I was late to the Chip & Joanna Gaines “Fixer Upper” phenomenon. I happened to turn on HGTV one weekend last fall when I needed some background noise while I cleaned house and a Fixer Upper marathon was on. I ended up spending more time taking breaks to watch the show than I spent on cleaning. I was hooked on the transformations this sweet couple was able to bring about on some of the most hopeless looking homes. I started watching pretty much every time I found several episodes on in a row and soon found myself wanting to visit Waco, TX. Every time I’ve mentioned this desire I’ve had multiple people express the same feeling. I even lived the trip vicariously through one friend’s Facebook posts.
Making Old Traditions New Again July 7, 2014
With Jessie finally written, edited, formatted, and awaiting launch on July 20, I have started research on my next book in the Seasons of Faith series. A new character began tickling my brain a few weeks ago. He’s a blues singer and I know virtually nothing about blues music so to the library I went.
I didn’t know what exactly to look for, but managed to find a couple of books to get me started. When I was working on Jessie I found simple biographies in the children’s section on Neil Armstrong and Gus Grissom that provided a quick snapshot of information. I found a children’s book on blues and jazz on this trip to the library and again, it gave me a good basic understanding of the roots of both genres and ideas on where to go from there. The next book I started reading was by George Mitchell, Blow my Blues Away. Mitchell’s book is a collection of interviews with African-Americans in the Mississippi Delta region compiled during the 1960s.
I only had time to read one interview before I had to return the book to the library, but I was struck by the discussion of working in the fields, mostly cotton, as well as the home garden, which provided most of the family’s food. As I read, I thought about how the settlers of America had to rely on their home gardens until towns grew and markets could be established. Through the years home gardens continued to fall by the way side and many traditions were lost.
Over the past ten years or so there has been a movement to organic foods and more people are tying to grow their own vegetables. Large cities have started community gardens and those with tiny balconies as well as those with small yards are doing container gardening. Do a search on urban gardening and you will find pages of websites with educational videos and how-to articles.
My grandparents had a garden that grew a bit every year. Even when my grandfather’s health was failing, he still spent time in his garden, perhaps remembering his youth in the fields of North Carolina.I’ve been trying my hand at gardening the past couple of years. I don’t quite have the green thumb by grandparents did, but I am learning.
Last weekend I took some of my fresh tomatoes to a friends’ house and taught them how to make and can salsa. It made me feel closer to my roots, sharing an old practice that is being made new again.
Tart the New Year Off Right January 5, 2014
I’m in heaven with my ripe lemons. This evening my mom asked what we could have for dessert. All of the Christmas cake and pie was gone, there was no more ice cream, and the cookie jar is nearly empty. I told her not to worry, I have lemons and a new recipe to give a whirl. To the backyard I went, plucking three giant beauties.
I zested and juiced only one of these beasts, yielding 1/2 cup of juice and at least as much zest. I whisked together the few ingredients and filled my tartlet pans, in 15 minutes we would have dessert to feed my hard-working man. You too can have these lovely tarts in no time flat, just grab a few things: (more…)
The Slump July 1, 2013
I’m in a cooking slump. Nothing sounds appealing. Even the scrumptious dessert recipes I have been purusing can’t entice me into the kitchen. Aside from a dinner last week of green beans fresh my garden along with sauted zucchin, squash, onion, and pepers, I can barely stand being in the kitchen. The fact that all of the fresh veggies come in during the heat of summer, when turning on the stove turns the kitchen into a sauna is maddening.
I wonder if a cooking slump is like a writing slump. When I get in a writing slump, I struggle to get a handful of words on the page, but if I keep at it, eventually the wall comes down. Maybe if I spend time in the garden, trimming the dead leaves, removing the worms, pinching the flowers off the herbs, then I will find inspiration to cook again.
I suppose all I can do is soldier on, taking comfort in the promise of cooler weather in a few months, and a file of new recipes awaiting my return.
Not Quite Sun-Dried But… June 17, 2013
Last summer I made salsa with my bounty of Roma tomatoes. This year, the Romas aren’t doing so well. I went with one Roma and one Heirloom plant this year and it seems like there must be something wrong with the soil where I had the Roma because the Heirloom is giant and has tons of fruit. I have to fight the raccoons for the Heriloom tomatoes, even pulling them before they are fully ripe.
