Southern Maine, Season by Season

Saturday, December 17, 2016


The Black Month

Do you associate months, or days of the week, with colors? It's a form of synesthesia, and it's probably quite a common thing. One neurologist, the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, speculated that synesthesia may be developmental; that is, perhaps sensory pathways may be connected in a young child until time and learning separates them into different categories of memory and experience. Perhaps those pathways remain tangled in some ways, in some people, into adulthood. You'll probably gather from this introduction that I do experience a type of synesthesia, and it does involve color. Among other things, I do associate months closely with various colors. And December is definitely black.

That's not to say that I think of the color black when I think of December. It's that the month ... IS black. It feels black; it is opaque, and has a fragile, almost powdery texture. The feeling is a little like melting into a chalkboard. It means that on a snowy December day, like today, I feel the black bark of the trees, instead of the white flakes that cover them. Too weird? New Year's Eve is always a sensuous experience for me, as black December gives way - quite suddenly - to the dazzling white, ethereal, and icy texture of January. And only then can I feel the snow.

But enough about my weird sensations of the month. Because it is black, December is the perfect background for the night constellations and the changing moon. It means also that I have real preferences for the colors and textures of Christmas decorations. Bright red and green don't do it for me. But small, icy lights echo the stars' presence in the velvet black sky. And muted colors - blues, silvers, pinks, natural greens - contribute a sophisticated and satisfying palette. Like this:

Our magnolia, adorned with "white" incandescent and LED lights. Really gold and blue, respectively. Maybe a few more lights, next year?

An illuminated snowflake on the front of the house. And yes, I really love the fact that the arms surround a Star of David.

Greens, birch poles, and incandescent white lights fill a snowy urn by the front door. You can glimpse a small tree on our back porch through the side light windows.

Mantel arrangement. Natural greens from the yard: boxwood, fir, and winterberries arranged in recycled glass jars covered with salvaged birch bark. The sleigh is a cardboard construction, and the banded rocks come from the nearby beach. The small hemlock cones that are tied to packing twine in the garland were windfalls on the deck of the house at which we spent a memorable week in Cape Breton this past October.
A small wire reindeer figure alongside individual bulbs of paperwhites.

Small Swedish dolls and a little tree with Swedish horses flank an old-fashioned clock on a vintage doily. 

A dark photo of the tree, flanked by snowy windows. OF COURSE it's the Perfect Tree! It always is! 

Some favorite ornaments



A trip to Boston

One of the nice things about being semi-retired is taking a trip to Boston (aka The Big City) for pleasure, and not for work - not that the two could not be combined! They often were ... 

Paul and I have a tradition of walking around in the city sometime in early December, to see what we can find. Often, it's a visit to a museum, and almost always, it's a walk around the Boston Common and the Public Garden.  This year, instead of staying at a hotel for a day or two, we decided to make a day trip by train. We left Wells in the early morning, and arrived well before noon at North Station. We enjoyed a brisk walk to the nearby Museum of Science, and took in the current exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci (which was great) as well as a smaller permanent exhibit on local birdage. 

Then we strolled down the Esplanade and Charles Street to the Public Garden to visit the ducklings.  Mrs. Mallard was  - as usual - adorned with her Santa hat, but this year, the ducklings had their own cold-weather gear!  

Here's Jack, the first of the ducklings

And here's Quack, bringing up the rear (queep!!)


 After a traditional New England dinner at Durgin-Park, we made the trek back to North Station and a homebound train ride in the dark - the perfect way to view the outdoor Christmas light displays of many, many homeowners and municipalities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine.


 A couple of arrangements for Christmastime

Here's a loose arrangement of amaryllis flowers and some eucalyptus leaves in a plain gray pottery vase. The soft colors and exuberant forms of the flowers make an exciting, if unconventional, holiday focal point.

A Christmas arrangement to complement my "good" china, which is white and light blue. White tea roses, blue sea holly, and seeded eucalyptus are nestled between blown glass ornaments. It's all placed in a footed silver bowl.


