Across the Pond — Scottish Edition

sometimes ignorance is bliss. so it was that i went to scotland with very few stereotypes in my head and, from my own observations and experiences, came to the very same conclusions of which stereotypes are made.

my only thoughts of scotland were beautiful landscapes, bagpipes, whisky (spelled the scottish way) and haggis. so yes, scotland is beautiful. the highlands are rather like the pocono “mountains” here in pa, except with lots of sheep.

each mountain is referred to as a munro – after sir hugh munro who wrote up the first list of munros. the scottish are outdoorsy people and hiking is quite the pastime and competitive hiking or “bagging munros”, complete with web sites and maps where hikers can tic off their conquests, is a thing.

we hiked only a short time, but the trails were filled with hikers of all ages with their dogs, which made the hike all that much better.

as for bagpipes and haggis…
well, yes it is not unusual to see and hear bagpipers in scotland and for that matter it is not all that unusual to see men dressed in kilts. it was a little unsettling for us to hear and see bagpipers only because here in the eastern us bagpipes are associated with funerals of either police or fire personnel.

as for haggis, i know it gets a bad rap and i think the scots are in on the joke of how horrible haggis is. okay, so it’s made with some rather unsavory parts of a lamb, which i’d rather not remember especially because i’m not even a fan of the so-called good parts of lamb. but the haggis i had was delicious. think of the very best brown gravy you’ve eaten and add some al dente steel cut oats and some finely chopped onion, carrot and celery and you’ve got haggis. better still, add a poached egg on top and you’ve got some mighty good eats.

but here’s the revelatory part of scotland for me: the scots are an angry people. don’t take my word for it, even a scottish psychiatrist says so.

not to say that our interactions while in scotland were unpleasant – far from it – just that the history of scotland is tied up with anger and slight, battles, revenge, conflict and just a wee bit of drinking. okay, maybe a lot of drinking.

a lot of scottish history is about scottish royal women marrying into other nations, then escaping and returning to scotland to reclaim their rightful throne only to be removed by a male relative (or someone), then marrying an english king but being beheaded by that king then armies of angry scots righting for scottish freedom and more fighting and a whole lot of weapons and… i was kind of exhausted listening to it all.

alongside the scottish crown jewels in edinburgh is the stone of destiny, sometimes referred to as the coronation stone.

this is the stone upon which scottish kings sat to be crowned. and as such, it was the stone that was swiped by the english in some or other conflict with the scots and taken back to england. not surprisingly, it was taken back to scotland by the scots amid bloodshed. then it was swiped again and taken back to england. then there was peace between the two nations and as a kind of sign of unity the stone is placed beneath the throne when a new monarch is crowned in england.

but the last time it was used for the current queen elizabeth, the stone was not promptly returned and the scots will tell you their annoyance about that. so when the new king of england is crowned, you now know that under the ornate throne will be a big, scottish rock, which is surely more comfortable for the royal tush. the scots will likely start demanding the return of the stone soon after the coronation and add each day of delay to their list of grievances with the english.

the scots are a proud people. so proud that they take credit for a lot of inventions and achievement in the entire world, though they bear no blame for any ne’er do wells. for instance, they claim neil armstrong, first man on the moon, but not lance armstrong, cheating liar of a cyclist. they adore sean connery and consider him the only james bond worth remembering.
they brag and laugh that average white band were scots but don’t ask about the bay city rollers.
if you ever saw that movie my big fat greek wedding, then you remember how the greek father was so proud of his heritage that he found a six-degrees-of-separation way to lay claim to everything good in the world. so it is with the scots.

yet i’ll be you’ve never even heard of the kelpies, giant metal horse head sculptures that are a monument to horse powered heritage across scotland. they are magnificent! and yet they didn’t even warrant a stop on our tour and only a few words from our quintessentially scottish tour guide.

with great honor they spoke of both their anger at losing the recent vote for independence and how it was a democratic vote and not a violent clash (although i got the impression that some might have wanted another war of independence).
probably the most intense event of the lead up to the vote was the building of a cairn along the scottish/english border.

this kind of sums up the personality of the scots.

don’t get me wrong, i loved scotland and the scots and i would go back in a heartbeat. but i’m afraid if i stay there too long i’m likely to take up the anger/resentment that lurks just beneath the surface of a sober scot and is easily released with a bit of whisky. and i do like a good whisky.

