Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Tribute To Saint Valentine

Balloons marked
the entrance to my
driveway as the sun
set on February 11th
For me, it started in 2015, when Valentine's Day happened to fall on a Saturday for the first time in several years. I had been lamenting for some time how restaurants always seemed to jam extra tables into their dining rooms on Valentine's Day and, despite hiring extra help for this super busy evening, always seemed overwhelmed by the crowds, resulting in a less than satisfactory gustatory experience and certainly not a romantic one.

Squeezing one more time into a dining establishment where patrons were jammed so close together that I could hear the conversation at the table next to me better than I could hear my own date seemed untenable, especially with the big day arriving on a Saturday, already the busiest dining-out evening of the week. So as Valentine's Day 2015 approached, I decided to throw my own dinner party instead, inviting dear friends over for a hearty winter meal.
I collected a variety of Valentine
decor from IKEA in 2015

My inaugural event was a big success, so I began a new tradition. Each year since, on the Saturday closest to Valentine's Day, I have invited friends to share in a decadent, retro winter feast inspired by my own Swiss roots: a three-course, all-fondue dinner. In 2017, that was Saturday, February 11th.

In 2015 I didn't own a single Valentine decoration, never before having been moved to garnish the house for a holiday that seems anticlimactic to a single person. So that year, for the first time, I stocked up on heart-shaped candles and hanging paper ornaments and set about thinking about how I could create an atmosphere of warmth on an evening of typically frigid temperatures here in the mid
Faux floral swags came from

Flowers came to mind, lots of beautiful, spring-evoking blooms. I ordered faux floral swags and candle rings in luscious pastels from Grandinroad.com to supplement the forsythia and peach blossom branches I'd kept in labeled plastic bins in my basement for decades.
I designed the invitations, printed
them out and sealed the
envelopes with wax

That first year was magical. Snowflakes fluttered against the windows of my dining room as a crackling fire warmed my guests while we ate. This year, the weather was predicted to be several degrees warmer on the day of my party, but it didn't deter my festive mood as I opened my boxes of Spring and Valentine décor and set to work transforming the house into a flowering testament to the coming verdure.

Invitations were mailed one month in advance, the envelopes fastened with sealing wax impressed with my monogram to denote a special air of festivity. I set about festooning the dining room in Valentine-themed adornments, many from IKEA, and began to take stock of all the china, flatware, stemware and fondue pots I would need for my event.
Each couple received a gift
bag with a copy of the
menu, a chocolate rose
and a can of gooseberries

In the weeks leading up to the big day, I created personalized place cards for each guest, affixing them to pierced tin containers which I filled with an assortment of Lindt chocolate truffles and a giant, foil-wrapped Hershey's kiss. I rolled up printed menus and sauce lists, securing them with a long-stemmed chocolate rose and a pretty floral hair clip. I created a game to entertain my guests between course changes, collecting Valentine-related trivia questions for the table to ponder, and wrapped small gifts for the winners: a can of Oregon state gooseberries with a recipe attached for a yummy gooseberry crunch, nestled into a gift bag filled with Tobler chocolates.

I selected a play list of melodic, woodland-themed acoustical music featuring harp, flute, didgeridoo and guitar. I picked out special bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Belgian pale ale, kirschvasser and chocolate zinfandel, and found a recipe for a special anjou-champagne punch, for which I simmered a potent cinnamon simple syrup. I froze a dozen half spheres of water, each hollowed in the center which, once released from their plastic bowl molds and overturned, would hold a small tea light to line my front walk.
Special fondue plates from
Switzerland have separate wells
for dipping sauces

There were 11 kinds of fruit for
dipping in chocolate
and chopped nuts
The day before the big dinner, I took off from work in order to enjoy putting everything together instead of having to cram all my preparations into the day of the party. I cut sourdough bread into fat chunks for dipping into a heady first-course fondue made with three Swiss cheeses: Emanthaler, Gruyere and Vacherin Fribourgeois, the latter imported for me by a Swiss bakery in Washington D.C. 

