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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Enjoying the South & Our Beaches

Late July is the time of year when even those who get cold in summer have to admit that they are warm. Most people are warm all over. Our low temperature at night for the last three evenings has been staying above eighty degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature there is little cooling at night. The only choice is to abandon any fear of the warmth and the South. You have to embrace the heat. If you boldly go outside and do not worry about the heat, you will be fine as long as you drink lots of fluids. With the breeze and the ocean waters, even this heat will be a pleasant memory when January rolls around. Then you can remember how warm the sand was and the shock when you first walk from your air conditioned home into our humid blanket of warmth. Your body adjusts pretty quickly especially if you are wearing the minimum amount of clothing. Once you have embraced the heat, you might as well explore Southern life a little. The best way to do that is with some Southern food.
My wife and I were both born in North Carolina so we are well versed in North Carolina's culinary arts. One of the things that helps us survive the heat, is the food we eat.

Once summer begins and the tomatoes are ripe the first week in June, we quickly start eating tomato sandwiches. While there are lots of people who will argue that you cannot have a good tomato sandwich on anything other than white bread, I am very partial to using Pepperidge Farm soft oatmeal bread. I have learned to live with Kraft light mayonnaise. I even skip the salt on my sandwich and make do with lots of pepper, but you have to find some homegrown tomatoes to enjoy a real tomato sandwich at its finest. On a hot evening a tomato sandwich both feeds you and keeps the kitchen cool.

Our mothers were fond of abandoning meat on hot evenings. You might have green beans, corn on the cob, cornbread, sliced tomatoes, perhaps fried squash and cantaloupe or watermelon.

While turning out perfect cornbread involves significant expertise, a well seasoned cast iron pan, and a good recipe, hush puppies are easier but do make something of a mess. Our family recipe for hush puppies gives you a real taste of the South.

if you want something really easy, try fried yellow summer squash. It is so simple that I am usually in charge of it. Find the nicest, small, blemish free yellow summer squash that you can. Slice it into rounds about one quarter of an inch thick. Heat about one quarter of inch of vegetable oil in a large frying pan. My wife claims the oil wiggles when it is hot enough. While the oil is getting hot, dip your squash in some Egg Beaters or beaten egg on a small plate and then coat them on another plate that has cornmeal on it. When you put one of the coated squash rounds into the frying pan, it should sound like frying. If not, the oil is not hot enough. Once you have filled the pan, salt and pepper them, then go back and see if the first ones are brown on the bottom. When they are brown, flip them over. When they are brown on both sides remove to a plate covered with paper towels. Eat while hot.

Another favorite hot weather food happens to be pimento cheese sandwiches. My pimento cheese recipe is easy to fix and has won a number of accolades on the web.

There are some coastal things that we eat in hot weather which are not a lot of trouble. One of my favorites is simple grilled scallops. I use cooking spray on our fish cooking grill tray. I buy scallops that are in their own juice either in a bag or container with a top. As soon the grilling sheet is warm, I place the scallops on the sheet so they are not touching. I close the grill for two or three minutes, and then flip each scallop and close the grill for another two or three minutes. You do not have to let the scallops start flaking to know that they are done. The best way is to cut one and see if it is cooked through. As soon as they are done, we remove them from the grill to a platter and then people fight over them.

Some other favorites to fix on the coast in the summer are chilled cocktail shrimp, and if you love fish, classic pan fried flounder. Another favorite of ours happens to be crab cakes. Our "secret recipe" is the one on the Old Bay seasoning can. We usually use lump crab meat and pack it in ice even when it is stored in the fridge before cooking.. Just make sure you use fresh, local NC seafood.

With these Southern dishes and your new found love of the heat and humidity, you will not only enjoy the beach, but you might go back home with some new recipes.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Blue Skies That Delight

I like to think that blue skies are one of the reasons beside the beach that people come for visits in the summer. While there are a lot of treats on the coast like fresh seafood, when we have the blue skies they are free. In the winter we often have weeks of clear blue skies, but in the summer we are more likely to have blue skies early in the morning and then a tug of war between the blue skies and the clouds. That was the case when I snapped this picture near Clyde Phillips Seafood between the bridges in Swansboro. The picture was taken just after noon a few days ago. That morning I had gotten up to beautiful blue skies over the White Oak River. By the time I took the picture along Route 24, the river had a pretty solid cloud cover. The only completely blue skies seemed to be down the Intracoastal towards Hammocks Beach. Finding blue sky is always a guessing game.
Visitors to the coast know all about the blue sky guessing game. Usually weeks before you are set to enjoy your home along the shore, you bet on a certain week and hope that the weather will be great.

