Monday, May 6, 2019

Birthdays in May!

I have so many dear friends who have birthdays between the 4th and the 8th of May: biologist Paula Becker, for instance, who is Volunteer Coordinator for the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at which I've been a longtime volunteer; Lora Wong, a master gardener who works as a Research Administration Manager at the American Heart Association; my longest Maryland girlfriend, Janet Levine, owner of Fire & Ice Jewelry stores at the BWI and Philadelphia international airports; my cousin Christian Haudenschild in Switzerland, a former research scientist at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration; my best friend Kari's beloved late father, Lyle Momb, who left us in 2013; my longtime friend Juanita Starbuck from our old Richmond Police Department days in California; my great niece in California, Sophia Mei Tobler, who is turning seven (!); Texas computer guru and IT expert Ralph Haroldson; my ex-husband and dear friend, Jesse Turner, and even my elderly, crotchety cat, Underfoot, who is turning 19.

What better way to celebrate the birthdays of these special souls than with a festive dinner party!  Alas, Lora had accepted an invitation to spend her birthday with family in Pittsburgh, and Jan's elderly aunts decided to host a spontaneous family reunion in her native South Carolina, so as it turned out, only two of the local birthday people could attend my party on May 4th, which was the only Saturday night I had available all month. But sometimes the smallest dinner parties are the most rewarding. And whether for fourteen or four, I would still cook a fabulous dinner for my guests.

What makes my May birthday dinner especially fun for me is that while the fancy dinners I host for Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day feature the same menu each year with a rotating cast of guests, the May birthday dinner highlights the same guests each year but leaves me free to vary the menu. I can choose whatever entree suits my taste and, indeed, my May birthday dinner guests are frequently "Guinea pigs" on whom I experiment with dishes I've never tried before.

So it was with this year's menu. A roast leg of lamb with a Middle-Eastern bent caught my fancy this time. Flavored with a custom sweet-spice mixture featuring ground cumin, cinnamon, coriander, allspice, clove, ginger and nutmeg, the boneless roast was butterflied, stuffed with fresh baby spinach and dried fruit, then rolled up and rubbed with the aromatic spices before roasting.  An accompanying brown rice and lentil mixture, called mujadara, would receive similar sweet-spice flavorings -- with a twist: garlic and cilantro and a healthy scattering of caramelized onions, as well. I could hardly wait to try it.

I "ixnayed" sauteed fiddlehead ferns
for the dinner party vegetable and
went with an asparagus tart instead
So... that took care of the entrée and the starch, but what to do about a vegetable?  A few weeks earlier I had previewed sautéed fiddlehead ferns as a possible side dish. The result was okay but not exceptional; unusual, but not worth the expense or the trouble. I decided to go with an asparagus tart instead.

With most of the menu decided upon, I cast around for birthday cake ideas. A baker, I am NOT, but I wanted to bake a cake for this dinner because, mainly, one of my guests, Paula Becker, is a baker extraordinaire and I wanted to earn her praise. Traditional cakes leave much to be desired, in my opinion. They're dry, cloyingly sweet, lack any distinctive flavor and are ultimately quite boring. Then, a recipe in Better Homes & Gardens magazine caught my eye. How about an apple-maple cake in a bundt pan which made use of the same spices (clove, nutmeg, cinnamon) that would figure prominently in the dinner? Jesse, who designs furniture for the hospitality industry, brought me a beautiful Art Deco-inspired bundt pan from a restaurant industry trade show in Chicago a few years back and I had yet to use it. Surely creating his birthday cake with the bundt pan he gave me would demonstrate my appreciation of his thoughtful gift.

As is my custom, I took the Friday before my party off from work in order to prepare as many dishes as I could in advance, and do the prep work (slicing and dicing, sifting and frying) ahead of time for the rest, so that on the day of the party I could relax and enjoy myself while putting the finishing touches on everything. That's worked out so well for me in the past that I now consider it a happy tradition.
Lentils, left, brown rice, center, and caramelized onions, right,
get tossed together in an aromatic side dish for roast lamb

I started with the mujadara, cooking vast quantities of rice in garlic, onion and the sweet spices, then simmering lentils with a cinnamon stick, ginger and more garlic, and then combining the two. While the rice was cooking, I caramelized a copious number of onions, this time by roasting them in the oven instead of slowly frying them on the stove. The technique worked beautifully, and seemed less labor-intensive than the frequent stirring recommended when using the stovetop method.

