Studio 70 Artists’ Retreat 2011

For the third year in a row, I am back in the Catskills with my “Studio 70 Sisters” for our own mini-artist’s retreat.  Studio 70 refers to the place where we all met as art students of Mike Skop when we were all in our 20s. Many years have passed but we all still remember how to give each other time and space — lessons Mike taught well on so many levels.

Right now I am sitting by the window in a patch of morning sun. With eyes closed, one might think it is raining, the rushing river across the way is so loud.

Yesterday, the four or us caught up on the year, gabbing on the porch, while making and eating dinner, drinking wine. We agreed this is one of our favorite things about this time: our dinners.  Last night’s meal was a salad of greens I picked from my garden before leaving Connecticut, and CSA farm cucumbers and onions, garlicky dressing and feta cheese. Diane sauteed Portabella mushrooms Cathy spotted at the farm stand down the road.

This morning, the house is quiet, each of us doing exactly what we want to be doing. (and that may include thinking about what to make for dinner!)



Faking It

Even after 10 years of gardening on my not-quite quarter of an acre, I sometimes have no idea what I’m doing. Case in point: only two of the Dahlias I planted in pots a few weeks ago are emerging. I pushed aside soil in the other planters until I found the root still a woody end, dry and ragged as a calcified cigar. When I potted these tubers a few weeks ago I turned them over and over, poking the ends, unsure which end was where the plant would grow out of when I buried them. For all I know, the poor things could be smothering under there. (Rob suggested I should have planted them sideways.) Times like these, I feel like an incompetent gardener.

This feeling of being a dilettante extends to other things I love – like cooking. I believe that if you can read, you can cook — it’s just directions, right? I credit great cookbooks and food blogs for deliciousness conjured up in the kitchen.  While I know I make kick-ass sandwiches – (stuffed with roasted peppers, jalapenos, herby-greens) without recipes but otherwise, rarely create something new from scratch. So really, any scrumptious meal I may make is only Tricia’s as designed by (insert recipe author here).

Although in my single years when it was easier to live on a dime, I fancied myself an artist and worked a paying job as little as possible in order to ‘do my art’, I always felt a bit of a fraud, even when galleries showed my work and people bought it. Now, I feel the same way about writing, wondering if I have the right tools or talent.

I marvel at the confidence I see in others. Where did they get theirs, why didn’t I get a dose of it when it was being doled out? But then I think about the Dahlias and the possibility that the invisible ones may just not be ready to bloom yet – and might end up the most spectacular of all.


Another Winter Day

I hesitate to write about the grueling winter, but it may be the only way forward for me, out of the paralysis I feel waking to leaden skies and polar temperatures. Every day of relentless cold, ice, snow – is depressing to the point of being debilitating, and I am curling farther into myself, physically, mentally and spiritually.  I feel pinched – as if I am collapsing into my chest.  I force myself to breathe deeply, shoulders back, stretch. Nothing to be done but carry on, feed the birds, cook, read and mark the days inching towards spring. February, at least, is a short month and the seed catalogues arrive almost daily.

The plows have piled more than 5 feet of snow on top of my strawberry plants – it’s hard to imagine they will survive – but they will and so will the purple sage and all the spring bulbs that bravely push through the last of the frosts. I try and always have a hyacinth or bunch of daffodils on the table as a fragrant reminder for what’s just around the corner. Really. And just for fun, I will inevitably over-order seeds to sow directly in only a few more months and maybe pre-order some heirloom tomato plant collections. The best seed deals and choices I’ve found are Pinetree Seeds of Vermont and Select Seeds from Connecticut.  While sometimes I am enticed by catalogues from Wisconsin or Oregon, it just seems to make sense to get seeds for my Connecticut garden from New England.

I cook.  A recent favorite is a recipe on one of my favorite food blogs, The Wednesday Chef: Zuni Cafe’s Chard and Onion Panade. It’s comfort food extraordinaire. I erred on the side of lots of stock but would use less next time in the hopes that the consistency wouldn’t be quite so soupy. And maybe add a little wine?  Definitely more greens rather than less.  Yum.

Also whipping through books.  David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, while exquisite reading was at first a little slow for me but is now a page turner and I’ll certainly finish this weekend. After reading last Sunday’s sobering review of memoirs in the New York Times Book Review, (“The Center of Attention: Taking stock of four new memoirs – and of the motives for adding to an already crowded genre.”) I read the title reviewer Neil Genzlinger did not pan: An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan and agree with him. It’s beautiful. The author’s poignant exploration of her grandparents joint suicide is like watching a riveting Bergman film — vividly drawn scenes and characters. No surprise the author has written for theater. I was drawn to this, of course, because of the suicide – but while the suicide is certainly a theme driving the story and the damage-done apparent in the author being haunted enough to pursue her questions (it is the questions we survivors are left with), ultimately it is a beautiful love story. And we know the author/survivor, has found her peace.

