Enter…Fall. Roasted Vegetable and Kale Stew

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So here we are…Fall has fallen, so to speak, and October is upon us! (What happened to September??? I don’t have my Fall banner up yet!)

I love Fall, actually, and especially October. I was born in October (today is my birthday, as a matter of fact), and I love the crispness in the air, the changing colors of the leaves and the deep blue of the autumnal sky. And while I do miss all of the summer vegetables, there’s a lot to be said for this season’s variety of fruits and veggies, too.

Even though we still have 80 degree temps this week, here’s a very fall-ish dish for those cooler nights. This roasted vegetable and kale stew is filled to the brim with hearty veggies and earthy greens. Potatoes, carrots, green beans and squash are roasted first to concentrate and caramelize their flavors. Tender leeks are sautéed with a bit of fresh garlic, salt and pepper. Then a little chicken broth (or vegetable broth or all water) is added to the pot along with some tomatoes, herbs, the roasted veggies and fresh kale. Cook until the flavors blend and you have Fall in a bowl! And as with most soups and stews, it gets better each day after you make it, and freezes well.

Fall is also a great time to be outdoors and about. There are festivals and shindigs galore to explore in autumn. You know I’ve been hiking every weekend, and we have long since completed the Top Ten Atlanta Hikes and moved on to other hikes, walks and adventures. Here’s a little slideshow of the last few weeks since I posted, to catch you up.

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Meanwhile, here’s the recipe and I hope you enjoy this healthy and hearty stew. Cheers and Happy October everyone!

Roasted Vegetable and Kale Stew
Makes 8-10 Servings

2 Large Idaho potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1 inch cubes
3 large carrots (I used rainbow for color), peeled and sliced 1/4 inch on the diagonal
3/4 lb. green snap beans, trimmed and snapped into bite sized pieces
2 medium zucchini or other squash, cut into 1 inch cubes
3 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon each of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large leeks, washed well, trimmed and diced, white and light green parts only
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 Tablespoons of olive oil
a pinch of kosher salt and two grinds of black pepper
1 28-oz. can of whole, peeled tomatoes and their juice, low sodium
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 1/4 cups water
2 bunches (about 3/4 lb.) fresh lacinato kale, stems removed and leaves chopped into 2-3 inch pieces
1/4 cup packed shredded fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
additional salt and pepper to taste if needed

Line a cookie sheet with tin foil and grease well with olive oil or cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spread the potatoes evenly on the cookie sheet, toss with 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil, sprinkle with about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and roast for 15-20 minutes. After 20 minutes, stir the potatoes, then add the green beans, carrots and zucchini that has been tossed in the remaining 1 Tablespoon of olive oil, season with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and pepper and roast for another 15 minutes. Stir well and roast for about another 10 minutes or until the vegetables are all tender and have a little color. Remove them from the heat.

While the veggies are roasting, heat the 1 1/2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large, heavy stock pot over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Turn the heat to medium low and add the garlic and stir for another 2 minutes or until the leeks are cooked through and just beginning to color. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the stock and the water, and stir well. Add the roasted vegetables and any juices to the pot and stir, then bring the stew to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and add in the kale, basil, parsley, tarragon and nutmeg. Stir well and allow the stew to cook for about 10 to 15 minutes over low heat. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt and pepper if needed. Serve garnished with a little fresh parsley if desired. I love this with cheddar corn muffins!

Last of Summer’s Bounty: Rustic Heirloom Tomato and Caramelized Onion Tart

finishedslice1Although Summer isn’t my favorite time of year…mainly because it gets so darn hot and muggy where I live, I do really enjoy the fruits and veggies of the season. The end of summer always brings a tearful time saying goodbye to the last of the peaches, corn, peas and tomatoes of the season. Fortunately, we do have a longish summer here, and I could still find an heirloom tomato or two in our local farmer’s markets last week.

Having procured three fine heirloom tomato specimens, I felt bound to make a dish in their honor. This rustic tomato tart has a few steps, but it’s easy to make. Use some of your own pie crust you may have on hand, or purchase some good quality crust at the grocer. The juicy-ripe tomatoes join with their BFF’s—sweet onion that’s been caramelized to really enhance the flavor, some fresh basil and thyme, and three fantastic cheeses—to create this delightful ode to tomato goodness. It’s sweet, it’s savory, it’s gooey, it’s delicious.

To keep your tomatoes from making this tart too soggy, I recommend slicing them, sprinkling them with a little sea salt and allowing them to drain a bit before you compose the tart. Save the resulting “tomato water” and use it to flavor cooked rice, or add to a pasta sauce. The tomato water essence is so flavorful that it deserves to be used and enjoyed…just remember that you are adding some salt to your dish via the tomato water, so adjust your seasonings accordingly. You can find the recipe below towards the end of this post. It’s so good, I’ll be out looking for tomatoes again this week!

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Warning! Here comes the long part of the post.

So for those of you keeping track, you may ask where have we been lately on our weekly hiking treks? In addition to some hikes further afield, we’ve actually completed eight out of the Top Ten Atlanta hikes. And, I might add, most of them were on days where the temps were in the upper 90 degree range. Honestly, if anyone had ever told me I’d be out hiking in the heat of summer I would have laughed in their face…but here I am and it’s been great, if a bit steamy! Here are some snippets from six more of those top ten Atlanta hikes to share with you, and again, if you live in the area or are visiting, these sites and hikes are well worth your time to enjoy and investigate. Be sure and run your cursor over any image to see a caption, or click to see a larger image.

We’re now entering prime hiking season in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Fall and Spring are great times of the year to “get some nature on,” take in some “forest bathing” and see the leaves turn—or the flowers start to bud and bloom, depending on where you are. And it’s so much more fun than going to the gym. So do yourself a favor and GO TAKE A HIKE!

Panoramic view from the Indian Seats, Sawnee Mountain.

Panoramic view from the Indian Seats, Sawnee Mountain.

#3 Sawnee Mountain Trail to Indian Seats: I don’t think I can describe this one better than the website I’m linking to here: “The Indian Seats Trail hikes over and around the sheer face of Sawnee Mountain to breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the mountain’s overlook. The trail is part of the 5+ mile network of hiking, walking and running trails at the Sawnee Mountain Preserve, a 900-acre stretch of beautiful coniferous and deciduous forest just 40 miles north of Atlanta. Sawnee Mountain’s history spans from a sacred site for the local Native American Cherokee and Creek tribes to a mining site in the 1800s search for gold in Georgia.” It’s a super trail and involves a 500+ foot elevation change.

