Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trick or Treat!

It's THE day! One of the biggest holidays of the year here at our house. The party last week was great fun, but we have as much (if not more) fun tonight when the hordes of trick-or-treaters descend.

Our house is in a great family neighborhood in a suburb just north of Dallas. Plus we have several apartment complexes just a couple of blocks away. So, we will have literally hundreds of kids come by tonight with their treat bags ready and open.

And we're ready for them. The front yard is full of pumpkins, ghosts, and skeletons. We even have a graveyard with a real wooden coffin that we bought at a garage sale. We'll turn on the spooky lights, the fog machine and the scary sounds CD. I'll put on a costume of some sort--but can't be too scary for the little kids. Then I'll just sit in a chair on the front porch...won't have time to get up and down from the couch as the doorbell rings.

And the kids love it. They tell us how cool it is and wander around the yard looking at everything. Many oft hem are repeat customers from last year and years before. A couple of years ago, a mother complained that she had to drive in from fifty miles away since her kids had seen the show a couple nights before Halloween. They insisted that they come back to trick or treat. That was fun. (My next-door neighbor kidded me this afternoon that we should help pay for HIS candy, since our block becomes a magnet for all the kids in the area.)

Now, I know some people who actually AVOID being a part of tonight's activities. They go out...or hide in some part of their house with all their outdoor lights off. That's no fun. So, do your part. Give a little fun and get a lot back in return. You don't have to go all out, but make sure you have plenty of candy and maybe a decoration or two to make things more spooky. Put on a costume if you can. The kids appreciate the effort. And you'll get to be a kid yourself again.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Drink Your Breakfast

The experts say you need to eat breakfast. Keeps you healthy and helps you to lose weight (and keep it off). After you've slept all night, you need to eat within an hour of waking up to get your metabolism revving. Now, I was not a breakfast person for years. After all, I had grown up eating a Morton Honey Bun (remember those?) every morning while I watched The Three Stooges on TV. When I got older, I was certainly smart enough to know that a sweet fat-laden baked good was not a healthy option, but I just couldn't get into eggs and the like. So, for years, I skipped breakfast. Finally, a couple of years ago, I decided it was time to lose some of the extra pounds I had put on during my early thirties. So, breakfast time it was.

I quickly got the hang of microwave poaching an egg. Fixing some whole wheat toast. Or cracking open a container of yogurt. It still seemed like work. And time I didn't want to spend. I wanted something easier. (And somehow driving through for a McDonald's Egg McMuffin, while easy, didn't seem like a good idea.)

I discovered my solution this summer. I now drink my breakfast. Mix up a breakfast smoothie. It's fruit, it's protein, it's easy, and it can be fixed "to go." Yay.

So, as I'm stumbling around in the morning getting ready, I put some fruit in the blender. A banana. And/or berries...strawberries, blackberries or blueberries. Maybe even a couple slices of peach. You can use whatever you like. Melon, kiwi, mango. I precut my fruit and put it in plastic bags or containers in the freezer ahead of time, so my morning prep time is even shorter. I also just buy bags of frozen fruit (no sugar added) at the grocery and keep them in the freezer as well.

Then, I'll dump in a scoop or two of protein powder. I keep it simple and buy whey protein powder in a big tub at Wal-Mart. You can certainly get fancy and buy yours at a health food store--there are literally hundreds of choices with all kinds of supplements thrown in the mix. That's just too fancy and complicated for me.

Finally, I pour in a half-glass full of crushed ice and a little water. Hit the on button on the blender and the work is done. It's a great way to have a healthy breakfast without too much effort or expense. And you'll be full enough to resist the temptation of those Krispy Kremes in the break room at work. Probably.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Day After

Well, our Halloween party last night was a great success. While we were disappointed that a couple of our friends couldn't make it at the last minute, there was a great mix of about sixty (mostly) costume-clad guests filling our house and yard. All the planning made things a lot easier, and the food won raves. Great costumes this year, with lots of originality and work put into the winning outfits. (We passed out ballots, counted the votes and awarded bottles of wine and gift cards to the winners.) The kids had fun too, meeting new friends, bobbing for apples and eating far more cupcakes and cookies than their parents would have liked.

So, now the clean-up begins. It may horrify some of you perfectionists out there, but we actually take a couple of days to get things completely disassembled. We use plastic plates, so they get thrown away and cans and bottles put in recycle bin. Of course, it's important after guests leave to get perishable food put (and/or thrown) away. I always put some of the dips and snacks in plastic containers in the refrigerator so we can enjoy "grazing" over the next couple of days. (Oftentimes, we're so busy playing host that we don't get to tryly enjoy the food during the party.) Things that simply won't keep get thrown away. Particularly messy serving pieces go into the sink with water to soak. And one load of dishes goes into the dishwasher.

This morning after and throughout the day, we'll continue to periodically wash dishes, both by hand and in the dishwasher. We won't worry about putting them away until all are clean. It's much easier to put everything away all at once. So, for a couple of days, the dining room table is again full--this time with empty serving pieces.

This afternoon, we'll strike our outdoor rooms and put tables and chairs in the garage. We'll leave many of the lights and decorations in the front yard up for our annual crush of trick-or-treaters to enjoy next week. So, slowly but surely, we'll return the house to "normal." No rush though...it's fun to have things around to help us remember a wonderful event.

The day after is also the time to do a "post-mortem." When I have my professional event planning hat on, my team and I always sit down after an event and talk about what went well and what didn't. What we can fix for next time and what we've learned. Most importantly, we WRITE IT DOWN. Those notes become invaluable the next time we do a similar event. prevents us from making the same mistakes all over again.

So, I do the same thing after a big party at home. Go back through and take a mental inventory of what guests seemed most pleased with. (Our various seating areas outdoors and indoors were big hits this year.) What foods people flocked to and what was left over. And even what foods were simply too much work for the final result. (That's the "return on investment" test for me. This year I tried some Sausage Stiffed Fried Olives. They were delicious, but simply took too much time and effort for a complicated party of this size. I'll keep them in the file for a smaller cocktail party sometime. And I'll share the recipe with you in the next month or so.) There are also usually a couple of planned dishes that I ran out of time on or that simply didn't work and don't ever even make it to the buffet table.

So, while I won't bore you with all the details--my day after notes go into such detail that I include suggested quantities of cheese and other things to buy next year based on what was left over and /or thrown away--here are a couple of things I learned that you might take as hints for your next big shindig.

GET SOME HELP. The last hour or so before a party is always a busy time. But, for this particular event, it's simply too busy. Getting in costume, lighting what seems like a million candles inside and out, and assembling and serving all the food is simply too much for the two of us. So, next year, I am going to recruit a friend who knows their way around the kitchen to help for the couple of hours before guests arrive. In exchange for a nice dinner and/or bottle of wine, we'll have someone who can assist us with the last-minute rush.

"LABEL" OUR PARTY FOODS. The buffet looked great and everyone enjoyed the food. But I found myself having to explain what this dip was or what was on that particular canape. Next year, I am going to make small neatly-written (or type set on the computer) labels for all the dishes on the table. It helps people know what they're enjoying and might even encourage folks to try things they can't identify upon first glance.

HAVE A COSTUME PARADE. People are getting more and more serious about the costume contest that is a part of this party. In the past, people were always able to roam around and see who was wearing what. We had so many people last night (and a few latecomers) that not everyone saw everyone else before the voting started. So, next year, I think we'll invite all the contestants out on the deck and let folks show their outfits off before the voting actually begins.

So, there are a few of our lessons learned. And that's what this whole entertaining thind is all about...learning from our successes and mistakes and making things even better next time. Practice definitely makes perfect, even in party planning. So, do your post-mortem and jot some notes down for next year. You'll be surprised at how valuable they will be...and you'll be throwing (nearly) perfect parties in no time!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Creating Outdoor Rooms

So, we're expecting eighty people tonight for our Halloween party. And, while we love our house, it's nowhere near big enough for entertaining that many inside. Our luck has held though and it's a beautiful October day here in North Texas. So, we'll be able to take the party outside. It's easy for you to do the same if you think of your yard and the outdoors as a series of outdoor rooms.

For a big party, you need to create a variety of smaller seating areas, both indoors and out. Places where anywhere from two to eight people can sit down and have a conversation. They need chairs and a place to set their plates and drinks. If outdoors, they won't want to be in the dark so you need to provide some lighting too. All these things can be easily and inexpensively accomplished.

First, map things out. Look around your yard and see where you might have interesting and commonsense places for folks to congregate. Don't block doors or traffic areas and try and put these seating areas in places that can be easily seen as people come outdoors. (There's no sense in taking the time and effort to create a great space that no one can find.

A couple of our outdoor rooms are "permanent." We have a high bar table and two chairs on our deck. Three steps down is a patio with a regular size patio table and six chairs. For tonight's party, we've supplemented with a small table ( yours could be a card table or even wooden TV tray) and some chairs a few steps away in the back yard. We're also opening the gate to our rear driveway where I'll cover a six foot folding table with a simple cotton tablecloth and surround it with eight chairs. None of it is expensive to accomplish. The tablecloths were on clearance and most of the chairs are nothing more than those stackable plastic ones you can buy at any grocery or department store.

Certainly, people will bring plates from the buffet and drinks from the bar to their tables, but I also make it easy for them by having a few snacks served on each table. I'll put popcorn and a variety of nuts out in small bowls for people to nibble on. You can make your own (I'll share some of the recipes I'm trying in the next couple of weeks.) or buy pre-made nut or snack mixes.

