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.

eggs1

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

chickensalad4

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.

wolf

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!

Light and Lovely Lavender Lemon Sorbet

sorbet7BI’m a bit late posting and therefore late in wishing you all a Happy Spring! Yes, has arrived for some of us, and maybe not so much for others. We’re blooming here, in between the freezing temps and then zooming up to the high 70’s. It is still March after all.

The longer days and blooming flowers make me want something light and delicious. A palette cleanser of the very best kind. This elegant and easy to make Lavender Lemon Sorbet fills that desire perfectly. The combination of floral essence and flavor of the lavender buds tames and compliments the tang of the lemon. In fact, they are symbiotic in a way…bettering each other in the marriage. Adding buttermilk to this sorbet creates an underlying creaminess in its texture, without taking it all the way to a sherbet consistency. It’s really delightfully refreshing, any time of the year.

I didn’t strain out the lavender flower buds from my simple syrup because I enjoy the visual appeal and seed-like texture, as well as the pop of lavender essence that they add to the finished product. But if you don’t care for that tiny bit of herbal and floral chew, then by all means, strain your infused syrup before adding it to the rest of the mixture.

This is my new favorite sorbet and I’ll be making it over and over again. I hope you’ll make it, too. Be sure to use cooking quality lavender for this and all recipes that call for lavender. Cheers and have a great weekend!

Lavender Lemon Sorbet
Makes 3 pints

2 teaspoons cooking lavender buds (you can find these in gourmet sections of fine grocery stores and cooking stores)
1 cup cane sugar, divided
2/3 cup water
4 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
4 cups buttermilk, I use low fat but any kind will do

Combine 2/3 cup of the sugar, 2/3 cup water and the lavender buds in a small saucepan over medium heat. Allow the mixture to come to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cook for about 1-2 minutes, until the syrup is clear and all the sugar has melted. Take it off the heat and allow it to infuse and cool for about 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, lemon juice and zest, and the buttermilk and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the lavender infused syrup (straining it through a fine sieve first if you want to remove the buds), and stir well to combine. Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator to chill for about 5 hours or overnight. Process the mixture in your ice cream freezer according to the directions, then remove the dasher and scoop into freezer containers (it will be quite soft), then seal them. Place the sorbet into the freezer and allow it to harden the rest of the way, then scoop out and serve as desired.

Note: To make this recipe without an ice cream maker, pour the mixture into a metal tray or baking dish and place it in the freezer. When the mixture starts to freeze, rake a fork through it several times to break up the ice crystals. Repeat this process about 4 or 5 times over the course of three hours. This will give you a sorbet that is really more of a granita. You can run this through a food processor to make a finer texture, then put it back in the freezer and run your tines through again several times until it has refrozen. If you don’t run the fork through it and break up the ice crystals, it will freeze solid.

You can also pour the mixture into ice pop molds.

Sorbet1B

Spring Preview: Greek-Styled Toasted Quinoa Salad

salad5BThough it may not seem like it in some parts, the official beginning of Spring, the Vernal Equinox, is less than a week away. With three days in a row of around 77 degrees last weekend, followed by flowers popping all over the place, my thoughts are turning to warmer weather…even though ours is still a bit of the bi-polar vortex variety. Enter this light, colorful and refreshing quinoa salad.

First, I have a confession to make. I have not been overly fond of quinoa. I’ve tried it many times, but the mushy/slimy texture that I, and others, seem to achieve has made me, well…less than enthusiastic shall we say. But no more. I’ve found the solution to that textural malaise. Toasting is the trick. Not only does it add a wonderful nutty flavor to the grain, but it kind of seals it so that the integrity, or “tooth” stays intact after cooking. And with that one step, I have now become a quinoa fan.

Now this trick may not be news to some of you, but merely seeing the suggestion on a package of quinoa inspired me to try it, and to create this salad for a pot luck pottery class last night. My salad features some favorite ingredients—those components that make up a traditional Greek salad—combined with a light, lemon and oregano enhanced dressing to brighten all of the flavors. This makes for a delicious and healthy dish, fit for a vegetarian meal or as a wonderful side dish. It was a real hit with my fellow classmates and I loved it, too. I’ll be making this again and again as the weather warms, so here it is for you to enjoy. May it remind those of you still suffering through snow, ice and cold temps that Spring is truly on it’s way, so hang in there. Happy weekend!

Greek-Styled Toasted Quinoa Salad
Makes 8-10 servings

For the salad:
1 1/2 cups dry quinoa (I used organic Royal White)
3 cups water
1 1/2 pints cherry tomatoes, sliced in half or quarters, depending on size
1 large (I used English) cucumber, peeled, seeded and small diced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
1 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
6 oz. crumbled feta cheese

For the dressing:
4 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 Tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano

Heat a large, deep sided skillet over medium heat. Add the quinoa and toast it, shaking or stirring it frequently, for about 5 minutes or until it smells fragrant and is just beginning to show a little color. Be careful and don’t burn it. Add the 3 cups of water to the pot, bring the quinoa to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Allow the quinoa to cook until the grains are translucent and the germ has spiraled out from each grain, about 15 minutes. At this point, most of the water will be absorbed and the grain will still have some tooth to it. Remove it from the heat, take the lid off, fluff it, and allow it to cool in the pan while you compose the remaining ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and olives. Add the cooled (it can still be warm, just not hot) quinoa to the bowl and gently stir it into the vegetables to combine. Add the feta and gently stir it in. Combine the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until emulsified and thickened. Pour the dressing over the salad and gently toss it to coat well. If you have time, cover and allow the flavors to blend (I put mine in the fridge), then serve cold or you can serve this at room temperature right after making it. It will keep well for a day or so in the fridge.