 A Holiday Appetizer

Christmas is a time for getting out favored recipes from years past and enjoying the results with family and friends. It's ridiculous that I haven't done a Christmastime blog post before, and so have not shared some of my favorites for this time of year - Cinnamon Crescent, Mint Meltaways, Baked Alaska, Oxtail Consomme, Country Pate, Cheese Gougeres, Miniature Tourtieres, and - of course! - the entire Menu for the Feast of Beast, including Strawberry Sorbet and (yes!) Fruitcake for dessert. 

It'll all get shared - eventually. But here's a terrific, easy appetizer that you can share with just one other person. It comes together pretty quickly ... IF you remember to take the pastry sheet out of the freezer. Do so! 

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Tarts

Serves 2, but can be doubled. Or tripled. Or fourpled. 

 Unfold one sheet of thawed puff pastry. Use Pepperidge Farm, and save the all-butter Dufour puff pastry for another time! Use 1/3 of the sheet (it will probably break that way, anyway).  Cut the pastry sheet in half and prick both pieces all over with a fork. Place the pastry squares on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet (or substitute a Silpat sheet) and bake in a preheated 450 degree oven for about 12 minutes, or until golden and puffed. 

Meanwhile, thinly slice a sweet onion (Walla Walla, Vidalia, or Maui) and saute the slices in 1 tablespoon of butter until light brown. Add 1/4 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme to the pan, and cook until onion is fully caramelized, stirring frequently. Don't let it burn! 

Place the hot pastry squares on plates and immediately crunch the centers. Spread each pastry square with about 1 ounce of goat cheese, and top with caramelized onion. 

With a salad, this would make a lovely light lunch.  And, yes - add a glass of wine! After all, it's Christmas! 

May it be a merry one! 


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Season of Quickening

Harvest celebrations

September - a month of in-betweens.  This month brings a number of changes to navigate - the languid ease of late summer gives way to the burst of activity, regularity, and purposefulness that attends the return to school, work ... reality. September really marks the beginning of the new year, which ancient agricultural societies knew well. Once harvests had begun, the dreaded Hungry Time came to an end with rejoicing. 

We in modern societies have lost that seasonal touchstone - which is great from the standpoint of being able to feed more people in reliable fashion. Food security for more and more people is a mark of enormous progress, and we still have a long way to go to fully achieve this worthy goal. But in making almost every food available almost all of the time, we've also lost the sense of assurance that the community would make it through another year because of the labor of the growing season and the bounty of the harvest. This loss is not merely circadian but - more importantly - historical and societal. That sense of assurance tended not only to bind communities to their agricultural pasts, but also fostered recognition of our dependence on others in the community, and upon the natural world that nurtures us all. 

That assurance is the foundation of the Thanksgiving celebration - something that's hard to remember in the US, because of the accident of its late-November placement. I think Canada gets it about right. The second Monday in October is a time in the year when it's possible to capture some of the flavor of the old harvest-festival celebration, and it also permits the holiday to stand alone, unmarked by the looming onset of The Holidays. 

We were able to experience Thanksgiving in Canada last year, because we were fortunate enough to attend the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention (NAFCo) conference and festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Paul and I presented a research paper at the conference, and enjoyed the music of the Celtic Colours Festival, which was linked with NAFCo. But one of our most fondly-remembered experiences from the trip happened on our first night in Sydney, Nova Scotia. On the evening of the second Monday in October, we finished a nine-hour drive and checked into our suite at a marvelous downtown hotel. We were tired and hungry. We came downstairs to find that Thanksgiving dinner was being served in the hotel dining room. Turkey, all the trimmings, wonderful apple crisp - it was more than mere hospitality. It was home. Harvest Home, actually. 

The good news is that we're going back to Celtic Colours this year! No conference this time, but lots of music - and the promise of yet another Thanksgiving feast celebrated while the October sun sets in the west. 

Thanksgiving, of course, is not the only celebration of the harvest in North America. The New England agricultural fairs that begin in August and run into October began as rural community celebrations of life on the farm: the finest animals, the best produce, and local triumphs from the oven, the sewing machine, and the sugarhouse are all on display. And yes! There are the rides, and the horse-draws and the oxen-pulls ... and the ice cream! 