And make sure people have enought light to see. As you're placing your outdoor rooms, look for places that your landscape lighting might already illuminate. You can supplement with strings of old-fashioned Christmas lights hung in trees or on fences. (We keep lights permanently strung on the wooden fence around our backyard. If we're feeling particularly creative, we change out some of the white lights with the season. Red and green for Christmas. Orange for Halloween. You get the idea.) Or hang smaller "twinkle" lights in trees and bushes for a romantic effect. Candles in wind-proof containers are also nice.

We even take the idea of outdoor room lighting quite literally on our patio. Some friends recently remodeled their new house and gave us the wrought-iron chandelier from their breakfast nook. We rewired it so that it plugs in to an outdoor extension cord and hung it from the wooden arbor over our patio table and chairs. Poof. Instant outdoor dining room.

So, take some of these tips and expand your own party past your home's walls. With a variety of places to sit and a little lighting to enhance the mood, these outdoor rooms provide great places for guests to sit and enjoy each other's company. When the weather cooperates, it adds an unforgettable dimension to your entertaining.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Easy Gourmet Party Trays

We've all seen them. Those pre-cut, pre-packaged veggie trays at our neighborhood groceries. They seem like a great idea. I've sworn off them though. All thanks to the one that someone brought to a baby shower I was attending. When it was opened, the odor was, to put it politely, toxic. That's no reason to not create your own though. You can control the quality and freshness of your ingredients...and even add a "gourmet" twist or two. Plus you can make great antipasto and cheese trays also. They're all three great ways to supplement your buffet table.

First, the veggies. (Or if you want to be fancy...the crudite.) A vegetable tray is always a hit at my parties. So many people are eating more healthily these days that it's a great option for vegetarians and people watching what they eat. An assortment of fresh vegetables in a variety of shapes and colors makes a real splash. Make sure you cut the veggies into small almost bite-size pieces and put a bowl of dip (maybe Ranch dip or hummus) next to it. For tomorrow's party I'm putting out baby carrots, thin slices of red bell pepper, celery matchsticks, cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices. For an unexpected "upgrade, " I'm also going to add green beans and asparagus. For both, I'll cut into small pieces and blanch in a pot of boiling water until they are crisp tender. (Asparagus will only take two minutes or so; green beans maybe four.) Then, lift out of boiling water with a slotted spoon and dunk into a big bowl of ice water. That stops the cooking and preserves the great color. Other options are broccoli or cauliflower florets, slices of yellow or zucchini squash, or even baby corn.

Another tray that is always a big hit is a cheese board. It's so easy today to serve something far more interesting than those cubes of cheese we grew up with. You only need two or three assorted cheeses and a couple of kinds of crackers for people to be able to experiment with new interesting flavors. Again, variety is the key. A good rule of thumb is to have a soft goat cheese, a blue cheese and a firm cheese of some sort. Look for different colors and try to have a representation from all over the world. A Spanish Manchego with an Italian blue. One of the great American artisanal goat cheeses. (Try Humboldt Fog--it has a thin vein of ash running through it.) Maybe even a smoked Cheddar with it's great golden color. And there's a variety of cheeses embedded with chiles, sun-dried tomatoes, or herbs. None of them are hard to find. Certainly you can shop here in North Texas at a place like Central Market or Whole Foods Market. But you can also hit a large grocery store. (I was amazed by the assortment of cheeses from around the world at the currently being remodeled Kroger at Mockingbird and Greenville!) Put your choices out on a nice tray or wooden cutting board. Add a few traditional accompaniment like bread slices or crackers (keep them simple so the cheeses are the stars), grapes or apple slices, even a few walnuts or almonds. Add a couple of small knives and let your guests explore away. Adding small pieces of paper with the names of the cheeses on them as labels is a great way to add a little education to the party.

To round out the trio of trays, you can also prepare a simple antipasto platter. Buy an assortment of meats and sausages sliced at your gourmet deli. You only need two or three. Salamis, other cured meats, cooked sausages. But don't go overboard; I only buy 6 ounces or so of three different meats for a party of 60 folks and always have a few slices left over. I like to add a few bottled roasted red peppers and a couple of kinds of olives. It's a great easy way to provide hearty snacks.

So, as you're planning your party buffet, remember veggies, cheeses, and meats as easy (and inexpensive) ways to turn your party menu into a true smorgasbord.

Don't Forget the Kids

So, tomorrow is party day. Food planning seems to be under control. We're getting and confirming last-minute RSVP's. Finishing up final decorations. Tomorrow will be a busy day, but I'm sure the party will be great.

One thing we always do is think about how to make our parties fun for kids. Once or twice a year, we'll have an "adult" party and ask our guests to get babysitters, but most of the time we invite lots of families with children. We always like to make sure the kids have a good time, so we plan an activity or two just for them. (It's not nanny service at the party, but certainly helps lets the parents relax a little more also.) It's especially easy to do at the holidays. For Christmas parties, we've set up tables with sugar cookies and gingerbread men and decorating supplies for our littlest guests to make their own artistic creations.

Our Halloween party is a costume party and most of the kids come in their finest. (I already know we'll have a Care Bear and a Ninja Warrior in our midst tomorrow night.) There's a costume contest for the adults, but we consider all the kids winners and give each of them a little party favor. This years it's a little stuffed Frankenstein or witch and a piece of Halloween chocolate. They DO have to earn these prizes though. We pull out the big stock pot and float a few apples in it. Then, it's time for the kids to bob away. They love it and I am always amazed at the fact that so few kids of this generation even know what bobbing for apples is!

So, remember to take care of ALL your guests. Think of ways to make the kids feel involved and entertained. Come up with an activity or game or two (but be careful not to make it TOO competitive! Little kids fighting (and then crying) is never a great party game) and have fun.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

An Easy Asian-Inspired Meal

Asian flavors are all the rage these days. "Pan-Asian" restaurants are everywhere, and recipes now include previously exotic ingredients like ginger and coconut milk. While I'm not necessarily one for trends, I've partially joined this bandwagon. Dinner last night is a perfect example. With a few pantry ingredients, you too can be ready for a great meal like this one.

First step is shopping. Go to a large grocery store, gourmet market, or...even better...an Asian market and buy good quality soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil. It will set you up for a variety of great recipes. Of course, buy the genuine "from the source" imported stuff when you can--you'll be surprised at how inexpensive it can be these days. And it definitely adds to the quality of your finished product.

Last night, I used those ingredients (and a few more) to make a great Asian-inspired meal. Seared tuna with basil oil and warm bok choy with soy dressing. Use it as a framework for your own journey east.

Seared Tuna with Basil Oil
Rocco DiSpirito's recipe from FoodNetwork.com

4 quarts water
2 cups packed basil leaves
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
4 (6 ounce) tuna steaks. (Buy the best quality you can afford. I like to use yellowfin--it's ruby red when cooked rare and looks great on your plate.)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Juice and zest of 1 lemon

To make the basil oil, bring 4 quarts water to a boil and add 3 tablespoons salt. Set up a bowl of ice water--you'll need it after blanching the basil. Drop the basil into the boiling water and cook for two minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer basil to ice water bath to stop cooking and keep its great bright green color. Cool for two minutes, drain, and squeeze excess water from basil. Blend basil and one cup olive oil in blender or food processor until well-mixed. Strain through a coffee filter and set aside.

To sear the tuna, heat a skillet or cast iron pan over high heat until very hot. Season tuna on both sides with kosher salt and pepper. Brush lightly with olive oil. Place steaks into pan and cool until bottom is brown--about three minutes. Turn tuna over and cook for another minute.

Remove to a plate and serve as immediately as possible. Tuna will be seared on the outside and cool and pink in the middle.

Makes 4 servings. Can easily be halved for dinner for two.

Here's a great Asian-tasting side dish to serve. Readily available in large supermarkets, bok choy is often called Asian cabbage and has a great crunch and slight bitterness that, in this recipe, is set off by the saltiness of the soy sauce, the sweet tang of the rice vinegar, and the toastiness of the sesame oil--all hallmarks of Asian cooking.

Warm Bok Choy with Soy Dressing
from Food and Wine magazine

2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
3/4 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
1 1/4 pounds bok choy or baby bok choy (I used the regular, but the baby bok choy is a little milder and is also great cooked this way.)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds (optional)

In a small bowl, whisk together first three ingredients and set aside.

In a large pot of boiling water, cook the bok choy for 1 minute. (If you're making the basil oil for the tuna recipe above, you can save time like I did and use the same water you blanched the basil in.) Drain and transfer to a platter or bowl. Drizzle dressing over and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds if you'd like.

This also makes four servings. (Although I made the whole recipe and the two of us got through the whole batch pretty easily.)

To finish out the plate, I sliced an avocado and drizzled a little sesame oil over it. Avocado is not necessarily Asian, but I think its creaminess is a great accompaniment for the silkiness of tuna.

Wine pairing: Most of the time, I like to drink Pinot Noir with seared or grilled tuna. There's a mushroom earthiness to Pinot that I think is great with the red-meatiness of tuna. For this meal, though, we had a Chardonnay. One of my go-to wines is the Sebastiani Chardonnay. You can find it for about $15, and it's a little oakier than some of the Chardonnays out there. That, in my opinion, makes it a standout for "heavier" chicken and fish dishes. Plus it brings out the toastiness of the sesame oil and vice-versa. Try it and see what you think.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


I'll admit...it's a stupid word, but it's the way most people are talking about table settings for dinners or parties. And something you can't forget about as you're getting ready to entertain. So, after you've invited your guests, figured out your menu and have your shopping lists and timelines, its time to start thinking about how you're going to serve your wonderful food.

