crash course cuba

We returned from Cuba late on Friday night, satisfied, enriched and exhausted. In a word, I am grateful. I hardly know where to begin to relay our experiences. My head is still spinning! This was a trip unlike any other. Cuba tested my assumptions at every turn.

All I’ve known about Cuba was basic: a socialist state with an official party of communism. As an American growing up in 60s and 70s, continuing my education into the 90s, I learned the evils of communism and experienced the tensions of the Cold War. I couldn’t resist the allure of adventure and determined to visit as soon as it became feasible for U.S. citizens. Still, I had questions and concerns.

What freedoms do Cubans enjoy? (Familiar freedoms, it seems.) How are they restricted? (Hmm. In at least a few ways.) How does this all work? (It’s complicated.) Will I be safe? Will I feel comfortable? (Yes and mostly yes.) Does it matter that I don’t speak Spanish? (Not much.) Should I go now or wait awhile? (That depends.) I’ll get to this and more in subsequent posts, I promise.

Evidence of long history and rich culture abound in the beautifully blended Cuba. There you will find happy people, exquisite art, soulful music, delicious food, lovely language, graceful architecture, diverse customs and traditions. At first glance, especially in Havana, you will notice grand structures in poor repair, literally crumbling underfoot. Restoration efforts have been underway for some time but barely scratch the surface after decades of decay. The old city is particularly congested, infrastructure out of sync with modern tourism. Press on! Plan your itinerary to allow for deeper and broader experiences and you will not be disappointed.

Despite the odds or the obvious, resilient Cubans continue to assert that “the system works.” They extol heroes like José Marti, Che Guevera, Fidel and others. There are irrefutable pride points: low infant mortality, high life expectancy, low crime, free education, universal literacy, free medical services. Who can argue with this? Medical professionals are an export and health tourism is actually a thing here, so that tells you something. The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Cubans lack sufficient resources to maintain their homes, feed their families or enjoy many amenities and small niceties we take very much for granted — not to mention travel abroad. There is no way up or out for most.

Our taxi driver conversed in fluent English. “In Cuba, everything is the government.” All Cubans receive free health care, childcare, and education through to doctoral degrees, if they choose and prove capable. All receive a monthly ration book to obtain staples free of charge such as rice, beans, poultry, cooking oils, eggs, salt, sugar, and matches. Additional supplies may be age- or health-specific, like milk or fish. Supplies are scarce and frequent shopping required to keep the pantry stocked.

Most Cubans earn a meager monthly wage from the government, equivalent to ~$20 USD, regardless of occupation. Even combined, state resources fall far short for daily subsistence. Cubans supplement or find ways to game the system. Those few who work directly in tourism are most fortunate in that they may earn tips.

Despite his claim that ‘everything is the government’, our cabbie is part of a new and upwardly mobile class in Cuba. It’s a win-win, as taxis supplement a public transportation infrastructure under significant strain. It is only in the last few years that the Cuban government has allowed private enterprise and it is still very limited. Startup requires some capital, often sourced by relatives abroad. It requires initiative and a will to cut across the grain of 60 years of socialist dogma, a belief that you can do better than the state to improve your future. It requires annual licensing fees and monthly income tax payments. Relatively few Cubans can clear these hurdles. Nonetheless, private enterprise appears to be critical for sustaining the state.

Private homeowners may provide accommodations in casa particulares. These are essential in Havana, where hotel capacity cannot meet demand and most facilities are outdated. Find private accommodations by word of mouth, by wandering and looking for distinct signage or, more recently, through Air BnB. We saw a few properties with Trip Advisor signage as well. Alternatively, sail with Celestyal Cruises, as we did. (More on this option later.)

Private homeowners may operate restaurants known as paladares, serving delicious local fare. Cuban food is disparaged due to lack of knowledge about the distinction between paladares and state-run restaurants. The latter are usually located in elegant properties nationalized after the revolution. They look nice but offer relatively poor quality food and service, albeit on the cheap. I cannot personally speak to the casa particulare experience but assure you the paladare will not disappoint!

We visited three cities on our one-week whirlwind circumnavigation: Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Cienfuegos. One of our favorite memories occurred mid-trip in Havana at la Moneda Cubana. We were enjoying a rare couple of hours away from the people-to-people program offered by Celestyal Cruises, the “authentic Cuban experience” that meets current U.S. government requirements.

We landed at this paladare on the advice of our tour guide and climbed two narrow flights to a third story patio overlooking the old city. We chatted with our waiter briefly, inquiring about his experiences with U.S. tourism, mentioning the reason for our trip. We were surprised when we finished our meal to be served a delectable caramel-coconut flan and Havana Club rum aged 7 years, completing our celebration with memorable flair. Absolutely perfect.

“Mon amour, mon amie,” he said. “I’d do it all over again,” she said.

This relatively simple meal was not a cheap by most standards, ringing in at $67 USD. Of course, U.S. dollars are not generally accepted so we paid 57 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) cash. Such is the nature of business in Cuba, particularly U.S. tourism. But that’s another story. I’ve much more to tell you …

Viva Cuba libre!

~ René Morley

Complete Cuba Series: Countdown to Cuba | Crash Course Cuba | Santiago de Cuba | One day in Havana  | Another Day in Havana | Costumes, Cathedrals & Old Cars | Cienfuegos | Sailing with Celestyal | Lessons in Cuba

adirondack potato soup

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Have you ever heard of Adirondack red potatoes? Me, neither! Last week I received a few, passed along from my sister who’d visited my uncle who lives on the periphery of the Adirondack Park. Potatoes are just one of the cool things about this region.

The Adirondacks are gentle mountain range with 46 peaks reaching 4,000 feet or higher. The Park encompasses small towns and farmland, forest flush with timber, graceful foothills leading to what seems an endless array of small mountains rounded off by the ages. There are 6 million acres, both privately and publicly owned, harboring a gazillion rivers, streams, ponds and lakes rich with wildlife. Here’s a glimpse.

