Author Archives: Stacey

CSA Food Photography

Food photography is not easy. Between the unappetizing haze of overhead kitchen lights, the hazmat orange glow of the camera flash, and the fact that every photo seems to include your cat, your dog, or  your clutter in the background, there is just way more going on than simply snapping a quick picture.

Now that we are completely inundated with vegetables from our Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) share from Pete’s Greens, I’ve found that I have some of the most beautiful food subjects to practice with and I thought I would share some of my practice photos!

Sweet "lunchbox peppers"

Sweet “lunchbox peppers”

Perhaps one day I will become proficient enough to do a how-to. For now though, I am still figuring out how to turn on the camera’s external flash. I have no idea how to actually use it!

Last week’s share included the most adorable little bell peppers you ever did see. They’re called “lunchbox peppers” because they’re small enough to fit in one, and they’re super sweet. Bright as a school bus too! We’ve enjoyed them with breakfast eggs.

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Celebration squash

These are “Celebration Squash” which are a lot like acorn squashes, I think, though I haven’t cooked them yet so I can’t say for sure. They’re really fun — green stripes and orange freckles. The photo doesn’t quite do them justice. 
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And then we have the greens! O, the greens. Each week we have received a baggie of beautiful, spicy mesclun mix and a head of lettuce. This week’s was a real stunner — I love the red edging on the leaves.

Green and potatoesAnd this photo was one of my first tries with the external flash that comes with the camera.  There’s a lot of potential there! But the background is a little chaotic and I haven’t quite figured out the trifecta of shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Side note — those cute little ‘taters were from our CSA share too. I also can’t believe Halloween is right around the corner!

Well, of course I can. I ate an entire bag of candy corn last night.

… totally worth it.

But really, I hope everyone has a fun and safe Halloweekend! And I hope you enjoy vegging out with me as I try to improve my food photography skills! Suggestions  and feedback are always welcome.

Hooray! We’ve rounded the final bend of this mini-series and what a joy it has been. We were blessed to have the most incredible foliage season here, though it arrived much later than usual, but at its peak, the brilliance of oranges, reds and yellows made the mountains look like they were set on fire. If you have two minutes to spare, this video of Vermont foliage in the Northeast Kingdom is fantastic.

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Vermont foliage

Amazing to me is how quickly the foliage arrives, and how quickly it goes. Like a fire, the first few days are just flickers of color. Day by day it gathers momentum until one day you realize that the hills are ablaze in color and it stops you in your tracks. You gawk. You admire. You snap a few photos.  But before you know it, the colors are sizzling and sputtering like the coals of a waning campfire and the leaves are fluttering down one by one.

Sight Fall Foliage

Sight Fall FoliageIt’s truly a sight to behold. And we’re not the only ones taking it all in! “Foliage season” brings tourists by the busload (literally). With enough leaf-peepers out and about, on a drive to Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center, Vermont we actually got stuck in some traffic! We encountered similar madness at the King Arthur Flour visitor’s center — packed!

As we ease into winter, the leaves are settling and the hills are somber. It’s a quiet aftermath that we’re experiencing now; a palette of neutrals; an unveiling of views. All in all, we were quite lucky to enjoy such a beautiful transition our first year here. The challenge of capturing it in all five senses made it all the more fun!

The Five Senses of Fall, Part IV: Smell

Continuing upwards and onwards with my sensational stories of the changing season here at our little house on the hillside, this chapter sniffs its way through the olfactory elements, better known as our sense of smell!

I must preface this with a great irony that by the time I get to Part V — Sight, almost all of the leaves and colors that prompted these posts in the first place will be gone! Case in point: In less than two weeks the view from my office window has evolved from an explosion of gilded foliage to the stoic bones of birch trees.

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At any rate, in pondering the perfumes of autumn, it dawned on me that a chapter on the smells of Fall is almost inextricably intertwined with the tastes of fall because our of sense of smell is such a huge component of how we enjoy the flavors of food. As author Eric Schlosser noted in his study of the modern french-fry in  Fast Food Nation, an estimated 90% of our perception of flavor is attributed to smell.

Vermont sunset

Just as the flavors of Fall are very nostalgic, so too are the smells that we come to love and associate with memories of family and food. In my kitchen, something about the cooler whether spurs me into baking, and I love the way the house fills with the sweet-yet-sour scent of freshly baked bread or the carmel notes of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.

Outside, the fragrance of the Fall season is more nuanced. If you pause for a spell on a cold day, you’ll catch the acrid undertones of smoke from a wood burning stove. Walking in the woods, a good whiff returns traces of loam and earthen decomposition. Floral aromas are no more, as the last of the perennial flowers have fizzled away to sticks and seed heads.