prepared five different dipping sauces for the main course, a succulent fondue bourguignonne consisting of bite-size chunks of specially aged filet mignon from Wegman's which, once dipped into hot peanut oil and sizzled to desired doneness, could then be slathered in horseradish sauce, chunky barbecue sauce, onion-mustard sauce, balsamic-bleu cheese sauce or garlic-paprika aioli, all homemade and surprisingly low-fat, as I employed nonfat Greek yogurt, sugar-free tomato sauce, 1% skim milk and light mayonnaise in their making. 

I cut up an array of fresh and candied fruit for the decadent dessert course, a rich chocolate fondue finished with Gran Marnier, into which my guests would dip slices of fresh honeydew and cantaloupe, banana, kumquats, pineapple, blackberries and strawberries, pickled watermelon, maraschino cherries, mandarin orange sections, and goldenberries, a sweet-tart Peruvian ground cherry of the tomato (nightshade) family. 

I blanched haricots vert and plunged them into individual shot glasses filled with Thai ginger-curry sauce for an appetizer, and prepared a crudité tray of dolmades (rice-filled grape leaves) , senfgurken (mustard pickles) and Greek olives stuffed with roquefort.
I greeted my guests with green bean
"shots" and glasses of
pear-champagne punch 
Each place setting held a tin of sweets

I may have appeared calm, but every
burner on my stovetop was working
hard in preparation for this dinner
I set my table carefully, relishing the moment my guests would feast their eyes for the first time upon all the candles, glass baubles and rose petals scattered among place settings adorned with my vintage gold china, flatware and crystal. I tied a faux sheepskin pelt to each chair, affixing it with a rose-colored elastic sash, to which I then fastened a spring floral swag. I washed and readied six of my favorite fondue pots, filling burners with fondue fuel for the meat course, preparing votive candles for the cheese and chocolate courses. I ironed and folded napkins, and personalized eight wooden skewers with the name of each guest for the meat course, as metal fondue forks must never be plunged into boiling cooking oil. And finally, I gathered real red roses and baby's breath into a low arrangement for the center of my table and arranged fresh spring bouquets for my other rooms. I was ready.

We enjoyed appetizers in the living
room before it was time to move
to the dining room for dinner
The day of my elaborate dinner was warmer than usual for the middle of February, almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit, when usually daytime temperatures are only a little above freezing this time of year. Still, as evening fell and the time approached for my guests' arrival, the night air cooled quickly and I was glad for the fire crackling in my fireplace.

The evening was a smashing success. My guests enjoyed one another's company immensely. Animated conversation filled my little farmhouse, ranging from national politics to the flora and fauna inhabiting a nearby nature preserve to which we are all connected in various ways. Everyone enjoyed pondering the trivia questions I had prepared, while I switched out chunks of bread and fondue pots of melted cheese for chunks of meat and pots of boiling oil and, finally, replaced the meat and oil for bowls of fruit and pots of melted chocolate with Gran Marnier. There was scintillating conversation and much laughter. 
My dining room was cozy and
romantic. Pictured from left to right:
Donna, Klaus, Jack, Liz and Joshua

Dessert was soon finished, yet the animated conversation continued. I showed everyone the master bathroom I remodeled last year, and when we returned to the living room, people took their seats and the conversation continued. I was immensely flattered that my guests were having such a grand time!