Once the rice dish was out of the way, I turned to the stuffing for the lamb. A heady combination of fresh baby spinach leaves and dried currants and apricots mixed with scallions, parsley and cilantro was diced and bagged for the next day.

To accompany the lamb, I thought a sensual chutney utilizing three different types of cherries in bourbon would elicit just the right counterpoint to the lamb. So I simmered dried tart cherries with frozen sweet dark cherries and tart cherry preserves until the chutney was thick and bubbly, then spilled in two tablespoons of whiskey.  The result was wonderful.

Next, I baked the cake, utilizing maple syrup in a piquant combination of sweet spices, apples, butter, flour, sugar and eggs. It came out beautifully, and was immediately coated with a thick drizzle of maple syrup and diced apples. I was quite proud of my accomplishment and hoped Paula and Jesse would be, too.

On the morning of the party, I laid out the boneless leg of lamb, which the butcher at my local Wegman's Supermarket had butterflied for me. Unfortunately, in the process of butterflying the leg, he had created a tear in the meat, so when I rolled it up, the stuffing would surely fall through.  I Googled how to repair a tear in a butterflied cut of meat but was surprised to find that the Internet Gods offered no remedy at all. And although I still possessed my mother's ancient metal chicken trusser, it wouldn't hold fast when I rolled up the lamb. What was I to do?

I used a large needle and carpet thread
to bind a tear in the lamb roast
Well, I MacGyvered it, of course! Just as the 1980s television series highlighting one man's resourcefulness caused his name to become synonymous with the clever utilization of everyday items for vastly different purposes, so I invoked his spirit to solve my torn lamb problem. Indeed, I recalled a time, in the summer of 2012, when I hosted dear friends for a midsummer supper. I planned to create individual layered crab salads with avocado, caviar and mango salsa, but the ring molds needed for the towering concoctions were pricey -- and I would need four of them! Enter Home Depot, where I found four-inch diameter PVC pipe cuffs that were just the right size -- at fifty cents apiece. I took them home, sterilized them and used them as ring molds for perfect crab salad towers.

Now I needed similar inspiration for the tear in my lamb -- and I needed it fast! I sought insight in my hobby room upstairs. And there was the answer, a large sewing needle and... carpet thread! I bound the tear together with a running blanket stitch, and voila! No more unsightly, stuffing-leaking rip.

After pounding the butterflied lamb into an evenly-flat slab, I  layered the dried fruit filling and the spinach leaves on top.  Holding the ends securely, I wrapped the meat up into a tight roll and secured it with kitchen twine. To my great delight, my makeshift repair held tight. Rubbed with the same sweet spice mixture used in the rice dish, I slipped the roast into a slow oven and moved on to my next task: setting the table.

I purposely chose to keep this dinner more casual and go with a woodsy, nature-loving theme. After all, there would be just four of us: Paula, the wildlife biologist, Jesse and me, and Laura Van Scoyoc, president of the nonprofit nature group I've volunteered with for more than a decade now.  Wooden charger plates set the tone, on which I nestled floral dishes I've owned since the Carter Administration. My everyday flatware is molded from real twigs; I settled the apple-maple spice cake on a rustic wooden cake stand.
The asparagus tart came out beautifully

Kalamata olives, lemon zest, scallions
and goat cheese enhance the asparagus
in this savory puff pastry tart
Next it was time to assemble and bake the asparagus tart. I dusted my counter with flour and used my grandmother's ancient wooden rolling pin to stretch a sheet of puff pastry into a ten-inch square. I slathered a layer of goat cheese across the dough and then sprinkled the surface with a mixture of chopped asparagus tips, scallions, Kalamata olives, garlic and lemon zest. Topped with a sprinkling of crumbled goat cheese, I popped the tart into the oven for twenty minutes, long enough to assemble a green salad featuring blood oranges, which I tossed with chopped red pear, sugared almonds, shredded Gruyere and then dressed with a honeyed blood orange vinaigrette.
Homemade rosemary simple
syrup, Aperol, blood orange
juice and Prosecco combine
to make a delightful spring

Finally, I prepared cocktails with fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, Aperol, homemade rosemary simple syrup, and added Prosecco just as my guests arrived. I adore blood oranges and have been enjoying them much later into spring than usual this year.
My magnificent red oak was
at least 300 to 400 years old
when it failed to leaf out
this year