The Adk Park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, greater in size than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Park combined! (apa.ny.gov) Scattered amidst “forever wild” public lands are charming small towns and villages. The most famous of these is the lovely Lake Placid, NY, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. In a word, awesome.

But, I digress. Back to the potatoes. Standing on the precipice of autumn, the potatoes spoke to me of soup. This is one of the Hubs’ favorite comfort foods and mine, too. The spuds cooked up to a pearly-pink, with delectable flavor and perfect texture. Hungry? My potato soup recipe is simple.

Part 1. Dice a large onion and fry with several half-slices of bacon in a large soup pot. While bacon and onion are cooking, peel (or not) and dice potatoes. When onion is soft and translucent, remove bacon and drain off bacon fat. Separate any additional fat from bacon and return bacon to pot. Add raw potatoes to onion and bacon. Add chicken broth to cover. Simmer until potatoes are soft.

Part 2. In separate sauce pan, prepare a simple white sauce. There are lots of recipes available online, for example this Betty Crocker version. I have a slap-dash method with 2-3 tablespoons butter, 1/3 cup flour, fresh ground pepper, and a brisk whisk while   adding in a cup of milk (give or take) at a slow simmer.

For the potato soup, I add to the white sauce 4 ounces of cheese and continue heating until melted. I’m not fussy about the cheese and use whatever I have on hand. If it is a softer cheese, like muenster, I also add some parmesan to give it some bite.

Part 3. Add white sauce to soup mixture. Stir gently. Enjoy at once or keep warm in crock pot until dinner.

Even better than making Adirondack potato soup, I hope you will learn more about the park  and plan your visit!

~ René Morley

grateful

Thanksgiving this year was easier than most, given a new strategy for smaller dinner parties, house-by-house, followed by an all-family dessert. This modification wasn’t my idea but I think it was a good one.

Preparing for Thanksgiving is a lot of work, no matter how you slice it. The day comes and goes in a blur of cleaning and cooking, bustling and baking and eating, inevitably too much. I have a hard time downsizing any meal, but especially so when the World’s Best Stuffin’ is involved.

This Thanksgiving was unique as we celebrated in a home no longer our own. We closed on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Now we’re houseguests, watching our new home rise quickly on the adjacent lot. This week,  windows and hopefully doors. Heating and plumbing can’t be far behind? We’re just a few weeks of fast tracking from the Big Dig to a Big Move. Fingers crossed!

The past few months have been inordinately stressful. As autumn winds down and Thanksgiving weekend draws to a close I feel tired but also grateful.

For a loving partner in marriage and life, 35 years and counting.

For five beautiful and vivacious grandchildren who brighten our lives. For their parents, who chose to live and work in the North Country and bless us with grandbabies.

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For our own parents who extended grace to us through our growing pains. For our moms, who carry on bravely.

For siblings who are also girlfriends. For girlfriends who are like siblings. For aunts and cousins who are women of courage and faith. For the opportunities to connect with all periodically, especially in person.

For the ability to read and freedom to write. For a formal education. For lifelong learning opportunities — all too often taken for granted in the good ol’ USA. For home office privileges in a job I enjoy, working with colleagues I admire.

For the four full seasons we enjoy in the North Country and — especially this year — for a mild autumn so conducive to construction!

For the beauty of the day and rest in the night. And for you also, I am grateful.

This old hymn says it so much better, eh?

For the Beauty of the Earth

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,

Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flow’r,
Sun and moon, and stars of light,

Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild,

Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

~ René Morley

 

Hymn Text: Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917
Hymn Music: Conrad Kocher, 1786-1872

cheers! to 50 years

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It’s hard to believe nearly four weeks have passed since those memorable Newfoundland brews. I recalled our experience while preparing a surprise party for the Hubs’ this past weekend: Cheers to 50 years! At the local craft brew exchange, I selected the Great Lakes Octoberfest, Sam Adams Octoberfest, Abita Pecan Harvest, and Stella Cidre (for the gluten-averse crowd). Yummylicious!

One of his sisters assembled a cool tiered beer “cake” with some of his faves, sparkly and trimmed with battery-operated candles. Other friends and family prepared a delectable variety of chili or fresh corn bread, assembled platters of cheese, crackers, and dried fruit or set tables and lit fires in a scurry of activity. We had barely an hour before the Hubs returned from the pleasant diversion of purchasing a first pair of hockey skates for grandboy, Henry.*

image The guest of greatest honor in this particular celebration was my mother-in-law. We were blessed that Betty (a.k.a. Ma Bet or Betty Boo) could be present, smack dab in the middle of the hubbub and surprise. We cranked the fireplace for interior ambiance and her cozy comfort. Thankfully, the weather also cooperated for patio time. Roaring warm fires outside accompanied good conversation well into the evening. Turning fifty never felt so good.

~ Rene Morley

*His mama played a tough defense on boys’ teams growing up and on two girls teams through high school. We owe our craft brew affinity to amateur girls hockey and a pleasant evening at the Big Buck Brewery near Detroit. When her No Co girls team was playing in the national championships, the Hubs insisted we find place to watch the skating Saints make their championship bid. The rest is brewstory.

thanksgivingness

It’s dark yet, the house quiet, fireplace roaring against the chill. The Hubs left hours ago. I procrastinated a bit before stumbling to the kitchen to set the rolls to rise. Those frozen rolls take forever to rise! There’s no point trying to rush them in a warm oven; inevitably, it backfires. They turn out flat and ugly.

Next up, World’s Best Stuffin’, if I do say so myself (and I do). Then maple roasted butternut squash using a new recipe this year (whereby I also learned a handy trick for peeling the stubborn outer layer). That should keep me busy ’til almost noon.

I’m getting off easy again this holiday. Last year we began the hopeful practice of rotating Thanksgiving dinner locations when my daughter took it on. This year, our younger son’s in-laws are hosting. I’m happy to take my turn again, someday. But I am really delighted for a break, two years running.

