Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cheese, Ham & Tomato Frittata

As the temperature plummeted 30 degrees and the wind blew ferociously, comfort food seemed like a great idea last evening. Using up some of our Christmas ham seemed like another great idea, the refrigerator offered some aged cheese, and the pantry yielded a can of tomatoes. When bound together with eggs, the results were satisfying, filling and, most of all - comforting.

Cheese, Ham & Tomato Frittata
Makes 4-5 dinner servings

6 eggs and 1 tablespoon of water, beaten
1 cup Colby Jack cheese, grated (may also use medium cheddar)
1 cup lean ham, diced
1 can petite diced tomatoes, drained


1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter

Cover bottom of large, buttered glass or ceramic casserole dish with ham. Add cheese to eggs and stir in thoroughly. Bake at 350 degrees, 40-45 minutes, until slightly firm. Remove from oven and cover the entire frittata surface with drained tomatoes.

Stir together Parmesan and bread crumbs and sprinkle evenly across tomatoes. Drizzle butter across crumb mixture. Place frittata under broiler until topping browns slightly, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to set for about 10 minutes before cutting. Serve with fresh green beans or a crisp salad.

Lunch in Lawrence

It's not every day you dine with a friend who you last saw 35 years ago. I had created a profile on Facebook so I could access the page for a professional organization. Two days later, I received a message asking if I was this person's 'Irish sister from Mt. Lebanon High School.' My theater 'brother' and his family had lived only 40 minutes away from our house, for a decade. We scheduled lunch in Lawrence, Kansas - his hometown and location of the University of Kansas.

25,000 students call Lawrence home. Sprawling houses with generous porches and large front yards line Massachusetts Street before the retail district - half a dozen blocks filled with unique, student friendly shops, a sprinkling of chain stores and some truly wonderful restaurants. When I arrived early I played with my new camera. This mask and brightly painted building injected life into the chilly, gray February morning.

My 'brother,' Mark, and I ate pasta at Genovese while looking at his high school yearbook and my ancient script. A year later, we and our spouses have become friends, and Lawrence holds a special place in my heart.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Grown in New Mexico

Melinda Bateman holds a plump carnival acorn squash and a magenta-hued, fresh-cut beet while she describes her life as a Northern New Mexico farmer. Garlic bulbs the size of fists lie on the front porch. "I love to be outside, eating the fruits of my labor," says the owner of 10-year-old Morning Star Farm, located in the village of Arroyo Seco.

Bateman supplies biodynamically grown, pesticide-free produce to upscale Taos restaurants, Doc Martin’s and Lambert’s, and serves as a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) source for area residents. Each week’s delivery reflects what Bateman has recently harvested and, over the course of a year, the variety is astonishing.

By late September, enormous kale leaves and plump carrots are ready for harvest. Through wintertime, customers also may receive leeks, potatoes, parsnips, onions, turnips, pumpkins, winter squash, cabbage and rutabagas. Spring deliveries may feature a salad mix, herbs, radishes, spinach, and turnips. And Bateman’s summer deliveries often include Swiss chard, bok choy, heirloom lettuce, green beans, fennel, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, summer squash, and peas; plus basil, sage, dill, oregano, thyme and tarragon.

“The idea of a CSA is to create a partnership between growers and consumers in which the bounty and the risks of the farm are shared,” says Bateman, in her brochure. “By purchasing food at a local farm your food dollars stay in the local economy [which] further helps to promote and preserve agriculture in the Taos Valley.”

Mini Cinnamon Almond Cheesecakes

It all started with a cinnamon-flavored cereal that my college-age daughter requested during her Christmas visit. Unaccustomed to buying this product, I didn't notice the box touted '75% less sugar,' and my daughter was less than enthusiastic about the change. Because I wanted to use up some of the cereal, I made a cheesecake crust with it:

Mini Cinnamon Almond Cheesecakes
Makes 12

3/4 cups Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup melted butter
cupcake papers

1 1/2 packages lowfat cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg + 1 egg yolk, beaten
1 tablespoon flour
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons milk

Grind cereal and almonds fine, in food processor. Combine thoroughly with butter and then press 1/12th of mixture into bottom of 12 cupcake papers.

Beat together cream cheese, flour, almond extract, cinnamon and sugar. Add eggs and beat together on low. Stir in milk by hand. Fill cupcake papers approximately 3/4 full. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Allow to cool completely in pan. Remove papers and keep in refrigerator until ready to serve.


1/4 cup almonds, rough chopped
4 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon almond extract

Before serving cheesecakes, melt butter in a small saucepan and stir in sugar until dissolved. Stir in cinnamon and almonds, and combine thoroughly. Pour one teaspoon warm topping over each chilled cheesecake.

VOE - Add topping immediately after cooking as it hardens very quickly.
VOE - If you're not serving all 12 cheesecakes at once, save the topping and add 1/2 teaspoonfuls of butter to mixture while reheating, until topping becomes slightly liquid again.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Frank Lloyd Wright's Neighborhood

Japanese art and culture, and a desire to bring the outdoors inside, heavily influenced Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style of architecture, which typically included wide, overhanging eaves, long horizontal lines, a central chimney, tall windows topped with bands of smaller windows, and low pitched roofs.

Nowhere is the Prairie Style more evident than in Oak Park, on Chicago's outskirts. Wright and his wife lived in the area from 1889 to 1909 and he built 25 structures there by 1913. His open, light-filled home and studio still draw approximately 100,000 admirers to the city, each year.

Although Wright's buildings can be seen in many places, from rural Pennsylvania (Fallingwater) to Phoenix (Taliesen West and Arizona State University), Spring Hill, Wisconsin (Taliesen), and New York City (the Guggenheim Museum), this is, by far, the greatest concentration of his architectural designs. Here, in a single afternoon, you can appreciate Wright's genius, imagination, and passion for his life's work.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Day of the Dead

Since I learned about the importance of Dia de Los Muertos in New Mexico, two years ago, I'll never look at pumpkins the same way again. Mexican-Americans throughout this country honor loved ones who have died on November 1st and 2nd - 'the Day of the Dead' - because they view death as the continuation of life.

Around Halloween sugar skeletons appear throughout the Mexican community, in preparation for this celebration. Families who visit cemeteries together, on the 1st and 2nd, may share picnics there too. Bread of the Dead, music, and entertainment are other ways to celebrate.

Altars are created for each deceased person, with photographs of that individual, and his or her favorite food and drink. Each altar also features natural elements of earth, wind, water and fire. A crop represents the earth, a moving object represents the wind, a container of water is meant to quench the soul of the deceased, and a candle represents fire.

