Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Books as Souvenirs

While on vacation on the North Shore in early August, I indulged in a couple of books as souvenirs -- a practice I enjoy because a book after all can become a valued member of the family, whereas a knickknack is just ... a knickknack.

In a little bookshop, Drury Lane Books, in Grand Marais, I discovered a series of books by Helen Hoover about life deep in the north woods in the 1950s and '60s. A Place in the Woods tells the story of how she and her husband, both working professionals in Chicago, chose to leave their city lives and move to a primitive log cabin (suitable, if challenging, for winter) and nearby larger summer home in a stand of old-growth forest in northern Minnesota, near a lake within view of Canada. In this book, Hoover writes exquisitely about the forest fauna and flora, and she devotes considerably more detail to these subjects in other books in the series (all recently reissued by the University of Minnesota press as part of the Fesler-Lampert Minnesota Heritage Book series), including The Long-Shadowed Forest, The Gift of the Deer, and The Years of the Forest. I ordered these last three upon my return from vacation, remembering that I had an unused Amazon gift certificate left over from my birthday, and I am now enjoying The Long-Shadowed Forest. All of the books are charmingly illustrated by Adrian ("Ade" as she calls him) Hoover, Helen's husband.

Inspired by the Hoovers' back-to-the-land story, I also ordered the new second edition of We Took to the Woods, by Louise Dickinson Rich. First published in 1942 and described as a perennial bestseller, this tells a somewhat similar tale set a couple of decades earlier in the woods of Maine rather than Minnesota. Rich's book is less focused than Hoover's on detailed descriptions of wildlife, but is told with an engaging dry wit that no doubt accounts for its longstanding popularity.

The other book I bought on vacation I picked up at Northern Lights Gifts and Books near the Duluth waterfront: Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the goodness of fresh vegetables, by Andrea Chesman. I have plenty of cookbooks that I don't use nearly as often as I should, but I was drawn to this 500-page paperback volume by its beautiful cover and its big, friendly pages that fall open nicely. The recipes are arranged in seasonal order, taking the reader/cook from asparagus, peas and spinach through the gardening year to winter squash and pumpkins. The author also includes some notes on planting, growing and harvesting the vegetables covered in the book. I've yet to try anything from it, but a summer vegetable bread pudding and a pasta with fresh tomatoes and wilted greens both sound very appealing. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 25, 2008

More Local Summer Fare

Along with more sweet corn and a local muskmelon, tabbouli was on the menu this weekend -- it's a summer standby for us. Garden tomatoes and local parsley, green onions and mint from the co-op supplemented bulghur wheat, lemon juice and olive oil from my pantry. We ate it served in locally baked Holy Land pocket bread, accented with crumbled Wisconsin feta cheese. Tabbouli can easily incorporate other vegetables as well, like finely chopped cucumbers or bell peppers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tomato Season

I returned from my vacation a week ago to find the tomatoes ripening quickly in my larger garden. I've not been a solicitous caretaker of this garden this year. Since I don't live onsite, I have not watered since the first couple of weeks after planting, nor did I ever get around to putting down any straw mulch to keep weeds down and help maintain moisture in the soil (my close plantings may have helped here, shading the ground around the plants quite well), nor did I do much weeding. But the tomatoes are coming in like gangbusters.

My cherry tomatoes this year came in a tricolor combination from Renee's Garden Seeds (Garden Candy: A mixture of Sweet Gold F-1, Supersweet 100 F-1, and Sungold F-1). My favorites are the smaller red and orange-yellow ones, just the right size to pop into one's mouth, but I love having the variety of colors and sizes in the garden and in the bowl, as above.

