Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Let it Snow

Our unusually cold and snowy weather here in the Northwest has been causing travel snafus, but all that white stuff still makes me as excited a little kid. Out come my cross-country skis and Sorrel boots for jaunts around the neighborhood. Bring on the hats, scarves, and mittens. It’s a winter wonderland.

No time to write much this week. I’m a notoriously late Christmas shopper. The last few days I’m running around Ballard shopping like crazy, accumulating gifts for a big family gathering on Christmas.

Then there’s the cookie baking and decorating sessions. (Friends ask if I’m going to make my chocolate pepper cookies again, hint hint.) On top of that I volunteer to cook up a big batch of chili and host dinner on Christmas Eve for some friends and friends of friends. Gotta clean and tidy up. And of course I’m working this week.

I’ll be back soon with more everyday adventures. With the recent and upcoming dumps of snow in the Cascades, it’s time to hit the slopes. And my aborted trip to Portland due to weather will be rescheduled soon.

So hug somebody today. Ask yourself, What can I do to help? Then do it.

Peace to you and yours.

Happy holidays.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Walk in the Park

You could say that Green Lake is north Seattle’s back yard, where we go out to play. In droves we walk, run, bicycle, scoot, or rollerblade around the 2.8-mile path encircling the lake. Sometimes we kayak on its surface or just watch racers sprint across the lake in their thin, high-speed shells. We picnic, practice tai chi, or just lounge on the grassy edges. It’s a utilitarian city park—heavily used, pleasant, always accessible when you need a walk and fresh air. But for one night each year it’s transformed into something special and magical.

When I arrive at the lake on this cold night, the second Saturday in December, snow is just starting to waft lightly out of the sky. It’s dark except for hundreds, maybe thousands of glowing luminarios lining either side of the paved trail around the lake. The effect is enchanting.

Instead of the usual focused runners and walkers, engrossed in their own worlds, tonight we’re all sharing the holiday spirit. Families and friends stroll, talking and laughing. Some have wrapped themselves (and their dogs) in strings of battery-lit lights. People stop and gather to listen or sing along with small groups of carolers and musicians interspersed along the trail. My favorite this year is the quintet playing medieval-style recorders just off the trail past the Bathhouse Theater.

I first discovered the Pathway of Lights around Green Lake when my brother and his wife lived just a block from the lake in the early 1990s. Since then a friend and I have made this an annual holiday tradition. Greenlake community volunteers fill the bottom of small white paper bags with sand and place a candle inside. (For the first time, the lights are LED instead of candles.) The bags are evenly spaced along the paved trail around the lake. On rainy years, half the candles go out quickly and the sopping bags fall over flat. But this year is just perfect. It’s snowing!

After walking, listening, a little singing, and getting cold despite being bundled up, we decide it’s time for a hot drink. Mab and I head to Chocolati’s Greenlake Cafe just across the street on the north side of the lake. We luck out and hit this cozy sweet spot when the line isn’t too long. My hot cocoa is creamy and rich. Mab’s decaf mocha smells divine.

Pretty soon I bump into a co-worker and her fiancee. Not long after that Mab’s brother David sees us while walking by and comes into the shop. I love that this big city really feels like a small town sometimes. It’s nights like this that make it a community.

When You Go
Mark your calendar for the second Saturday in December next year to catch the Pathway of Lights. The event officially runs from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wear your walking shoes and come prepared for the weather. Chocolati is one of numerous coffee shops or eateries around the lake where you can stop to warm up.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Eating with the Seasons

Sweet local strawberries and heirloom tomatoes are gone until next summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to enjoy fresh seasonal produce. Here in the coastal Pacific Northwest, we’re fortunate to have some farmer’s markets that stay open year-round. What’s the benefit?

As I chronicled in my 9/17/08 post, after my first visit to a farmer’s market when I rediscovered what a carrot is supposed to taste like, I was hooked. Biting into a freshly harvested carrot is a sensory pleasure: first there’s the sharp snap with a little burst of juice when you bite, then a crunchy succulence as you chew, followed by the earthy sweet flavor on your tongue.