It's a ritual that has thrived for 3,000 years.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Teddy Bear Cookies

Whenever the holiday season rolls around there are two cookies on our 'must make' list - Walnut Crescents (see previous entry, 'Thanks Joy (of Cooking)') and Teddy Bear cookies. I started making the latter many years ago, when my daughters really loved cute things, especially if they were edible. For these now 20-something girls and their friends, it wouldn't be Christmas at our house without Teddy Bear cookies.

I didn't create the recipe, and the only change I've made is to use equal parts of chocolate and peanut butter chips, because one daughter isn't wild about p.b. But these cookies are so darn cute, easy, and fun that they're well worth sharing. As for a source, my original copy of the recipe is on a tiny, yellowed piece of the Kansas City Star, but that's all I know.
I hope you enjoy making what has become a holiday tradition in our house. And best wishes to all for a blessed season of celebration!

Cheery Chocolate Teddy Bear Cookies
Makes about 4 dozen (VOE - I'm lucky if I get 3 1/2 dozen)

1 2/3 cups peanut butter chips (I use 1 1/3)
1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips (I use 1 1/3)
(VOE - these are the best alternate proportions I've found; something about the peanut butter amount is important to the consistency)
2 tablespoons margarine or butter
1 package chocolate sandwich cookies
1 box teddy bear-shaped graham snack crackers

Cover tray with wax paper (or foil). In medium microwave-safe bowl, place peanut butter chips, chocolate chips and margarine. Microwave at high for 1 to 2 minutes or until chips are melted, mixture is smooth when stirred, and chocolate and peanut butter are thoroughly combined.

With a fork, dip each cookie into chip mixture and cover completely. Place coated cookies on prepared tray and top each with graham cracker. Refrigerate, uncovered, until set, or about 30 minutes. Store in refrigerator and bring individual cookies to room temperature before eating.

VOEs - You have to work fast before the mixture begins to harden, so pour the teddy cookies and the sandwich cookies in separate bowls for easy access. And don't answer the door or phone unless absolutely necessary.

-Have a rubber spatula on hand so you can move mixture off sides to bottom of mixture bowl.
-After you dip each cookie, scrape the bottom side of the fork on the edge of the bowl to 'recapture' excess mixture.
-You may have to 'frost' the last half dozen of cookies, as the mixture is used up.
-Make sure each teddy bear cookie has both ears and all limbs :)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kansas City's Beautiful Link

Sometimes, an image of glass and steel can become an art piece, if your camera is positioned just right. Such was the case on a chilly, bright September morning, in Kansas City's Crown Center complex.

After attending a conference at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center, I followed "The Link" across the street to the Crown Center shops and the Westin Crown Center (hotel). The Link is a gently curving, climate-controlled structure that provides visitors with safe, comfortable passage from hotels to shopping, restaurants and theaters while crossing high above traffic-filled thoroughfares.

Built in 1988, The Link from the Hyatt to Crown Center is 180 feet long and has 2,000 panes of glass. In 2000 a second, 810-foot "Link" connected Union Station - one of the neighborhood's oldest landmarks - to the modern complex. Simultaneously functional and beautiful, this unusual structure offers great views and great comfort to visitors.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Marketing in Santa Fe

The Santa Fe Farmers Market continues a four-decade tradition of sharing fresh produce with local residents. Vendors offer an enormous array of chiles each fall, in addition to items that might appear in markets across the country. Santa Feans adore their chiles and often freeze them for use throughout the year.

But there's more to the fall market than chiles. Over 100 vendors sell miniature vegetables, fresh raspberries (this is their season in the Land of Enchantment), local chutneys and honey, goat's milk cheeses, and pistachios and pinon nuts. The market also sells chicos - corn roasted in a traditional adobe 'horno' oven, allowed to dry on a tin roof, and cooked so the kernels are chewy and nutty. Chicos frequently pair with frijoles (beans) or meat and chiles.

All vegetables, fruits and nursery plants at the Santa Fe Farmers Market are grown in northern New Mexico, and at least 80 percent of the ingredients and materials used to create craft items. In addition, all products sold by vendors are grown by the same vendors. No matter what time of year you visit Santa Fe, there's always something tasty and fresh available at the market.

Thanks, Joy (of Cooking)

By the time I received my Joy of Cooking cookbook, more than three decades ago, I'd already become well-acquainted with one recipe that my mother had always made for Christmas - Almond Crescents. After my husband and I married, I learned he had grown up with the same delicious holiday treat. They soon became a beloved recipe in our home too.

Fast forward 25 years. Today, I can't seem to use any recipe without giving it my own spin. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog also know I have a 'thing' about whole wheat pastry flour; I don't bake without it. We're crazy about cinnamon too and, although I do like almonds, I've switched to walnuts because we always keep them on hand.

So, with thanks to the Rombauer sisters (the authors), my mother, and my husband's mother, and a few adjustments, I give you:

Walnut Crescents
Makes 3-4 dozen

3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 canola oil (*the original recipe calls for all butter; oil makes a flakier, flatter & larger cookie)
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
(the original calls for 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, but I reduced this because my flour is denser and previous cookies were too dry and crumbly)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional in original recipe)
1 cup ground walnuts

confectioner's sugar
cinnamon (there is no cinnamon in this part of the original recipe)

Cream together butter, oil and confectioner's sugar. Add vanilla, cinnamon and walnuts. Combine thoroughly and form a large ball. Cover completely and chill, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Form small crescent shapes with chilled dough - about 1 1/2 inches long - and place on greased cookie sheets. Bake in 350 degree pre-heated oven, about 15 minutes. Let cool just until easy to handle.

Stir together additional confectioner's sugar and cinnamon in increments of 1 cup sugar to 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Roll/cover each cookie in confectioner's sugar. Cool thoroughly before storing them in an air-tight container.

Architectural Inspiration at Powell Gardens

My husband, Mark, and I revisited Powell Gardens in Kingsville, Mo., last summer, and stopped by the Marjorie Powell Allen Chapel for the first time since our daughters were in middle school (they're now 20-somethings). As soon as we stepped through the doors and looked towards the front of the quiet, peaceful non-denominational sanctuary, I remembered our older daughter declaring she would get married there.

The view of serene water through soaring windows, and natural wood, have also inspired me during each visit to the chapel. I've been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural style since my teens and the architect of this beautiful structure, E. Fay Jones, was an apprentice to Wright.

After a few minutes, we finished our tour. A fountain rushed into a shallow pool near the chapel entrance as we returned to the steamy summer heat, where butterflies and bees ate from vibrant blooms that covered the gardens in a riot of color.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Clean Fish Catches On

The Texas redfish arrived alongside Mexican shrimp, in a cooler full of dry ice. Pale pink, 3/4 inches thick, and glossy, it set my mouth watering. After a brief stint under the broiler the fish was moist and flaky, without a hint of 'fishy-ness.'