I like how big the stem "stars" are on these. The one above makes me think of a leaping dancer.
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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Zucchini for Dinner

Don't worry, I'm not planning to bore you with a daily food journal during the Eat Local Challenge. However, we had a wonderful dinner tonight with a favorite zucchini bake that used up two large zucchini, one onion and a few basil leaves, all purchased this morning at the farmers' market; four huge local eggs from the co-op; and three kinds of local-enough cheese. The dish is flavored also with oregano. You thinly slice the zucchini (easily done with a mandoline), then saute it (I used a combination of butter and olive oil) with the chopped onion and herbs. After mixing the beaten eggs with 3-4 cups of grated cheeses (in this case, a cheddar-jack blend and Parmesan; the original recipe calls for mozarella and Parmesan), you fold both mixtures together and spread the zucchini-egg-cheese combination into the pastry-lined baking dish. Bake at 375 for 35-40 minutes, or until the center is set. Eaten with cherry tomatoes, also from the farmers' market, it was a wonderful mostly-local meal.

Since I am moving in two weeks, I've decided to make another goal of my personal Eat Local Challenge to use up food that's already in my freezer or pantry. The original zucchini bake recipe calls for refrigerated crescent roll dough (I usually use the reduced-fat version, since this is already a very rich dish); here I used instead some frozen pie crust from the depths of my freezer.
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Gorgeous Sunset

While driving home from Target on Wednesday night, I was gasping at the color of the clouds to the west. I found a spot by Papa Murphy's where I could pull over safely, which rather unfortunately positioned me right in front of the Furlong auto dealership -- not the most nature-friendly of views, but worth catching before it quickly faded.
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Friday, August 15, 2008

Eat Local Challenge, Day 1

The third annual, month-long, Just Food Co-op Eat Local Challenge got underway today. It's a fun way to be deliberate about supporting local food producers ("local" defined quite broadly to include anywhere in our five-state area) and enjoying the benefits, since these farmers can often grow varieties known more for their delicious qualities than for their ability to survive being trucked across the country, and they can pick and sell them when they are ripe and at their peak of flavor.

Knowing of my interest in eating more locally, Joey of the Just Food marketing staff invited me several weeks ago to submit an article on the subject for the Eat Local Challenge issue of their bimonthly newsletter, The ComPost. I was surprised and honored to discover that it ended up as the front page article. Longtime readers of Penelopedia will probably recognize some sections, reworked from previous blog posts.

Anyway, on this kick-off day of the Challenge I enjoyed:
Breakfast: a slice of my favorite toasted locally-baked "Just Bread" from the coop, topped with some Wisconsin cheddar cheese and slices of the first large tomato I've picked from my garden. Normally I would have had peanut butter rather than cheese and tomatoes for breakfast, but this was a nod to Day 1 of the Challenge.
Lunch: a small salad made with garden cucumbers and cherry tomatoes plus some California carrots. Also a slice of Papa Murphy's pizza left over from a couple of nights ago. I can't tell you anything about how local Papa Murphy's ingredients are, except that it's reasonably likely that at least the cheese is relatively local. Also, if it's already in my fridge, it counts as local enough!
Dinner: a Thousand Hills Cattle Co. hamburger on a bakery bun with fresh, utterly beautiful and delicious sweet corn from the Grisim's stand at 7th and Water, and a couple of garden cherry tomatoes. Plus some Kemps ice cream, which is probably sufficiently local (see earlier posts I've written about most regional brands of dairy products using milk from Wisconsin or Minnesota).

Whether or not you feel moved to participate in a formal or informal Eat Local Challenge, this is a wonderful time of year to patronize local produce stands, the farmers' market, and the co-op. Enjoy the flavors of the season.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Time for a New Header

It's the same impulse that used to lead me to rearrange my room every once in a while when I was growing up... The background photo shows wild bergamot (monarda) and unspecified grasses as seen in late July.

Interesting Woodland Berries - Mostly Poisonous

While hiking in Temperance River and Tettegouche State Parks along the North Shore last week, we noted a variety of berries - some familiar and a couple not familiar at all.

Red baneberry (Actaea rubra) - poisonous; nearly identical to its close relation, white baneberry (below).

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) - poisonous. Also known as Doll's Eyes because the black dot on the smooth white berry is reminiscent of the eyes of china dolls. (This is what I love about wildflowers -- they have such wonderfully descriptive traditional names. One of my favorite such names is Bastard Toadflax. They don't make names like that anymore.)