For the Halloween party, we go all out. I've scoured party stores and department stores over the years for great plates, bowls and trays with anything Halloweenish on them. As a result, the dining room table--the main buffet--has skeletons and skulls all over it. A side buffet is in a spider motif. And the "kid's table" with desserts in the breakfast nook includes ghosts and pumpkins.

Other parties call for other serving pieces. None of us have enough storage space for all we would want, so it's best to keep it simple and determine one or a few looks you want to use. I search for black dishes to supplement the Halloween stuff and to use when basic elegance is called for. I have some silver pieces and "crystal" bowls and platters to use when things are a little fancier (like our black-tie optional Academy Awards party). Of course, a few red and green dishes for the holidays. And some plain old blue stoneware when the family is over for a nibble or two.

So, what's in your china cabinet? All of us have a few favorite things that are easy to build around. Maybe your color is purple. Maybe it's teal. Maybe you have some great earthy-looking pottery bowls. Of course, you can never go wrong with basic white. Once you see what you already have (and love) it's easy to supplement those things with others. You'll want an assortment of types: bowls, plates, trays. An assortment of sizes and a variety of shapes--some round, some square, some oval. Having a sufficient "stash" of serving pieces on hand makes your parties, whether planned or more impromptu, a lot easier.

And you don't have to spend a fortune to build up your collection. Once I determined the "sets" (black, silver/crystal, blue, etc.) I was looking to build, I simply kept my eyes open as I was out and about. Tuesday Morning. Crate and Barrel. Even outlet stores and department store clearance racks. (I'm not ashamed to say that I've found several wonderful things at garage and estate sales.) If I find something great, I buy it (even if a party is not just around the corner) and put it into storage with my other serving pieces. Buying in advance like that just means I don't have to shop for those kinds of things in the rush of party week.

Here's another tip: "practice" your tablescape before the day of the party. Right now, it's Wednesday night before our Saturday night party and I have already laid serving pieces out on the various buffet tables we'll be using. I also stick labels (Post It Notes work well.) on each dish for the food I'll be serving in it. Helps makes sure there's enough room for all the food we'll have...and also that I have the right serving piece for each thing. (All it takes is a quick wipe for dust on Saturday and I'm ready to serve.)

Since we encourage people to bring things to contribute to this particular party, I have also set aside several "extra" serving pieces for those folks to use when they arrive. Helps keeps things looking unified and in the "theme" I've planned out.

So, figure out the two or three "place settings" you want to use for your parties and start the hunt to build your collections. You'll have fun finding things to add, and, with a little forethought, will set a table that will dazzle your guests.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Honey-Mustard Chicken

I dragged this recipe out of my dusty files last night. (Actually, just remembered it. I've done it so many times, I don't really need the recipe.) It has a fond history with me. When I moved into my first apartment almost twenty years ago, it became my "company's coming" dinner. Moist chicken with a great sauce. A little wild rice and steamed broccoli on the side, and all was well. It's still worth making, and a great easy meal for everyday...or even a casual diner party.

Honey-Mustard Baked Chicken

4 bone-in chicken breasts (You could actually use other chicken pieces or a whole chicken cut-up if you prefer.)
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

To make things easy and clean-up a breeze, I melt the butter in the microwave in a Pyrex measuring cup. Then add the honey and Dijon mustard directly to the same cup. Add salt and pepper and mix together.

Put the chicken pieces in a baking dish you've sprayed with non-stick spray. Pout the sauce over and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for an hour, basting every 20 minutes or so if the mood hits you. (It's actually fine if you never baste.)

Easy, huh? And tasty too.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Planning...and Shopping for... Your Party Menu

So, it's time for me to hit the grocery store(s) for this week's party. One thing I've learned: a successful party takes creativity, yes, but also a heck of a lot of organization. Nothing crazy or out of reach for most of us...just a little time to sit down, map things out, and make a check list or two.

I really started seriously planning the menu for this one about three weeks ago. Went through my folder of appetizer recipes that I clip out of magazines and the newspaper. Made a stack of potential candidates and then narrowed it down to the winners. Having a variety of foods is key. I always try a few new things, but also trot out some old warhorses that I know will impress. A few canapes like I talked about a couple days ago. A hot dip or two. A couple of cold dips. And some easy "fillers" I'll explain later this week. (You can't go wrong with a cheese board!)

So, then it's planning time. I sit down and rewrite every ingredient of every recipe onto my handy legal pad. Then, go through and transfer those ingredients onto a grocery list. For example, several recipes may call for mayo or sour cream. I go through the recipes and add up how much I'll need and put that total on the list. I try and group things by area of the store--all the veggies in one section, dairy products in another. Makes it much easier as I'm pushing the cart through the store. If I'm feeling particularly organized (or thrifty), I'll even go through the grocery ads and come up with lists for each store where things are on sale. (And, word to the wise, even after you've shopped, it never hurts to go BACK over the recipes soon after you get home. Invariably, I've forgotten something that I have to add to a "last-minute" list.)

You also need to come up with timelines of when to fix what. If something can be made a couple days ahead, I do it. Like spiced nuts or some of the dips. Even some of the "hot" appetizers can be prepared and then refrigerated until they go into the oven at party time. So, for several nights before the party, I'll spend an hour or so and knock a couple of things off the list. Makes the day of the big event much easier. From experience, I know that on Saturday I will never get as much done as I think I can...

Yes, a wonderful party takes creativity. It also takes some organization. (Get both sides of that brain working!) So, make those lists and get cooking. A successful event is the final result.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Cocktail of the Week-Autumn is Here

The first cool weather of fall brings a lot of changes. Trees change color. Sweaters come out. And I change my cocktail choices. Really.

Although not exclusively, summer is all about white wine. Winter brings out more red. The hot months call for mojitos, vodka tonics, Tom Collins. So, when October hits, although I never go as far as a "hot toddy," happy hour drinks are a little heavier. Maybe a dark rum and Coke. Scotch and soda. Or this great drink adapted from a recipe by master "mixologist" (That's what expert bartenders are called these days.) Dale DeGroff. It's a great use for the new Pama pomegranate liqueur and even features the Octoberish taste of apple cider.

Adam & Eve
1 ounce Pama liqueur
1 ounce vodka
4 ounces fresh apple cider or unfiltered apple juice

In an ice-filled highball glass, our in the Pama, vodka and cider. Stir gently and garnish with an apple slice hanging off the side of the glass.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

North Carolina Barbecue

I always believe the old "when in Rome" philosophy. You simply can't travel across the country (or around the world) and miss out on the chance to sample some of the local fare. I've never made it to the Far East, but have my favorite Chinese food restaurants in the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco. (Nothing like the bland take-out most of us are forced to have at home) The best Indian food I've ever had was in Oxford, England. (India WAS of course a part of the British Empire don't you know.) And fish is always better when your table looks out the window at the ocean from which it was caught. Like the stone crab I had recently in Miami. So, while I'm here in North Carolina, I had to sample the barbecue.

Of course, depending on where you are in these United States, barbecue means very different things. Here in my home state of Texas, it's heavily-smoked brisket and ribs, with heavy tomato-based sauces slathered on top. In North Carolina, it means pork. Whole hogs (or just the pork shoulder) are slow-cooked and then "pulled" into tender strings and chunks. It's melt in your mouth moist and the smoke flavor is sweeter and less prevalent. The sauce is more vinegar-based and not nearly as thick...almost a cole slaw dressing here in Texas. Another option is a spicy mustard-based sauce. Wonderful sides of beans (again not as brown-sugary sweet as what I'm used to) and corn and spicy cornbread rounded out the meal. And, of course, sweet tea. In North Carolina, that's the standard. If you want it without sugar, better ask for it that way; otherwise, your tastebuds are in for a surprise.

The regional meal that we were treated to in Asheville was from a place called 12 Bones. It was on a list of several that I had found named "best" in the city; I had done my research on several others and had the rest of my list ready. We simply ran out of time; the barbecue marathon and comparison will have to wait for another trip. Stay tuned for that.

So, when you're traveling, get out there and sample the local cuisine. Where are you? What is the area known for? Who fixes it the best? Skip the chain restaurants and find the family-owned "dives." No trips planned soon? Then, explore your own hometown and its cultural diversity. Hit a taco stand. Have dim sum in any Asian-American neighborhoods that might be around. Whatever the destination, take a taste trip. You won't regret the adventure.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Assembly Line Hors D'oeuvres

So, I'm figuring out the buffet menu for the Halloween party next week. I always like to mix things up and include nibbles like olives and nuts, something heartier like sandwiches and Buffalo chicken wings, and of course, a dip or two. I "glam" things up a bit too with three or four "gourmet" canapes. They're always a hit and can make a party feel even more elegant. I don't have time to spend hours on them though, so I've developed an assembly line mentality--using as many quality store-bought shortcuts as I can.

To me, a canape can be three simple things. A base. Something creamy. And a "main" ingredient (or just garnish) on top to round it out.