With fizzy cocktails in hand, the four of us ventured out into my yard so I could ask my expert guests their opinion on a number of garden issues. First of all, I was grieving the recent demise of one of my gigantic, historic oak trees. It had leafed out lushly last summer and dutifully lost its leaves in the fall. But my beautiful red oak had failed to sprout a single leaf this spring, while the two white oaks in my front yard had leafed out perfectly.  Was it really, suddenly, dead, I asked?  Yes, came the regrettable response from my knowledgeable friends. We raised a solemn toast to the old Ent, which I'd lovingly dubbed William almost two decades ago. William had been protective overseer of my swimming pool, offering shade to the water and to my nearby guest cottage. He had served as a veritable freeway for my squirrel population, and had been home to uncountable nests of birds and small animals for several hundred years. I was truly anguished that William's long life had expired on my watch. But there it was. An exceedingly wet 2018 contributing to internal rot and decline was likely the cause, yet of little consolation.
The nesting material this Carolina
wren used to line her nest included
bits of plastic wrap

Next we wandered to my potting bench, where I showed off the nest of a Carolina wren who had recently fledged three nestlings in one of my empty flower boxes. A sad testament to the perpetual pollution of our planet, she had lined her nest with pine needles and moss -- and bits of plastic wrap.

As the setting sun cast an alpenglow across my two acres, we traipsed across the yard and entered my fenced garden, where we poked around among the native flowers just beginning to rise up out of the soil, and eventually made our way back to the kitchen, where appetizers were waiting.

Laura plays with my cell phone
As I dressed the green salad, plated the rice, sliced the asparagus tart and carved the meat, we took a moment to pose for a selfie. I discovered that the ceramic stand I use to cradle my cell phone in my home office is a perfect holder from which to aim the camera and set its timer. Shortly after the group photo was taken, Laura proclaimed the stand "creepy" and proceeded to caress her face with it. I decided she probably shouldn't have another cocktail.
I was afraid I'd left the lamb in the oven
too long, but when I carved it, the meat
was perfectly cooked and smelled

We sat down to a robust meal. The lamb was tender and flavorful. The triple cherry-bourbon chutney proved to be a perfect foil for the tasty meat. The rice-lentil dish with caramelized onions was out of this world. Everyone loved the asparagus tart. Wine was poured and lively conversation ensued about all manner of subjects, most of them with a nature theme.
This iridescent beetle
unfolds into a

Eventually it was time to open gifts and serve the cake. We sang to the two birthday recipients and watched as they blew out tall, slender candles I found buried among my late mother's things when I cleaned out her northern California home to prepare it for sale back in 1999. I'd never seen candles anything like them before and kept them all this time because they are so novel.
The apple-maple spice cake looked
beautiful with its slender candles
all aglow

Jesse and Paula opened their gifts from Laura and me. Jesse received a new wallet -- in orange to commemorate his favorite color, of course. Paula unwrapped a large, iridescent metal corkscrew in the shape of a beetle. Gift certificates, lottery tickets and fresh flowers rounded out the birthday gift offerings.

We dug into the cake. Paula proclaimed it very tasty and moist. Jesse marveled at how well the bundt pan had worked out for me. I was quite pleased with the intense maple flavor. The four of us laughed and chatted well into the night. I poured the last of a bottle of rare port with dessert, a 1997 Romariz Vintage Porto.

From left: Laura, Jesse, Paula and me
When we finally grew weary and our bellies could hold no more, we pushed back our chairs to bid each other goodbye. Although it had been raining as we dined, the drizzle tapered off just long enough to allow my guests to return to their homes safe and dry.

Nothing makes me happier than hosting a dinner party just like this one. It was a marvelous evening, intimate and relaxed. American journalist, television broadcaster and musician Mitch Albom once said, “You can’t substitute material things for love or ... a sense of comradeship.”

I can't think of a better way to ring in the month of May than among the camaraderie of longtime friends. Honoring the cherished memories of loved ones while celebrating dear friendships near and far is a joyous gift. We made the most of it.

A good friend is a connection to life: a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world. ~ Lois Wyse

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Bit of Blarney, Lots of Charm

And so it was that exactly four weeks to the day after my elegant Valentine soiree, I hosted an equally festive St. Patrick's Day dinner. True, I did the same thing last year and the year before that, but who's counting? Hosting friends and family for dinner to mark a joyful holiday is a pastime I heartily enjoy, even if the work involved does leave me a little worn out afterward.

