The Gladstone Library, Flintshire, Wales
This is a quick, low calorie, delight that is also budget friendly – easy and quick enough for mid-week, good enough for company. Leave the Parmesan cheese off and it is even vegan. For those who just can’t imagine a meal without meat, this has enough substance and flavor to satisfy most.
Most mix the spinach and tomatoes into the polenta, I wanted it more attractive, it worked.
Crushed garlic, red pepper flakes, warmed (not fried) in olive oil to infuse the flavored into the oil.
Add diced tomatoes, salt and pepper, let them absorb the flavors in warm pan with heat off while you prep the spinach, a few minutes.
Turn heat back on low for 1 minute, then off. Add chopped spinach, stir a bit then leave to wilt while preparing the polenta, spoon off excess liquid.
Stir ½ cup polenta into 2 cups boiling water, whisk until the polenta does not sink back to bottom when you stop stirring. Turn heat to low, cover, and cook for 30 minutes, no less, stirring every 10. It will be creamy without adding cheese.
Heat the spinach tomato mix. Spread polenta on plate, using a slotted spoon cover polenta with tomato and spinach blend, top with Parmesan cheese.
2 Tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 Roma tomatoes, 1 inch cubes
Full bunch of cleaned spinach
Pinch Red pepper flakes
Herbs – oregano, Tyme, etc.
½ cup polenta
2 cups water
A whole day and all I needed todo was drive 40 miles, so I opted to visit three old missions and spend the day sketching and praying.
First stop was the famous San Juan Capistrano, I would love to see the swallows return but I fear it would be crowded, today it was full of school children yet I found some solace nonetheless.
The vagabond, off to see the world with nothing more than a backpack and a dream, is a romantic image, in reality it is probably not the best way to approach your next travel adventure. The other extreme, a spread sheet with the entire trip laid out in 15 minute increments has a certain penal quality that stifles spontaneity and serendipity. I am a believer in planned spontaneity – just enough structure to give a bit of security.
So what should you plan at the minimum? There are three questions you should ask, they seem obvious but let’s explore them a bit more in this blog and some future blogs.
1 Where to go? – Itinerary
Unless you are blessed with unlimited time and money you need an itinerary of places to visit, your basic pathway.
2 Where to stay? – Accommodations
Rick Steves has suggested finding your hotel or in when you arrive in the city, visiting the tourist information office, calling or visiting hostels and hotels until you find one that works. Yes that is easily doable, and may even save a few dollars, it certainly will connect you with the people and the place. Yet, for me, it takes up time better spent with a sketch pad in my lap, a meal to savor, or some place to explore. So I make accommodation part of the planning.
3 How to get there? – Transport
Basically your: air transport, trains, and rental cars, from major location to location, as well as getting around while in the area.
Planning a trip for me is not a linear process, it is pretty random – looking at a BnB one moment, a train trip the next; plenty of ideas that need to be collected for future reference so they can easily be searched. And a way to get the basic structures in place that also prevents missing something important. After we look at some thoughts on the three questions above I will offer some suggestions on organization. But first…
Where to go?
I often ask people, “If we had tickets to go anywhere in the world, where would we go?” The top three answers are: Greece, Italy, Australia. Surprisingly, at least in my mind, is how frequently Greece is the number one. Since I have never been to Greece I wonder if I am missing something?
There are some considerations when deciding your destinations. Destinations and itinerary are not the same thing: Destinations are pins on a map, itinerary is the sequence you will travel. Itinerary takes into account time available, transportation logistics, and budgets. For me it works best to start by picking places unconstrained by time and money. Then, unfortunately for those of us with the realities of limited time and money, the list gets refined and usually reduced.
First identify your travel context. Why do you travel? I am sure there are many ways to approach this but here are three:
- Exploration – you travel to see and experience other countries and people, it is the destination that is important, someplace you have never been or returning to a place that you loved. When people ask me where I would go with those free tickets I quite often respond with Scotland or France, I love those countries, the people and the culture.
- Interests – some activity or topic motivates you to travel, you are looking for a place to do something specific or to experience. Skiers might be motivated to try the slopes on another continent, golfers to play in Scotland where it all started. History buffs would find a trip to learn more about some period in history attractive. Hikers, mountain climbers looking to add to the peaks that they have challenged.
- What makes it a good trip for you? Think of past trips, what were the best parts, the most memorable days, and why were they good? What were the times you found yourself restless, why? Do you prefer big cities or countryside? How important are museums and iconic sites? How important is nightlife or shopping? How important is good food, dining out? Lots of activity or plenty of relaxing time? Time and place for photography or art?