#4 The Sope Creek Trail: This very in-town (it’s actually in a residential neighborhood) and relatively short trail at 1.5 miles, meanders through young forest and past the ruins of a Civil War paper mill. This is part of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area merges with the longer Cochran Shoals bike and running trails, and is very popular with mountain bikers and runners. Once you come off of the initial creek trail, you have many choices of how to extend your hike. One small trail leads to Sibley Pond on the way back out of the area. The trails are well marked with signage along the way showing you where you are, and if you are on a bike trail. If you ARE on a bike trail, keep a wary eye out as bikers can be upon you before you know it.

#5 The East Palisades Trail at the Chattahoochee River: Our first attempt at this really fun trail earlier this summer was aborted by a very strong lightning storm that came up quickly, encouranging us to head back down and home as fast as we could go! Fortunately we decided to give it another try before Labor Day, and it delivered a great hike with stunning views of the Chattahoochee River, which runs around and through Atlanta metro. There are about 3 plus miles of hiking trails on this side, with strong elevation changes and views above and alongside of the class 1 and 2 rapids. This trail begins in the Buckhead area of Atlanta…hard to believe it’s in the middle of town.

#6 The Kennesaw Mountain Trail: With more than 16 miles of trails to choose from, this Civil War Battlefield area is definitely one to visit multiple times. As long as I have lived here, this was my first visit to Kennesaw Mountain and it was a 98 degree day and unbearably hot and humid. Couple that with storms coming in, and we didn’t hike as long as we might have. We did hike the actual Kennesaw Mountain trail, which can get steep at some points, but provides a pretty nice view of Atlanta in the distance. There are many more trails to choose from in the area that cross mountains, battlefields and creeks, and pass through many historic sites. Each includes different access points if you don’t wish to trek the multi-mountain and over 16 miles of trails in full. Something to aspire to, I think, and maybe in the Fall.

#8 The Vickery Creek Trail in Roswell: This was one of the first of the Top Ten trails we hiked, and it is very pretty. The hike is about 3 miles through forest area and alongside the steep banks of Vickery Creek. There are two dams along the way, one is modern and the other is the historic Vickery Creek Dam from the Civil War era. Save a little time after your hike to enjoy the fun shops and restaurants in downtown Roswell.

#9 The Yellow River Trail at Yellow River Park: This 3.2 mile hike is an easy one through beautiful forested areas and alongside the Yellow River shoreline. The area has about 13 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails. My only complaint was that while there were a lot of trail markings, they were somehow not very clearly marked. Still, a great place to get in a hike without driving very far, and some parts closely resemble North Georgia.

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Rustic HeirloomTomato and Caramelized Onion Tart
Serves 6

1 Medium onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
1 – 9-inch ready made and thawed rolled pie crust 2 Large red, purple or pink tomatoes cut into 1/4″ thick slices (I used Cherokee Purple), sprinkled with a tiny bit of sea salt and placed in a colander or fine meshed sieve over a bowl to drain. Reserve the “tomato water” for adding to rice or pasta at another date.
1 Large yellow tomato cut into 1/4″ thick slices
3 oz. sliced buffalo mozzarella
1/2 cup part skim ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/4 cup packed basil leaves cut chiffonade
1 clove garlic, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cut finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Flour to roll out crust
8-10 Fresh basil leaves for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or silpat.

In a large non-stick skillet, heat the 1 teaspoon of olive oil over medium heat and add the onions. Sprinkle with a pinch of fine sea salt and some freshly ground pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have turned golden and caramelized, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Sprinkle about a tablespoon of flour on a work surface, and roll the pie crust into a 10 inch diameter circle. Transfer the crust to the baking sheet.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, thyme leaves, chiffonade of basil leaves, garlic and a pinch of freshly ground black pepper and mix well. Spread the ricotta mixture on the pie crust in a circle, leaving about a 2 1/2″ border. Layer the caramelized onions on next, spreading evenly to top the ricotta mixture. Layer the tomatoes in a single layer, overlapping each slice and altering colors decoratively, and placing a slice of mozzarella in between each tomato. Fold the edges of the crust up over the edges of the tomatoes and pinch gently to seal the folds. Brush the edges of the crust and the tops of the tomatoes with a little olive oil. Sprinkle the top of the tart with some freshly ground black pepper and the parmesan cheese.

Bake the tart at 375 degrees F for about 35 to 40 minutes, until the cheese and the crust are a golden brown. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 3-5 minutes, then slice into 6 pieces and serve with basil leaves strewn on top.

Just out of the oven and it's a night shot...Gee, it's starting to get dark earlier and earlier!

Just out of the oven…gee, it’s starting to get dark earlier and earlier!

Peach and Blueberry Streusel Coffeecake

Ready to cut

Allow the cake to cool completely before you cut it…if you can wait that long!

Coffeecake. It’s not just for breakfast.

Sure, it’s a tasty way to start your work or school day, but this Peach and Blueberry Streusel Coffeecake is so much more a than breakfast food alone.

Peaches and blueberries were made for each other in my opinion, and this cake is chock-full of summer fruity goodness, without incurring too much damage to your waistline. The layered fruit within the cake and the oat, brown sugar and almond streusel topping combine to make this just sweet enough, with a crunchy and satisfying texture on top. It’s a perfect combo.

Make one for your holiday weekend cookout (and add a little ice cream or whipped cream on top for decadence), or have it as a snack after a hike or swim…you’ll love it. AND it’s wonderful for breakfast, too, by itself or with a dollop of greek yogurt on top.

What? No peaches or blueberries in sight? Try it with fresh cherries, pitted and cut in half. Or apples. Or pears. It’s a versatile recipe as far as fruit goes, and it’s one we’ll be enjoying year round from now on. Check out the recipe below and try it for yourself.

I’ll share more hikes with you next post, but in the meantime, have a wonderful week and weekend…and get out there and do some forest bathing if you can. Be sure to have some of this cake waiting for you when you get back!

Peach and Blueberry Streusel Coffeecake
(Slightly adapted from Cooking Light.)
Makes 12 servings

2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4 cups fresh blueberries
1 1/2 cups fresh peeled and thinly sliced peach
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2 tablespoons blanched and slivered almonds
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup granulated cane sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup lowfat buttermilk
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Lightly spoon in 2 cups flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine the 2 cups flour, baking powder, soda and salt, in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk. Remove 2 tablespoons flour mixture and sprinkle over the blueberries and peaches, tossing to coat.

In another medium bowl, combine the brown sugar, oats, almonds, 1 tablespoon of flour and cinnamon. Drizzle with the 2 tablespoons of melted butter and toss to combine.

