Monday, December 28, 2009

Pink Floyd at Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

We had planned this trip for more than four months. Now my husband, Mark, and our friends - Jessa and James - were scouting the border of the field where an 'afterglow' event would take place at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. As the sun began to set we zeroed in on a Pink Floyd balloon, which became a frame of reference throughout the next two days.
 Balloons grew from nothing, with deep purple mountains in the background, sun-tipped clouds above, dozens of white tents dotting the field and hundreds of people milling about.

The evening grew chilly and the scene grew magical as one after another balloon sprang to life with rosy, otherwordly illumination. After dark, I felt like a kid in a candy store while I walked amidst them on the field. Balloons filled with air and a whooshing sound and a ghostly glow surrounded me, from giant strawberries to a Wells Fargo stagecoach, and multi-colored patchwork designs.

We then arrived near sunrise the next morning, bundled in heavy coats, scarves and gloves, to see as much balloon activity as possible. Jessa and I visited the field again - this time to watch the balloons prepare for their daylight flights. The Pink Floyd balloon slowly expanded, surrounded by a crazy quilt of color and design, as the sun rose higher.

Before long, the ever-changing kaleidoscope began its ascent, with the Pink Floyd balloon only one among many hundreds - from castles to pigs and wicked witches, interspersed with ‘traditional’ balloons in a myriad of patterns.

For the next several hours we watched, mouths gaping at the sheer beauty of this event, and vowed to return to this magical Fiesta as soon as possible.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Kansas Travel - Free State Brewing Company

It's been 20 years since Free State Brewing Company, in Lawrence, became the first legal Kansas brewery, in more than 100 years. The thriving company crafts more than 20,000 barrels of beer, annually, in its 14-barrel brewhouse, and also has its own bottling facility. And customers can watch as brewers work behind two-story floor-to-ceiling windows of this one-time trolley barn while they sip brews over lunch or dinner. 

There are plenty of choices for beer lovers. In addition to the brewery's original Ad Astra beer visitors may enjoy Copperhead Pale Ale, Ironman Imperial Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Old Backus Barleywine, Wheat State Golden, Lovejoy IPA, Old Stormy and Walloon Gold. Not sure which one to pick? Try a few samples, at $1.35 a pour, and then order a full-sized serving of your favorite.  

Free State Brewing Company also has a large menu in which many healthy and locally produced items star. Flavorful and filling black bean quesadillas come with Spanish rice with loads of cheese, sour cream and salsa.  Hand-cut fries and a dill pickle spear accompany the thick turkey bacon sandwich served on ultra-fresh foccacia bread. 

Free State Brewing Company offers great beer and good food in historic surroundings, with a clear view of the brewery. And, if you want a souvenir of your visit, they'll even sell you a T-shirt or pint glass.

Becker Vineyards in Fredericksburg, TX

Located 70 miles west of Austin and 75 miles northwest of San Antonio, Becker Vineyards, of Fredericksburg, Texas, planted their first vines in 1992 and offered their first wines three years later. Then the vineyards opened their first tasting room in 1996. Fourteen grape varieties grow across 46 acres. Becker was the first winery in the state to make Viognier or Malbec.

With the third largest production yield in Texas, Becker crafted 56,000 cases of wine during 2006, and 65,000 in 2008. And the culinary world has taken notice. These wines have been praised in Food & Wine, Wine Spectator, Saveur and Decanter magazines, to name a few.

Owners and founders, Richard and Bunny Becker won't pour a wine they’re not proud of, and Richard believes that winemakers are like artists. Winemaker, Russell Smith, worked in Napa for nine years and then with other vineyards and wineries in Texas, and award-winning wines line a long display shelf in the winery's front lobby.

Becker Vineyards uses premium French and American oak  barrels for aging and only use each barrel twice. The winery rarely adds sugar or fruit concentrate to their wine; they also tell grape growers when to pick the grapes and what level of sugar goals are required. Visitors can find their favorite vintage while enjoying samples in the large new tasting room.

But more than grapes grow on Becker Vineyards acreage. Lavender fills a three-acre field behind the winery and infuses body care and other products with its heavenly scent, including Lavender Comfrey Salve, lotion, sea salt scrub, eye pillows, candles, room spray, sachets and bookmarks. Finally, each May, visitors can enjoy the annual Lavender Festival. The two-day event features cooking demonstrations, speakers, a luncheon and, of course, acres of fully blooming lavendar.

Wine lovers - and lavender lovers - will find a lot to like about Becker Vineyards.

