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Last week, a two-for-one coupon for a half day of touring, picking grapes, stomping grapes, wine tasting, and dining at Messina Hof, a vineyard and winery in Bryan, Texas, appeared in my Google Reader.  Hmmm.  Totally fun or totally lame?  I sheepishly emailed J to test the waters.  When he responded enthusiastically, I jumped on the deal.  And you know what?  It was really fun!

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Our day began indoors with a little history and geography lesson.  Did you know that prior to prohibition, Missouri was the number one wine producing state in the U.S.?  California was number five!  But because California maintained their vineyards through prohibition, they emerged as number one after the ban was lifted.  Here in Texas, vineyards were converted to more profitable crops during the same time period.  Now, however, we have 170 wineries in Texas, and with the local foods movement, they just might have a chance.  More and more restaurants are getting on board with serving local wines.  In fact, a contingent from Morton’s was there with us this weekend, and they seemed very impressed by Messina Hof’s port.

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I was also shocked to learn that, broadly speaking, Texas is too cold, rather than too hot, for many grapes.  Who would’ve guessed?  As far south as we are in the areas surrounding Houston, though, reds do quite well, and Messina Hof’s signature wine is their port. Traditionally, port is made by adding brandy to red wine to increase its alcohol level.  This was originally done to preserve wine being shipped from Portugal to England during the Revolutionary War when England and France were at odds.  The higher alcohol levels helped to preserve the wine.  But adding brandy to wine creates a sharp taste that can take years to mellow.  (This is all according to what we learned on Sunday.  I don’t know a thing about wine myself.)  Messina Hof decided to create their own port made without bourbon.  Instead, they use a painstaking, excruciatingly long and precise fermentation method to produce the same alocholic content (18% to 22%) as traditional port but without the sharp taste.  They were the first people in the world to do this, and they claim that their port tastes as great after only 1 year of aging as traditional ports taste after 7 years of aging.  It seems the experts agree, as they have received numerous international awards for this wine.

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After the lectures, the owners led us in a boisterous round of “Pick, Pick, Pick Your Grapes” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” before sending us out to ferret out the gorgeous, dark clusters nestled in the vines.  Tragically, I started reacting to the grape leaves and broke out in a rash all over one of my legs.  I quickly washed my hands and attempted to use gloves, but my forearms were still exposed, and eventually I gave up.  But not before I got a few good ones:

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My nutty husband had a good time among the leaves too:

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Sometimes I’m not sure whether to laugh or to hide my face in shame.  Mostly I laugh.  I’m not sure about our future children, though.  How will they cope?

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(You can’t really see it in the photo, but J and are are facing off with our grape cutting knives.)

A contest later pitted me against my dear friend Susan in what I thought was a grape cluster contest, but it actually turned out to be a talent contest:

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I didn’t stand a chance.  She danced a jig, people.  A jig.  I lamely said “Mi chiamo Alison.”  Sigh.

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I didn’t get any shots of us stomping the grapes (channeling Lucille Ball), but here’s a peek at our purple feet afterwards:

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After a wine tasting — with copious tips on visual examination, aeration technique, puckering, etc — we devoured a fabulous lunch of cold cuts, port cheese, salad with garlic-port dressing, sausages marinated in crushed grapes, chicken, hummus, pita chips, and vegetables.  The folks around me also tucked into some amazing cakes while I looked on forlornly.

If you live in Texas, I highly recommend visiting Messina Hof.  Harvest season isn’t over yet, so if you want try everything we did, just visit their website for dates and pricing.  They also boast a restaurant and a beautiful bed and breakfast crammed with antiques (some as old as the 15th century).  Go Texan!

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember my anticipation as I counted down the days to Valentine’s this past February.  I bought my husband a pile of gifts and could hardly stand the tension with them sitting wrapped on the table for what seemed like forever.

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Do you know that feeling of finding the perfect gift for someone you adore?  One they aren’t expecting?  One they couldn’t guess even if they tried for weeks?  It’s thrilling and excruciating at the same time.  I begged J to open them early.  He refused, of course, but his reaction was worth the wait.

Perhaps not many husbands would ooh and aah over a new lunchbox, but J did.  He loves taking his lunch to work.  It’s healthier than buying a lunch, it saves us a ton of money, and I also think that it’s a way he feels loved and cared for.  So he was tickled pink to discover that I bought him an Americanized bento box called the Laptop Lunch.