Personally, seeing new places and experience the culture is high on my list. I would rather spend a few days in one location and not visit as many places. What is perfect is when I can stay long enough to have morning tea at the same tea shop that they recognize me when I walk in. Painting and sketching are major interests, but so far they are what I do while in a place and not the motivation to pick a place. Good food is going to get me to San Sebastian in Spain one day, but I like Spain anyway. We tend to stay in big cities only briefly, anxious to rent a car or take a train to get out into the smaller towns and the countryside. Shopping is low on our list, and nightlife pretty much nonexistent.
As important as it is to consider these things about yourself, it is even more important when you are traveling with other people. Unless there is some harmony on these basics there will be conflict on the trip. Frank discussions are essential.
Start with broad geographical areas then work your way to specifics. What part of the world is attracting you right now? Europe? Asia? South America? Yes, I would start at the continent level.
Browse images, travel pages, maps, guidebooks, talk to people. Then start listing possible areas and cities. At this stage don’t worry about sequence or time spent in each. Once you have some key locations identified it helps to look at them on a map. Look for patterns, try to see how it would flow going from one to another. If there is one city that is quite distant from the others, think about how important it really is – the travel to reach it may be expensive or take time from more important places.
Now comes the sequencing, list the destinations out in a logical order, taking geography into account. Then begin to factor in time for the overall trip, and the time you would like to spend in each location. My personal preference is to spend more time in fewer places as opposed to racing from town to town, place to place just to say you have been there. It is rare that I would ever want to spend less than two nights in a place, because if you travel in the morning, you arrive at the new location in the afternoon, or late morning at best. Then you spend the night and get up and travel again, so you really do not get to experience much of the culture or get a sense of the place. With two nights you get an evening, a whole day, and maybe just a bit of the next morning. If a place is not worth staying two nights I would question how important it really is.
In the next blog we will discuss setting up a table to track all of this simply, and talk about transport.
Years ago we were staying at The Tower Hotel in London. As the name suggests it is next to The Tower of London, which is a Medieval Fortress that housed the Royal Armory and still houses the Crown Jewels of England. It was built for protection, a place for the Monarch to retreat and defend themselves if they were attacked.
One morning, as usual, I was up early and went out for a walk. The Tower sits next to the River Thames, it is surrounded by a park – a perfect place for a walk. It was early enough that the London traffic was not yet awake, nor were there many other people out. As I walked around the walls, I considered what it must have been like to live inside the Tower. Though the Tower was used as a prison as late as 1952, its original purpose was a Royal residence, and a lavish one at that.
As I thought of what life would have been like in the parklike setting of moats and stone buildings, gardens and trees, as well as security from all dangers, eventually my mind began to focus more on the walls. Walls to protect you, walls that kept you safe from the enemies outside, walls that gave you security – walls that kept you in. Then it hit me, “the very walls that we build to protect us become the walls that in-prison us.” Fear builds walls, we find safety behind them, those on the other side of our walls become the adversary; outside the wall is a scary place, better to be incarcerated within our walls than to risk the perceived dangers beyond the wall. Walls may protect but they are a barrier to freedom.
This is one reason I like to travel, it breaks down walls. Prejudice is based on ignorance which leads to fear, and our fears build up walls for protection. When we travel and meet people that are different we discover that most folks in this world are pretty much the same. We all want to just do our jobs, have a place to live and food to eat, raise our kids, and have some fun along the way.
I remember that morning often, and am reminded that to really live life to the fullest you can’t hide from it. We live in a crazy world, with politics that frighten, yet I refuse to stop traveling, in fact I am motivated to travel all the more and I encourage others to travel as well. Relationships and understanding tear down walls, we need that these days.
Au revoir 2016, I welcome 2017. While it would be tempting to reiterate the plethora of challenges forever attached to 2016, from personal challenges to a tumultuous election, I will strive to recall the positive and pleasant.
The 3 best memories of 2016
1. Sold our house and moved into townhouse
We recovered from the December flood, repaired the house and put it on the market. Thanks to a great agent, Kim Tornow, the whole transaction was a smooth success. Five months later than originally planned, which actually was a blessing as the market went up.
2. Vacation in Japan
I was ambivalent about going to Japan, but it only took a day to make me fall in love with the country and the people. Rebecca, our niece, was going to school there, and we wanted to visit our exchange student, Saori. We were unable to connect with Minori, our other Japanese daughter. It was just as good as a trip could be, I am ready to return anytime.
3. Sonoma and Crater Lake
What is there to say, how can you beat wine, good food, and hiking in a National Park.
The keyword for 2017 – Simplify. With all of the challenges and craziness of 2016 simple is a good word, but never mundane. So here are some desires and objectives for 2017.
My 3 Goals for 2017
1. Find pleasure in simple things
Reading a good book, going for walks, taking time to slow down. In a world that wears “busy” as a badge of success I want to strive to make “simple and slow” my hallmark. More time spent in contemplation and reading, walking and sketching.