It was 3:00 a.m. before I finished
cleaning up and went to bed after
my guests departed. What a
wonderful time we all had!
It was well after midnight when my friends departed and I began the epic task of cleaning up, reliving every wonderful moment as I rinsed dishes, put away leftover food and drink, and returned my dining room table to its more diminutive size. I can't say that I created a romantic evening in a passionate or erotic sense, for that was not my intent. What I wanted to do, and I dare say I succeeded, was to create a romantic ambiance in honor of Saint Valentine that fueled an intimacy of enduring friendship. Dear acquaintances, reunited for an evening of fun and food, found their affinity for one another deepened over fondue and conversation. What better way than that to celebrate the patron saint of love?
"Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together" ~ Woodrow T. Wilson

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Staying On My Toes

Instructor Rico Samuel (top center in black T-shirt), with
the rest of our Freestyle Step classmates. I am kneeling

on the far left in the front row.
So how do I plan to stay fit in the new year? By continuing to do what I've been doing for the past five years: hiking on the weekends whenever possible in one of the many scenic wild spaces near my home in Baltimore County, Maryland, and by attending group fitness classes during the week at my local gym.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't been particularly good about going to the gym to do my own, solitary workouts. I don't really enjoy working out by myself and, once I get there, I find it to be a lonely endeavor, even though I am surrounded by others. About the only conversation that occurs when I work out by myself happens when someone inquires how much longer I will be on a particular machine, and then there is frequently the waiting I must do for a machine I want to use.

Nope, my preference, clearly, is for group fitness classes. There are so many distinct advantages to attending a class, in my opinion. For a personal, solitary workout, I can assign myself a regular time to go, but if I get busy or distracted (or lazy) at home or at work, I can too easily choose not to go, knowing the opportunity will be there almost any time (24 hours a day, actually, since my gym is open all night). But a group fitness class must be attended. It has a finite start and stop time.  If I'm busy or distracted, I will miss the class altogether. I can't go later at my convenience. I don't know about you, but that compels me to make more of an effort.

The biggest reason I love group fitness?  The camaraderie.  I am not alone in a group fitness class. I am together with between five and fifteen other sweaty souls, both men and women, some much younger and some closer to my own 60 years. They come in all races, all sizes and all levels of ability, just like the rest of the people out in the gym slogging through their workouts solitarily. But in a group fitness class, there is a sense that we are working together to achieve a common goal, which is to conquer the maneuvers put before us, whether it is lifting weights, mastering a warrior pose, or increasing stamina. We talk. We get to know each other. There is a camaraderie of banded effort, accentuated by the instructor's determination to make us feel like a cohesive group.

Today I want to expound on the virtues of my Free Style Step group fitness class. Led by instructor Rico Samuel, my Tuesday night Free Style Step class is the highlight of my week. Rico makes sure he knows the names of every participant in each class, and halfway through the hour he calls out to each one of us over the music, acknowledging our participation, thanking us for coming, remarking on what a great time we're having as we sweat to stepping maneuvers he has personally choreographed and put to the rhythmic beat of accompanying tunes he has specifically chosen.

This is an advanced Step class. It is not for wimps. Some of the stepping maneuvers are complex half-beat and one-and-a-half beat movements while twirling through the air or hopping on and off a low bench. Rico always offers easier combinations for newcomers or anyone who feels intimidated by the more advanced moves. And, if truth be told, I choose the simpler options for a few of the maneuvers that would have me hopping backwards off a step or spinning more than once around, as those moves tend to make me frightened of falling.

Still, I can say, with no small amount of pride, that for the most part I keep up with all the younger people in my Step class no matter how complicated the maneuvers are. By the time an hour is up, I have put in a solid, heartbeat-raising effort. Over the years I have come to know my classmates by name and we've exchanged contact information. Some have come to my home for impromptu get togethers; others have attended functions I've hosted in my volunteer work with a nature center nearby. And I've even shared FitBit data with two of them, so that my computer displays how many miles they've walked compared how many miles I've walked on any given day. It's all good. 

There is a feeling of companionship in attending a group fitness class. There is certainly a sense of satisfaction about having achieved a genuinely vigorous workout at the end of each session. There is without a doubt a difference in my ability to ski each winter from having legs that are so strong and fit. But my absolute favorite reason to love Free Style Step?  It is the knowledge that this hour of complicated choreography is exercising my brain as much as my body.