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I’m not sure why he felt compelled to deface his lunchbox with all of those stickers, but — alas! — he did, and sometimes we need to allow our husbands such childish expressions.  Sigh.  (I suppose it’s no secret now where he went to school and where he works.  🙂

Have you heard of bento?  According to Biggie, the author of the wildly popular bento blog, Lunch in a Box,

A Bento lunch is a compact, balanced, visually appealing meal packed in a box. Historically, it’s a Japanese box lunch, similar in concept to the Indian tiffin, the Korean dosirak, or the Filipino baon lunch. In Japanese, “bento” or “obento” refers to the packed meal, and “bento-bako” refers to the bento box itself. See the Wikipedia entry on bento for more details.

The Laptop Lunch contains multiple compartments that keep all of your food separated and even houses utensils.  I call it Americanized for a few reasons.  First, it’s bigger than most Japanese bento boxes.  Second, it’s made in America and contains no BPA, lead, or the other scary things that are coming out of China these days.  Finally, it doesn’t have a Japanese look, though, frankly, I’m a little relieved about that.  The largest authentic Japanese bento box I found online sported the slogan “Pleasure Supply” on top.  Yes, really.  I’m not going to go there, but suffice it to say I thought we might be asking for trouble if J actually toted something like that to work.

Here’s the inside of the Laptop Lunch box:

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Unfortunately, this one of the less visually appealing lunches I’ve packed for him, but I happened to have the camera handy this time.  As you can see, I was able to pack some leftover braised lamb and natural chicken sausage, bell peppers, cucumbers, and potatoes.  The fork and knife are tucked into the slot on the right-hand side.  Because the man burns through so many calories, he also had a little baggie of nuts to go with this meal.

Why I Love the Bento Concept:

  • Bento boxes reduce waste.  No more zippie bags or disposable tupperware!
  • It encourages healthy choices.  The food we make at home is far healthier than almost anything you can buy at a lunch spot.
  • Bento boxes simplify what you carry.  Because I avoided zippie bags, J used to juggle a slew of little glass Pyrex containers on his way to and from work.  Don’t get me wrong; I love my Pyrex, but bento allows me to put it all in one box without all the foods touching each other.
  • No breakage.  Again, better than the Pyrex.
  • It saves money.  Although the boxes are a moderate investment up front (e.g., approximately $23 for the Laptop Lunch), the ability to pack a good, healthy lunch quickly and efficiently every day adds up to major savings over time.
  • I love the idea of making lunch visually appealing.  I think all of our senses are important in our experience of food.  If you want to go the extra mile in this department, there are lots and lots of guides and gadgets out there for making everything from themed lunch boxes to fashioning crabs and octopus out of sausages or piglets out of rice (to see more examples of elaborate bentos, go to Google Images and search for “bento”).  That’s not how I want to spen my time, but I can certainly appreciate those who pour their creativity into their children’s lunches.  I prefer the appeal of different colored fruits and veggies.
  • Compact.  J puts his lunch in the fridge when he gets to work, and taking up less space is definitely desirable.  This is all on top of making it easier for him to tote to and from the office.
  • I find it motivating.  I want to pack lunches for J now.  It’s just plain fun!

Pros of the Laptop Lunch:

  • Made in the USA
  • As safe as plastic can get
  • High quality construction (the plastic is thick and sturdy)
  • Fun to look at, though I do wonder that J never batted an eyelash over the bright purple exterior!  All the fun colors could be a big plus for enticing children to eat healthy lunches.  (By the way, other colors are available at http://www.laptoplunches.com)
  • The size is perfect for older children, women, and men with smaller appetites.  This does depend on what you put in the box, of course.  We try to go heavy on the veggies, and they take up a lot of room without providing many calories.  The picture I showed above has a lot fewer vegetables than we try to eat at each meal, which bothers me.  If your family goes mostly meatless or likes a lot of starches, this size box might be  just right even for dad.  That’s just not how it works in our home.