I do still have more than I can eat alone though, so I decided to try something new. I cut up all of the nice, ripe Romas I had in the fridge and laid them out on dehydrating racks. The book said it would take about 10 hours for them to be completely dry, but I had several stubborn slices that took closer to 18 hours. It’s amazing how a dozen or so tomatoes now fit into a quart size jar.
The process was incredibly easy, just dip the tomato in boiling water for a minute to loosen the skin, peel, slice and place on the rack. It probably took me 30 minutes to do this, then I plugged in the dehydrator and went on about my day. I will most likely do this again in a few days when more of my Heirlooms are ripe. Hopefully the larger slices will fill more jars. I’m looking forward to not exactly sun-dried, but dried none the less, tomatoes in my cooking the rest of the year.
Pasta, Flowers, and Family April 29, 2013
One of the pleasures of living in Florida and close to Walt Disney World, is popping over for an afternoon to enjoy the parks without the stress of waiting in line for rides or pushing to see everything we can. The Flower and Garden festival at Epcot has long been a favorite of mine, and with it wrapping up soon, I decided to treat my parents with a trip there this weekend. We learned about some new herbs to add to the garden (once I plant them and know more about using them I’ll post about that), admired the vibrant floral arrangements, and got some new ideas for our own landscapes. We also got to see Carter Ooosterhouse, from HGTV. He seemed like an odd fit for the Flower and Garen festival, but I’ve had a little crush on him since he worked on Trading Spaces and it was inside out of the sun. He shared some quick tips on home improvement and gave a tease about the new show he is working on putting together.
When it was time to get some food, we hoped to eat at Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria, but there was a long line. However, there was no wait at the Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar. Many of you know how much I love Frances Mayes’ books about her life in Italy. It’s been a couple of months since I finished reading Every Day in Tuscany and discovered a pasta called pici. Mayes’ description of this dish, along with her husband’s dedication to making his own pici, made me long to try it. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen it on a menu in any Italian restaurant here in Florida, and I’m not at the level of making my own pasta yet. Imagine my delight when we sat down in the Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar and saw pici on the menu. While I purused the rest of the menu, I knew the pici was the dish for me.
When my bowl arrived I could barely contain my excitement. Pici is round like spagetthi only thicker. You can practically taste all the carbs as you chew. The pasta was tossed with a lamb ragu and had a wonderful, rustic flavor. Since we were in a Wine Cellar I had to try a glass of wine. Red wines usually give me a headache and make me very sleepy, but with the lamb I thought red was the way to go so I tried the San Giuseppe Pinot Noir, which is more of a medium body, and went well with the pici and lamb. Happily it didn’t give me a headache, but it did make me sleepy. The desserts looked divine, but I was too full to try any. I plan to go back soon just for dessert.
If you are in the area, I encourage you to check out the Flower and Garden festival, which runs through May 19.
- A romantic holiday in Tuscany (visituscany.wordpress.com)
- The Top 20 Best Disney Restaurants, So Says the Fans! (cheapskateprincess.com)
Love is in the Air February 14, 2013
An excerpt from Winter’s End
When they reached a small alley with white lights crisscrossing overhead, Lizzie followed as Ian turned and they walked toward a small courtyard. Snow crunched under their feet, not having been cleared after yesterday’s shower. The narrow walls of the alley made it impossible to see anything in the courtyard other than a fountain, now silent, with icicles hanging from the three levels. When they emerged into the courtyard, Lizzie was surprised to find an elegant bistro at the far end. Topiaries stood on either side of the large plate glass window in the shape of hearts, with red silk roses woven into the greenery. Bistro Amore was written in black letters across the front door.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Ian said, stopping in front of the bistro.
“Famished actually,” Lizzie replied, stepping through the door he held open for her. Inside, the restaurant was dimly lit with hundreds of white, votive candles in small glass vases scattered on the tables and tall pillar candles perched in sconces along the walls, but only one table, in the center of the room, was set, ready for service.
“It doesn’t look like they are open yet,” Lizzie whispered, turning back to Ian.
“I don’t know, maybe you should ask the hostess.” Ian pointed.
Lizzie turned back around to find a young woman with long black hair, wearing a red velvet skirt that flowed to her ankles coupled with a white blouse standing before her, holding two menus.
“Good evening, Ms. Reynolds, Mr. Cavanaugh. Your table is ready for you.” The hostess led them to the center table and pulled the chair out for Lizzie, waiting until Ian was seated to hand out the menus. When she did, Lizzie gasped.