Thanksgiving is a lot of work. Even if you like to cook; even when everyone brings something; even if they bring wonderful food and generous quantities, it is still a lot of work! I am thankful for the abundance of food we will share and those who prepare this feast today. I know not everyone can say the same.

There are lots of things to be thankful for, certainly. Beyond the essentials, a warm and safe habitat, clean water, nutritious food, and stable employment (which truly is, sadly, saying a lot), “real” people with whom I enjoy “real” relationships always top my list. I hope you know who you are and that I am thankful for you.

I am thankful for those family and friends who have consistently shown up in our lives. I’m thankful that neither time nor distance is a barrier to maintaining relationships that truly matter. There are no words to adequately express the richness of a journey so graciously blessed.

For the first time this Thanksgiving, I can also say that I’m thankful for two grandboys and another grandbabe on the way. Who knew grandchids would be such a blessing? They fill my heart with such joy. Rumor has it that today we learn if a grandgirl or grandboy! We welcome this wee one with hearts full to the brim of thanksgivingness.

Warmest thanks-giving blessings to you!

Psalm 100

A psalm of thanksgiving.

Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!
Worship the Lord with gladness.
Come before him, singing with joy.
Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
He made us, and we are his.
We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good.
His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation

~ René Morley

sugar on snow

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It snowed last night
That sneaky Nor’easterner
Snuck in while we slept
She left behind a blanket of white
Tree limbs hanging heavy
Boughs bent low under first snow

Beautiful at first light
Though more gray than white
The skies are dark and burdened, too
Surely she has more storming to do

Giant flakes fall steadily, piling inch by inch
This would have been cause for celebration
In the good ol’ days, when I was a chid …

Mom would set a small pan outside
Aluminum, dented and dinged by years of use
She’d boil maple syrup to the hard candy state
And drizzle over first snow, like icing on a cake

We took turns choosing slivers of maple
Quick frozen and sticky sweet
It didn’t last long (nor the snow, once inside)
Sugar on snow was a favorite treat

The grandboys may still be too young
For such a North Country delicacy
But it won’t be long, for certain, for sure
Before this GiGi does a repeat

~ René Morley

babyfoodapalooza

20131006-072248.jpgYesterday was one of those packed-to-the-rim sort of days. It was so full I had to get a jump start on Friday night, baking squash and sweet potatoes in advance of babyfoodapalooza. Because, you guessed it, Ollie ate through the supply of squash and fruit concoctions I cooked up in August.

His Mommy said he liked the squash and bananas best but enjoyed the squash and apples, too. At any rate, it’s “all gone!” I purchased the Wholesome Baby Food cookbook from Momtastic, the oh-so-helpful website guiding my first attempt. My daughter-in-law marked several recipes in advance of a mid-week grocery run. And I blocked off Saturday morning for purée fun.

20131006-072313.jpgNever you mind that our own chids were Gerber babies; it’s a GiGi’s prerogative to up the ante, eh? I shudder to think of my ignorance with apple juice, rice cereal and banana pudding back in the day! Our chids are much smarter, certainly more nutritious savvy. They don’t introduce cereals so quickly. They are cautious if not outright repulsed by highly processed foods. They introduce sweet foods sparingly or later. In hindsight, it all makes perfect sense.

This time around, I was pulling out the stops. In no time flat I was up to my elbows on Saturday morning in roasted and steamed vegetables and fresh fruit. We had two food processors in high-powered production mode. Which is not to say we were highly efficient but we got the job done, and then some. In between playing and soothing and rocking and singing and changing and feeding, we made green beans with apple, butternut squash with banana, and sweet potato with pumpkin and apples. Yummylicious!

It was well past lunch time when we finished up with way more food than containers to freeze in — enough to feed Sweetums for weeks! I was exhausted by the time the kitchen was restored to order. But it was the good kind of tired, of the I can make a difference effect in contributing to their health and well-being. It was cooking and caring in community, reminiscent of the good ol’ days. Time well spent, on all counts. Babyfoodapalooza!

~ René Morley

butternut for baby

Many moons have come and gone since I last put up produce. Once upon a time, I was all about it. I pickled, canned and froze ’til pantry shelves and freezer bins were full to overflowing. But that was way back in the day of blessed mommyhood and all too tight budgets.

Now, I seldom take the time. And until now, I had truly lost interest. Until a wee lad named Ollie reached the age of early solid foods. Suddenly, GiGi was launched on a mission!

What can he eat? When? I queried his parents and other new parents and searched the Internet to bring myself back up to speed. A lot has changed in the nearly three decades since our chids were infants. Just like my foray in car seats and port-a-crib product research, it became overwhelming.

Now there is a healthy suspicion of over processed foods and the early introduction of glucose. Now there are a wide array of organic and natural options on the shelves, many more enticing than Gerber of days gone by. Most importantly, now there is a massive make-at-home movement, complete with all manner of gear — and upsell.

You can steam and purée in one swoop: plug in and presto! But wait, there’s more! You’ll need this special spatula, this handy-dandy cutting board, these itty bitty containers! Just beware the items manufactured overseas or you may have silicone mixed with sweet potatoes. Oy vey. My head hurt from all the hype and information. (Momtastic was a great help in sorting it out.)

So one day on my lunch break I did what any sensible GiGi would do. I sliced three butternut squash, scooped out the seeds, and set in the oven to bake. In the hollow of one squash, I placed some peeled and sliced Granny Smith apples. Soon my house was filled with the delicious smells of — I have to admit — fall.

Ninety minutes later I turned the oven off. (Working from home has its perks.) By the time I finished work, the squash were cool and ready to process. I scooped out the soft flesh of the squash with apples first. This puréed easily with just a dab of water. The remaining two squash I mixed with two bananas and a bit of water. I pushed each batch through a finely meshed sieve, just to be sure my ancient food processor did the trick.