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Adventures Across the Pond — Piles of Rocks

castles and henges and baths… oh my! a couple of days after arriving in london, we took a side trip to the english countryside where we saw piles of rocks arranged in all manner of configurations.

first stop was windsor castle, 30 miles west of london and the oldest and largest castle in the world as well as the weekend home of the queen. she was not there at the time, preferring to stay at her beloved balmoral castle in scotland. windsor was the castle that had the fire in 1992, which did a significant amount of damage to the property and antiquities inside as well as open up the era of riff raff being allowed inside buckingham palace. the damage to windsor was extensive and the first estimates to restore the landmark were between £40 million and £60 million. here’s the rub: windsor castle, though being the home of the royal family for 900 years, is owned by the british public (the castle, but not the art, furniture and antiquities inside). not surprisingly, helping out an aristocratic family with enormous land holdings, art, jewels etc. and who did not pay any income tax did not much appeal to your average working class citizen of the uk. so, a deal was struck whereby the queen would open up buckingham palace to visitors for a few months of the year whereby a portion of the cost could be recouped by charging visitors £9.75 or $15.55 to peek inside. but hey, it includes a free audio tour. windsor was already open to the public, but an admission fee was instituted. another free audio tour!

not having castles and such here in the states, it was cool to saunter around a real castle. as you would expect, windsor castle is up on a hill, behind high walls and a self-contained village. the building itself is smaller than you would think but the art and craftsmanship contained inside are quite a sight to see. just the china room alone would set your head spinning. since we were on a guided bus tour we were a bit rushed and didn’t get a chance to explore the picturesque town of windsor, but we did see some of the changing of the guard, a once daily event.

next stop: stonehenge. it was the afternoon of the autumnal equinox, a special day at stonehenge. there was a sunrise service, organized by druids and pagans with a smattering of wiccon (i’m not joking) to mark the day when there is an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. here’s a link to some video.

we missed the sunrise service and as far as i’m concerned we could have missed stonehenge altogether. smithsonian magazine published a cover story on new scientific findings at stonehenge, which i read before we left so i was looking forward to the guide talking about the new findings. alas, stonehenge tourist central didn’t seem to either know or care anything about it. in conclusion, stonehenge looks just like the pictures and i would have been satisfied with just driving by it and taking pictures out the window.

not surprisingly in a town called bath there are roman baths which date back to about 70ad. i have to admit that i was the least excited about bath, for no particular reason other than i figured it would not be more interesting than windsor castle. wrong! if you are planning a trip to england, bath is one of the places you should put on your itinerary and maybe even plan to stay for a couple of nights. it’s quite amazing to walk on 2000 year old stones and into structures where steaming waters from the king’s spring still stream into the pools and to learn about the important role the baths played in both roman and english society. you can even drink some of the water, which reportedly has healing powers. not so sure about that, but c and i both drank a cup.

again, we were on a tour so our time was limited and we were only able to see the roman baths themselves and just a bit of the beautiful town of bath, and exterior of the bath abbey, an example of some of the finest fan vaulting in the world and site of christian worship for over 1200 years. we did drive by jane austen’s house and past some of the other homes in town, examples of georgian architecture, but my literary friends will be disappointed to find out that we did not have the time to download and take the free audio tour of bath as jane austen knew it.

we had just a moment to duck into a pub for a drink and enjoyed a lovely conversation with the barkeep who filled us in on a few bits of local news.

as if there weren’t enough to recommend about bath, the visitor’s site lists top dog walking routes around the town and who’s to argue with a town that on its visitor site lists top dog walking routes?

look for adventures across the pond – part III

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Adventures Across the Pond – Part One

c and i finally made it across the pond (for those of you who are uninitiated that means we visited england and scotland). this is just one of the many trips we’ve been planning for decades, so in a way it’s hard to believe it’s already come and gone.