Place the granulated sugar, 1/4 cup butter, and oil in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until blended (about 2 minutes). Add the egg and beat well. Add the flour mixture and buttermilk alternately to sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mix after each addition. Stir in the lemon rind and juice.

Spoon half of the batter into a 9-inch square light-colored metal baking pan that has been greased lightly with butter. Sprinkle evenly with half of the blueberry and peach mixture. Spoon remaining batter over the fruit and spread evenly. Sprinkle the top of the batter evenly with remaining blueberry and peach mixture. Top with the brown sugar streusel mixture, sprinkled evenly. Bake at 375° for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack. Run a knife gently around the edge of the pan, invert the cake onto a plate, then invert the cake back onto the rack (this will keep the streusel from falling off of the cake. Cool completely on a wire rack. Cut into 12 squares and enjoy as is, or add a dollop of yogurt, whipped cream or ice cream, if desired.

 

Happenings, Fresh Corn Frittata and Some Potent Cherries

Cornfrittataslice1Work has continued to be brisk for me this summer…a very good thing. I don’t have as much time in the kitchen as I would normally, and when I’m in there, I’m not really experimenting on creating anything new. But I have been trying some new recipes…new to me, at least, from various sources. Here’s one of my favorites, especially since we’re in corn season—a fresh corn frittata.

This is such a brilliant idea from the June edition of Cooking Light magazine…and I wish I had thought of it! I can’t tell you how pleased this dish made me. This frittata utilizes a slightly better technique than I have used in the past, resulting in a perfect looking and perfectly textured slice of goodness. The fresh corn paired with egg, cheese, shallot and herby, fresh Italian parsley, just sings. It’s also very easy to make! We enjoyed this dish with the Fruited Farro Salad from my last post, also inspired by this particular jam-packed issue of the magazine. Don’t miss out on trying this frittata while corn is in season, you won’t be sorry! You can find the recipe at the end of this post.

In addition to this lovely frittata, I want to share another recipe that I’m so excited about. It’s for Bourbon Cherries from Greg and Katherine over at Rufus’ Food and Spirits Guide. (Click on the titles to see for yourself.) This year we’ve had an amazing amount of cherries at a decent price in our markets…the first time I can remember this, so it must have been a very good year for them. I saw this recipe on their blog and happened to already have a huge bag of cherries in the fridge, waiting to be dispatched…et voilà! I followed their recipe exactly except for the fact that I have a cherry pitter, so I left mine whole instead of halving them. I’m so excited about these potent babies, that I’m going to make another batch. We have particularly enjoyed the cherries and the liqueur mixed with rye and a couple of drops of bitters for a delicious spin on a Manhattan. My mind is reeling at the possibility of the new cocktails and quick breads or cakes that I could make with these cherries, and the liqueur they produce. Thanks Greg and Katherine, we’re all smiles over here!

We've polished off half of these so I'm making some more tonight!

We’ve polished off half of these so I’m making some more tonight!

We’re still having fun hiking this summer on our mission to do a new hike once a week, and these hikes almost always involve walking in woods and forests. It’s a fact that walking in the woods lifts spirits and makes you feel good, but did you know that it can lower blood pressure and pulse rate, decrease fatigue and tension, increase the number of anticancer proteins and encourage the growth and activity of disease fighting white blood cells? I have read that in Japan, this has developed into a new form of therapy and preventative medicine called shirin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” which involves taking a relaxing stroll among the trees, breathing it all in. Who knew? We love it and I think you will, too, if you give it a try.

There are some books and websites available that have been our inspiration for these hikes and you can check them out for yourself by clicking on these three links—Atlanta’s Best Hiking Trails, Top Ten within 40 miles of Atlanta, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Atlanta, and the book Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests-Intown and Out. So far, we’ve hiked 7 of the Top 10 trails and in the last few weeks, all of them beautiful and quite diverse. What we’ve found is that each place even has trails within the trails, so some of these we’ll be returning to and will hike at a later date. We’ve been at this since June 8, and I’m a little late in sharing due to delayed posting, so today I’ll highlight of a couple of them with you to get caught up.

Following are the Top 2 out of the Top Ten Atlanta Trails that we’ve hiked so far, along with links to more details about the trails. I would encourage you to read the links before visiting, as there is much more information about the areas and the history that I can detail here without making this post even longer than it already is. I hope you enjoy hiking along with us for a spell!

#1 Sweetwater Creek State ParkWe could certainly see why this one was ranked number 1 out of the Atlanta trails. It’s about a 30 minute drive west of Atlanta and the scenery is stunning, spanning over 2500 acres of creekside landscape. A wooded trail follows the stream to the ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company, a textile mill burned during the Civil War. Sweetwater Creek provides a North Georgia outdoor adventure – without the drive. We trekked a 5.1 mile loop next to the creek, which involves some elevation changes and a small amount of the trail is over rock. Once you reach the end of the creek trail, you turn into forest for the next couple of miles, then come out into flat pasture land to make your way back to the trail head at the LEED Platinum Visitor’s Center, which is well worth taking a few minutes to tour. As another hiker recommended, we stayed to the left on our hike, walking next to the creek and meandering back to the main trail. The trails are easy to see, but the blazes are not well marked. Staying to the left along the creek makes it easy not to get lost and it’s very pretty, too.

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#2 Arabia Mountain Trails: To say that you’d never guess this exposed granite field landscape was in Georgia, much less half an hour from Midtown Atlanta, is an understatement. This barren, moon-like and almost surreal landscape is quite otherworldly. On our first trip, we chose to hike the Mile Rock Trail (but I like to call it Moon Rock Trail) over a mile long and stone cairn-marked granite face to Lake Arabia, then headed back through the forest trail leading to the bike trail, and out from there. It was early afternoon and 98 degrees the first day we went, so we kept our hike to about 4 miles and did not go up the mountain. Our second trip was this weekend. This time we did hike to Arabia Mountain and the summit, which commands a beautiful view of the surrounding area. From the summit you can see that there is another forest trail at the base of the mountain which will take you to Arabia Lake (yes, there are two lakes apparently with similar names.) Both granite trails feature many interesting ecosystems unique to the area, the granite itself is very beautiful with molten patterns. When we hiked this past weekend, we’d just had torrential rains the night before, so there were small ponds in the granite, teeming with life. I can just imagine how magnificent these ecosystems must be in Spring, and we’ll have to check that out. The are also some 30 miles or more of connected bike trails through this general area, known as the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, and we’ll be back there with our bikes in the Fall.

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Extreme panoramic view from the summit of Arabia Mountain.