So far this year, I cannot think of a week that has been a washout. While we have had six inches of rain at Bluewater Cove this July, it has come in short intense storms. I can only think of one day which qualified as a rainy day.

As residents, we play a different kind of blue skies game. While we all have access to more weather reports than we can read, the only one that makes any sense is the one that is going to be right. The problem is that you never know which one that is.

There are many days when we plan to go out with our boats and have to play it by ear. You look at the weather reports, check the sky and wind, and then make an educated guess which you cover by staying close enough to home to make a run for if need be.

We have done that several times. We will even gamble that we can fish for a few hours before a front comes through by fishing five minutes from home. So far with a weather report in hand and watchful eyes, we have been able to be back at the dock before any serious rain.

Our closest call came a few weeks ago. We were fishing near the Point and hoping to leave around 3 PM so the twenty minute trip to our dock would put us home well ahead of the predicted 4 PM front. We pulled anchor just before 3 PM and headed home, but we had not counted on a Coast Guard safety check. We still made it home in time, but we only touched the tops of the waves, and the pouring rains came within five minutes of the last of our gear being stowed.

Many times we leave home to find the weather better over on the beaches than it is on the mainland. It seems to run in spells. Often the storms build over interior North Carolina and then roll towards the coast. The trick is to leave home early and try to be back at the dock before the afternoon storms.

Weather is never really predictable because just when you start counting on the storms coming from the land, they will trick you and start coming up the coast.

Last night as we were driving back to the coast from the Virginia mountains, we seemed to be shadowing a huge thunderstorm. As we settled into the hour drive from Interstate 40 to Cape Carteret, I wondered if the storm would catch us, but it seemed to disappear.

It was with great surprise that I got up this morning to find a steady breeze of 25 miles per hour. When I checked my rain gauge, I saw that we had two inches of rain while we were away. Apparently the two inches of rain never made it to the area not far from here in the Croatan National Forest where eight hundred acres of forest have already burned.

This morning with clouds over the river early, we headed east along Route 58 up the Emerald Isle Beach. By the time we reached 14th Street, the skies were completely blue and the winds were still blowing.

My guess is that this was a good beach day. The winds likely made it a challenging day for fighting a fire. Perhaps the winds will drop as we pick up some addtional rain tomorrow.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Back on the Bridge

Not a lot of year around residents here on the Crystal Coast are like me and hope to get caught in traffic on the bridge. Yesterday was one of those days when the dream ended up being reality. We showed property all day and headed over to Emerald Isle to drop a package off at another real estate office. It was just before five PM, and I could see the traffic as we were turning from McLean Blvd. onto the bridge approach. I was a little worried, it seemed to be moving a little fast. Luck was with me, and just after we got past the highest point of the Cameron-Langston Bridge, the traffic slowed to a stop. I was ready with a camera and over the next two or three minutes managed to snap a number of shots. My wife prefers this method of bridge photography to my other method which is asking her to act as a traffic lookout and warn me of approaching traffic.
I am just like many people I absolutely love the view from the bridge. It is both a soothing and inspiring view. As I look across the water from the heights of the bridge, I do let my mind soar over Bogue Sound and examine the limitless possibilities of life.

There is something special about crossing the bridge from the mainland to the island. Without being told everyone knows that they are entering a special world. For most of us it is a place were the amount of time we spend is limited but very special.

While most people get to cross the bridge only a few times, there are those of us who cross it at least a couple of times each day. We get to see it in changing seasons, with lots of traffic and with almost no traffic.

One cold winter day I slowed to snap a picture of a beautiful sunset. When I got home, I found that I had captured not only the sunset but also two deer standing in the water's edge on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Then there was our snow storm when bridge traffic was almost non existent. The last few weekends bridge traffic has been anything but non-existent.