This fish is part of a rather unusual story. It came from a company called CleanFish Alliance, a group of artisan fish and shellfish producers from across the globe, who focus on farming and/or catching their product using environmentally sound methods, as well as offering a better-tasting products. The big goals? Improve the health of our oceans and regenerate ecosystems while creating a sustainable source of fresh seafood.
Food & Wine Magazine has given the company an Eco-Ocean Award for its efforts to make seafood sustainable, alongside the Ocean Conservancy, Oceana and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund. A leading group of socially responsible entrepreneurs, investors and nonprofit leaders also gave the organization its 2008 Social Venture Network Award.
And to think their products taste good too.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Orange Walnut Pumpkin Pie

When you have a goal of creating a new recipe on a certain day, each week, sometimes the task is easier than others. Such was the case this week, but several days of pondering resulted in a great twist on an old classic. Give it a try and see if you agree.

Orange Walnut Pumpkin Pie
Makes 8-10 servings

1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin
10 ounces evaporated milk
juice of one orange, about 2 ounces
2 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger

juice of one orange
1/2 - 1/3 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons orange zest
1/2 cup ground walnuts

single pie crust

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine pumpkin, evaporated milk, orange juice, eggs, 3/4 cup brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger thoroughly and pour in pie crust. Bake for 15-20 minutes and then reduce temperature to 350 degrees. Bake for 40 more minutes.

After reducing oven temperature, stir together orange juice, zest, and 1/2 cup brown sugar over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Stir in walnuts and set aside.

Remove pie from oven at end of 40 minutes and spread topping across entire pie. Broil until topping bubbles, about 3-5 minutes. Cool thoroughly before serving.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Traveling Chapungu Sculptures

The closeness between mother and daughter was evident from the moment we happened upon this sculpture at Powell Gardens, Kingsville, Mo., in May 2008. We had also seen these mesmerizing, quietly inspirational and stunning works by artists from Zimbabwe, at Denver Botanic Gardens.

Created by members of the Shona tribe, the name, Chapungu (cha-POONG-goo), pays homage to the Bateleur eagle, a powerful bird that flies up to 300 miles a day, at 30 to 50 mph, and represents a good omen. The international exhibit represents 35 artists and creates a sensation wherever it appears. With its focus on trees, plants, animals, insects, reptiles, birds and as inter-personal relationships, Chapungu sculptures provide a quiet beauty and counterpoint to the colorful natural environments in which they are displayed.

Ranging in height from three to 11 feet and weighing between 500 and 5,000 pounds, each individual sculpture is the product of chisels, hammers, tile cutters, and metal combs, refined with sand paper and enhanced with clear wax that brings out the natural textures and colors of the stone. From natural stone, these artists create a new kind of beauty that endures in memory long after you see it.

Cheese Curds at Wilson's

It's been more than 100 years since Wilson's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor began serving the ultimate diner food to hungry residents, and droves of tourists who descend on Ephraim, Wisconsin, each year. Whether customers order thick chocolate shakes, juicy burgers, or the famous Wilson's homemade rootbeer, this is a place to indulge - and worry about calories some other time.

But, ask any Wisconsin native and they'll likely tell you a quintessential Wisconsin item on the menu is fried cheese curds. $4.95 buys a huge basket of freshly prepared Cheese Curds on a Bed of Fries, that ooze mellow cheesy goodness beneath a light, crispy batter. In fact, Martin Hintz and Pam Percy, authors of Wisconsin Cheese, A Cookbook and Guide to the Cheeses of Wisconsin, declare that cheese curds 'are as Wisconsin as...milk.'

Order the fried cheese curds because they represent the state, or because you'll swoon over their decadent goodness - but just be sure you don't leave without trying this signature item.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mexican Scalloped Potatoes

Since my husband and I are empty nesters and our Thanksgiving table will include only two additional people, using up a five-pound bag of Yukon gold potatoes while they're still fresh seemed a daunting task.

That is, until I created this twist on classic scalloped potatoes. Green chile sauce adds a bit of zing that pairs perfectly with teriyaki-marinated pork tenderloin, or chicken breasts marinated in Italian dressing. And these spicy spuds taste even better the day after you bake them.

Mexican Scalloped Potatoes
Serves 8-10

4 Yukon gold potatoes, each approximately the size of a fist
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup low fat milk
6 ounces low-fat (Neufchatel) cream cheese
1 can (10 ounces) green chile sauce

Slice potatoes about 1/4" thick and set aside (leave skin on). Make a basic roux: melt butter over medium heat and then stir in flour until smooth. Add milk, increase heat to medium-high, and stir continuously until thickened. Stir in green chile sauce and cream cheese and continue stirring until cream cheese melts into sauce.

Cover bottom of a 9 x 13 pan with half of potatoes. Pour one cup of sauce over potatoes to cover thoroughly. Add second potato layer and then pour remaining sauce over top. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 more minutes, and then broil for 7-8 minutes until slightly browned on top. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Morning at El Monte Sagrado

I tell my husband and grown daughters I am staying at the 'rock star of resorts' during the two nights I spend at El Monte Sagrado, in Taos. Vibrantly colored bathroom tiles, salmon-painted adobe walls, hand-carved wooden headboards and indigenous folk art characterize my Mexican-inspired suite, while several other suites pay homage to the Orient, the American west and the Kama Sutra.

But there's more to El Monte Sagrado than luxurious rooms. Nature and nurture intertwine here, from the lush spa and indoor aquacenter to elegant dining, sculpted fountains, and meticulously maintained grounds. Turquoise doors mirror the early morning sky that surrounds majestic Taos Mountain, as fall temperatures paint the foliage crimson and butter yellow. And as the sun's rays grow in intensity, they cast an ethereal glow on even the simplest furnishings.

Friday, November 21, 2008

History Lesson at Santa Fe School of Cooking

Within minutes after our lesson began at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, Rocky Durham said that, although many restaurants serve 'rolled' enchiladas, many traditional cooks actually layer enchilada ingredients to form a lasagna-style dish. He layered tortillas, chicken, cheese, and red or green sauce in cast iron pans before baking them briefly, and then served us small portions.

The first permanent residents of this area likely arrived 2,500 years ago and, when the Europeans came, they found crops that were exclusively indigenous to this continent, including beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes and chiles. Native Americans also used corn and, Rocky said, "The corn tortilla is the world's oldest prepared food."

But possession of this crop was considered heretical to staunch Catholics because legend had it that gods from the sky gave corn to Native Americans - who therefore considered tending corn an act of creation - and this flew in the face of their religious teachings. Little did the Europeans know how intertwined Native American and Catholic beliefs and culinary traditions would later become.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

White Bean & Spinach Soup

I have a friend who bought into a CSA (community supported agriculture) this summer and received a huge box of fresh produce, meat, eggs, etc., every week. I thought about following her lead but decided I didn't want to have my weekly menu dictated by somebody else's choice of ingredients. I think I'll join next summer, after an experience I had last weekend.