I love sending real invitations
in the mail!
So before my Valentine dinner in February had even taken place, I fashioned custom invitations for my St. Patrick's Day party, fastened the envelopes with sealing wax and mailed them out to a different set of guests. Once my Valentine's Day dinner was "in the bag", I got to work preparing for my St. Patrick's day feast, set to take place on March 16.

Simmering the ingredients for my cold
and flu elixir made the whole house
smell good
My initial order of business for the St. Patrick's Day dinner was to prepare small gifts for my guests. First was to make another batch of my special cold and flu remedy, a magical potion, courtesy of Miss Wondersmith, that I was introduced to in the pages of Enchanted Living magazine. This time I already had the herbs on hand: dried horehound, mullein, elderberries and star anise, and I knew to be a tad more restrained when adding the horehound, as its bitter potency can easily overwhelm the tincture's sweet elderberry juice, bourbon and honey. I gently set intentions of wellness and good spirits over each ingredient as I tumbled it into the pot simmering on my stove. Once thickened, the addition of edible gold luster dust lent a subtle shimmer, and then into pretty bottles my elixir went, their cork tops decorated with white tulle and sparkling pieces of green geode I procured from eBay.
These roasted pumpkin seeds are
always a hit. Can't eat just one!

I labeled tiny paper boxes and filled them with toasted pumpkin seeds, the last of a large batch I'd roasted over the winter, and thought about what kind of place-card holders I should make for this fete. In past years I've baked tiny white pumpkins retrieved from my root cellar where they'd sat in cold hibernation since Thanksgiving, hollowed them out and filled them with unctuously caramelized grape chutney. Alas, except for a few frigid days, the winter months were so mild in the mid-Atlantic this season that all of my mini pumpkins had long since been relegated to the compost bin!

Each "swag bag" got toasted
seeds, homemade cold remedy,
Tobler chocolates and a menu
to commemorate the evening
I considered carving slits for place cards into shiny green apples, but that didn't seem quite festive enough. Still, I purchased a hoard of Granny Smiths anyway, just in case a better idea did not spring to mind. Then, as I perused the aisles of my local crafts store one day, I spotted them: golden-hued buckets made of tin in a perfect size. The look of the finished garnish leapt into my mind in that instant: my place-card holders would be mythical "pots of gold", filled with chocolate coins, Lindt truffles, butter mints and other goodies, and onto which each diner's name would be fastened with curled ribbon.

I love giving my guests something to
take home to remember their
evening by
To ensure that my guests would remember to take their "pots o' gold" home with them at the end of the evening, I purchased a green paper gift bag for each family. Into my "swag bags" went the magic cold and flu remedy, along with dosing instructions folded into petite origami flowers, the roasted pumpkin seeds, and my St. Patrick's day menu printed on heavy parchment, rolled up and fastened with a pretty flower hair clip.

The next activity on my to-do list was to order flowers from my go-to florist, Marty Hennigan, who always provides me with the most beautiful blooms for whatever occasion I happen to be celebrating. Once the flowers were ordered, I set to work each night over the week leading up to my party slicing, dicing and bagging all the ingredients I would need for the big day: blood oranges, lemons, tangerines and limes for a festive champagne punch infused with cinnamon syrup, cognac, triple sec and pear liqueur; halved baby carrots in a riot of colors which would be bathed in a lovely sauce; quartered beets and onions to infuse my beef brisket with color and flavor; diagonally cut green and white asparagus spears which would be treated to a topping of lemon and cheese; chopped green cabbage to be dressed in a variety of flavored vinegars; and peeled spuds for what would eventually become a decadent dish of mashed potatoes whisked with savory whipped cream, butter and shredded Parmesan. I melted Irish butter into a shamrock-shaped cookie-cutter mold, chilled it for a few days, then turned the stiffened spread out onto a butter dish and gently pressed a real three-leafed shamrock onto the surface.

I was so happy with how my
centerpiece turned out!
Taking off from work the day before my party, I picked up my flower order first thing. A novel idea for a centerpiece had popped into my head and I couldn't wait to try it out. As with dinners of yore, I planned to arrange chartreuse spider chrysanthemums, green and white carnations, and sprigs of baby's breath in a crystal trifle bowl. In past years, that had been the extent of my centerpiece. But this year I wanted to create something a little more over the top. Rooting around in my costume closet, I happened upon a top hat left over from a long ago New Year's Eve celebration. The hat was quite sturdy and covered with sparkling gold sequins. It would meld perfectly with this year's emerging "pot of gold" theme. I held my breath as I checked to see if the trifle bowl would fit snugly inside the overturned hat. Success! I wanted to arrange gold coins around the upturned brim, but how to keep the coins from falling into the hat? Pea gravel was the answer, which I keep on hand to create  drainage layers in my flower boxes each spring. I filled the hat cavity around the trifle bowl with gravel and scattered the coins on top. Voila. I was quite pleased with the result!