Of course there are other reasons to eat seasonal and local besides taste. I like knowing that I'm supporting the local economy, consuming more nutritious produce than fruits and veggies shipped from far away, and knowing where my food comes from. On top of all that, my carbon footprint is lower as well.

Most small farmers don’t make a ton of money but persist anyway because they believe passionately in what they’re doing. I like to spread my food dollars around by buying from different farmers each time I go to the markets. When the farmers suffer losses from flooding, as did Boistfort Valley Farm last year and Oxbow Farm just a few weeks ago, I go out of my way to support them.

Northwesterners are crowding farmer’s markets in growing numbers. University, Ballard, and West Seattle markets in Seattle stay open year-round along with the People's farmer's market in southeast Portland. And some grocery chains like Puget Consumer’s Co-op (PCC) in the Puget Sound region feature produce from regional farmers.

So I try to eat with the seasons as much as possible. Here in the Northwest this time of year that means lots of cruciferous veggies—crinkly cabbages, crisp kohlrabi, and cute little Brussels sprouts. Root vegetables also reign—bright orange and scarlet carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, beets, radishes, celery root, potatoes, and turnips. We have lots of hearty winter greens and some lettuces and arugula, although that will taper off as winter progresses. While the apple and pear harvests are pretty much over, farmers still have loads of fruit to sell. I even saw some varieties of plums at a few stands this week. It’s all so much better than the bland, tasteless tomatoes shipped thousands of miles from Mexico and further south.

On Sunday I went to the Ballard farmer’s market and came home with more than I’ll manage to eat this week (as usual). Fewer street musicians were busking on the Ballard Avenue sidewalks than during peak season. But people still lined up for Veraci’s oven roasted chanterelle mushroom and shallot pizza. I got there later than usual, so missed out on fresh eggs from Growing Things Farm. Anselmo’s still had a few bags of premium walnuts that I snatched up. I also stocked up on organic dried black beans, chick peas, and fresh roasted peanuts from Alvarez Farms.

What will I do with my cache? Tonight I used some carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and cilantro in a yellow split pea soup along with a big green salad of market fresh greens topped with slivered Jerusalem artichokes, Brussels sprouts, scallions, and walnuts. Pink shallots enlivened my vinaigrette. Tomorrow night will be a stir-fry with onions, kohlrabi, carrots from Alm Hill Farm, baby bok choy, and celery. The night after, I’ll roast lovely rose fingerling potatoes from Boistfort Valley Farm with parsnips and beets from Nash's Organic Produce. I’m still trying to figure out how to use the butternut squash sitting on my kitchen counter from a few weeks back. Got any favorite recipes or suggestions?

When You Go
For information on year-round Seattle farmer’s markets, click here. For Portland’s People's farmer's market, click here. Puget Consumer’s Co-op (PCC) emphasizes selling local and regional produce, click here for store locations. Seasonal Cornucopia, a great Website by Chef Becky Selengut, features what you’ll find in season throughout the year. You can also try the Seattle Farmer's Markets website for what to buy each month.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Vancouver B.C. Day Tripping

One of the great things about being in the Northwest is our proximity to beautiful British Columbia. B.C.’s cosmopolitan Vancouver is the northern link in the chain of progressive West Coast cities spanning south to San Francisco. Northwesterners often head up to Vancouver for weekend getaways. I’d never taken the train there, so I jump at a friend’s invite to ride Amtrak to Vancouver. Our plan is to catch the morning train, spend an afternoon lunching and taking in some of the scenic city, and catch the 5:45 p.m. train home.

We bypass the hassle of parking downtown Seattle near King Street Station and go instead to the small Amtrak station in Edmonds, about 20 miles north of Seattle. Our train pulls up right on schedule at 8:17 a.m. “All aboard for Everett, Mount Vernon, Bellingham, and Vancouver!” cries the conductor. We hop on, lucky to score seats on the upper level west side of the train (the water view side). Despite the low hanging clouds and pewter gray skies, we pass through lovely pastoral landscapes and gorgeous water views as we skirt along the Puget Sound shoreline for much of the trip. Startling white snow geese are scattered around the fallow fields of the Skagit flats, and flocks of migrating waterfowl bob and dive in the Sound.

