Cranberry relish on my table

In this season of holiday meals, of traditional foods, one of the debates that’s ongoing is over the delicate subject of cranberry sauce: do you have what you grew up with (for me it was the jellied sauce that pops out of the can, complete with the ringed indentions of said can) or do you go for something homemade?

To be honest, I have to have both…a nod to my past, and the sauce of my childhood. (I’m not sure fresh cranberries were even available in the market in my childhood years, so far did we live from the source.) And I love a berry-filled, sweet/tart version, simple and yet perfect to grace any table.

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe. Possibly that’s because I’ve been in the kitchen less in the past year than any time in my life.

But even I, living a couple of weeks here and there at a time, have to do some holiday prep. There are a few dishes I love, that are the essence of the winter holiday flavors for me.

One of these is the homemade cranberry relish that’s on the menu every Thanksgiving, and often at Christmas too. It’s so delicious and simple, and pairs beautifully with all sorts of savory dishes. But the important thing is that it tastes amazing. And it’s beautiful. And it’s easy, and keeps for weeks in the fridge. How perfect is that?

Baked Cranberry Nut Relish

  • 1 lb fresh whole cranberries, washed and drained
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 1/2 cups orange marmalade
  • Juice of one lemon

Combine cranberries and sugar in deep baking dish. Cover with foil and bake at 350° for one hour. Spread walnuts in a shallow pan and toast in oven during the last 10 minutes of baking time for cranberries, stirring walnuts a couple of times. Remove cranberries and walnuts from oven, combine in bowl with marmalade and lemon juice. You can serve warm or chilled. This will keep for several weeks in the fridge. Perfect for gift giving…fill jars and add the recipe for an easy and charming hostess gift or stocking stuffer.

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Foodies…and not

English: The logo of Food Network.My major TV indulgence is Food Network. Most of my TV time comes when we’re in Metlakatla. When Rob covers a weekend of call there, I use the time to catch up with online tasks, and usually have Food Network running in the background. I’ve learned a lot from programs over the years. But some are just painful to watch. The current episodes of the Worst Cooks in America are right up there. I mean, how can anyone be that bad in the kitchen? Really?

With all the websites, blogs, cookbooks, cooking shows etc., offering recipes and cooking how-to advice…to say nothing of friends and family who could mentor…is it really possible to be as clueless as these people are? I mean, get in the kitchen and try something…start banging around, learn by doing. There are YouTube videos that show how to cut veggies, how to bake, how to cook almost anything you can imagine. There’s literally an embarrassment of riches when it comes to resources for home cooks.

You could make that argument for a lot of things. But while I don’t have to know how to repair my plumbing or rebuild my car engine, I like to eat pretty regularly. That’s such a mystery to me…how could something as basic as food be unexplored?  I understand some people just aren’t fascinated with all things food (unlike me and most of the rest of the world). But even if it isn’t a consuming interest, everyone has to eat something. Wouldn’t it be better it the something was delicious?

Food games and adventures  for family and friends:

~Get to know a little more about your group’s food loves. Here are some questions to share around the table. Works best if you’re eating something delicious while you share! Work your way through the whole list, or pick just a couple of questions. I definitely recommend including the last one…always good to associate memory with food. You may be surprised by the responses.

  1. What is your favorite food?
  2. Favorite food/dish in a specific category (main dish, finger foods, comfort food, dessert, breakfast…whatever you want to choose)
  3. Favorite restaurant…fast food, local restaurants, chains, diners, etc…
  4. Favorite chef (well-known from TV or author, or someone you know in person)
  5. Who is your favorite home cook? In your family? Among your friends?
  6. What’s your favorite holiday food dish?
  7. Favorite grocery store food item (ice cream, cookies, chips, etc.)
  8. Favorite international cuisine?
  9. Worst thing you ever ate?
  10. Best thing you ever ate?
  11. Bonus question…best memory associated with food

~Family members cook!  Give each one in the family a night each week, or once a month (whatever works) to be the head chef.  Everyone else helps prep or clean up. Each person can showcase their favorite foods, type of cuisine, etc. Have breakfast for dinner, let a child experiment with flavors (that’s how my son invented cinnamon toast grilled ham and cheese…not a flavor combination I would repeat, but it was a learning experience for him); or choose dishes new to everyone to make and taste.

~Mystery food! Let everyone in your family choose a dish or ingredient or cooking method no one has tried. Try it! Have a mystery food dinner night once a month, or as often as you choose. Rotate through everyone’s choices, then start over. Have a prize for the food that is most unusual.

~Experiment with planting vegetables. If you have kids, lots of fun ahead with this! But even if you don’t, it’s great to learn a bit about gardening, and see what you can do, with or without a yard. No yard, no problem! Check out container gardening. Again, there’s a wealth of information and resources online.