The front of the menu had Lizzie and Ian’s names on it, with the date, and a photo from their first date at the Samba Room.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Lizzie,” Ian said.
“But Valentine’s Day isn’t until Monday.” Lizzie gave him a confused look.
Ian reached across the table and took her hand. “I know you aren’t the biggest fan of this Hallmark holiday, but I wanted to do something special for you. I thought maybe if it wasn’t on the actual day, you wouldn’t think it was just part of the commercialism.”
Lizzie felt walls built up over years of disappointment crumble in her heart. She wrapped his hand in both of hers and gazed into his eyes, hoping he understood how much his words meant to her.
“Do you want to look at the menu?” Ian asked
“I don’t know if I can take my eyes off you,” Lizzie whispered.
“Maybe I should read it to you then. There aren’t many choices, though. To start, a butternut squash soup, followed by a Caesar salad, then maple glazed salmon, mashed potatoes, and asparagus, and for dessert, well, I’ll let that be a surprise.”
“My favorites,” Lizzie said, her heart racing.
“I’m happy to hear that,” Ian replied with a laugh.
“How did you do this?” Lizzie asked.
“I just made a reservation,” Ian replied innocently. ”Isn’t that something you do all day at work?”
Lizzie looked around the restaurant and laughed. “Hardly. I don’t think I have enough pull to get an entire restaurant for one guest.”
“I guess you just don’t know all the right people then.”
“Come on, you have to tell me.”
“I went to school with the owner, and I have to be honest, they will open to everyone else at eight. He agreed to open early for me as a favor.”
“Very impressive favor.”
“A high compliment coming from the queen of making the impossible happen,” Ian replied.
A waiter approached with a tray containing their soup and a bottle of wine. Lizzie leaned over the bowl of soup and breathed in the warm aroma, feeling any lingering chill in her bones fade away. The server poured a taste of wine into Ian’s glass. He swirled it around, gave it a good smell, swished a bit in his mouth, and gave his approval. When their glasses were filled, the waiter retreated. Ian raised his glass.
“A toast. To the first of many Valentine’s Days together.” They clinked their glasses and took a sip of the chilled Riesling.
Lizzie slurped at the hot soup, her taste buds going wild as the liquid slid over them. She closed her eyes, allowing her sense of taste to take over as she picked out the flavors of saffron, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
“You can never repeat this, but this soup is so good, I may have to suggest Chef Gustave visit your friend for some pointers.” Lizzie opened her eyes to find Ian watching her with pleasure.
“I’m glad you like it,” Ian said, dipping his own spoon into the creamy yellow soup.
The salad and then the main course were served, each bite seemingly better than the last. Lizzie cleaned each of her plates and sat back with a sigh of contentment as the waiter removed the empty dishes.
“I know you said there was dessert, but I don’t think I could eat another bite,” Lizzie said and dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin.
A look of disappointment clouded Ian’s face and Lizzie regretted her words.
“But, I could probably share with you,” she quickly added.
“I understand if you are too full. We can always have something later. The night is still young.” Ian pushed his chair back. “Wait here a minute.” He turned toward the kitchen and slipped through the door.
Lizzie rubbed her stomach as if that would speed along her digestion, and glanced around the restaurant. She could see twenty other tables, each covered in a black cloth. She could hear more voices from the kitchen as they prepared to open to the rest of their patrons. Without warning, the hostess appeared at Lizzie’s side.
“How was everything?” the hostess asked.
“It was perfect. Please send my compliments to the chef. I can’t remember a better meal.” Lizzie smiled and extended her hand. “Thank you all for making this such a memorable evening.”
“It has been our pleasure. Ian has been such a good friend to my husband. When he called us, we were happy to help him.”
“You and your husband are the owners?” Lizzie jumped up from her chair and pulled the woman into a hug that nearly knocked them both over. “This truly has been the best night of my life.”
The woman’s eyes sparkled. “Ian is always full of surprises.” With that, she faded into the darkness.
Lizzie sat down again and pulled her phone from her purse. As she was typing a text message to Emma, Ian returned and pulled her to her feet, wrapping her in his arms and holding her close to his chest. She rested her ear over his heart and listened to the steady thump.
“Where to next?” she murmured.
“That would ruin the surprise wouldn’t it? Let’s just see where our feet take us.” Ian led her out of the restaurant back to Main Street.