2. Simple food – great taste
Food is of course always a priority. This year I want to cook simple dishes with amazing flavors. Jacques Pépin says that the best meals use the best quality ingredients, prepare them simply, and savor the flavors. We plan to do more with local and seasonal foods. We continue to reduce meat and poultry.
Drink more tea. We have even canceled some wine clubs and are following the “Cheap Wine Curious” blog – good wines under $10.
3. Travel, simple regardless the length of the trip
Short weekend trips within driving distance of home. Here are some destinations we hope for in 2017:
- Olympic National Park, Washington
- Whistler, BC for snowshoeing
- Scotland, England, France, Italy (OK, not a simple trip, but we do travel simple when we go)
- National Parks in Utah
- Hiking and snowshoeing around Washington
I am sure that 2017 has some surprises and challenges up its sleeve, and I am ready. If life and 2016 have taught me anything it is that you have to roll with it, or as I wrote in my book “Let it be Hot.” Rod McKuen said it well, some good advice for this year, let’s make it a good one.
I’ve been going a long time now
along the way I’ve learned some things.
You have to make the good times yourself
take the little times and make them into big times
and save the times that are all right
for the ones that aren’t so good
Day 3 in Sunriver, Oregon. Yesterday we went cross-country skiing at Swampy Lakes Sno-Park. When I was young (20’s) I gave up downhill skiing because the lines were too long, and I was either too hot or too cold: hot while skiing, cold on the lifts – not to mention that lift tickets were expensive. So I switched to cross-country: no lines, always warm, and less money.
My son’s family are here with us, they are snowboarders, so they went to Bachelor. Well I hear the lines are longer than ever, of course since it is Christmas Break there were record numbers of people at Bachelor, so they spent a lot of time waiting in lines; I guess nothing has changed. And those lift tickets have just gone up in price.
My cross-country skills are pretty rusty, the last time we went skiing was a few years ago at Mt. Bachelor, and before that it was at least 30 years since I had been on skis. My mind remembers what to do, but my body and balance have forgotten how.
It was a beautiful day, we did the beginners loop; for once I overcame overconfidence with practicality. Yet it was still quite a challenge getting back into the flow. All went well until I jinxed the day by proclaiming, “Its been 30 minutes and no one has fallen.” Well shortly after that we both fell, and followed that up with a few more. Snow is cold, and the deep un-groomed snow offers little support, so getting back to standing proved a challenge. Yet we prevailed and finished the 2 ½ mile loop without much incident.
Today we are skiing the golf courses here at Sunriver, they are better groomed so most likely more conducive and forgiving as I attempt to reclaiming some long lost skills. My mantra today, “Bend your knees, keep your weight forward.”
A morning of skiing, then I am sure we will be on the hunt for a good lunch and some time to recoup.
Thin pancakes are ubiquitous around the world. The Mexican tortilla, the gold rush flapjack, and Indian nan are just three styles of bread requiring a simple batter and the convenience of a griddle over a fire. The French, naturally, turned the simple into the elegant – voila le crepe.
Brittany is usually credited with being the home of the crepe, yet crepes are popular throughout France. Traditionally they are served on February 2nd, Candlemas, Virgin Mary’s Blessing Day. If you could catch the crepe in the frying pan with your right hand when it was flipped, while you were holding a gold coin in your left hand, you would have a wealthy and prosperous year. Of course these days, if you actually own real gold coins you must be doing quite well already, but it is a delightful tradition.
Crepe dough is a basic combination of eggs (2), flour (1 cup), milk (1¼ cup) , salt (¼ tsp). It should have the consistency of heavy cream, quite thin for a batter. (This is important) There are those who embellish it by using beer, and if making sweet crepes vanilla or sugar may be added. (I have eaten more savory crepes than sweet) I find that a wire whisk in a large bowl is faster and just as effective as the KitchenAid Mixer. Be sure to refrigerate for at least one hour for the best results. For those with lactose issues, unsweetened soy milk works just fine, and I have used gluten free flour and all was well.
The real key to success, other than not having the batter too thick – I mention that again thanks to many disasters when it was too thick – is technique and the right crepe pan. There are two pans in my kitchen dedicated to specific tasks, which I tend to be protective of, cringing when others want to use them. One is my egg pan, a cheap 8 inch, non-stick fry pan with rounded sides. In my days as a fry cook I learned to flip eggs, without breaking the yokes. I prefer that this pan is used for nothing but eggs.
My crepe pan is mine, no sharing, don’t even ask. It is new, replacing other nonstick pans, or a round cast iron griddle, all of which have produced admirable crepes over the years. But my new “de Buyer” from France is special.
The de Buyer family has produced ironworks and cookware in France since 1810. In 2015 the de Buyer family sold its shares to Edify; thankfully they have continued the tradition of high quality that was established long ago.