Thanks, Joy (of Cooking) Redux

Last December, I introduced Visual Traveler readers to a Joy of Cooking cookie recipe that was a holiday tradition in both my childhood home and my husband's - Almond Crescents. Then I offered my variation on the theme, Walnut Crescents (
But, this year, I thought I'd also show you how to make these cookies that my older daughter recently said were 'so much better than the ones you made before you changed the recipe.' For instance, here are the cookies when half-baked. This version looks far more like crescents before they're fully baked (above) than after (below).

It's a good idea to place the finished cookies on parchment or waxed paper, atop foil, to completely cool. 'Rolling' each cookie in the powdered sugar/cinnamon mixture requires gentle handling to avoid breakage and a willingness to get your fingers totally covered with this sweet stuff (never a problem, in my case).

After you've coated all of the cookies thoroughly, put them back on the parchment paper for an hour or so, which will minimize them sticking together when you finally place them in an airtight container.

Then comes the best part - eating these Walnut Crescents - which are light and flaky with just the right amount of sweetness. And, if you use your imagination, you can pretend that the bits of powdered sugar landing on your shirt are the gentlest of snowflakes.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Kansas Travel: Pancakes in Liberal

A mural painted on the outside of the City Hall, in Liberal, Kansas, depicts two women running down opposite roads that meet at a 'Y,' as they each carry a skillet. Painted by renowned muralist, Stan Herd, it is a daily reminder of an annual event that has occurred here for more than 60 years.

International Pancake Day began when Liberal residents challenged residents of Olney, England, at a race that began there in 1445. An Olney woman, who was using up the last cooking fat in her house before Lent began (use of the fat was prohibited during the Lenten season), scurried out of her kitchen with skillet and pancake in hand so she wouldn't miss the church service that immediately preceded Lent. She left in such a hurry that she still wore her apron and a headscarf - the latter required for women attending church.

The next year, the women of Olney launched a race in which they each tried to reach church first while carrying and flipping a pancake and, of course, wearing aprons and headscarves. Today, women in the two towns race simultaneously and Liberal's four-day event also includes pancake eating and cooking contests, a parade, English High Tea and other races.

Pancakes have become an integral part of Liberal's culture, and griddle cake lovers have flocked to The Pancake House, on Pancake Boulevard, for more than three decades.

This homey spot offers hearty food at great prices, such as this breakfast of strawberry pancakes accompanied by Canadian bacon, hash browns, a fried egg and coffee, plus an gargantuan helping of whipped cream. Hunters, ranchers, travelers, social workers and families all enjoy breakfast here. Adventurous diners may try chocolate chip or butterscotch pancakes and berry syrups too - or waffles or crepes.

The restaurant also serves sandwiches and a wide variety of entrees. But in a place that serves legendary breakfasts, why would you order anything else?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Orange Cinnamon Bread

According to the Random House dictionary, tradition is "the handing down of beliefs, legends and customs from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice." One Christmas tradition for the family in which I grew up was to have bake-your-own packaged orange cinnamon rolls for breakfast. The scent of these rolls has always meant Christmas to me, and to our now-20-something daughters.

But there's more than one way to enjoy the luscious combination of orange and cinnamon in a breakfast treat. I developed this recipe before my daughters were born and then sold the bread to a small local restaurant for more than two years.

In 1998, a version appeared in the local cookbook, This Place Called Home, A Kansas City Cookbook. I've recently decreased the amount of sugar from my original recipe and substituted whole wheat pastry flour for all-purpose flour. The decreased sugar also seems to help compensate for the slightly 'heavier' consistency of whole wheat pastry flour.

This Christmas, I will offer the bread as an orange-cinnamon alternative. Will my family accept it as a substitute for the packaged rolls that they know and love? Only taste will tell. I'll add an extra half teaspoon of cinnamon and also may add the filling that the cookbook authors suggested (see below) or drizzle a bit of icing on top.

In the meantime, ENJOY this 'traditional' recipe during your own holiday celebrations.

Orange Cinnamon Bread
Makes 8-10 slices

6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup + 1/4 cup sugar (VOE - when printed in a local cookbook, this recipe featured 1 cup +
                                                                                                                                  1/3 cup sugar)
2 eggs, beaten
1 orange rind, grated

1 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (VOE - the cookbook recipe used all-purpose flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup plain yogurt (or light sour cream)
juice of one orange

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 loaf pan. Cream together butter and 3/4 cup sugar. Add eggs and beat until light and fluffy.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt and then add to butter/sugar mixture, combining well. Add orange rind and yogurt and stir to combine completely.

