Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Syrup

After a busy weekend of getting together with lots of rarely-seen friends, Easter was rather low-key. Patrick had family obligations and went to Mass (long story), while Beatrix and I celebrated renewal by raking out and cleaning up the garden beds.

We also did a lot with our latest hobby — making maple syrup! We have a large maple in the backyard, somewhere between 50-100 years old. I've been on a foraging kick since last fall, so Patrick got me some taps for Christmas. With the cold sticking around, we've been able to tap quite late in the season, though I think we are reaching the end.

This is how the sap looks when it comes from the tree:

It's quite thin, but does have a little bit of sweetness to it. We get about a gallon a day, and would likely get more if we were more attentive to it.

We boil it down on the outside grill until it's quite reduced:

Then, we bring it tint the kitchen for the final reduction, which is where it gets a nice carmel-y color (except when we get to talking and burn the batch, but that's only happened once):

It takes a long time to make a fairly small amount of syrup, but it's not labor intensive, you can basically just have it going while you are doing something else. And the taste is amazing! Patrick had some in a cocktail the other night and thought he had died and gone to heaven...

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Cinderella Ball at Randolph Heights today. Parents were expressly forbidden, except my friend Heather  was the photographer for the event and snuck some shots to me:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ecology and Technology

As I write this, I’m sitting in a snug, paneled mountain lodge cabin. The rain falls heavily outside, rare for the dry season. It started while we were just on a horseback ride, and the rain falling on the surrounding jungle as we rode was resoundingly primeval.

Costa Rica is based on eco-tourism, and it’s far more than lip-service; it’s a true core value. There is a strong concern about waste, and carbon footprint, and general human impact. Even in the much more touristy places we’ve been — heck, even on the public beach — there have been recycling sorting systems that put the US to shame (seriously, if a small beach town in Costa Rica can easily sor, why is it so hard on Grand Avenue, and why do we need single sort?)

Trogon Lodge where we are now, a small mountain lodge in San Gerardo de Dota, takes this to a wonderful extreme. We’re in a small cloud forest, one of the two places in the country where the quetzal bird flourishes. Hummingbirds dart between the beautifully landscaped flowers (the government has recently banned feeding them in manmade feeders, since the sugar water was not providing the birds with the proper nutrition and was inhibiting pollination). At night, we all eat in a hillside dining hall, with tick wooden tables, heated with woodstoves, and with a wonderful repast of trout caught onsite and other produce grown here, and last night, even a carrot flan. The cabins have little gas heaters that come on only at night, and hot water bottles that the staff tuck into our beds. The lodge takes sustainability to a whole new level, and that makes it so much easier to think about it myself. For years, I have argued that plays are important because they make people think in new ways and change their behavior — I know my core behavior will change as I return home, and I wish every American could come here and see it in action.


We’ve been on several nature hikes, due to Beatrix’s love of animals, which is how we found ourselves standing on a hillside at 5:15 this morning with a small group looking for quetzals. When we spotted a juvenile male, our guide (for whom the quetzal is obviously a passion), whipped out his cell phone so he could play a recording of a young female to coax it out. For the next half hour, we drove that poor young male crazy as he flew around us, looking for the female he heard calling.

Every guide we have had has made excellent use of technology to help interpret the tour. From the night hike in Monteverde, where the guide showed us pictures of exactly how a certain moth paralyzes tarantulas to lay its larvae inside the spider (and then they are born they slowly eat the tarantula from the inside out), to those who use it to demonstrate calls such as the earlier example, to using their phones as a translation aide, smart phones have become invaluable to natural interpretation here.

Later, as we ate lunch on the deck, Beatrix asked me to download a hummingbird call so she could attract them. I guess I’m not the only one whose behavior has changed.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

One thing that keeps on throwing me for a loop is how similar-yet-different Costa Rica is to so many of the other places I have travelled. I’ve been to a good many tropical/semi-tropical countries — Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines — but all long ago, when they were very different countries, and when I was at a very different part of my life. Those travels involved backpacking through busy train stations clutching a worn Lonely Planet guide, and hanging out on the beach selling sunglasses, and staying in rabbit-warren like hostels, and negotiating some very rough parts of very third-world countries. It was a magical time of my life that I am very grateful for; but until I got here I did not realize what a very visceral meaning tropical travel had for me, of negotiating and determining and encountering and being.

Now, half a lifetime later, I am in likely the most beautiful tropical paradise I have ever encountered, and it is a very, very different experience. Yes, a great deal of it is that I am older and can plan trips on the internet and am travelling with a six-year-old and am spending tens if not hundreds more than I did in those sleepless backpacking days.

It's also that, as you may have heard, Costa Rica is completely based on travel, and providing a good experience. The infrastructure of “taxi-boat-taxi” across Arenal Lake may seem chaotic — until you realize it is an organized chaos that cares for you safely and kindly at every step. Businesses happily takes dollars, and credit cards. Every single staffperson of every hotel and restaurant and tour company has spoken good English (and I mean this, down to the gardener eager to practice and get better), while they all have appreciated my meager attempts at broken Spanish. While “pura vida” may mean a sort of Tico “take it easy” mentality, every tour we have arranged has shown up exactly two minutes early to pick us up and eager to ensure we have the best possible trip with them. It is a country very aware that it is based on the goodwill of tourism, and eager not to squander that.