A beautiful tablescape sets the tone
for the entire meal
My final task on the eve of my gala was to corn the beef. While I don't subscribe to the traditional ten-day brining ritual for true corned beef, I do assemble a heady rub of ground bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander, salt, pepper, sugar, nutmeg and clove, which I then blend with fresh garlic, cider vinegar and whole grain Dijon mustard. Once the seven-pound brisket was fully covered in this aromatic emulsion, I stashed the meat in the fridge and took myself happily to bed.

Faux sheepskins from IKEA and spring
flower sprays from Frontgate adorned
each guest's chair
On the day of my party I set the table early, loving as I do the process of creating a memorable tablescape for my guests. Across my white tablecloth I carefully spread a linen runner covered in delicate green embroidery, a treasure I found at a market stall in Budapest in 2017. On went my grandmother's gold china, a variety of stemware I'd been collecting over forty years, and my gold flatware, a cherished gift from my mother in 1980.

Four kinds of vinegar, three kinds of
mustard and two kinds of horseradish
added to the flavors of the evening

The seven chairs were dressed with sparkly wired ribbon tied into large bows at the back, over which were draped colorful cascades of faux spring flowers. As I scattered gold "coins" and faceted crystal "jewels" amid the place settings, my longtime and very creative companion, Jesse Turner, handily folded starched cloth napkins into distinctive-looking shamrocks. And what to do with those Granny Smith apples? A beloved neighbor had gifted me with a carving tool long ago, meant to hollow out fruit in which a small candle could then be inserted. Trying the gadget for the first time, I discovered it worked perfectly to create a cavity in the apples just the right size for a votive.

My oven was working hard!
Once I had set out decanters filled with flavored vinegars for the cabbage: champagne, red wine, cider and balsamic, and small bowls of whole grain Dijon mustard, yellow mustard, brown mustard, and red-beet and plain horseradish for the corned beef, I got to work assembling and cooking all the dishes I would be serving at dinner. The beef and the carrots were treated to a bath of orange juice and beer, covered with tinfoil and parchment tied with string, and tucked neatly into my lower oven. The potatoes were mashed, topped with shredded Parmesan and shoved under my broiler to achieve a perfectly browned crust. The asparagus was parboiled and sprinkled with lemon juice and still more Parmesan. I chopped red pears and blood oranges and tossed them with shredded Gruyere, sugared almond slivers and spring greens for a delightful salad dressed with blood orange juice and honey vinegar.
Chocolate puddings "planted" with
sprigs of fresh mint were served
for dessert

Individual chocolate-mint potted puddings I'd made from scratch were now topped with ground chocolate cookies to resemble "dirt" and "planted" with sprigs of fresh mint. I assembled the Champagne punch for the adults and set out a pitcher of bright green, apple-flavored Gatorade for the teens. I arranged curried cauliflower florets, dainty grape-leaf-wrapped dolmas and pickled Cipollini onions as appetizers. I plated tubular slices of mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto and pepperoni to round out the hors d'oeuvres.

As I ascended to my dressing room to don my party attire, I still hadn't quite settled on what to wear. I knew I would pick black leggings from 90-degree by Reflex and fringed, crystal-studded Roper cowboy boots because both are so comfortable, but what to wear for a blouse? I eventually settled on a beaded kelly-green tunic by JM Collections from Macy's that I've had since I hosted my very first St. Patrick's day dinner many years ago. I topped my curls, expertly crafted by stylist Leanna Leuschner at her new salon, Hairway to Heaven, with a jaunty green fascinator, covered my FitBit with a green rhinestone bangle, and poked vintage shamrock earrings into my earlobes that had once belonged to my grandmother.

From left: me, Phil, Justin, Claudia,
Anya and Riehen. Jesse took the picture
When my guests arrived at 7:00 p.m., I was ready! Justin Wright, vice president of Lion's Wood Banquet Furniture, for whom Jesse works as a furniture designer, arrived solo, as his lovely wife Melanie had to send her regrets. My second cousin, Claudia Tobler, and her husband, Phil Walsh, and their two teens, Riehen and Anya, arrived less than a minute later. Coats were taken, punch served and introductions made as we gobbled up appetizers and engaged in cheerful conversation. Eventually, I returned to the kitchen to carve the meat and put the finishing touches on dinner. It was time.