Tasting Tuscany January 25, 2013
When I was writing Summer Storms, I read Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes for inspiration and insight into the mind of someone taking on a massive renovation project. From 5,000 miles away, I fell in love with Tuscany, the people, and of course the food.
Last weekend I finished reading one of her follow up books, Every Day in Tuscany. I found it hard to get into the book at first as Mayes reintroduced the citizens of Cortona as she and her husband returned to their home, Bramasole. Slowly I realized her vignettes of returning after several months in the United States, settling back into Bramasole, and reuniting with beloved friends is gently returning the reader to Italy as well. I felt my mind slowing down each night as I curled up to read more of Mayes’ experiences over the ensuing eight months. No matter how crazy my day may have been, Every Day in Tuscany brought quiet and comfort.
In these books, eating is not just something that is done because it sustains life. It is an event in and of itself. The reader is brought right up to the dinner table when Mayes joins her neighbors for a holiday celebration or a simple evening of camaraderie. Both books are dog-eared, marking beautiful passages and tantalizing recipes. I long to cook for a houseful of guests, feasting around a long table under the stars on such delicacies as Duck Breast with Caramelized Spices & Artichokes and Il Falconiere Steamed Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Sauce.
When I closed the final page of Every Day in Tuscany I felt like a dear friend had gone away for a long vacation, not knowing when I would see her again, but I knew I would have her recipes to keep me company. Imagine my delight when I went online and found The Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Recipes from Our Italian Kitchen. More than 200 pages of recipes, photos, and glimpses into the lives of her Cortona friends. Of course I snapped it right up and now I’m anxiously anticipating its arrival. Oh the fun I will have this summer as my garden provides fresh produce for what I know will be delectable new adventures. Stay tuned for my walk through Tuscany.
- A Review, A Recipe: In Tuscany by Frances Mayes (chroniclingayearinbookswithfood.wordpress.com)
- IL Civettaio – Organic winemaker from the Maremma Tuscany (italianwineimporters.wordpress.com)
Gifts from the Heart January 23, 2013
As you may recall, I was in a baking frenzy the first couple weeks of December. I had toffee and five different types of cookies piling up in my kitchen, but there was one more recipe I couldn’t wait to try; Vanilla-Sour Cream Tea Bread. This recipe came to me in the November/December issue of Tea Time magazine.
On my weekly stroll through Target I had stumbled upon a package of disposable loaf pans. I dropped them in my cart certain the perfect recipe would come along to fill the pans. My loaf pans were larger than therecipe called for so I doubled the measurements and was able to make 6 loaves (7.5×3.25×2-inch).
When the tea bread was baked and cooler I packaged it up along with my cookies and toffee to give to coworkers, my hairdresser, and my masseuse. I loaded my treats into the car and delivered them around town and the office. Over the next several days my coworkers came to me and thanked me, telling me what their favorite treat had been. When I saw my hair dresser and masseuse this month, they both had stories of how they had shared the tea bread with their families on Christmas and received rave reviews, asking for the recipe. Talking with my masseuse last week about how much her guests had enjoyed the tea bread , I realized that I experienced as much pride in these compliments as I do when I receive compliments on my writing, and I felt the same jolt of happiness that I get when I’m in the kitchen mixing up a new treat.
Why did we get away from homemade gifts? Sure it can be time consuming, but in the long run it shows how much we care about those we are giving the gift to. Next time you are struggling to find the perfect gift, consider opening your pantry or flip through a cookbook. There are bountiful ideas out there for gifts from the heart.
Vanilla-Sour Cream Tea Bread
as seen in Tea Time Magazine
makes 4 mini-loaves
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup melted butter
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla, butter, and nut flavoring
- Preheat oven to 350
- Spray 4 mini (3×5-inch) loaf pans with nonstick spray with flour. Set aside
- In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, whisking well. Set aside
- In a small bowl, combine sour cream, melted butter, eggs, and vanilla, butter, and nut flavoring, stirring well. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until wet ingredients are incorporated. (Batter will be stiff.)
- Divide batter evenly among prepared pans, patting level using a spatula.
- Bake until light golden brown and a wooden pick inserted in centers comes out clean, 20-30 minutes.
- Remove from pans, and let cool completely on wire racks.
- Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or store in an airtight container for up to 2 days.
* I doubled the recipe and made 6 loaves (7.5×3.25×2-inch).
*A bit of lemon curd spread on a piece of bread is delicious