Pour batter into pan and bake 1-1 1/4 hours, until lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Place on a cooling rack. While the loaf bakes, combine juice of one orange and 1/4 cup sugar in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Pour syrup over hot loaf. Cool completely before removing from pan. Keep refrigerated.
filling suggested in cookbook:

Combine 6 ounces of cream cheese with 1/3 cup granulated sugar, 1 large egg and 1 tablespoon grated orange zest. Pour two thirds of the batter in the prepared pan, top with the filling, then top with the remaining batter. Lightly swirl with a knife. Bake as directed until bread is lightly brown and firm to the touch.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pittsburgh's Primanti Bros.

There's more than one Primanti Bros. restaurant in the Pittsburgh, PA area. But for a true taste of this legendary joint, belly up to the wood-topped counter at their original location, in 'the Burgh's' equally legendary Strip District - several downtown blocks packed with longtime food vendors, wholesalers, and restaurants. A wall-spanning mural just inside the front entrance features caricatures of local celebrities from Mr. Rogers to Pittsburgh Pirate, Roberto Clemente. You can also grab a booth in the back room and chow down.
In 2007, the James Beard Awards declared the Primanti Bros. signature sandwich - which originated in the 1930s - an ‘American Classic.'  This hefty combo starts with customer’s choice of meat, from split and flattened kolbassi (kielbasa) to a huge pile of turkey or corned beef, and then adds melted cheese, a mountain of fries with some nicely browned skin, a mound of vinegar-based, coleslaw, and bright red tomato, layered between thick slices of Italian bread. Even the breakfast special has the same toppings.

Sweet and savory, mellow and tangy, soft and crunchy, Primanti Bros. sandwiches come wrapped in waxed paper just as they always have. Visitors who aren't in the mood for a sandwich might try Smallman Street Fries, another hearty meal served on a bed of chili with just the right heat, smothered with melted cheese, tiny bacon bits, and a large dollop of sour cream.

For a side of history with your sandwich, stop by Primanti Bros. in The Strip. Just don’t ask for coleslaw on the side.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kansas Travel - Queen's Pantry

Nearly 75,000 people live in Leavenworth, Kan., the state's first city. Approximately 9,000 soldiers and their family members live on the Fort Leavenworth army base, and thousands of people call on the post each year, including international visitors.

So it's no wonder that Queen's Pantry, tucked away on a quiet block near the town's main thoroughfare, does a big business.  Open since 1999, the family owned and operated company pays homage to the founder's mother, who is British. The shop offers more than 200 varieties of British tea, from Pumpkin Spice and Raspberry Chocolate Truffle, to Spiced Pear Tart, Spearmint Herbal, oolong and white tea - the largest British tea inventory in the Midwest. In addition, Queen's Pantry sells this region's largest selections of British food and gifts.

Visitors also can purchase hot or cold to-go items from London On the Go. This small, British-inspired deli at the back of Queen's Pantry, offers such classic dishes as Fish and Chips (Thurs.-Sat., only) or Shepherd's Pie. There are plenty of luscious desserts too, including several varieties of cheesecake and baby scones.

For a true taste of Britain in the country's Heartland, Queen's Pantry and London on the Go clearly fit the bill. Not sure when you'll get to Leavenworth? You can order many items online, at - but probably not the fish and chips.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chile Lights & Peppermint Dust

I avoid stores with Christmas decorations as much as possible, anytime before Thanksgiving. But my holiday celebration has begun the next day, for decades, when I 'install' every decoration I own except for the tree ornaments; because we still buy a live tree that happens a little later. Family members and longtime friends know that one of my favorite decorations is the chile lights that always line the entryway between our front hall and living room.

Peppermint - anything - also represents the holiday season to me, maybe because we often ate peppermint ice cream at Christmas in my childhood home. We do the same in our own home, but I've also begun to incorporate peppermint candy 'dust' in multiple desserts.

To make the dust, grab some ear plugs, pour several cups of hard peppermint candy into your food processor and crank it up. The deafening racket only lasts for a couple of minutes before this wondrous machine creates handfuls of sweet pink dust. Last year I found some peppermint ice cream languishing in our refrigerator after Christmas and created Peppermint Pie with Sugar Cookie Crust - Peppermint dust decorated the top.

This year, I dressed up some brownies with the dust, by adding it to chocolate buttercream icing, and then sprinkling more on top. After that I added dust to fudge that I made with leftover chocolate from the brownie icing. Not only does peppermint flavor infuse both desserts, but the dust also adds subtle crunchiness in every bite.

