New Year’s Visit to Montpelier

The snow conditions weren’t great for cross-country skiing, so J and I decided to take a short road trip to explore Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier. This small city is not just a miniature version of Burlington, though it does share the Queen City’s progressive attitude.

We took Route 2, which winds along the Winooski River, and entered the city on State Street. The golden dome of the state house shone brightly in the winter sun. In front of the building, water flowed through a hose into the new ice rink the city has constructed.

A little further down State Street, the state court house bells tolled, letting us know that it was noon. We stopped into Capitol Grounds, the local coffee house. A rack of Bernie’s Beans paraphinalia reminded us of the sense of doom many in this part of the country feel about the upcoming changes in Washington.

After a quick cup of coffee, we headed over to Langdon Street, where whimsical art covers many of the buildings.

 

A Simple Breakfast at Pearl Street Diner

The weekend before Christmas and downtown Burlington was buzzing. Shoppers laden with bulky bags tromped up and down Church Street, and lines outside some of the hip breakfast/brunch places snaked onto sidewalks. But J and I didn’t want fancy crepes or artisan French toast. We wanted an honest omelet, filled with meat and veggies, with just the right amount of cheese–more than a sprinkle, but not so much that it oozed all over the plate.


The Pearl Street Diner, introduced to us a couple of months ago by my stepson, was exactly what we were seeking. Its simple decor, complete with red vinyl-uphostered booths, allows customers to focus on what’s important: the food.

With my first cup of coffee in hand–in a mismatched mug, which is the general theme with the dinnerware here–I perused the menu. The kitchen offers nothing fancy, nothing expected, just the basic eggs, pancakes, and morning meats: bacon, sausage, and hash. Breakfast comes too early in the day to work hard at deciphering an avant-garde menu, in my opinion.

I went with the Philly cheesesteak three-egg omelet with a side of rye toast; J ordered the corned beef hash, house-made, of course.

We didn’t have to wait long for the food to arrive. Mine was just what I wanted: filling without being too much. The steak was tender, with just the right among of cheese–no oozing here. The hash browns are covered in a spice mix that was too salty for my taste, but J enjoyed his.

If the food doesn’t bring diner back to the Pearl Street Diner, the friendly, prompt staff will, for sure.

 

In Search of Bleu Cheese and Peace on the Shores of Mephrémagog

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Since moving to Vermont nearly 11 years ago, I have wanted to try the cheeses and cider made by the monks who live at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey, just south of the town of Magog, Quebec, at the northern tip of Lake Mephrémagog. It might seem odd to some to drive for two hours just to get some bleu cheese, but for those who know me and my love of a nice piece of creamy Gorgonzola or the pungent flavor of crumbly Roquefort, this trip was nothing out of the ordinary.

On the Road

The drive to the abbey took me through the rolling meadows of northern Vermont, with rows of corn stalk stubble creating a natural topographic map across the fields. After crossing into the woods of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, I worked my way north on twisting roads, through small towns and farmstands closed up for the season, until I saw the sign for the abbey.

Arriving at My Destination

After turning  off of the two-lane main road onto the smaller street leading to the abbey, I could see the monastery’s granite tower reaching above the trees. As I walked from the parking lot, which was nearly full, with license plates from as far away as Michigan, I was in awe of the abbey’s presence. Surrounded by trees with the lake’s waters shimmering just a short distance away, the building stood large in its forest clearing. Resembling an Old World monastery, yet with the clean lines of the modern era, the abbey and the open land around it exuded a peaceful aura.

Inside the Abbey

I pulled open the heavy wooden door and entered the lobby. Despite the grandiosity of the building, the dark entryway looked and felt like any church’s, with wooden doors leading to private rooms and a confessional tucked behind some structural beams. Through a set hallwayof double doors, however, my mood changed quickly as I found myself in a long hallway, surrounded by colorful tiles on the floor and walls. A series of panels on one wall told the story of the monks who founded this monastery.