~Check out CSAs…Community Supported Agriculture is another way to access fresh fruit, vegetables, and other items from local farmers and producers. Visit http://www.localharvest.org/csa/ to learn more.

~Visit your local Farmers’ Market. I love shopping at farmers’ markets and buying from local vendors showcasing their products. In addition to fresh produce, you can often find vendors selling breads, honey, cut flowers, herbal preparations, essential oils, simple breakfast or lunch fare, and a wide variety of crafts, jewelry. This is another wonderful way to support local agriculture and eat clean.

~Share the shopping! If you have kids at home, (and they’re old enough) have each one plan the shopping for the week, and participate in the actual marketing. Doing this will give them experience in budgeting, planning menus, checking food inventory, layout of markets, and familiarity with foods they may not know. There’s a lot of education waiting at the grocery!

~Have a cook-off event. I’ve seen this done with local restaurant chefs here in Ketchikan. Just copy your favorite food contest show…choose a set theme or have mystery ingredients; make it a one event evening or a multi-night contest. Have prizes, or do the whole thing just for the fun and glory of choosing a victor.

~Form a dinner / supper club. Make up the rules that work for the group. Meet once a month or once a quarter. Have the dinners revolve around seasons, or events: birthdays, sports, anything you choose. Each host can choose a menu, or put menus or types of cuisine in a dish and draw to see what each host will cook for the group. Or each dinner can be a joint effort, with everyone who attends bringing a portion of the planned menu; rotate the house for the event, and share the cooking duties.

~Plan a progressive dinner. These are retro, but so fun. Great for larger groups, but take some planning. If you’ve never done this, here’s how it works. You have a host for appetizers, a host for the main course, and a host for dessert. Or if you want to come up with more courses, add more hosts, but you need at least three. Guests move from house to house, (or venue to venue…doesn’t have to be hosted in a home setting). The host from each location moves with the group to the next stop, so everyone gets to enjoy the party. You can have an overall theme, or each course can stand alone. I think it’s best to have a theme, but do whatever works for the group. Decide on a budget for the event and have everyone chip in to cover expenses. Just another way to make food fun, and enjoy a night with family or friends. Go a step further and combine the food event with a fundraiser for your favorite charity, school program, youth activity, etc., Everyone wins!

Enjoy! And if you have variations…what food adventures do you share with family and friends?… I’d love to hear about them.

Colorado Maple Bran Muffins

So, Saturday morning needs something more than cold cereal or a yogurt. Some weekends that means pancakes or the Southern treat of grits and sausage. But today I’m falling back on an old reliable that combines comfort and just a wee nod to the healthy side of baking. I made bran muffins, a slightly adjusted variation of the classic recipe that can live in your fridge for several days, allowing you to produce a warm breakfast treat in a matter of minutes.

I used to make this one regularly for my kids. These muffins are one of my son’s favorites, always on the menu for those rare occasions when he has a chance to visit us in Alaska. Brings back good memories of chilly Colorado mornings and the aromas of coffee and maple in the kitchen. Delicious!

Colorado Maple Bran Muffins
 
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder + 1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups Kellogg’s All Bran Cereal
1 1/4 cup milk OR buttermilk (use whatever you have on hand)
1 egg
1/4 cup vegetable oil OR melted butter
1 tablespoon maple flavoring
1 cup raisins
 
OR

You can use Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal in this recipe instead of the All Bran Cereal and raisins…just add 3 cups of the Raisin Bran cereal in place of the 2 cups of All Bran and 1 cup of raisins.
 
 
Stir together flour, sugars, baking powder, soda, and salt.
 
In large mixing bowl, combine cereal and milk. Let stand about 5 minutes.
Add egg, oil OR butter, and mix well. 
Add flour mixture, stirring until ingredients are combined. Add raisins if using the All Bran/raisin combination. 

Ooey gooey batter

Ooey gooey batter

 
Spray muffin tin with cooking spray, or use cupcake papers. Spoon batter into pan and bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Serve warm with butter. YUM!
 
The batter will keep well in the fridge for several days. If muffin batter has been in fridge for a few days, add a little more baking powder and soda (about 1 teaspoon each) to help muffins rise when baked.

If you want to make this recipe more healthy, replace 1/4 cup up to 1/2 cup of the AP flour with wheat germ, flax seed or flax meal. You can also replace the butter or oil with applesauce or a ripe banana, and add nuts for some crunch factor. It’s a pretty forgiving recipe and can take almost any substitution you throw at it. But the basic version is tasty too. Just keep in mind if you mix it up, you’ll need to watch baking times closely and adjust if necessary.

Mmmmmm....

Mmmmmm….I see raisins peeking!

 

Enjoy!