The only problem is that now I've used up all of the peppermints from my holiday candy dish. Fortunately, there's plenty of time to buy more.  :)

What are your favorite peppermint treats?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Turkey Green Chile Quesadillas

This was the first year that neither of our 20-something daughters came home to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we attended a massive potluck dinner at a friends' house. So there was no need to cook a big meal at home on Turkey Day. 

But that didn't stop us from making Thanksgiving foods during the next several days, including crockpot cranberry sauce, date pudding, pumpkin pie, and a 19-pound turkey. After we ate two meals we put half of the remaining meat in the freezer.

This week, I defrosted more turkey and dreamed of warmer weather as the Kansas City area plunged into the season's first deep freeze. I scoured the refrigerator and cupboards for ingredients and then developed this quick and easy recipe. Serve with black beans, a green salad and a margarita.  :)

Turkey Green Chile Quesadillas
Makes two large quesadillas

4 flour large tortillas (VOE - I used whole wheat)
2 cups turkey (or chicken), diced
1/4 cup red onion, minced
1 small can green chiles, pureed
1/2 cup mozzarella, grated
3-4 large Italian canned tomatoes, diced
minced cilantro as garnish

Make filling in a large bowl, combining turkey, red onion and green chiles. Heat a dry skillet to medium and lie one tortilla in the pan. Top with 3/4 cup filling and spread to half inch from the edge. Spread 1/4 cup cheese on top and then put second tortilla on top.

Cook until cheese melts, about 4-5 minutes, *flip quesadilla, and then cook 2-3 more minutes. Remove from pan and make a second quesadilla. Cut both into six pieces. Top with tomato and cilantro. Add sour cream, black olives, and fresh avocado or guacamole for more flavor.

*VOE - I used two spatulas with long 'blades' in order to flip the quesadilla, but I'm not very good at it. If you feel the same way, try making four smaller quesadillas by filling 1/2 tortilla and then flipping other half over the filling to make a half circle. This will make the flipping easier.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Kansas Travel - Circle S Ranch & Country Inn

It has been more than a decade since my husband and I celebrated our anniversary in this room at Circle S Ranch & Country Inn, outside of Lawrence, Kan. After we drove down a long country road to reach the inn, the exterior that resembled an old Kansas barn was nothing like the casual luxury we found inside.The Blue and White Room still has the same claw foot tub and soothing blue walls that I remember from that special weekend.

The two story 'living room' hasn't changed much either. Double fireplaces still warm visitors during cold weather as they sink into deep leather couches and oversized chairs, chat and relax. The massive hot tub built in the modern silo looks very similar too.

Visitors can still fish on the property, hike throughout the farm's undisturbed acreage, watch the sunset from a rocker on the front porch, or read away the hours beside a roaring fire. They still enjoy enormous, country-style buffet breakfasts after each night's stay and can purchase a multi-course dinner in the casual dining room with Western decor.

But Jack and Mary, the owners of this family farm and highly successful inn don't rest on their laurels. In recent years, they've added a bar, an entry courtyard and patio, and a conference and media center. There's also a party barn where weddings and private parties of up to 200 people frequently take place.

Since none of the 12 rooms at Circle S are the same, visitors can choose a different environment each time they make a reservation, such as this one, called the Cowboy Room. There's also the Celestial Room, with moons and stars in the headboard and a private fireplace, or the Claret Room. Often called the honeymoon suite, it has a double-sided fireplace, a two-person whirlpool tub and a loveseat.

For a luxury getaway amidst calming natural beauty, Circle S delivers - time after time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fried Potato Salad with Mustard Glaze - Thanks Richard!

I recently raved about the Fried Potato Salad with mustard glaze that I enjoyed during my meal at Cafe on the Route, in Baxter Springs, Kan. After I also talked about this lovely stuff during Jasper Mirabile's most recent Saturday show on 710 KCMO Radio, Kansas City, I decided I absolutely had to make a stab at creating this dish myself.

My potato chunks weren't as well 'blackened' as Chef Richard Sanell's were, and his glaze was creamier/less grainy, but Mark and I were quite pleased with the results - given that it had been more than a month since I sampled his delicious spuds. So, with thanks for Richard's inspiration, I give you my version of Fried Potato Salad with Mustard Glaze.