Rico takes time to teach us the individual maneuvers each week, which are then put together to form "combinations" set to music. He will teach us up to eight different combinations in each session, which we must then remember and perform in one long routine, sometimes in reverse order, as he calls out the names of the movements from the front of the room. As for those complex maneuvers for which I choose a less foot-twisting alternative?  When he calls out the name of that particular move, I must remember on my own which alternate maneuver I am doing instead, how many and what particular steps it takes and how to join the rest of the group at the end of that movement at precisely the right beat, on the proper foot, and in the correct position on (or off) the bench.  I tell you, by the end of the hour, I feel as though my brain has been as mentally stimulated as my body has been exercised.

If you haven't tried a group fitness class at your gym, you should.  From yoga to Pilates, from Body Pump to Zumba, there is a group fitness class to meet anyone's needs. I enjoy them all. But Free Style Step is, and will always remain, my very favorite.

"The important thing to remember about workouts is they only work if you do them."  ~ hasfit.com

Friday, December 23, 2016

Reflections on Christmas Eve eve...

It's the eve of the merriest holiday of the year, and I'm in a good spot.  I have the day off from work, which I took believing that I would have a slew of last minute wrapping, flower-arranging, baking and vinaigrette-making to do.  But the last of the gifts I ordered online arrived and was wrapped and put under the tree yesterday, my late mother's traditional persimmon cookies have all been baked and shipped with other gifts to family in northern California, and the hearty, garlicky mustard vinaigrette that I make every year to share with my neighbors is all bottled and gift-bagged and ready for door-to-door distribution on Christmas Eve. This year I added tiny Tobler chocolates and a satchel of pumpkin seeds to every gift bag, the seeds roasted with hickory smoked salt, Worcestershire sauce and butter, yet another recipe of my beloved mom's. And all the evergreens I've been collecting from my two-acre property, supplemented with magnolia and other seasonal branches and berries from a local topiary garden, have been set into vases as gifts for my manicurist, my hair stylist and my friend, Anna, who I visited on my lunch hour yesterday at the nursing home where she has lived since 2009.

So here I am, feeling very good about the holiday. I managed to design, produce, address and mail my Christmas cards (390 of them) to beloved friends and family in 30 states and seven foreign countries a full four days earlier than last year. I made cookies for the mailman, wrapped a case of beer for the garbage men, and took a beautiful bûche de noël and a vase of greens to my manicurist on Wednesday. My house is all decorated and so is the yard. 

This year I used fresh greens to make my own arrangements for 22 window boxes and hanging baskets around the perimeter of my home, and I must say that I am very pleased with how it all looks. My plan is to remove the Christmas lights after the holiday and leave the evergreens and berries in the flower boxes to cheer me all through the winter.

So here I am, with the day off from work and a rare gift of time to reflect upon and appreciate my happy circumstance. Mind you, I am not without anything to do. My dentist has arranged for a professional photographer to take some glamour shots of me (my teeth, specifically) this afternoon for her updated website. Once the photographer saw a photograph of my old farmhouse, he asked to do the shoot at my home, so he will be here at 4:00.  I have an appointment with my hairdresser at 2:00 and then will do my makeup and get dressed for the shoot. But these are all happy, fun things to look forward to!

I didn't expect to have a full morning to relax so close to Christmas.  I expected to be downright  frantic as I rushed around finishing a million little things.  So I've taken a few minutes this morning to write a post for my blog, something I have not had a spare moment to do in almost two years.  And now I think I'm going to take this happy accident of extra time and indulge in a luxurious bubble bath in my newly revamped master bathroom, last year's major (time consuming) home improvement project. What a special gift of relaxation that will be!