20130816-203652.jpgYummylicious. I could eat this stuff! Each batch was plopped by the spoonful into small containers. I retained one of each, ready to eat, and set the rest to freeze. My kitchen was a total wreck by the time I finished but I was a happy GiGi.

All for a great cause! Not only will my grand-boy have a nutritious, homemade-with-GiGi’s-love dinner, but his mommy and daddy get a small break on the baby food budget. Win, win, win! Now for the ultimate taste test.

Oh, Sweetums … where are you? Peek-a-boo!

~ René Morley

st. maarten

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Sint Maarten is one of those places that comes immediately to mind when we think, Aaaah, Caribbean. It’s the Hubs’ immediate response to the question, “Which island would you like to go back to for a week, a month, a retirement?” In fact, we do go back often, with pleasure.

However, our first visit did not leave us longing for more of St. Martin. We quite missed the point. We were sucked into one of those tours that should be banned forever. I’m sure it was the Hubs’ idea.

The point, I thought, was a scenic tour of both the Dutch and French sides of the island. No. Turned out, the point was to take the island by duststorm. We rode for hours on 4-wheeled ATVs, slowly baking in the tropical heat.

Nearly the entire tour was bumping along on minimally maintained blacktop, when we weren’t dodging holes on a dirt trail; a long string of ATVs following closely, one after another. I could pity the residents, no doubt annoyed by the perpetual whine. Something like a giant, incessant mosquito?

We were at the mercy of understanding local motorists at each crossroad, most sans traffic lights or even stop signs. We felt pressed to move through uninterrupted, lest we sever the chain, irresponsibly losing the way for those following behind. Most of the time, they waited patiently for us to pass. (Tourists!)

At more than one intersection it occurred to me that this was dangerous. When the lead guide did not stop to intersect traffic, my heart pounded in my chest. What if a car came careening around that curve? I gunned it and sped across, knowing I would be furious to hear that any one of our children had been so foolish as to take this tour!

When we finally came to a stop at Orient Beach, my hand was numb from throttling. My white linen shirt was splattered with mud. My head ached under the hard, hot plastic helmet. My jaw, too — no doubt from clenching my teeth. It was not a joy ride, not by a long shot. The Hubs and I weren’t long finding a table under an umbrella and downing a couple of brews. I dreaded the return trip. And I had a bad, gritty taste in my mouth for St. Martin for quite some time.

****

The next time we visited, we decided to explore on our own. It was a good decision; we’ve done the same ever since. The island has become familiar, which makes for a very relaxing day. St. Martin provides a lovely mix, and not just of Dutch and French.

We watertaxi into Phillipsburg, still quiet in the early morning, and cab to Marigot, on the French side. We enjoy pastries and café au lait. We shop art and spices. Dona Bryhiel‘s artwork adorns our home to remind us of this place. I restock on French Vanilla and purchase Caribbean spices for friends. We wander the straw market and explore for a bit, enjoying the harbor views. We are neither hurried nor worried because we know our way. Easy peasy.

Eventually, we return to Phillipsburg. First, a bit more shopping. This is not the frenzied “outlet” shopping atmosphere of other ports. (Although there was some suspicious construction underway at the pier last year. Sigh.) This is an opportunity to buy fine Dutch products. Linens for certain; baby gifts and housewares. Sometimes cheese; Gouda is especially nice. Jewelry is also big here. We visit a family run jewelry on Front Street to chat with Sam, perhaps arrange for repairs. He attends to our modest needs as if we are old friends or important customers. Always a delight.

Our best visits involve meaningful conversations, often with a colorful cabbie, like Tony, whose stories entertained us for the half-hour drive to the French side. Another cabbie told of relocating his family from Aruba. Well, huh. We’ve enjoyed Aruba; isn’t that a paradise island, too? Turns out there are degrees of paradise when you live in the tropics. We learn a lot from cabbies, wherever we wander.

Finally, we land at Taloulah Mangoes for local fare and refreshing brews. It’s easy enough to take a swim; the boardwalk rims a lovely crescent of silky white sand. The sun is intense by then. We enjoy the live band and people-watch, older folk arm in arm, younger folk strutting their stuff, beach hawkers selling lounge chairs and umbrellas, drinks, beach activities. We dream of that time we will have a week, a month, a season at our leisure. Someday, maybe? For now, we are content with a small slice, just a day.

Next trip, perhaps we’ll mix it up a bit, find another adventure. Maybe the high speed ferry to St. Bart’s? Maybe a little beach, off the beaten path? But if we have friends along, perhaps we’ll give the grand St. Martin tour, our way. Whaddya’ say?

~ René Morley

sangria and such

20130604-194641.jpgIt is a quiet night in the North Country. Birds banter back and forth, twittering about their day. A lawn mower churns down the road. A gentle breeze stirs. The occasional car passes. A dog barks, but far away. More birds. More breeze. A motorcycle revs up on a crossroad nearby. An old truck turns over, the engine rumbling — behind the barn? A tractor prowls a field, somewhere. I enjoy the evening sunshine, lukewarm but lingering on the patio. And another sip of sangria.

Thinking back on the weekend, I am just so thankful. Thankful for family and friends who understand that nothing is more important than showing up! Thankful that all three three chids and their soul-mates have settled nearby and remain central to our lives. Thankful that we enjoy good health in this season. Thankful for my sisters and sisters-in-law, for nieces and nephews. Thankful for my Kim-Kimoree and her good man. Thankful for a great pastoral team. Thankful for our grand-boys and thankful that they have two great-grandmas. Thankful that the weather cooperated, for the most part. Thankful for this moment, even if bittersweet.

20130604-195219.jpgThe weekend was so jam-packed with events and people that I hardly captured a photo to mark a moment. But it was good. All good! There was lunch on Maxfield’s patio, celebrating my sister’s interview. The John Deere block party and vendors in the park, stopping by the library booth to re-introduce family to family. Josie’s pizza. Parade floats. Custom cupcakes. Hot dogs and baked beans. Thundershowers and scurrying for cover. Henry’s signature Sangria Slider. Gifts and well wishes for a wee one, on his way to us soon. Gorgeous floral arrangements, courtesy of my sister’s talents: peonies, irises, and phlox in abundance!