As we often do in late August, Paul and I visited the Cummington Fair in western Massachusetts again this year. Cummington is Paul's home town, and the Fair was a highlight of his formative years, spent on a beautiful and prosperous farm just up the hill from the fairgrounds. He had no trouble imparting his love of the Fair to me, and now I look forward to it every year as well. Here are a couple of photos from one of my favorite places at the Fair, the Exhibit Hall, which houses displays of produce and craft from local communities:

A blue-ribbon collection of garden produce. It's gorgeous!

This basket won fourth place - but I think it deserved better! 

On the way back from Cummington, Paul surprised me by stopping in Shelburne Falls, at the Bridge of Flowers. Seeing the Bridge is always a major treat. Here are a few photos of that lovely day:

This dahlia is called Fireball. I'm growing one next year!

Phlox and hibiscus, and look across to the roadway bridge.

More hibiscus and lovely autumn sedum.


 A few photos from the September garden

The roses are in their second bloom!

Zinnias are really coming into full bloom.

This is the first season for the bold red hibiscus at the corner of my garden. It is stunning, if a little late in its bloom, due to its getting established rather later than it should have. Next season it ought to be spectacular.

One of my favorite roses - the Floribunda "Hot Cocoa": the color lives up to the name!

The white hydrangeas are almost through with their bloom. The florets are turning pink - a glorious way to age!

More hydrangeas.

And some phlox is still hanging tough!!


And of course ...

My dahlia, "Pooh"! And yes, Christopher Robin, that IS the right sort of bee. Although you can never tell.


An arrangement of late roses and lime-green licorice plant


A recipe from the box

Why is it that when you go looking for a recipe for an old-fashioned treat, it is often SO difficult to find? In this case I mean a straightforward recipe for blondies (called by some blonde brownies). Everyone knows what they are, and I'll bet everyone can taste them subliminally. But just TRY to find a recipe! Gourmet cookbook? Nope. Not the Times cookbook, not even the Settlement or Joy of Cooking. Better Homes and Gardens (even my Mom's edition!) never heard of them. Martha couldn't be bothered, but how about Marion Cunningham? Not a word. Epicurious? Good luck.

I needed a recipe for blondies to bring to the family cookout at the farm during the Cummington Fair. I promised baked beans and blondies ... and once you do that, you've got to deliver.

Then came Paul to the rescue! His Mom's recipe box is crammed full of hand-written cards for delicious and interesting things (switchel, anyone?). And - there it was. Well, not blondies exactly, but something just as wonderful: Butterscotch brownies.  What are they like? Well, imagine a blondie. Now, imagine it taken to the max, in every way. That's a butterscotch brownie. Okay, okay, here's the recipe. Make 'em and swoon ...

Helen Howes Wells' Butterscotch Brownies

Melt 2 cups butterscotch bits (that's just about exactly a 12-oz bag of bits) with 1 stick butter in the microwave. Careful when you do this! Cut up the butter, and add it with the bits to a microwave-safe bowl. Cover the butter and bits with a piece of wax paper (or better yet, the butter wrapper) and microwave in short (30-second) bursts, stirring between bursts. Stop heating the mix before it is totally liquid; the residual heat, plus some stirring, will finish the melting. It will be a gooey mess in any case, but try not to heat it to the point where the butterscotch begins to separate. Everything will still work if it does separate, but the texture will be better if it doesn't.

Whew! Now, you can proceed with the rest of the recipe. Generously butter a 13" x 9" pan (I use glass) and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Add to the melted butterscotch and butter 2 cups packed brown sugar, and let cool for a few minutes. Beat in 4 eggs and 1 tsp. vanilla extract. In another small bowl, whisk together 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. salt, and 2 tsp. baking powder. Add these dry ingredients to the batter, along with 1 cup chopped walnuts. Pour into the pan, and smooth the top. You can add more walnuts to the top if you like.

Bake for about 35-45 minutes. The center of the brownies should just be firm (not jiggly), and the edges should have begun to pull away from the pan. Let cool completely, and cut into small squares. Makes about 40 butterscotch blondies.


