Friday, September 24, 2010

Country Life

Oh, Toto. We're definitely not in Chicago anymore.The past 24 hours have been filled with not-so-subtle reminders that we live in the country.

Mid-day yesterday, the air filled with the smell of wood smoke. At first, I thought some fool had decided to burn brush despite the dry, breezy conditions. Then I spotted the smoke--and lots of it--coming from the ridge directly across the creek from our property. I grabbed my camera (mostly for its telephoto lens) and headed up onto the Booth (the big hill beyond our barns) to get a closer look. Not only did I get an eyeful of smoke and flames leaping up the trees, but I found lots of ash in our very dry pasture up there. Most frightening was the sound of the fire whooshing through the underbrush every time the breeze kicked up.

I could hear the firemen talking on their radios not far from where I was, so I knew they were at least watching it. A neighbor who called 911 later told me that it was a controlled burn. We'd had one of those a couple of years ago in the same place but not nearly so big. I don't know if it got out of control or if there was just that much more fuel on the ground after our big snowstorm last winter, but this one was too close for comfort.
Although I had no idea where I was going to take the buffs if the fire started coming our way, I figured I could at least make it easier to collect them by closing off their access to the Booth. Fortunately, I had just given them access to some new pasture so they weren't very interested in the Booth, anyway. They certainly didn't seem bothered by the fire. Eschol was maxing and relaxing.

While Audrey had a big old stretch, I went up to the orchard to try to get a better look at the fire.

The fire was out well before sundown and I took comfort in the sound of chainsaws in the area, presumably the firefighters cutting down a few hazardous trees as they looked for hot spots. Later in the evening, the smell of smoke came through the windows strongly. I started to look for a glow in the distance but saw nothing. I suspect it was just the smell of the charred remains enhanced by the evening dew.

Much as I appreciate the fire department clearing out the fuel on the forest floor so there's less to burn if a wildfire breaks out, I sure wish they'd let us know when they're doing it. Nothing focuses one's attention and gets the mind racing like seeing flames heading toward your property. But before I could turn my mind to creating an evacuation plan for the buffs, I had to think about a different problem: how to fend off an invasion.

As I sat at my computer, eating breakfast long about 7 o'clock this morning, I heard an enormous splash in the creek. This was not the bloop of a black walnut hitting the water nor of a kingfisher going in for the kill. Too big for turkey and too graceless for deer, I ran to the window to see what was making the successive splashes. What should I see but our neighbor's herd of about 10 black Angus cattle trooping through our lower pasture and up into the side yard.
I shouldn't have been surprised since they had already kept me up half the night. Some people are kept up by the neighbors' dogs barking. Me, I get kept up by the cows bellowing and the bulls trumpeting. They are amazingly loud and the sound travels right down the creek and into my house.  I'm so glad my buffalo don't make noise like that.

I stepped out in my barefeet and nightgown to see if that scary sight alone would be enough to convince them to turn tail and return home. It was not. They proceeded up the driveway toward the water buffalo. I ran back inside, tried unsuccessfully to reach the cattle's owner, threw on some proper clothing and my boots, then headed after them.

Naturally, I found them right across from the buffs. I let myself into the pasture with the buffs and found myself staring across at a very large bull (looked to be easily 1800 lbs) who had located the low point in our fence. I tried to make some quick calculations about the best escape route should he decide to jump the fence. The buffs were chill as always, though they were curious about their bovine brethren. The herd had quite a few bulls, all of whom were quite a bit bigger than the buffs--heck, so were the cows. I think there was only one calf that was smaller than the buffalo. Despite my buffs having horns, this was not going to be a fair fight. Not one to back down, Eschol started heading for the fence and I tried my best to distract him. Eventually, the big bull grew weary of our standoff and headed back towards the house. The others followed, as did I--at a safe distance.
 They toured the Green (the area down by the creek where we have our garden and apiary) for some time, nibbling at the grass and doing unkind things to my one little sourwood tree. Fortunately, they didn't knock over the beehives. The herd must have left one or two members behind when they crossed the creek, because  one of the cows kept up a steady game of Marco Polo with someone on the other side. Eventually, it was too much for her and she raced across the creek for a reunion. Only one other cow followed her. The rest of the gang looked like they were going to cross down by the beach but our ringleader (let's call him Ferdinand) came back up and decided to investigate the yard.