At our suburban town's recent Saturday 'holiday market,' a few farmers still offered produce. For only $3 I received a full shopping bag of absolutely gorgeous fresh spinach, and learned that fall is actually the best season for this leafy green. After giving half to my friend who had tried the CSA, I started thinking about how to use the rest. This new recipe has spinach as a central ingredient, but with plenty more flavors in the mix:

White Bean & Spinach Soup
Serves 3-4

1/2 pound cooked ground sausage

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

3 large cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 red onion, diced

2 cans Great Northern beans

1/4 cup sherry

1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1 teaspoon coarse salt

2 cups fresh spinach leaves, cut in 1/2-inch ribbons

1 can white beans, drained and rinsed

honey to taste

Puree 2 cans of white beans in food processor. Saute onion and garlic in oil and a large soup pot, over medium heat. Add bean puree, onion, garlic, sausage, sherry, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and reduce to simmer for 15 minutes.

Add third can of beans, spinach, and 1-2 teaspoons honey, stirring thoroughly. Simmer 15 additional minutes. Adjust salt, pepper, and honey, to taste. Serve with light rye or sourdough bread, and a crisp green salad.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sedona's Magic

Whether or not you believe in the power of Sedona Arizona's renowned vortexes, there's no doubting the majesty of the red rock vistas in this special spot. Add a cloud-filled sky left over from a brief afternoon downpour, with pockets of blue sky and brilliant sun rays, and you couldn't have a more picturesque landscape. Every shift of light accentuates a different area of the majestic rocks, creating ever-changing views.

At one time, Sedona's natural beauty was it's primary draw. But the tiny town has grown to include more than 10,000 residents and, with them, a thriving arts presence that features more than 70 galleries. In fact, AmericanStyle magazine gave Sedona the third spot in its 2008 Top 25 Arts Destination competition.

Sedona's four vortexes also draw many enthusiasts. These are naturally occurring pockets of subtle energy that come from the earth's surface, across the globe. Spiritualists believe this energy also impacts each individual person who comes in contact with it, causing a positive emotional impact that may last for days after exposure.

No matter what draws you to Sedona the first time, it will likely draw you back.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Liquid Avocado in San Antonio

After Blanca Aldaco gave us a margarita-making lesson at Aldaco's Mexican Cuisine, in San Antonio, there was one additional variety she thought we should try - an avocado margarita. The staff initially presented our table with a gargantuan martini-style glass of the pale green concoction and six straws, so we could share. By the time our food arrived they had split the remaining cocktail into separate glasses so we wouldn't have to reach across the table.

This unusual cocktail tastes nothing like guacamole. As smooth and creamy as a milkshake, with tequila so subtly blended in that you barely know it's there and a ring of chili-lime salt around the rim of each glass, this knockout alcoholic beverage could easily sneak up on you. And you'll want to order another as soon as the first is gone.

Just be sure to save room for some of Aldaco's Guadalajara-inspired food, from Traditional Chicken Enchiladas and tortilla soup to pozole rojo (pork/hominy soup), shrimp ceviche tostadas, and the decadent dessert, Pastel Tres Leches. You may need a 'go box' too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Orange & White Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate mousse is such a simple and scrumptious dessert - but it's also what most people expect when they think of a dessert mousse. And I sometimes like to create new twists on familiar tastes. Here's my latest. See what you think:

Orange & White Chocolate Mousse
approximately 6 servings

6 ounces white chocolate
6 egg yolks
6 egg whites
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other brandy-based orange liqueur
1 teaspoon cinnamon

2-3 oranges, with sections cut from fruit
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier per orange

Melt white chocolate slowly in double boiler, until smooth and creamy. Beat egg yolks until thickened and dark yellow. Add Grand Marnier and cinnamon, mixing gently but thoroughly. Add melted white chocolate in small amounts, stirring after each spoonful, to create custard.

Beat egg whites until firm. Fold into white chocolate and yolk mixture slowly. Pour mousse into individual dessert glasses. Allow to cool overnight.

While the mousse cools overnight, soak orange sections in Grand Marnier. Top each mousse serving with a handful of orange sections, and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

At Home With Georgia O'Keefe

There's a haunting beauty to Georgia O'Keefe's beloved Ghost Ranch, located 65 miles northwest of Santa Fe. O'Keefe bought a house and seven acres here, in 1938, where she lived for more than 50 years. Massive rock walls colored with wide mineral striations are topped with rock spires that jut purposefully into the brilliant blue sky. She painted most of her landscapes at the west end of the ranch, including the twisted juniper trees that also captured her interest.

But O'Keefe valued all kinds of natural beauty and purchased her second New Mexico property about seven years later. Located only 13 miles from Ghost Ranch, her other home and studio offered totally different panoramic views. One of the earliest people to install picture windows, O'Keefe looked out on quiet mesas, mountain vistas, wide fields and spindly cacti from her simple, unadorned white bedroom, where her collected stones and bones lined the window sill.

Just as her natural surroundings shaped and inspired O'Keefe's art, her art captured the spirit of this wild and wonderful environment for generations to come.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lobster at Coyote Cafe

Just because you're dining in New Mexico doesn't mean everything you eat will have a Mexican/New Mexican flavor profile. In fact, many Santa Fe restaurants offer a huge variety of options - including the legendary Coyote Cafe.

We tasted multiple dishes that were a feast for the eyes as well as our palates. Maine lobster with Vietnamese chutney was simultaneously gorgeous, tender, sweet and spicy. Chef/owner, Eric DiStefano, also served samples of elk marinated in Negro Modelo Beer with a side of garlic mashed potatoes; and a large ham tortelloni and a sherry mushroom sauce.

Dessert offered a trio of tastes. Pedro Jimenez sherry was the perfect sweet counterpoint to coconut ice cream and torto, a decadent round of chocolate almond and caramel layers between dark chocolate cake, covered with deep, dark chocolate ganache. The striking ambience has plenty of punched copper, natural light, and ribbon-like light fixtures that cast a warm glow across the contemporary space.

So next time you visit the Land of Enchantment, know that the culinary options are broad and creative, with something for every taste.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Harvest Cake with Honey Cream Cheese Glaze

There's something about fall that definitely brings out the 'nester' in me. And when I nest, baking is often part of that equation. Here's a fun way to empty out your produce drawers and create a very unusual but healthy (relatively!) dessert. ENJOY!