Enjoy the harvest! Just don't buy me a pumpkin spice latte with caramel swirl. Bleah.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Gray can be the color of August

A Trip to Eastern Point


Eastern Point, Biddeford Pool, Maine


   August in Maine is usually the time of brilliant oranges and yellows, and dull rusts blending into the dusty green of fields that have been recently cut for hay. This summer of 2016 has additional colors caused by deep, enduring drought as well: prematurely yellowed forest ferns, dry crackling brown leaves on trees and on annual vines that cannot extract enough water from their pots. Even my heat-loving fig tree is sporting yellowing leaves on the patio, and the roses can manage only small flowers for their second flush of bloom.

    The sea features a very different palette from the land, however. Yesterday was a welcome wet day - warm and humid to be sure, but with a slow steady rain that teased an end to the drought. And after the rain came the fog, fog that wrapped the coast in a thick fuzzy blanket. We went down to Eastern Point in Biddeford Pool at high tide to experience a roiling sea under a gray sky.  Sea, sky, and rock combined to offer an array of grays, blues, browns, and blacks just as varied as a flower garden.

Rocks jut into the ocean at Eastern Point

I'm always fascinated by plants that eke out life in the least hospitable places. The brilliant reds and greens of these grasses speak to the coming change of season.

More grasses and tidal pools 

The grays and blues of the stones and the sea were not the only attractions of the trip to Biddeford Pool, however. August grasses are in the midst of turning from green to yellow. They make a lovely contrast to green lawns and to some Queen Anne's lace, as shown in the following photo:

Grasses and wildflowers on the edge of a golf course, Biddeford Pool

 The Home Garden

Wildflowers are lovely in August, but garden flowers can be gorgeous even in a very dry summer. Here are a few shots from my garden from the last week or so:

A few ripening blueberries. We don't get a lot of berries, as the birds and mammals usually beat us to them.

Oriental lilies, Prairie Sunset daylilies, pink spirea, and a bumblebee enjoying my prized "Sir Paul McCartney" hybrid tea rose. A few Black-Eyed Susans complete the floral show.

Sunset-colored lantana on the porch step

A monarch butterfly enjoys a pink coneflower

A cooling and delicious dessert for August

   August is a great time to drag out the ice cream maker, and the array of stone fruits available at markets is a wonderful starting point for frozen creations that highlight the best of summer produce.

    Here's a suave and subtle sorbet made with my favorite late-summer fruit, plums. Plums are - to my mind - the most versatile and delicious of all stone fruits. Peaches and apricots can sometimes turn out to be mealy and tasteless, but plums just seem to get juicier and sweeter the longer they sit in your fruit bowl. And they make wonderful jam, especially if you can find the small damson or greengage varieties.

   This sorbet is equally successful made with black plums, red plums, or even pluots, the cross between plums and apricots. I think ripe red plums are best, though!! Unlike many kinds of sorbet, it contains no milk or cream - the creaminess of the dessert comes from the cooked and blended fruit skins.  I urge you to try it!

Plum red wine sorbet  (from Gourmet, August 2007)

    • 1 pound ripe red, black, or prune plums, halved lengthwise and pitted (about 11-12 halves)
    • 3/4 cup dry red wine
    • 3/4 cup sugar
    • 3/4 cup water
    • 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
    • 2 (3- by 1-inch) strips lemon zest (removed with a vegetable peeler)
    • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
    • 8 black peppercorns


    • Equipment: an ice cream maker

Stir together all ingredients and a pinch of salt in a heavy medium saucepan and cook, covered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until plums fall apart, about 25 minutes. Discard cinnamon stick and zest. Let cool slightly. Purée in batches in a blender until very smooth (use caution when blending hot liquids). Force purée through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding solids. Cool, uncovered, then chill, covered, until cold, at least 2 hours.

Freeze purée in ice cream maker, then transfer sorbet to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 1 hour.