I have yet to spend more than ten minutes getting across the bridge. I have heard of it taking people one half hour, but those are unconfirmed reports. My way of looking at the bridge is that it suspends you in mid-air over one of the most beautiful scenes along the North Carolina coast. Why would you want to speed through such beautiful scenery?

It is far better to be caught in traffic and to get to savor the fantastic view.

I suspect none of these arguments carry much weight with either tourists or locals. Many visitors have been in their cars for hours and the last thing that they need is to sit in traffic. On the other hand, often locals are just trying to accomplish some normal tasks when they get stuck on the bridge. If you are just running over for a quick errand, taking twenty five minutes for a bridge trip can be very frustrating.

I am not going to try to convert everyone to my view of bridge traffic, but I would ask you to pay careful attention if you visit in the winter months. If there is a car stopped at the top taking pictures, it just might be me, so slow down and be patient.

For another perspective on the meaning of crossing the bridge check out my Sea Salt Blog where I argue that the bridge is a metaphor for a move.

Speaking of moving, we have a new home under construction in Bluewater Cove. It is actually exciting to see some new homes being built.

It just reaffirms my belief that the Crystal Coast is a great place to visit and to live.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Remember This as a Perfect Beach Day

There are days when the beach sand is so hot that it causes you to dance. Then there are days when the breeze is blowing enough to almost sand blast your ankles. Once in a while the waves are so rough that even the bravest swimmers stay on shore. Today was not a day that had a defect. The air was warm, but not too warm. There was a slight breeze, but the surf was very calm. It was just a great beach day. From my informal survey of the parking lots at the regional access points, there were plenty of people enjoying the beach. It is nice to have a day like today to make up for the rain on Monday. Those of us who live here needed the rain for our yards, flowers, and vegetables. While visitors might like all sunshine during the day and rain only at night, the weather is going to do what it wants.
From the looks of the long range forecast, next week might return to a more normal summer weather pattern with afternoon storms. This weekend might even be rainy. As usual we probably will not know until it happens.

With some rain in the forecast, we have to make the most of days like today. The challenge is always managing to get your work done and have some fun on the great days. I worked this morning, and just before lunch we headed up the beach.

We wanted to visit Crunch the Alligator Snapping Turtle who is on display at the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium. I like to think Crunch has just come north from the steamy south for a nice vacation.

Since we were running up the beach at lunch time, we decided to stop by the Crab Shack in Salter Path. We were there around 12:30 PM, and we were surprised at how many people were having lunch. It might have had something to do with the delicious baby flounder special which my wife and I both ordered.

We were back on our way shortly after one, and it did not take us long to get to the Aquarium. We have an annual membership so going just to see Crunch was only another excuse to enjoy the Aquarium. It turned out that Crunch was housed just across from the gift shop so we got to walk through the whole Aquarium anyway.

At 150 years old and 165 pounds, Crunch is an impressive turtle. We were lucky to get to see him move since he does appear to know how to stay motionless in the water. I have posted a few pictures that I took of Crunch.

After heading back down the beach, we stopped at Third Street Beach which was uncrowded compared to the regional access parking areas. There were a few people on the beach enjoying themselves, and the sea oats seemed to be at their peak. It was a little warm sitting up on the picnic table by the beach. Since we had not thought to wear bathing suits, we headed on home.

We had only been on the road for a couple of minutes when we noticed a huge amount of smoke coming from the Newport area. I am guessing that the smoke was coming from a controlled burn in the Croatan National Forest.

After taking a picture, we headed on back to Bluewater Cove. I managed to get a little more work done at home and to sneak in a quick nap before dinner. Since lunch was more than normal, we had tomato sandwiches for dinner. It is one of our regular summer meals since I grow our own tomatoes.

Having a quick dinner with no cooking allowed us to go for a ride on the White Oak. I had gone out last night hoping to catch the sunset. I ended up being about six minutes late last night. Tonight I made sure that I was plenty early. My wife agreed to ride with me so we rode most of the way to Swansboro before coming back to wait for the sunset.

It was extremely pleasant on the river with a light breeze and quickly cooling temperatures. I snapped a few pictures and a sunset. It was not exactly the one I wanted, but there is always tomorrow night. We have already invited friends to ride with us.