Harvest Cake with Honey Cream Cheese Glaze
Serves 15-20

1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 large apple with skin on, plus 1/4 cup water
1 cup grated carrots (start with about 1 1/4 cups carrot pieces)
1 cup grated zucchini , skin on (start with about 1 1/4 cups)
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (which adds sweetness to the cake)

Using food processor, chop walnuts fine and set aside. Cut apple into bite-sized pieces, add to food processor with water, and puree to the consistency of apple sauce; set aside. Grate carrots - set aside; and zucchini - set aside.

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients thoroughly, and then add eggs and olive oil. Fold in apple puree, carrots, zucchini and walnuts. Grease and flour a 9 x 13 pan, two, eight-inch layer pans or 15-16 cupcake papers. Pour batter in pan and bake 40-45 minutes in a 350-degree oven (20-25 minutes for cupcakes). Let cake cool to room temperature and top with

Honey Cream Cheese Glaze

2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 cup honey
Combine butter and cream cheese thoroughly. Stir in vanilla and honey to create a medium thick glaze. Spread evenly over cake, which will show through glaze.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Walking on Water in Overland Park

As the thermometer seeks a set point between spring and fall temperatures, in Overland Park, Kansas, occasional dips below freezing remind us that winter isn't far behind. One of the best places in this city to observe the changing seasons is in South Lake Park. A .4 mile walking path encircles the small urban lake, which is surrounded by old-growth trees, modern playground equipment, much-used half basketball courts, and several picnic tables.

But watching wildlife provides the greatest diversion for walking enthusiasts at South Lake Park. Each spring, fully grown mallard ducks shepherd tiny new ducklings across the glassy water, as baby rabbits venture out in the open. By summertime an occasional blue heron stands, statuesque, beside the shore, before taking flight on a whisper of enormous wings.

As days grow shorter and the wind turns colder, honks from dozens of Canadian geese signal their annual migration to this sheltered place. And, when winter settles in, these noisy guests sometimes walk across the frozen water.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Coffee Tasting in Door County

At Door County Coffee & Tea Co., coffee tasting is a diversion enhanced by a custom 'placemat' complete with mock coffee stains to mark cup placement. During our visit we tried four brews, from mellow Breakfast Blend to robust espresso - accompanied by homemade biscotti. What a great way to start the day!

Vivacious owner, Vickie Wilson, opened the company 15 years ago. Today, Door County Coffee & Tea Co. receives 14 palates of green coffee beans from around the world, every two weeks and then Wilson and her employees roast approximately 2,000 pounds of beans each day. Half of the coffee they sell is flavored; in fact, the company offers more than 80 flavors that range from Cafe Mexicano to Cherry Cream.

But there's more to Door County Coffee & Tea Co. than coffee (and tea). Sample their mouthwatering pastries, delicious soup, or a hefty sandwich, and browse through the gift shop full of locally produced sweets and savories, gardening paraphernalia and cocktail napkins. Then buy some freshly ground coffee as a stimulating souvenir of a pleasant visit.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Warm Apple Cinnamon Compote

Bored with my typical breakfast and wanting a new recipe to share, I created a healthy combination of fall's best apples, natural sweetener, fiber, and protein. It was filling and full of flavor.

If you're not a big cinnamon lover like I am, back off the amount by about 1/2 a teaspoon - but the honey does do a good job of counterbalancing this big flavor. There will also be leftover warm topping so feel free to add more to each serving.

Warm Apple Cinnamon Compote
serves 2

2 tablespoons butter
2 cups thin-slice apples with skin on
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Melt butter over medium high heat. Add apples and coat thoroughly. Add honey and coat again. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes or until soft. Add cornstarch and stir until liquid thickens, 1-2 minutes. Stir in cinnamon and combine thoroughly. Remove from heat.

Warm topping:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oatmeal
2 tablespoons walnuts, broken in small pieces

Melt butter over medium high heat. Add oatmeal and walnut pieces, turn and cook on low for five minutes.

To serve:
2 teaspoons raisins
1 teaspoon honey

For each serving, place 1/2 cup of apple mixture in a small bowl. Sprinkle with one tablespoon warm topping and 1 teaspoon raisins. Drizzle with 1/2 teaspoon honey.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Remembering Washington's White Tiger

I was sad to learn the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, in Washington, D.C., had to euthanize its only white tiger early this month. Taj apparently had significant trouble walking, due to terrible pain resulting from osteoarthritis that was diagnosed several years ago.

A popular fixture at the zoo since 1986, he was a joy to watch when we encountered him during a family trip with young cousins in tow, not long after he arrived. And, when Taj leaned against a tree in his enclosure so he could scratch his torso, the kids squealed with delight as my camera captured his antics.

I'm sure the National Zoo and its patrons already miss him .

Friday, October 24, 2008

New Mexican Ingredients at Michael's Kitchen

I love eating big breakfasts in restaurants - especially restaurants with longstanding ties to the places where they operate. One of these is Michael's Kitchen. Located on the 'main drag' of Taos, New Mexico, this cozy spot has been a local favorite for more than 30 years.

And when it comes to breakfast, you can't get more New Mexican than a plate of the Atole-Pinon Pancakes at Michael's Kitchen. Roasted pinon/pine nuts are ground into and sprinkled on top of pancakes made with blue corn meal. Add a bottomless cup of coffee and breakfast will satisfy your hunger until dinnertime. Sweets lovers will also appreciate this restaurant's huge, fresh cinnamon rolls, but be sure to eat yours quickly, before the heat and pillowy softness disappear.

Not a sweets fan? Try Martin's Breakfast Burrito, the Spanish Style Omelette or Tortilla Rellenada - a flour tortilla that enfolds ham, eggs scrambled with chives, and choice of cheese or chile (red or green). Or go for old standbys such as Blueberry Pancakes, custom-crafted omelettes, and buttermilk biscuits slathered in rich cream gravy full of bite-sized sausage chunks. You'll be ready for your next visit before your first one ends.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Black Bean Cornbread with Quick Chile Sauce

After spending two weeks in Northern New Mexico, within a month, I definitely have cravings for Mexican/New Mexican-inspired flavors. Such was the case yesterday, after hours of heavy rain and a temperature drop of more than 10 degrees.

Once again, I looked to my pantry for relief. I began with a quick and easy cornbread recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook and then added three ingredients to create a meal in a pan. Add a generous drizzle of my ultra easy chile sauce, a handful of cheese, cilantro sprigs, and a crisp green salad, for a simple and satisfying cold-weather feast.

