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.

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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!

*****

Campout

Is there anything quite so mesmerizing as a campfire?

Fall is now definitely in the air, and with it comes my desire to enjoy the cool breezes, see the leaves turn and give a sigh of relief that the heat of summer has come, and hopefully gone. It’s my favorite time of year, and since the first of October is my birthday, I always want to get away and do something outdoors to celebrate. And this year, I thought about how nice it would be to get away from the city, from the noise… from the computer, even…and go camping!

Now I know this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or coffee, but we happen to like to camp…as long as it’s on our own terms, and that means a rather gourmet form of camping. I’m no longer in a frame of mind or of an age that I care to really rough it when I camp, but am completely on board with car camping as long as I can have the “necessities” close at hand! Usually I’ll do a fair amount of gourmet camp cooking when we’re camping, including egg sandwiches or omelets for breakfast and meat or fish and roasted campfire veggies or pizza for dinner. After all, I have a two-burner propane stove, camping pots and pans I keep in a pre-packed camp kitchen, a French press for breakfast coffee, glassware and plenty of coolers. We even have some champagne glasses dedicated for camping, naturally! And we do tent-camp. Ours is a “condo-like” spacious tent that you can stand up in and easily change your clothes. It accommodates our inflatable queen-sized pillow-topped air mattress and we have a ceiling tent fan with a light. We also have a boat—a traveling inflatable Class 4 Rapid, two-person kayak that we’ve taken on lakes, creeks, rivers and oceans. I told you it was gourmet camping!

The condo.

I guess the thing I like the most about camping is that you get to experience nature in a way like no other, up close and personal for the most part. We’ve seen all kinds of wildlife from hawks, owls, geese, ducks, eagles, egrets, herons and painted buntings to frogs, turtles, rays, crabs, whelks and amazing fresh and salt water fishes. And of course there’s the scenery, from mountain to shore. North Georgia provides many places close by that we like to visit. There’s Lake Winfield Scott, which I’ve mentioned before, and where we had a “Close Encounter of the Black Bear Kind” a few years ago in our campsite during a stay in June for my husband’s birthday. Yep, you heard me say it…a bear! A young black bear came into the site next to our tent to wish Dave a happy birthday, waving his paws, sniffing and drooling in anticipation of some sun-dried tomato turkey burgers cooking on the campfire (at least that’s what I think he was drooling over). Boy was that a surprise! But fortunately he ran away while we were running in the opposite direction…and all was well. He was a cute bear, but I don’t care to see one that close up again.

French pressed coffee and toasted bagels are a must, even in the middle of the woods!

Just happened to have some Humboldt Fog goat cheese and Drunken Fig Jam to have with that champagne. Love that stuff.

This time we decided to go to Lake Rabun, which is located close to several places where we enjoy taking day trips, and so that we could take out our kayak and possibly go for a swim. Since it was my birthday weekend, I chose not to try and cook very much while camping, and instead made and purchased some food in advance to take up with us so I could spend my time enjoying nature and the scenery. Some of the food highlights were my couscous salad—great for any occasion, Karista’s wicked Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Brownies...terribly addictive in the best kind of way, and my Kitchen Sink Campy Sloppy Joes for which you’ll find the recipe at the end of this post. And of course, some champagne!

This is a finger of the lake where we put in our boat with a view towards the main lake, which is around the bend.

The view in the opposite direction towards Seed Lake.

It turned out to be a cool and lovely weekend for the most part, a little too cool for swimming and only one day of sun, but great for boating and camping and there were very few people. The leaves were just beginning to turn, several festivals were going on in the area including “A Taste of Clarksville,” in the small artist’s community of Clarksville, Georgia, and the Sautee Jamboree Music Festival in Sautee. There were also some wineries in the vicinity which were open for tastings. We visited the relatively young Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards and enjoyed tasting some of their wine and looking out over the small vineyard while listening to live music. Tiger Mountain Vineyards and Habersham Vineyards are located in and around this area, too.