This beautiful ceramic bowl was made by my talented friend, Denise Tombro.

This beautiful ceramic bowl was made by my talented friend, Denise Tombro.

Earthy Wild Mushroom Risotto

finishedrisotto1I’m starting to wrap up another busy week here, and it has turned cold outside once again. A perfect time to make a warm, rich and delicious risotto for dinner.

Risotto is such a luxurious dish to me. Truly it is all about the essence of a few fine ingredients, allowing each one to shine through. The texture is so creamy, the rice so enriched with the chicken stock it has absorbed over time, along with a little bit of some sweet shallot and just a dash of wine. I always finish mine by stirring in some finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano for that extra depth of nutty richness and creaminess that only cheese can bring. A dish fit for a king. Or company. Or just you. We can’t get enough of it.

I think lots of folks believe that risotto is hard to make, and really it isn’t. You do need to prep all of your ingredients ahead of time, so you can concentrate on stirring in the broth, little by little. But stirring is really the hardest part…and that’s not hard at all, anyone can do that. And the results of making your own hot risotto are sublime. A taste that is truly out of this world good.

So I challenge those of you out there who have never made it to give it a try. You won’t be sorry you did, and the reward will be well worth your time. In fact, you’ll be wishing you made more so that you’d have leftovers for risotto cakes, but we’ll go down that road at a later date. Here’s how I made my risotto. Mangia!

I really wish I had some of this right now.

I really wish I had some of this right now.

Earthy Wild Mushroom Risotto
Makes 2 very generous dinner-sized portions or serves 4 as a primo

For the Mushrooms:
1 Tablespoon olive oil
8 oz. mixed wild mushrooms, thinly sliced (I used baby bellas, oyster and shiitake)
1 Tablespoon dry sherry
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
A pinch of kosher salt

For the Risotto:
6 cups of very good quality homemade or purchased chicken stock (I used my homemade roasted chicken stock)
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup minced shallot
1 cup arborio rice
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
A pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
A sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves for garnish (optional)

Bring the broth just to a simmer in a small sauce pan and keep warm over low heat, do not boil.

Place the 1 Tablespoon of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet and heat over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they have released their liquid, just begun to brown and most of the liquid has reabsorbed. Sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt and the thyme leaves. Add the 1 Tablespoon of sherry off the heat, then return the pan to the heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the sherry has just been absorbed. Remove the mushrooms from the heat and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallot to the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the shallot is soft and just beginning to lightly brown, then sprinkle with a tiny pinch of kosher salt. Add the rice to the pan and stir constantly for 30 seconds, then add the sherry and cook about 15 seconds more. Add 1/2 cup of the hot broth, cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly or until the broth is absorbed by the rice, but not dry. Add the remaining broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly until the liquid is absorbed but the rice is not dry, each time before adding the next 1/2 cup. This will take about 20-25 minutes total.

When the last amount of liquid is absorbed and the risotto is creamy, remove from the heat and stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese until well combined, then stir in the cooked mushrooms. Serve the risotto immediately, finishing with a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves, if desired.

*****

Not a mushroom fan? Eat your risotto without the mushrooms…it’s wonderful, or check out my Caramelized Onion Risotto with Aged Balsamic Drizzle.

Spring Teases Us and a Refresher on How to Cook and Extend a Roasted Chicken

To say this week has been busy would be a severe understatement. In addition to my regular work, I’m learning how to do web site design. It’s really fun, but lots to learn and do. When I have this kind of a week, I tend to focus more on cooking my old standards and less on experimenting with anything new. Are you like that?

I did take a needed break on Monday and went for a walk to enjoy an amazing spring-like day. It was just a tease, though, as the temps have now returned to more normal and winter-like cold, but there were definitely signs that spring is on it’s way. Let me share a few pics to brighten your day:

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Last Friday there was a sale on whole organic chickens, and faced with that lovely prospect, you know I couldn’t resist. Yes, roasted chicken was on the menu. And much like in the Tale of the Little Chicken That Could, posted a couple of years ago, I made an Herb Roasted Chicken first. The next night, I stripped off the remaining meat and instead of making the Individual Chicken Pot Pies, I used the meat to make my Easy Chicken Enchiladas Verdes for the next two nights’ meals. This chicken made exceptionally good enchiladas.

Last night, I combined the stripped chicken carcass with veggies, herbs and water to make a rich Homemade Chicken Stock, which you can see in the photo at the end of this post. I’ll use it to make a lovely risotto and/or a soup later in the week, and share that in my next post. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll click on the individual dish title links in bold above, and check out ideas for cooking and using chicken, as well as enjoy the story I wound around the dishes—if you haven’t read it already.

Here’s my study partner in all of her almost 15 pound glory…Miss Thumbelina, for a giggle.

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New dishes will be on tap for the next post, I promise. Have a great week and may spring be on its way for us all!

This stock has such a rich color and taste...I can't wait to use it in my next dishes!

This stock has such a rich color and taste…I can’t wait to use it in my next dishes!