Fresh picks

I’ve been on my own the past couple of weeks, back in Alaska to do a little work for income, and to have a little work done on the house. I’m focused on policies and grants for one clinic, and filling in for the medical staff coordinator at the local hospital. The variety keeps me on my toes, keeps me learning and productive.

On the home front, the house and deck were power washed and some of the paint was refreshed. With a house that’s almost 100 years old, there’s always some project in the works. The replacement glass for my cracked front window has arrived and I almost had that replaced yesterday. But no, the weather didn’t cooperate. We had a gale of a storm and had to postpone until June. My hedges and trees are all trimmed up, and I have a new lock on my fuel oil tank. So I’ve marked off a few of my to-dos.

But it’s not all been work. There’s been cooking too! Or at least some cooking, and some prep for future yumminess.

Last week I bought a king salmon, the first one of the season. Here’s that beauty:

Alaskan King

Alaskan King

Thank goodness it came without the head and tail and guts. I don’t need any of those, although I hear I’m really missing out by not making fish head soup. But someone else can enjoy that delicacy. I’ll just content myself with the non-head parts. I’m taking some of the fish I vacuum sealed and froze down to California for a little Memorial Day grilling. See, I know how to get ready to camp.🙂

Ready to freeze

Ready to freeze

I couldn’t resist trying my hand at smoking some of the fresh king. I borrowed a Little Chief smoker and researched a brine recipe. Here’s my finished product:

Smoked to perfection!

Smoked to perfection!

The smoked salmon makes a great dip. I can’t give exact amounts, but try blending smoked salmon and a block of cream cheese to a chunky paste in a food processor. Some people add onion or other seasonings, but I like just the salmon and cream cheese. Serve with water crackers or whatever dipper you like. Easy and delicious!

I made a quick pickled salad this week. You could use any firm vegetable. I used diced cucumber, cherry tomatoes (cut in half), diced red onion, and diced baby bell peppers. I made an oil and apple cider vinegar dressing and seasoned it with a little sugar and salt and pepper. Again, no measurements…just mix to taste. (You’ll want enough dressing to coat the veggies, but not so much that they’re swimming in it.) Chill in the fridge to give the veggies time to absorb the flavor of the dressing. It’s a cool and crunchy light lunch or dinner.

Healthy lunch!

Healthy lunch!

Beautiful and simple

Beautiful and simple

And last but not least, I harvested my rhubarb this week. Rhubarb is a late comer to my life. I discovered it about a decade ago and immediately fell in love with the tartness and the way it pairs so well with other flavors to make amazing desserts.

I started my rhubarb crop here in Ketchikan with one plant a friend gave me. This stuff is hardy. You plant it and forget about it. Two or three times each summer I have enormous leaves and stalks that demand attention. The rhubarb is planted behind the hedge in my front garden, and when I begin to see the leaves poking out above the hedge, I know it’s time to harvest. You can cut the plant down to the ground and it grows right back. Let me just say, here and now, this is my kind of gardening! Seems indestructible, impervious to weather, and I literally do nothing but cut it back a few times a year.

I should have made a photo of the plant, but I wasn’t in blog mode when I was in harvest mode, so you’ll have to google “rhubarb” if you want to see the the full glory. I’ve been told that rhubarb likes cooler climates, which is probably why I first met it in Colorado and renewed my acquaintance here in Alaska. My grandmothers, who grew most fruits and vegetables known to man, didn’t grow rhubarb, so I assume it would not do well in the heat of a Mississippi summer. Which explains why I missed out on this taste for so long.

The edible part of the plant is the stalk, which looks a lot like celery, except it is a deeper green and has shades of red and pink as well. You cut the stalks off and remove the large leaf that grows at the end of the stalk. Then you wash and dice. That’s it! You can use the fresh rhubarb to make all sorts of dishes. I see savory recipes and I’ve even tasted a couple. But I’ll admit, I just use it for desserts and sweets.

You can make rhubarb pie, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb jam. You typically see rhubarb paired with another fruit, and the classic choice is strawberries. Yes, yes, that’s a good flavor. But do yourself a favor. If you can get your hands on rhubarb, pair it with orange. Orange zest, orange marmalade, orange juice. Nothing. like. it.

Here’s my rhubarb journey this week:

From 1 (!) plant!

From 1 (!) plant!

 

You cut the long stems off the base of the plant and have these celery-like stalks. They’re even a little stringy like celery. The only thing I do is wash and chop. You’ll have different widths but honestly I can’t detect any difference in texture or flavor once the rhubarb is cooked down, so I use the small tender stalks as well as the monster wide ones.

Chopped!

Chopped!

I used a little for a sweet treat (reward for my two weeks of work!) and popped the rest into freezer bags. It’s the easiest thing to freeze. I just chop and bag. No need to blanch or prep in any other way.

Ready to go

Ready to go

And now, just to whet your appetite!

