Friday, August 29, 2008

True Person of No Rank & Journaling

Zen philosophy describes a "true person of no rank." I put my faith in Christianity, but I hold much admiration for Zen points of view of the world and of creativity. Deep inside each of us is a "true person of no rank," and we can approach our journal writing as such. Those of high rank and with many credentials need to remember that, as blessed as they are, they put on pants (or pantyhose) one leg at a time like the rest of us. Such a person is, deep down, a "true person of no rank." On the other hand, a person who has little schooling and a humble track record may feel unqualified to write anything worthwhile. But who isn't more qualified to expound on life than a "true person," and especially a "true person of no rank." By ignoring our rank or pecking order and focusing on our true personhood, we can look more closely at the world, pay attention to its beautiful detail and bring our observant meditations to life on our journal pages. ◦

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Noshing around Montreal

My husband Carlos and I took a road trip through Vermont and Canada, making our own breakfasts of natural cereals, rice milk, plain yogurt and fruit from the convenience of a cooler and food bag full of non-perishables. Goji berries, cherry pie Larabars, low-sodium chips, and more fruit took the edge off hunger as the day wore on.

But sometimes, ya just gotta eat. We visited a few places in Montreal that might fly under the food critics radar, but offered us delicious, healthy and satisfying meals. At Jardin Nelson, an indoor/outdoor and inner courtyard charmer in Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montreal, I started off with a midday glass of Prosecco, followed by a cup of really homemade chicken and vegetable soup, a creamy tomato bruchetta and a shrimp and avocado salad, all lightly and evenly seasoned and extremely well made. Carlos enjoyed salmon on a bed of angel hair noodles, with chives, and red and green pepper. The seating was picturesque, the breeze light, and the whole experience, so Vieux Montreal.

Downtown, turn to Le Commensal, a vegetarian buffet on the second floor of McGill and St. Catherine. It was warmly recommended to us by a former Montreal artist, Genevieve, whom we met during our visit to the Vermont Studio Center. A variety of tasty hot and cold vegetarian dishes and desserts are available by the pound. Fill up your plate and weigh-in at the cashier. Microbrews also available. Nice views fom the high perch and great food, especially for those like us, who long for hard-to-find vegetarian specialities when traveling. View a Commensal You Tube.

At the Novotel Montreal Aeroport, stop into Trio, an ultra chic minimal moderne place to relax to music piped in directly from France, and with a tray of luscious, nouvelle cuisine appetizers. I enjoyed brie with strawberries and mangoes, mushroom tarte, and escargot with tomato sauce on small toasts. Another night I had a trio of chicken skewers, along with small shrimp and scallops dishes. The soups are also fabulous. Carlos seemed to live on air at times, or at least arugula salads. The Novotel is a great hotel to stay, by the way.

For dessert, stop in again in Old Montreal and have one of its homemade sorbets at Les Glaceurs along the side street of Notre Dame Cathedral at rue 453 St. Sulpice. The pamplemousee, trichamp and framboise sorbets are all fresh fruit tasting, not too sweet and really delicious. Even my dessert-shunning husband couldn't resist.

Do you have a favorite Montreal dine-out place, and why is it so good? ◦

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Microbrews from Vermont and New York State

My husband Carlos and I have a running beer tasting debate. When it comes to microbrew beer, he prefers the india pale ale and I prefer the hefeweizen wit or white Belgian style beer.

On a recent road trip through New York State and Vermont, we had the chance to sample several of the local microbrews along the way. The first wasn't the best -- Otter Creek Ale from Middlebury, Vermont, which was somewhat skunky, not extremely fresh and gaining a 6 on our 10-point scale. While visiting the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vermont, I ordered a fine hefeweizen beer on tap, Harpoon's UFO or Unfiltered Offering from the Harpoon Brewery, located in Windsor, Vermont. My server smiled approvingly when I ordered it, and it was a wonderful summery, smooth beer. It is best on tap, though after later trying it in the bottled version, found it was still good. Carlos gives it an 8, but I award it a 9. Though not a huge white beer fan, he preferred Wolaver's certified organic wit bier, also made by Otter Creek Brewing, which is far superior to its Otter Creek Ale. Do the microbrews get their water from Moss Glen Falls?

Southern Tier, an India Pale Ale brewed close to the southern New York State highway that bears the same name rated a 9 from Carlos. But I just plain turned up my nose at it after one bottle. He felt this ale was fresh and non-skunky unlike the Otter Creek.

One of the trip's disappointments was missing the tour of the Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. We'd logged too many miles to drive back the next morning after breezing past it on Route 86. They make the Beligian style Witte beer, among others. We pulled into our hotel in Schoharie late that night and saw an inviting display in the lobby for Ommegang's fine line-up of beers. But they didn't sell it! It was only a 3D showcase for the brewery.
Along the way, Carlos tried Rock Art Ridge Runner wine ale from Vermont. We had seen lots of empties lying around after a late-night artists' campfire at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. After sampling the sole bottle he bought, he gave an enthusiastic 10 to the brew.