Extreme panoramic view from the summit of Arabia Mountain.

Lastly, I’d like to thank everyone for their very kind comments about my header. While it does look quite tropical—and that’s what I was going for, being Summer—you might be interested to know that it is actually an un-retouched image of a cardinal flower in bloom in my front yard…next to a pine tree! Pretty cool, eh?

This is the most perfect looking frittata I've made to date!

This is the most perfect looking frittata I’ve made to date!

Corn Frittata with Pecorino-Romano Cheese (but I used Parmesan instead!)
Ever so slightly adapted from Cooking Light
Makes 4 servings

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels and their milk* (about 3 ears)
1/2 cup diced shallots
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup 1% low-fat milk
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat a medium oven proof skillet over medium high heat, I use my 10 inch cast iron skillet. Add the oil to the pan and swirl to coat. Add the corn and the shallots to the pan and cook 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, 14/ teaspoon of the pepper and the smoked paprika. Place the corn mixture into a small bowl and set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Wipe our your skillet with a paper towel, and set aside for a moment.

Place the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, milk and eggs in a bowl and whisk to combine. Add the corn mixture to the egg mixture and stir to combine. Preheat the broiler to high.

Return the skillet to medium heat and add butter to the pan. Swirl until the butter melts. Add the egg mixture to the pan. Cook 1 minute without stirring. Gently slide the pan back and forth to keep eggs from sticking. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 4 minutes longer or until eggs are set and golden on the bottom. Sprinkle cheese evenly over eggs. Broil 1 minute or until eggs are are just set on top and the cheese browns. Remove from the oven, slice into four pieces and serve with parsley sprinkled over and a little more paprika for garnish, if desired.

*After you have used the sharp side of your knife to cut fresh corn off the cob, use the flat side to scrape down the cob and get the sweet corn “milk” liquid to add to the kernels and cook as outlined. Very tasty.

 

Camping and Hiking Part II, Fruited Farro Salad, and Grilled Za’atar Spiced Chicken with Peppers and Onions

FinishedFarroCherrySaladSummer is in full force and it’s just flying by. Soon the children will go back to school, the wind will take on a decidedly cooler feel, and Fall will be here before we know it—but not yet! There’s still plenty of time for grilling and chilling.

Hot weather makes me crave salads and this Fruited Farro Salad is one of my new favorites. This colorful salad is more savory than sweet, with a perfect balance between the natural sweetness of the fruit and nuts, the herbaceous parsley and crisp celery, and the chewy farro with a tangy dressing. It pairs well with most any food and is particularly nice with barbecued pork, or with your favorite style of chicken…like this Za’atar Spiced, Marinated and Grilled Chicken with Peppers and Onions. These two dishes make a complete meal, and the farro salad lasts for a few days, so leftovers can be used for a light lunch. Check out the easy recipes below for these two versatile and delicious dishes to try.

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, we’ve been doing some hiking lately and have managed a hike a week all summer—with the one exception of last week when we were traveling. Hiking in North Georgia is particularly nice right now because the temps are so much cooler than those we have here in the city. Following is the continuation and conclusion of my story about our little adventure camping in the mountains in early June, featuring three more great hiking areas to explore…

Close to the Warwoman Dell recreation area is Black Rock Mountain, a beautiful state park with a visitors center which is situated at the top of the mountain, overlooking the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains. The area features camping, cabins and hiking trails as well as scenic overlooks with some 80 miles of vistas. The cabins and the tent campsite areas literally hang over the edge of the top of the mountain, and the views are breathtaking. There are RV campsites with hookups by reservation, cabins by reservation and walk-in rustic campsites on a first come, first serve basis. Because we’d just finished our hike at Warwoman Dell when we visited here, we didn’t hike any of the trails, but we did make a note to try renting a cabin here at some point down the road.

The next day our hike was at Tallulah Gorge State Park. I had visited the gorge before from the other side, but hadn’t been to the Interpretive Center or down some of the trails that follow a series of waterfalls from the Center…some of which are quite steep. One of the most spectacular canyons in the eastern U.S., Tallulah Gorge is two miles long and nearly 1,000 feet deep. You can obtain a pass at the Center to go down to the floor of the gorge and cross over it on an 80 foot suspension bridge. On the day we were there, they had given out the limited number of passes available to hike down into the gorge, so we toured some of the waterfalls instead. We walked down 3 different trails and viewed 3 of the numerous waterfalls, but were thwarted from going further by some rather ominous storm clouds moving in. For those who are lucky and adventurous enough to get a pass to go down into the gorge, know that there are around 1099 steps down into, and back out of, the gorge. It’s considered a strenuous hike…especially coming back up. You can loop across the gorge and come out on the other side…if you’re hearty enough to do so. Another day for us, perhaps.

Our last hike on this 4-day trip was up the mountain of Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia. Brasstown Bald rises 4,784 feet above sea level and its peak looms half a mile above the surrounding valleys. The observation deck offers a breathtaking view of the mountains’ scenic vistas, which sweep a four state area, and the “Bald” falls under the purview of the U.S. Forest Service.

“You hiked all the way up the mountain?” you ask. Heck no. We drove up most of it to the Forest Service Park Ranger parking area, took our picture with Smokey the Bear like any other good tourists would, then hiked the paved and steep 1/2 mile trail to the summit of the Bald where the Visitor’s Center and lookout station are located. For those who don’t wish to hike the trail, there’s a free shuttle that will take you to the summit.

In addition to being able to view four states from the Bald on a clear day, the weather at the summit of Georgia’s tallest mountain is very different from the rest of Georgia. The temperatures are 5-10° F cooler than the rest of the state, and at any time, fog, mist, and storms may unexpectedly move in and obscure the view. These weather conditions help to contribute to the variety of plants and wildlife found on the forested slopes of Brasstown Bald Mountain, and we were able to see spring wildflowers, mountain laurel, azalea and ferns all the way up the trail. It’s a great place to visit in the summer because the temperatures have never exceeded 84° F. The Forest Service has an interpretive center inside the Visitor’s Center, along with a little theater that plays a short film on the history and nature of Brasstown Bald. You can walk up the short flight of stairs to the observation decks and see north, south, east and west, with maps to view that show you what you’re seeing. It’s quite charming and very beautiful.

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On the last day of our camping/husband’s birthday trip, we experienced a very scary thunderstorm during the night that had us hurriedly packing up our tent and heading home the next day. Fortunately, we have a great tent with a rain fly, and were camped in a secluded spot during the storm. And most fortunate of all, there wasn’t any significant wind or hail involved and our tent didn’t leak, but the lightning was frequent and the torrential rain was relentless. All in all, we had a great time and were lucky that the weather held for us as long as it did, since scattered thunderstorms are the norm here this time of year.