Cons of the Laptop Lunch:

  • All the tiny compartments can be super annoying to clean all the time.  I highly recommend buying a second set of “innards.”  I caught a sale and was able to do this.  It helps a lot!
  • Too small for really big appetites.  J stands 6’5″ tall, has a naturally high metabolism, and works out on top of it all.  He burns through a lot of calories.  Plus, we like to eat our biggest meals at lunch time, so the Laptop Lunch doesn’t really suit his needs.  He always has to take lots of snacks with him when he uses this box.

Overall, I highly recommend Laptop Lunch boxes.  They are safe, well-constructed, and well-designed.  My only real complaint is the availability of only one size.  I’d love a larger one for my husband, but this size probably works beautifully for most people.

I have since bought something that suits J’s needs even better, so I’ll share about that next time.

Definitely check out the Lunch in a Box blog if you want to learn more about all of this.  I find it all quite fascinating, though I’m happy to enjoy bento at far less sophisticated (and time-consuming!) level.

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Well, this is about as anti-climactic as news gets, but that $50 Craigslist freezer does, indeed, work — and beautifully at that.  Sixteen half gallons of raw goats’ milk from Miabella Farm line the top shelf, cooked quinoa in hubby-sized portions waves from the door, and I’m chewing my lower lip over the exact composition of the fifty pound grass-fed beef and lamb order I’m about to place with Paidom Meats to fill up the bottom of the freezer.  What next?  I must say, life with a deep freeze suits me just fine.

On another note entirely, here’s a quick and easy recipe that I’m totally digging right now.  I love the lemony zing, and basil always seems just right in the summer.  It’s also a great way to use up the summer squash spilling over the farmers’ market stands — an annual dilemma for me (I wrote a whole post on the subject here).  Costco’s frozen wild-caught salmon filets keep the dish reasonably priced.  I eat it alone or with hemp seeds because my body still doesn’t love grains, but J enjoys it over quinoa or brown rice.  If you keep individual-size portions of cooked quinoa or rice in the freezer, this dish becomes a one pot meal.  Nice!

Baked Lemon-Basil-Garlic Salmon and Vegetables

4 pieces of salmon filet (4 to 6 oz each)
2 large zucchini, shredded (yellow summer squash would work too)
4 medium-large carrots, shredded

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (if your lemons have a dull flavor, you’ll need more juice)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine (e.g., chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, not riesling or zinfandel)
10 medium cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon dried basil or 3 tablespoons fresh basil
sea salt
freshly-ground black pepper (I like to pepper pretty generously)

Preheat oven to 450.

Spray a 9×13 glass baking dish with olive oil and strew shredded zucchini and carrots in it.  In a measuring glass, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, wine, basil, salt, and pepper.  Pour half the mixture over the vegetables and stir to combine.  Cover tightly with foil and bake for 12 minutes.

Remove the foil and lay the salmon filets on top of the vegetables.  Pour the rest of the lemon juice mixture over the fish and veggies.  Recover and bake for 10 to 15 more minutes, depending on how done you like your salmon.  Serve with hemp seeds, rice, quinoa, potatoes, or all by its sweet self.

Serves 4 to 6, depending on size of salmon filets and appetites.

*Note: If you don’t want to deal with adding the salmon later, you can put everything in the dish at the beginning and cook for 25 minutes.  The downside is that you’ll get overcooked fish.

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Craigslist Jackpot!

Oh boy, oh boy!  Guess what I found on Craigslist?  A 55″ tall, 4-year-old, upright, self-defrosting  Frigidaire freezer for only $50!  Based on the picture, I thought it was one of the really small ones that stands about 3 feet tall, so I was shocked when I arrived.  No, make that horrified.  I thought there was no way I could get it home, and I had driven over an hour to the person’s house (Houston is ridiculously big).  But with my muscle-man brother’s help and some creative rearranging, we squeezed it into the minivan with four of the five back seats still in place and about 30 collapses moving boxes piled all around.  Shocking.  We all stood around shaking our heads in disbelief for a minute before I remembered to pay the man.

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When I triumphantly arrived home, I found my husband collapsed on the bed, exhausted from a new plyometrics workout his trainer cooked up that morning.  He described his legs as “jelly-like.”  Uh oh.  With a little sweet-talking, however, he rallied, and we gamely wrestled the freezer up the staircase into our unit.  It was quite a perilous endeavor, and if our neighbor’s daughter had not shown up for a surprise visit and helped us wriggle the appliance around a tight corner, it would still be downstairs.