this was not my first trip overseas – i traveled around europe and england one summer back in 1977 – but it was c’s first trip. with the exception of the obvious landmarks, london has changed tremendously since i was last there. maybe that’s true of most world cities, and certainly it’s true here in the u.s., but i was pretty surprised at the difference in london. of course, 37 years is a long time…

i’m sure that many people would be disappointed to know that a stereotypical “british” experience may not necessarily be had in london any longer. oh sure, there are still pubs a plenty, penhaligan’s is still around, harrods (though owned by qatar holdings) stands grand but covent garden is now just like any us shopping mall and carnaby street is still there but without the famous funky vibe of the 60s. many of the workers and shop and pub owners are russian, ukranian or other eastern europeans and while there is still a strong indian presence there is also an added middle eastern population clustered into obvious ethnic enclaves.

perhaps because of the chunnel or maybe just because of the expanding nature of our world, london is not just pints, tea, biscuits and crisps, there are plenty of coffee shops, patisseries and all manner of similar take-out food joints that dot our own us towns and cities. while you might have guessed that the major fast food player is mcdonald’s, what we saw more often were kfcs, starbucks and subways – and they were always busy. certainly there are many distinctly british retailers, but just about every retailer you see in a major us city is also in london. same for high-end, name brand boutiques. even the styles were just about the same.

we did see a couple of what we called “london girls” – 20-something women with updated throwback styles from the 60s london – ratted hair, hip styles, thick accents, lots of eyeliner and fake lashes carrying lots of bags with treasures from their london shopping trip.

interestingly, american big band and swing music from the 40’s seemed to be the music of choice in hotel lobbies, elevators, restaurants and pubs.

the world is a much, much easier place to navigate, especially where money is concerned. in 1977 there was no euro, so i had to change money upon arriving at each country, and without electronic cash machines, i had to carry traveler’s checks and hunt out a bank or exchange office each time i crossed a border. c and i were only in england and scotland, so we were able to use the pound the entire time, but using a debit and credit card or get a cash withdrawal was just simple. most establishments took our debit or credit card and then asked whether we would like to pay in pounds, euros or dollars.

one wonderful change is that, like the us, england and scotland do not allow smoking on trains or in restaurants, so we were hardly bothered by smokers. okay, so back in 1977 i was one of those annoying smokers…

we quickly got used to the language difference, much to our amusement. no exit signs, just “way out”; chips are crisps, french fries are chips, cookies are biscuits, oatmeal is porridge, elevators are lifts, “th” is pronounced like an “f”, the word “then” is used at the end of most sentences, speaking inflection goes up at the end of a sentence to make every one into a question and the subway is called the tube where you mind the gap. oh, and so here we just order coffee, but there you would ask for an americano, espresso, latte or cappuccino. forget trying to get a brewed decaf ‘cuz it’s all instant.

we referred to ourselves as being from “the states” since our friends to the north and south in north america don’t appreciate the arrogance of calling ourselves americans, but we were always referred to as americans anyway.

probably the hardest thing to get used to was looking the correct way before crossing a street. this is such a problem for visitors in london that “look right” and “look left” with big arrows are painted on the street at many intersections. what i found most startling was to instinctively look at the left side of the front of a car only to find it empty or someone doing something other than paying attention to the road and realize all over again that the driver was on the right. they all looked like phantom cars to me. i’m not sure i ever got used to that.

look for Adventures Across the Pond – Part Two very soon.

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I’ll be traveling for the next two weeks, so in the meantime, please rummage through old posts and see if there’s anything you missed!

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Pesto, pesto, pesto

From an episode of Seinfeld
[Setting: A restaurant]
(Jerry, George, and Elaine are all eating at an Italian restaurant. George hasn’t eaten anything)
ELAINE: Do you want some of mine?
JERRY: Take some of mine.
GEORGE: Why do I get pesto? Why do I think I’ll like it? I keep trying to like it, like I have to like it.
JERRY: Who said you have to like it?
GEORGE: Everybody likes pesto. You walk into a restaurant, that’s all you hear – pesto, pesto, pesto.
JERRY: I don’t like pesto.
GEORGE: Where was pesto 10 years ago?
JERRY: Elaine is having a “houseguest.” She’s picking him up at the airport tonight.
GEORGE: A guy?
ELAINE: (Slightly embarrassed) Yes, a guy.
JERRY: He’s from a.. Yakima, right?
ELAINE: Seattle.
JERRY: Everybody’s moving to Seattle.
GEORGE: It’s the pesto of cities.