Black Bean Cornbread with Quick Chile Sauce
8-9 servings

1 recipe cornbread (see below)

1 cup frozen corn

15 ounces canned black beans, rinsed & drained
1 cup shredded Colby Jack or medium Cheddar cheese

15 ounces tomato sauce
1 tablespoon chile powder

1 cup shredded cheese


1 cup all purpose flour (I use whole wheat pastry flour because I'm so fond of it)
1 cup cornmeal
2 (to 4) tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 beaten eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup cooking oil (or shortening, melted)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Grease the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides of a 9x9x2-inch baking pan; set aside. In a medium mixing bowl stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and set aside.

In another bowl combine eggs, milk and cooking oil. Add egg mixture all at once to dry mixture and stir just until moistened.

Now here's my twist on this classic: Stir corn into batter. Pour two thirds of batter in pan. Spread black beans over batter and then top with 1 cup of Colby Jack. Pour remaining batter on top and spread evenly over beans and cheese. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown on top.
Quick Chile Sauce: Combine tomato sauce and chile powder over medium high heat, bring to a boil, and then reduce to simmer for 5-10 minutes.

To serve, cut one square of cornbread, drizzle 3-4 tablespoons sauce on top, add cheese and cilantro. ENJOY!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Albuquerque's Balloon Bash

My husband and I arrived several hours before meeting our friends from Tucson, so we could attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta together. After the two of us located our hotel and the restaurant where we would meet, we visited the Anderson Abruzzo International Balloon Museum.

This stunning building resembles a hot air balloon laid on its side, with a two-story glass wall that looks out on the 385-acre International Balloon Fiesta Park. Designed by an avid balloonist with Studio Southwest Architects/a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the building also utilizes a recycled water system, recycled paving, and methane gas extracted from landfills, and focuses on habitat reclamation.

We joined hundreds of festival-goers inside the museum, viewing fully inflated balloons, flight simulators, and history, technology and adventure exhibits. We also struck up a conversation with Luke, a pilot for the POW-MIA hot-air balloon, Freedom Flight, Inc., which will celebrate 20 years at the Festival in 2009. As we watched for Luke's balloon throughout the next two days, we felt like we had an inside scoop on this spectacular event.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Breakfast at the Colorado Chautauqua

On a cold and rainy Saturday morning in Boulder, Colorado, our daughter and her friends chose an unusual venue for breakfast and a first-time meeting of their parents. By 10:30 a.m. our party of eight was seated in the Dining Hall at Colorado Chautauqua, a century-old eatery set amidst one of only three remaining 'chautauquas' in the U.S. - and the only one that still operates year-round.

The Colorado Chautauqua is a thriving remnant of the early 1900s, when more than 12,000 communities across the country hosted programs designed to foster lifelong learning, an appreciation of nature, the arts, and other cherished ideals of that time period. Today, the Colorado Chautauqua still offers 60 cottages for rent during each summer, and continues a tradition of oratory and arts presentations throughout the year.

But the Dining Hall was a true revelation. Not only did the families of three girls who have been friends throughout four years of college meet for the first time, but we enjoyed a hearty, tasty breakfast for minimal cost. Where else can you get a stellar Eggs Benedict for only $9.00?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Yukon Green Chile Soup

Ever since we first tasted Yukon gold potatoes, our family has loved their soft, buttery texture and flavor. Because our grocery store only sells them by the 5-pound bag, I often have these beauties on hand.

After a recent vacation, and with little food left in our refrigerator or cupboards, I pulled together a pretty wonderful, savory soup with just a bit of heat. We ate ours on a cold and rainy night, with some crusty garlic bread and fresh veggies on the side. It should also make a great lunch, after thinning with a little water or milk.

Yukon Green Chile Soup
Makes 4-5 large servings

3 1/2 cups Yukon gold potato chunks, skin on
2 cups water
3 teaspoons bouillon powder
1 medium onion, diced
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of butter
4 slices of cooked bacon, chopped
6-8 ounces cream cheese
2-4 ounces green chiles, chopped
1/2 cup instant milk
1 tablespoon fresh Parmesan
2 tablespoons sherry
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Combine potato chunks, water and bouillon powder in a large pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, approximately 40 minutes, or until potatoes are soft. While potatoes cook, saute onion and garlic in butter until onions become translucent, about 3-5 minutes.

After 40 minutes, mash potatoes in cooking water over low heat, leaving occasional small chunks. Add instant milk, bacon, cream cheese, Parmesan, sherry, chiles, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil briefly, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with crusty French bread, and a crisp salad or raw vegetables.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lunching at Mii amo

We sat down for lunch in the dining room of Mii amo Spa at Enchantment Resort, in the heart of Sedona's Boynton Canyon, and looked out on the stunning red rock canyon as kitchen staff prepared meals in the open, stainless steel kitchen. We ordered from a seasonal menu and Nicholas enjoyed hot tea with a bit of local agave nectar as we waited for our meal.

Our server brought a Bento box for Nicholas, as well as ultra-fresh gazpacho served in a margarita glass, with a dollop of guacamole and crunchy tortilla strips; Salad Nicoise that featured large potato slices with the skin on, purple-red onion slices and a whole, sliced, hard-boiled egg; and a duck breast pizza on flatbread, with caramelized onions and red peppers. We also tried several desserts - a chocolate bread pudding served with fresh berries; a margarita glass full of fresh fruit and peach cobbler served in a ramequin - also with berries as garnish.

We relaxed amidst the serene setting and quiet conversations. A sudden, but brief, torrential rain came down in sheets outside the massive windows and then ended as quickly as it began, leaving the magnificent canyon refreshed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Shrimp and Black Bean Rice

The cold snap that is due to arrive tomorrow, and hang around for several days, likely signals a true taste of fall. Soups, stews and other one-pot meals are perfect dinner fare when the wind grows colder and the temperature drops lower. They also can be a great vehicle for using what's in your pantry while saving some pennies.

This recipe features precooked shrimp (either from the store or cooked at home), and rice, combined with tomato sauce, black beans, and chili powder from the cupboard. Enjoy!

Shrimp and Black Bean Rice
Makes 4-5 large servings

3 cups cooked brown rice
1 can (16 oz) tomato sauce
1 can (16 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 pound cooked shrimp (it's okay to leave tails on; they soften with cooking)
1/4 cup chili powder


Combine rice, tomato sauce, black beans, shrimp and chili powder. Stir together thoroughly over medium-high heat and then bring to a boil briefly. Reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Top with chopped cilantro.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Winter Walk at Amelia Island

Located only 29 miles from Jacksonville and minutes south of Georgia, Amelia Island offers loads of ocean-front hotel rooms, single family homes and condominiums for rent, with easy access to 13 miles of pristine coastline. After shopping at Amelia Island Plantation, playing 18 holes on a seaside course, or taking a Segway tour throughout the neighborhood, the ocean beckons.

