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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Smokey Grilled Eggplant

Collingswood Farmers' Market Find: Petite Italian Eggplants and Zebra Stripped Tomatoes
 Melograno, Melanza, Aubergines, Eggplants - no matter what they are called or what colour you can find, I love them all.  White, purple, lavender with white stripes, reddish, brownish or black, skinny, fat, long or tiny, eggplant is a wonderful vegetable that should be eaten more often.  Now that it is Eggplant Season, it's time to come up with some new ways to treat this fruit/vegetable (technically, it could be a fruit, as it is the fruit of a plant's seed, with seeds inside...) to maximize it to its best potential.  The hotter it is outside, the less I want to cook anywhere.  Onto the grill these petite babies went, with the simplest preparation possible.

Ready for your close-up Mr. Beaker?
I bought a small basket of baby Italian Eggplants; washed them, cut the tops and bottoms off and sliced them lengthwise in half or into thirds if they were big enough. I tossed them with a drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkled a bit of kosher salt, a few grinds of black pepper and a few dashes of smoked paprika.  That's it.  Then I put them onto a hot grill on top of a sheet of aluminum foil, so that they would sear and cook and not burn (which is an issue I have a lot lately with grilling my vegetables, I burn them because I either have the grill too hot or I forget about checking on the veggies!)
"Grilled" Eggplants with oil, salt, pepper & smoked paprika
After a few minutes on each side, 10 minutes maximum, so that the eggplant was cooked through, tender and had caramelized.  Using smoked paprika added that smokey grill flavor.  Cooking them on a sheet of foil ensured that they cooked evenly and didn't burn and using the grill meant that I didn't have to turn on the oven.  You can do these on a sheet pan in the oven, set to 425 degrees Fahrenheit instead of grilling them.  They are done when they are tender and just starting to fall apart, the outer skin should be blistered but not burnt. 

A side note/update - thanks to my friend, SassyScrapper - You don't have to peel them! The skins add colour, and sort of help prevent them (especially when they are small and tender) from falling apart and disintegrating.   If you cannot abide eating the skins, then just scoop or scrape away the sweet, tender eggplant flesh.

Using a sheet of aluminum foil instead of directly on the grilled ensured that the eggplant did not burn but DID Caramelize
Grilling or roasting the eggplants this way adds sweetness and tames the bitterness.  They tasted as sweet as candy and were gone in a flash.  If using larger globe eggplants, cut them into long strips, about an inch thick maximum, so they cook faster.  Turn frequently to cook evenly.  Left-overs can be chopped and tossed into a roasted vegetable pasta salad with a bit of Italian Dressing.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Food and Market Finds: Jersey Shore Dining and The Pie Girl

We spent two weeks at the Jersey Shore and I'm ready to find a way to be able to spend my entire summer there.  The slow relaxed pace, the easy biking opportunities and the great farmers' market food finds all made for a wonderful vacation.  Whoever said there isn't good food at the shore was wrong. You just need to know where to look and what to do with it once you find these hidden feasts.

The number one key to locating the food finds at the South Jersey Shore towns, like in the areas where we vacationed, Ocean City to Stone Harbor, is to know about the weekly farmers' markets.  Fine dining may be a myth outside of Atlantic City, but decent honest food can be found every week in every beach community.  Even on the boardwalk, where the usual fare, repeating block after block like some poorly drawn cartoon town scene, are boardwalk fries, soft serve ice cream custards, pizza pies as big as truck wheels and the occasional hot dog or hamburger shack.   

We managed to find a gourmet hot dog and a top notch taco shop, Pure Tacos,  on the Ocean City Boardwalk, surpassing my taste expectations.  As for restaurants, outside of the stronghold seafood joints, there are a fair number of places to eat a decent meal.  We did a lot of breakfasts at Uncle Bill's, a South Jersey Shore classic pancake house, with establishments in Ocean City (2) running down to Cape May and all towns in between.   Eating out at a restaurant is still near impossible with our imp, Nate, 2 1/2.  Take out is a more logical option.   

When you vacation with family, especially grandparents, there's usually an opportunity for some baby sitting so the parents can have an hour or two for uninterrupted dining.  We went to Mildred's in Strathmere, celebrating its 60th year in business.  Very good Italian Food, served in manageable portions at decent prices.  It's the kind of old world Italian American Shore Restaurant that still offers the entree with a soup or salad and two vegetables or pasta as a side.  If it were a diner, we would have had our dessert choice included with the price!  Very good food, fast, clean, and you get roasted peppers and bread with each meal!