Vermont farm equipment

Because Fall is also the season to finish chopping and preparing next year’s woodpile, the smells of the season would not be complete without that of freshly cut wood. Cherry logs are bright and sweet, and maple trees have a masculine spiciness that always pulls me back for a second sniff. As we clear away boughs of pine and hemlock, the strong, tangy aroma of evergreens surrounds us before vanishing into the air. Oh how I love the smell of wood!

First Snow of the Season

Chairs after the snow stormI absolutely love this photograph. It was late afternoon on Saturday and the first snowstorm of the season had just passed through. The light of the setting sun was UH-mazing.

Ominous snow clouds hovered in the valley to the west, veiling the sun with their silvery shadows. As the winds blew the last of the storm across the sky, luminous rays began to glow through the snowy sheets of grey.

For just a few precious minutes this soft, golden light pooled across our yard. Flurries were still swirling about as I ran into the house to grab the camera.

I was transfixed by the aureate, dreamlike quality of the moment and only managed to get a few shots in before the crystalline snowflakes had melted into the diffuse light of the sunset.

Snow on the parsley plant I felt very lucky to be given the opportunity to capture the play between light and shadow, sun and snow! It seems to be part of the essence of this seasonal transition.

The Five Senses of Fall, Part III: Touch

Woodland HammockPicking up where we last left off, this post touches on the tangible side of the Fall season in Vermont (I love a good pun).

I think tactile sensations are often taken for granted. We use the sense of touch so routinely that our awareness of the sensation patinas to a vapid utility.

“What does Fall in Vermont feel like?” I asked myself.

At first blush, I drew a complete blank to the question.

So, I contemplated the matter from my woodland hammock…

For me, Fall in Vermont is the feeling of bare feet surprised by cold floors. Unlike in Maryland, where Fall means the warmth of summer without the humidity of summer, in Vermont, you go to bed on a warm night and wake up to a cold morning and before you know it you’re hopping around on the bathmats because the floor is just so darn cold! No “gentle transition” here — changing seasons is serious business on this hillside.

Fall here is also the feeling of smooth, waxy tulip bulbs feathered in papery shards that flutter away in the wind and the cool, crumbly winter quarters that we’ve dug for each bulb.

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It’s the soft, springy blankets of aster flowers that spill over planters in waves of color and the tender and delicate frills of ornamental kale and cabbage, radiating outwards with brilliant veins of color.

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Some trees are bejeweled with small, hard berries; others with soft ripening fruit too stubborn to let go. Fall is felt in the sun-kissed curves of pumpkins with their gritty vine toupees that love to catch on your sleeves and the smooth, taught skins of apples nearly bursting at the seams with sweet juice.

It’s the interplay of itchy scratchy wool and silky soft cashmere; of buttery leather boots; and the cloud-like warmth of a fleece-lined jacket.

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Fall in Vermont is a soft and swiftly-lain carpet of a thousand shades of orange. And it’s the feeling of dry leaves between my fingertips as I pull out little hitchhikers from my ponytail after I’ve gone for a walk!

For hunters, it’s the heft of their rifle in their hands; for gatherers, it’s velvety smooth clusters of maitake mushrooms.  For me, it’s the radiant warmth of cradling a cup of hot cider in my hands.

As we’ve just experienced this evening, it’s also the feeling of snow flurries raining down on the mountainside, delicately dusting the golden foliage.

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The Five Senses of Fall, Part II: Taste

Continuing my mini-series on the sensory experiences of the changing seasons in Vermont, this chapter meanders through the flavors of Fall.

Vermont Foliage

Brilliance in our backyard.

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Fresh apple cider donuts at Cold Hollow Cider Mill!

Waning days and cooling nights of October herald the apple harvest.  With apples comes the sweet ambrosia of freshly pressed apple cider, as well as the unparalleled pleasure of a warm apple cider donut that blends saccharine and savory in every bite.

It lies within the piquant spices, warm and aromatic, that we fold into our beloved autumnal recipes. Ground ginger with its peppery verve; the harmonies of nutmeg and allspice; a punctuation of cinnamon fragrance that permeates the air and lingers like a lonesome houseguest.

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Creamy, buttery squashes melt into soups and stews. Sugary pumpkins are distilled into pie. Great green fronds of kale and sleigh bells of brussels sprouts grow sweeter with each light frost. Fall is the taste of pizza topped with sweet slices of pear, tangy blue cheese crumbles and a drizzle of earthen maple syrup.

It’s the parade of pumpkin beers with flavors that range from robust imperial stouts, dark as night, to golden ales redolent of pumpkin, molasses and spice.