Now I’m just holding my breath, praying that it will still work after turning it on its back.  You aren’t supposed to do that to refrigerators or freezers, apparently, but it was the only way I could get it home.  The man told me that if I leave it upright for a full 24 hours before plugging it in, it should be okay.  My brother agreed, so I decided to risk it.  I thought it was worth it, given how much I could gain by having a freezer.  I’ll let you know what happens when we plug it in tonight!

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This review might seem redundant given yesterday’s overall (wildly favorable) Coconut Bliss review, but I thought it was worth following up on this particular flavor because, if you’re anything like me, the thought of mint and coconut together falls rather short of appealing.  Coconut and vanilla?  Sure.  Coconut and chocolate?  Gimme more!  But coconut and mint?  Blech.  I hastily skipped over this combo on our first two forays to the store.  The “on sale” sticker in front of it only inflamed my suspicion.

Serendipitously, however, my hubby suggested a sweet treat last night as a reward for…wait a minute, what was it a reward for?  Maybe I unpacked another box?  (There’s a reason I haven’t posted pictures of our new place.)  Or maybe it was a thinly veiled excuse to try more Coconut Bliss

Nah.

In any case, I agreed and promised to return from Whole Paycheck with a new flavor in tow.  With only two more to try, Mint Galactica and Naked Coconut, I decided to be bold and save a buck on the marked-down one.  How very frugal of me.

I’m so glad my tightwad leanings kicked in at that moment.  Mint Galactica turned out to be delightful!  It was everything mint chocolate chip ice cream should be — smooth and refreshing with real mint flavor, real rich chocolate, and none of the crazy-scary food colorings so often observed in this classic combo.  Only the tiniest tinge of coconut came through and only at the end.  It was very subtle.  I think only the seriously coconut-averse would dislike this ice cream. 

The only downside to this Coconut Bliss flavor?  It feels lighter than the others because the mint makes it so darn refreshing, so I wanted to eat more.  In other words, it didn’t “do me in” quite as quickly as the Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge.  Hm.  I think my hips will forgive me.

But will my fabulous new jeans?

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coconut bliss compressedBelieve it or not, I still have a pulse — and taste buds.  And those taste buds have been dancing with delight over a new discovery.  Have you heard about Coconut Bliss?  If you haven’t, allow me to share the good news.  It’s a dairy-free ice cream made from coconut milk that you can buy in your health food store, and it’s oh-so-heavenly.

See, I’m on a dairy-free kick for a bit to check for sensitivities, and I really wanted an ice cream fix the other day.  I needed ice cream.  While I’m all about making coconut ice cream at home (hats off to Kimifor that brilliant idea), my new itty-bitty freezer doesn’t provide sufficient room for my Kitchen Aid ice cream maker bowl.  Oh woe.  Until I procure an additional freezer, then, I have to buy my frozen treats in the store. 

Fortunately, I remembered seeing an ad for coconut ice cream and decided to check out Whole Foods’ offerings.  Sure enough, both Nada Moo and Coconut Blissgraced the shelves.  We nabbed Maple Pecan Nada Moo (giggle with me over their tag line: “When Having a Cow Is Out of the Question”) and Vanilla Island Coconut Bliss.  We needed one of each.  For research purposes, you see. 

The Nada Moo was yummy, yes, and far better than rice milk ice cream, but it didn’t come close to touching the profound excellence of Coconut Bliss.  CB was rich, velvety, full-flavored, sweetened perfectly, and just plain fabulous.  My mother-in-law said she might like it even better than regular ice cream.  We all agreed that we’d consider it on even footing with gourmet ice cream. 

Because I wanted to be absolutely sure about this recommendation before posting it, ahem, I bought another pint over the weekend, this time of Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge.  Studded with gorgeous chunks of hazelnuts and a thin fudgy ribbon, it was heaven on a spoon.  I’m so hooked.

So if you’re dairy-free, vegan, or if you’re merely an ice cream fanatic looking for the next thrill, you musttry this stuff.  It costs a pretty penny ($5 to $6 a pint), but it’s made with only organic and fair trade ingredients, and the dessert is so rich, a pint can satisfy four people.  Even once I get my home ice cream maker up and running, I’ll indulge in CB’s version regularly.  You simply can’t get that knock-your-socks-off texture at home.  Check out CB’s website for more info on their ingredients, story, and where to buy their products.