Breathe deeply, in, out. Savor the scent, the moment.

There was a dedication in the faith for Oliver Lloyd, our sweet grand-boy of four months. Extended family present to share in celebrations. In-laws who join in and also serve up a good lunch. Morgan’s ice cream, just because. A round-about driving tour to help my sister reacquaint with the No Co. Hours and hours on the back patio, waterfall tumbling, conversation humming. So many sweet opportunities to reconnect. So refreshing and encouraging. And yes, exhausting!

20130604-202900.jpgI am thankful that events this weekend went off with nary a hitch. Now the house has emptied. The Hubs and I must regroup. There is no hope for us but more sleep! He went to bed before it was fully dark; I am not far behind. Perhaps you are tired, too? May we each rest as sweetly as Ollie, nestled safe in his mama’s arms … and as quietly as Henry, afloat in his mama’s womb — forming a baby bump on which cousin Ollie seems pleased to perch! Isn’t that a beautiful thing?

I’ll leave you with my Dad’s favorite benediction: Nighty night. Sleepy tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.

~ René Morley

20130604-210133.jpgHenry’s Sangria Slider

1 large bottle dry white wine
1 cup peach (or other) Schnapps (less if wine is sweet)
1/2 cup brandy (may be flavored to suit fruit)
1/2 cup triple sec
10 oz. Pellegrino/ fizzy water (more if wine is sweet)
2 peaches (or plums), sliced
2 nectarines (or apples), sliced
1 cup strawberries, blackberries or blueberries (or a mix)

Replenish liquids as necessary. Enjoy!

hometown proud

20130530-154917.jpgSometimes it’s truly terrific to live in a small town. The first weekend of June is one of those times — always big doings in the North Country. It seems that half the county turns out for Dairy Princess festivities. This year’s parade will be especially sweet as Oliver will make his debut, courtesy of his great-aunt, riding on a dairy-themed float. So much North Country fun-ness!

There will tractors and fire trucks and motorcycles and people of all ages from every walk of life creating all kinds of commotion.for a day or two, we tend to forget that the population density of dairy cows outweighs people in the North Country. But you never know what will happen at the parade. A couple years ago, an annoyingly loud truck with oversized tires broke down and had to be towed. The burly boy-driver made it clear that he was not nearly so amused as I!

Oliver is too little yet for the Big Wheel race in the park but some of his second-cousins and pals, Emma and Malachi, will compete. We may drop by the John Deere block party Friday night; everyone else will be there. I love the old cars on display; they remind me of my Dad. It all wraps up with a bang! pop! bang! in fireworks at the high school Saturday night.

20130530-155216.jpgAnd that’s just about when our weekend really gets rolling. On Saturday evening we’re hosting a baby shower spring training. These head coaches are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their Little Rookie!

It’s been fun to plan around a vintage baseball theme. I discovered some great finds on Etsy and eBay to help set it up, including a 1971 Adirondack wooden baseball bat, vintage felt youth Yankees cap (looks like something a Little Rascal might have worn), and Wrong Way Howie Learns to Slide children’s classic. (All overpriced, no doubt, but fun to collect.) My favorite purchase, by far, is a little beanie for newborn Henry, hand knit to look like a baseball. Sweetness.

Our menu couldn’t be simpler or less health-concious: ball park franks and sausage, slow cooked baked beans, potato salad, and a variety of brews. I’m going to attempt to replicate a hot dog topping the guys raved about at the Toronto ballpark (baked beans, bacon, cheese, and onions). The Hubs cautioned me not to buy whole grain buns. “Guys want to eat the cheap kind,” he said. Got it. We’re introducing a signature drink, Henry’s Sangria Slider. The concession stand is loaded with peanuts, popcorn, candy bars, and sunflower seeds, too. Gear up!

We spent all of Memorial Day weekend polishing the “stadium” and pruning the home field for this event. I about wore myself out, working inside and out. I am sure the Hubs is feeling it, too. But it’s all for a great cause: Henry James! Three weeks and counting and our roster grows again.

20130530-160249.jpgAnd if all of that weren’t enough for one weekend, on Sunday Oliver Lloyd will be dedicated! Not long ago I had my wedding gown converted to dedication/baptism outfits for our grandbabes. I hope Ollie is big enough to wear it Sunday! Regardless, I am so proud of his mommy and daddy for making a public commitment to raise him in the faith. And what a blessing to be present, to commit to being supportive of this endeavor. This is exactly why the Hubs and I have put down roots in this small country church.

Such are the bits and pieces and goodness of small town life. It doesn’t seem like much, really. But it doesn’t get much better, I think.

~ René Morley

no doubt

20130330-201914.jpg I love Easter! And this year, I’ve started a new tradition. More accurately, I’ve adopted one in making Italian Easter bread. It was just too beautiful to resist!

I dyed raw eggs the very first thing this morning. Then I mixed up the dough. I am not much of a bread maker, so I was doubtful about the outcome. The only yeast in the house was probably ten years old. It had been stored in the fridge; it might be worth a try? I doubled what the recipe called for and hoped for the best.

As I went about my day, the dough did its thing. It was supposed to double in an hour or two but six or seven hours later, it was still short of the goal. Stale yeast. I punched it down anyway, separated four equal portions, rolled and braided. Then I took my back up loaf, and did the same. This one had risen fast; a frozen loaf prepared with fresh yeast. It was overflowing the pan!

I covered the mini-wreaths and set them in a warm oven for a boost. After they rose, I applied the egg wash, some sprinkles, and nestled a raw colored egg in the center of each. Twenty minutes in the oven and … delizioso! I feel a celebration coming on.

And that’s the thing about Easter, isn’t it? It’s the most joyful of holidays in the Christian faith. It is a celebration of life, victorious, and of hope, born anew.