In my own kitchen, the flavors of fall are nostalgic. Some of my favorites include the first “Adult” recipe that I tackled all on my own: Bon Apetit’s Cheese Tortellini Soup with Cannellini, Keilbasa and Kale. I was 14 and it was my first acquaintance with a fennel bulb. My family was so proud of me for making that soup, and even though it was a winter recipe it’s always reminded me of the Fall season.

Another all-time favorite Fall recipe is Rachel Ray’s Penne Pasta with Pumpkin and Sausage. The sweet lusciousness of pumpkin and cream, fragrant with the scents of cinnamon, nutmeg and sage feels like a warm shawl wrapped around my soul.

A classic harrow from days gone by.

One of the classic pieces we inherited with the house. Beautiful!

And then, of course, there’s our beloved Fall soups and chili, their recipes speckled and spotted with dinners of days gone by: Barefoot Contessa’s butternut squash and apple; Inyo Country Store’s Lentil Soup; meatball soup with winter vegetables; my Mom’s hearty white chicken chili. Every bowl evokes memories of sweaters and swirling leaves.

In this gustatory narrative, I would be remiss to leave out the flavors of Vermont’s hard ciders, which we’ve discovered are quite exquisite. Our favorite thus far is the ethereal flavor of Citizen Cider’s Unified Press, an effervescent libation with nuances of apple, honey and sunshine.

The flavors of Fall in Vermont are romantic and intimate; rich with the fruits of harvest, laden with warmth, and fragrant  with spices and herbs.  Yum.

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The Five Senses of Fall, Part I: Sounds

Fall is upon us here at the little house on the hillside. In celebration of our changing seasons, I thought I would do a five-part series that touches on all of the sensory experiences of fall in Vermont, since the visual elements tend to get the most attention.

Fall colors

The aural experience of Vermont in October would not be complete without the metallic drone of chainsaws, revving to life like an inhalation as they cut through seasoned logs, then fading away to a dull hum as they await their next task. Throaty ATVs make quick work of moving the woodpile, and the logs offer a satisfying thud that you can feel in your bones as you’re stacking them.

The wood-burning stove has its own dialogue, creaking and groaning as the fire warms its walls and sporadic clicks and murmurs as the metal cools down. There’s the pops and sizzles of a damp log as the fire licks its sides; the hiss of air as the vents are opened and closed to control the flame. It’s the squeal of the handle on the stove and the rich whoosh of air as the fire drinks in the outside through the open door before the next log is thrown in.

Fall would not be without the crunch of leaves underfoot. It’s the sound of sweaters getting pulled out of storage, of jackets swish-swishing as they stave off the nip of cold in the air.

The start of next year's woodpile

It’s the hum of bees scurrying across the fall asters as they drink in the last of nature’s bounty for the season; the symphony of crickets that will crescendo into silence; the spectral cries of coyotes echoing across the valley on a dark night. In the morning, it’s the subtle crunch of  grass kissed by light frost.

In our home, Fall is the methodical chop-chopping of root vegetables for soup; of applesauce bubbling and blurping away on the stove top; of warm bread crackling while it cools on the countertop. It is the impatient whistle of the tea kettle and the muffled sounds of slippered footsteps.

You can hear it in the shops as they hawk their apple cider and pumpkin-flavored wares. And you can hear it in the towns as they celebrate the harvest season. It’s the thrum of snow tires on snow-less pavement, and the skittering of dry leaves across the sidewalk.

WIldflowers

All at once, fall is a cacophony of noises and an oasis of quiet preparation for the winter that is to come.

The Essential Tulip-Planting Companion

In the spirit of putting down roots in our new home, Travis procured over 400 tulip bulbs for us to plant around the house. I think his purchase was inspired, in part, by the magical experience that I had a few years ago when I visited him in Washington at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival that takes place a short drive north of Seattle….

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Tulip Festival 1The festival included fields of tulips that stretched as far as the eye could see, lighting up the grey day in a kaleidoscope of luminescence. It was UH-MAZING. If you’re a flower nerd like me, you can go here to find out more about the festival.

Not surprisingly, when our box of 400 tulip bulbs was delivered, excitement swelled in my chest as I thought about all of the wonderful colors that would greet us next spring. Then I realized that 400 tulip bulbs meant digging 400 holes, and my excitement shriveled up like a raisin in the sun.

9855446Fortunately, Travis had a plan! Cue drill-powered planting auger, stage left.

This little tool is a tulip-planting HERO. Powered by a cordless drill, it makes extremely quick work of digging perfect 4-6″ holes for tulips and any other bulb that has to be buried sufficiently below the ground. In less than forty-five minutes, we planted the first hundred bulbs in a sweeping wave around our side door.