Of course my front porch
mascot, Spike, was
dressed for the occasion
I called my guests to dinner, delighting in the exclamations of wonder and enchantment as they saw my dining room table for the first time. We poured wine and more green punch and passed plates of asparagus, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, corned beef, salad and Irish soda bread. As the fire in my woodstove crackled behind us, I queried my dinner guests with St. Patrick's Day trivia questions that I had prepared in advance. Claudia, the easy winner, took home a small gift bag containing St. Patrick's Day-themed earrings and a bracelet. Justin, a clear runner-up, received a small bag containing a tiny green flashlight and a multi-tool.  We ate... and talked... and laughed... and ate... and ate some more.

When it seemed no one could hold another morsel of food, I made coffee and brought in the potted puddings. More oohs! and aahs! -- music to my ears. Justin, who says he never eats dessert, finished every last bite of his pudding. I was pleased that everyone managed to find room for the final course.
Everything turned out well at
my party. I was very pleased

We chatted until well after 11:00 p.m., as haunting Celtic tunes played softly in the background. My fireplace exuded cozy warmth, thanks largely to Riehen's continued attentiveness to the flames. Conversation flowed in its best "blarney" form. Eventually, my guests bid their adieus and made their ways home, donning overcoats and clutching swag bags filled with their place-card "pots o' gold" and other goodies.

I turned to the kitchen, scraping plates and loading the dishwasher while Jesse cleared and undressed the table for me. As I put away the accoutrements of the evening and cleaned everything up, I was overwhelmed by a sense of tranquility and satisfaction. I managed to pull off another merry party without a major glitch.  My guests had truly relaxed and enjoyed themselves.

My sense of accomplishment was underscored when I received a lovely thank-you card in the mail a few days later. My cousin Claudia described my dinner party as "exquisite" and "memorable", and said her family enjoyed every moment. Kind words of praise, indeed.

"Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all" ~ Julia Child

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Fun, Frost and Family

If it's the last week in February, it's time for skiing with my best friend, Kari, and her mom, Joyce. Let me tell you that the skiing conditions were absolutely fabulous this year on our annual ski trip to Deer Valley Ski Resort in the big mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, Utah.

Ever since my mother's passing in 1998 left me bereft of parentage, it has been my lucky fortune to accompany Kari and her wonderful parents on their annual family ski trip. Back in those days we skied all the big resorts in the Rocky Mountains: Steamboat Springs, Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, Alta, Park City, Snowbird and Solitude. But for the past ten years we've happily settled into less arduous routine: we now spend our precious ski holiday at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. The reasons are many:
The top of the highest lift to the lodge at the bottom covers an astounding
3000 vertical feet of drop. It's a great resort!

1) Deer Valley is one of only three resorts in the U.S. to forbid snow-boarders. While we don't have an issue with snow-boarders per se, Kari's mom, Joyce, seems to attract the out-of-control ones through no fault of her own. On our first day of skiing at Steamboat Springs one year, a snow-boarder broke Joyce's shoulder and upper arm. Though Joyce is not immune from harm even from skiers at Deer Valley (in 2014 an out-of-control skier broke her wrist, requiring 22 stitches, 9 pins and months of physical therapy), the snow-boarding component is happily taken out of the equation at Deer Valley -- it's one less thing we have to worry about.

2) Deer Valley limits the number of skiers on the mountain each day, meaning smaller lift lines and less crowding on the slopes and in the lodges at lunchtime.

3) Deer Valley lets you check your skis overnight for free, meaning we don't have to lug our equipment back and forth on a bus from and to our hotel each morning and night.

4) While we had "favorite" sections at all of the resorts, Deer Valley really has some outstanding runs: 73 percent of their 103 runs are intermediate skill-level or higher; the runs are steep but many are broad and long (the longest is 2.8 miles!) and all are easy to get to via 21 different lifts, more than half of them high-speed quads. Furthermore, Deer Valley takes special pride in their meticulously groomed runs. We always get an early start so as to take full advantage of those freshly groomed conditions!
Kari, at left, me in the middle, and Joyce at right

5) Since our principal navigator, Kari's dad, passed away in 2012, Kari has aptly taken up the mantle of pilot extraordinaire. We all agree that it is more fun to explore Deer Valley's diverse terrain than to figure our way around a new and unfamiliar resort each year.