Dessert for two: (or just me🙂 )

Butter the bottom of a small baking dish. Spread a layer of chopped rhubarb and lightly sprinkle with brown sugar. I added a couple of teaspoons of orange marmalade, then topped the fruit with a crumb mixture. The crumb mixture is a combination of quick cook oatmeal, brown sugar, a pinch of salt, and a couple of tablespoons of butter. Spread the crumb mixture on top of the fruit and bake at 350, about 25 minutes, or until the crumb topping is lightly browned. Voila! Dessert, or snack, or whatever you need to call it to eat it as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Rhubarb and orange layer

Rhubarb and orange layer

Crumb topping

Crumb topping

All I need is ice cream!

All I need is ice cream!

If you want to mix in other goodness, add nuts or raisins. You can also do this with strawberries or apples instead of the marmalade. I just happen to like the orange, so that’s always my first choice to pair with rhubarb.

Happy start to the summer! And happy Memorial Day! Thank you to all the people who’ve given so much to freedom and our way of life. Remember them while you’re enjoying family and friends this weekend, and find a man or woman wearing the uniform to thank.

 

Sustainable diet: The Five and Two

So…I’m trying a new approach to eating. Notice I didn’t say “dieting.” I’ve been successful at dieting a few times in my life. But each time I’ve concentrated on losing weight by “dieting,” I’ve been frustrated. I think that was less tied to giving up foods I love, more about disliking the process. I like food and I like eating. I’m a strange creature who actually enjoys going to the grocery and doing the shopping. One of my abiding interests is reading and searching for recipes. I read cookbooks and food sites like some people read novels. The process of counting every bite, or weighing food, or ordering food from a nutrition company all seem to sap the joy right out of the experience. I believe food is far too important in every way to turn it into an irritant.

I’ve been thinking about synthesizing the rules of healthy eating, the joys of eating, and smart eating, and trying to create a sustainable plan to follow. Here’s what I’m doing:

I like fruits and veggies, and it’s easy to eat a lot of those throughout my week. It’s more difficult to give up breads, sweets, and the ooey-gooey. These I find particularly appealing. The truth is, I never met a carb I didn’t like. Seems unlikely I’ll change at this point. But I can limit, if I can’t stop. So I’m doing the smart thing Monday through Friday. High protein, low carb, no sweets. I’ve found a protein fruit drink I’m enjoying, and I’m learning new smoothie recipes. Salads are great. I haven’t given up my morning coffee, but I’ve been good about everything else.

But weekends are back to normal. I can enjoy a burger and fries, or homemade bread, or mashed potatoes with dinner, or whatever, topped off with a little sweet treat. The key is portion control, always my friend. Years ago I realized I could eat small amounts of a dish…half a sandwich, a small bowl of soup, small servings of entrees… and be satisfied. Part of it is a mind game, and the rest is will power. That’s the best tip I have for long term weight management. As long as you’re eating a reasonably balanced choice of foods, I honestly believe weight control is more about quantity than anything else. And no snacking between meals or late at night. Sorry, but eating several small meals a day doesn’t really work for me…it just keeps me focused on food if I’m eating something every couple of hours. After dinner dishes are done, the kitchen is closed for business.

So, to sum up:

  1. High protein, low carb Monday through Friday.
  2. Portion control at all times.
  3. Eat what you want on the weekend, but limit serving size.
  4. Be honest with yourself, don’t sneak treats or bend the rules if you’re eating out during the week.
  5. Work out during the week. Whatever you can do is better than doing nothing.
  6. Drink water, hot or cold unsweetened tea, and protein shakes to stay hydrated and satisfied.
  7. Eat fresh and homemade as much as possible…salads, fruits, and non-processed foods.

A great rule of thumb for avoiding processed foods…if you stick to buying foods that your grandmother would have recognized as food, you’ll be ok. Standard advice: shop the outer aisles of the grocery.

Cut sodas. If you do drink a soda, don’t choose diet. Better to have sugar than an artificial substance. I feel the same about butter and margarine. Don’t get me started on that topic: it’s butter or nothing in my kitchen.

I can do a “diet” that only lasts five days at a time. Then, just when I’m really craving chocolate, or dying to try a new recipe from Pinterest, I can give in to that temptation for a couple of days. Sweet! I don’t feel too deprived, and I tend to bake and cook less during the week anyway. The weekend is when I really get into the kitchen, when we go out to dinner, or have friends over. With this system, I don’t have to impose restrictions on myself or anyone else…everything is on the menu if it’s the weekend! All I need to know is the day of the week.

This approach is mostly about being careful and thoughtful, but not rigid. It is definitely not vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, or designed to address medical diet or nutrition issues, like diabetes. (That’s my disclaimer, by the way. No medical advice here, just some good old-fashioned food strategy.) One more suggestion, there’s a great free app that can help you manage your food choices. My Fitness Pal is a digital calorie counter and food diary. It can also track exercise. You can download the app for iPhone and Android phones and monitor your daily food choices and goals. Easy and no fees attached!