Merry Christmas to each and every one of you. I wish for you all a new year filled with peace and happiness and, most of all... time to appreciate what a good life this really is.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Blue Ice And Wind

The end of February was bitterly cold, so I searched my closet for outfits that long underwear could be worn beneath without adding much bulk, since my work commute from northwest Baltimore County, Maryland, to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. requires walking outside at both ends of the trip as well as standing on an elevated outdoor platform to await a subway train.  I found the perfect foil in a pair of super-wide belled jeans that were custom made for me from a pair I loved that disintegrated shortly after I bought them (see Hanging By A Thread).  

Besides, I was eager to have another excuse to wear this adorable sweater by My Collection, with its icy blue stripes and unusual muff-style front pocket.  The super-wide, three-quarter length Dolman sleeves complemented my wide bellbottoms and make the piece even more atypical, connected the way they are to the side seams of the sweater clear down to the hem.  This could have made the top a bit awkward to wear, since raising one’s arms means the entire sweater rises up.  However, the fabulous color variegation in the yarn, from gray to light blue to navy, makes it easy to layer the unique pullover with a variety of long-sleeve Tees.  On this day I chose a gray, ribbed knit Tee by Faded Glory, which allowed me to raise and lower my arms at will without worry about exposing myself to the harsh winter elements.

This fabulous sweater was a recent gift from Joyce, the mother of my best friend, Kari.  Joyce sent me the top in a box of gently-used clothing she no longer wore.  I was thrilled to get everything in the box, but this sweater really called out to me because of its extraordinary design.
Robinson's department store in Pasadena, California,
was a frequent destination of my mother and
grandmother when I was growing up

I pulled comfortable booties by Pink & Pepper over thick ski socks and played up the gray in the sweater by covering my head with an heirloom mink pillbox hat by Miss Alice that my grandmother bought at J.W. Robinson’s Department store in Pasadena, California, in the 1950s (I still have the hat box it came in!), and added my grandmother’s dangly earrings -- gray pearls that I long ago converted to pierced from old-fashioned screw-backs.

After one of my black walnut trees
snapped clear in half during a
powerful wind and ice storm in
mid-February, workers from
JamesPickett's Tree Service cut it down
The severe winter ice and wind storm that swept across the eastern half of the country in mid-February wreaked mercifully little havoc on my two acres.  I lost power several times through the course of the storm’s worst 60 mile-per-hour winds and had many large limbs from broken trees to drag cross my property into piles that eventually reached far over my head.  One walnut tree, however, broke literally in half. I didn’t feel comfortable about climbing so far up into the tree by myself with a Sawzall, so I called the owner of my trusty tree service, James Pickett.  It took almost two weeks for the company to clear out their post-storm emergency tree removal work before they could get to me.  But on this frigid day at the end of the month, as I was embarking on my chilly commute to the District of Columbia, the owner’s son and a couple of helpers arrived to make short work of the shattered tree and carry away all the broken branches in my two gigantic piles. 

Let the winds howl.  I was warm and comfy in my ice-blue sweater and giant bellbottoms all the way to work and back!

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Winter Cooking Issue

My rescue kitty, Ember, "helps" me de-stem
cilantro leaves for salsa as I sip an
"appletini" made with spiced rum
and homemade apple confiture
When the temperatures plummet for weeks at a time, I turn to the stove for warmth.  Not to heat my house, but to boil and braise, bake and roast, simmer and sauté my way through the frigid season.  I put on my favorite music, tie an apron around my waist, and start stirring, mixing, spreading and folding ingredients together to form sweet and savory dishes that warm my heart and nourish my soul.

I keep the temperature quite low in my 150-year-old farmhouse in Baltimore County, Maryland, in order to save money; just barely 63 degrees during the day and a cool 49 at night (I am snuggled beneath a down comforter and flannel sheets all night, after all).  During the day, when I’m not conducting research at the Library of Congress or the National Library of Medicine in Washington D.C. on behalf of my longtime employer, I huddle at the computer in my home office wearing several layers of winter leggings, wool sweaters and thick socks.  But after only a few minutes in the kitchen on any given Sunday, with Celtic or jazz or even symphonic melodies blasting from my stereo, I gleefully shed the layers and dance from sink to stove to cutting board and fridge.  I am in my “happy place” when I’m cooking, and the glow emanating from my body as I slice and dice is an easy indication of the sheer joy I derive from this pastime.