These are the pictures that I snapped on the White Oak this evening.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Day In Bogue Inlet

I have been hoping that the tides, weather, and schedules would all align properly so I could get out to Bogue Inlet on a July morning while the waters are still calm. Today we pulled away from our dock about twenty minutes until ten. One of the reasons that I enjoy getting out before the winds pick up is the smooth ride down the White Oak River. This morning there was not even a ripple on the White Oak. We did around 32 mph all the way to bridge at Swansboro where we slowed to go through the harbor. I stopped long enough in the harbor to cast at a bluefish chasing fish on the surface, but my lure was ignored so we made our way through the harbor and swung east into the Intracoastal and got back up on plane until we got to the no wake zone at the Wildlife Resources Ramp. After passing through that zone, we resumed speed and passed a catamaran under power also headed east.
It was not long before we were making a sweeping turn into the channel to the Inlet. There was still really no traffic or waves so we made great time. We were turning to look for the fishing hole I found last week just after 10 AM.

It took just a few more minutes for my fishing buddy Dean to throw the anchor out. We had lines in the water shortly after that. I am actually amazed that it is so easy to get to a great fishing spot.

A fair amount of planning goes into our fishing trips, but a lot of the preparation has been reduced to a routine. Most of the long range planning involves schedules. Then I watch the weather and tides. When things seem to be coming together, I call Dean the night before. He can usually get a day off as long as he calls in the night before.

The next morning, I make a run to Clyde Phillips for some shrimp. I usually buy nice shrimp for bait since we cook up whatever is left over after fishing. I will often stop at Dudley's Marina for some hooks and my favorite Gulps, which are white plastic mullets that the flounder seem to favor. Then I stop by the automated ice machine on Highway 58 and get three bags of ice.

After I get home, I start loading the boat. I usually put the ice and the shrimp cooler on first. Next I will get my two tackle buckets and my one tackle bag. Then I have two floating bags that I bring on board. One has a waterproof box with all my boat papers including the report from my latest Coast Guard check about a week ago. The other floating bag has a waterproof pouch with my fishing license, driver's license, credit card, and $20. I usually bring the GPS and emergency radio on board in that bag. I have a plastic container that protects the connectors for the GPS. When I put the GPS in place, I stow the container in the floating bag.

Next I bring on board, a two compartment bucket that has our throw pillow and with an attached line. If we are not trolling, I have just three rods that I use. Then I load some beverages and towels. I take the lines off the dock. If it has been a while since I have had the boat out, I usually have the anchor on the dock so it has to also be loaded.

Finally after counting life vests and making sure all the other safety equipment is on board, I put the plug in the boat. Dean usually gets to the dock early enough to help with the loading.

The secret to getting away easily is to leave the boat in good shape after your most recent trip. That usually means washing things down, fueling, and checking all the equipment before you call it a night.

Boating is a lot of fun, but it is also more work than you might imagine. As far as I am concerned the fun far out weighs the work.

Today was one of those great days. As I switched from driving hat to my full brimmed fishing hat, it crossed my mind that most people never get to enjoy the water like we do here on the Crystal Coast. Certainly even if they get out on the water their surroundings cannot match the beauty of Bogue Sound and Bogue Inlet and their warm waters. These are special places, and I feel blessed each time I scan the blue horizon here.

Today after we had fished a few minutes I realized that I had put us in the wrong place. We moved a little further towards Hammocks Beach and found the structure that I had located last week. We did not catch anything to write home about, but we did land a flounder, a couple of sharks, two lizardfish, some pin fish, and some croakers.

I did have the special pleasure of catching my fish with an Abu Garcia 5000 reel that I have used since I was six or seven years old. Having an an old reel like that made the fishing especially fun.

We had enough bites to keep things interesting. Three bottle nosed dolphins swam through the Inlet. The catamaran that we had passed came out the Inlet and headed out into the ocean. We caught fish, watched people play on the nearby low water beach, and enjoyed the warm breeze.

We even got to see someone power his vee bottomed boat up onto the beach. They then managed to nap in the sun for an hour or so. Of course putting your boat on a beach when the tide is going out is not a particularly good idea. As we were motoring away, we saw them gather up a dozen people to try to push their boat back in the water. The boat looked to be pretty high and dry to me. I suspect the 9 PM high tide would be the best hope for getting the boat off the beach.