One last thought: The Vanilla Island flavor was awesome topped with fresh, local peaches.  Mmmm!

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Making dessert for special occasions always intimidates me, and the prospect of preparing a gluten-free one away from home at high altitude this Christmas really had me in a tizzy.  Last holiday season, I settled for a citrus fruit salad with ginger yogurt, which, while delicious, seasonal, and GF, didn’t exactly feel like Christmas dinner dessert.  So I jumped outside my comfort zone this year and attempted a GF, high-altitude version of my very favorite kind of cake, carrot cake.  Lo and behold, against all odds (including an ever growing baking aversion), it turned out fabulously–ultra moist, fragrant, and studded with pineapple, coconut, and walnuts.  Everyone loved it, and no one would have guessed it was gluten-free.  Really. 

My father-in-law even emailed me after the holidays to thank me for the cake:

I also wanted to thank you for my Christmas dessert. Your gluten-free-low-sugar-high-altitude-altogether-successful-experiment carrot cake was about 90% of the dessert that I ate this season, and the memory still causes my taste buds to turn toward the mountains and ask, “Is there any more of that cake left?” It pained me greatly to leave for Las Cruces knowing that there was still a slab of cake languishing in the kitchen, but I just couldn’t squeeze in a farewell bite around the breakfast casseroles.

What a nice man!  I’m sad to say that my turkey brother refused to try the cake because it contained cream cheese. 

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Hater. 

(I know.  He’s adorable, isn’t he?)

Anyway, I am so glad finally to have a go-to traditional dessert for special occasions that I can eat along with everyone else, without anyone feeling deprived. 

I won’t pretend this is health food or even a “nourishing” dessert.  It’s not.  White rice flour  (in the Pamela’s mix) and even–gasp!–powdered sugar in the frosting plunk it squarely in the occasional indulgence category.  But what’s life without a walk on the wild side?

Recipe Notes:

  • I made this with sweetened coconut, but you could probably replaced it with unsweetened and increase the Sucanat or Rapadura to compensate.  Doing so might affect the moisture level (sweetened coconut tends to be more moist than unsweetened), but it’s worth a shot.  I’ll do this myself next time I prepare the cake.
  • Since I baked this cake at 7,000 feet, I used less baking soda and baking powder.  So if you’re baking it close to sea level, you may want to add a bit more of those two ingredients.  Just don’t overdo it because Pamela’s already contains some.
  • I buy Pamela’s Ultimate Baking Mix at Whole Foods or HEB, so check in a health food store if you’re not sure where to start looking for it.  You may also purchase it in bulk through Amazon here.  I really love having Pamela’s around because it’s great for dredging chicken breasts or thickening a sauce.  It even produces a great cream gravy.  Score!
  • We all thought this tasted even better the second day, so it makes a great do-ahead dessert.  (No need to refrigerate it either.)

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Heavenly Gluten-Free Carrot Cake

Adapted from this recipe.

2 cups Pamela’s baking mix
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup Sucanat or Rapadura (unrefined sugar)
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
3 eggs (preferably free range)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups shredded carrots
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained

12 ounces cream cheese ( 1-1/2 packages), softened (Organic Valleys makes a real cultured variety)
6 tablespoons butter, softened (I like to use Organic Valleys or Kerrygold)
3 cups confectioners’ sugar

Cake

Mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.  In a separate bowl, mix sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla.  Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients.  Fold in carrots, coconut, walnuts, and pineapple.

Divide evenly between 2 greased 9-inch cake pans.  Bake in a preheated oven at 375 for 25 to 30 minutes, just until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool.  (At normal altitude, bake at 350 for 40 to 45 minutes.)

At this stage, I prefer to wrap my cakes and freeze them for 24 hours.  This makes them easier to frost and, in my opinion, moister.  This step is optional.  If you choose to follow it, allow the cakes to partially defrost before icing them.

Frosting

Cream softened butter and cream cheese until smooth in a mixer or with hand beaters.  Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar.

Frost cake, spreading 1/3 of the frosting between the cake layers.

Serve with love.  🙂

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