The Pie Girl's Blueberry Cobbler - AMAZING!

The real food finds where at the abundant farmers' markets that were operating nearly every day of the week in one town or another.  We hit the Sea Isle Farmers' Market located in the town center on Tuesdays and on Wednesdays we drove 5 miles into Ocean City and went to the market at 6th and Asbury.  The Sea Isle Market was lively, filled with good produce, crafts people and a calypso beat thanks to either piped in music or a DJ.  I didn't find anything extraordinary, though I wasn't looking for the best finds, just the best produce.  

The market in Ocean City provided us with all the best finds, Pies by the Pie Girl; Gilda's Biscotti; Momma's Homemade Apple Garlic Hot Sauce; Tony Baloney's Flat Bread Foccacia Pizzas; Coffee Talk Smoothies; homemade pickles.  We could have filled another car with all the goodies the OC Market had for sale!
The Pie Girl one pie at a time
By far the best find, on so many levels, were the pies and treats by The Pie Girl, Cat Gleason.  I could cry and smile about this young woman's story.  The Pie Girl is a 15 year old high school student from Ocean City, who bakes about 100 pies a week, in the church kitchen at St. Peter's Methodist Church.  She sells her pies every Wednesday at the OC Farmers' Market and donates the proceeds to St. Peter's to help feed the homeless and the hungry.  Her motto is, "One pie at a time".  There was a recent article about her in The Press of Atlantic City as well as some other local press and a mention in the St. Peter's Church Bulletin.  She's a remarkable, poised young lady, a rare find these days.  We chatted with Cat on our first visit to the market, and I couldn't wait to go back the next week to buy another pie and to talk further with her.  We were smitten with her loveliness, her well turned out products and the mind-boggling goodness of her blueberry cobbler.  The first week we bought 2 items, a chocolate pie with a graham cracker almost Heath-Bar like crust and the aforementioned blueberry cobbler, that had a sweet brown sugar and graham cracker streusel and crust.
Rob and Cat Gleason - Week 2
The first week she was friendly and open to talking but we really connected the second week, once she recognized me and I told her that I wanted to take some photos, blog about her and know more about her business.  Her dad, Rob, was just as warm and friendly, selflessly promoting all his daughter does, her hard work, her labor of love and the fact that she's donating all of the proceeds to charity.  When I told him that he deserves some credit too, for his hard work and his excellent parenting, he still demurred!  They both were happy to have me take their photo; I really wanted to get them both as I thought that there is a wonderful spirit to the two of them and it really comes through when they stood together.  
Swift business even on a sweltering hot day
Even though it was a horribly hot day, the whole operation was doing a brisk business, working at full capacity, with a few helpers of friends and family members.  Most of The Pie Girl's baked goods were gone by the time we made it to the market mid-morning.  We bought a tart and tangy key lime pie, which was devoured by our family in no time, and a few pie pops - little mini pies on lollipop sticks.  Nate enjoyed those a lot!  

Cat, her dad, Rob and I talked a bit about her business, her future plans and dreams and about working in the restaurant and food business.  I told her that my dream is to open a pie shop and she agreed, that is what she wants to do too.  I told her that it's great that she's doing this now, working her way up while she's young.  She'll get the best experience and learn the most while she's still able to enjoy the grind without it feeling like a grind.  Her dad was most interested in a shop I told him about that is planning to open in Philadelphia on South Street, called Mag Pie, a sweet and savory pie cafe.  If Cat keeps going at the pace she's working, she may well exceed her goals of helping the hungry and homeless one pie at a time, giving St. Peter's Methodist Church more than the $1,000 she hopes to donate for July.  She may, and I truly hope she does, open her own shop by next summer, feeding many souls one pie at a time.  Food finds and inspiration at the Ocean City Farmers' Market.  Blessings all around. 