If you get a chance to boat in Bogue Sound or Inlet, do not pass up the opportunity. It is truly a lot of fun. It will create some memories that you will never forget.

As pulled back up to dock around 3 PM, the only question was when can we do it again?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Southern Delights

My guess is that if you came down to the beach this week, you are probably a little disappointed with this afternoon's weather. We had a lot of rain later in the day. Where we live along the shores of the White Oak River, we got 1.75 inches of rain in less than two hours. We actually really needed the rain. It came at a critical time for the corn and soybean crops. It also refreshed all of our vegetable crops which are just now hitting their peak. Those vegetables and also the area fruits are the southern delights that are the subject of this post. My wife and I both grew up in the Piedmont area of North Carolina not far from the Virginia border. Gardening and fresh vegetables were as much a part of summer as going to the beach or the summer sun. That tradition of enjoying fresh vegetables lives on here along the Carteret coast.
I used to think that my mother could live on green beans and cornbread. Of course, the green beans had to be white half runner beans and the cornbread had to be cooked in one of her special cast iron black frying pans. Besides the green beans, there were two other summer treats that played a special part in summer, corn and tomatoes.

Both corn and beans take a serious amount of ground to grow. When I was a child, we did not have room for those on our small plot of land in Lewisville, NC, but there were tomatoes in every empty spot in the beds beside our home. Our many relatives who lived in rural Yadkin County provided us with more beans and corn than we could handle. From an early age, I can remember my mother canning beans and freezing corn. It was just what people living close to the land did in North Carolina in the fifties and sixties. You put up food in the summer for the winter.

My mother canned and preserved vegetables and fruits well into her eighties. Even when she was over ninety, I can remember her helping my wife make blackberry jelly from berries that we had picked. We reached the peak of our canning and preserving during the ten years we lived on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada.  We had well over one hundred canning jars, a water bath canner, and even a pressure canner.  We also had two chest freezers.  While we have given up canning the quarts and quarts of green beans, we still put away a few things. We are already enjoying the strawberry freezer jam that we made from local berries earlier in the spring.

Tonight for dinner we had fresh local sweet corn, homegrown tomatoes, homemade potato salad and our first Bogue Sound watermelon of the year. While we had some meat to go with our veggies, the vegetables were the stars of the meal.

Those vegetables are just a few of the southern delights that we are fortunate to have here in Carteret County. One of the really special things about the Southern Outer Banks area is that we have a very early growing season. Our strawberries are almost always ripe in mid-April. I got my first ripe tomato this year on June 5. From collards and lettuce to sweet potatoes, the rock-free soils along Bogue Sound produce bountiful crops.

As I talked to my relatives in central NC this evening, I found out that their tomatoes are just starting to ripen, and they are still waiting for the first ears of corn. Last weekend we carried homegrown tomatoes to friends in Roanoke, Va. They will probably not see local tomatoes until the second or third week of July. Our plants will be getting their second wind about then. In 2007 we picked our last ripe tomato on December 19.

So while the rain kept everyone off the beaches this afternoon, it provided crops with a much-needed drink of water. I would have rather that it rained during the night, but you have to take the rain when you can get it. The folks in the Piedmont are very dry and got less than one-tenth of an inch. I suspect they are very jealous of the timely rain that we got today.

If you are looking for local produce, there are a number of places to find it. We are partial to Winberry's in Cedar Point, but other folks have their own favorites. You are likely to find great produce at any of the area farms or markets. We buy from them all.

If you are looking for some of those vegetables at a restaurant, one of the surprising spots to find them is the Bogue House in Cedar Point. I will have to give them credit along the ladies of our church for turning me into a fan of collards. I also enjoy their field peas and sweet potatoes.

One of the great treats of the area is the Bogue Sound watermelon. With just two of us, it is hard to eat one of the larger ones, but today we found a small seedless one at a reasonable price today.

Now that we have enough rain to last us a while, we will be rooting for all sunshine for the rest of the week. The forecast looks pretty close to that. Just do not forget to eat your vegetables after you come in from the beach.

I will be busy tomorrow morning mowing my grass, I am pretty sure that I can hear the grass growing even now. The way I look at it, the rain saved me from having to run my irrigation system so forgive me for being happy with today's downpour.