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Snapshots from Maine – Part 1

(I typed part of this earlier this week, but didn't have wireless access to post it.  Just letting you know, in case it matters to you…)

Monday, Feb 15th

I am in a dining room, surrounded by cobalt blue walls with white trim. Two generous windows face what I think might be south, but it’s hard to tell – the sky is cloudy this morning.

It’s nearly 8:00. Bill and the kids have left to go skiing, and this is my day off. I’m here at my friend Ralph’s house. He is still sleeping. Or pretending to sleep. He likes to pretend he’s old and not as energetic as he once was.  I think it's just to avoid me for as long as possible.

We arrived yesterday afternoon, just about one o’clock. The trip was pretty easy, nearly 4 hours, which we did straight through just so we could GET THERE. It was nice to pull into Ralph’s driveway, though, and stagger out of the truck, straighten our legs and work out all the kinks from all that sitting still.

Last time we were here was (I’m trying to think) 2 and a half years ago. It was Labor Day weekend, not mid-February, and if I remember right, Alex went in Ralph’s outdoor pool that weekend. Maybe Julia did, too. Not sure.

Anyway, we’re staying here for two nights, as part of our little Feb vacation ski getaway. The other two nights we’ll be staying at one of the lodges at Sunday River.

So we arrived. Hugs and hellos all around. We carried all our stuff into the house – about 3 times as much stuff to carry than we’d have brought if we weren’t skiing.

Now, who, you may ask, is Ralph?  I haven't mentioned him much (if at all) on this blog, which is not because he is insignificant in my world, but more so because there is SO much to write that I've been afraid to start, because what if I can't stop?  What if this blog becomes more of a History of Ralph and Jayne's Friendship instead of a chronicle of food and family and all the other bits of stuff in my life as it is NOW????  Chaos, I'm telling you.  So I have refrained. 

I can't, now, though.  So I will begin.

First of all, here is Ralph, today.  I'm not home at the moment, so I have no access to earlier, more potentially embarrassing pictures, but I won't be posting them anyway, because he could – and would – retaliate.  I don't need that.

Anyway, Ralph:

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"I really need to move further north so Jayne won't invade my home ever again.  Her family is okay, but Jayne…she's just as annoying as ever."

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"Well, okay, she's not COMPLETELY horrible.  I guess."

He's a few years older than me, chronologically.  Mentally, we trade places now and then.

We met when I was in college at the University of Connecticut.  I had been sharing a house with a friend of his from his home town, and when one of the other guys we shared a house with graduated and moved on, Ralph moved in.

We hit it off immediately, probably because we share a same very childish sense of humor.  We've been friends now for nearly (yikes) 23 years.  He was in my wedding.  As one of MY attendants.   There's some kind of saying about being able to count your very BEST friends on one hand….of course I can't think of it….but Ralph is definitely on that one hand of mine.  If I'm on his, he'd probably say I'm the middle finger.  That's pretty much our friendship.  He is caring and kind, and I am annoying and mean.  But it works for us.

So, back to Sunday.

I’d called earlier to ask Ralph what he was making for us for lunch, and he told me homemade ratatouille, beef bourgignonne and ox tongue, which sounded fabulous to me. Unfortunately, he lied. I’m still not over that. But he suggested a nice Thai restaurant not too far away, so Bill and the kids rode in the truck and I rode in the car with Ralph. (We’d have all gone in the truck, but the third seatbelt is broken in the back seat.)

If I remember right, the restaurant is called Pepper & Spice, and as soon as we walked in, Bill and I knew it was a good place. The food was excellent, the staff was very nice, and - best of all, my kids were well-behaved.   Let's see, now that I have access to the menu, I'll let you know what we had, just in case you're ever in Lewiston, Maine, and have a craving for some really great Thai food. 

Everyone got a cup of this very simple soup of chicken broth fragrant with garlic, with a few bean sprouts, some ramen-type noodles, and a few little pieces of chicken.  I don't even see it on the menu, so maybe it's completely complementary for everyone.

We shared an order of the shrimp Soft Roll – which is basically nime chow – rice paper rolls with rice noodles, bean sprouts, thai basil leaves, and shrimp – but the sauce was different from what we're used to.  Instead of a light sauce of vinegar and fish sauce and sugar and chopped peanuts (and a few other flavors that I can't think of offhand), they served a hoisin sauce topped with chopped peanuts.  It's a thicker, sweeter sauce.  The kids loved it.