Bru was delighted as always to make the acquaintance of a big beastie.
 I really have no idea what the bull was thinking at this point, but when another bull showed up with more on the way, I let discretion kick in and I brought Bru into the house. Didn't really need to have the bulls leap over or plow through the chain-link fence to get at him.

Eventually, the remaining herd headed back up the driveway towards the buffalo. I called again and this time got through to the owner to let him know his cattle were on the move. I heard him across the creek honking the horn of his truck, calling to his bull, and banging on the feed pail to no avail. Eventually, he showed up in his truck. We chatted a bit and when I mentioned how riled up they'd sounded last night, he said he'd heard them, too--along with a bunch of coyotes. Our best guess is that the fire flushed out the coyotes from the conservation area and they ended up in with his cattle. That probably is what got them to break out of their pasture. No wonder the bulls were so interested in Bru. He's about the size and shape of a coyote.

I went up and hung out with the buffalo while we watched Mike call to his cattle (they had gone up behind our neighbor Liz's house and into the woods). Eventually, they came down to the truck (the sound of a feed bag rustling is still a draw even after eating tons of novel pasture grass) and we watched as they followed his truck all the way down the driveway. 

Other than a little damage to the sourwood tree, not much harm was done. The cattle even managed to avoid trampling the puffball mushroom that I spotted just past the chain link fence this morning. Calm and quiet have returned. Except for the damn crows. Get away from my apples!

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Savannah: we heard about a chocolate place that sounded like it might be comparable to our beloved French Broad Chocolate Lounge. We stuck our heads in to Lulu's Chocolate Bar but it wasn't even close, so we left. We are spoiled and happily so.

Charleston: In search of snacks, I did find something called the Benne Wafer in amongst the tourist tat. These tasty little sesame discs seemed like a good, if not tremendously healthy, nibble for us. The historic aspect (supposedly the slaves brought benne or sesame seeds with them though I don't recall them being given a luggage allowance on the slave ships) would surely make up for sugar being the first ingredient. I discovered too late that egg whites are also a major ingredient, so no benne wafers for Jim. Had to eat them all myself....

I guess I was hungrier than I thought. In my quest for substantial snacks, I not only loaded up on benne wafers but I bought four pounds of rice. As it was uncooked rice, it really didn't help me at the moment (and the added weight didn't make the search more fun) but I needed CPR. No, not that kind of CPR. This is Carolina Plantation Rice. Back in Colonial times, South Carolina was all about the rice but that crop had disappeared from our southern neighbor's shores by the 20th century. There is one place in SC that is growing the heirloom Carolina Gold rice again commercially. I picked up two pounds each of the gold and the aromatic. Can't wait to try it out and see how much more flavorful it is than good old Mahatma brand.

There's also a tea plantation that is the only one of its kind in the US. I didn't get there nor did I buy their tea. I think I need to visit and do a taste test before I sully my tea shelf with anything other than Typhoo. Still, I'm a big fan of people who are trying to revive crops that once were in abundance here and now are micro niches.


We enjoyed a leisurely drive up to Charleston, SC from Savannah, GA arriving around two in the afternoon.  That was just enough time to get Jim settled in and dressed for his conference. While he went about his work, I struck out in search of a healthy nibble to tide me over until dinner. I thought the historic Charleston market--just a block away from our hotel--would be my best bet. Unfortunately, unless I wanted a soft pretzel or to gnaw on one of the ubiquitous sweetgrass baskets, I was out of luck.

I don't have a high tolerance for tourist tat (nor tourists unless they're playing baseball in Asheville) and I found myself getting grumpier and grumpier as I raced past stall after stall with cutsie placards and cheap leathergoods. The 90+ degree heat plus coastal humidity wasn't helping my mood. I decided to look at the restaurants lining the streets around the market but everything required a major investment of time and money. Plus, it all seemed to be very big heavy surf & turf type eating (or the hopelessly kitschy e.g., A.W. Shucks oyster bar). I was about to give up when I spied a not-very-promising cafe tucked in next to the Sunglass Hut. Despite having all the charm of a convenience store, Cafe Paradiso saved me. This deli and hookah bar had the most delicious falafel and pistachio bird's nest. If only I'd had room for the baklava and a turkish coffee. Thank god for immigrants!

