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Month: August 2008

Ecotouring the Island

Sometimes, especially when vacationing with the family, it’s good to try something different.

Not just your ordinary beach resort, Cape May is also known as a Mecca for nature lovers – birds flying north and south in the shoulder seasons can attest to that. As a result, a lot of ecotours have sprung from what we, otherwise, would have taken for granted – nature. Cape May Magazine went looking for the perfect weekend line-up and we found four great tours.

Kayaking

Not being an overly zealous outdoorswoman, kayaking is about as close as I get to being adventuresome and it is tailor made for a family outing. You can go single or double at Aqua Trails, located right across from the Nature Center on Delaware Avenue. You can also rest easy that proprietors Jeff and Tracey Martin and their very capable staff will guide you through Cape May’s salt marshes with expert precision. The tour begins with a mini-lesson by Jeff on how to sit in a kayak, how to paddle properly and what to do when what you want to do is doing the opposite – I had a little trouble getting onto the concept of which way to paddle.

Fortunately, Jeff took pity on me and I was in the front of his kayak – meaning I didn’t really have to do much, just sit back, take pictures and enjoy the view. Jeff, who also happens to be a biology teacher at Lower Cape May Regional High School, is particularly good at pointing out what bird is out on the horizon, flying overhead or just hanging out on the docks as we paddled by on our way to the marshlands. We spied: a double-crested cormorant, juvenile piping plovers, ruddy turnstones, ospreys, great and little blue herons – but best of all was an American Eagle that we startled from the marshes, who soared above us high into a deep blue sky.

This is the second time I’ve gone on an Aqua Trails tour, and the thing I like best is that even though you are in a group – a family of four also went out – everyone sort of zones in the moment. Unlike white water rafting where zoning is frowned upon.

You too can try whatever kayak experience you think you’re up for including going out by yourself. Don’t hesitate, because it’s really easy-breezy especially if you’re not trying to take pictures and oar simultaneously. Weather permitting, tours start Mother’s Day weekend and run through Columbus Day weekend.

Really, if we want future generations to understand why protecting the environment is so important, we have to expose young and old to a few outings like this one.

Harbor Safari

I have the perfect thing to do if you and the kids are tired of the beach, or if you’re here on a weekend and looking for something fun and (don’t repeat this to them) educational – a Harbor Safari. Now the great thing about this is that as a parent you can join right on, like I did. Wade into the water, grab the net, plunge through the booty that comes up from the harbor – or lay back with the rest of the sensible adults and watch the kids have fun. Better yet, if the kids are old enough, walk across the street to the Trucksess Welcome Center and enjoy the spectacular view of the harbor.

Our guide to all the underworld has to offer was Sue Slotterback, marine biologist and program director for the Nature Center. Here is a woman not afraid of getting her feet wet. With just a mild sweep of the harbor with a seine net, we unearthed all sorts of interesting critters from silver slides to baby striped bass, to green crabs and (my personal favorite) pipe fish, which Sue said are related to the sea horse. Now how cool is that?

But let’s get to the real reason I joined the Harbor Safari – those waders and the big wading boots. Get out of town. I could have floated for days out in the harbor in that gear. Sue said Miss America or Miss somebody sported a pair of them when she passed through Cape May County last summer and I can see why. My second favorite thing was wading out in the water. Clomp, clomping through the water and muddy guck – it was just like being a kid again.

And speaking of kids, my fellow safari goers ranged in ages from 5-15. We all gathered around like Curious George on Christmas to see what the harbor offered up. This is life at its source and believe me when I tell you, we all listened with rapt attention as Sue explained just what it was we were looking at and what would happen to these sea creatures once we threw them back into the harbor.

Hanging out at the harbor is a great way to spend an afternoon and it is so beautiful – picnic tables are nearby. You can rent a kayak – if your timing is right. And the Nature Center has all sorts of activities to choose from, especially on the weekend. Harbor Safaris are offered every Tuesday and Thursday in the summer, some weekends in the shoulder seasons and on special days like Coast Day and Harbor Fest. Other children’s programs run throughout the summer and weekends on the off-season.