If you are down the shore, in or near Ocean City New Jersey, make a point to stop by the market on Wednesday, from 8 am to 1 pm.  Tell her I sent you and make an extra contribution to her cause.  Her pies are as wonderful as she is, and she's lovely!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How I Learned to Drive

REAL SIMPLE Magazine, August 2012
My 1st "Publication"!
I've been waiting to say something about this big news (to me anyway), I had a piece of my writing "published" in REAL SIMPLE Magazine!  It's been difficult to keep mum on the subject, not tweeting, Facebooking or blogging about it until the magazine was published and on the newsstand.  Given my propensity for talking and sharing this was a hard secret to keep!
Your Words - What Risk are you glad you took?
REAL SIMPLE Magazine asks a question every month of it's readers and the best responses get published a few months later; the best response is the big featured reader response.  We had the May or June issue and the question posed for a future issue was,

"What risk have you taken that you are glad you took?" 

 I immediately thought about how I learned to drive so late in life.  I kept on thinking about this all night and when I woke up the next day, I just knew I had to enter my essay.  I had a premonition and I knew that I needed to follow through on my hunch.  Sure enough, about two weeks later I heard from one of the Editors at REAL SIMPLE, stating that she really liked my essay and wanted to publish it in the August issue.  Colour me happy but not too surprised!  This bit of good news came on the tale of my meeting with Flying Kite Media and my stint at ExtrodinaryED in Collingswood.  Several of my early and mid-June blog posts chronicled those happenings and I couldn't wait to add this to the mix!  I mentioned it to a few people but I didn't want to talk about it in case a) it didn't get in the issue and b) I wanted to have the element of surprise of the published essay so that I could add it to the blog.

Now bear in mind that what I wrote was a wee bit longer than what was actually published.  The editors took liberties with my essay, culling out the integral information and  tidying up my story succinctly for its maximum impact, even if the final line isn't entirely true.  What I actually submitted as my story is this:

At the age of 42 1/2 I finally concurred my life long fear of driving and got my driver's license.  I grew up in Philadelphia and never learned to drive.  My mother never taught me how to drive and she herself has a fear of driving.  I got by in life by taking public transportation, via bicycle and through the kindness and annoyance of many friends.  I used to say that my not driving kept me young when in fact it kept me from being a fully realized adult.  I limited my choices in places I could go and jobs I could take.  

When my partner and I were expecting our first son, she told me that I had to get my license because she wasn't going to drive herself to the hospital!  Her firm and persistent  prodding drove me to get my license.  A week before our son was born, I got my driver's license.  Now I'm able to drive where I want, when I want and share the burden of driving on long trips.

The biggest benefit of getting my drivers license was that it allowed me to drive to see and take care of my grandmother during the last year of her life.  Proof that the risk was worth more than my fear.

I know that I've written about my driving issues before but to have the story in print in a major publication is immeasurably cooler than sharing the story here for a few people to read.  This is a big deal to me, as was my learning to drive.  I occasionally have some residual driving phobias but I keep thinking about how much it has added to my quality of life.  In the nearly three years that I've been driving I was able to drive to Pittsburgh and do other long trips. We could move to New Jersey and I'm not dependent on taking public transportation any more! I have my own car! I can take jobs anywhere I can reach by car now!  While I didn't drive Liz to the hospital when Nate was born, an ambulance did that, I did drive her and Nate home when they were able to leave the hospital.  Best of all, as I said, I did get to spend that last year of Faye's life (my grandmother) visiting her several times a week, helping to take care of her. Earning that gift of independence so that I could help her made my license feel like a winning lottery ticket.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Our Independence Day

A video and photo montage of our 1st Fourth of July Parade in Collingswood.
Consider it an apetizer to the meal of the post!

We had a memorable 4th of July here in Collingswood, New Jersey.  I decorated the outside of the house for the Proud Neighbors of Collingswood house contest...we didn't win but it was fun to get new decorations for our the house.  A few days later, I learned, from a friend, that as a new-comer to town, I am hardly eligible to win a house decorating contest.   The house decorating contest as well as the bike and wagon parade are a big, Big, BIG Deal in this town.  My friend, Morgan, said that I need to bring all of my South Philly best and gaudiest to my decorating finesse if I want to even make a dent in this social scene! I say, give me a few more years, and I'll be a big somebody here in this town! 