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) - a member of the dogwood family, with pretty, flat, four-petaled flowers in the spring that are similar to the flowers of the wild strawberry (which is unrelated, being a member of the rose family). These berries are edible and sometimes used for jelly; one source notes, "edible but hardly worth it due to the single hard seed at the center to which the edible part clings tenaciously."

Bluebead Lily (Clintonia borealis) - thought to be mildly toxic. These were new to me. They don't look as if you'd want to eat them; their blue is just a little too lurid, or metallic. The photo below gives a better view of the long, smooth, lily-style leaf of this plant; the one above has a better bunch of berries but if you look closely you can see that the stem protrudes deceptively through unrelated leaves.

Bluebead Lily (Clintonia borealis) again - see note above.

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) - a large raspberry-like berry on a sprawling plant with huge maple-like leaves; related to the raspberry and the rose. I had never seen or heard of these until just the day before, while reading the wonderful book A Place in the Woods, by Helen Hoover (that will have to be the subject of another post). Hoover and her husband, professionals from Chicago, made an abrupt change of lifestyle in the late 1940s and moved to a cabin in the north woods near the Gunflint Trail. She mentions thimbleberry jam, and I had been wondering what a thimbleberry was.

And, of course, there were familiar wild raspberries, of which we picked a few -- and enjoyed them exceedingly.

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

First Digiscoping Efforts

On my recent North Shore trip, I tried for the first time the photography technique called digiscoping, which combines a normal digital camera with a spotting scope to achieve a remarkable degree of zoom. New hubby Dave, an avid birdwatcher, brought his spotting scope along on the trip and while we were exploring a nature trail along the St. Louis River estuary in Duluth, I decided to give it a try.

First, below is an uncropped photo I took with the camera alone, zooming in as close as I could on a log on which stood a painted turtle and two Canada geese, situated perhaps 30-40 yards away. Normally for blogging purposes I take the photo at a high-resolution setting and then crop the photo closely to achieve the best close-up.

Next is my best result bringing the camera lens up to the eyepiece of the spotting scope, which was focused on the turtle (this was actually before the geese climbed up onto the log).

Here is my best result looking at the geese in the same manner. The feather detail is quite amazing. I had trouble getting rid of the dark circle, or vignette; since returning and reading a little more about it, I have learned that using the camera's zoom should remove these edges from the view.
I have a lot to learn about using the manual focus on my Nikon Coolpix, and it is tricky when your only feedback while focusing is the camera's LCD display, which is difficult to see well in sunlight. Below is a not entirely successful shot of a pair of Cedar Waxwings atop a dead tree snag some 100 yards away. Even with my camera's full zoom and cropping in afterward, this situation without the scope would not have resulted in a usable photograph. But although the focus is not good and some vignetting is present, one can tell that these are indeed Cedar Waxwings.

And when I crop these photos, as shown below, it suggests that with practice, I may in time achieve some really wonderful photographs.

I have a whole new respect for what goes into the stunning digiscope results seen on blogs such as Ecobirder and Birdchick!
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Red-breasted Mergansers, Grand Marais

I'm just back from several days on the North Shore of Lake Superior -- my honeymoon, in fact. I'll have fodder for quite a few blog posts over the coming days and even weeks, but I thought I'd start off with one of the treats of the trip: a family of Red-breasted Mergansers in the Grand Marais harbor.

The mother and six mid-sized ducklings were dabbling near a dock. The youngsters' long, slender bills (a diagnostic characteristic of mergansers) were well developed, but they had their heads in the water much of the time, making it difficult to spend much time admiring those bills. They were also fairly independent, so that all six were rarely right by their mother, though if they ventured very far away they were quick to return to make sure of her before venturing off again. This gave rise to the mental image of a tethering rubber band that would only stretch so far before pulling the little ones back to mother.

Here is a close-up of the pretty mother. Her wispy crest is barely evident.