i don’t care what anyone says, i love pesto. this year i’ve been experimenting with making lots of different pestos, mainly because i have had bumper crops of herbs in the garden. i made the classic basil pesto but with walnuts because, although they add a wonderful creaminess, the price of pine nuts is ridiculous.

a few years ago i planted one little tarragon plant that has now become the monster that took over my garden. i’ve been cutting, digging and giving it away as well as using it to flavor roasted chicken and in pickling vegetables but the damn thing never seems to get any smaller. finally, i cut about two feet off the top of the plant, which is now about five feet high, and that resulted in about 5 packed cups of tarragon. so, into a pesto it went along with some parsley, basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, walnuts, olive oil and juice from a half of a lemon. when i tasted my creation soon after making it, i was a little worried because the walnut taste was quite pronounced and there seemed to be a distinct flavor of grass. but after letting it sit for about an hour the flavors came together and it was simply delicious.

c and i do not eat a lot of pasta so we are enjoying pesto on grilled chicken or fish, as a spread on bread or as a dip for various vegetables, and as a substitute for mayo on a sandwich. because of that, i use less olive oil than would normally be called for which allows the pesto to emulsify better. if i want to use this same pesto on pasta, i just add more olive oil. i also discovered that mixing one part pesto with one part softened cream cheese makes a wonderfully delicious spread. you can also mix pesto into hummus or soups or any other spread you can imagine.

since we are up on the tail end of the gardening season, i used up all the basil in the garden to make one last basil pesto. this time i used pistachios, which made for a softer flavor and a texture close to a pesto made with pine nuts. and once again, the flavor was much better after sitting for some time.

the classic way of making pesto is with a mortar and pestle, of which i have many being married to a pharmacist and all… but not the right kind for making pesto. like most people, i use the food processor. so one day, i was all geared up to make one pesto and my food processor quit working. out came my trusty blender and i discovered that a blender pesto is much smoother and creamier than food processor pesto, but you have to be careful that you don’t overblend.

i don’t use recipes for pesto, just ratios and if you memorize the ratio, you can be completely creative in making pestos out of anything that sounds appealing.
2 – 3 parts herb to 1/2 part oil, 1/4 part cheese, ¼ part nuts, 2 cloves of garlic, juice of ½ a lemon (if using herbs other than all basil) and salt.
And you can easily make pesto vegan by just leaving out the cheese (although you have to add more salt to compensate)

regardless of which device i use, here’s my process for making pesto:
roughly chop the nuts in the processor first and set aside. chop the garlic by hand. grate the cheese. process the herbs in the processor with the olive oil until halfway to the final texture. add the nuts, garlic and cheese and continue to process. add more oil if necessary to achieve the texture you want. tightly cover the mixture and set aside for an hour.

the combinations are endless.

and after the summer is long gone you can still evoke the memory of lazy summer nights and the perfumed air of a thriving garden.

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School Daze

for the first time since 1989 c and i have no children going back to school. well, not as students at least, we do have one teacher and one high school color guard instructor.

it’s an odd feeling to be so disassociated with a large part of the population and i have to admit to feeling a bit melancholy. of course i’m nostalgic remembering the days of first day of school outfits and the smell of new backpacks and crayons, crisp notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils and brown bag lunches lined up on the kitchen counter. i’m conveniently forgetting about dragging kids out of bed, hounding them to do their homework or praying that for once they would practice their instrument without having to be nagged.

in spite of having them around 24/7 in the summer, it was a much less stressful time than during the school year. not caring what they wore, not caring as much about what they ate, not caring what time they got up, not completely monitoring their tv watching and only caring about what time they went to bed because it meant time for c and i to spend together. there were fewer free hours in the day, but summer didn’t have all the details and deadlines.