Here, then, is a pictorial compendium of the foods I have been preparing these past few months to soothe my psyche and fill my stomach.

Butternut squash lasagna was a
good way to ward off an
early December chill
Wrapping dough around the
apples and pumpkin before
baking gives the gallette
its own edible "pie plate"
In early December I made a tasty lasagna using butternut squash instead of meat, courtesy of Food Network magazine. The result was quite good, but was a laborious process for not many fewer calories than a meat version.  For dessert I baked a rustic apple-pumpkin gallette, also from Food Network, which paired the two late autumn foods to fine effect.

Ripe persimmons, fresh ricotta cheese
and ruby pomegranate seeds combine
with arugula to make a gorgeous salad
In early January I found myself with leftover persimmons and kumquats, quite a few of both, actually.  I adore persimmons, having grown up with a persimmon tree in northern California, so I buy a whole case of them every autumn when they come into season.  Now, however, the holidays were over and I still had several left.  I searched the internet for dishes which incorporate persimmons and found a delightful recipe for a persimmon-ricotta salad at What'sGabyCooking.com.  I also discovered a heavenly "winter sangria" of pureed persimmons, mangoes and triple sec stirred into red wine at Sparkpeople.com.

Fresh kumquats were a perfect
sweet-tart note in this super-rich
dark chocolate  bark recipe
from Martha Stewart.com 
Low-fat ricotta tart with kumquats
was melt-in-your-mouth delicious
By the middle of January I'd unearthed ways to use up my remaining kumquats in luscious, yet calorie-conscious desserts.  First, Martha Stewart gave me decadent chocolate bark with fruit: in this case kumquats sliced razor thin and sprinkled on melted, sugar-free, extra dark chocolate I ordered from Hersheys.com. Another recipe utilized kumquats to wondrous effect in a velvety, lowfat ricotta tart.

Baked eggplant is enhanced
with fresh pomegranate seeds
As a portion of the stuffing is
scooped from inside the gourd,
I made sure to scrape out
some tender squash, too
To precede these delightful treats, I served slices of baked eggplant in a heady yogurt sauce tinged with saffron strings, and made a colorful "three-pepper" salad of match-sticked bell peppers, onions, and slivered parsley leaves tossed with a dressing of sesame oil and rice vinegar (only 93 calories per cup, according to whatscookingamerica.net)! For another winter meal that month I stuffed acorn squash with ground pork, chopped carrots, celery and leeks seasoned with smoked paprika, garlic, rosemary and ground coriander (only 190 calories per cup), and served the gourd alongside roasted broccoli and a carrot-avocado salad.

Lean pot roast is tenderized
with soy sauce and sherry and
flavored with Asian spices
Fresh Shiitake mushrooms are
poached and tossed with
mache rosettes in a Dijon
mustard vinaigrette for this
hearty winter salad  
At the end of January I prepared a chuck roast with an Asian twist, courtesy of Wegman's supermarket menu magazine, which is published quarterly and sent to me in the mail because I am a regular shopper there.  Braised in soy sauce and sherry and seasoned with fresh ginger, ground cinnamon, star anise and garlic, the succulent beef was perfect with a poached mushroom salad, also from Wegman's menu magazine.

Lean stew meat is cooked with
bacon to add flavorful depth
Carrots and onions are simmered
in brandy before being added
to the meat
February's cold, snowy days cried out for my all-time winter favorite: Julia Child's original beef bourguignonne, a classic French peasant dish that, while no more than an elaborate stew, is so time-consuming and complex that I only have a chance to make it once a year.  For this unctuous recipe, I spent all afternoon in the kitchen, entertained by my favorite music, while I prepared the individual components that eventually combined to form the savory finale.