I have been reading the book, The Day Christ Died, by Jim Bishop these past few weeks. It is an exacting account, drawn from hundreds of pages of records, both secular and religious. Bishop is a master at casting a story with historical accuracy while weaving believable narrative. It’s a step-back-in-time approach to a sacred series of events.

I’ve read the Biblical account many times but Bishop’s version brings together a lot of loose ends and additional details unearthed through careful research. Background on Jewish faith, traditions, and Romans occupying the land add depth and yield insights. It is fascinating, thought-provoking, and, at points, an extremely disturbing read. I highly recommend it.

One thing becomes clear early on: 20130330-201927.jpg Jesus entered into public ministry somewhat reluctantly. Nonetheless, he quickly gathered a flock of followers. Some were curious, looking for a diversion. Some were needy, looking for a solution. And some were weary of the status quo. The promised land wasn’t all they’d hoped for. There had to be more. They were hungry for more. Seems awful familiar, eh?

Jesus was like fresh yeast to the loaf of Israel. He was unpredictable, uncontainable, and unimaginably powerful. Wherever he went, he made a profound impact. Every step, every word, was significant. Nothing within his sphere of influence was left unchanged. Women were esteemed. The lame, blind, leprous, and sick were healed. The possessed were freed. Even the dead were raised! Sinners were loved and forgiven. Grace reined and rules fell away. Many were inspired. “Surely, he must be the Messiah!”

Except for those who had something to lose in this galactic shift of power. These hardened their hearts, clung tightly to the rules of the law, and schemed a way to undo him.

I’ve wondered where I would have been if I’d lived there and then. Would I have been among those opening home and heart to this Galilean upstart? Would I have cheered disruption of longstanding social, political, and religious norms? Would I have been in the throng following the miracle maker, hanging on his every word? Would I have tried to edge in close for a personal encounter? Would I have urged my family and friends to come and see for themselves? I expect so.

And then, when it all seemed to fall apart, would I have run and hid, wrestling with my newfound faith and rising fear? Would I have been confused, anxious, and saddened? Maybe also angry that my expectations were not met? No doubt.

Those must have been dark, desolate hours as Jesus was crucified and laid to rest, devastating to those who couldn’t know what would be next. But the joy of discovery that resurrection morning was unparalleled. Two thousand years later, we are still celebrating. Neither time nor space will dim this joy!

The difference between then and now is perspective. I’ve read the book. (I mean, the book. The Bible.) I know the end of the story. That doesn’t mean that I am never fearful, my life is perfect, or my faith gleams with a highly polished sheen. It only means that God is faithful. He did what He said He would do. And He continues to prove Himself worthy.

No matter my circumstances, because of what God has done, I have great hope for all that He will do. I trust Him to see it, and me, through. No doubt.

~ René Morley

old san juan

20130323-090543.jpgShe is a charmer, Old San Juan; our favorite U.S. port of departure, by far. There is never enough time to enjoy this Caribbean beauty! ^

We usually stay at a boutique hotel, the Chateau Cervantes on Recinto Sur. It has a Continental vibe; rooms are small but nicely appointed and impeccably clean. It was a great find.*

We walk everywhere from the Cervantes, initially uphill, choosing the shady side of the street. Blue cobbles, artful architecture, colorful shutters, ornate balconies and graceful doors adorn every street. Most of the old city plays late and sleeps in. We do not. We are awakened in the wee hours by revelries on the street below. Nonetheless, shortly after sunrise we set off while temperatures are yet moderate. We’ll have the old city mostly to ourselves for awhile yet.

20130310-164038.jpgOften we begin seaside, sheltered by the shade of the old city wall, walking by and then looping back to pass through the ancient gate. We circle up to admire the expanse of El Morro, the larger of the two forts, before we find our way alongside the sea again, down Norzagaray. Sometimes we walk to San Cristóbal, the smaller fort. Eventually we cut back in, famished and looking for breakfast.

On Saturday mornings, families will play and picnic at the old fort, kiddie kites sailing alongside intricate models soaring high across achingly blue skies. It is a joy to watch. We’ll stop at the piraguas stand for passion fruit or guava ice, expertly shaved into a small paper cone. Simple pleasures.

20130310-161950.jpgThis morning we head directly to El Convento, a stately sun-washed yellow convent-turned-hotel. The breezy interior terrace, sunlight filtering through a canopy of greens, suits us perfectly. Someday we’ll stay here. For now we are content to drop by and enjoy the amenities. Friday night flamenco dancers are a rare treat!

San Juan has scrumptious local fare. Last night it was pistachio crusted salmon (me) and skewered beef tenderloin with a rich sangria-based sauce (he). This morning, he had fresh banana pancakes. I landed the perfect crêpe, filled with vanilla yogurt and loaded with crunchy fresh granola, slightly sweetened nuts, and fresh bananas. Both plates were topped off with a selection of plump, juicy berries. Yummilicious.

20130310-163919.jpgThis morning church is in session across the street at the pearly pink San Juan Cathedral. We can’t understand a word but it’s beautiful all the same. We eavesdrop for awhile, the priest calling and the parishioners answering with deep harmonic notes. A jogger climbs the hill, pausing momentarily in front of the cathedral steps, bowing his head and blessing himself as he jogs in place. Then he’s off again. We are, too.

20130317-085012.jpgThe local market is a highlight of any visit. I look for the vendor selling fresh sweets, coconut patties to share with folks back home. We haven’t found anything quite like them elsewhere. But today we are ahead of schedule and the market slow to wake, vendors filtering in. Many of the tables are filling, though. Gray-headed rivals defend domino bragging rights at every table sheltered by shade, local tunes rippling from the boom box across the piazza. If we had nothing else to do all day, we might just sit here.