What can be a base? Well, obviously, a cracker. Something as simple as a Triscuit or rice cracker. Or something like a cheese straw that you make by hand. Wonton or phyllo cups (you can find both pre-made a lot of the time) can hold ingredients you've diced up into tiny pieces. Tuna tartare maybe. Or a mayo-free chicken salad. The base can also be a vegetable. A slice of cucumber or jicama. A hollowed-out new potato or cherry tomato. Or even an endive leaf.

Then, you add something creamy. It can be a main ingredient in a vegetarian canape...like herbed goat cheese. Or it can be the "glue" that anchors meat, poultry, or seafood to the base. Flavored sour cream or mayonnaise. Something like that.

Finally, there's the "top." A piece of tenderloin beef. Seared tuna. Simply prepared shrimp. Let your imagination run wild. And if you're letting the creamy ingredient take center stage, just add a tiny bit of colorful garnish. Maybe roasted red pepper or a bit of fresh herb.

So, using this formula, I've come up with four I'm going to fix for next Saturday night. I like to serve a variety of meat, seafood and vegetarian appetizers, so I've tried to run the gamut of flavors and ingredients.

First up is a thin slice of toasted baguette with a little horeseradish sour cream and a thin sliver of beef. (I cheat and buy several pieces of the Honey Flank Steak from Central Market and cut it in tiny bite-size bits. I always ask for the rarest slices. They're the most tender and add some great color too.)

I'm also going to do a wonton cup that I'll fill with a slice of seared tuna (also available pre-made in the gourmet deli case if you're short on time) and a dab of wasabi mayonnaise. (It's simple. A spoonful or two of mayo with a tiny bit of prepared wasabi from a tube or dried wasabi powder mixed in. Adds a great spicy kick. And the wasabi is great to have on hand to mix in with mashed potatoes.)

For the vegetarians, an endive leaf onto which I'll pipe a dollop of herbed cheese. Could make it by hand by mixing fresh or dried herbs and a little lemon juice into some soft goat cheese, but I think I am going to take the easy route and pipe on some Alouette, a quality soft cheese that comes in little tubs in a variety of flavors. You can get in in the deli section of most major supermarkets. To add a little color and texture, I'll top it off with either a sliver of sun-dried tomato or a sprig of fresh dill.

Finally, a twist on traditionally prepared smoked salmon. On a thin slice of cucumber (I usually leave the peel on. It's a nice color contrast and makes things a bit sturdier.), I'll add a little cream cheese and then a piece of smoked salmon. It's always a hit.

There are others I've done before that I justwon't have room for this time. A new potato with sour cream and domestic caviar. A rice cracker with wasabi cream cheese and a tiny cooked shrimp. Or Caprese salad on a tiny toast--mozzarella, tomato and pesto. Delicious.

So, use this three-step formula to create your own gourmet goodies. You might even map it out on a piece of paper with three columns with base, creamy ingredent, and topping as headings. Brainstorm individual ingredients in each column and then put them together in both traditional and adventurous combinations. You'll be surprised at what you come up with. And you'll definitely impress your guests with your elegant nibbles.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Biltmore Estate

So, I am in Asheville, North Carolina this weekend for my brother's wedding. Of course, while I was here, I couldn't miss the biggest tourist draw in western North Carolina. The Biltmore Estate, constructed in the very last years of the 19th century by George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of family patriarch and railroad magnate "Commodore" Vanderbilt, was then, and still is, the largest private residence in the United States.

We started our tour by driving through the gabled Lodge Gate, adjacent to the train depot that Vanderbilt had constructed to welcome his special guests and their (in many cases) private railcars. We took the winding road past ponds and plantings, with new things around every corner. This was the intent of New York's Central Parks designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the Biltmore Estates gardens and landscapes as one of the last projects in his life. (He didn't even live to see it finished.)

The idea was that the anticipation for guests arriving in carriages would build as they rounded each lushly planted and wooded curve. As we drove up over a century later, the effect was much the same. We didn't see the house until the last minute and that initial view was breathtaking. A large esplanade, ringed by gravel drives, gave a great view of the house itself, reminiscent of the finest of French chateaus. As we got closer and closer, the decorations and details became more evident, including wonderful gargoyles around the roof edges and knights standing guard around the stair tower.

The interior was no less breathtaking. Still in the hands of Vanderbilt descendants, it has been preserved as it was in George Vanderbilt's day, and is still furnished as it was at the turn of the century. Textiles owned by Cardinal Richelieu. A chess table and set used by Napoleon. Countless antique tables, chairs, and decorative objects. And beautiful works of art, including paintings by Renoir, Whistler, and John Singer Sargent. (A Sargent portrait of landscape architect Olmsted was stunning, far and away my favorite piece.)

I won't get into all the details here. Not nearly enough space, and I couldn't possibly capture it in proper detail and description. It took us almost three hours to walk the house itself, including public grand rooms like the Banquet Hall with its pipe organ and 70 foot high barrel-vaulted ceiling. The separate bedrooms of the master and mistress of the castle and several of the many guestrooms made available to family and friends. Even the "working" portions of the building--servants' bedrooms and sitting areas, kitchens, pantries and storerooms. (We had lunch in a cafe in the old stables...our booth was set into one of the stalls, feeding trough still intact.) It was a fascinating look at privileged life in the Gilded Age.

And, somehow, despite its grandness, there was a warmness I didn't expect. Perhaps because it is still owned by the Vanderbilt family. Maybe because, on the very informative audio tour, there was such a emphasis placed on the day-to-day life of the aristocracy who lived there. Or even because the entire staff was just so darned friendly. I certainly was dazzled, but not put off as I expected I might be in such a grand environment. (While there, I purchased Lady on the Hill, a book on how the Vanderbilt family struggled to keep as much of the estate intact as possible and make it financially self-sufficient--something George Washington Vanderbilt never was able to do.)

After a quick tour of some of the adjacent gardens, we made the several mile drive to the Biltmore Estate winery. (In a brilliant (and commercial) move, the estate folks force visitors to drive by before they exit the estate.) And it was worth a stop. It is located in the former dairy, with wine tasting room in the former milking barn. (there has to be a joke there somewhere.) As a part of the mission of the Estate to be a financially viable operation, the Biltmore Company began producing wines (some from grapes grown on the estate) in 1985. We tasted several that were wonderful: an unoaked Chardonnay, a Reserve Chardonnay, a Sangiovese, and a red Zinfandel. Despite the fact that they couldn't ship to Texas (Curses to stupid wine laws!), we ended up with several bottles to schlep back.

All in all, a great day. And one I recommend to anyone headed to western North Carolina. It was beautiful to see the trees in full autumn splendor. And the holiday decorating already underway was clear indication that Biltmore is as glorious over the Christmas season as the stories tell. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Great Party Starts with the Guest List...and Invitations

I actually once threw a party that no one came to. No, really. One holiday season, I decided at the last minute to have a little dessert open house to use up this huge basket of baked goods a corporate client had sent me. So, I decided I'd spread the word by phone and invite people to drop by. Two problems...I picked the Saturday night before Christmas, a night that EVERYONE seems to have commitments for. Oh, and it sleeted and iced over early in the evening. So, I sat there all night by myself eating mini fruitcakes and chocolate chip bars.

So, I've learned my lesson. I probably couldn't avoid similar weather disasters, but I send out "real" invitations now. And I give people plenty of time to plan ahead. And insist on an RSVP, even if that means I have to follow up and pester them.

For our Halloween Fright Fest, we send the invitations out a month in advance. I've certainly used paper invitations (even engraved) for other occasions, but for this one, we've found it's easiest to use Evite.com. It's free and you can use their pre-designed templates. I picked one with a gargoyle on it this year, but they have twenty or so others just for Halloween. As well as ones for baby showers, tailgate parties, housewarmings and just about every other event you can dream up.

They go to e-mail addresses and you can see when people open them. If you have an address wrong, it will bounce back immediately for you to correct. And you can even send reminder notes out to those who haven't replied yet. It keeps a running tally of yes, no and maybe responses. You can also set it to e-mail you when you get a new RSVP. Makes it quite easy to keep track of things.

Now, invitations are important not only in giving the who, when and what, but also in setting the mood for your party before it ever begins. You can let people know dress code, what kind of activities to expect, and if you'd like them to bring anything along. As an example, here's the text we included in this year's invite. The other details are elsewhere on the page, but this is a way to personalize things. I think this does a great job of presenting important information in a fun and creative way.

It's time for the FIFTH ANNUAL FrightFest. There will be food and drink, fun and games, and a surprise or two. Get in the spirit and wear your best costume--there WILL be prizes!We'll have beer, wine, soft drinks, and food. Feel free to bring a treat on a plate (or a trick in a bottle) to contribute if you'd like...P.S. No need for a babysitter..bring the kids along too! They're guaranteed a prize!

So, take your time in writing this part. Set the mood for your party--whether casual and festive or more formal and elegant--and set the rules. And even bribe them as necessary. Somehow telling people there will be prizes for the best costumes motivates them to join in the fun.

So, you have a great invitation ready. Now, who are you going to send it to? The great hosts and hostesses of history know that chemistry is key. If it's a small party, maybe you shoot for a group that has something in common. People who work with you. Folks with a love of fine wine. Even people who have gone on great trips recently. Could keep the conversation rolling. For our Halloween party though, where we expect almost a hundred people, we throw a wide variety of folks into the mix and watch the fun. People from work meet family members. Neighbors meet college friends. It's great.