My pan is from the deBuyer Mineral – B collection. The B is for beeswax which protects the finish of the pan until the pan is seasoned for use. It is the 11.8 inch size, I like the largest diameter as you can make crepes of all sizes in it. De Buyer’s are iron pans, you treat them much as you would cast-iron, they need seasoning, and you never use detergent on them. They develop non-stick properties without chemicals. My first use was a success, limited only by a bit of user error in the cooking.
Cooking crepes takes practice, but that does not mean you should fear it. The first key is to have the batter thin (did I mention that already?). Most cook the crepes in a bit of butter, over a medium high heat, this is a quick process which throws many people off. My pan takes about ⅓ Cup of batter.
There are various techniques, find yours. Some say pour the batter at the top of the pan, which is tilted away from you, letting the batter run down, evening it out by tilting the pan to make it round. You have to work quick as the batter will begin to firm up immediately. Another is to pour the batter into the center of the pan in a circular motion, then spread it out by rotating the pan, letting it run to the edges; I have had better results with this than the edge-pouring method.
At the creperies on the streets in Paris, they spread the batter with a spatula. My new de Buyer came with a wooden spatula, so that is my next challenge, I am expecting great results.
The crepe should cook for less than a minute on the first side, then be flipped (gold coin optional) or turned to cook the other side. This is when you add the fillings – cheese, ham, mushrooms, the list is pretty much limitless. When it is brown, fold the crepe over , slide onto a plate, pour a glass of wine, enjoy.
Give crepes a try, they are a wonderful quick meal, fun to make, and a pleasure to eat. theWinesketcher wishes you Bon appetit.
Sonoma and Crater Lake, both beautiful, both potentially intoxicating, one in a not-so-good way the other most desirably good. We try to take one trip a year, yet we have not been there for three years so we enthusiastically anticipated this trip. First off – Sonoma and food.
We visit Sonoma for great food and exploring wineries, seldom are we disappointed, this trip was one of the best. We discovered that some things are changing in the Napa-Sonoma world. In the past we gravitated toward the less presumptuous Sonoma, and less expensive. Well, Sonoma has become more like Napa, and Napa has become a bit less stuffy
Thursday night we started the gastronomical part of our trip at John Ash & Company, part of the
Vintners Inn at Windsor. A new place and definitely on our list of places to revisit.
Friday lunch we headed for Brix, near Yountville. Plein aire dining with a view of the gardens has always been a must on our trips of the past; not sure about the future though. The food was good, but not as stellar as in the past. My flatbread was soggy. The roasted, thin red peppers were so good, they could have been my meal. The service that makes you feel tended to but comfortable was right on. A good meal.
So why the uncertainty about the future? We noticed it in the food, good but not as great as in the past. We learned that there was a new manager. Making conversation with one of the servers I asked how long she had worked there. She said she came over with the new manager, from a restaurant we were not familiar with (she seemed slightly put off that we did not recognize it, apparently it has prestige). She explained that the new manager brought some of his old staff in so they could raise the standard of the restaurant up. When I said I liked Brix better than Thomas Kellar’s famous French Laundry or Bouchon it was clear she did not agree. So I am concerned that Brix is changing, sad for us, but we pretty much agreed that on our next trip we might just skip it.
We had reservations for dinner Saturday at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, CA, another fixture for us on our trips to Sonoma. Nothing but good things to say. I had the Spicy Crusted Liberty Duck, duck is right up there with flatbreads in my food addiction collection. It came with roasted peach, duck confit ravioli, and Swiss chard. I find my limitations as a food writer surface when I have an extraordinary meal, I focus more on the experience and it all becomes a kaleidoscope of flavors, all good but my vocabulary is just too limited, and metaphors elude me. “Deliciousness” is the pop term, but it sounds goofy to me, Tony Bourdain and others use the term “food porn” but that offends me. So just think of wonderful tastes, a bit of spice, but not chili or Thai, crispy crust, and perfectly pink meat. I smile just trying to write about it.
Sunday we tried a new place, Brava Tapas, in Healdsburg. We love anything with small-plates, and of course the Spanish invented the premier small-plate, tapas. In Barcelona, one of our favorites was tomato bread, it is so simple that it has evaded reproduction in our own kitchen, just toasted bread rubbed and topped with tomato; of course we started with that. We paired the bread with roasted potatoes and sautéed mushrooms. While we ate we watched a chef prepare Paella over an open fire, in a paella that was about six feet in diameter, great entertainment.
I finished off with Spanish Sardines, another Barcelona memory. Do not even think of the canned sardines available in the stores, check the photo.
Completing the food part of the Sonoma leg of our trip were a few picnics, procured at the Oakville Market, the oldest continuing operating grocery store in California, opened 1881. It is an iconic place in Healdsburg. We ate well, and shock of shocks, did not gain any weight.