If you decide to try a five and two diet, let me know how it’s going. I joke sometimes that I’m going to do my “air and water” routine…heavy on the air, light on the water. But the truth is, I need just a wee bit more to chew on. I think this one will work for me. And in a few months, I’ll let you know how I’m doing. So far I’ve lost two pounds, don’t feel frustrated, and I’m optimistic that my willpower can hold out. Here’s hoping, anyway!

My brownie quest is DONE!

I’m a brownie lover…and who isn’t? Very few people can resist warm chocolate, gooey, dense, fudgey…well, there may be a few citrus lovers out there who rate tart higher than sweet, but I’ll ignore that for this post.

I have a few favorite recipes, each unique, and each fitting a specific kind of brownie need. After years of tasting, testing and searching, these are my top five:

  1. My newest discovery is so dense and fudge-like you could almost think you’re eating fudge. But you’re not. You’re eating heavenly Brown Butter Frosted Kahlua Brownies. This is a slight adaptation of the recipe I found on Pinterest. If you want to go chocolate all the way, substitute a good chocolate frosting for the brown butter shown here. I’ve only made this as given, but however you choose to frost, follow the directions for the brownie base closely. The instructions are a little fussy, but so worth it!  Check out Brownies with Brown Butter Frosting and get ready for the smiles all around.
  2. An old standby, this one is the perfect brownie to serve warm and gooey with ice cream. I usually bake this in a pie dish and serve wedges of it like a crustless pie. But this slice is just a brownie in another shape. One nice thing…you get all this delicious fudginess with baking cocoa as the only chocolate ingredient…no fancy imports required! Try Hershey’s Fudge Brownie Pie with a scoop of caramel ice-cream and a sprinkling of walnuts for comfort in a spoon.
  3. A crowd pleaser (used to be a hit with my kids’ youth group)…an oldie but a goodie: Texas Brownies. These are frosted, but a little more cake-like than fudgey. They whip up easily, frost beautifully, and the recipe makes a jelly roll pan full…perfect for a big party or summer picnic. Enjoy Texas Brownies when you want to feed a crowd, or have a really big craving.
  4. For a nod to banana bread, try these luscious and tender Banana Brownies. They are scrumptious! I could eat an embarrassing amount of these, warm and fragrant, right after they’re frosted. Enjoy Banana Brownie Bars and get a little fruit in your brownie serving. With some clever rationalizing, you could even convince yourself that these are healthy!
  5. And finally…I wasn’t really going to leave the citrus crowd high and dry. This recipe for lemon brownies (I know…should be a different term…yellowies?) gives you the perfect texture with all the goodness of sweet and tart. For a totally different take on the “brownie” experience, whip up a batch of Lemon Brownies.

My best brownie baking tip…Never, never, never over bake! And, unless you’re baking for a party, plan to make your treat when you have an easy and automatic way to share…take them in to your office or a school function, or share with a neighbor. My strategy when I bake: divide and enjoy. I satisfy my need to bake and taste, and I get the extras out the door. A win for everyone!

Miami

I started this blog as a vehicle to record random grace notes in my life, and as I observed these moments occurring around me. Some posts live up to that vision more than others. Recently, this has been more a travel journal, although a very sporadic one. And it has been, at times, a chronicle of how I/we (Rob and I) migrate toward a next home, and a redefined work life.

Today is another post on travel. But really, isn’t the best travel about grace notes? And the unexpected pleasures you find along the way? So I tell myself, I’m not really straying too far from my theme, right?

So, Miami. We chose to spend our last full week away from Alaska (heard from a friend there today…it is snowing!) in the south of Florida, partly because you can never get enough sun when you live in a rain forest, and partly to look a little closer at this region of the country. We’ve done the beach, lounged by the pool, sampled some local fare, and today we’re driving down to the Florida Keys. But that’s another post.

Miami in March is warm, actually in the perfect temperature range. Sunny and warm enough to be pleasant, but not too hot, and the humidity is about right. Most of the days have been clear, perfect for being out and about, whether meandering down one of the shopping/dining districts like Lincoln Road Mall or Ocean Drive, or strolling along the beach.

We’ve sampled some great food. Cuban food is everywhere, but this is a cosmopolitan city, so you can find great food of any cuisine you like. The local restaurants we’ve visited have been good, not necessarily expensive, but authentic. I Google “best…” and read reviews to see where to go for the best Cuban sandwich, burger, etc., in Miami. People – reviewers – are amazingly frank and generous in giving their opinions, sharing the good and bad. A plethora of restaurants along Ocean Drive have outdoor dining. You can also find an amazing variety on Lincoln Road Mall, everything from Italian to Sushi to pub grub. Eating outdoors is a particular pleasure in this season because it is warm. Not hot. Warm. And if the evening gets even the slightest bit chilly, the big outdoor patio warmers appear, and then it is warm again. Mmmmm, my favorite.