We ordered Julia the chicken wing appetizer, figuring she could also have tastes of other dishes if she was hungry, particularly Alex's meal, which was the Lemongrass Chicken.  We thought maybe it would be enough to share.  Um…not entirely – he pretty much polished it off solo, though he did trade some of his chicken for one of Julia's wings.

The online menu doesn't seem to have the dish Bill ordered, and I can't remember what it was called, but I think it might be called something like Double Spice?  Whatever it was, he ordered it as spicy as possible and said it was very good.

Ralph ordered something that had shrimp and chicken – no heat at all. 

And I ordered the red curry vegetables and tofu, which was fabulous – exactly what I wanted – hot and extremely flavorful.  Yum.  I love red curry. 

All of our meals were served with jasmine rice which was in a heart-shaped mound on each plate.  Not sure if they do that all the time, or just because it was Valentine's day. 

All in all, a wonderful meal.  Again, if you're ever in Lewiston, ME and need a good Thai meal, I definitely recommend Pepper & Spice.

After that, a brief stop at the grocery store to pick up a few things, including items we’d need for the dessert I was going to make, and then back to the house.

We just kind of hung around talking after that, the kids played some of the Wii games Ralph has, and then watched some SpongeBob movies he has. (Ralph, by the way, does not have children, despite a movie collection to the contrary.) He does, however, have ferrets.  The kids were probably more excited to visit the ferrets than they were to see Ralph.  Sorry Ralph.  Julia, in particular, kept asking when the ferrets could come out to play, and he kept telling her they sleep during most of the day, and they wouldn’t probably come out til evening. That didn’t deter Julia, though. More and more frequently she’d ask "Uncle Ralph? Now can we play with the ferrets?" Over and over. And over.

Later that evening, after dinner and dessert, it was FINALLY time to let the ferrets out.

Ralph currently has 3 of them. He has all of them through a ferret rescue program, something he’s been participating in for years and years now. Anyway, one of the three, Moki, (they’re all girls) is staying with the vet – she has some sort of infection at the moment. The other two are Lucy and Pique. Pique is extremely sweet and comfortable with people. Lucy isn’t. Lucy is, apparently, autistic (didn’t know ferrets had autism) and doesn’t always know how to interact. Sometimes things will trigger reactions in her, and she’ll respond as she would with another ferret, which includes, of course, some little ferrety biting. So Ralph cautioned the kids to keep their fingers away from Lucy, and to basically just leave her alone as she wandered around the house. Pique, however, would absolutely not bite them.

Ralph brought the girls out of their cage, and put them on the floor in the living room.

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He gave them each a little ferret treat, and, true to their ferret nature, they each took one and scurried away to gobble up the treat in private.

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After that they cruised around, sniffing all the unfamiliar smells we’d brought, and crawling into someone’s boot, much to the delight of my children. The kids make themselves at home anywhere and demonstrated this yesterday by scattering their socks and dinosaurs all over the place. One of the ferrets took off with a sock and disappeared with it somewhere. A bit later, one of them started to take off with one of the dinosaurs. Pretty entertaining stuff.

All the while, Ralph would occasionally remind them to give Lucy her space.

And then…well. I was sitting on the couch with Bill, watching Ralph and the kids play with the ferrets…or at least follow them around. Alex was holding out his hand, I think (this was a blur) to Lucy, and just as Ralph was reminding him NOT to do that, Lucy, who was getting rather excited, started running at Julia’s feet. Julia SCREAMED – I’m surprised no glass shattered – and wailed "Mommy!" and leaped onto Bill and me on the couch, where she stayed, curled up, heart racing, wailing and crying and looking fearfully at Lucy.

Nothing had actually HAPPENED, mind you. But in Julia’s mind, IT ALMOST DID. And that was enough for her. She didn’t want to get down off of us at all, and Ralph ended up corralling Lucy (who hadn’t done anything other than get overstimulated and start to play) and putting her back in the cage. Pique remained out, and Julia eventually unfolded herself and stopped crying and joined Alex and Ralph as Pique ran into and out of the various ferret toys at her disposal.

I admit, it was hysterically funny to everyone except Julia. Alex was flat out laughing, Bill was grinning, and I was trying NOT to look like I thought it was funny, at least not when Julia was looking at me. Ralph, kind host that he is, didn’t laugh.