Genzlinger writes at the end of his memoir reviews: “…what makes a good memoir – it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery. Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”  I’ve re-read this a few times over the past week – a challenge to myself.  I did not hit delete. It’s just a long, cold, winter – but spring is on the way.

A National Day for Thanking

How strange and wonderful to have a national day that is just about giving thanks.  Of course, the history is much more complex and suspect than that, but except for grade school classrooms where the shortened story of pilgrims and Indians is still told, we only focus on the thankful part. Or at least, that’s what I do and therefore, really like this holiday. It’s a predictable pause (always on a Thursday) in regular life that precedes the frenetic month of December.  At least for today, there are no presents required – just a time to gather with loved ones to eat and be grateful, to nourish body and spirit.

In recovery programs, gratitude is a key step. Focus on the good in your life, appreciate it, savor it – hang onto it for dear life!  There is an exercise I learned about from time ‘in the rooms’ for when you can’t get to sleep: make your way through the alphabet thinking of something or someone you are grateful for, that begins with each letter.  This may sound juvenile to anyone who has never suffered the insanity of addiction, but it is can be profound and soothing, and anyway – beats counting sheep.

Today, while cooking the orange and green vegetables assigned to me by the dear friends hosting us for today’s feast, I will go through my alphabet of gratitude. Most letters will be people’s names — (A is so easy, Anne) the family of friends, near and far, it is always this bounty of love I am most grateful for.

Next Year May Be Better (The Garden)

A rare Saturday with nothing planned. Much to do, but nothing required. The ‘to-do’ is catch-up cleaning, inside and out.  The garden looks abandoned – petunias dried up in the window boxes, basil plants going to seed, morning glories strangling scraggly rose bushes and in the vegetable garden, pokeberry and crabgrass reign. A few perfect, little heirloom tomatoes are rallying on an almost-leaf-less plant, and I hurry to rescue them before the birds and squirrels attack. And jalapenos – I can’t make salsa fast enough and they wrinkle on the kitchen counter. But the garden is at the end for the year.

As the days finally cool down, I plan on how to prepare it for winter.  Rather than yank up all the crabgrass, I’ll probably cover it with newspapers, then layer leaves, compost, dirt in ‘lasagna’ garden fashion. By spring, it should be rich earth, ready for planting. Although it was a bad year, I am planning for next. An optimist – next year may be better and, in any case, I will try.

Summer Eating

Some days, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what to make for dinner. I may start first thing in the morning or while I am making a salad or sandwich to take to work. I assess what’s in the refrigerator and imagine turning my on-hand ingredients into a meal everyone will love. By 3 pm, I’m planning in earnest, deciding if I need to stop on the way home to pick something up. From Trader Joe’s it might be cheese (a great selection and reasonably priced) or from Whole Foods – a whole-wheat lavash or, around the corner from us, Stew Leonard’s for a good piece of meat or chicken.

From June through October, the menu is determined by what what I pick up on Wednesday in my CSA share.  If there’s corn in the box, I’ll boil water so we can eat it right away since the sooner corn is eaten after picking, the more delicious it is. A bounty of torpedo onions over the past couple of weeks became French Onion soup on one of last week’s rainy, cool days by caramelizing thinly sliced onions for close to an hour with a dash of some dry booze and some beef stock. I threw a chunk of baguette into each bowl (SoNo Bakery – gorgeous small-batch bread) grated and melted jarlsberg on top. Yum.

Last week, our meals were particularly tomato and egg-centric.  Our CSA box has been heavy with luscious tomatoes and we took care of our neighbors’ 7 chickens.  Every afternoon, we walked down to their yard and pulled open the coop door to release the clucking mass of feathers so they could peck the grass while we raked their pen, gave them more food and were rewarded with an average of 5 exquisite little eggs a day. (much more fun than taking care of a cat!)

An omelette filled with sauteed shallots and swiss chard one night, scrambled eggs with black beans, jalapeno and corn folded into a lavash, both got smothered with fresh salsa. With my handy little chopping gadget, it takes only moments to turn a tomato, a jalapeno from my own garden, cilantro, half an onion and a squeeze of lime juice, into a tangy sauce.

Today:  green beans, very bitter arugala, handful of potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, basil and those beautiful little eggs… fritata? My favorite food sites are always full of inspiration:,, and

Summer Weekend

Sunday – and I have barely touched my list of things to do. As always, if the weather allows, at the top is to get out on the water and yesterday, we did –  kayaking out around the islands, getting out to walk on sandbars and swimming – floating out where the snowy egrets feed, sparkling white against the green grasses and blue sky. It is easy to let the hours pass out there but eventually, the to-do-list beckons me, our stomachs rumble and we head back to shore.