I’ll share more hiking adventures soon, but for now let’s get back to the food! Being outdoors makes me really hungry and this easy meal is a tasty and healthy way finish to your day after hitting the trails, or for dinner any time. I hope you all are having a lovely summer so far…or if you’re in the southern hemisphere, a mild winter. Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy these two dishes.

Fruited Farro Salad
Slightly adapted from Cooking Light’s Farro, Cherry and Walnut Salad
Makes 8 Servings

5 cups water
1 1/2 cups uncooked farro
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
3/4 pound sweet cherries, pitted and halved (about 2 cups) or an equal amount of red seedless grapes, halved
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted
1/2 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
additional freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring 5 cups water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add farro and 1/4 teaspoon salt to boiling water; cook 15 minutes or until al dente. Drain; cool at room temperature, about 15 minutes. Combine farro, cherries or grapes, celery, walnuts, and parsley in a large bowl.

Combine lemon juice, mustard, honey, pepper, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, stirring with a whisk. Gradually add oil, stirring constantly with a whisk. Pour dressing over farro mixture; toss to coat. Taste for seasoning and add a little more pepper if needed.

Happy 4th of July! Happy Weekend!

fireworksIt’s a great day to celebrate our country’s independence, and to celebrate independence in general. We take for granted the rights we have in this country to make our own choices, and to choose those who enact those choices for us. We have the freedom to live where we want, cross our state borders freely, speak our minds and interact with the rest of the world. We should never forget that we are fortunate to be citizens of, and to live in, this country, nor forget the price and the responsibility of protecting our freedom to do so.

Today in America is all about celebrating liberty and freedom. And celebrate we will!

Here are some great dishes to share that are worthy of a celebration…or worthy of a weekend shared with family and friends. Whether you need inspiration for an appetizer, a salad, side, main dish or dessert, you can find it below. Click on the name under each image to link to its recipe.

Cheers, everyone! May those of you in the United States of America have a wonderful and safe Independence Day, and may all of you out there have a fantastic weekend.

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Deep South Deviled Eggs

You know you want one of these!

You know you want one of these!

Italian Sliders

This is what the patties should look like once off the grill, and see? They are juicy!

Sundried Tomato and Basil Turkey Burgers

Alas, another night shot which really doesn't do these justice, a wrinkle in my cloth, and my little digital camera ran out of space in the middle of shooting...plus I was hungry!

Alas, another night shot which really doesn’t do these justice, a wrinkle in my cloth, and my little digital camera ran out of space in the middle of shooting…plus I was hungry!

Easy Chicken Enchiladas Verdes

Texas Sheet Cake....you know you want it, you know you're gonna make it!

Texas Sheet Cake….you know you want it, you know you’re gonna make it!

Texas Sheet Cake

Ready for the picnic, cookout or pot luck, this salad has outdoor fun written all over it!

Ready for the picnic, cookout or pot luck, this salad has outdoor fun written all over it!

Couscous Salad

Luscious homemade peach ice cream. I mean really, can there be anything better than this? (A daylight picture perhaps?)

Luscious homemade peach ice cream. I mean really, can there be anything better than this? (A daylight picture perhaps?)

The Best Peach Ice Cream

Now THIS is a southern plate of food that makes me grin like a Cheshire Cat!

Now THIS is a southern plate of food that makes me grin like a Cheshire Cat!

Firecracker Slaw and Corn with Chipotle Butter

With such a fiesta of color, this dish just has to be good!

With such a fiesta of color, this dish just has to be good!

Betsy’s Famous Black Bean and Mango Salad

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Betsy’s Retro Cheese Olive Bites and Bacon Wrapped Dates with Apricot and Pistachio

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Curried Chicken Salad

Tarragon Pecan Chicken Salad on Brioche Crostini...need I say more? But I will!

Tarragon Pecan Chicken Salad on Brioche Crostini…need I say more? But I will!

Tarragon Pecan Chicken Salad on Brioche Crostini

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Cornbread Tartlets with BBQ Pork, Sauce and Wickle

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Crustless Summer Squash, Zucchini and Tomato “Pie”

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Peach Melba Pops

finished plate3Mock Maque Choux

The 4th of July all wrapped up in a dessert. Happy Independence Day!

The 4th of July all wrapped up in a dessert. Happy Independence Day!

Star Spangled Peach, Cherry and Blueberry Crumble

 

A Camping Trip, A Birthday and A Blogging Anniversary!

Finished2 Happy Summer! 

These last few weeks have been filled with events—a lot of work, a little travel, a little cooking, a little hiking and some little cakes.

My posting has also been a little less frequent lately, so it’s time for a series of “catching up” posts on what’s been going on. Sit down with your favorite warm or cold beverage and come along with me as we explore some of the wonderfully wild and incredibly beautiful National Forests, Recreation Areas and State Parks of Northeast Georgia, United States.

My husband’s birthday was June 5th and he wanted to take a 3-4 day tent camping trip up to the mountains, which has become our ritual around his birthday. It’s a nice time to go because it’s just before the arrival of crowds, pesky insects and the super hot weather.

Full disclosure here: We have a very large tent that we jokingly to refer to as “the condo,” an inflatable queen-sized pillow-top air mattress, a clip on “ceiling fan” with a light, a two burner propane stove top, lanterns, chairs, a grill top for fire pits and an inflatable class IV rapid Sevylor two person travel kayak that we’ve taken out on lakes, rivers and the ocean. We only camp where we can car camp and there’s at least one “facility” close by. So before anyone says “I can’t believe you camp in a tent for fun and relaxation,” this is our version of “glamping!”

On this trip, we spent our time in and around Lake Rabun, camped in a National Forest Recreation Area close to the lake. Lake Rabun is the third of a series of six manmade lakes in North Georgia, owned and operated by Georgia Power who built damns in this area to create lakes that generate hydroelectric energy for Atlanta. Rabun is our favorite of these lakes and we always enjoy some of the small amenities in the area including a couple of restaurants and an inn or two, a grocery store, a marina and a local vineyard. It suits our glamping style quite well! On this trip in addition to swimming in the lake, we did something we don’t normally do up there while camping…trail hiking. As many times as I’ve been in that area, I had no idea there were so many beautiful trails so close by.