I have a giant metal "tea ball" which
I use for my bouquet-garni instead of
cheesecloth.  So much easier!
Once the carrots and onions are
added to the meat, the whole thing
is drenched in red wine and put in
the oven for a couple of hours
First, lean stew meat is sautéed in bacon fat for richness, then cooked with onions and carrots in burgundy and broth. To that, a bouquet-garni is added of fresh parsley, bay leaves, thyme, cloves, peppercorns, allspice and garlic and the whole thing is put into the oven for two and a half hours. Meanwhile, I blanch, peel and score a cross-hatch in the root ends of thirty or forty tiny pearl onions and sauté them in butter.  More broth is added and they simmer with a little sugar (I use Splenda) and salt for almost thirty minutes.  The third step is to sauté a pound of fresh cremini mushrooms in a little more butter, add some sliced shallots and grind in some black pepper.

Tiny pearl onions (I used red ones!)
are browned in butter and sugar
Meaty cremini mushrooms are
sautéed with shallots before
all the ingredients are combined
into a luscious stew
Once the beef comes out of the oven, I extract and de-fat the jus, then mix in a classic buerre-manie and pour the thickened sauce over the meat.  Finally, the onions and mushrooms are combined with the stew meat and the whole thing simmers on the stove awhile.  Served in wide, shallow soup plates and accompanied by a fine Pinot Noir, the mouthwatering stew is akin to a little slice of heaven on a raw winter day.  There is just nothing like it.

Cubes of butternut squash combine
with white wine to make
surprisingly hearty soup
Roasted tomatoes add a smoky
note to vegetarian chili
By the end of February, I was ready for some chili. I opted for a vegetarian version, utilizing butternut squash as a stand-in for beef and adding fresh-roasted and canned tomatoes, lentils, kidney beans and black-eyed peas, as well as white wine, tomato paste and chopped basil, parsley, minced garlic and lots of cumin powder.  I finished that hearty meal with Dulce de Leche cheesecake, a decadent but surprisingly low-calorie treat from the Splenda website, which called for low-fat cream cheese and half a can of dulce de leche (caramel sauce) in a graham-cracker crust.

I inherited my mother's prize
Le Creuset cookware and I swear
nothing beats it for making chili
The recipe for this gorgeous Dulce
de Leche cheesecake can be found
at Splenda.com
At the beginning of March I used the last of my persimmons to make a vegan vanilla persimmon-banana pudding from Shape.com and topped each serving with Chia seeds for a satisfying crunch.   Now, it's time to start thinking about bright spring dishes -- pasta primavera comes to mind, that wonderful combination of barely blanched spring green beans, asparagus, baby peas and morel mushrooms, tossed with sautéed cherry tomatoes, lots of garlic, red pepper flakes and fresh basil leaves, and served over whole wheat spaghetti with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Good thing I love my exercise classes as much as I do my cooking!
The ingredients for Pasta
Primavera highlight
spring's early bounty
"I am not a glutton. I am an explorer of food." ~ Erma Bombeck

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Caped Crusader

The weather was on a roll, it seemed.  Mother Nature would pack a walloping final punch of a winter storm the following day, but on this day, at the end of February, temperatures reached the mid-40s in Baltimore county, Maryland, where I live. Almost 50 degrees!  It was downright balmy compared to the sustained cold we’d endured all season in the mid-Atlantic.

I was on a roll, too.  I have a number of beautiful shawls, most of which are light, lacy confections that wouldn’t offer even a modicum of  protection from bracing air.  But I also own this gigantic, almost blanket-sized wrap in muted shades of orange and gold.  I was dying for a slightly warmer day to wear the cloak for my 90-minute commute by car, subway and foot to Washington D.C.  This last, less frigid day before another round of wintry weather arrived seemed like an ideal occasion for an enveloping cape.