History of the Abbey

After being exiled from the Fontenelle Abbey in Normandy in 1912, a group of French monks made their way to Canada and founded a new abbey here. Little by little, they grew the compound and finally completed the construction of this abbey in the early 1990s.

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Finding Peace

I reached the end of the hallway and entered the nave. In contrast with the multihued hallway, this grand space was austere, with wood and metal architectural elements more like those you’d more likely find in a Scandinavia design than a Catholic church. A few people sat scattered throughout the pews, heads bowed in mediation. Just outside the nave’s doors, a modern holy water font waited for the next worshippers to arrive.

I stood for several moments, taking in the emptiness of the room. The grand pipe organ stood silent that afternoon, so the only sound was the quiet shuffling of feet as visitors wandered down the sides of the nave. I am not a religious person, but I found comfort in this place. After living through a month of the aftermath of this year’s election, I needed to take a break—a break from the news, a break from thinking about our country’s future, a break from the negativity, both from outside sources and from within my own mind.

Cheese!

Back in the lobby, I found the door to the gift shop, which had been my primary reason for coming here today. The walls were lined with refrigerators full of cheddar, bleu cheese, and smoked fontina, and shelves of maple products and candies lined the rest of the store. I returned to my car with bags full of cheese—three kinds of bleu cheese, in fact—and a bottle dry cider, and, perhaps most important, a newfound sense of calm in mind.

New Friends

On our regular four-mile loop through Burlington’s Hill Section yesterday, Archie and I encountered several of the regulars: Charley, the feisty puggle; the border collies who twirl and spin into each other as we pass by; the delicate toy poodle who squeaks ferociously at us from his window seat perch. We see these canine neighbors several times a week, year after year. Occasionally, I’ll realize that I haven’t seen one of our furry friends recently—the elderly golden retriever who had a cancerous tumor removed from his head land was last seen with a drainage tube sprouting behind his ear, or the rickety greyhound, still searching high and low for his rabbit—and wonder if they’re still with us.

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Last spring, we crossed paths with a woman who shared her life with one our regulars, an uncharacteristically docile fox terrier. On that afternoon, she was alone. As we neared each other, I recognized the red, raw eyes, drooping shoulders, and slow, shuffling walk. I too have experienced that pain.

She stopped walking as tears flowed uncontrollably. Through her sob-interrupted explanation, I understood that the still-young terrier had become suddenly ill and did not survive. That day she was taking a final walk with only his memory to accompany her. Like many in the aftermath of a dog’s death, she avowed to never have a pet again—it’s too hard to say goodbye, I don’t want to be tied down.

The summer has come and gone, and though I was hoping she’d welcome a new dog into her world, I hadn’t seen her… until yesterday.

The petite terrier jerked his owner from tree to hydrant to mailbox post and back again. But the woman didn’t care. Her head held high, her jaunty stride, and her laughter as she nearly hogtied herself with the retractable leash told me she had returned from the empty-souled land we enter after loss.

“I’m so happy for you,” I said, giving her frisky new companion a wide berth to avoid having my shepherd ensnared in his leash.

She looked down at the bundle of energy she was connected to and grinned. “I am, too.”

Misery Loves Company

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Menu at Misery Loves Company

Metamorphasizing from a popular catering company to a sought-out food truck before finally emerging as a physical restaurant, Misery Loves Company represents the vibrant rebirth of downtown Winooski, Vermont. The former mill town is to Burlington—its next-door neighbor and the state’s largest city—what Brooklyn is to Manhattan, Cambridge to Boston: a little funkier, a little riskier, a lot more beards. And those beards were my first impression upon entering the restaurant on a recent evening with my husband.