So, create your own chemistry and bring people together. The right invitation could be just a mouse click away. With a successful party right on its heels.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tilapia Baked in Couscous

I grew up in a family that had three things on every dinner plate. A meat. A starch. And a vegetable. That's been a hard habit to break. So, I still end up with three things to cook most nights. Here's a recipe that combines two of the three. Takes less time and there's less to clean up. All that's left to do is a steamed vegetable or a simple salad or even just a sliced avocado or tomato. Enjoy.

Tilapia Baked in Couscous
Adapted from Rachel Ray

One 10 oz box plain couscous (Far East makes plain and several flavored versions. I always keep several boxes on hand in the pantry. It takes five minutes to cook and is a healthier alternative to other starches like potatoes or pasta.)
1/2 cup pine nuts (Buy them in bulk and store in the freezer for whenever you need them. You can toast up a few and add a crunch to salads and simple vegetables.)
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped (You could omit these if you'd like.)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Several thin slices lemon
Four 8-ounce tilapia filets (Not to be redundant, but I buy tilapia when it's on sale and keep in the freezer in two- or four-portion sizes in Zip-loc bags. I wouldn't try that with a delicate fish, but this way I always have fish on hand for a pantry ingredient meal.)
2 1/2 cups warm water

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a bowl, stir together the couscous, pine nuts, tomatoes, and cumin. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in 1/4 cup olive oil and lemon juice.

Pour into 9 by 13 baking dish that you've coated with non-stick spray. Arrange the tilapia on top and season filets with salt and pepper. Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil on fish. Top with two or three lemon slices on each filet.

Pour 2 1/2 cups water around fish and cover with foil Bake about 25 minutes until tender.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Farewell, Summer Friend

Well, it's over. Tomato season in north Texas is officially done.

From May to October, I'm at the Dallas Farmers Market about once a week. I go by Lemley's Tomatoes' stand and buy my basket of ripe ruby beautys. (And usually pick up a few cherry tomatoes or heirlooms at the same time.) Usually, we just have them sliced. I dunk them in boiling water for 40 seconds, peel them and slice them. Add a dash of onion salt and a grind of black pepper. Nirvana.

Of course, they're good on a bacon and tomato sandwich also. Cheap white bread with a touch of mayo (both sides please), three slices of microwaved bacon and the tomatoes. Now, there's a summer meal. (Confession: Fritos are the perfect accompaniment.)

So, it's always a bit of a funeral when I know that there are no more tomatoes to be had. Sure, I can get "hothouse" tomatoes all winter long at the grocery store. but they can't ever stand on their own. They have to be buried in a turkey sandwich or diced into a salad. It's just not the same.

So, tonight was my last tomato supper. Three ripe juicy slices with a crumble of goat cheese, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of cracked black pepper and sea salt. Oh, and a glass of herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand's Spy Valley.)

Summer. farewell. And salud.

Party Countdown

We're less than two weeks away from our annual Halloween party. Over the last five years, it's grown into a great event--this year, we'll have close to a hundred people. There's great food and drinks, games for the kids, and a costume party (with prizes naturally) for the adults.

And it takes a lot of work. I've spent much of my professional life planning events and apply many of those skills to parties here at home. Over the next several weeks, leading up to and then after the party, I'll try and break down some of those things and give you tips and things to think about. Hopefully, they'll serve as a basis for you to put together your own parties. With a little planning and thought, everyone can be a party animal

Sunday, October 15, 2006


OK...so we all want life to be beautiful, but most of us can't always have perfection. And that's ok. If we try new things, we're bound to fail sometimes. And those little mistakes can be as important as...and teach us enough to lead to...our greatest successes.

Inspired by my recent trip to the Texas State Fair, I thought I'd try to make corny dogs at home. Ran across a recipe from a great cookbook (from well-known chef who will remain nameless) and thought I'd try it. It added some cool-sounding enhancements to the batter like a can of creamed corn and some minced jalapenos. Yum. They sounded perfect for a party we have coming up soon.

Well, what a mess. The cornstarch you were supposed to dip the hot dogs into did nothing to keep the batter on. They came out of the oil lumpy, bumpy messes. Now, they didn't taste too bad. However, I was testing them as party food. So, I let them sit for thirty minutes to see how they'd be after being on the buffet for a bit. I certainly had no plans to spend my party standing over a fryer all night long cooking fresh batches. Well, as they cooled, they got soggier and greasier. Yuck.

So, a failed experiment. But still fun. I was glad I tried. Don't worry if you have your own disastrous recipes...or even meals. If we always stuck to the things we knew we could cook, we'd all be eating instant macaroni and cheese and scrambled eggs every night. It also reinforces the fact that you should try things before you ever try to serve them at a party or dinner party. Never pass up the chance to "rehearse" for your biggest performances.

So, get out there and create your own disasters! I certainly have had my share, and would love to hear about yours.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Friday Night Lights

I grew up here in Texas. So, I have always been familiar with the "religion" that is Texas high school football. The NBC series Friday Night Lights, has, in the last couple of weeks, given the rest of the country a peek into what it's about. In the last couple of years, I have been reintroduced first-hand to the end-of-the-week ritual that so many students, their parents, friends and neighbors go through. My brother in-law is a head football coach of a high school in town, so I've been putting on my school colors, packing up my stadium seat and joining in the fun.

There is much to take in. Of course, the game itself. Gangly kids trying to hold the line against their larger counterparts. Break-out runs that go from end zone. And, the game itself is surrounded by a circus atmosphere. Hand-painted signs with their rather aggressive spirit messages. Stomp the Patriots. Shoot down the Eagles. The cheeleaders and their (sometimes futile) attempts to get the crowd into the game. And, of course, the big half-time show. I am amazed at both the size of most marching bands these days...and at the complexity of their marching routines. With costumes for the flag corps, huge props and asymmetrical formations, it's big-time serious. So serious that a band can spend the ENTIRE season playing the same program over and over in its quest for perfection.

And of course there are the drill teams. With sequined hats and ridiculously huge crinoline-lined mini-skirts, they are an amazingly Texas creation. From the moment the officers "strut" onto the field to their final "jump splits" (which make me cringe in empathetic pain), it's great fun to watch.

So, get thee to a stadium. It's a great adventure. Find a local team and go watch. (If it's in a small town, all the better--those are the kind of games where EVERYONE in town goes. And where the stakes are even higher and the attitude even more intense.) You'll get a special bonus if you can get to a Homecoming game. You'll see the crowning of the Homecoming Queen, and, in this gender-equal world, the Homecoming King. And you can check out the back-breaking, big-as-a-plate mums that the girls wear. They can run into the hundreds of dollars and the more bells, bows and accesories, the better.

And have a hot dog or nachos while you're at it. It's a great unusual night out on the town that you won't soon forget.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Great State Fair of Texas

I grew up here in the Dallas area, so a trip to the State Fair of Texas was a yearly tradition for my family. As I approach 40, it's still a big deal for me and I get there--no matter what--at least once during its three week run. It's been great fun over the last couple of years to introduce our niece and nephew to that same experience. My sister and I had plans on Wednesday to take my four-year-old nephew for his yearly corny dog fix. At the last minute, they couldn't make it, but I decided I couldn't miss it.

So I went by myself. That ended up being an OK thing. Gave me the chance to set my own agenda, and since I wasn't talking to anyone, I could observe and take in even more of the things around me. And the Texas State Fair is nothing if not a feast for the senses.

Obviously, there's much to see. The grounds themselves, with buildings constructed for the Texas Centennial Exposition in1936, are an Art Deco masterpiece. Fortunately, there has been wonderful restoration work done in the last several years, so the sculptures, murals and buildings themselves are more glorious than ever. It's also fun to see the amalgam of people who come to the Fair...all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages. People from every walk of life. Retirees taking their time ambling around. Young professionals playing obvious hooky from work. Families with their young children. Grown-up children like myself.

As I walked around and took in Beg Tex, the life-size butter sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, and the prize-winning jams, jellies, and pickles lined up in rows, I could hear a symphony of Texas. Country and western and mariachi bands. The thumping music of the midway rides battling with the old-fashioned calliope of the carousel. Those annoying barkers trying to get me to "try my luck" and win a stuffed Dora the Explorer the size of a farm animal.

My nose was assaulted as well. Cotton candy. Yum. The new carpet smell of the car shows. The funkiness of the livestock barns. And you must not miss the livestock barns. It's one of the main reasons the fair exists. Just like in Charlotte's Web, 4-H students from across the state still bring their cows, goats and pigs to the fair to see who can become Grand Champion. When I would go to the fair as a child, we always parked right by those barns, so it was the first thing we saw. Still today, I stop by for a few minutes and watch whatever judging is going on.

And I go by the petting zoo. After an insurance-prompted e coli scare last year, it's back. So, I went in, bought my paper cup of grain and fed the camel, the goats and the emu. And had the chance to see a lamb being born. It was amazing to stand there and watch not only this amazing thing, but also the faces of the kids around surprisedto take it in. After the big event, most people moved on, but I stayed for a while to watch the little guy take his first awkward steps.