While Jim attended an early evening reception, I scoured the internet and the phone book for possible dinner options. Very slim pickings on There are a few veggie places but many were either not open for dinner, not open Sunday or Monday, or were too far away. Even then, they didn't look too promising for a proper sit-down meal.  We settled on Taste of India, a passable north Indian restaurant where the food had the potential to be fabulous but if the service was any indication, the cooks weren't really motivated to try.

The next day, I went in search of coffee and a light breakfast. Again, not to be found near the hotel. I settled for some bad coffee and a cheap breakfast at a little diner. Does Charleston have any local coffee shops? No matter. My adventure for the day would more than make up for a little bad coffee. I was off to Middleton Place, an historic plantation. Typically, I have no interest in plantations, but this one is special because it has water buffalo. For years, many people thought that water buffalo first came to the US in the 1970s when a herd was brought to FL to help control the aquatic vegetation that was clogging the waterways. Middleton Place, however, found historic documents which show that water buffalo were used on this rice plantation in the 1860s. As part of their effort to restock the plantation with historically-accurate livestock, they brought a pair of buffalo to Middleton two years ago. The two bulls are now four years old and are being trained as draft animals.
If I recall correctly, Adam is the black one and Burke is the white one. I had been told to expect Burke to be the friendlier of the two. Apparently Adam has not been terribly social, but they say he's getting better now that he's being handled frequently. I made nice with both of them and felt more than a little proud that Adam came up to me twice and gave me a thorough licking. Maybe I still had the smell of water buffalo on me or maybe I hung around there so long that I seemed like a giant salt lick. Either way, it was fun to see buffs that are so much bigger than mine. These fellas weigh 1600 pounds a piece and are expected to get up to 1800 pounds by the time they're six.
I even caught Burke rolling over when he thought no one was looking. Middleton does a nice job of trying to show the working side of a plantation with a lot of emphasis on the realities of slavery and slave life. No southern belles wandering around in hoop skirts at this place. I got to speak with several of the staff and learned a lot more about how rice was grown and about the history of the water buffalo. The original buffalo were from Turkey, though it's unclear from the records whether they were brought directly from Turkey or from a doctor elsewhere in SC who apparently also had water buffalo in the 1850s. Either way, much of the herd was slaughtered by Union troops during the Civil War. The few remaining buffalo ended up in the Central Park Zoo in NY.

In addition to the buffs, they have goats (Nubian and Cashmere), Guinea hogs (not to be confused with guinea pigs or guinea hens), draft horses, sheep, ducks, chickens and one of the prettiest milk cows I've ever seen. Beyond the stables, they have craft demonstrations such as blacksmithing and pottery. I enjoyed looking at many of the tools and implements on display. Anyone care to guess what this was used for?
They're also working on expanding their vegetable gardens which are dwarfed in comparison to their extensive formal English garden. I found the veggie side much more interesting. They also had an indigo plant (from whence the dye comes) and the largest ginko tree I've ever seen.

All in all, a great day out. Since Jim had been cooped up all day working, we struck out on foot for dinner. Finally, we found our kind of restaurant: cozy, friendly, neighborhood-y, and loaded with great food options for us both. Five Loaves Cafe was a lifesaver! We were so hungry and so happy to be there that we probably ordered too fast. The name, the images of winged soup bowls on the walls, and a specials board with at least five soups should have tipped us off that this place is known for its soup. Too late. We'd already ordered enough food to feed four people. Not that we realized this until the appetizers arrived. My plate of goat cheese gnocchi with golden raisins and balsamic reduction was big enough to feed me for two meals. But it was so good--gnocchi perfectly al dente and the rich goat cheese sauce spiked with just enough tart balsamic and sweet raisins to make it sing--that I couldn't restrain myself. Jim devoured his Greek quesadilla with equal alacrity. We knew we were in trouble but bravely forged ahead.

I barely remember the entrees, but I know mine was a lovely Corvina filet and I believe fennel was involved (I'm always a sucker for fennel). Jim had a great veggie stir fry with tofu. Neither of us expected to finish but we came awfully close. Thankfully, there was no room left for the incredibly tempting desserts. Five Loaves made us feel so at home, we didn't want to leave. But we waddled home (that 30 minute walk was even more necessary after all that) contented.