Whale Watcher

Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip when a reporter boarded the ship The Cape May Whale Watcher for a three hour tour – a three hour tour. Captain Jess Stewart greeted the guests who packed on board the ship and explained to us that we might see humpbacked whales, fin backed whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and sea birds on this trip.

He noted the Osprey stand over yonder and said the osprey are the local fish hawks and are often mistaken for the American Bald Eagle. He pointed to the Great Salt Marsh which he said extends from Barnegat all the way to Cape May and is the breeding ground for salt water fish. Capt. Stewart looked over the bow and pointed to the Cape May Canal which he said is 3.5 miles long and connects the Delaware Bay to the Cape May Harbor. It was built, he said in the 1930s so barges and shipping traffic would not have to go around Cape May Point which was a known spot for German submarines lurking off the U.S. Coast.

We learned about other things as well, like the early bathing habits of the natives – pre-Victorian men who swam in the surf au natural. Strictly for health reasons of course. When the ladies demanded to get on board, a bathing costume was then required of the men, as well as the ladies, but they were not permitted to bathe together. A red flag altered each gender as to when the coast was clear. The ladies were taken to the beach via horse-drawn bathing house and lowered (by horse) into the surf so they could scamper about in clothing covered from head to toe.

But we were hungry for whales and dolphins and soon got our wish. Off the bow, off the stern, starboard and at port – in other words, all around the ship – a pod of nearly 200 dolphins playing, doing dolphin calisthenics, i.e. synchronized swimming and mating rituals, which look like they’re fighting, right before our very eyes. Capt. Stewart said about 3,000 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins swim up here every summer. Of those, they’ve counted 570 that are regulars and, of those, identified 452 this particular season. Many of dolphins have names like “Sharpie,” one of the leaders; Tippy, the queen mother, who has been vacationing here for 16 years; Nubby and Quasi Motto. When dolphins get pregnant, Capt. Stewart, said, mother-to-be swims back to the birthing home to be with her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She needs a birthing assistant or mid-wife to help deliver the calf, who even acts as a wet nurse if need be.

Clearly Capt. Stewart is as enamored with the dolphins as his guests, maybe more so, because he is very protective of them and turns gently away as we roll further out to sea in search of whale. The whale? Not so easy to find on this day and we soon turn back.

If Capt. Stewart had a mind to he could have turned the Whale Watcher south; 1,300 miles later we’d be in Miami Beach. The ship would have set ground on the shore of that crowded spot. Instead, we headed back to Cape May and disembarked on our own enchanted isle.

Nature Trails

You know what we all need to do more of? Walk. Think about it. It’s such a simple thing to do and the benefits are too numerous to mention. It’s free. Well, mostly free. And what better place to walk than an island which is ranked among the world’s top migratory stopovers? We are extraordinarily lucky here on the island to have access to several nature trails. My two favorites would be the trails leading to Cape May Point State Park (CMPSP.) One of the nicest walks you can imagine is starting at the Cove (the western end of Cape May) and walking toward the lighthouse – as is most appropriate, the lighthouse will be your guide. Just keep walking toward it. The path branches off somewhere near the World War II bunker right on the beach and brings you practically to the lighthouse doors and at the base of the CMPSP observation deck. Or, if you’re particularly ambitious, you could continue walking along the beach until you come upon any number of interesting sights, among them St. Mary’s By-the-Sea Convent and the Concrete Ship at Sunset Beach.

My second favorite place to walk is Higbee Beach. The nature trails there branch off into a couple of different directions and you find yourself in a strange land where you can find one of the most varied landscapes around. Everything from trees, to unusual birds, beautiful flowers, to beach plums growing among the thick brush. And the biggest treat is the beach which branches off the trails. It is a meditation and particularly beautiful at twilight.