It probably would have taken even less time if someone other than me was planting the tulip bulbs, but I have to measure the holes at least twice to be sure they’re the appropriate depth, gently tuck each little bulb into its hole, possibly sing to it, and then ever-so-carefully cover it back up with dirt and peat moss. There’s no rushing this process.

So, in summary, I’m not a huge fan of mono-tasking tools, but this one was absolutely worth every penny of it’s $19.95 asking price on Amazon. Soon we’ll get the rest of the tulip bulbs planted and then sit back and wait for the rainbow come spring!

Tulip Festival 2

 

5 Reasons to Try Making Bread

Bread

One of my attempts from the book ‘Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast’ by Ken Forkish

  1. YOUR HANDS WILL THANK YOU

    Your hands did not evolve so that you could peck away at  a keyboard all day. No, no. Your hands are the conduit of your curiosity and creativity. When you knead a loaf of bread, you’re letting your hands be hands, and they will thank you for that.

  2. YEAST DOES THE HEAVY LIFTING

    Unlike a lot of weekend-warrior projects where you still have to go to [insert name of store here] and buy [insert supplies here] and then go home and [insert action words for project here] to see it through, when you make bread, the yeast does all of that heavy lifting. Like a simple innkeeper, all you have to do is make sure the little yeasties are warm and well fed, and they’ll take care of the rest.

  3. YOUR FLOUR NEEDS TO GO, ANYWAYS

    As everlasting as flour may seem, it still has a shelf life like any other pantry staple. King Arthur Flour advises that the typical shelf life for flour is between 9 and 12 months. Because I eat carbs like it’s my day job, I doubt I’ll ever encounter spoiled flour. But! If you’re the type to let your flour languish, what better reason to go through a pound or two than in the pursuit of fresh bread.

  4. LESS EXPENSIVE THAN MOST DIY PROJECTS ON PINTEREST

    Do-it-yourself projects tend to follow the rule of three in that a project will typically cost three times as much and take three times as long as originally planned. On the other hand, a 5 lb bag of flour costs $4.95, and a packet of yeast is about $1.00, and that’ll get you a loaf of bread, some pizza dough, and leftovers for french toast the next day. Need I say more?

  5. EVEN IF YOU COMPLETELY SCREW IT UP, IT’S STILL BREAD!

    Even the most fantastic failures in bread making will still be delicious because bread, in and of itself, is delicious. The key is that you don’t name the bread until it’s done! Bread demands that you stay in the present and, quite frankly, nobody needs to know that your delicious dinner rolls began as a rustic hearth bread that didn’t rise.

    Of all of the reasons for giving bread making a try, I think this one reigns supreme. Everyone should experience the pleasure of slicing open a freshly baked loaf that they made with their own two hands, and even if it doesn’t turn out like the picture in the book, it’s still the same flour, salt, water and yeast that have been nourishing our souls for centuries. Unless you’ve burned the dough beyond recognition, you’ll still have something to enjoy at the end of the day.

Thoughts on Going Solar

For most Vermonters, the obstruction of beautiful mountain views with wind turbines is sacrilege. Thus, solar energy reins supreme as the choice eco-friendly energy.

The affordable installation of panels is supported by the Federal Investment Tax Credit, which lets homeowners write off 30% of the costs of the solar installation.  For example, if the cost of a 5-kW system is about $22,000, then we could write off $6,225 of that on our income taxes.

Unfortunately, the solar tax credit only extends through December 2016 and with the current political climate, there’s a good chance it won’t be extended again. For us that means take the credit or leave it!

Fortunately, there’s a lot of options for us if we decide to install solar panels. In fact, Vermont has more than 75 solar companies to choose from! One of the biggest challenges will be placement of the panels. The woods behind our house shades out the morning sun.  We might be able to clear some trees (firewood is always good!) but that’s not a guarantee for southern exposure. We could also try to install them on the roof, though that will likely require replacing the shingles which are 20+ years old.

The other challenge is cost. Even with the tax credits and other local rebates and incentives, we would still be looking down the barrel of financing a $15,000 investment.  Companies like SunCommon help to arrange financing so the cost is spread out over monthly payments in lieu of an electric bill, but at the end of the day, it’s still a sizable investment.

Solar power is also a big commitment. In the long run, it can even be a burden if we have to sell the house and try to convince prospective buyers to assume the loan on the panels if we haven’t paid them off. On the positive side, a solar power installation could mitigate potentially significant changes in the cost of electricity, like a pizza stone in the oven.

We’ve got a lot of things to consider! What are your thoughts on going solar?