Three things that I've found to be very helpful in making this treat are: (1) really cook the plums down - until they're falling apart. Do this over relatively low heat, and be patient. Also, (2) it's very important to completely chill the puree before freezing it in the ice cream maker. It makes a huge difference in the texture of the sorbet. Chill it overnight if you can! Last, (3) let the puree freeze in the ice cream maker long after you think it might be done. Just let it go. The freezer mixes air into the puree and - once again - the texture of the sorbet really benefits from a long mix. It comes out velvety, smooth, and extremely delicious.

To serve the sorbet, I like to make shortbread cups. Just make up any good recipe for shortbread or short sugar cookies, and use a 3" round biscuit or cookie cutter to stamp out large circles, about 1/4 inch thick. Drape these circles over well-greased overturned muffin forms (yup, that's right - turn the muffin pan over and mold the cookie dough into cups) Bake these at 350 degrees for about 10-12 minutes, or until light brown. Let sit for only a minute or two, and then gently remove the cups from the muffin pan and cool thoroughly.

Serve scoops of the sorbet in the shortbread cups, and garnish with fresh berries and a spoon of creme fraiche. A perfectly wonderful summer dessert!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


Return to the Light


It's January - the Northern Hemisphere has once again begun to tilt towards the sun, and we are told we need to be suffused with the hope of more light and more direct sunshine. Astronomically, all we need do is wait for this light; our old world will eventually gift us with earlier sunrises and longer evenings. The longer day-hours are beginning to be felt even now, at the beginning of the month. 

But traditionally, this is also a time of reassessment, and of wondering what other kinds of light we may allow into our lives, and into our world. It's a time of new possibilities and buoyed hopes, which we express as fond wishes for others and in resolutions for ourselves. Renewed versions of ourselves, the better angels of our nature, as Mr. Lincoln so profoundly expressed it, might be just around the next corner. And maybe, this year, we can hang on to the joy, promise and exhilaration of Christmas. 

The Romans knew, however, that a new beginning could not happen except out of the ashes of the old, the former, the discarded. The god of January, of course, is Janus - the two-faced deity who looks forward expectantly but also glances back at what has been. 

To look back at the promise of Christmas, and to look forward towards what that promise might mean for the New Year, I offer a poem composed by my uncle, William A. Sommers. He's a poet of some renown, and he nails this one cold: 

We came too late
the trails filled with snow
tribes of warring gods
blocking passage on the plain
losing our way as
a once bright star
retreated into the
hovering darkness.

The stable bolted
the magi in royal retreat
shepherds and sheep
scattered among the hills
the family fled
wrapping the child
against a wilderness of fear
and the soldiers
decked with swords and spears
stopping, searching,
stamping out the message.
But being late
did not dissuade the soul’s
insistent hope
for a chaliced grace
invoking relentless journeys
repeated each year as token
of that glimmered joy
whose unseen light
guides our forever search.

Also in the spirit of looking back, here is a column that I wrote for my local paper in January of 2007. It followed a visit to San Juan in early January of that year that culminated in the colorful revelry surrounding Three Kings' Day: music, dancing, and fireworks all night!! There's much in this column that seems quite current - especially the recipes! I urge you to try the delicious chocolate tres leches cake that I concocted. It's out of this world - although tasting it may blow a few of your resolutions for the new year!

A Taste of Southern Climes in January

            Even though we have been treated to a number of days of above-average temperatures, true summer weather is, sadly, months away.  Is it any wonder that, in January, droves of erstwhile hearty New Englanders head south for a little taste of August?  I confess to have recently returned from a memorable tropical jaunt to the lovely Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  Although the beaches, the local art and music, and the incredible ecology of the rainforest were on the top of my travel agenda, the food of Puerto Rico surprised and beguiled me entirely. It is rich in the bounty of the island and its surroundings: tostones, rice, and beans are among the basic, delicious underpinnings of a wealth of pork, poultry and seafood preparations.  The flavors are extravagantly spicy without a great deal of heat. And the desserts! (well, more on that last subject in a bit …)