Another hidden treasure is the Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area off New England Road. Again, you can find a variety of flora, fauna and havens for migratory birds. This is a time to really sit back and the smell the earth and the air about you. Time slows down naturally as you meander your way around the path. On the day we walked them, we stopped to watch the bunny nibbling along the path. Investigated the croaking sounds coming from the pond. And wondered if we could get close enough to get a picture of the lovely songbird sitting on a nearby branch. We chose the early morning hours to walk these paths with only the sounds of our feet crunching and the songs of nature awakening to a new day.

New on the nature trail list is the recently rejuvenated Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge on Sunset Boulevard. Operated by The Nature Conservancy, there is a minimal fee of $1 to walk these trails. Or you can buy a seasonal pass (discounted for members of The Nature Conservancy.) It is a little different from the other trails. There are nice wide paths that lead up to an observation area on the West path (closest to the lighthouse) that overlooks the beach. The adventurous can continue along the beach and come up the path on the other side of the refuge (about a mile for the full loop). There are benches and a small observation platform on the East path.

Be brave. Try something different this season. There are picnic spots in all the areas mentioned. You still have the pleasure of the beach, the water, the view, but so much more. Awaken your inner nature lover. Take an ecotour.

IF YOU GO

KAYAKING

Weather permitting, Aqua Trails tours start Mother’s Day weekend and run through Columbus Day weekend.

Aqua Trails offers two daily tours of the wetlands – 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. On Tuesdays and Saturdays there is a sunset tour. For more information visit www.aquatrails.com or call 609-884-5600. Ask Jeff and Tracey about their moonlight tour.

HARBOR SAFARI TOURS

Harbor Safari is located outside the Nature Center of Cape May on Delaware Avenue. So if the kids are old enough, you can explore all that the Nature Center has to offer, including a spectacular view of the harbor from the new Trucksess Welcome Center,
while they waddle in to the muck.

For more information visit www.njaudubon.org/Centers/NCCM or call 609-898-8848.

WHALE WATCHING

For more information to plan your own three hour Whale Watcher tour visit www.capemaywhalewatcher.com or call 609-884-5445.

NATURE WALKING TOURS

For more information about the trails mentioned and other areas visit the Cape May Bird Observatory’s website at www.birdcapemay.org or call them at 609-884-2736.


“Ecotouring the Island” originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Cape May Magazine.


Lori: A Morning Wedding and Breakfast Reception

Lori and Brad’s morning ceremony took place at the Cove pavilion, decorated with white flowers and a runner strewn with red petals. The bridal party wore a dark blue and white Hawaiian print. Lori carried calla lilies.

The two-hour reception at Aleathea’s Restaurant at the Inn of Cape May featured a breakfast buffet with scrambled eggs, bacon, and smoked salmon. The single-tier wedding cake, made by friends of the family, was topped by fondant calla lilies and encircled by white chocolate seashells. Easy-to-pack favors included personalized magnets and votive holders.

After the festivities, Lori told everyone to get into their suits, and they headed to the beach for the rest of the afternoon!


Get Cooking with Eggplant

One of the joys of living in the Great Garden State is summertime produce.

New Jersey corn and tomatoes get the big press and for good reason. They are well liked summer vegetables and Jersey grows some of the best in the world. But there is the ugly step-sister of produce, one people either love or hate. It doesn’t have the sex appeal of tomatoes or the iconic appeal of being a staple of Native Americans and early settlers. But this vegetable, technically a berry, is delicious and versatile. I am talking about that purple oblong absurdity the eggplant.

Eggplant – a member of the nightshade family just like potatoes and tomatoes – originated in India and Asia. That’s right. This staple of Mediterranean meals wasn’t introduced to Europe or the Middle East until well into the middle ages when Arab traders brought it home from their Asian trips. Due to its membership in the nightshade family, the eggplant was once thought to be poisonous, a fact not helped by its sometime bitter taste. The bitterness is caused by the tiny soft seeds which contain trace amounts of nicotine alkaloids. No, eggplant is not a gateway vegetable that will lead you to smoking tobacco (another cousin plant) or to hardcore vegetables like turnips and rutabagas.