We also took Nate to the Annual Collingswood Children's Bike and Wagon Parade at Knight Park. I decorated Nate's wagon, with what I thought were  awesome decorations to the hilt.  Little did I know that this parade is a huge deal as well in Collingswood!  I hardly used enough decorations.  I used what I had on hand, some stray shiny red, white and blue garland, a few sets of lights, one that was a set of battery operated stars, another a set of Fourth of July Star Lights that should be plugged into an outlet. work.  I used lots of flags, stickers, a pin wheel and bows.  Next year I'll have to buy some serious decorations and work in a theme of flashing lights and whizzing thingamajigs to even get an honorable mention in the parade.  We didn't even warrant a photo opportunity other than my own journalistic and obsessive photo shooting!

Our wagon looked great but didn't compare to the elaborate bunting, crepe paper, wings, head dresses and other independence day paraphernalia that families and kids of all ages used to decorate their cozy coupes, radio flyer wagons, trikes and bikes.  There were kids in full Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty costumes! One little boy no bigger than a minute was sporting an Uncle Sam beard and hat over his bike helmet!  Another girl, a pre-teen, had a 10 foot wingspan, sparkling wig, and flag trailing behind her very decorated adult tricycle. 

We hardly stood out at all in our modestly turned out radio flyer wagon with it's canopy.  It was great fun to participate, marching around the park and watching all the excitement and activities.  Participating in this event, decorating his wagon, dressing up in our red, white and blue best,  I felt as though I was being the mother to Nate that I wished I had had growing up.  It was bittersweet and wonderful all at the same time.  Nate barely understood what was going on, though he was happy to be in his wagon, happy to be around so many kids and of course, delighted to get ice cream after the parade!

After the morning event, we came home to cool off, eat lunch, and nap.  Later in the day we had new friends from the neighborhood come over for a play date and for a low-key barbecue.  Nate is enamored of this new little girl we met, Bella.  He woke from his nap calling for her and wouldn't stop asking for her!  Of course, in typical boy and 2 3/4 year old fashion, once she came over, he didn't want her to play with any of his toys! Ah, the simplicities of life.

It was lovely to meet a new  friend with a child close to Nate's age, especially since the new friend, Donna, is a single and non-traditional parent raising a daughter on her own.  Inasmuch as we have all sorts of friends, couples, gay, straight, married, whatever, there is something to being friends with people who "get" us and "it" without having to explain or justify who we are and what we are doing.  I now have a whole new set of knowledge and respect for so many of my friends who have kids.  I now UNDERSTAND why there were years when we didn't talk, because raising kids is a hard job, even if your child (or children) are easy going.  When you don't have kids, it's hard to understand the exhaustion, the stress, the blessing, the trials and all of the joys that you experience on a daily and weekly basis. When I'm around other parents, I don't feel like having to explain or apologize for Nate's temper tantrums or his histrionics.  While I worry constantly about all of his behaviors, when we are around each other, we all see that our kids, no matter the age, all act out and behave in similar fashion. How do you tell a 40 year old to move their tuccus off the couch because it's your son's favorite spot and he's crying buckets because you don't have the sense of said two-year old to haul your keister to another seat?!  It's a sweet relief to be around other people with kids.  I don't want to lose my friends who don't have kids, or who's kids are grown up, but for the moment, I am enjoying the sisters and brothers in arms camaraderie that we share.  

As for being the parent to my son that I wish I had had, well, that's one of the gifts we can give to ourselves, to make it right for ourselves.  I laughingly said that I sort of understood Michael Jackson, who claimed he never had a childhood, so he was having a childhood constantly as an adult.  In one sense, many of us who had traumatic childhoods do need to reclaim it in our adulthood.  On another hand, there can be a point where you aren't having an adulthood either, by trying to relive and find the thing you miss, lost or want.  I enjoy doing for Nate what I wanted to have done for me but I also want to do for Nate what he needs and wants.  Real fulfilment of your loved one's life is much more important and freeing than trying to reclaim one's lost youth.  That's my true independence for a modern life.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

DIY Arts and Crafts

The Bicycle-Chef's handy artwork!
We decided to make or buy interesting light switch and outlet cover plates.  The idea isn't new and it's something I've done in the past, collaging over light plates, typically using stamps.  I haven't done it in years and am really happy to have rediscovered another artistic passion of mine!  We found a couple of nice plate covers at a store on Haddon Avenue in Collingswood, called, Arts Plus.  The hope is that we'll collect, or I'll make, new outlet covers over time.  In our new house, we have a lot of outlets, light switches and other utilitarian covers that could a bit of sprucing up.  
Flower Stamps, part of my art stamp collection.
This cover is in our kitchen