So, there's much to see, smell and hear. But, of course, a raison d'etre for the Texas State Fair is the food. If it can be fried and/or put on a stick, it's available for a few tickets. (A couple of years ago, a group of friends I went with actually had a contest to see who could collect the most sticks.) On this trip, I, of course, started with a Fletcher's corny dog. It was just like I remembered; crunchy and lightly sweet with the tang of yeloow mustard. I also explored a couple of the new fried delicacies up for purchase. The fried macaroni and cheese was fantastic. Creamy with herbed bread crumbs and Ranch dressing to dip in. I have to figure out how to replicate it at home. I also tried the concotion deemed this year's "Most Creative" by a panel of judges: Fried Coke. It's described in the official fair guide as "smooth spheres of Coca-Cola-flavored batter that are deep fried, drizzled with pure Coke fountain syrup, topped with whipped cream, cinnamon sugar, and a cherry." So I took the plunge. The whipped cream was great and the first couple of bites of the "spheres" weren't bad; they were like slightly sweeter spice cake donuts. As I got deeper into the glass though, the Coke syrup started to make everything sickenly sweet and overly soggy. I finally gave up and bought myself a Dr Pepper to wash the taste out of my mouth. (This is Texas after all.)

So, I headed home full. Full of carbs and full of great sensory memories of a uniquely Texas experience. When I went to the Fair as a child, my siblings and I always had the chance to pick one souvenir to take home. Back then, it was a pirate flag or a ball. This year, I bypassed the inflatable unicorns and the tiara-bedecked pink cowboy hats. I was satisfied enough with what I was taking home. Get yourself out there. And don't forget your memento. Even if it's just a slight case of indigestion.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Round Top Antiques Extravaganza

Twice a year, antiques aficionados (and folks with simply too much time and money on their hands as well) make the pilgrimage to the antiques shows and fairs around Round Top, Texas. The town itself (with population of less than 100) is one you commonly miss as you travel Texas on the faster and more convenient interstate highways. But for two weeks a year, this prototypical sleeping hamlet becomes clogged with cars full of shoppers looking for bargains.

The phenomenon that captures the imagination of so many today is the almost 40-year-old brainchild of promoter Emma Lee Turney. Founded in 1968, her shows were what drew me to make my first antiques road trip to this mecca of Americana almost 15 years ago. Back then, the places to go (for museum-quality American and primitive antiques) were the Round Top Rifle Hall (and the "big white tent" behind it) and the Carmine Rifle Hall--with a few satellite markets and sales in the area. Today, the "original" sites are just a part of a HUGE metropolis of tents and fields full of vendors from across the country. Even the Turney empire (now owned by a new set of promoters) has expanded to numerous venues.

I made my first antiques trek south in several years this past Thursday, and was amazed to see how things had changed. Hopefully, my report will inspire some of you to make the trek to the next market in the spring. Or to create your own adventures closer to home.

Of course, the ride itself deserves mention. Round Top is located between Houston and Austin, and you really can't get there from Dallas on the interstate. Forced to take a smaller highway south once you hit Waco, you find yourself observing the landscape and culture that central Texas is known for. Plenty of small towns, lots of cows (and even a llama or two!) grazing, and intermittent rolling hills to break up the landscape. And, of course, place names you simply can't forget. I always am tempted to turn off the highway at the sign pointing to "Old Dime Box"--would love to know what that town is all about. The whole journey really puts you in the mood to find treasures from the past.

Once I arrived and as I wandered the buildings, tents, and fields, I tried to take it all in. (And there is much more than you can possibly take in in four days, much less the six hours I had allotted myself.) There were gorgeous Pennsylvania corner cabinets and Victorian dressers. Delicate glassware and china from the nineteenth century on. And stuff I, quite frankly, couldn't figure out what was. Of course, we all have our personal tastes, and I'm always drawn to simple pieces of American furniture with clean lines and dark woods. To advertising signs and old-time store fixtures. (I've decided I want to use an old general store counter for a kitchen island. Lottery, here I come.) To tool boxes and farm implements. I had to laugh when I found a booth full of things I coveted and was intrigued by...the owners had perceptively named themselves "Mantiques."

But you can expand your horizons well beyond your personal tastes as well. Learn about English stoneware...or wicker...or English armoires...or Victorian flower wreathes under glass made of hair that women collected from their nightly brushings. If you look carefully and explore, it's a great experience.

On this particular trip, I found several treasures. Four or five pieces of pyrographic (wood-burning) art to add to my growing collection. (More on that later.) An interesting double wash tub on a stand to use on the deck--we plan to fill it with plants most days and use it for beer and soft drinks at parties.

And discovered a piece that can only be described as unique. (It's in the photo above.) It grabbed me as soon as I walked by it. (And I've learned that those are the things you simply CANNOT walk away from.) It's a double-sided "display cabinet" that the dealer and her husband had found in Iowa. With drawers and sliding doors that open to both sides, it's a stepped pyramid about 16 inches tall. Upon discussion, our mutual best guess was that it sat on a store counter somewhere with display examples on its "shelves" and stock items in the drawers underneath. When I learned that the dealer had almost not brought it because she wanted to keep it for herself, I knew I had to have it. I wasn't even sure where I would put it, but it's now working perfectly on our coffee table--with autumn and Halloween things on it. It's even more interesting to me since there are stories behind it...both its past "life" and the adventure I had in finding it. With antiques I found at bargain prices throughout our house, there are plenty of those kinds of stories. Too many of my friends have been subjected to them!

So, when was the last time YOU went on a similar treasure hunt? It doesn't have to be a road trip...and it doesn't even have to be for something antique. It just has to be fun and cause you to challenge your imagination. Go to a garage sale, to a thrift store, even to EBay...and see if you can't come up with something unique to add to your own life and environment. I would love to hear about (and see) what you've found. Happy hunting!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Think Pink....Not Your Mother's White Zinfandel

For many of us who lived through the white zinfandel craze of the 1980's and 1990's, the idea of a pink wine is scary. Bad memories of a cotton candyish, Kool-Aid-wannabe alcoholic beverage rear their ugly heads. Trust me...things have changed. I now firmly believe that EVERYONE should have at least one "pink" wine on their house wine list. They're called rosés, and they're quite wonderful...even, perhaps surprisingly to you, when paired with food.

I was turned on to rosés several years ago when I was served a glass of a sparkling rosé from Spain. It wasn't at all what I expected...more tangy than sweet...and quite good with the appetizers at the party where it was served.

Just last month, I was exposed to another wonderful example of the wine in a shipment I received as part of a wine club run by Andrea Immer Robinson. (More on her later. I am a complete and total disciple of the woman. She makes wine approachable and is one of the top in her field in creating wonderful and simply accomplished food and wine pairings. Her books and TV shows have helped me learn much of what I know about wine, and I encourage you to check out her "products." A link to her website is to the right. You'll see me mention her a lot more in the days and weeks to come.)In this particular box were two wines from the Miner winery in California. One was their wonderful Sangiovese and the other a rosé wine made form the Sangiovese grape. (By the way, Sangiovese is an Italian grape that we more commonly drink in when we open a bottle of Chianti.) I opened the rosato a couple of nights ago, and, in the interest of research, compared it to a couple other rosé style wines from other parts of the world.

The first was from Spain. A Marques de Caceres Rioja Rosé. It had the lightest blush color of the three, and that translated into it being the lightest in intensity as well. With an almost rose flower scent, it had flavors of sweet cherry and strawberry. Served slightly chilled, it was quite sippable. It's a perfect bottle for the patio in the summertime, and at less than $10 a bottle, quite a bargain. When paired with food, it didn't stand up well to most of the things I tried it with, but it brought out the natural sweetness of some simple boiled shrimp. That's definitely a pairing to try. (And how easy when you can buy pre-cooked shrimp at most supermarkets!)

At the other end of the intensity spectrum was the Miner Sangiovese Rosato from California. A ruby color, it brought out the more tangy and tart qualities of this style of wine. With flavors of pomegranate, cranberry and bright cherry, it's a wine that has enough "oomph" to stand up to more aggressive food flavors. Although I didn't pair it this way at the time, it would be great with a pork loin or grilled pork chop with a bit of herbs or even fruit chutney of some sort. It's also quite affordable at $15.

Although I have to admit that I am not always a fan of Texas wines, I am pleased to report that a wine from the Lone Star State ended up as my favorite of the trio. The McPherson Rosé of Grenache-Syrah was as brilliantly colored as the Miner, but fell in the middle of the flavor spectrum, offering a great balance of softness and zing. The fruity flavors here were raspberry and soft plum. It also offered a bit of smoky spiciness--probably thanks to the Syrah that is a part of the blend. It was a great pairing with several leftovers I had on hand, including fried catfish and enchiladas. (Interesting,huh, given its Texan roots?) I'm also betting that it would be great with a bowl of smoky, not-too-spicy tortilla soup. The best news of all is that I found it at a discount wine store for less than 10 bucks.

All in all, each of these wines are quite good and have something different to offer. They all get my recommendation to buy. Try them--or another dry rosé out there, including the wonderful ones from Provence--and see if you don't agree that pink can be a wine to love.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Two Takes on Chicken Salad

Chicken salad is one of those things that everyone can...and should...make for themselves. I always think homemade is better than anything you can buy...even at fancy gourmet stores. And it's especially simple these days--grocery rotisserie chickens and salad bars make it a breeze.

I have a basic recipe for chicken salad that is quite adaptable. You can add or subtract ingredients to make it your own.

For a good family-size batch (with enough for a sandwich from the leftovers), start with about six cups of chopped cooked chicken. Now, my southern-raised, Junior League-trained friends would say to use white meat only, but, if you'd like to include dark meat (which I think adds a lot of flavor), one whole chicken will provide you about the right amount of meat.