Fried Potato Salad with Mustard Glaze
Makes 4-5 large servings

1/2 medium onion, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
             plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
6 small Yukon gold potatos, cut in bite size chunks with skin on
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/8 cup dijon mustard
          (VOE - Country Style is more grainy than traditional, which I'd use next time)
 3 teaspoons honey

Heat skillet over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add onion and saute until soft and translucent. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil and then add potatoes. Fry, covered, but stirring frequently, about 25-30 minutes until skin is dark brown.

Remove potato/onion mixture from heat and pour into a large bowl. Add salt and pepper and coat potato chunks evenly. Stir together mustard and honey and then add to bowl, coating evenly. Serve at room temperature.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Holiday Trains at Union Station - Kansas City

Each year, since 2004, up to 25 members of the Union Station Model Railroad Volunteer Society have created a wondrous world full of model trains and miniature villages in the lobby at Kansas City, Missouri’s Union Station. By the Friday after Thanksgiving this 3,000-hour project opens to the public.

Measuring 60 feet by 64 feet, with thousands of miles of track, the display changes every year. During this holiday season there are 50 trains operating simultaneously, including the largest and most famous G-scale (1/22nd actual size). Train buffs will also recognize:
                -L-scale/Lego trains (1/38th actual size)
                -O-scale trains (1/48th actual size)
                -S-scale trains (1/64th actual)
                -HO-scale (1/87th actual)
                and N-scale (1/148th actual)

Visitors may see a delicate Ferris wheel turning beside a curvy roller coaster, Santa and his team resting atop a snow-capped roof, or antique cars traveling through an Art Deco streetscape.
Snow sparkles between the tracks, holiday lights decorate tiny rooflines, and a brightly lit theater marquee announces the current show. In fact, well over 100 individual lights accentuate buildings, signs and signals throughout the display.
Children of all ages will appreciate the breathtaking and painstaking detail of this holiday masterpiece, through January 3, 2010. And there’s no charge for a trip to this lovely fantasyland, although donations are gratefully accepted. (Please note: these photos are taken from the 2008-2009 holiday display)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kansas Travel - Neewollah 90th Anniversary

Who would have guessed, 90 years ago, that Independence, Kansas, a town of less than 10,000 residents, would eventually host the state's largest annual festival? Held every October to coincide with Halloween, the Neewollah celebration in Independence has become a 10-day extravaganza of food, games, and hours of dynamite nightly entertainment. In fact, this year's signature Saturday evening concert event was by Smash Mouth, with tickets starting at only $25!

People from all over the state - and the world - attend this event. And locals, including public school students, often eat lunch as they walk along the main drag or sit at one of the many picnic tables placed on the sidewalk. Dozens of food vendors offer everything from luscious Strawberry Newberg to freshly squeezed limeade or chicken on a stick.

During each evening of Neewollah, and on the weekends, downtown Independence assumes the atmosphere of an old-fashioned carnival, with no cars allowed and dozens of visitors strolling from ride to game to performance stage, where they sit in the folding chairs they've brought along for the event.

If you're looking for a new way to enjoy Kansas' fall season, Neewollah is well worth making a special trip to Southeastern Kansas, and a perfect way to celebrate Halloween. But watch out - you're likely to return again and again. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Date Pudding - A Holiday Family Tradition

My husband, Mark, says that the first time he suggested making Date Pudding as a Thanksgiving dessert, I turned up my nose at the thought and proclaimed that I didn't like dates. But there was no way he'd celebrate the holiday without this beloved family dessert on the table, so we pulled out my mother-in-law's recipe and the food processor.

Mark's family started making this unusual pudding long before food processors became a staple in every food lover's kitchen, which meant crumbling the crackers, chopping the dates, and breaking up the nuts by hand. But the food processor creates a smooth batter within only a few minutes.

And the results? Fabulous. Date pudding has become one of my favorites and I even eat an occasional fresh date on its own, because of this recipe.

Light and airy when it first leaves the oven, date pudding has a natural tendency to fall - sometimes several inches in the center - within half an hour. So don't worry when you start to see the upper 'crust' begin to break; that means its been baked just right.

One other requirement when we eat date pudding? There must be a big dollop of lightly sweetened real whipped cream on top. It's all about tradition.

Date Pudding
Makes 6-8 servings

1 big cup seedless dates, cut in small pieces
1/2 cup pecan pieces (VOE - we use walnuts because we always have some on hand)
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
8 heaping tablespoons saltine cracker crumbs, about 16 crackers
4 level teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a loaf pan with butter. Place the loaf pan on a baking sheet and with plenty of 'head room' above the oven rack; the pudding may expand two or three times its original size while in the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes and do not bake too hard. Cool slightly before serving.