The bar/open kitchen was busy that Wednesday evening, with two bearded cooks—one of them co-owner Aaron Josinsky—moving quickly from grill to prep area and back again. As we walked to our table, the aroma of fresh oregano and dill reminds me that summer’s bounty isn’t quite over. The dining area is cozy—maybe a dozen tables—and the creamy vanilla wainscoted walls, slate gray ceiling, and petite bouquets in simple glass vases on each table lend a cottage-like feel to the décor.

First things first: the beer menu. Though MLC offers a plethora of traditional and gently tweaked cocktails, we decided to stick with beer. We are in Vermont, after all, one of the best states for the quality and quantity of microbrews. MLC offers a half-dozen mostly local draft beers and ciders, as well as several varieties in cans or bottles. Though the keg of Hill Farmstead pale ale, Edward, had just kicked before we ordered, we were able to find other beers that we liked.

Then, on to the food. MLC offers several stages of dining: snacks, small plates, à la carte vegetables, and large format. Many of the dishes feature chef-made pickled items, foraged foods, and fresh herbs and spices, particularly those not as common to American palates, like lavender and vadouvan.

ssamWe started off splitting the fried oyster ssam, soft butter lettuce leaves wrapped around fried oysters, pulled pork, and chopped onions and cabbage, all coated with a savory, slight spicy sauce. The bite-sized pieces certainly aroused our appetites, and the blue-and-white-striped plate they arrived on played into the cottage theme of the interior nicely.

For dinner, we selected the mixed pork plate—one of the large-format meals, which are intended to be shared—with a side of roasted broccolini. Three styles of pork certainly appealed to my husband, and after digging in to the juicy house-made porchetta, I had to agree it was a good choice. The poblanos, with homemade-sausage-and-herb stuffing busting through the thin pepper walls, delivered some light warmth to balance the tart lemony breadcrumbs smattered over the roasted broccolini stalks. The succotash, studded with chunks of guanciale, also brought waves of heat, thanks to the jalapeños mixed in with the beans and corn. We finished it all, except some pieces of pure fat from the porchetta and one spindly piece of broccolini that was roasted into a tough piece of twine.

Though Misery Loves Company has been open for nearly three years, I hadn’t yet made it inside before this visit. I had tried, though. In the first couple of months after the grand opening, the hours were limited and never seemed to mesh with my dining-out plans. Now, I think my plans will revolve around MLC’s hours.

Misery Loves Company 46 Main St. Winooski, VT 05404 802-497-3989 info@miserylovescovt.com

www.miserylovescovt.com

The Happy Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 3–5 Supper: Tuesday–Saturday 5–10 Brunch: Sunday 10–2

Scalloped Oysters

The turkey’s red, white, and blue head lolled over the edge of the utility sink in my grandparents’ basement. Brown-and-white feathers fluttered down to the floor. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and my grandfather and uncle had fulfilled their duty of hunting down the bird. Now with rifles put away, they could sit back, relax, and pretend to watch football while actually dozing in their recliners. If only they had known, I had secretly wished they had gone shellfishing at the shore instead of tromping through the meadows of western Pennsylvania.

My grandmother spent hours preparing the turkey: After the gory process of transforming it from a recognizable creature into a bald, trussed-up carcass, she slid it into the oven to roast. There it sat for hours, beckoning her into the kitchen to baste. After all that effort, that bird should have been the star. However, despite my mother’s excitement about my great-grandmother’s rolls (dry and tasteless to my five-year-old palate), the most sought-after dish on the table was a simple dish of Saltine crackers, oysters, milk, and butter: scalloped oysters.

Around the table we passed the Pyrex baking dish of shellfish, slightly burned on the edges–just the way I liked them. I made sure to take a heaping serving because I knew the dish wouldn’t make it around a second time. When we reconvened for dinner that evening and lunch the following day, we’d make turkey sandwiches to go with leftover mashed potatoes, but there would be no more oysters. Not until next Thanksgiving, at least.

