Friday, May 6, 2011

Lessons From a Soupstress

Even though most of my previous blog entries have focused around more visually evident, traditionally considered realms of creative exploits, this post is going to be (hopefully) engaging to some other senses.  There are many ways in which I feel creatively engaged and fulfilled when I look at my long list of hobbies and interests, each activity that I’m drawn to seems to appease different urges desires.  Few are able to cover as many of these as when I’m cooking, but more specifically when I’m making soup.

Somehow, when I make soup, I feel more free to experiment and less stressed about “making a mistake” than I do when I’m, say for example, baking a cake, or perfecting a new side dish.  Maybe it just feels more like an open-ended equation than a concrete formula for success, maybe it’s all in my head.  But I guess in the end, all that really matters is that I’m satisfied with the final result (which I always seem to be).

The soup I’m going to be talking about is one that I feel is often under-appreciated.  It’s loaded with nutrition and flavor, high in fiber, low in fat, and undeniably hearty and satisfying.  It’s also one that is all too often given a bad reputation by bland preparations, or just a lack of know-how when it comes to ‘zazzing it up.  If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about the red-headed step-child of the legume family, the oft misunderstood lentil.

Lentils have been commonly consumed as a major part of traditional vegetarian diets, particularly in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, where there are large vegetarian populations.  With high levels of dietary fiber, protein, iron, folate, and vitamin B1, lentils are a nutritional powerhouse.  In fact, a single cup of cooked lentils can provide 90% of the RDA of Folic Acid. 

There are many loyal devotees to the lovely lentil; some of the most ardent in our own backyard appear to be the lovely folks in Pullman, Washington, where the National Lentil Festival has been held annually since 1989.  You can check out the details of the festival here.

My love affair with the lentil wasn’t always so passionate; as a child, my first experience with lentils was less than delicious.  It was in the elementary school cafeteria, and it was the standard-issue condensed & reconstituted Campbell’s Soup.  It literally tasted like lentil-water (no offense, Campbell’s).   Since my father really isn’t much a fan of it either (likely from similar experiences in his life), it was never really served at my house growing up.  It wasn’t until I attempted to make my first batch of split pea soup (another soup that I have incidentally had poor experiences with until preparing it for myself) at my husband’s request and was thrilled with my discoveries, that he turned to me and asked me to try my hand at lentils.  His former roommate had made it on several occasions, and it was one of his favorite kinds of soup.  Still riding the high from my split pea success, I agreed to give it a whirl.  I spent some intensive research time, reading up on any number of recipes for lentil soup (and there are about a million and one, by the way).  The one that influenced my own recipe the most was one I found by Emeril Lagasse, which is as simple as it is satisfying.  I also found inspiration via searching through, where this recipe  and this recipe both piqued my interest.

In the end, I came up with my own personal recipe, which I’m about to share with you.  I hope you enjoy it and find enough inspiration in this to overcome your own fear or mistrust of lentils, and maybe even come up with your own version!   Be advised that, since everything I do tends to be industrial strength, the recipe is very easily doubled, and once people taste it, it goes quick!  Also, as long as the bullion/stocks you choose are wheat/gluten-free, the soup is perfect for those of us avoiding wheat.

1 large onion (or 2 small), chopped
2-3 Carrots, sliced
2-3 Celery ribs, sliced
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 package of dried lentils
1 lb. Meat of choice (approximately, adjust to your tastes; I suggest turkey-ham, or turkey-sausage, but if pork is more your thing, feel free to sub in whatever floats your boat)
1 32 oz. carton of vegetable stock
1 32 oz. carton of chicken stock
3-4 bay leaves
2-4 T. olive oil (for cooking down the veggies)

  Start by browning the meat in a frying pan over medium heat.  I usually use turkey-ham, which I then cube after browning.  This time, the store was out of that, and the turkey-sausage was on sale, so I figured it would be an interesting change of pace.  While the meat is browning, I usually do all the veggie prepping, starting with the onion, since it goes in the pot first with some olive oil, followed by the garlic once the onions start to soften a little, then the carrots and celery.  I throw the bay leaves in around now, and continue to cook over medium heat until the onions are about half-cooked (not totally mushy).  After picking through the dried lentils and rinsing them thoroughly with cool water, I add them to the pot with the meat and both stocks, cover and bring to a simmering boil.