We’ve had the benefit of Google maps to help us navigate the city, so haven’t gotten too lost. The traffic has been good in the evenings, not so good during the day. This is a metropolis, after all, and a big one. The drive into Miami Beach from Doral, where we’re staying, is lengthy, up to an hour, depending on traffic. Driving over during the day, you get a beautiful view of the waterways and the huge skyscraper buildings that are iconic to downtown Miami.

The historic Art Deco section of town is amazing, with old buildings that have been lovingly preserved or restored to perfection. You can learn about celebrities of the past who used to stay in this hotel, or frequent this restaurant. There are restaurants and night spots, upscale stores and tourist traps, positioned randomly throughout the district. Imagine my surprise at seeing a “Duck Tour” bus yesterday (amphibious vehicles that take tourists around town and into the water.) Ketchikan has Duck Tours too. You walk down the streets of Miami Beach and see a mix of people, the ones who are obvious tourists, like us, and the “beautiful people,” the rich young residents of this area who typify the South Beach look. And there are the hawkers who are trying to persuade you to come in to their restaurant, shop their store, buy cigars. Yes, cigars. There are actually cigar girls, who stroll around with boxes of cigars for sell. Makes me think of old artwork I’ve seen or magazine ads that show “cigarette girls” from some long-ago era. But this is today, and they are selling cigars. We actually watched cigars being hand-rolled at a street shop. Very labor intensive.

Little straw fedora hats are in style here, for both men and women, and huge heels. I’m fearful for some of these women walking around on the heels I’ve seen. Now, I like a good heel as much as any short woman, and in my work environment, or any time I go out “dressed up,” I wear heels. Just part of the look. But I’m talking about a whole new animal here. These women are on stilts!

Clothing is all over the place. I see a lot of long (I mean floor length) knit dresses that are worn any time of day. On the other end of the spectrum, yesterday I saw a string bikini that gave new meaning to the word “string.” And prices of swim suits…I looked at a few that were in the $200 range…nothing special. I know Miami Beach is a high rent district, but still…there are a few stores in the area that haven’t heard of recession.

Well, if you visit in March, be prepared. You’ll want to reserve in advance (this is spring break season, you know). And if you’re driving, be prepared to park and walk for a while. We parked a few blocks away from the beach yesterday, but to really experience Ocean Drive, or the Art Deco district, or any of the other major downtown areas, you need to walk. Taking in the sights, sampling a little of this, a little of that…you can almost feel like you’re one of the “beautiful people.”

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Cruising

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We are cruising this week, experiencing the Eastern Caribbean from the ms Nieuw Amsterdam. It is an unexpected pleasure, for reasons different than I would have guessed. The stereotypical things I’ve heard are true. There is food everywhere, stays in port are brief…a few hours at each stop…and passengers, at least on this ship, for this trip, are mostly older. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What I didn’t expect was that I would love the gentle rocking motion of the ship (boat, my husband calls it, though that hardly does justice to this vessel). Just enough to be calming and lulling, only occasionally creating a momentary loss of balance, the sensation is similar to being on a train. There’s a sensation of forward thrust, and a back and forth rhythm that is oddly soothing. I thought it might interrupt my sleep, but instead, I find myself sleeping like a baby.

I didn’t expect the views. I’m accustomed to seeing these big ships docked in Ketchikan, during cruise season in Alaska, so I knew the size. But I had never been on board, and didn’t grasp the ability to view from the equivalent of a multi-story building. In port or at sea, you can see a long way. The water looks amazing, and you get a fantastic bird’s eye view of the shading of the waters in the Caribbean ports…so much variation in color that you would think it is unreal, except you know it’s not.

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The staff are friendly, helpful, efficient. This crew is mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, and of the ones we’ve talked with, I hear the standard employment contract is ten months. Ten months at sea, then they go home to family for a couple of months. Last night at dinner one of the staff was talking about his wife and children. He misses them, but after he’s been home a couple of weeks, he’s ready to be at sea again. He has done this for 15 years, and this is his way of life. Addicting, he said, and I can see how that could happen. Variety, scenery, and motion color your work environment. And the passengers change regularly. Good or bad, no one stays too long.