Eggplant is bitter when raw, but with careful handling and preparation, it yields a golden buttery taste and texture.

When preparing eggplant you have a couple of choices to make. First, is skin on or off? The eggplant skin is technically edible, but is difficult for some people to digest. The skin also provides structure. Without it the flesh will be shapeless. Next choice is whether or not to salt the eggplant then rinse it to help remove the bitterness. Some modern varieties of eggplant are less bitter and don’t require this step, but due to the varying types of eggplant, it is a step that, in most cases, I prefer to take.

Eggplant has a unique capacity for absorbing fats and sauces. The salting process affects the ability of the eggplant to absorb fats. Aubergine (what the French and English call eggplant) is also incredibly versatile. It fries well, can be stewed, roasted, grilled, sautéed or baked. It features prominently in many cultures from its Indian birthplace where it takes starring roles in curries and chutneys to the Balkans and Greece where it is the backbone of the classic Moussaka. Then onto Italy where it is Melanzane alla Parmigiana. In the Mid-East it is roasted and combined with tahini in Baba Ghanoush – a wonderful spread and great fun to pronounce. In France it is the principle ingredient in the classic Ratatouille, the dish not the movie. In America it has taken a prominent role on the grill and in vegetarian sandwiches. Its versatility is not only in cooking methods, but its ability to absorb and take on flavors while still maintaining its own unique flavor and texture.

Before this summer is out embrace that oblong purple berry and try these eggplant dishes Baba Ghanoush, Moussaka and Grilled Eggplant Tomato and Goat Cheese “Sandwiches.” Until next month, Bon Appétit.

Baba Ghanoush

  • 1 Large eggplant
  • 1 Clove minced garlic
  • ¼ Teaspoon kosher salt
  • ⅓ Cup chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 2 Tablespoons tahini paste
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil

Prick eggplant with fork. Roast in 400° oven for 20 minutes. Let cool. Split. Scoop out insides place in food processor. Add remaining ingredients, except olive oil. Process until smooth. Drizzle in oil. Serve with warm pita bread.

Moussaka and Bechamel

This dish has three parts – preparing the eggplant, the meat layer and the béchamel –then it is combined and baked en casserole. Bake in a lightly oiled 9x13x2 baking pan.

Moussaka

  • 3 Pounds eggplant, sliced lengthwise ½ thick
  • Kosher salt
  • Black pepper
  • ⅓ Cup olive oil
  • 1½ Pounds ground lamb
  • 1 Diced onion
  • 5 Cloves minced garlic
  • 1 Teaspoons oregano
  • ½ Teaspoon allspice
  • ½ Teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 Cinnamon stick
  • ¼ Teaspoon cardamom
  • Pinch clove ground
  • 2 Cups tomato puree

Béchamel

  • ¼ Cup butter
  • ¼ Cup flour
  • 3 Cups milk
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 3 Eggs plus 2 yolks
  • ½ Cup grated Locatelli cheese

The filling:
In one tablespoon of olive oil, sauté onion. Add ground lamb and brown. Add garlic. Drain grease. Add spices. Cook 3 minutes. Add tomato puree. Simmer covered on low 20 minutes.

While meat is cooking, lightly dredge eggplant in seasoned flour. Fry in olive oil until lightly browned. Drain, reserve.

Béchamel:
Melt butter. Make roux. Add simmered milk (all but 1 cup). Whisk to avoid lumping. Season with salt, pepper, bay leaf and nutmeg. Simmer 10 minutes. Whisk eggs and yolks into milk. Temper into sauce. Reduce heat. Add ½ Locatelli.