Before we left town Tuesday morning, we had one more stop to make. We have long wanted to visit the Hominy Grill as it is owned by the brother/brother-in-law of the fine folks who own the Early Girl Eatery in Asheville. Hominy Grill has a stellar reputation but since we didn't see many veggie options on the dinner menu (quite the opposite of Early Girl), we decided to swing by for breakfast. And we were not disappointed. Again, about a 30 minute walk from the Doubletree Hotel in the historic district, Hominy is in a great old building with the pressed tin ceilings which always make us smile. The service was charming and the food was outstanding. The ginger pumpkin quickbread was just as good as Early Girl's. And we finally found good coffee. Apparently, Counter Culture makes a special blend for Hominy Grill. After adding cream and sugar, it tasted like coffee ice cream.  Mmmmmmmmm.

So, Charleston was a foodie challenge, but in the end we found a couple of places we'd happily return to again and again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Looks like I need to get a few posts in if I'm going to keep to my five-a-month streak going. We've been traveling quite a bit this month and searching for good food on the road reminded me about one of the original inspirations for this blog: the difficulty in finding restaurants that cater equally well to vegetarians and omnivores.

Since Jim had to be in Charleston, SC on a Sunday for a conference, we decided to make a weekend of it. We started in our favorite southern city, Savannah, GA. Savannah has been our preferred romantic getaway ever since we lived in Atlanta. Its gorgeous architecture, walkable historic squares, and quirky sensibility makes it the perfect place to park the car and amble away the days.
We had no particular agenda other than to relax, so we simply ate and drank our way through Savannah at the leisurely pace that the heat and humidity demanded. Thanks to Jim's many nights on the road this year, we were able to score a room on points at the Bohemian. Intrigued by what we'd heard about this chain of boutique hotels (the newly-opened Grand Bohemian in Asheville looks quite swish and over-the-top with its hunting lodge theme), we were not disappointed. At least with the service and decor. The hotel has gone to great lengths to ensure that its rooms and furnishings do not in any way remind one of the standard hotel. The room was huge and well-appointed, including big comfy leather chairs in which to lounge while speculating about the authenticity of the snakeskin desk chair and the fur throw on the bed. They may want to consider permanently installing an IT guy in the room to help with the unnecessarily complex tv/internet system. Also, some popcorn to drop on the way to the bathroom so one can find one's way back would have been good.
The chandelier over the bed--with its "are those bones or shells?" look--could have precipitated any number of nightmares but thanks to the endless stream of drunken revelers on the street below, we didn't approach REM stage long enough to find out. Not the hotel's fault, really. Staying near the river in Savannah is a bit like staying near Rush Street in Chicago--definitely not for the early birds. We will try a sister hotel on one of the squares next time. And lest you think we didn't enjoy our stay, let me say that the comfy bed and entertainment value of the decor largely made up for the flaws.

Friday night, we ate at the Firefly Cafe. This small restaurant, tucked in the basement of a building off of the main drag, has always charmed us more than it should. There's something about the location and atmosphere that, while not fancy, just appeal to us. Maybe it was the warm glow of the lights beckoning to us on some cold, rainy night when we were desperate for food, but whatever the association, it has stuck. The food isn't cheap (few things in Savannah are), but it is good. The vegetarian options are rarely as protein-packed as we normally seek, but they always make Jim happy, nonetheless.

We began our Saturday at our favorite coffee shop.
Not only does the Sentient Bean have the best coffee in Savannah, it also has great vegetarian food. Jim was able to start the day with a tofu-packed breakfast burrito while I enjoyed a worthy granola with yogurt (minor complaint: the otherwise large and lovely blueberries were just a tad shy of being thoroughly thawed). The shop is next door to a natural foods store which we have used before as an emergency source of healthy food for Jim.