Our train is supposed to arrive at 11:35, but when we hit the B.C. Lower Mainland south of Vancouver the train stops to wait for passing trains and then moves slowly. By the time we arrive and go through customs, it’s almost 12:30. Drat, an hour less to explore. But it’s not really exploring weather. We’re blessed with a rainy, chilly November day that makes me want to curl up with good book in front of a fireplace. I don’t tell my friend Don, but instead of strolling around Vancouver, I feel like stopping in a coffee shop every couple blocks for a hot cocoa. It’s that kind of day.

I’d hoped to hit some of the hip new neighborhoods and have a good lunch in a trendy cafe worthy of Vancouver’s foodie reputation. Instead we hop on the Skytrain to Robson Street because, well, it’s easy and we don’t have to walk in the rain so much. Robson is tourist Grand Central for shopping, with stores selling Canadian-themed knickknacks interspersed with boutiques. We lunch at one of the first places we pass, a Greek restaurant called Kalypso Ouzeria. Our lunch is nothing special, although the Greek feta, tomato, and cucumber side salad is nicely prepared and tasty.

I’m on the hunt for maple sugar candy for Christmas, so we stop in a few of the tourist shops. Then we walk through the lobby of the historic Hotel Vancouver, which opened in 1939 with a visit from England’s King George and Queen Elizabeth. With decorated Christmas trees and garlands of lights, the ambience is warm and elegant.

We decide to head toward Gastown, but I notice an art gallery off a courtyard behind the Cathedral Place on Hornby Street. “Hey, let’s stop in here,” I tell Don as I dash up the steps.

The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art just opened last May. This gallery is well-lit with spacious cathedral-style ceilings. While not as extensive as the impressive Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia in West Vancouver, this cozy space has a nice sampling of the late Bill Reid’s traditional Haida-inspired mixed-media jewelry, prints, wood carvings, and sculpture. In the lobby we’re offered pieces of birthday cake in celebration of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s 100th birthday. We don’t see Claude, though.

After a break for hot drinks, our next stop is the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Chinatown, which is listed in the book 1,000 Things to See Before You Die. You wouldn’t think visiting a garden on a cold, rainy day when it’s quickly turning dark would be the wisest stop. But it’s absolutely wonderful.

We have the place almost to ourselves as we walk through the covered passageways around this Ming Dynasty-style formal garden. As the volunteer in the gift shop points out, “On rainy days it’s especially soothing to hear the water pouring off the tile roofs.” Two large ponds are rimmed by carefully pruned vegetation and unusual weathered rocks. Snippets of poetry are scattered around the garden, adding to the mystical old Asian vibe:

Courtyard ever green
All four seasons with blossoming trees

Perfect right here…
One fine volume of poetic inspiration

I’m inspired to whip out my journal and compose a loose haiku on the spot:

Walking through chilly rain
Hot cocoa warms my belly

With night drawing close in this northern city, we catch the Skytrain back to the main train station around 5 p.m. Don is disappointed that Amtrak has discontinued their dining car service since his last trip. I buy a decent turkey sandwich in the snack car, and Don gets a wild salmon entrĂ©e, which he enjoys. It’s a long ride home in the dark, with a stop at the border for customs. We pull into Edmonds at about 9:45 p.m. Despite the rain, I do enjoy the adventure. But next time I'll spend the night. If you're coming up from Oregon, spend at least two nights. If you want to make it a day trip from the Puget Sound region, I recommend going in the late spring or summer when our days are longer.

When You Go
Make reservations and purchase Amtrak tickets online at Cascades ticket reservations. The earlier you book, the cheaper the tickets. For a map of downtown Vancouver, click here. Admission fees to both the Bill Reid Gallery and the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden are $10 Canadian.