View towards the vines at Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards.

The Tasting Room at Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards.

Cheers!

For those folks who love the mountains, love nature, but don’t want to camp or cook, there are two nice places to stay around Rabun that I can recommend. The historic Lake Rabun Hotel and Restaurant has been completely renovated and now includes a spa and a very good chef. Sitting out on their porch overlooking the lake is definitely the spot for dining. And slightly south of Lake Rabun lies Glen Ella Springs Inn, known for it’s food, beautiful foliage and pastoral scenery.

A covered bridge just outside of Sautee, Georgia.

According to the sign it was once used as a set location for the 1951 movie “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” with Susan Heyward. Unfortunately it has become a target of graffiti.

The weather held for us to enjoy a nice long boat ride and some great sight-seeing over the weekend. After breaking camp on Sunday morning, we ended our trip with a drive up to Highlands, N.C., which is only a 45 minute drive from Lake Rabun. We spent a few hours there window shopping, and went to see the American Craft exhibit at The Bascom. The Bascom is a nonprofit center for the visual arts in Highlands, where individuals can come together to participate in studio art classes and public programs, share cultural experiences, and enjoy the synergy of art and nature. The complex is made up of several historic buildings amidst beautiful natural surroundings. If you’ve never seen HIghlands or The Bascom, I highly recommend adding it to your trip list. I’ve posted about Highlands before, and you can click here to see and read more about our trip there last year.

Entrance to the Bascom. They had a huge fundraiser and silent auction the night before…normally there are no tents.

Lawn sculpture at The Bascom.

The Bascom Pottery Studio.

All in all a very nice getaway and great way to welcome a birthday!

Stirring the campfire.

So I have to ask you, do you like to camp? Have you ever done it?

Tell me about it!

Almost ready!

Kitchen Sink Campy Sloppy Joes
Serves 6-8

You can leave out the chipotle peppers (smoked and dried jalapeno peppers) if you or your kids can’t take the heat with the sweet, or use hotter peppers if you like more heat, to taste.

1 1/2 lbs. of ground beef
1 1/2 to 2 minced chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
1 1/2 cups chopped sweet bell peppers (I use a mixture of green and red)
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 Tablespoons of minced fresh garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
1-15 oz. can no salt tomato sauce
4 rounded Tablespoons of tomato paste
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
juice of 1 lime
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (can use more to taste)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Onion hamburger buns, or your favorite

In a large skillet, brown the ground beef over medium high heat. Drain off all but 1 1/2 tablespoons of the fat. Add the chipotles, sweet bell peppers, onions and garlic, and stir over medium heat for about 3-5 minutes, allowing the vegetables to soften. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, Chinese five spice powder, and salt. Stir for 2 minutes to cook the spices, then add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, brown sugar, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and balsamic vinegar. Cook the mixture until it is thick and saucy over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove from the skillet and serve open faced, spooning the mixture over toasted onion buns. This freezes beautifully for camping and reheating, or to save some for another quick weeknight dinner.

Great for campouts and camp-ins!

Cool Interlude.

When it’s hot—and it certainly has been for most of us in the northern hemisphere this summer—all I can think about is the opportunity to dip myself into some cool water. This past weekend provided that opportunity. And although our forecast threatened, we decided to take the risk and drive towards the nearby mountains to find a swimming hole…hopefully one that wasn’t too crowded, and hopefully one not under a pop-up summer thunderstorm.

The view of the more downstream swimming hole area.

And in what can only be described as a timely move, my husband discovered a new phone application aptly named “Swim N Hole,” which shows you all of the swimming holes located within a prescribed radius of your area. He zeroed in on one very close by that looked promising called “Edge of the World.” At a mere 45 minute drive north of us, it beckoned seductively, so we packed up our suits, threw together an impromptu picnic and headed out. What we found was a little hidden gem. Continue reading

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