To assemble in baking pan: 
Lay eggplant overlapping to completely cover pan top with a little meat mixture. Continue layers until all meat and eggplant is used. Top with béchamel and remaining cheese. Bake uncovered at 350° for 1 hour. Let set for 15 minutes. Serve.

Eggplant, Tomato and Goat Cheese Sandwiches

  • 2 Small eggplant, cut into ¼” rounds
  • ¼ Cup olive oil
  • 4 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • Salt, black pepper
  • 12 Basil leaves
  • 12 Ounces goat cheese
  • 3 Tomatoes sliced

Combine oil and vinegar. Brush on eggplant slices. Season with salt and pepper. Top eggplant slice with goat cheese, tomato slice and basil leaves. Top with eggplant. Secure with toothpick. Grill 3-5 minutes on each side. Let cool 2 minutes. Remove toothpicks.


Herbal Tea Gardens

It is not too late to plant a tea garden.

Think about an herb tea garden! Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little herb area in the sun near the kitchen door where you could snip fragrant pieces of fresh green herbs for tea? This garden would be pretty, fragrant useful and alive about nine months of the year. You can even do this garden in a series of large pots for a deck or patio and bring them in near a sliding glass door for winter. It is fun to grow your own herbs to use for tea and you can dry extra at the end of the season to use during the wintry weather. Choose a place and plan what herbs you will plant. A garden like this is timeless with a history that goes back to the ancient people. Colonial and Victorian housewives in our area also had useful and pretty tea gardens.

I love to pick a few fresh pieces of whichever herb I want to use and place the sprigs in a teapot. Some folks like to bruise the leaves so the aromatic oils will more readily be released into the boiling water. With most of the following tea plants, you can just pick off a few leaves whenever you want to make tea. As you pick, you will find that a healthy, well cared for plant will constantly grow more new leaves. Having a few of each kind is a good idea, as it will allow the plant to grow in between pickings.

Some herbs are known for their health value and are grown to use for upset stomachs, the onset of a cold or to help one sleep. I know that a tangy pot of lemon balm tea with a slice of lemon on a cold day will really help ward off a cold. Ice this during the summer for a refreshing drink. Our large patch of lemon balm covers an area under two old holly trees. We pick and pick and pick from spring to late fall and also dry bunches for winter tea.

In fall herbs can be picked to dry. Just tie up 6 –10 inch stems and hang in a dry spot indoors. When they are crisp and dry, place them in brown paper lunch bags and write name and date on bag. Store in a cabinet where it is dry so they will not mold. Then just add a sprig or two of the dry to your pot of tea. It is hard to tell one how much to use. This is matter of personal taste and varies. You will soon develop your own tastes and formula for herb tea.

The following list will discuss a few of the favorite herb teas:

Chamomile
This sweet and also pretty herb is known as the relaxing herb. It is one of the ingredients in most “night time” teas. Roman chamomile is a low growing perennial and German is the self-seeding annual variety with more flowers to pick. They do need full sun but will grow well in most soils as long as it drains well. You can grow chamomile in containers on a balcony, but it doesn’t do well indoors. Chamomile does well in my sandy soils in good sun, but in order to grow all summer it needs plenty of water during the hottest parts of the summer. For tea, pick the golden flowers any time the white petals appear. Use fresh or place on paper towel or screen for a few days, store in paper bags or clean jars. Just be sure they are really dry before closing in a jar.

Anise hyssop
This plant has a licorice flavor and the square of the labiate family. The tall spikes of purple-blue flowers are really nice in any perennial garden and attract butterflies and honey bees. The plants are hardy and also reseed so you will have quite a few if you allow them to come back up. This plant reseeds but is not invasive. It prefers full sun and a rich soil, but here it is grown in sand and in shade. The plants are just not as lush as ones in good soil and sun. Both the leaves and flowers of this plant make a delicious licorice-flavored tea.