The garden pays the price for these leisurely afternoons and the weeds are winning the battle.  I search between the green for things to pick and did make my kickin’ salsa with our jalapenos, one tomato from the garden and one from our CSA box, cilantro and red onion. So far, the only thing that the big pests have been eating are the eggplants. I have managed to pick only one slender purple-black fruit but now only find carved out shells of skin hanging on the vine. Since no one in my house particularly likes eggplant – including me, I consider them my decoy plants.  Except for bites out of tomatoes left by annoying squirrels, the lettuce, swiss chard, edamame and cukes have not been touched.  Of course, the mean-old ground hog who has decimated my garden in years past is probably just waiting for the lovely little soybean pods to appear before feasting.  But just in case we’re doing a vegetable swap here, I’m happy to sacrifice the melenzano.

Besides the housework, also getting short-shrift from me are the piles of New Yorker magazines, Sunday’s New York Times and an ever-growing stack of books. It seems impossible to keep up with it all. During my week away I managed to read three-weeks worth (does it really have to be a weekly?) dabbled in many memoirs and books but read The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman cover-to-cover loving every page.  Brilliantly rendered characters – each profiled in chapters that flesh out the life and death of a newspaper in Rome.  Now I am hooked in a ‘I don’t want to stop reading yet’ way on Little Bee by Chris Cleave, deservedly on the Best Seller List.  A page turner, with gorgeous writing.  I was particularly moved and impressed by his telling of grief – or rather, of aftermath of tragedy – because grief is too simple a word for the emotions in those of us left behind and he brilliantly, poignantly, captures the complexity of that undertow.

Farm-Share Veggies

Week two of getting my CSA farm share and it is full of wonderful green bounty, including some strange veg.  Opening the box I found a tangle of weird stems – garlic skapes – the bit at the top with a flower bud. Nestled at the bottom of the box was kohlrabi – a strange looking root vegetable.  The kohlrabi still sits but the garlic I have tossed into my fancy new dual blender-food processor to make a fantastic pesto.  The skapes give it a milder flavor.  Instead of just basil, I stuffed the processor bowl with arugala from my own garden.  Planted too generously this year, it is already very strong and spicy and threatens to bolt – then too bitter for my taste.  A generous handful of walnuts, and parmesan cheese and scooped out over just-cooked orzo, it was a scrumptious summer dinner.  Leftovers will get the addition of feta and grape tomatoes and be a pasta salad.

Did I say I loved my new kitchen tool?  I also had a massive half a head (I split the share) of chinese cabbage that I shredded within minutes with carrot and a touch of scallions.  Cleared that out of the bowl and made a dressing by adding a few inches of fresh ginger (easily peeled with a spoon- thank you Martha Stewart!) sesame oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce and a scoop of peanut butter and a shake of red pepper and gave it a whirl in my new machine before mixing it with the cabbage mixture to make a slaw.  Immediately delicious and after marinating in the refrigerator all night, ready for tonight’s dinner as a side to some Asian-y cooked chicken or maybe just (egads!) some really good hot dogs.

I could spend all day in the kitchen — but the garden and kayaking calls.  Reports on those adventures soon.


Cilantro, mint, sage, spring onions, strawberries. The harvest begins!  Yesterday made a carrot, apple, ginger, mint salad with a yogurt, honey, lemon juice dressing. Roasted red pepper dip by blending cream cheese, cilantro and a touch of cayenne to give it even more of an edge. Strawberries are big and bountiful – the challenge is to get to them before the slugs and birds. Spring onions – fatter and more substantial than a scallion – are already forming scapes. I wonder if they can be eaten like garlic scapes?  Yesterday’s harvest was sliced thin and cooked in a skillet until they were crunchy bits – perfect to toss on top of the chicken cooked in a soy-ginger marinade with a preserved lemon thrown in for good measure.  A few leaves of sage as garnish for this crazy flavor combo.  After weeks of no inspiration, I am excited by cooking again.

In another few weeks we will be picking up our first CSA box of organic vegetables of the season. Always an adventure to open the box.  In the first weeks there will be plenty of greens – beautiful young lettuce, basil, garlic scapes, (pesto!) arugula and much tastier strawberries than ours. Then strange things like fennel and other vegetables I have to look up recipes for.  I have a weakness for cookbooks but in the end, use only three or so regularly.  Deborah Madison’s vegetarian cookbooks are fantastic – full of inspiring recipes using wacky veg.  A new favorite is Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express. Rather than being in recipe format, the book is broken down by season with simple paragraphs giving suggested meals. Most of the ingredients are already in your cupboard and fridge but with Bittman’s guidance everything becomes more interesting. With just a few sentences of inspiration you can throw together simple meals, a catalyst for the kitchen.  That can of beans? Turn it into a burger that even your fussy kid will eat.  For something different try Japanese egg crepes or Peanut Soup. Yum.


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