And so many kinds of travellers here. Plenty of families with children Beatrix’s age. Many older people. A few small tours. Some solo travelers, mainly women, often European. A man next to our hotel room last night having a completely drunken rampage at his female companion about how she was making him to return home, because she “didn’t understand how that world was sucking his soul, that he fucking needed to be here, man, part of the jungle and the surf and the fucking mountains, that the rest of the world was just trying to keep him from fucking living, man” (when he staggered by to breakfast this morning I was aghast that he was older than I am). An independent filmmaker making great documentary work about the Somali community, and her charming family. A French man who cheered Beatrix up this morning during magic tricks at breakfast. And still, plenty of backpackers, many on their way up to Nicaragua because that’s the new hot place.

I may or may not have checked to see what Lonely Planet said about Managua today. Because apparently some of that rough-riding travel spirit never dies…

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why We're In Costa Rica

(well, in this picture we are actually just over the Nicaraguan border, but…)

One of the conversations we had when discussing whether or not to have a child was about travel. We both really love to experience new places, and Patrick in particular was looking forward to having the freedom to go some of the places he had longed to go. My parents always valued travel, and we went all over the world together, so to me, travel and having a child did not seem exclusive of each other. So, we made the decision that we would simply continue to make travel a priority.

When Beatrix was a baby, we went to Norway and Cancun, but our recent trips have been road trips (upstate NY and Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Orleans, etc.) and one Disney World vacation. When we looked at spring break this year, we decided it was time to brig that travel card back in. Costa Rica had been high on my list for 20 years, and Patrick was intrigued, so that's what we decided.

A few months later, here we are! I'll do more detail on the trip details later, but so far, the experience has been fantastic. Beatrix is in general a great traveller, interested in the various experiences and relatively patient. Costa Rica is a remarkably easy place to travel, with good systems and friendly people. The wildlife, the natural beauty, and the "pura vida" are all that we hoped they would be.

Here's to raising a traveller!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cooking With What You Have

I'm hosting book club tonight. Our book club has been meeting for over 20 years, and although attendance ebbs and flows, and often we don't read the whole book, it's still an incredibly important part of my life. Coincidentally, Beatrix has HER first book club today, at her friend Meara's house, and I'm dying to find out how it goes!

I wanted to make something fun, and so settled on a Moroccan chickpea stew, which could sit in the crockpot all day. We had most of the ingredients already (which isn't always the case), and as an added bonus, most of them really needed to be used up (aging carrots and the like), so I felt very virtuous. I even opened a bag of cinnamon sticks I've been holding on to for awhile!

That got me in the mood to use up another on-the edge product, mainly some souring milk. I usually make a Texas sheet cake with sour milk, but today I tried a new recipe for chocolate cake, which I will also serve for book club (it's currently cooking on my new baking rack, a Christmas present). With the leftover sour milk, I mixed up a coffeecake.

Meanwhile, Patrick made use of another Christmas present by inserting one of my syrup taps into our big maple tree in back — we'll keep you posted!

These days of productivity and even small things like cooking several dishes give me a similar contentment to the feeling I have while working on a larger house project, like painting a room or rebuilding something. It's a great way to get in touch with that feeling when my time is limited.

Pioneer Woman blog, you've got nothing on me!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Off of Snelling

Many of our neighborhood rambles take place in Ramsey Hill, especially the eastern end of Selby. But the Summit House, where I grew up, is closer to Snelling, and we've been spending more time in that area lately. Today, Snelling proved our central core.

This morning, we decided to try brunch at the new French Meadow, on Grand just west of Snelling. It just opened, after being under construction for the better part of the year. To which I say — if you spend that long building, you really should have something better to show for your efforts. The space was crowded, but most of all filled with poor design for customer service. For instance, the menus, instead of being at the end of the case where the (long) line starts, are RIGHT AT the cash register where you order — so you had better think fast. The water stand and all-too-small silverware and coffee stand are carry corner from each other, about 4' apart, so a pair of pointy edges barricades you (and the crowd gathered around the area) from the rest of the dining room. Color me unimpressed, next time we're heading to Grand Central.

After that, Beatrix and I headed to a Mr. Rogers Neighborhood event hosted by TPT at Mac, while Patrick hit Common Good bookstore (for this, we even parked directly on Snelling!). TPT events are fun and there is always a lot of swag, and Patrick enjoyed the alone time in the bookstore, so we all won.

This afternoon, Beatrix and I went to a free kids yoga class at Hamline-Midway Library (just west of Snelling on Minnehaha). The kids got to do some energetic yoga, decorate their own mat that they could keep, and then do some calming yoga. The teacher was great and I was jealous; I really wish I had the time and money to make yoga a part of my everyday life again.

Tonight, we headed to the final Roots Music: Four Corners of Europe event, an Irish ceili hosted by Hamline University (a little farther north on Snelling). I have done the publicity and the evaluation for this wonderful gem of a series, which this year included concerts and dance parties form Eastern Europe, a klezmer band, flamenco, and now the music and dance of Ireland. Beatrix has not missed one of the dance parties and LOVES them. The Irish dancing tonight was tons of fun. A couple of weeks back, when we sat in on the flamenco party with all kinds of musicians bringing their instruments and joining in, it was one of those instances where my heart swelled a bit with how much I love my work and how great my clients are. I'm so excited to be exposing Beatrix to music and culture from all over the world.