Lemon verbena
People all over love this tea with its wonderful fresh, lemony scent. It is most often added to other teas to impart a lemon scent and flavor. Here in the Delaware Valley we have to either bring this one in or treat it as an annual. When I bring them indoors for the winter they most often lose their leaves in January, but I see that all are sending out new leaves from what looked like dead branches. They need full sun and make a wonderful patio plant in a very large pot.

Bee Balm (Monarda)
This herb makes a naturally citrus flavored sweet tea and is known as the Oswego tea plant (named after the first botanist who collected it). The colonial people learned of this plant from the natives soon began using it. Legend tells us that it was the tea used after the local Greenwich, New Jersey tea party as well as after the Boston Tea Party as a form of rebellion. We often call this plant bergamot since it smells like the fruit from the Mediterranean plant of that name. But since a Spanish botanist named Monarda in the late 1500’s found it, is correctly named Monarda. Attractive red, pink, or white flowers that look wonderful in the garden and attract both bees and hummingbirds are another plus for this hardy perennial. It enjoys fairly rich, moist soil that is slightly acidic in full sun to partial shade. You can use both the leaves and flowers for tea, but if you leave the flowers behind, the hummingbirds and bees will visit! It is best to use the young leaves as the older leaves may give a bitter aftertaste.

Orange mint
Orange mint has a pleasant citrus fragrance and flavor. One of the nicest things about this plant is that it isn’t as invasive as most mints. If you’re worried you can plant it in a container, but it grows much better in the ground. This mint likes partial to full sun, fairly rich soil, and lots of water. It usually grows about two feet tall, but can be harvested at any size for teas. It is also very pretty in the garden as it has deep green purple-tinged leaves and stems with spikes of lavender bloom. Butterflies love the nectar in the blooms

Other mints
There are many varieties of mint each with its distinct taste: spearmint, peppermint, apple mint (pictured right) or even chocolate mint. Mint will grow readily indoors in a very cool, sunny window in a large pot.

Lemon Balm
This is probably my favorite of all the tea herbs. It is easy to grow and readily reseeds and makes a very healthy tea with a distinct lemon aroma. Lemon balm likes somewhat dry soil and partial shade during the day. We grow it out back under holly trees where it is the best ground cover ever, keeping out weeds and yielding plenty of foliage for tea. This is truly an immune boosting tea and one that dispels colds when they are just beginning.

Rose Hips
Colorful rose hips will make a citrus-tasting tea that is rich in vitamin C. Add to any tea for flavor and vitamins! Most rose plants will create ‘hips’ but Rugosa roses produce the largest ones. The hips are actually seedpods that form at the base of the rose blooms. To make tea with rose hips slice them in half before steeping. Rugosa roses are hardy and cold tolerant and do not need spray which is important consideration for tea plants. These roses will grow just about anywhere in the sun.

Lavender
Lavender is useful in any sunny garden and the butterflies like it too. Most Lavender will grow 2 or 3 feet tall in well-drained soil and direct sun. It is not often used for tea, but can be added to Earl Gray for a party tea. It does make a floral tasting tea that also blends well with other herbs (like chamomile).

Fennel
This is a large airy looking plant that I plant mainly for the butterfly larvae. But since ancient times the seeds have been used for a stomach tea. People have even given it to babies with colic. The seeds can be dried on the plant and then shook into a paper bag for storage. When dried, the seeds have a very strong licorice flavor. The plant will go to seed at the end of summer or in fall seeds can dry right on the plant and be shook into a bag. This plant can grow up to 6 feet tall so it is useful along a fence or at the back of the herb garden.

Free herb classThere are hundreds more herbs to grow for tea. Take some time to study them this fall. Free plant talk on harvesting and using herbs on Saturday September 27 at 1:00 p.m. at Triple Oaks Nursery.

I will also teach a seven-week herb class on harvesting and using herbs through Gloucester County College. This class is held here at the nursery in Franklinville and begins on Wednesday night October 15.

Visit www.tripleoaks.com. Click on “calendar” or call the college.