We are surprised at the spaciousness and the amenities. There are lounges large and small, an internet cafe (for a fee) a library (free), a well-equipped gym (free) and a spa/salon (definitely not free). A small theater offers recent movies several times a day, there are on-board shops, a medical clinic, a culinary arts showroom, and a large theater for the live performance shows the entertainment crew hosts each evening. A photo studio offers portrait sessions, you can play basketball or ping pong, swim, sit in a sauna or jacuzzi, walk the deck. There is a casino for gamers. There is opportunity to purchase fine art, attend a variety of lectures on history of the ports of call as well as related areas of interest. You can be social or not. We have chosen not, which means we are not seated with others for dining. We chose the “open” dining option, no set time or partners for dinner each evening, and no requirement for formal dress. The most stringent dress expectation is “smart casual,” which means no shorts at dinner. Smart casual is a good fit for us.

One of the curiosities of the cruise industry is the connection between this type of travel and jewelry. When we moved to Ketchikan, I was surprised by the number of jewelry stores there. Most of them are closed during the off-cruise season in Alaska, which is October through April. Jewelry is the most prominent item being sold on board, or at the ship-sponsored shops at each port. Still haven’t understood that connection. But the jewels are beautiful.

The food ranges from a huge buffet line, available most hours of the day, to a large dining room that offers a next step up in sit-down service, food choices, and ambience, to smaller and evermore select dining options, based on prior reservation and additional fees for dining. The fees are a flat per-person charge rather than per item. The service and selection seem appropriately upgraded for the ones we’ve sampled, and the upgrade fees seem fair and proportional. My biggest curiosities with regard to food are 1) how does the staff manage all the logistics of storage and prep for the demand and 2) how can people eat so much?! I am eating little more than my normal amount each day…ok, I’ve had to sample a variety of desserts…but who needs a midnight buffet? There are different themed restaurants: one with classic American fare, an Italian dinner-only option; an Asian-inspired option with the delicate flavors and robust chiles of multiple Asian cuisines. And there is the very upscale grill that offers a fine steakhouse menu. If by chance you need additional refreshment during the day, you can have afternoon tea at 3:00; room service for select items round the clock; and there are various stations for coffees and non-carbonated beverages. There are bars on every level to accommodate passengers’ thirst. Alcohol and sodas are extra; this is not an all-inclusive experience.

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Would I do it again? Yes. You get a brief snapshot of what each port has to offer, a sampler, so to speak. This would be an ideal way to travel with family. The variety of activities allows for a range of interests and energy levels. You could enjoy time together as well as apart. And above the base price for the cruise, you can spend more as you add shore excursions or onboard upgrades. But the basic package is generous and relaxing. Best of all, you can be as casual as you choose. There are two formal dining nights out of the seven nights of this cruise, but even on those nights, there are options for passengers who choose to pass on formal attire, which we’ve done. When you book your cruise, you’re given the choice for open seating (no set dining time) and the expectations for formal or casual attire. No surprises on that front.

For our initial cruise experience, we chose to travel with Holland America Line. The other major cruise lines offer different levels of luxury and attract various age ranges. Obviously, the average age on a Disney cruise is likely to be different than on some of the other lines. And you can also experience themed cruises, singles cruises, round the world cruises. I suppose, like many things in life, once you scratch the surface, you find a whole world that you never knew existed.

We’ve had a good time, and a quiet time, mostly enjoying the slower pace and forced disconnection from our norm. We chose not to connect to internet while cruising, and have only had our phones on to check messages. I think about life in an earlier era, wonder about what it would be like to travel by ship in times past. My guess is that the more recent past offered similar levels, perhaps even more, luxury. The distant past? Well, I probably would not have been a fan of travel in sailing ship times. I like running water, toilets that flush, and all the extra amenities that 2012 affords, thank you very much!

So yes, I would recommend cruising. We’ll likely find opportunity to experience it again at some point, when we need a little time out of the race of life, the slow and steady motion of a ship’s engines, and the simple routine of onboard life.

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Food for inspiration: Lemon Cream Cheese Cupcakes

As everyone knows, you think better with food. Especially with something that is a luscious blend of comfort and decadence. Lemon cream cheese cupcakes fit that description perfectly. This is my new favorite sweet treat, not to be confused with something low calorie. If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now: you will never find a low calorie dessert on my table, unless the dessert is just fruit. My dessert philosophy is really quite simple: if I’m dieting, I don’t need dessert. If I’m eating dessert, I must not be dieting. So now you know.

The ingredients are standard pantry and fridge items, so this is a great treat to bake on a whim. That’s usually when I whip out my cupcake pan…when I just want a little something without having to run to the market.

I would eat them all, but, alas, that could be ugly, by anyone’s standards! I typically share part of the batch. Check it out for yourself, you may want to have a sweet feast. And best, this is easy, so easy!

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Lemon Cream Cheese Cupcakes
(I think the original recipe is from Kraft. Honor to whom honor is due.)