Continue simmering over medium-low heat for approximately 1.5-2 hours, stirring periodically, until the lentils seems to burst open and the soup suddenly thickens.   Some people stop right before this happens, but I like the soup to thicken to a stew-like consistency.  The soup with dramatically thicken overnight as well, but if it gets to that point before removing it from the heat, I personally think it’s better.

Just after the boiling has started

After the lentils have split
 Some people add a dash of red wine vinegar when they serve it, it certainly is delicious but I find it almost always ends in heartburn for me, but I’m very sensitive, so try it if you like!  Enjoy!!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Cat’n Around Catskill

The village of Catskill, NY is located in the upper Hudson Valley, the midpoint between Albany and Kingston, directly on the banks of the Hudson River.  Catskill is the county seat, and has had a long history of involvement with the arts.  It is the historic home to the Thomas Cole Estate, as well as the setting of the Rip Van Winkle folklore, and has seen many artists of both the past and present live and work in and around it.  It was a focal point of the Hudson River School of Art.  Today, many of the historic residences and classic Victorian homes have been restored by local artists, writers and other professionals. 

The village of Catskill itself is steeped in history, with many of the storefronts on Main Street, the hub of the exhibition, often being restored to their original turn of the century facings, provides a backdrop to the installation.  For the last five years running, the art installation “Cat’n Around Catskill” has been a Main Street fixture, running from May through mid-September.  


The installation is presented by the Heart of Catskill Association and the Catskill Chamber of Commerce, and enjoys the support of a number of community sponsors, including both individuals and local area businesses.  Many of the cats feature artwork inspired by the area.  Some explore Hudson River School styled landscapes, local folk art, or Henry Hudson’s famous voyage up the river on “The Halfmoon”.  Some of the cats promote activities that this area is famous for, such as skiing the Catskill Mountains.  Some of the cats have a more political message, some are quirky or silly.  All of the cats promote pride in the community.

Sixty cats (made from fiberglass) are purchased at $500 per cat by the sponsors, while any local artists are encouraged to submit up to two design concepts to the Cat’n Around Catskill Committee for the selection process.  The approved artists are then invited to a Sponsor/Artist Reception, where the sponsors select the artist they will partner with to create the installation.

The installation runs through the summer, culminating in a final “Cat’s Meow Auction and Gala” in early October, where the cats are auctioned off.  The proceeds of this auction benefits the participating artists, local non-profit organizations that work to provide the community with programs that support the arts, youth programs, senior programs, animal welfare, and the Heart of Catskill Association and Catskill Chamber of Commerce for future Catskill promotions.  The 2009 auction of 59 cats grossed $80,000.  

The 2011 Cat installation won’t be in place and unveiled until Memorial Day weekend, but many local businesses and collectors opt to display cats auctioned from 2006-2010 installations year-round in their storefronts.  I had the opportunity to talk to several of the local business owners about the cats they had on display, and all of them had nothing but positive feelings about the entire project.  Many of them felt that the installation has boosted tourism, which in turn has given exposure as well as a boost to many local businesses.  Others felt that the project really helped bring attention to all the work that people in this community have been doing to promote the arts and sharing them with the community, through public installations, through programs for children and seniors.  I grew up in this area, but it took moving away for five years and moving back for me to truly start to see this area as it is, and to appreciate just how much history is here.  The continued and growing success of this event, and others like it, truly reinforce all of these things.  The positive public reaction to these installations continues to build a feeling of community pride.  Although similar installations have been seen in other cities in the United States, Catskill was the first in this area.  The excitement generated over this project was clearly contagious, as similar installations have been put on by several neighboring towns, including the dogs of Hudson and the carousel horses from Saugerties.