Of course the Appalachian Trail runs through Georgia and there are trailheads for it throughout our mountains, but in our case we were interested in smaller looped trails for short day trips. One we discovered that has now become a particular favorite of ours was Warwoman Dell. It’s a beautifully scenic recreation area along Warwoman Creek, featuring a small nature trail that leads to a waterfall surrounded by wildflowers and other fauna, and also access to the 37-mile long Bartram Trail, which runs through this area as well. We packed a picnic and hiked around through the dells along a small section of the Bartram Trail, then headed down the nature trail to the waterfall, snapping pictures as we went. It was so idyllic and peaceful…very “Middle Earth,” and I’d go back there in a heartbeat. Here’s a slideshow of our Warwoman Dell adventure.

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I hope you’ll take a moment to follow the links associated with the name of each spot and find out more about these scenic areas…and maybe even check them out for yourself if you live in this area. I’ll be sharing the rest of our trip and some sights in the next post, so stay tuned.

We actually had so much fun hiking while on vacation, that we’ve now decided to take one hike a week, but not necessarily in the mountains. You see, we are blessed with such a diversity of ecosystems here in this state, as well as having a plenty of State Parks and National Forest areas. There are actually 60 hikes within 60 miles of Atlanta, and 30 of them are within 30 minutes of our house! We’ve been doing more hiking since we returned from this trip and I’ll share some of the best of those with you over time.

In addition to celebrating my husband’s birthday, last Sunday (the 15th of June) was my 3 year blogging anniversary! My goodness, what a full 3 years this has been. And while my posting has suffered a bit lately, let me assure you that I’m here to stay and I hope you’ll keep on reading and commenting with me for the next 3 years. Thank you for joining me on this wonderful blogging journey!

This post just wouldn’t be complete or true to the tagline of this blog: “Where all trails lead to good food,” if I didn’t share these deliciously quick and festive mini-cupcakes I made upon our return home to celebrate my husband’s birthday and my bloggiversary. This devil’s food is rich and dark, with the addition of coffee to really liven up and enhance the chocolatey flavor. And my easy Vanilla Buttercream frosting is a recipe I’ve made since I was a child. It’s a perfect foil for the devil’s food cake.

Cheers, happy eating and happy hiking!

Easy Devil’s Food Mini-Cupcakes with Easy Vanilla Buttercream Icing
Makes 32 mini-cupcakes or about 8 regular-sized cupcakes

For the cupcakes:
2 ounces of unsweetened baking chocolate
1 scant cup of granulated cane sugar
3/4 cup of all purpose flour
1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup of hot brewed coffee
1/4 cup light sour cream
1/4 cup canola oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
1-24 cup mini muffin tin and 32 mini muffin paper cups

For the icing:
1 3/4 cup confectioner’s (powdered icing) sugar, plus a bit more if needed for consistency 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2-3 Tablespoons of milk
1/4 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract, I use Madagascar Bourbon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line your tin with 24 muffin cups, reserving the remaining 8 muffin cups for the second batch (I do this in two batches, but if you have two pans by all means do one batch.) Melt the chocolate over very low heat, stirring constantly, then remove it when it is smooth and set aside. Sift the sugar, flour, baking soda and salt together into a medium bowl. In a large bowl, whisk together the coffee, sour cream and canola oil. Gradually whisk in the egg, then stir in the chocolate. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring until smoothly blended. Drop the batter by tablespoonfuls into the muffin cups, filling them 3/4 of the way full. Bake the cupcakes in the oven for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. (Larger cupcakes will take 20-25 minutes.) Remove the cupcakes from the pan and allow them to cool upright on a wire rack, until they are completely cooled. If doing two batches, repeat the process with the remaining batter and cups.

When the cupcakes are completely cooled, make the frosting. Place the softened butter into a small bowl. Beat a small amount of the powdered sugar into the butter with a hand mixer fitted with beaters and on low speed, until well blended. Continue to add the sugar alternating with the milk until the icing is smooth but stiff enough to spread. Add the vanilla and mix well. Add more sugar if the mixture is too soft, or a tiny bit more milk if it’s too stiff. Use a small spatula to spread about a scant tablespoon of icing onto each cupcake. Serve with celebratory candles, sprinkles and ice cream! These will keep at room temperature well covered in plastic for a couple of days…if you have any left.

Bourbon Scented Peaches with Ginger Cinnamon Shortcakes and Vanilla Cream

MaindishAh, Spring. It was so pretty and it went by so fast.

Suddenly we are full into summer here, and with that comes one of my most favorite fruits…the mighty delicious peach. Now supposedly I live in what is known as the “Peach State” in the United States…that would be Georgia. But having lived here for three decades now, I have to say I didn’t understand until just recently why anyone would say this was the peach state. All of the peaches I’d ever tasted here were quite inferior to those from my native state of Alabama. In fact, I’ll be harsh enough to say that the ones I’d tried from Georgia were always picked too early, were mealy and tasteless.

That is until three years ago when I discovered Pearson’s Peaches at the local Farmer’s Market.

It was a banner peach year, with perfect growing conditions and a very, very long peach season. The first peach I tasted was all that a peach should be: Juicy, fruity, naturally sweet deliciousness dripping down your chin when you bite into it. Never had I tasted a peach this good. We gorged on peaches for 4 months! Here are some of those recipes that I posted during that time: Just Peachy Ice Cream, Peach or Nectarine Lemon Buttermilk Sorbet with BourbonA Very Short Little Peach Cake, A Star Spangled Cherry Berry Peach Crumble, Peachy Pops, Mom’s Easy Peach and Blueberry Crisp, Damon Fowlers Peach Orange Marmalade…just to name a few.

Now it is peach season again in Georgia. It’s a little late this year because the first crop was destroyed by the cold, and the next round was delayed by all of the rain. But they are here and they are grand. It’ll be a short season this year, but I plan to make the most of it. We’ve been through two bags of peaches already and here is my first peach recipe of the season…a really superb way to enjoy these beautiful and tasty fruits.

Peach Shortcake. No, not strawberry shortcake…not that I don’t love that, too. But if you’ve never tried a peach shortcake, you’re really missing something special. You can make it exactly the way you would a strawberry shortcake. Or, you can try this recipe of mine instead.

Peaches love bourbon, and I put just enough in with the peaches to scent them, but not overwhelm them. Peaches love cinnamon and ginger, too, as does shortcake. So I made my shortcake with candied ginger and a touch of cinnamon…resulting in a very scone-like shortcake that is as wonderful enjoyed as a scone with your tea as it is used in combination with your fine peaches. Lavish your split shortcakes with peaches, and then top this with a combo of heavy cream and a bit of yogurt, whipped together with madagascar bourbon vanilla and just a pinch of sugar. The yogurt adds a very slight underlying tang to the cream (kind of like a touch of sour cream) that balances well with the natural sweetness of the peaches and the bourbon. Wow. This makes for a not too sweet, but just right dessert that we could eat every day!