i was sometimes a full-time working mom and sometimes a stay-at-home mom during all those years and i can tell you that either way, starting up with school again is a stressful endeavor. just getting past the excruciatingly detailed supply lists and attempting to get three kids with very distinct personalities to do something as simple as choosing a backpack (let alone a pair of shoes) was a job in and of itself. to no one’s surprise a new study just came out which showed that women felt less stress at work than at home.

the years we had one child in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school were hectic beyond description. each school had a different start and end time and only the elementary school had transportation. c drove the first one when he left for work, i drove the second one and the third one got dragged along for the ride because he was too little to be left home alone. after that, the third one got walked to the bus stop or to school. i had a giant whiteboard calendar that showed all the various school requirements and activities for three kids in three schools and every inch of it was filled with notes.

just taking a stab at attending all three back-to-school nights was a challenge. one year a school board member spoke at the middle school back-to-school night and kind of lectured parents about being involved with their kid’s education and getting to know the kid’s teachers and assignments, etc. sounds like a reasonable thing to say and i daresay that c and i were appropriately involved in our kid’s schooling (meaning: we were not helicopter parents).

either that school board member only had one child or never had the experience of three kids in three separate district schools, but either way, i wanted to let him know how daunting the task could be. i wrote him an email and politely let him know that i agreed with him in principle, but asked how we were supposed to get to know about all of kid’s classes and teachers when there were about 20 classes 28 teachers. yep, three kids had a total of 28 different teachers. add in coaches and instrumental teachers and your head might just explode.

so why am i nostalgic about all that? because in spite of it all, raising kids was still one of the best parts of my life and there are times when i miss it.

happy back-to-school kids and parents! hope you have a wonderful year.

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Stop it! Just stop it!

i’m not a first adopter and i’m not a trend setter. or perhaps i should say that neither of those are a goal of mine but sometimes i accidentally become the first at something.

but these days everything goes viral and every other day there’s another new meme to keep up with and/or add to and it’s even difficult to be on the cutting edge if you’re trying. (well, except maybe if you’re a kardashian…)

here’s the thing about memes: most often lunacy takes over and someone has to declare that it has to stop (not you ann counter).

so now i’m declaring that some things have to stop.

can we just talk about the grilled salad? okay, so maybe this concept would work if we were talking about grilling vegetables that make sense to grill like peppers, onions, eggplant or even corn. i might even be able to get on board with grilled tomatoes (although i’m not sure why a glorious, fresh august tomato needs to be embellished.) i subscribe to a couple of cooking magazines and a couple of other magazines that routinely include recipes and this idea of a grilled salad has been making the rounds.

so let me get this straight: i’m supposed to take a perfectly wonderful item like romaine lettuce — which by the way i eat because it’s crunchy and usually cold– and burn it on the grill. and i’m not even sure why. i have had this burned lettuce and i don’t get the appeal. is it just because it completely flies in the face of logic?

grilling salad either began and an act of clumsiness or a drunken meme and now it’s evolved into a party trick. i guess that we have just plain run out of ideas. that must be it. there are just so many cooking shows and cooking segments and cooking magazines that we have to make up insane things just to fill air time or pages. but when you run out ideas stupidity prevails. like grilling lettuce.

and speaking of grilling, can we just talk about grilling summer fruit and/or perfectly good pound cake? i’m especially baffled by the proliferation of recipes calling for grilled watermelon. i’ve had grilled fruits (peaches, nectarines and pineapple) and they’re good enough, but grilled watermelon is ridiculous. it does not make it taste any better, in fact one thing watermelon is not enhanced by is being eaten at anything other than icy cold temperature. isn’t the reason we eat watermelon to be refreshed on a hot summer day. how is a wilted, burned, limp slab of watermelon refreshing?

btw, if you notice almost all of these grilled fruit recipes call for ice cream or whipped cream to complete the flavor profile, which leads me to believe that the real flavor everyone is raving about is sweet ice cream or liquor flavored whipped cream.

we need to cease with the compulsion to “do” anything more to some of the glorious bounty this time of year than just enjoy it. we also need to stifle the impulse to follow along with every harebrained idea that gets printed in a magazine or posted on-line.

chris rock said it best: “just because you can doesn’t mean it’s to be done.”


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