Now, you can get your cooked chicken in a variety of ways:
  1. Poach four chicken breasts (bone-in or boneless) or a whole chicken cut up in enough water to cover, salt and pepper, and some onion and celery if you've got them. Bring to a simmer and cook for twenty minutes. Remove the chicken and strain the broth. (Surprise....you just made homemade chicken stock. Save it and use in place of water when you make rice or stuffing. Or freeze to use later.)
  2. Grill four chicken breasts using your favorite basic seasonings.
  3. Go to the grocery and buy a rotisserie chicken. Easiest of all!
  • Remove the skin and take the chicken off the bone. Chop, using knife or kitchen shears, or tear with your hands (my messy, but preferred method).
  • Add 1 cup mayonnaise.
  • Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped green onions and 1/4 to 1/2 cup celery. (Remember the salad bar? This is looking easier, huh?)
  • Stir in a pinch of kosher salt and a teaspoon of lemon juice (doesn't make it lemony...just brightens the flavor a bit).

Voila! It's ready to eat--as is or in a sandwich. I especially like it in pita bread.

But, you can take it a step or two farther. Here are some other things you could add as you see fit. Mix and match...you probably won't want to add them all at once. The measurements are only a guide. Add as much or little as you'd like.

--1 teaspoon curry powder (Frankly, this has become a part of my standard house recipe.)
--3/4 cup seedless red or green grapes
--1/2 cup toasted almonds, pecans, walnuts or pine nuts
--1/2 cup dried cranberries
--3/4 cup diced avocado

Put on your chef's hat and experiment..the possibilities are endless.

A little imagination is how I came up with this next version. I'm a sucker for chicken enchiladas. So, I invented a way to bring some of the same flavors to chicken salad.

Start with the basic recipe, but substitute lime juice for the lemon juice if you can. Then add 1 teaspoon ground cumin and 1 small can chopped green chiles. Mix. Ole! It's that easy. (I even cut up a few tortillas with scissors and baked them for 15 minutes at 400 degrees to go with the salad. Added a nice crunch.)

I'm sure you could come up with an Asian-style chicken salad by adding water chestnuts and sesame oil or make a Thai style with some basil and jalapeno. Go for it. It's a fun, simple way to make a meal special.--take a basic, easy recipe and make it your own. (You'll soon see that's one of my universal kitchen philosophies.) Would love to hear what you come up with.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Wine 101

Wine is one of the things that best sums up my philosophy of life. It appeals to all the senses, can create wonderful memories, and can really be quite simple to enjoy. We've heard too many stories about wine snobs...it's not rocket science. If I can do it, so can you.

If you take the time to truly experience a glass of wine, you have to use all your senses. First, you see it. Hold it against something white and notice the color. It's not just red or white; notice that it's the color of a blackberry or a peach or your sister's blond hair. Swirl it around and see how it clings to the glass. Does it cascade down quickly or slowly drip its way back down the glass?

Next, smell. Stick your nose way down in the glass and breathe in. What does it remind you of? Grass? Pineapple? Leather? Plum? (And, yes, those are all quite acceptable terms to use.)

Now we're ready to taste. Take a sip and let it touch every corner of your mouth. Different parts of our mouths taste different things (salty, sour, etc.) and to take it all in, you'll need it to let the wine coat all the way around. Think about what you're tasting. Strawberry? Toast? Melon? Cinnamon? What? Like the aroma, put in terms YOU understand...not what you think some master sommelier or snooty wine snob would use. If it tastes like grape jam to you, fine. If it smells like buttered popcorn, OK too.

The important thing is, as you sense things in the wine, to develop a vocabulary that works for you. You need to determine what you like and why you like it. And it never hurts to write it down. On a note card, jot down the name of the wine and what you smell and taste. It will help you to remember and hone your instincts. Then, as you broaden your horizons and try new wines, you have a way to talk about it to folks at the wine store or your waiter at the restaurant. I once said that I wanted a "grassy" white wine, and was introduced to a New Zealand sauvignon blanc that is one of my favorite house wines.

Of course, as you sip, , in addition to taste, you'll also feel the wine's texture. I really like the way master sommelier Andrea Immer Robinson describes it. Is it skim milk or heavy cream? Smooth satin or plush velvet? Pay attention. To be a true wino, you have to experience it all. later, as you start trying to pair wines with certain foods, this is a crucial component.

Then, there's the sound. The sound your glass makes as you toast a friend, partner, or family members. I am proud to have taught "Cheers" to my youngest niece and nephew before they were two. It started with sippy cups and I look forward to clinking glasses with them long into the future.

So, that's the Wine 101 lesson for today. EXPERIENCE the wine. (How very Zen.) If you pay attention (and we don't often pay nearly enough attention to many of the sensory things around us), you'll start to develop a vocabulary of wine that describes to yourself and others what you like and don't like. Once you've developed the basics of that, you're ready to apply it to new, more adventurous wine experiences. Try it with your next glass (or bottle!) of wine. In a week or so, I'll talk more about how you can take that vocabulary and start to appreciate things in wine you never thought you would.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

Make it simple. Call take-out!

Yes, I believe life should be beautiful. But achieving that shouldn't create more work...and it shouldn't put us in competition with ourselves or the legions of Martha Stewart wannabes out there. I think there are many things we can do to enhance our lives and give us pleasure; many of them take a bit of effort and time. But I am a firm believer in shortcuts and look for them at every opportunity. The world is full of products and services that can give us more time to sit back and enjoy the lives we've created for ourselves.

I was reminded of this the other day in a conversation with a colleague. She was telling me about International Family Day at her daughter's school, and knowing my interest in cooking, she asked me if I had a good recipe for egg rolls. I asked her (probably not delicately enough) why the heck she would even consider MAKING egg rolls when there were so many places out there that she could buy them.

It didn't take long for me to convince her that her daughter would not feel neglected or end up emotionally scarred if she bought some really good fresh egg rolls from a quality Chinese restaurant with folks who knew what they were doing. I even referred her to the place that I think prepares the freshest best Chinese food in the Dallas area--Cathy's Wok on Frankford off the Tollway. A couple of days later, she reported that the Cathy's wonderful egg rolls were a big hit.

Now, I'm not afraid of a challenge, especially a culinary one. I have taught myself to make fresh pasta and have served wonderful hand-made ravioli on several occasions. It's a feat to be proud of, but it takes hours, a lot of equipment, and I always end up with a huge mess in the kitchen. Certainly, I'll keep it in my repertoire for special occasions, but for an everyday meal, I will stop by a specialty pasta place...or even my grocery's refrigerated section... on the way home from work and buy THEIR ravioli.

That's a hallmark of how I live my life and make it simpler. If someone else can cook something better and easier than me, why not take advantage of that? So, I have comparison shopped and have my favorite Thai food spot, a go-to Chinese food place that delivers, even a neighborhood Italian restaurant I call when I have a hankering for their sinful homemade fettucine alfredo.

If you look around, you'll discover the same opportunities in your neighborhood...and if you're lucky, you might even have a taco stand or Greek restaurant around the corner. Check them out. If they meet your approval and budget, put them on speed dial, and don't be afraid or ashamed to use them. It will give you much more time to sit and enjoy an extra glass of wine. Perhaps best of all, there will be far fewer dishes to wash!

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Harvest on Your Table

I'm a big fan of farmer's markets. Although there are many big "gourmet" grocery stores around town, the market is the best place to find wonderfully fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables. And I happen to like the idea of continuing to support the family farm as a way of life. (Isn't it sad that everything gets bigger and bigger and more and more corporate these days?) So, during the spring, summer and into the fall, I'm at the Dallas Farmer's Market once a week. I take a twenty and end up buying WAAAAY more stuff than we can get through in seven days. And I'm a discerning consumer...I have my favorite place to buy tomatoes, the booth with the sweetest peaches and know where to find the farmer who trucks in freshly-hulled black-eyed peas.

So, get thee to the market...whatever one is close to you. Make sure you buy from a real farmer-rather than a produce dealer who buys their stuff from far away and ships it in-and concentrate on things that grow best locally. You won't regret it.

Here's a recipe I adapted from Gourmet magazine to take advantage of the fact that corn and tomatoes are two of the best things to buy here locally in Dallas during this time of year.

Corn and Tomato Gratin

4 medium tomatoes, sliced in 1/2 inch slices
6 ears corn
1 1/2 cups milk (1% worked fine for me)
2 cups bread crumbs (You can make in blender or food processor from day-old country bread or baguette...or just use bread crumbs you buy at grocery store.)
1/2 chopped fresh basil (or substitute 2 T Italian herb blend...or whatever dried green herbs you have on hand)
1/2 cup grated parmesan (Under NO circumstances can you use that stuff that comes from a green can. Get the real thing...you can buy it pre-grated at any big grocery.)
1/2 stick butter, melted

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  • Bring corn, milk, and a pinch of salt to a simmer in a sauce pan over high heat. Reduce heat and cook until corn is tender, about 5 minutes.

  • Toss together bread crumbs, basil (or herbs), cheese, melted butter, pinch of salt and a touch of black pepper in a medium bowl.

  • To assemble gratin, put layer of tomato slices in bottom of square baking dish. Cover evenly with one third of bread crumb mixture and then half of corn.

  • Repeat layer with third of tomatoes, another third of bread crumbs and rest of corn.

  • Top with remaining tomatoes and bread crumbs.