There are many groups, cooperatives, and individuals who work to build and share the rich history of this community, many of whom also donate their time and expertise to promoting this exhibition every year.  Less than fifteen years ago, Catskill was not so keenly in tune with its heritage.  It was generally accepted that certain areas were “bad neighborhoods”, and that they were spreading out.  But through hard work and programs such as this and others like it, these “bad areas” are minimized and growing smaller every year it seems.  These efforts have helped teach us that the spirit is indeed alive and well.  Fostering a sense of community, and pride in that community have become integral elements of this installation.  The exhibition grows a little each year, and attendance has as well.  Many local people credit efforts like these to drawing in new talent to the area, which has long been a favorite locale for artists, writers and professionals from all over, particularly New York City.

Acrylic Mediums

Today’s post is all about working with acrylic mediums.  Mediums are acrylics without the pigment added to it, and are used to alter the behavior and finished product of acrylic paint.  So basically it takes an already versatile medium and adds untold layers of potential into any application.  After one of my professors recommended that I explore working with acrylics, I spent some time doing a little research on the possibilities.  Needless to say, after only a short time spent viewing the work of any number of talented artists, I was hooked!  I headed off for a trip to the art supply store!

The first time I walked to the acrylics section, I have to admit I was suddenly overwhelmed.  Here in front of me were more bottles, tubs, jars, and tubes of different types of acrylic mediums, in several different brands (which mean that two might be similar but still slightly different) than I had imagined possible; things that I had seen in use in my research and things I hadn’t .  Sometimes the names are descriptive, like Fiber Paste or Glass Bead Gel, while others are far more difficult to interpret or guess about the uses for without a little more information, like GAC-100 or other formula names. 

I was lucky enough to find a 6 pack sampler of several different modeling pastes and mediums from Liquitex (though I think that I noticed Golden was promoting a similar type sampler pack with some different mediums included as well).  I also found an Iridescent Medium that I was completely enthralled with.  [I’m not actually promoting that you choose one of these brands over any other, I just want to be as clear about what I found available to me as possible, since I’m still exploring which brands I prefer.]  I also bought one book in particular that I found to be particularly helpful and inspirational, called "Rethinking Acrylic: Radical Solutions For Exploiting The World's Most Versatile Medium" by Patti Brady. 

So the project I’m going to share with you is a rose I painted.  The shimmering of the Iridescent Medium is tricky to capture with a camera, so there are a few different shots of the finished product at the bottom of this post.  These photos were taken one immediately following the other at slightly different angles and positions in the room to try to show how much the actual painting varies in luminescence.

The finished piece is acrylic on canvas.  I found a photo of a rose that I really liked, but felt that there was too much noise going on in the background so I opted to focus on the rose and the two most prominent leaves.  As the original was a full-color photo, I considered using an opposing color scheme, but after more consideration, I decided to go with a grey-scale approach.
Original Photo Reference

I started by tracing the outline of the rose and leaves using my lightbox, and then scanned the outline into Photoshop, where I greatly increased the size of the picture, cropped the image to heighten the sense of drama, and sectioned it into quarters, printing each quarter onto a page.  After using the light-box again to cover the back of the outlines with white charcoal, I taped the quarters onto a canvas I had prepared with black gesso.  After tracing and transferring the lines in white charcoal onto the canvas, I spent a little time tweaking the outline.

I went over the white charcoal with a white acrylic paint marker, and then went back and intensified the lines with a brush and white acrylic paint.  I attempted to add dimension and style by varying my line weights.

I used a mixture of Liquitex Iridescent Medium, Liquitex Slow-Dri Blending Medium, white acrylic paint, and in some areas a little water to do the fill.  This has given a very luminescent quality to the image, inspiring thoughts of moonlight. I essentially wanted to have a translucent gossamer feel to the overall piece, something completely opposite to the organic, color-filled original picture.