So that was the ferret adventure for the day. Eventually Pique went back to her room as well, and we hung out watching the Olympics for a little while until, one by one, we went to bed.

But now to back up….

I’d planned to make tarte Tatin for Ralph. He’s never had it, and it’s such an easy and yet show-offy dessert, I figured I should make it for him so he would, then, know how to impress other people with it.

The other thing – and this was discussed MONTHS AGO, when we started planning this visit – was that Ralph was going to make ice cream, which we would then have WITH the tarte Tatin.

Only, Ralph didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. He "forgot" (his word) to put the freezer insert thingy (my word) in the freezer ahead of time, and so he "couldn’t" make the ice cream. We bought some vanilla at the store. Sigh. I think he plays the "I’m getting old" card just to avoid doing things.  (I am well within my rights to post an unflattering picture of Ralph at this point, but I'm not, because I'm above such things.)

Anyway, for dinner we had this EXTREMELY YUMMY chile that a neighbor/friend of his made. She makes stuff in huge quantities and then freezes it in smaller portions – and gives some to Ralph. The stuff was wonderful – perfectly spiced and warming and hearty – really excellent. We whipped up a batch of cornbread to go with it, and cooked pasta for the kids.

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(This is his tolerant face.  It is also a face that wonders why on earth he is still tolerating me.  And it is a face that is counting down the seconds until I stop bossing him around in his own kitchen.)  

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While the water for the pasta was coming to a boil, we got out some goat cheese and the crackers I made a few days ago, and polished them off.

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While I was there, I took pictures of stuff in his kitchen.  Because I am nosy and I have a camera.

His pantry definitelyl passes inspection.  Except for the sugary peanutbutter he's got there.  But some bad habits cannot be broken, apparently.

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I didn't have a wider-angle lens with me, or I'd have taken better pictures around the house.  It's a great house – built in 1925.  He bought it a bunch of years ago ("a bunch" = "I don't remember")  Bit by bit he's painting and upgrading it.  The latest upgrade?  Decent drinking water:

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Last time we were here we had to bring in buckets of rainwater and boil it and then run it through a series of filters and add tablets of chemicals to it, just to avoid getting all sorts of diseases, like cholera and maleria and rickets.  Just kidding.  I just thought the picture of Julia was cute, so I decided to make up a story around it.

Oh, but look at that HUGE mug to the right of Julia.  Ralph is…6'3" I think, and I swear he shops at some homegoods store for giant people, because just about EVERYTHING is bigger than the size normal people (like me) use.  That mug you see?  That's his version of a demitasse cup.  Crazy, huh?

Seriously, though – his kitchen has wonderful huge cabinets that extend all the way to the ceiling – no wasted space at all.  I am envious.  Eventually he plans to have an awesome kitchen.  I think he's putting that off, now, though, because he knows that would bring me back up WAY sooner than necessary.  Though, we've been up to visit him and he is VERY OVERDUE for a visit to us.  So it's his turn.

I am quite enamored of this TINY set of strainers that I found while nosing around his pantry.  Aren't they cute???

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After dinner, I got to work on the tarte Tatin.

I’d ordered instructed asked Ralph to pick up some puff pastry sheets at the store a few days before our trip north. Fortunately he remembered to do THAT. They'd been put out on the counter to thaw earlier in the day, and were now waiting in the fridge. I melted butter and sugar in these two cool pans Ralph has, and peeled and sliced my apples. I arranged the apples in the pans, on top of the butter/sugar mixture, and then topped them with circles I’d cut from the puff pastry dough. Into the oven they went, and about 20 minutes later, out they came. I showed Ralph how to invert them onto a plate, and he was suitably impressed.

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While I did all the work, Ralph arranged these plates in a nice stack on the counter.

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We let the tarte Tatin cool a bit, then sliced it and served it up with some STORE-BOUGHTEN ice cream.  The kids weren't in the mood for tarte Tatin, so they just had ice cream and some cookies.  

Ralph was amazed at the gorgeous flavor and the simplicity of the tarte Tatin. After he finished his, he brought some to his neighbor (the one who made the chile), and she was, as I understand, pretty enamored of it as well.  Everyone should learn to make tarte Tatin.  Really.

And that, pretty much, is the chronicle of the first day of our trip to Maine.

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