On one early December morning last year, a fireball sun cast a rosy glow on my wall as purple clouds surrendered to pale blue, and glittered across the calm ocean. A couple hours later, I walked barefoot through gentle waves, as my toes squished through liquid sand and dodged the pointed edges of a million shells strewn along the high tide line. By evening, I'd returned to a Midwestern ice storm.

Croatian Classic from Kansas City Kansas

When Croatian immigrants flocked to Kansas City, Kansas, just over a century ago, baking povitica bread was one of many customs they continued in their new 'Strawberry Hill' neighborhood. Today, Strawberry Hill Povitica Company's delicate dough dips and swirls around endless layers of fillings, which may be sweetened with apples, strawberries, blueberries, or raisins, enhanced with silky cream cheese and/or punctuated with poppy seeds, chocolate chips or traditional chopped walnuts.

After 25 years, they've got it down to a delicious science. And, when you buy a loaf of Straberry Hill Povitica, you're getting a dense, 2 1/2 pound treat that doesn't even need butter. Customers with smaller appetites or curious palates may want to try a Mini Loaf Sampler Pack. Or, stop by the retail store in Overland Park, Kansas, where you may even get a free sample.

Coconut Cupcakes with White Chocolate Icing

I don't know whether its present economic conditions or a desire to test my ingenuity that's recently found me 'foraging' for ingredients I already have in my kitchen before creating a new recipe. Perhaps it's a little of both. Today, I combined sweetened flaked coconut, white chocolate chips, and coconut rum left from a party, in a surprisingly healthy cupcake recipe:

Coconut Cupcakes with White Chocolate Icing
Makes 12

1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup honey
1 tablespoon coconut rum (may substitute one teaspoon coconut or vanilla extract)
1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut


1/2 cup white chocolate chips
2 tablespoons coconut rum (may use milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract instead)
1/4 cup coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the first three ingredients. Add eggs, oil and honey and then beat all ingredients together on medium high speed for 3-5 minutes. Fold in coconut. Fill 12 muffin papers, approximately 2/3s full. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until tops are light brown.

While cupcakes bake, melt white chocolate in microwave or double boiler, checking frequently to avoid burning the bottom. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Stir in coconut rum thoroughly and then add coconut. Cover each still-warm cupcake with a heaping teaspoon of icing. Enjoy!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hanging Chiles in the Land of Enchantment

New Mexico visitors are accustomed to seeing red chiles that decorate adobe buildings in the form of 'ristras,' as they twist and twirl in gentle breezes. But there's more to strings of hanging chiles than decoration. Throughout the rural countryside between Santa Fe and Taos, chile growers know the best way to dry their chiles for use in cooking is by tying them together on long strands, and then allowing them to hang until they wrinkle and shrink under the state's intense sun rays.

For farmers with crops that yield a dozen or even 16 bushels, vertical strings may not sufficiently accommodate the massive quantities of chiles that must be dried. Clotheslines morph into drying apparatus and random pieces of rope strung below house eaves offer extra drying space. During the early fall harvest season chiles simultaneously become revered cooking ingredient and integral decorative element throughout New Mexican farm land.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Santa Fe's Portal Program

It's barely 10 a.m. and dozens of people have already reached the portal at Santa Fe's Palace of the Governors. Individual artisans offer everything from sterling and turquoise bracelets to hand-beaded necklaces, one-of-a-kind sand paintings, and hand thrown pottery. Some artisans make their living at the portal, while others supplement a primary income. Customers arrive with cash and checkbooks in hand - no credit cards allowed.

This is the Portal Native American Artisans Program where upwards of 60 artisans display their exquisite wares on the building's front sidewalk, 360 days per year. More than 900 certified program members from 41 pueblos, tribes, chapters and villages scattered throughout New Mexico and parts of Arizona, participate in a longstanding lottery system for the honor of selling here each day.

And, whether you purchase a clay figure whose paint color comes from spinach, a turquoise-encrusted bola tie, or a refrigerator magnet decorated with a sun god made from sand, each item is guaranteed authentic. Every participant in the portal program follows strict artistic guidelines and, most importantly, signs their work.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Making Margaritas at Aldaco's

My travels increasingly include food and beverage classes or lessons and such was the case at Aldaco's Mexican Cuisine, in San Antonio. Margaritas are this restaurant's signature beverage, for which it has already received several awards. And owner, Blanca Aldaco, revels in teaching guests how to create perfect ones.

Before our evening meal, Aldaco gave hands-on instructions to each of half a dozen people about making classic and specialty margaritas. I especially enjoyed shaking the concoction the prescribed 20 times to make sure all ingredients thoroughly merged, although the result was a bit strong for my taste.

Not so with Aldaco's avocado margarita, a fabulous frozen version that pairs the creamy texture of avocado with premium tequila and Triple Sec, tangy, fresh lime juice, and a spicy, chili-lime rim of salt. Soon after sharing one enormous glass with six straws, we asked for separate glasses so we could sip easily while enjoying our food. And I definitely would have ordered another avocado margarita if I wasn't so full.

Rustic Turkey Soup

For me, cool weather and soup are synonymous. When I was growing up, my mom made soup frequently during the winter months, from minestrone to black bean and split pea. My husband, on the other hand, didn't eat homemade soups as a child so when he couldn't get enough of this one I knew I had created a winner. Serve with crackers or thick slices of crusty bread, and a salad, and you've got a hearty meal for only a few bucks.

Rustic Turkey Soup
makes 4-6 servings

1/2 large onion, minced
2 celery stalks, minced
olive oil
1 medium zucchini, diced and lightly sauteed
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 can low-sodium cream of chicken soup
2 cups cooked wild rice (may use canned)
1 pound white and dark turkey meat, cut in bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons dried sage
salt and pepper to taste

Saute zucchini in olive oil, on medium, until lightly browned. Set aside. Saute onion and celery in olive oil and large pan. Maintaining medium-high heat, add stock, soup, rice, turkey, zucchini and seasonings. Bring to a boil and then let simmer for minimum of 25-30 minutes. To thicken, simmer uncovered for some or all of the cooking time.

Beluga Kisses in San Antonio

When belluga whales leave the performance pool at San Antonio's Sea World for their calm open-air tanks, they sometimes kiss visitors. A photograph of my recent kiss on the cheek sits beside my desk.

But this Sea World is about more than mesmerizing performances by and interactions with massive sea creatures - the kiss was only one surprise. Despite the fact that Sea World in Orlando and San Diego lie closer to coastline, the San Antonio facility is actually larger than the other two combined. With 250 developed acres and 200 'cushion' acres nearby, this park also features the only roller coasters located in any Sea World facility.

Another surprise? Water may be Sea World San Antonio's lifeblood, but conservation efforts saved upwards of 20 million gallons during 2007. Animal 'conservation' is also a focus here - the facility houses one of only a few Manatee Rescue operations in the United States, where rescued and rehabilitated creatures thrive as they entertain guests.