There was one last, but not least, beer that we waited to open after our return home to Chicago. Circus Boy, The Hefeweizen! is brewed by the Magic Hat Brewing Company in South Burlington, Vermont. According to the label it is "unfiltered and unfettered" and according to Carlos and me, we finally found a beer we could completely agree upon. I loved the full-bodied, unfiltered taste, and he liked the slight bitter edge that the Harpoon's UFO did not have. We both give this one a 10. But then, the beer at trail's end is always a welcome comfort and marks a time of special celebration. Cheers!

P.S. Mickey Dolenz, the original Circus Boy, you'd been upstaged after all these decades. You were a hard act to follow, but you did one up yourself by becoming a Monkee.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Writers visit to the Vermont Studio Center

I had heard much about the Vermont Studio Center from fellow writers. When my husband and I were up in Burlington, Vermont, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the small town of Johnson in the Green Mountains and see what the Vermont Studio Center was all about.

Weeks before, I contacted one of the administrators, Kate Westcott, to find out if we were welcome stop by and take a look around. She offered to give us a quicky visit, as July residents were leaving and August ones would be soon to arrive. But once we walked into the main office to meet her, she graciously gave us the grand tour of more than an hour of the lovely grounds and various buildings scattered around the local river and converted grain mill.

I had imagined that the colony was set out in the countryside, but The Vermont Studio Center is actually a series of existing buildings spread in close proximity throughout the town of Johnson that the organization bought up, restored or converted, and turned into artist and writer studios, sleeping quarters, dining areas and lounges. Its lecture hall was a building on the main street scheduled for teardown until the colony saved it.

The photo in the upper left-hand corner is of the Maverick Writing Studios, where resident writers spend their days writing in separate, private spaces. This building, in contrast to other vintage and restores structures was built from the ground up in recent years. Artists have long been part of the colony, but writers have only been accepted within the last decade or so.

The atmosphere at the place was also more social and close-knit than I had surmised. Most of the emphasis on the Vermont Studio Center is on younger visual artists, attracting residents from all over the world. It also seems to be a place where like-minded artistic guys and gals meet, fall in love and come back to marry on the grounds. Kate Westcott also serves as a licensed justice of the peace, and have wed many couples who were lovestruck there. While we were visiting, we noted a very attractive couple who had previously met at the studios getting ready for their wedding. Twenty and thirty-something visual artists, take note.

As for my husband and me, writers long married and yearning for the right environment to get our next books finished, I think we'd most likely prefer a quieter place where we might find more focus and fewer distractions. It is surely a wonderful place for visual artists to network, have a chance to exhibit their work during various onsite shows, and get valuable inspiration from one another. View a Vermont Studio Center You Tube. ◦

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Homemade Corn Tortillas at New England Culinary Institute

It's a dream come true. After so many years of marriage to a Mexican, I finally learned how to make corn tortillas from scratch. Not from my mother-in-law, but from the splendid guidance of the New England Culinary Institute while on vacation in Vermont. During this hands-on workshop, I joined four others to create two different summer salsas, tomato (red) and tomatillo (salsa verde) using vegetables we roasted in the broiler before whipping together in the food processor. One of the tricks was to roast the garlic cloves right in their skins and peel afterward, as well as keep the seeds in the jalapenos. (Note: I made the recipe a few days later with a girlfriend, and nearly seered our tongues on the mixture. Next time, I'll definitely omit the seeds).

An added suprise, and so far from my home in Chicago -- was to meet Chef Courtney Contos, who led the workshop and made it a memorable experience for all. She serves as the Director of Culinary Activities for people like me, who only take one or two classes at the institute. This Greek and Irish lass turns out to be part of a restauranteur family that goes way back in Chicago -- who ran the famous Chez Paul, as well as subsequent establishments by the names of the Flying Frenchman, Maison del Lago and the Royal George Theatre Cafe. Chef Courtney was balanced, knowledgable, friendly and helpful, letting us participants get our hands into everything and guiding us with the most proficient and deeply solid aire. You know she knows, but she let us find out for ourselves. What a gal!

What are corn tortillas? Nothing but corn masa, which is a ground corn flour and lime mixture, and water. The trick to making the perfect tortillas lies in just how much water, and of course, in the actual making. Golf ball size pieces of masa go into a cast iron tortillas press, but not before a ziplock baggie is cut on three sides to serve as a helpful sleeve to prevent sticking. What a revelation! Press the ball softly between the sleeve and the press, open, but don't flip, just turn the sleeve 45 degrees and repeat a couple of times. Peel off the raw tortilla carefully, and toss all at once into a heated cast iron pan. No oil necessary. Let bubble a little, check the corners, turn over and flatten with an egg spatula. No time at all on the other side, then slip into a folded towel to keep warm as your delicious stack rises. We ate every last one of them -- then and there! So good. And the salsas were to die for. I can't tell you the recipes. You have to go there and create them yourself. I highly recommend this workshop that takes place at the Inn at Essex in Essex Junction, Vermont, near Burlington. They also have week-long boot camps on various topics, such as natural foods. ◦