Japanese Cherry Blossoms. Hand-made Japanese paper.
This is in our upstairs hallway.
The above bicycle cover was one of my creations, using a wrapping paper I found at The Paper Source.  Since many of the light switch plate covers I've seen on Etsy and other crafty sights weren't quite right, I made my own.  This one is in our downstairs half bathroom.  That room painted a Southwest Vivid Flame Orange, has become The Bicycle-Chef's decorated room!  Most of the artwork in here is bicycle related, hence the plate cover being collaged with retro bicycles.  I cut a few of the bicycles out and repositioned them so that the entire cover made more sense and was filled in along the areas where there was empty space.  That's the problem with a lot of covers I've been finding, there isn't an over-all artistic sense of the entire space.  The images might be nice, but artisans aren't considering the areas that are blank, nor are they taking into consideration the center spot where the light switch is located!
Some of the other artwork or hand-crafted items in The Bicycle-Chef's room are either bike-related or just great pieces of art that we've collected over the years and now have a place to reside.

The center image is a poster I got from the very nice folks at Kitchen Kapers at 17th adn Locust Streets.  It's a new poster advertisement for a new colour line of Le Creuset cookware, Marseilles, a sort of French Blue.  The wheel of the bicycle is the lid of Le Creuset pot!  It screamed to me as I walked by the store one day so I went into the store and asked if they had another image that I could buy.  As it happened, they had a second poster, which they gave to me.  I had it mounted and now it's in our bathroom.  The yellow biker is the piece, DASH, a street artist who's work I love and document, made for me last October.  I've previously written and shared photos about this work.

Not satisfied with light and outlet covers, I've done my stamp collage artwork on frames and mirrors too.  This mirror, one of two that I have, was done in the early 1990's, utilizing old stamps that I either bought to use as art, or saved.  The idea came to me from a piece I saw in a Besty Johnson boutique that used to be in Center City on 18th Street near Samson.  That framed mirror had dinosaur stickers laminated around the frame.  I decided that the stamps I had would look better.  Taking a good idea and making it my own.

Painting by Meghan Dinneen
This little painting, was done by a local Philadelphia artist named, Meghan Dinneen!  I bought it from a show at Nice Things on Passyunk Avenue in our old South Philly neighborhood, about a year ago.  It's a sweet little painting on a wooden board, varnished and simple hung with a wire stapled to the back of it.  I met the artist and we both tripped on the fact that her last name is the same as my first name, though spelled differently.  Plus, her art show was all bicycle related.  I wish I had purchased other pieces of hers.  I'll have to look her up or call or visit Nice Things again to see if she's still making bike art.
Milagro's and a Penny Painting by Tom Lessner
A collection of my Mexican Milagros in a hand frame, from Nogales, Mexico.  These were purchased on one of my trips to the Southwest during visits with my bestie, Rachel.  The hand frame has a small opening, about the size of a deck of cards.  Another great idea "borrowed" from someone else.  I saw a set of Milagros (Mexican charms and wish trinkets) at a friend's house.  She had hers pinned to a board, which was then framed and hanging in her kitchen.  Her collection of milagros was extensive.  As my collection is tiny, all I needed was a small frame or shadowbox in which to showcase them.

The lower painting, is on a penny! It's a cartoon version of Jimmy Rollins, #11, The Phillies Short Stop.  I had this "commissioned" for Liz's birthday about 10 years ago.  It was painted by local artist, Tom Lessner.  He and I worked together at The Reading Terminal Market in the early 2000's, cooking together.  I have a bunch of his doodles and drawings, one of which is a doodle of me riding my bike.  Hmm, gotta dig that one out and put it in this room!

This last print, is of course, another bicycle art related piece.  Liz bought this for me two Christmas' ago and we finally have a home for it.  It's an illustration of a bicycle built for two, with it's parts diagrammed.  I have a tea towel with the same print too.  I especially love the frame print, as the image was done on a page from the book, The Portrait of Dorian Grey.  That's a favorite book of mine, though the subject is a rather grim and disturbing story.

Do you have any artwork that you love to do? What's your secret passion project?  Let me know! Or if you like any of the crafts that you see that I've made, let me know.  I'm thinking of making more to sell!