Last year, Joyce opted not to ski. At 80 years old, she said she just had a "feeling" that she shouldn't be on the slopes that year, so instead she cooled her jets in the ski lodge with a good book each day while Kari and I and Kari's husband, Stuart, burned up the slopes. Shortly after that trip, Joyce let it be known that nothing would keep her off the slopes this year!

Joyce models
her suit
I was excited about Joyce's enthusiasm and wanted to express my support in a way that would also tickle her funny bone. So for her 81st birthday a few weeks ago, I sent Joyce a "ski suit" made entirely of bubble-wrap. I customized the packaging, superimposing an image of bubble-wrap over a photo of Joyce from one of our ski trips. I created custom branding for the label, wrapped the whole thing up in pretty birthday paper and shipped it off to her home in Spokane, Washington. Joyce opened the package at a monthly luncheon with extended family, all of whom share a keen sense of humor, and the riot was on! Joyce loved her "gift" and her brothers-in-law and other family members got a real kick out if it. She even modeled the suit for me!
I love to ski!

Fast forward to February 21. This year Stuart opted not to accompany us on our ski trip, so we girls decided to tweak the trip and do things a wee bit differently. We flew into Salt Lake City earlier in the day on Thursday than we normally do, and spent the afternoon shopping,which was a lot of fun. We dined that evening at Spencer's Steakhouse at the downtown Salt Lake City Hilton, then rose early Friday morning to catch our private car for a 36-minute ride up the mountain to Park City, Utah. While last year that easy commute was turned into an hours-long debacle by an overturned tanker on the mountain pass, this year the sailing was smooth.

By 10:00 a.m. we had checked into our hotel in Park City, purchased our lift tickets, rented our skis and caught the Park City bus for the slopes. It was a chilly seven degrees Fahrenheit as we pulled on neck gators, stuffed handwarmers into our gloves and boots and headed for the lift line. But we were absolutely stoked. The resort had received four inches of fresh powder overnight, settling softly on a deep base of 103 inches. That's more than eight and a half feet of snow base! Last year we had coped with rocks and bare spots poking through the snow -- and rain! There was none of that to worry about this time, and we reveled in the pristine conditions laid out before us in the morning light. By our second run, Kari and Joyce and I were in fine form, and we enjoyed a spectacular day of skiing, just us girls, with few crowds and fewer lines. It was, to use a snowboarder's expression, totally awesome!
From left: Kari, Judy, Mike, me and Joyce

In the evening we were joined by Kari's cousin, Mike, and his wife, Judy, who had traveled in their customized pickup truck all the way from South Dakota so that Judy could participate in a private para-ski lesson. Left a paraplegic following a motorcycle accident in 2015, Judy longed to regain a modicum of the vigorous physicality she and Mike had enjoyed as an energetic, active couple. She and Mike had crossed the country to join us on our ski trip two years ago, and Judy enjoyed a para-ski lesson that year very much. Now she hoped to build on that experience.

The free bus to the slopes
stops right outside
our hotel
Our hotel, The Peaks in Park City, was the perfect place to unwind after our first day of skiing. Fashioned in a mid-Century vernacular, the rooms are outfitted in spare, 1960s style, with old-fashioned knob-handled radios, curvy, clean-lined furnishings and austere decor. That style is not my cup of tea, but the hotel has so many other attributes, I can easily overlook the mod furniture. For one thing, this hotel has an actual restaurant -- with a bar! Our old hotel, Park Plaza, had served as our home base in Park City for many years. While its rooms featured full kitchens and spacious living areas with fireplaces where we all could gather, it lacked even a tiny shop to grab breakfast or a snack, which meant traipsing out into the cold at night for dinner or groceries or even a glass of wine. Over the years, Park Plaza kept raising its prices until finally, one year, we said "enough" and sought another option.
The lobby is beautiful

Last year we stayed at The Peaks for the first time and will probably continue to stay there for years to come. Their prices are amazingly reasonable, the food in their restaurant is excellent, the staff is friendly and accommodating, and they even have a ski equipment-rental store in the lobby, another amenity Park Plaza lacked.

On our first night there this year, Kari, Joyce and I met Mike and Judy in The Peaks bar and raised a toast to our wonderful initial day of skiing. Dinner followed, with the hotel's Versante restaurant graciously accommodating Judy's motorized wheelchair by giving us one of the high top tables that her chair arms can easily fit under. Mike and Judy shared a pizza, while I enjoyed a kale salad sprinkled with chopped butternut squash, toasted farro and goat cheese with a cranberry mustard vinaigrette. Kari tried a hearty Italian chopped salad full of diced chicken and salami, sun-dried tomatoes, pasta and fresh greens dressed with a Gorgonzola vinaigrette. Joyce had chicken tenders. So good!
We love our matching pajamas!