Bourbon Scented Peaches with Ginger Cinnamon Shortcake and Vanilla Cream
Makes 8 Shortcakes (Shortcakes adapted from Bon Appétit)

For the Ginger Cinnamon Shortcakes:
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons finely chopped candied (crystallized) ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups all purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon for work surface
6 Tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter cut into pieces
1 cup heavy cream
1 large egg plus 1 Tablespoon water beaten to blend

For the Bourbon Peaches:
12 fresh peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
2 Tablespoons sugar, or to taste
2 Tablespoons good quality bourbon, or to taste

For the Vanilla Cream:
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt, I use 2% fat
2 Tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon madagascar bourbon vanilla extract, or good quality vanilla extract

Optional sprigs of mint or tiny strips of candied ginger to garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Whisk the sugar, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, salt and 2 cups flour together in a large bowl. Add the pieces of cold butter and work in the butter with your fingers until the texture is like a coarse meal with a few pea-sized pieces of butter remaining. Add the cream and mix until the dough just comes together, it will be sticky. Turn the dough onto a flat surface lightly floured with the 1 Tablespoon of flour. Pat the dough out into a 12 x 4 inch rectangle about 3/4″ thick. Cut rounds out with a round 2 1/2″ biscuit cutter, re-rolling scraps as needed to make 8 rounds. Whisk the egg and water together in a small bowl. Transfer the rounds to a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silpat. Brush the top of each round with some egg wash. Bake until the tops are golden brown and the shortcakes are cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. (Shortcakes can be made 2 days ahead and stored tightly wrapped at room temperature.)

In a medium bowl, combine the peaches, sugar and bourbon and allow them to macerate for about 10 minutes at room temperature.

In a medium bowl that has been chilled in the freezer with the beaters for 5-10 minutes, whip the cream, yogurt, sugar and vanilla on medium high speed until the mixture forms soft peaks.

Split each shortcake in half and divide amongst 8 dessert plates. Spoon 1/8 of the peach mixture with its juices over each split shortcake. Divide any remaining juice from the peaches between the 8 shortcakes. Top each dessert with 1/8 of the cream mixture. Garnish with mint if desired, or a thin strip of candied ginger, and serve.

***Note: As you can see from my above photos, I made smaller shortcakes and cooked them for approximately 12-13 minutes. We made our desserts two at a time over the course of two days, and had the remaining shortcakes, sans peaches and cream, for breakfast with tea. These make amazing scones.

***Tip: Always chill your bowl and beaters before whipping cream, or in this case cream and yogurt. The chilled bowl and beaters will help the cream to whip faster and fluffier.

Juicy sweet and delicious to eat!

Juicy sweet and delicious to eat!

It’s May and All’s Okay

springtrees

Dogwoods in my neighborhood.

Silly little rhyme I know. But all is okay, thankfully, and I’m still cooking. I truly just haven’t had time to experiment on anything new due to work commitments. (Not a bad thing!)

Still, there have been moments squeezed in to enjoy the glory of Spring and some time with family and friends. Here are a couple of little slideshows of what’s been going on since last I posted…so long, long ago in April.

Mother’s Day brunch strata and some scenery in Florence, Alabama…

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Spring blooms and woodland walks…

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And of course, I had to make some Souvlaki and tzatziki, because it reminds me so of our Spring honeymoon in Greece.

I hope this post finds you all well, enjoying happy seasons and good weather. Summer is rapidly approaching for us, and with it all the great produce that comes our way. Rest assured, I’ll be sharing more recipes with you soon so stay tuned. Have a lovely week!

Here’s the recipe for the strata I made for Mother’s Day brunch. It’s great for any special occasion and it feeds a crowd!

Prosciutto, Sun Dried Tomato and Basil Strata
(Adapted from Bon Appétit) Serves 6-8 generously

16 1/2 inch slices of sourdough bread, crusts removed
8 ounces of prosciutto, thinly sliced
8 ounces of goat cheese, crumbled
6 ounces of provolone cheese, grated
1/4 cup chopped green onion
6 Tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil
1/4 cup well drained and chopped sun dried tomatoes
3 Tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
7 large eggs
2 1/2 cups 2% or whole milk
1 generous tablespoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Line the bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2 inch glass baking dish, or same size casserole, completely with 1 layer of bread, trimming slices to fit. Arrange half of the prosciutto over the top of the bread, then sprinkle half of the goat cheese and half of the provolone over that. Sprinkle half of the green onions, half of the sun dried tomatoes and half of the basil. Repeat the layers in that order, beginning with a second layer of bread and ending with the basil. Cut the remaining bread into 1/4 inch cubes and sprinkle over the top of the strata.

In a medium size bowl, combine the eggs, milk, mustard, salt and pepper, and whisk well. Pour the egg mixture over the strata, pressing down on the bread with a spatula. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and uncover the strata. Let the strata sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Sprinkle the grated parmesan over the top of the strata and bake for about one hour, until the center is set and the top is golden. Cut into large squares and serve.

Note: You can substitute your favorite cheeses easily in this dish. Fontina would be nice instead of the provolone, for instance.

I served this with Citrus Salad with Mint Sugar. Delicious.

Finished Strata.

Finished Strata.

Magical Mountain Day: Waterfalls, Wine and Raptors

Frogtown4The last few weeks have been filled with intense work deadlines and long work days. It’s all good and the projects are exciting, but that does mean I tend to stick to my tried and true cooking repertoire, making it rather difficult to be new and inventive in the kitchen for blogging purposes…or any other purpose. It also means that I’ve had way less time to post, read and comment on other blogs as well, so forgive me as I try and catch up.

Spring is now in full bloom here in our big city, including our magnificent dogwoods, and I’ll show you some of those sights on my next post. However, just a mere 70 miles north of here, Spring is just beginning. That’s how close we are in proximity to the North Georgia Mountains, and yet that 70 miles, as well as the higher altitude, can make all the difference in the world to things like plant life-cycles, temperatures and weather. It was that very change of sceney that the mountains can provide that we sought out this past weekend.

While it’s too chilly and too early to swim in North Georgia, the mountain vistas are clear and the sight lines are terrific during this time just before all of the leaves fill in. And, given that we still have warm and cold days, there’s not an insect to be found…yet. Perfect conditions for a picnic. Since this was a spur of the moment idea and all about relaxing, I kept our picnic simple: some grilled balsamic chicken sandwiches with pesto, jarlsberg cheese, tomato and local lettuce on prairie bread, a little guacamole with crackers and some fresh fruit and Greek yogurt parfaits for dessert.