            Here, therefore, is a menu that brings touches of Puerto Rican magic to warm a gray New England January.  Don’t think of these suggestions as entirely authentic; they’ve been filtered through the sensibilities of a short-term visitor who is, however, slated to become a long-term fan. For the main course, I suggest crab cakes.  Crab is everywhere on San Juan menus, and bags of the creatures are offered for sale at the sides of major thoroughfares.  I enjoyed crab-stuffed piquillos in Puerto Rico, but those spicy peppers are difficult to find in wintry New England.  Instead, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper will convey a bit of that special piquancy.  With the crab, serve shoestring fries. I had the good fortune to taste the best French fries on the planet near the beach on the Condado – it’s shocking how good a simple preparation like fried potatoes can be if they are properly handled.  Perhaps it’s time to experiment with that deep fryer once again! Add some chopped jicama to a green salad, and you have a simple yet evocative meal.

            But it’s the dessert that really conveys the wonderful taste of Puerto Rico. Stay tuned …

            Here is one of the best recipes I know for crab cakes.  Drain two 6-oz cans of best-quality crab, or (even better) substitute some fresh lump crab meat for one of the cans. Finely dice one very large shallot (or one small onion, but the shallot will taste better) and a half a red bell pepper. Saute the shallot and 2 tablespoons of the chopped red pepper in 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Add 1 / 4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more, if you like things spicy), a good shake of Goya adobo seasoning (I like the kind with pepper), and a healthy pinch of kosher salt to the sauté pan, and cook until the seasonings become fragrant.  Meanwhile, beat 2 whole eggs until combined, and add 2 / 3 cup bread crumbs; 1 slice firm white bread, crumbled; 1 tablespoon lemon juice; 1 1/ 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 /4 cup mayonnaise; the sautéed vegetables, and the drained crab.  Form this mixture gently into six patties, and sauté them in butter until they are well browned. 

            These crab cakes deserve the best fried potatoes you can find or make – I would use Prince Edward Island potatoes for this critical side dish.  Fry them in oil, or make oven fries if you like. Just make sure the potatoes are crisp and hot and salted when they are served. 

 And then – dessert! Nothing but a tres leches (three milks) cake will do.  This classic Latin American preparation is most often made with a simple vanilla genoise cake, but I sampled a chocolate version in San Juan that was stunning.  Here is my version of that sublime dessert.  First, bake a simple but rich chocolate cake that includes the essential Puerto Rican flavors of coffee and rum.  Melt 6 tablespoons butter with 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, 2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, and 3 / 4 cup strong hot brewed coffee in a large heavy saucepan over low heat.  Stir constantly with a spatula, until the mixture is smooth. Remove the pan from the heat, and add 2 tablespoons dark rum, 1 / 2 teaspoon vanilla, and one large egg. Beat the mixture well; it will thicken. Add 7 / 8 cup sugar, 1 cup sifted flour, 1 / 2 teaspoon baking soda, and 1 / 8 teaspoon salt.  The batter will be thin.  Pour the batter into a 7-inch springform pan that has been well buttered and dusted with plain cocoa.  Bake the cake at 275 degrees for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the cake springs back when touched lightly.  Cool the cake in the pan.  Meanwhile, combine one 12-oz can evaporated milk, one 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk, and 1 cup heavy cream. Place the cake, in its pan, into a container large enough to contain it entirely. Pierce the cooled cake all over with a thin skewer, and pour the three-milk mixture over the cake little by little.  It will absorb a good portion of the milk mixture. Reserve the excess milk in a separate container. Refrigerate the cake for several hours or overnight.

            To finish the cake, unmold it onto a serving dish.  Beat 1 cup heavy cream with 1 tablespoon Bailey’s Irish cream and 2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar until it holds soft peaks.  Frost the cake with the whipped cream.  Melt 1 oz. bittersweet chocolate and stir it into the reserved milk mixture. Cut thin slices of the cake and surround each slice with a spoon of the chocolate three-milk mixture. Enjoy the very special tastes of Puerto Rico!


 Some seasonal flowers

My husband Paul bought these for me to cheer me after we'd de-Christmified the house. Everything always seems a little more hard and severe after the lights and the tree and the glitter are packed away for another year.  So these flowers were a real beam of light ... and there will be more of that very soon. Happy New Year!