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.

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.