The Peaks' restaurant is lovely
After wine and conversation, we three girls bid Mike and Judy goodnight and returned to our rooms. Once there, Kari announced that she had a surprise for her mom and me. As we waited excitedly with no idea what to expect, Kari dug around in her suitcase and pulled out three packages. In each was a set of silk pajamas in a pale pink Polynesian design. They were beautiful!  Kari said it had been fun when Joyce surprised us with identical summer jammies on our girls' trip to Charleston in 2016. So in a moment of spontaneity she ordered a set of matching pajamas for this trip. Of course, we had to try them on at once, and then pose for a selfie!

The next morning, we boarded the bus early for our second day of skiing. The temperature hovered at a brisk 5 degrees Fahrenheit. We were cozy in fleece undergarments and other heat-retaining accoutrements. The sun dawned brilliantly and stayed that way all day as we skied run after run after run.
Joyce and me

Shortly after a hearty lunch at the mountaintop lodge, cousin Mike joined us on the slopes for a few runs. Eventually, we three girls decided to call it a day, although the ski conditions were so perfect that it was hard to throw in the towel, even as tired as we were. Mike, of course, got in a whopping twenty or so additional runs after we bid him goodbye.

I can't say enough about how ideal the conditions were on that mountain. Despite the challenging altitude, 6,570 feet at the base of the ski resort and a whopping 9,570 feet at the top of the ski lifts, the three of us girls had been energized by our athleticism -- especially Joyce's! While Kari and I both pride ourselves on being athletic skiers (Kari far more so than I) despite being over 60, Joyce astounded us with her eternally graceful athleticism at 81 years old!  The three of us rocked that mountain!

Yet we knew when it was time to call it a day, not wanting to risk injury from pushing ourselves beyond what we'd already accomplished. Back to our hotel we ventured, ready for a hot shower and a bit of relaxation before our final dinner together.
The Peaks sports an indoor-
outdoor pool

You can see Park City Ski Resort
from the windows of the hotel
Joyce made some customer calls and Kari watched a movie. I decided to explore The Peaks hotel since we really hadn't had a chance to see all the amenities our new "home base" had to offer. I discovered two large whirlpool jet tubs, one inside and one outside. There was also a heated swimming pool that allows you to start indoors and, after swimming beneath a glass wall, emerge outside while in the same pool. That was cool!

A gymnasium with equipment graced the second floor of the hotel, and out back a fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs beckoned guests to lounge. Views from every direction of the hotel were stunning.
On our last evening, we posed with Judy for a portrait
in the hotel lobby

At dinner on our final night together, we celebrated another marvelous day of skiing with Mike and Judy, and tucked into another robust meal. The food was excellent, and conversation, laughter and wine flowed easily.

The following morning, Kari and Joyce and I slept in, something we rarely do on any of our trips together, and I, for one, was very grateful for that. Usually, on any trip with Joyce and Kari, I have to come home to rest! I'm not complaining, as I love our trips together and would much rather be busy than idle. Still, sleeping in on a ski trip was a special treat for me and I heartily embraced the opportunity.
The family that skis together, stays together!

In the morning we stowed our luggage at the front desk of our hotel and asked where we might enjoy a leisurely brunch, as our driver would not be arriving to pick us up until noon. "Five 5eeds" was the answer! And... it was within walking distance!

Although it was just nine degrees Fahrenheit outside as we ventured into the cold, we briskly walked the easy, level mile to the restaurant and were rewarded for our tenacity with a fabulous brunch in a lovely atmosphere. I had long read about "smashed avocado on toast" but had never actually tried it, so that was my choice from the versatile menu. We lingered over coffee and patted ourselves on the back once again for our skiing agility.

Our driver arrived promptly at noon to whisk us to the Salt Lake City Airport. We had some time to spare after going through the various airport security checkpoints, so we reconvened at an airport restaurant and toasted ourselves with a final glass of chardonnay before heading off to three different airlines that would carry us home to cities in three different parts of the country (Dallas, Spokane and Baltimore). Another successful ski trip was under our belts. We were stoked.

"We define family in many different ways: not just by blood but by people with whom we find a common ground and a common bond." ~ Adrienne C. Moore