But our time here is always too short, always something new to see or do. So we stroll to the pier and purchase tickets for Catano. Fifty cents in ferry fare plus three dollars in cab fare get you to the Bacardi rum factory. Our timing is off a bit, arriving behind a couple of big busloads on organized tours. Impatiently, we nix the factory tour but accept the free rum tasting before resuming our journey.

The return ferry is out of commission when we arrive at the terminal. This causes a few minutes of angst. All of a sudden this little adventure for “free” rum seems not such a good idea? Eventually a back up ferry helps to restore service. Whew. We will make our ship!

20130310-163653.jpgWe return to the market for a bag of sweets to take home, clearing the linguistic hurdles to purchase coconut patties, plain and with nuts. I pass on the pineapple-coconut option; too much sticky sweet, as I recall. Maybe next time I will try the guava or pistachio. I am loaded down with fresh coconut and my mouth waters in anticipation.

Surprisingly, the Hubs is in no big hurry to board the ship today. We’ve time enough for a bite of lunch at Raíces. Service is painfully slow but we sit comfortably in the shade, people watching; it’s hard to complain. I am eager to try some local fare of the most authentic variety. The Hubs is willing. The food is good enough, I guess. But the trés leches cake is both beautiful and delicious. Even the Hubs is impressed — once assured the nature of three milks! It makes for delightful finish to our visit.

Too soon we must bid Old San Juan adiós. Until we meet again …

~René Morley

*Beware the alluring romantic antiquity of the Galería San Juan! Admittedly, the website has been spiffed up. Reportedly, they have new beds. Maybe they’ve cleaned the rooms up, too? I doubt I could convince the Hubs to return to find out!

^Map credit National Park Service

cabbage rolls

When we were married thirty years ago, I knew almost nothing about cooking. I could bake, if there was a box involved. Otherwise, I was useless. I remember calling my mother-in-law one morning, a couple months into our newly-wedded bliss,”How do you make French toast?” She graciously explained the simple process and wished me luck.

She never made me feel badly about my shortcomings in the kitchen. Over the years she taught me a lot about cooking, canning, and feeding a hungry family. She’d gained lots of experience in filling hungry bellies with nine children on a dairy farm! I became a pretty decent cook, if I do say so myself, thanks mostly to her tutelage.

But I never did learn to enjoy it all that much. So I also hoped she’d never find out how many times her son managed to get by with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Just one of many unmentionables consumed in our home that my M-i-L would rather have died than serve!

I don’t cook much at all since the chids have grown and gone. But at least when I do, I enjoy it more. Tonight was a rare treat because one of my daughter-in-laws requested a how-to session on cabbage rolls. I was only happy to oblige, remembering how my mother-in-law taught me her recipe years ago. It felt a bit like passing the baton.

The recipe and steps below are for meat-based cabbage rolls. They are pretty simple (as is my entire repertoire!) but the prep is a bit tedious. I’ve divided it into three parts.

Part 1: Cabbage

Select a large, fresh cabbage. Cut a square outline around the core. Segment by cross-hatching within the square. Dig out the core by chunks and discard.

Stick a long fork in the center and submerge in near-boiling water. Turn it as necessary to loosen leaves. As outer leaves separate, remove and and set aside to cool. Some leaves will be useless — if dirty on the very outside, perhaps raggedy or torn. One large head of cabbage will provide 12-18 rolls.

If the leaves are particularly thick, especially as you get closer to the center, you may need to allow longer to soften in the hot water. More processing here reduces oven time somewhat. It also makes them more pliable to roll. Disregard the center-most segment of cabbage, as the leaves become too small. Be sure to trim back the tough rib section on each leaf before filling it.

Prepare a large roasting pan by covering the bottom with a thin layer of red sauce. I use a seasoned spaghetti sauce. You’ll need 3 or 4 regular sized jars before you’re done.

Part 2: Filling

Prepare filling using 2 pounds of raw ground beef, 1 cup (or more) cooked* long grain rice, plus diced onion and seasonings. Guestimate seasonings required to taste good. I use salt, pepper, and either Herbes de Provence or an oregano, basil and thyme combo. You may also add some red sauce to the filling mixture. Sometimes I do — especially if I’ve been a bit zealous with the rice, as I was here! (Then the sauce will help keep the filling moist.) Mash it all together for an even consistency. You’ll probably need to use your hands.

Scoop some filing into a cabbage leaf. Roll the flat, wide end over, tucking under the filling and tucking in the other ends as you go. Turn it over and set it, smooth side up, on the bottom of the pan. Continue filling and rolling until you run out of ingredients. Nestle the rolls snugly in the pan so they’ll remain intact. (I do not use toothpicks. I hate toothpicks!)

Part 3: Finishing

Cover the entire assemblage of rolls evenly with more red sauce. As I empty each jar, I swoosh it out with a small amount of water and distribute the watery sauce as well. (The rice and cabbage absorb more liquid than you might expect.) Be sure the rolls are covered by sauce (more completely than shown) or they will dry out. Bake, covered tightly with foil or lid, at 350 degrees for … awhile.

They always take longer than I expect. It depends partly on the thickness of the leaves and how long they were blanched. Plan for 1.5 hours, give or take. Serve piping hot with chewy bread and hearty ale. Enjoy!

These freeze beautifully but bake them first. Be sure to include enough sauce in each freezer container. They will not separate easily for reheating so freeze in small quantities. Any extra sauce? I freeze that, too; separately, for a quick pasta meal. It has great flavor!

*You can use raw rice but it’s harder to control the results. If so, be sure to add extra water in the last step before baking. (Just don’t settle for Minute Rice!)

I made cabbage rolls for dinner at my house before joining J to make vegetarian cabbage rolls — whereby my D-i-L taught me a thing or two! The vegetarian cabbage rolls utilize the same process but different filling (diced onion, carrots, mushrooms, seasonings, mixed with 4 cups cooked long grain rice). The red sauce was also slightly different — a combination of plain tomato sauce, brown sugar, diced cabbage. Looked delicious!

