot. When we awoke, the parking lot was PACKED with people. It was scary. It seemed fights could break out any second as the crowds squeezed themselves into the outlet store. We found great deals and scooted out of there quickly, stopping at the great health food store down the road for some Cascade Fresh fat-free yogurt (you must try it!).

Most of our shopping after Freeport was spent in Bar Harbor and other coastal towns looking for a wren-friendly birdhouse for my step-father, Dave. I'll have to post a photo of the one we found because it's hilarious.

There are many outlet (and pricey) stores in Freeport, but probably some of the best deals are at the Bean outlet and Patagonia. The Acorn shoe outlet also is worth a stop. I found a great pair of shoes for $30.

After fulfilling our shopping quotient for Freeport, we drove the scenic route (until we tired of it) -- Rt. 1. Had we taken 1 the entire way, it would have added 5 more hours on to our trip. John wasn't having it, so we switched to Rt. 17 in Rockland. Then, we took Rt. 131, which was far more scenic than 1, until it hit Rt. 3 in Belfast. We cut a lot of our trip to Ellsworth that way and arrived at Acadia Cabins at Sundown.

Along Rt. 1, we stopped at an unremarkable seaside restaurant in Damariscotta with this view:

No, you're not seeing things, this is the overcast view through a screen and plastic sheeting. John had the fish and chips, which made him sick later. I had a pretty lame, overpriced lobster roll that was simply cold lobster (not very fresh tasting, either) piled on a toasted roll with a side of mayo. It wasn't worth a photo, so I didn't take one.

Walking along the small town's streets, we stepped into several of its stores. Lucky me! I found a pair of very soft leather gloves with cashmere lining for 50% off ($24)! Now, if it would only get cold out (it's over 80 degrees F today).

We quickly returned to our car because it had turned blustery and gray. When we arrived in Ellsworth, we stopped in the L.L. Bean outlet store (of course!) and left with several items. (By the way, if you want to know the complete list of items we purchased, let me know in the comments.)

When we arrived at our cabin, the lights and the heat were on (it had gotten chilly up there). We unpacked and settled in for the week.

On Sunday, we had a late start from sleeping in. We eventually drove to the other side of the island to buy a park pass from the visitor's center. Our plan was to drive the Park Loop road, take advantage of the great weather and snap photos along the way, especially from the summit of Cadillac Mountain.

Each day, on our way to the park, we passed through a number of towns, but one of the most lovely is Somesville.

All the houses are white with black or dark green shutters.

When we finally got to the park, we took many photos from the pull-outs along the Park Loop road.

There was a constant flow of cruise ships stopping near Bar Harbor and letting off passengers to sightsee and eat at the restaurants.

Above is the view of Eagle Lake. Last time we were there, we biked around it.

Above is a view from Cadillac Mountain summit. We were truly blessed with gorgeous weather. It was filled with tourists.

For the first few days, we had a lot of fun posing our little animals for photos. I'm sure we received a few stares. We didn't care a bit. We just laughed and laughed.

Above is a view of Bar Harbor and its surrounding islands. During low tide, we wanted to hike out to Bar Island, but we'll just have to save that for another trip.

After we came down off the mountain, we had a bit of time before dinner, so we drove down to Otter Point to walk the Ocean Path.

That's Bart. He was pointing back to the car. We went the other way to see Otter Cliff.

A quite accommodating butterfly.

We didn't see a lot of wildlife -- birds, ground squirrels and butterflies. Oh, and crows.

When we finished the little hike, we headed off to Bar Harbor. In town, you can take a wee hike on the Shore Path that runs along the shoreline.

Eventually, we had dinner at Cafe This Way.

We opened with the Maine seafood spring rolls, which I enjoyed. John thought they were rather bland.

Below is my delicious pecan-crusted halibut served over garlicky shrimp with mashed potatoes, asparagus and sweet potatoes (the best part). Topping the halibut is a cajun sauce that reminded me of a very spicy mayonnaise. Regardless, I was very happy with this dinner.

John wasn't happy with his meal. His beef was undercooked for his liking, and they had overcooked the asparagus. It's unfortunate -- most of the times when I really like my meal, John doesn't like his. The opposite is true as well. Our last meal out at Top of the Hill in Southwest Harbor, John had his best meal and I probably had my worst. Oh well.

I have many more photos and stories to share about our trip, but instead of including it all here, I'd like to invite you to visit my Picasa Web Album of the trip.

Nearly all the photos have captions, so you'll be able to follow the flow of our trip, biking and hiking the miles and miles of carriage roads in Acadia National Park and on Mount Desert Island. I encourage you to visit the park and Maine, if you haven't already. The state is beautiful and the people are friendly.

Until the next time, we'll be trying to find somewhere interesting to bike in New Jersey.