  • Bake uncovered for 40-45 minutes.

  • Cool 15 minutes before serving.

Add a grilled chicken breast on the side and you have a meal to remember.

Wine Pairing: With this, we had one of our "house wines," the Columbia Crest Two Vines Chardonnay. Chardonnay is always a good bet with corn and the bread crumbs help to bring out a bit of toastiness. To top it off, the zing of citrus in the wine accentuates the sweetness of the tomatoes.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Fluttering Migration

I'm really kind of a butterfly nerd. So, this is a great time of year for me...the time here in Texas when the thousands of monarch butterflies headed south for Mexico come through this area. The story of the migration itself is amazing (as covered in a New York Times article last week); ALL of the monarchs in North America head south as the temperature gets close to 60 degrees--and they're all headed for the SAME spot in central Mexico.

So, about this time here in Dallas, if you see a monarch, they are invariably headed south. At times, you can spot a loner forging its own path to its winter hideaway. Other times, you can see hundreds, if not thousands, at once. Last year about this time, I made a trip to Abilene and was stunned at the number of monarchs I saw crossing the highway as I travelled west. Several years ago, my office mates and I marveled at the river of butterflies travelling south down a main Dallas street outside our windows. It was almost as if they were using our human traffic lanes for their own purposes.

Of course, here at home, I feel obligated to provide them a snack for their long journey. Throughout our backyard, we have planted a variety of things to serve not only the travelling monarchs who may need a rest stop, but also the winged things that stay in the area all summer long.

It's really easy to do. There are a wealth of lists out there of favorite butterfly plants. The thing to remember is you need to plant two kinds of food. Nectar plants for adult butterflies and host plants for the caterpillars. If you plant some of both, you're sure to have visitors throughout the warm months.

Easy nectar plants here in Dallas are coneflowers and lantana. Add pentas, asters and Gregg's mist--plants that bloom in the fall--and you'll have butterflies at your buffet every day.

The host plants are also easy...and sometimes do more to attract butterflies than the nectar plants do. Momma butterflies worry about their young as much as others out in nature, and they're grateful to find the perfect meal for their soon-to-hatch eggs. What's interesting is that not every caterpillar eats every plant; they are very specific to only a few (or even just one) plant. I've had the best luck with passionflower vines and ornamental cabbage.

The passionvine attracts a brilliant orange butterfly called a frittilary. Our passion vine has grown into a tall hedge, and it's a treat to see three or four of them flashing in the sun as they flutter around and lay their eggs. I've also had success with the ornamental cabbages you see so commonly planted here in Dallas in the winter. I stick a couple on pots on the back driveway and keep them going until the cabbage white butterflies can find them in the spring.

Of course, the trade off is you're planting food. So, if you have success in atrracting the mother, her ravenous babies are going to munch the heck out of your plants. So, put your butterfly garden in a place that you don't mind letting things get a little straggly.

It really pays off. There is something beautiful--and almost spiritual--about watching a butterfly swoop in for a drink of nectar, and especially in watching a caterpillar form its chrysalis and then emerge and unfurl it's wings several days later.

So, try it for yourself. Go to your local nursery and grab a couple of butterfly plants. (The Texas Discovery Garden at Fair Park here in Dallas is a great place to see these plants in action.) Plant them--even just in pots--and watch the magic begin. A great way to make your life more beautiful.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Pauline's Chili

So, despite the fact that it's October, it's still a little too warm here in Dallas (94 today) to think too much about typical autumn fare like hearty stews and soups. However, when your spouse comes home and informs you about the office chili cook-off, you reach into the handy file for a tried and true recipe that you know you can count on. This is a straight-ahead ground beef chili that is really easy to make. Unfortunately, in this particular contest, it lost out in the judging to some kind of newfangled venison concoction...but not surprisingly the crock pot was scraped clean when lunch was over. Thanks to my grandmother's Tulsa friend Pauline for this family tradition. Hope you'll make it one of yours.

Pauline's Chili

2 T olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced3 lbs ground chuck
2 pieces bread ( I use Pepperidge Farm just because it's what Grandmother always had around.)
2 cans tomato sauce
1/4 to 3/4 cup chili powder (your favorite blend that includes cumin and garlic) to taste (Start with less and add more if you want more heat.)
2 cans kidney beans, drained.

Saute the onions and garlic for 2-3 minutes in olive oil. Add the ground chuck and brown completely. ( I use a metal spatula to chop the meat into small pieces as it browns.)

In a food processor or blender, blend together bread and tomato sauce and add to meat mixture. Stir in chili powder and kidney beans. Simmer for 1 hour.

I can't eat a bowl of this chili without Fritos and some grated cheese. You could also add chopped onion and even get exotic with sour cream or chopped cilantro.

Make sure and save your leftovers in fridge or freezer. It's even better after it's had a chance to sit a while.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pork Parmesan

I'm always thrilled when I can come up with a new delicious meal that doesn't take much work. And that takes advantage of things I have hanging around in the freezer and pantry. Last night was one of those serendipitous occasions. Grabbed a couple of boneless pork loin chops out of the freezer (I'm a sucker for sales and buy a lot and then package a dinner's worth in individual Ziplocs in the freezer. Makes figuring out what to cook a whole lot easier.) and wondered what I could do with them besides throw them on the grill.

Luck would have it that I had some pasta sauce and breadcrumbs in the pantry and a couple slices Mozzarella cheese in the fridge. So, here's what I came up with. Hope you'll try it too.

Makes 2 servings.

2 boneless pork loin chops (about 3/4 inch thick)
1 egg, beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs (store bought are just fine)
2 T olive oil
2 slices Mozarella cheese
2 cups of your favorite tomato or pasta sauce*

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Dip the chops in the beaten egg and dredge in breadcrumbs. (I like to press the breadcrumbs into chops a bit so there's plenty of coating to get crusty.) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in an ovenproof skillet and add chops. Brown on each side about one minute (they'll be nice and golden), then transfer skillet to oven. Bake for 10-12 minutes, then remove to stovetop.

Place one slice Mozzarella cheese on each pork chop and smother in tomato sauce. Return the skillet to the oven and bake an additional 10 minutes until tomato sauce is hot and bubbly.

It's great with a salad, maybe a side of pasta and garlic bread. And uncork your favorite Italian wine. We had it with a Nebbiolo (rustic Italian varietal) from a great California winery called Viansa. More on them later.


* I took advantage of a surplus of five or six ripe tomatoes from the farmer's market to make my own sauce. Peeled and chopped the tomatoes. Sauteed some garlic and onion in a little olive oil. Added the tomatoes and let it all reduce and dissolve down to a splendid mess. Added some bottled Italian seasoning mix and....voila! Made a nice fresh addition to this recipe, but next time, I certainly wouldn't frown upon using Prego, Ragu, or {insert your favorite brand sauce here}.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Paging Tom Collins

How many of you out there drink gin? Raise your hand. OK...now keep your hands up if you drink gin in something other than the ubiquitous gin and tonic. For the fifteen of you with your hands still up...congratulations. (And for the three of you who actually drink gin martinis. more power to you. You're a better man (or woman) than I am. Talk about putting hair on your chest!)

For the rest of you tonic-stuck gin-lovers, let's expand your repertoire. A summery drink that I discovered this year capitalizes on the great botanical flavor of gin, but combines it with sweetness and a little fizz to make it sippable on even a warmish Texas evening.

Here's the standard recipe:
2 ounces gin (For this drink, I prefer Bombay Sapphire. More later on the OTHER gins I keep on hand.)
1 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup (Equal parts water and sugar heated in microwave or on stove until dissolved. You'll want to keep this in an recycled bottle or jar in your refrigerator. Expands your cocktail possibilities exponentially.)
3 ounces chilled club soda.
Pour all into ice-filled collins glass (tall and chimney shaped).
Traditional garnishes are a lemon slice and maraschino cherry.

It's basically sparkling lemonade with a gin kicker. Cheers!

P.S. The adventurous among you should throw a rosemary sprig in your simple syrup as it cools, then remove before you store. The extra herbiness of the simple syrup will add a new dimension to your Tom...or should I say Rosemary...Collins.

Life Should Be Beautful...Blah...Blah...Blah

So, what the heck do I mean by the title of this blog? Well, quite frankly, I mean what it says in the most literal sense. The life you create for yourself (and I believe we DO create our own lives) should appeal to our senses. Should create memories. Should make us feel better.

Still too esoteric for you? Let me make it real.

I am writing this as I sit outside on our backyard deck. I am sipping a fizzy and tangy Tom Collins gin cocktail in a really cool "optic" collins glass from a set of sixteen that I found at an estate sale for a buck apiece. When the breeze blows, I can hear the windchimes hanging in the live oak tree and catch a sniff of the night jasmine that's in the pot six feet away. The stone water fountain is splashing away and serenely drowning out any traffic noise that might slip into my idyllic world. Oh, and the hackberry queen butterflies are doing their nightly fluttery mating dance in the patch of setting sun. Pretty soon I'll head inside to spend about thirty minutes making dinner which I'll pair with a great bottle of wine--which cost me under $12.

Now, THAT's beautiful.

The opportunity to relax in an enviroment that stimulates the senses and reenergizes me for whatever I have to face tomorrow. And all accomplished without a whole lot of money or effort. Or even know-how for that matter. And that's what I hope to help you discover. Stay tuned and I'll make it even more literal.