I started with baggy sufi pants by medieval costumer Moresca, which would allow room for toasty long underwear beneath the trousers.  I added a simple brown sweater by Joseph A. and rich, cognac-hued riding boots by Brash which I purchased in New York City just before Christmas.  I wrapped the super-sized cape around me and let the fringe dangle.  I added a wide bracelet of pale wooden beads and a pair of earrings carved from oak to round out my look.

A chill wind picked up in the afternoon, bringing with it barometric changes that foretold the coming storm.  But I was snugly enrobed in my cocoon of soft wool, feeling as if, at any moment, the wind would fill my cape like a sail and lift me to the heavens, Flying Nun style, with fringe fluttering, where I would swiftly flit far above the commuters sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic below.  A girl can dream!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Space And Time

Costumed characters greeted patrons at the BSO's
Sci-Fi Spectacular concert on February 22
It was an uncharacteristically mild (for February) Saturday night in Maryland.  I had tickets to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Sci-Fi Spectacular, a program of mesmerizing compositions from such well-known movies as Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Since this was to be a more laid back symphonic production, conducted by the BSO’s esteemed Pops conductor Jack Everly instead of music director Marin Alsop, I chose more casual attire for the evening.

Having spent most of the afternoon attending the American Craft Council’s annual craft show at the Baltimore Convention Center, I decided the same outfit was quite appropriate (and comfortable) for the evening’s venue, as well: a pair of copper-colored BrazilRoxx jeans with shiny studwork and shimmering embroidery, paired with a gossamer shawl by Sterling Styles.  I changed only my top, switching from a simple cotton tank to a sequin-covered camisole by Ann Klein.  With glittery copper earrings from Chico’s to highlight a gorgeous electroplated oak leaf necklace from Nature's Creations which I found at the craft show, I added only a copper bracelet and a “dea dread” hair comb before making my way to the Joseph B. Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore City’s arts and culture district.

The Meyerhoff Symphony Hall is
 a study in modern architecture
A lone Storm-Trooper "guards" the
stage before the concert begins
The evening was delightful. Characters dressed in realistic costumes from various science fiction adventures greeted patrons in the lobby of the symphony hall before the concert.  As I took my seat in the beautiful and modern auditorium, which was designed and built in 1978 by the architectural firms Pietro Belluschi and Jung/Brannen Associates, an “armed” storm-trooper stood sentinel at the front of the 65- by 35-foot stage while musicians warmed up behind him with their instruments.

George Takei and Kristen
Plumley added an authentic
note to the evening
Shortly after Maestro Everly took the stage and led the orchestra through a rousing rendition of John Williams’ main Star Wars theme, we were treated to a medley of theme songs from some of the syndicated television shows of my youth, including My Favorite Martian, Lost in Space and Twilight Zone, after which members of the audience were invited to raise their hands to name at least four of the shows whose unforgettable music we had just heard.  It was a riot.

These Star Wars characters helped
put patrons in the mood for space
But the highlight for me was when George Takei took the stage to thunderous applause and, after bantering with the audience for a few minutes about how Baltimore compared to Los Angeles, narrated the introductory sequence to the original Star Trek series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” as the orchestra played the familiar refrain in the background.  Then, just as magically, soprano Kristen Plumley, attired in Lieutenant Uhuru’s dress uniform, took her place on stage to intone the soaring melody as the orchestra enchanted the audience with the Star Trek suite. I was entranced.

Following an intermission, we were treated to compositions from The Day The Earth Stood Still, as well as additional works from Star Wars and Close Encounters. Each piece of music was accompanied by a laser show bouncing rays of colorful light off the walls and ceiling of the symphony hall. Altogether, the evening made for a spellbinding trip down memory lane – from the far reaches of the universe.

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” ~ Star Trek’s introductory sequence, narrated by William Shatner at the beginning of all but one of the series’ original episodes.