A Visit to the Green Mountain State

This week we had the opportunity to spend a few days in the neighboring state of Vermont. Ranked 43rd in terms of square miles and 49th in population (just edging out Wyoming with over 625,000 inhabitants), Vermont is one of the smallest states in the nation, but it is also one of the oldest and is filled with history. The first European to explore the

area was Frenchman Jacques Cartier in 1535. Although there is some controversy about the exact origin and meaning of the state’s name, many believe that explorer Samuel de Champlain referred to the area as les verts monts in the early seventeenth century. The land has indeed been called the Green Mountain State from the early days of our country’s history, an apt motto because of its landscape. Driving through the state, visitors can enjoy varied rural scenery. High peaks of the Green Mountains form a spine which runs through the middle of the state. Panoramas of wide-open plains stretch west to Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks of New York State. Red farmhouses and tall silos show up at nearly every turn. Pastures of sheep and cattle dot the countryside. Yet, despite the fact that the ratio of cows to people is the highest in the nation, humans still outnumber the bovine population, by some estimates two to one.

However, Vermont has more to offer tourists than peaceful scenes of natural beauty. The city of Burlington has great restaurants, brew pubs, and a terrific outdoor museum of Americana is in nearby Shelburne. The state’s many small
towns give the visitor the feeling of being transported back in time. Take Poultney, for example, population 1,612, and home of Green Mountain College. Located in the southwestern part of the state, the charming village has one main street and one stoplight. Highlights of downtown include a True Value hardware store, a Shaw’s supermarket, an organic food co-op, a library, and one of the ubiquitous white-steepled churches. Because of the size of the town, locals need only refer to the aforementioned locations by using the article “the,” as in “the library.” In the middle of Main Street one finds Hermit Hill Books, my favorite kind of bookstore: sizeable, cozy, well-decorated, and, most importantly in my view, well-organized. You could spend hours looking through the shelves.

The state suffered substantial damage because of the tropical storms to hit the northeast in the fall of 2011. Flooding
killed scores of people, destroyed homes and at least thirty covered bridges. The destruction was wide-spread but was especially felt in the central and eastern parts of the state. As of this date, some roads are still closed, notably parts of route 100 near Killington. Traveling around can still get kind of complicated and it’s best to check before planning your itinerary.  

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Apple Picking Time

Fall in the northeast is simply spectacular. A deep blue sky comes with sunny, cool days; the leaves, especially

of the sugar maples, change to brilliant colors, beckoning “leaf-peepers” from all over the country. An early autumn tradition in our house is to visit one of the many orchards within a half-hour drive to pick apples; there are many to choose from including Indian Ladder Farms in Altamont and Goold's in Castleton. Yesterday we chose to make our annual pilgrimage to Bowman Orchards in Rexford near Clifton Park.

Since my husband is teaching a class on food this semester, a group of about twenty first-year students accompanied us and we were treated to a tour of the orchard. We learned that Bowman’s is one of the oldest working farms in Clifton Park. The land was purchased from William and
Margaret Shepherd whose ancestors began working the farm on Sugar Hill Road in 1785. An interesting side note, Margaret’s brother John McIntosh (or MacIntosh--both spellings exist), who was born in Schenectady, found his way to Ontario where he discovered the apple trees whose fruit he named for himself. The semi-tart McIntosh apples are now the most-harvested apple in New York State. An old cemetery of the Shepherd family is located in the orchard.

As for the Bowmans, the second generation is now running the farm which has more than sixty varieties of apples on ninety-eight acres.  A new addition is the dwarf tree which takes up a smaller area and yet produces a larger yield than its bigger cousin.  The small trees have to be wired up to posts to keep the fruit from bringing the tree down in the fall.  Colonies of bees are brought in each spring to pollinate the trees.  Our guide Donna told us that you can tell the number of times bees have come to the apple flower by the number of seeds
inside the ripe apple.  The farm has its own weather station to help workers prepare for whatever Mother Nature has in store.  The spraying of pesticides on the trees is done in a judicious manner after insects have been identified and in consultation with fellow apple farmers.  We learned that, just because apples look ready to eat, the only way to tell for sure is by cutting one open to look for the brown seeds inside. Our tour took us to see where the apples are washed, separated by different sizes for sale, stored at 34 degrees, or pressed into cider. There’s a store on the property where cider donuts and other apple products can be purchased.

Many preschoolers come to farms like this one each year. Bowman’s has other plants such as pumpkins, raspberries, strawberries, as well as an array of farm animals. We noticed horses, goats, sheep, and pigs—which were as much of a treat for us as for the small children around.

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Bread, etc.

Many of us who grew up in what might be labeled “the Wonder Bread generation” have undoubtedly asked ourselves why bread—that bland,
spongy, tasteless concoction—was ever heralded as the staff of life. Anyone who has traveled to other parts of the world has probably noticed the difference between other cultures’ bread-making skills and our own. From my first trips to Europe, I enjoyed delicious soda bread in Ireland, hearty Bauernbrot in Germany, and, of course, crusty baguettes in France. Yet, like everything else in the fast-food world of today, deplorable loaves can be found abroad as well. Some of the plastic-wrapped poor imitations found in French supermarkets these days are barely edible.