Clearly, there's more to this beloved tourist attraction than meets the eye.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fish Feast in 'the Door'

In Door County, Wisconsin, the whitefish has achieved nearly a cult status as the centerpiece of this area's 'fish boils;' and fish boils themselves have become centerpieces of many summer tourist experiences here. Scandinavian settlers began the tradition more than 100 years ago.

At Wagon Trail Resort, Restaurant and Conference Center, several dozen members of a family reunion party watched as a young man, wearing thick gloves and a long black apron, stoked the smoldering fire beneath an enormous cast iron cauldron. A hefty dose of kerosene turned the tame flame into a raging inferno, before staff quickly extinguished it and then served dinner.

Behind the White Gull Inn, dozens of would-be diners watched a similar scene in the early evening, where roaring flames cast ghostly shadows across the small courtyard. Within minutes after the fire died down, kitchen staff began preparing plates full of boiled fish and potatoes, and placed fresh bread and coleslaw on long tables. As they cleared our plates, fresh cherry pie arrived, capping off a memorable feast.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Savory Offerings

Many years ago I cooked for a small, nonprofit restaurant. The antique school building where it operated had been converted into a community center that primarily served the surrounding low-income, largely Hispanic neighborhood. Each morning, I shared the massive basement kitchen with Caroline, who cooked meals for the building's nonprofit childcare center.

One morning, as Caroline and I chatted over cut vegetables and freshly baked desserts, the building's quiet, elderly janitor, Eduardo, shyly presented us with still-warm, foil-wrapped burritos from his own kitchen. Every morsel of the handmade tortilla filled with savory shredded pork and small roasted potato chunks melted in my mouth. It was the first of many offerings from Eduardo, each one delivered quietly, and accepted with our heartfelt 'gracias.'

After this season's first cold spell, several days ago, I remembered Eduardo's food and decided to re-create the flavors. Here's my version of:

Eduardo's Burritos
makes 4-5 burritos

one large potato, skin on, cut in bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons butter
one small onion, sliced thin
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse black pepper
1 pound Mexican ground chorizo*

4-5, 6-inch flour tortillas

Melt butter over medium-high heat. Add potatoes and onion slices and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 20-25 minutes until onions are translucent and potatoes are well-browned. Remove from pan and set aside.

Remove chorizo from plastic casing and cook on low for approximately 15 minutes, until meat turns dark red. Set aside.

Warm one tortilla at a time in a dry frying pan over medium heat, 2 minutes on each side, until pliable. Wrap warmed tortillas in a tea towel until ready to use. Lie one tortilla flat on a plate, cover with 1/3 cup potato mixture and then 1/4 cup chorizo. Fold base of tortilla inwards and then roll tortilla tightly over mixture. Enjoy!

Variations: Use shredded pork or eggs instead of chorizo. You also may add stewed/drained tomatoes.

*Chorizo is now available in many grocery stores as well as in Mexican markets

Monday, September 8, 2008

Wisconsin Cherry Country

Named one of the nation's 10 best vacation destinations, by Money Magazine, Door County, Wisconsin is a vacationers' paradise. If you also love cherries, then this is definitely your kind of place. From brilliant crimson to black-red, you'll find cherries on food and beverage menus throughout 'the Door.' Located between Lake Michigan and Green Bay, the county can produce up to 13 million pounds of cherries by mid-summer.

That's enough fruit for more than two-dozen pies from each and every fruit-bearing tree on the peninsula and adjacent islands. But inside pies isn't the only place you'll find cherries in Door County. At the Savory Spoon Cooking School, chef/owner Janice Thomas may pair pork loin with fresh cherry sauce or combine wine-soaked dried cherries with roasted apples, pecans and Wisconsin Blue cheese, in a dynamite salad.

Across the watery expanse known as Death's Door, chef and co-proprietor, Leah Caplan, may whip up a light-as-air crepe filled with creamy local goat cheese and topped with a fresh cherry sauce at The Washington Hotel, Restaurant & Culinary School. Or you can sip freshly pressed cherry juice and wine at Orchard Country Winery. Scrumptious doesn't do Door County cherries justice.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Kansas City Rising

Sometimes it's good to view your hometown through fresh eyes. Such was the case when I attended a national conference in my own backyard of Kansas City, Missouri. The conference drew travel writers from across the nation, many of whom had never visited the metropolitan area. Over and over again they mentioned their surprise at the vibrant new downtown entertainment venues, great dining, gorgeous art museums, lush green landscape, and welcoming people.

My greatest surprise occurred when I opened the curtains of my 27th-floor, Crown Center hotel room, to find the skyline emerging from dense early-morning fog. It was almost a visual image of Kansas City rising from the past to an exciting present and future, as a world-class tourist destination.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Cinnamon Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

For many years, most cookies I made were too hard and sometimes they even burned. Then I learned to stop baking them when only the edges had turned light brown and they were still soft on the pan. After that, I began experimenting with existing recipes. One cinnamon-flavored family favorite was called 'Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies' and appeared under the top of Quaker Oats boxes.

But I always seem to tinker with recipes, so I've made loads of adjustments with this one too. The result is less sugary than the original, with butter and oil standing in for margarine, and more fruit and fiber. See what you think about:

Cinnamon Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
makes 5-6 dozen 3-inch cookies

1 stick of butter, softened
1/2 cup of vegetable oil *
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup ground walnuts
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
2 cups uncooked oatmeal, quick or old-fashioned
1 1/2 cups raisins

Heat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Combine flour, walnuts, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt and mix well; set aside. Beat together butter, oil, and sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Add dry ingredients and combine. Stir in oats and raisins. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto un-greased cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 1-2 minutes and then remove from pan to wire rack or a countertop covered with foil.

*using olive oil adds fruitiness to the recipe

Friday, August 29, 2008

San Antonio's Mexican Market

Since the 1700s, San Antonio's Market Square has operated under the influence of German, Polish, Italian and Mexican immigrants. But take a stroll through the main plaza and you'll swear you hopped a plane to the heart of Mexico. Sample luscious baked goods at Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery, where Christmas lights glow year round and mariachi musicians often entertain. At La Margarita Restaurant and Oyster Bar more mariachis, fresh oysters and renowned sizzling fajitas delight customers.

Shoppers will find seemingly endless rows of brilliant hued skirts, hand-painted clay pottery, and festive pinatas inside the brilliant teal walls of El Mercado. This is the place to buy an authentic sombrero, hand woven table runner, or colorful tote bag. Sparkling sterling and turquoise, butter-soft leather, and hand-blown glass fill shelves, cases, and storefronts within the building - the largest Mexican marketplace that operates outside of Mexico.