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.

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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!

Fall Frolic and a Warming Ham, Potato and Cabbage “Chowder”

chowder2On a whim, husband and I decided to take a day trip to the mountains last Saturday for some much needed R&R and a romantic picnic. We hadn’t taken a day for just the two of us to get away and relax since, well, you know the story. This was a restoration of the soul!

And though I think the leaves had just peaked, it was a stunning day in the the North Georgia Mountains, and a day filled with contrasts. There was still lots of beautiful color, and our day started off sunny and in the low 60’s with a gentle cool breeze blowing. You’ve seen my posts before on Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Lake Winfield Scott…both located within a 40 mile or so radius of the Dahlonega area of North Georgia. We started off with a stop at Wolf Mountain Vineyards, then headed to Lake Winfield Scott for our picnic, where we had last been on a lazy summer day in early June. Imagine our surprise as a huge and unpredicted cloud came up, the temperature dropped about 15 to 20 degrees, and it started sleeting on us! We ran back to the car, and headed to Frogtown Cellars, another North Georgia vineyard, about 15 miles away. By the time we arrived there it was sunny again and a bit cooler. Such is the Fall climate of the southern Appalachian mountains! Our last stop was in the little town of Dahlonega itself, sweet but a little touristy.

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We are blessed to be so close to the mountains that one can do all of this easily in a day trip—even this time of year when the days are shorter—and be back home in the city just in time to enjoy a warming, hearty and rich chowder for dinner to take the chill off.

The chowder was inspired by a soup that my mom served us on our last visit to see her—a creamy cabbage soup. To be honest, cooked cabbage isn’t one of my most favorite things and the idea of a creamed soup with cabbage doesn’t get my juices flowing, so I was a bit skeptical about this soup until I tasted it…and it was absolutely delicious! It featured lovely chunks of ham, cabbage and other vegetables in a rich cream broth. I procured the recipe from Mom and brought it home…and then promptly lost it somewhere in the house! But I could remember the tastes—the cabbage and ham of course, plus thyme and maybe onion, some celery and carrot. I headed for the store, decided that leeks and potatoes would be a good addition and headed home.

This “chowder” is my result. I did later find the recipe for the soup, but am quite pleased with my version which is thicker and even heartier with the added potatoes than the original was, and reminds me of a chowder and hence its name. Thanks for the inspiration, Mom! We’ve decided this is a new favorite and I will be making it again this winter for sure. It freezes well, too, which is always a bonus.

Absolutely delicious. You really have to taste it to believe just how good it is!

Absolutely delicious. You really have to taste it to believe just how good it is!

Ham, Potato and Cabbage Chowder
Makes 8 hearty servings

3 small leeks, cleaned and diced, white and light green parts only (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 stalks celery diced, about 1 cup
2 medium carrots peeled and diced, about 1 cup
1 Tablespoon of olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 medium head of green cabbage, trimmed and shredded
2 medium Idaho potatoes (or Yukon gold), cleaned and diced with skins on (about 3 cups)
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
3 Tablespoons flour
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk (whole, 2% or lowfat is fine)
1 lb. fully cooked ham, cubed (I used uncured slow cooked), about 3 cups
1 generous Tablespoon fresh chopped thyme leaves

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add the leeks, celery and carrot, 1 teaspoon of the kosher salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Sauté the vegetables until they are just tender, about 5 minutes, then add the chicken broth, cabbage and potato to the pot. Bring the vegetables and stock to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover and cook until the potatoes are done, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the vegetables are cooking, melt the 3 tablespoons of butter over low heat in a large saucepan or skillet with deep sides. Add the 3 tablespoons of flour and stir until well blended and no lumps remain, about 1 minute. Slowly add the milk and cream to the butter and flour mixture stirring constantly until well blended, then cook the mixture over low heat until it is thickened. When the potatoes are done in the vegetable mixture, add the thickened cream sauce to the large soup pot and stir to combine. Add the ham, the remaining 1 teaspoon of the kosher salt, black pepper and thyme, and stir well to combine. Allow everything to heat through and meld together, about 3-5 minutes more on low heat, taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed, then serve in bowls, garnishing with additional thyme sprigs, if desired.

Our Halloween "Punkitty" and the two kitties that inspire are below!

Our Halloween “Punkitty” and the two kitties that inspire are below!

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Day Tripping: Mountains, a Winery and a Picnic

Lovely Dicks Creek Falls at the juncture of Waters Creek and Dick’s Creek in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

As I’ve alluded to before, we’ve had a rather turbulent Spring around here thus far which has resulted in a few blips on my blogging radar, as well as generating a pervasive feeling of constantly playing catch-up. After returning to town last week, I found myself extremely busy with a hundred things to do on my plate and by the time the weekend approached, I had begun to feel the need to get away from it all for a few hours and recharge the emotional batteries. What better way to do that than a little day trip, I ask you? Continue reading