There was much activity in the park on this day, so as we left the Bean, we wandered through the Saturday farmer's market:
Not only was it different from most of the farmer's markets we attend in that there was Spanish Moss dripping from every tree, but we noticed a high percentage of African-American farmers selling everything from fresh produce to gourmet pasta. A bit further down in the park, they were setting up lots of booths for the Pride festival. Again, it was unusual to see a Pride event in September rather than June, but given the weather, I can understand why--it was schvitzy enough by 11am to make us attentive to which side of the street had shade. We were intrigued to see that the Log Cabin Republicans had a booth among others.

After a much-needed stop for lemonade, we made our way to Zunzi's--a hole-in-the-wall South African takeout and catering place. Originally, we were going to stop here for lunch but with a late breakfast and saving room for afternoon tea, it seemed unwise. But I just couldn't pass up the rare chance to have boerewors. Jim wisely passed on food (they do have vegetarian options including falafel) but I got an appetizer portion of boerewors with gravy over mashed potatoes. We sat on a park bench in a lovely square while I did my best to devour the incredibly generous portion of the spicy South African sausage that tastes like none other.

We strolled some more squares thinking we'd hit the Gryphon tea room late in the afternoon and call it an early dinner, but as a big storm approached about 3pm, we decided not to wait for high tea at 4pm. We made it in just as the skies opened up. This time Jim ate while I enjoyed a nice pot of tea and a scone. Thanks to a great window seat, we watched the soggy tourists, SCAD students, and horses go by from our dry perch. The Gryphon is one of the gazillions of beautiful old buildings owned and restored by the Savannah College of Art and Design. The school and its denizens have much to do with why we enjoy this town as much as we do--great architecture and great people watching.

The rest of the day was spent dodging bands of rain from the remnants of Hurricane Hermine. We got out of the Gryphon in time to wander over to Molly MacPherson's--home to 150 single-malt Scotch whiskies--before the next deluge. I finally got to try the Compass Box Peat Monster for which I'd been searching. It was one of the nicest, most balanced single malts I've had despite the extreme name. Jim tried more than I can recall but none beat the Peat Monster. Molly's scotch eggs left something to be desired (namely the sausage which was largely MIA), but we have to give major props to any place that offers flights of Scotch whisky.

Although we were tired enough for bed at 10pm, we realized we both needed a bit more nutrition, so we took advantage of the proximity of another one of our old haunts, the Blue Moon Brewing Company directly across from our hotel. Decent beer (it seemed better before we had so many good craft brewing options) but good vegetarian options for Jim and a surprisingly tasty cheese and leek tart appetizer (served with a generous portion of lentils) for me fit the bill.

In the morning, we hit Gallery Espresso for breakfast. The atmosphere is great as are the pastries, but sadly the coffee is not quite up to par. Not terrible, but not as good as the Bean. So, we checked out of the Bohemian, hopped in the truck, and headed back to the bean for road coffee. Next up: Charleston.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thai Basil Ice Cream

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it's time to give an update on ice cream. I didn't get to as many experimental flavors as I had hoped (it takes a while to devour each batch) but there was much good, cold fun nonetheless.

First up was peach ice cream made with fresh peaches from neighbors Brian and Gina's tree. There was a week where I was purely peachy--pork chops with peaches, peach and brie baguette sandwiches, peach ice cream, and loads of fresh peaches eaten over the sink with juice dribbling down my chin. The peach ice cream was good despite being a bit more crystallized than the other ice creams. I suspect the lack of any alcohol in it was to blame. Next time I'll add a few teaspoons of some liqueur to correct the problem, but the taste of the fresh peaches more than made up for the texture issue.

The best ice cream, however, was the one that I dreamed up after reading a blog post on The Unfussy Epicure. Her recipe for Basil ice cream with tomato jam gave me the idea for using the thai basil that smelled so wonderful in the garden but rarely got incorporated into my meals this summer. Thai basil ice cream was a huge success! In fairness, it is partly because the recipe includes eggs, making it more of a custard than a traditional ice cream. Still, the flavor was all thai basil. And the lovely green color came naturally.

The only variations from Kristin's recipe were a doubling of the amount of leaves (just 'cause I had so many) and the addition of a couple of teaspoons of Canton ginger liqueur in the last five minutes of processing to prevent ice crystals. I still can't believe how well this turned out. It is so rich, it seems hardly possible that it's homemade. I'm glad the recipe didn't make very much because I could eat way too much of this herby wonder.