Still, somewhere in the French psyche there exists a Proustian “remembrance of things past” where bread is
concerned. In fact, I was delighted to learn recently about the yearly contest in the French capital to determine la meilleure baguette de Paris. Although I would not like to serve on the jury having to taste 100+ different loaves to
determine the winner, I’m definitely up for visiting the top boulangeries and drawing my own conclusions about their breads. In both 2010 and 2011 the winning Parisian bakers were from the 18th arrondissement in Montmartre. Even more surprisingly, their bakeries are both on the same street, la rue des Abbesses: Au Levain d’Antan at number 6 and Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses at 38. Just one look at those golden loaves brings back the memory (à la Proust and his madeleines) of joyously crunching into that crispy, tasty bread.

Ah, well, so much for reminiscing. The question remains: where can we find the best breads in the Capital District? For one, The Placid Baker on Broadway in downtown Troy. This bakery offers up delicious baguettes and other types of breads, as well as flaky croissants (both almond and plain), and good desserts; it’s definitely worth the trip. A bit farther afield, also on Broadway but in Saratoga, we have Mrs. London’s. This combination café and bakery is probably the best all-around in our area. It’s a little far to go, but they usually have a stand at the Troy Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. Gotta get there early, though, before they’re sold out.

Respectable breads are also available in certain area supermarkets. Hannaford, for example, carries a line of products from Rock Hill Bakehouse. This bakery, out of Glens Falls, was
originated by Michael London from Saratoga. My husband is especially fond of their nutty, multi-grain bread. For me, the best baguette close to home is from The Fresh Market. I made the mistake early on of thinking that the French bread wrapped in paper would be the tastiest; but no, it happens to be an unassuming loaf covered by a plastic bag. It puts the artisan bread from Price Chopper to shame in terms of taste and texture. So light and crusty—mmm. Might just have to make a trip there today!

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Enjoying the Summer Harvest

The end of summer is the best time for getting great-tasting vegetables from backyard gardens or farmers’ markets. Baskets overflow with peppers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant—anything you can imagine. All this fresh produce coincides with my latest idea of inaugurating healthy “meatless Mondays” at our house and motivates me to try new as well as tried-and-true vegetarian options.

This week at a small farm stand on Route 155, I spotted a fresh-picked eggplant—complete with thorns on its stem—which immediately inspired me to make ratatouille. I have Julia Child’s version of the classic French dish, but decided to explore online to see what others had to offer. The best one, in my opinion, came from a well-known recipe site in France: www.marmiton.org. Ratatouille is not hard to make, though the amount of chopping involved is time-consuming. According to this recipe, you first cook a chopped onion and any color of bell pepper in oil. You then add in about three medium-sized fresh tomatoes, quartered, two to three chopped garlic cloves, some fresh thyme, and two bay leaves. Salt and pepper the combination and cook it on medium low heat for about thirty minutes. Partially peel the eggplant (so that it looks striped), chop it into cubes, salt it, and let it sit on paper towels for about a half-hour. Then transfer the cubed eggplant and two halved and sliced zucchinis to the tomato mixture. (The recipe actually recommends cooking the eggplant and zucchini in oil before adding to the other vegetables, but I skipped this step; recipes are only a suggestion after all.) Cook until done, probably about 20-30 minutes more. And voilà! There you have a lovely, colorful, wholesome dinner. We had it accompanied by a tomato and onion salad, French bread, and gruyère cheese.

Something else the crop of fresh summer vegetables seems to demand is stuffed tomatoes. Here, I offer two different Greek versions of the dish. One that I’ve tried before comes from Eva Zane's cookbook Greek Cooking for the Gods. For this dish you cut the tops off five tomatoes, scooping out the pulp, which you chop and reserve. (Keep the tops of the tomatoes as well.) Sauté onion in oil, adding in the tomato pulp, fresh parsley, garlic, dill, oregano, a half cup of raw rice, and a quarter cup of pine nuts. Put in about a tablespoon of tomato paste, a quarter cup of white wine, salt, pepper, and a dash of sugar. Simmer for about twenty minutes. Then stuff the tomatoes with the mixture, covering with the tops. Pour some olive oil over the tomatoes and add about ½ cup of water to the pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. A recipe I just found today is similar but calls for orzo instead of rice and some chopped fresh spinach and feta. I might just have to try that one!

Last, but not least, is cauliflower-potato gratin, a recipe we make throughout the fall and winter. I usually partially cook the whole head of cauliflower in a pot of boiling water for about 20 minutes. Slice three or four large potatoes, keeping them in cool water until they’re ready to be used. Butter a baking dish and start layering the potato slices (which you have dried off on paper towels) and about half the cauliflower cut into pieces. (Save the rest for another use, like cauliflower soup.) Sprinkle every two layers with grated gruyère and pour a white sauce made of butter, flour, milk, and grated nutmeg over the entire casserole. Top with more cheese and bake till done in a 375 degree oven, about 45 minutes.

Feel free to share your favorite vegetarian (or otherwise) recipes with me! I'm always looking for fresh, tasty ideas for meals.

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