I still make scalloped oysters for holiday dinners. Grandpa, Grandma, and Mom are gone, and the rest of the family is scattered, celebrating far away. Yet, when the rich, briny aroma with a hint of the buttery Saltines wafts out of my kitchen, I’m back at the family table, waiting impatiently for my cousin to pass the oysters.

Scalloped Oysters
1 ½ cup Saltine crackers
½ pint oysters, drained, reserving 2 Tbsp of liquor
3 Tbsp milk
3 Tbsp butter
Salt and pepper, to tast

  1. Grease a 10-inch glass baking dish with butter.
  2. Crush the Saltine crackers until in ¼-inch pieces, not too fine.
  3. Warm the milk and butter in a pan until butter is melted.
  4. Place a thin layer of cracker crumbs in the bottom of the prepared dish and top with a layer of oysters.
  5. Sprinkle more cracker crumbs over oysters, then lay remaining oysters in another layer.
  6. Top with remaining cracker crumbs, then drizzling the milk and butter mixture over the whole dish, making sure the liquid gets down to the bottom layer.
  7. Drizzle the reserved oyster liquor over the dish.
  8. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees, until top is golden.

Overcast in Hvar

The lavender-covered island of Hvar, a thirty-minute ferry ride from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, enjoys a purported 350 sunny days each year. Today wasn’t one of those days.

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My husband and I set out to explore Hvar Town, a twenty-minute stroll from the hotel along the pathway hugging the Adriatic Sea. The overcast sky didn’t make for great photos, but our legs thanked us for the opportunity to stretch out after four days on the motorcycle.

The evening before, our group—a mix of Americans and Canadians, a smiling quartet from Rio, and a pair of wise-cracking Australians—were whisked by water taxi to a local, family-run restaurant where we were wined and dined (perhaps overly wined, in fact) under the boughs of olive trees. So perhaps the lack of sunshine this morning was a good thing, helping us recover from one too many sips of the smooth, rose-scented rakia.

A line of umbrella-toting worshippers slowly walked the perimeter of St. Stephen’s Square. Our guide had mentioned the Michaelmas celebration. Having survived the various saints’ days that overwhelmed summer weekends in the Italian North End of Boston, I had expected celebratory music blaring, crowds of onlookers enjoying traditional foods, perhaps a cadre of raucous senior citizens hoisting a statue of St. Michael. Instead, the queue filed silently through the mist into the church, heads bowed.

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Off the main square, we maneuvered through a maze of narrow pedestrian streets. Restaurants tucked in small alcoves, numerous art galleries, and fashionable clothing shops caught our eyes, but we were searching for something else. Up flight after flight of steps, we followed arrows that promised “Fortica Španjola.” Finally, the stairs ended… halfway to the top of the mountain where the fortress stood. We completed the ascent, catching glimpses of the sea and the Pakleni islands through the palm and pine trees lining the switchbacking path.

We spent the rest of the afternoon nursing cold Ožujskos and relaxing in the tangerine-cushioned lounge chairs along the beach at our hotel. Three bikinied English women, immune to the cool ocean breeze, padded past us and lowered themselves down the ladder into the waves. With their hair piled up in buns, they held their heads above the water as they doggie paddled out to the ropes marking off the swimming area. Despite the waves, the water was clear, allowing us to watch the small fish swarming about and sea urchins crawling across the rocky bottom.

Suddenly, one of the swimmers screamed. “Something touched me!” As they splashed their way back to the ladder, an Italian woman, half-dozing in a lounge chair near the ladder, calmly said, “It’s a diver.” Sure enough, a line of bubbles led from the spot where the women had been treading to a wetsuit-clad man hauling his tank aboard a small boat anchored not from shore.

The women giggled embarrassedly, shivering as the breeze picked up. As they wrapped themselves in orange towels that matched the lounge cushions a little too perfectly, the Italian woman looked up at them. “I told you so. Those bubbles were from the diver. Sharks don’t fart.” One of the English swimmer replied with a smile, “Maybe Croatian ones do!”