For our first stop, we landed at Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge. After popping into the lodge to take in the vistas, we turned around and came eye to eye with this guy.

owlcapone1

His name is “Owl Capone” and he’s a Georgia Barred Owl—the same type we see often in our own back yard. “Mr. Capone” happens to be an important member of Amicalola’s Raptor Rehabilitation & Education Program. We’d unknowingly arrived just in time to see the Amicalola Naturalists make a presentation on these amazing birds up close and personal, where they go into great depth about the facts, and fiction, of Georgia raptors.

It’s illegal for Georgia raptors to be owned or kept, in whole or in part, and if one is found injured and can’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild by a qualified wildlife rehabilitation center, they must be euthanized or in some few circumstances, become part of an educational program like these birds. These lucky guys get to be ambassadors for their species, living our their lives in comfort while educating folks about what they are and the important role they play in the ecosystem of our land and planet.

Please do take a moment and enjoy the slideshow below featuring: “Owl Capone” the Georgia Barred Owl who was hit by a car and blinded in one eye; “Zeus” the Great Horned Owl and undisputed king of the food chain (yes, including eagles); “Gizmo” the Red Screech Owl and “Goliath” the Gray Screech Owl; “WeeGee” the owl known as a Ghost-faced, Barn Owl, Screaming Banshee or Love Owl; “Sir Lands-a-Lot” the unreleasable Red Tailed Hawk; “Mospeed,” a Kestral, the fastest living creature on the planet; and “Fabio”, the misunderstood Black Vulture (because no, he’s not a buzzard, we don’t have those in North America) who imprinted on humans and thinks he is one…or that we are vultures! What a fascinating way to start the day, and this is just one of many nature programs at this state park.

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After seeing the raptors, we decided to have our picnic next to Amicalola Falls…a show all unto itself. At 729 feet, Amicalola Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeastern United States. At the top of the falls there is a large green space with a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains—a perfect picnic spot. The top of the falls features an overlook bridge and a challenging trail with staircases that you can descend next to the falls for some spectacular views. Be forewarned though, the descent part of this trail is fine, but coming back up is not for the out of shape or faint of heart!

We left Amicalola mid-afternoon and decided to stop by a couple of our favorite North Georgia wineries on the way home. I’ve posted about these two before, Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Frogtown Cellars. Both have lovely views and some even lovelier wines. We’ve enjoyed revisiting them over the years to see how the vines and the wine improve over time. A glass of Wolf Mountain Blanc de Syrah Brut was a most enjoyable respite while taking in their lovely property from the tasting room balcony.

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Wolf Mountain Blanc de Syrah Brut.

Upon departing Wolf around 4:45 p.m., we had just enough time to end our day at Frogtown Cellars with a glass of “Inclination”, their distinctive full-bodied white blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Vidal grapes. Frogtown’s main tasting room and immense deck overlooking the vines was open to the public (they close it if there’s an event and open a tasting tent further up the property), and it was a beautiful place to watch the sun go down. We took a moment to inspect the barely budding vines on the way to our car, and as I looked down at the ground I spotted this 4-leaf clover peeking up at me from amongst the grasses. Good day and good luck, indeed!

The vines at Frogtown.

The vines at Frogtown.

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Inclination.

Inclination.

I looked down at my sandaled feet and there was...

I looked down at my sandaled feet and there was…

This! What a nice way to end the day.

This! What a nice way to end the day.

If you’re traveling in the state of Georgia and want more information on any of the places and events I’ve mentioned here, check out these links: Amicalola Falls Lodge, Amicalola Falls State Park and upcoming dates for Close Encounters of the Bird KindWolf Mountain Vineyards, Frogtown Cellars, and Georgia State Parks.

Betsy’s Grilled Balsamic Chicken Pesto Picnic Sandwiches
Makes 2 Large Sandwiches

4 slices prairie bread, or other whole grain seeded rustic hearth bread
4 Tablespoons basil pesto (mine was purchased as we don’t have basil yet!)
2 roma tomatoes, sliced
4 large leaves of lettuce such as butter or green leaf, preferably local or homegrown
2 slices of jarlsberg or swiss cheese
1 large grilled balsamic chicken breast, sliced (see marinade recipe below)

Spread one tablespoon of pesto on each slice of bread. Add one slice of cheese, divided in half diagonally, to two of the bread slices. Top each slice of cheese with half of the sliced chicken, then half of the lettuce and the tomato. Place the other slice of bread with pesto one each on top of the loaded slices, and cut each sandwich in half. Eat in an open air and lovely spot.

Betsy’s Sweet Balsamic Marinade/Salad Dressing for meats or salad
(For a less sweet version, use regular balsamic vinegar and don’t reduce it)
Makes 1 pint jar

1/2 cup very high quality sweet balsamic vinegar, OR you can reduce about 3/4 cup of regular balsamic vinegar over low heat until it just becomes syrupy in texture and the sugars become concentrated
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 Tablespoons prepared Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon dried and crushed tarragon leaves
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mix all ingredients in a pint-sized mason jar with a lid, shaking it until it emulsifies. Keep in the fridge for up to one week.

For a marinade, use approximately 1/4 cup of the dressing  poured over 4 boneless chicken breasts in a plastic freezer bag. Seal and toss the chicken in the marinade to coat. Allow the chicken to marinate for 1-2 hours in the fridge before grilling, then grill over medium high heat until just done. You can use the same proportions to marinate vegetables for the grill.

Betsy’s Yogurt and Berry Picnic “Parfaits”
Makes 2

1/4 pint fresh blackberries or blueberries, washed
1 pint (about 8 large) fresh strawberries, washed and sliced
4 heaping Tablespoons Greek yogurt, divided
2 teaspoons brown sugar, divided
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange or lemon zest (optional), divided
2 pint-sized mason jars

Beginning with the black or blue berries, place 1/4 of the berries in the bottom of the two jars, then add 1/4 of the sliced strawberries to each jar. Place 1 heaping tablespoon of yogurt on top of the berries, a small pinch of zest if using it and and 1/2 teaspoon of brown sugar, then repeat the layers in both jars, beginning with the blue or black berries and ending with the sprinkle of brown sugar. Cap the jars and refrigerate for an hour or until ready to eat. The sugar will melt into the yogurt and make a syrup or sorts, which will mix with the fruit and zest as you did down into the jar with your spoon. Delicious and healthy!