Ingredients:

1 pkg. (2-layer size) white cake mix
1 pkg. (3.4 oz.)JELL-O Lemon Flavor Instant Pudding
1 cup water
4 egg whites
2 Tbsp. oil
1 pkg. (8 oz.) PHILADELPHIA Cream Cheese, softened
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 pkg. (16 oz.) powdered sugar

Method:

HEAT oven to 350ºF.

BEAT first 5 ingredients in large bowl with mixer on low speed until moistened. (Batter will be thick.) Beat on medium speed 2 min. Spoon into 24 paper-lined muffin cups.
BAKE 21 to 24 min. or until toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Cool in pans 10 min.; remove to wire racks. Cool completely.
BEAT cream cheese, butter and juice with mixer until well blended. Gradually add sugar, beating on low speed after each addition until well blended. Spread onto cupcakes.

OR: if you don’t want to make a cream cheese icing, pick up a can of cream cheese frosting at the market. I’ve made my own, which is yummy, following the recipe, and I’ve also used the prepared cream cheese frosting. Believe me, either choice will be perfect!

One last tip, shared by my daughter: these are delicious as soon as they’ve cooled enough to frost, but they take on an extra special goodness if you chill them before serving. I don’t know what it is; the cupcakes seem to be a bit denser in texture, if you like that. I do, so I typically build in enough time to chill, after frosting, and before sampling.

Enjoy!

My new favorite recipe – Salted Caramel Pecan Butter Bars

Tonight I tried a new dessert/cookie recipe, which I’ll share below. But first, let me tell you it incorporates a lot of good things. It combines butter, caramel, and (my own personal addition to the mix) chopped pecans. The dessert/cookie…haven’t decided which category it will ultimately fit in my opinion…is baked, so it has an ooey-gooey warm comfort feeling. It has a sprinkling of French sea salt over the caramel layer, so it has a hint of sophistication. You can cut this into squares, or if you want to serve as a more formal dessert, cut into wedges and add a scoop of ice cream or whipped cream on top…decadent, decadent!

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A few other notes: I made a half recipe, as the full version calls for a pound (a pound!) of butter, and it is my policy never to make such a large amount of a dish I haven’t tasted. Just in case, you know, that the combination of all the luscious ingredients listed is not greater than the sum of the parts. After all, it would be, at the very least, a small tragedy if I had a pound of butter baked into a dessert I really didn’t care for. So that was my choice for a first attempt with this recipe. Having made it, and now, tasted it, I can safely say that I wouldn’t hesitate to commit to the whole thing. Provided I had a good way to dispose of all but one or two pieces. Otherwise, I would be needing to invest in a new size of clothes very soon. These are that good. But I wouldn’t care, most likely, because, these are that good.

So, onto the details. First, credit to the site where I found this. Check this out for a great read. So funny! And thanks for the recipe, which I discovered on Pinterest.

Salted Caramel Pecan Butter Bars

For the Crust:
1 lb. salted butter room temp
1 cup sugar
1½ cups powdered sugar
2 Tbs vanilla
4 cups all purpose flour

For the Filling:
1 bag (14 oz.) caramel candies (about 50 individual caramels), unwrapped
⅓ cup milk or cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 T. coarse sea salt (optional)
1 cup chopped pecans (my addition, optional if you don’t care for nuts)

To make the crust:

In a large bowl, combine butter and sugars. Using mixer on medium speed, beat together until creamy. Add the vanilla and beat until combined. Sift the flour into the butter mixture and beat on low speed until a smooth soft dough forms.

Spray a 9×13 inch baking pan lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. (I found I used about half the dough for the crust and the remaining amount was enough for the crumbled topping.)

Preheat to 325F.

Bake until firm and the edges are a pale golden brown approx 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool about 15 minutes.

While the bottom crust is baking and the remaining dough is chilling, make the caramel filling. Place the unwrapped caramels in a microwave-safe bowl. Add the cream. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove from the microwave and stir until smooth. If caramels are not completely melted, microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until smooth. (I did this step in a small sauce pan on the stove top. Just put the caramels and cream on a low simmer and stir now and then until all melted and gooey.)

Pour the caramel filling over the crust. If you choose to salt the caramel, sprinkle it over the caramel layer now.

Remove the remaining chilled dough from the refrigerator and crumble it evenly over the caramel.

My addition: Top with a cup of chopped pecans.

Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is bubbly and the crumbled shortbread topping is firm and lightly golden, about 25 – 30 minutes.

Let cool before cutting into squares.

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Other ideas: I’m thinking of sprinkling mini semi-sweet chocolate chips over the top the next time I bake this. Don’t overbake! The cookies cut beautifully after they cooled. Last, if you’re looking for a great shortbread recipe, this one is as good as any I’ve tried. I have never made shortbread with two kinds of sugar, but the dough was easy to work with and baked beautifully. It could stand alone as a wonderful shortbread if you want something a little less sweet, or a bit more simple.

Enjoy!