aunt rita’s baked beans

 

I read recently about “Blue Zones” — places of the world where people live remarkably longer and better. It’s all quite fascinating.  The highlands of Sardinia, Italy; a Greek island, Ikaria; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California, all boast healthy elderly populations that stand out among all others in the world.

I’m intrigued by distinctions among the Blue Zones. For example, Sardinia harbors the most long-lived male population on the planet and Okinawa the oldest females. Elders in Ikaria not only live longer but suffer dramatically less with Alzheimer’s disease. Costa Rica spends a small fraction on health care by comparison to U.S. yet Nicoya residents are 2.5 times more likely to reach a healthy age 90. Loma Linda boasts the most highly concentrated population of Seventh Day Adventists in the world, known for keeping a strict Sabbath and biblical diet.
Continue reading aunt rita’s baked beans

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. It’s hard to argue with this logic. They claim medical professionals are an export and health tourism is a thing — yet it’s not clear the source of either, which raises some suspicion.

The country is remarkably well kept, rubble, smokestacks and smoldering fires notwithstanding. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to deny that 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. “Black markets” are robust. 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