~René Morley

world’s best stuffin’

When I was growing up, the best part of Thanksgiving was the smell of onions, celery, and poultry seasoning sizzling in butter as Mom prepared the bird. The scent woke me early, along with the clang of pots and pans. I didn’t mind. Although I did not like stuffing, I loved the way it started the holiday.

Actually, the very best part of Thanksgiving was having Grandma and Grandpa with us. We had so few traditions as a family; this was an important one. They almost always braved a storm, driving through the snow belt. Grandma always brought her date nut bread and pickles. Then she sat and smoked at the kitchen counter, perched over Mom like a bird on a branch, chirping away, catching us up on Belleville business. It was some time before the dangers of second-hand smoke were widely acknowledged!

Meanwhile, Dad and Grandpa always went deer hunting. Never once, to my recollection, did they bring back a buck. And I always felt bad about that. Every single year, I would pray for their success. I so desperately wanted them to have that experience! I’ll never understand why God ignored my pleas but I don’t care for venison so I won’t dwell on it. ;=) Many years later, my dad continued the Thanksgiving hunting tradition with my boys. Just once. They had no better luck with the bucks. But I got my shot.

When Thanksgiving dinner eventually fell to me, I managed to muddle through with stuffing for the sake of tradition. Until one year, thanks to Rachel Ray, when I began to enjoy it. My family did, too. With all due credit to Rachel, I’ve improved on her recipe. My ingredients are basic but more flavorful. I’ve tried recipes with apples (as in her original stuffin’ muffins) or sausage but my family only tolerates them because they are kindhearted. Or hungry. So it seems this recipe is it for us. But thank you, Rachel, for the jump start. And you’re so right: everyone loves the crunchy bits!

They love it so much so that when I’m making stuffin’ muffins for a holiday crowd, the quantities look something like the photo below. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Another baker beware: read through the entire recipe before you start. I am no professional recipe writer. It’s sure to be a bit jumbled. But stuffin’ preparation is pretty simple. Trust me. I’m also no gourmet! Grab your muffin tins and giddy’up!

Ingredients

2-3 sticks butter
1-2 containers chicken broth
2-3 large jars turkey gravy
3-4 bags of fresh croutons
2-3 bunches of celery
1-2 big mild onions
Poultry seasoning
Fresh rosemary, thyme, sage
Salt and pepper

I buy croutons from the grocery store bakery. No boxed croutons allowed! I also make some of my own, with whatever tasty bread I have around. You can make this ahead. Days ahead, if you like. Just leave it in the oven. Unless of course you need your oven! I don’t use mine much.

Homemade croutons

  • Slightly stale bread works great. Slice it up and place in a large bowl.
  • Toss with olive oil. Season generously with Herbes de Provence if you have it. Poultry seasoning if you don’t.
  • Roast on a cookie sheet, oven set on medium-low, 15-20 minutes.
  • When the bread pieces are crunchy, crouton-like, they’re ready.

Now, let’s get to work…

  • Trim both ends off onion and remove root core. Peel it under cold running water.
  • Slice the bottoms off celery bunches. Separate and clean the stalks.
  • Set aside the tender inner stalks (heart) of celery. Reserve tender leaves also.
  • Trim off and discard the tough ends and leaves on remainder of stalks.
  • Slice and dice the onions and celery. You’ll want ~4 parts celery to 1 part onion.
  • Saute in a couple of sticks of butter over medium heat.
  • Add in several tablespoons of seasonings and fresh herbs (finely diced, no stems) as the vegetables begin to cook down. Lots of seasoning! Lots. You’ll know it’s about right when the whole mess starts to look dirty.

Breathe in deeply. Enjoy the aroma. Have a sip of wine. Another sip.

  • While this is sauteing away, butter the inside of all baking pans. The best way to serve is as muffins. This is Rachel’s brilliance! They become crunchy-topped individual servings. Butter around the top edge too, for easier removal.
  • Back to the stove top to stir. You may need more butter if you started with one stick. Don’t let it get too dry. Never enough butter!
  • When vegetables are nearly translucent and tender, snip and add in tender leaves from celery hearts.



  • Dump approximately half of your croutons into a gi-bunga bowl.
  • Transfer this hot mess from stovetop to bread in bowl. Stir together.
  • Pour in a box of chicken broth, distributing evenly.
  • Add in a jar or two of gravy. Mix together.

The gravy is my secret ingredient and maybe a small spark of brilliance in this recipe. It’s huge for both moisture and flavor.

  • Add more croutons as you are able.
  • Maybe you need more broth. More likely, more gravy. Mix again.
  • Continue to add and mix remaining ingredients together.

The trick is not to have more liquids than you have croutons to (somewhat) absorb. You don’t want a mushy mess. But you do need a fair amount of moisture with the bread. Nobody likes bone-dry stuffing. This is not going in the bird so the moisture is all on you!

This may be pushing it, but I’d suggest homemade croutons are a second spark of brilliance in this recipe. They are so much better than boxed bread crumbs. I totally made up the process described above. My first attempt demonstrated the importance of slicing the bread before you bake.

At this point, you’ll need to use your hands. It’s messy. Don’t forget to take off your rings first or you will never make this again. Use 1-cup measure for giant muffins and 1/2 cup measure for regular sized muffins. Press mound of stuffing slightly with your fingers to help the muffin form up.

The recipe above will make 24 regular muffins, plus 6 giant muffins, and then some, depending on quantities used. If you have more stuffin’ than you have muffin tins, pile the extra into low pans to maximize the crunchy effect. It’s all good.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the pan(s). You have plenty of time to put your feet up and finish that glass of wine. You might like to munch on those tender celery hearts, filled with cream cheese or another soft cheese. Otherwise, you can serve them up as an appetizer.

When the stuffin’ is done, the top is crispy but a knife comes out a bit sticky. Loosen the edges and gently lift each out, place on a platter, and keep warm ’til serving. Yummylicious! Enjoy with a big ol’ helping of thanks-giving blessings.

~René Morley