It’s been a summer of water and the road.

July 4th weekend, our friends Holly and Jeff had invited us to her parent’s place on Chebeague Island, Maine, off the coast of Portland.

We drove to a park n’ ride to hop a bus to the ferry that would take us the island. You know it’s a laid-back kinda place when the parking lot sports a hammock.

The bus — a sky-blue school bus — was so dog-friendly the driver keeps a box of treats by the gear shift. We felt out of place not because we had a dog, but because we didn’t have a retriever or a lab.

Holly’s parents, Bob and Nancy, had forsaken more fast-paced lives for the island that her family has called home for almost a century. They built a super-green friendly house, and Bob got into the green building business. Nancy is a teacher, and seemed to have a hand in everything related to the small school that serves the 300 or so year-round families.

The island was heaven. Lazy days floating on the cold water, a fast sail tacking around lobster trap buoys. Cocktails around 4pm, dinner around 8pm with plenty of wine, followed by fresh bakery pies (we brought the first night’s, a gift to our hosts. A friend of our hosts had dropped another by the next day).

Holly’s parents keep garden boxes where other families have yards. Dinner teamed with their produce, like fresh-trimmed salad greens, the season’s earliest wild blueberries, and spices fresh from a bush.

We stayed four days, and to help around the house, I offered to help make dinner with Holly one night. There was a massive lamb shoulder. She had no idea what to do with it. I hit the computer, and with a little Internet inspiration, came up with a riff on Beuof Borginon. Holly suggested the slow cooker. I had spotted kale in the garden, and suggested that as a green. Holly tackled pesto toasts (her father had made fresh bread the day before) and the last of the fall’s winter squash from the deep freeze.

I like cooking because it’s creative. I look at recipes as a starting point, and riff from there, with whatever’s around and might taste good. Sometimes it works brilliantly (my apple cider steal-cut slow cooker oatmeal), sometimes not so much (several curries better left unmentioned). No beef stock? Chicken sounds good. No open bottle of red wine? Light sherry provided an acceptable alcoholic kick.

For the kale, I perused the spice rack.

“What are you looking for?” Holly asked.

“I don’t know, just seeing what you have.”

This baffled her a little, a think.

But then I caramelized the onions. I shook out some mustard seeds and toasted them a little in the center of the pan. In went the kale, and as the leaves wilted, a heavy dash of the sweet blueberry balsamic sitting beside the stove sizzled.

The verdict?

At dinner, Bob asked for a second serving, before admitting that he usually hates kale — and asking me for the recipe.

The lamb that earned us a return invite

1 very large lamb shoulder

About 5 carrots

1 onion

5 cloves garlic

Handful of small sprigs of sage and thyme

A box of chicken stock (or more, to cover the meat in the slow cooker)

A heavy splash of light sherry

Salt and pepper to taste

Oil for sautéing/browning

Brown the meat on a large griddle (stovetop or electric). Chop the carrots and onions, and feel free to toss in mushrooms too. Sautee them all until the onions start browning and the carrots soften. Add broth and cook a few more minutes. Add sherry to taste. Dump the whole thing in the slower cooker with the lamb. Set to high.

Hit the beach.

Go swimming.

Head home, shower.

Open a bottle or two of wine.

While drinking said wine, spoon half the sauce into a pan and reduce on the stove to a thick-ish sauce, about 15 minutes or so. Use tongs, or just a large spoon, to take the meat off the bone and put on a plate — by now, the meat will just fall off the bone.  Serve, with the sauce on the side.

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