Friday, November 28, 2014

A Taste of Europe, Part I

In the Spring of 2014 I received a catalog from Starr Tours.  I flipped through the excursions -- as I normally do -- and this particular description caught my eye:

Hmmmm, thought she.

After some thought (about 5 minutes) I decided I was going.  Initially, none of my usual travel suspects wanted to go along and, in an attempt to be brave, I booked the trip anyway — solo — confident that I would meet other nomads along the way…I’m pretty friendly! Eventually, my party of one grew to a party of five — Sister, Sister-in-Law, two friends and me — and we, along with our new compatriots from all over the world, bus-toured some of the most beautiful sites in Europe.

First up, was jolly old London, England. For me, the first day was a wash and we won’t discuss that any further, but the second day started off at the Tower of London and the Tower of London Bridge.  London is a Roman name and the city was founded by the mighty Empire in 1070.  The Tower of London -- a series of buildings that sit on the River Thames -- has been used as a prison, a residence and now as a popular tourist attraction.  The structure is 1000 years old and was built by William the Conquer.

We were in London right before the WWI Remembrance Day Celebrations and we were fortunate enough to see the memorial of poppies erected in honor of the 888,246 English soldiers who lost their lives during WWI.  Each poppy that dots the field in front of the Tower is a handmade ceramic masterpiece and, collectively, the sea of red fashions a moving and beautiful tribute.  

The Tower of London was used during the First World War to recruit and train English Troops.  Poppies, by the way, became the symbol of war casualties because the flower sprung up from the simple graves of fallen soldiers.
Next it was off to see the Crown Jewels.  

Photography is not allowed in the museum but the colorful array of jewels is a magnificent and stunning site that beautifully represents the pomp and circumstance naturally associated with the Royal Families.  There are crowns, orbs and sceptres since 1660; all jewels prior to that time were destroyed following the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.  Click here to see a slideshow of the Crown Jewels.

It was back on the bus and along the way we saw the Dragons that protect the old city of London and the London Eye.

Of course, I took the obligatory photo in a classic London phone booth!

Westminster Abbey is where most Royals since 1919 have gotten married.   Charles and Diana got married in Saint Paul’s Cathedral because their guest list was too extensive for the Abbey to accommodate. The Brits believe that not marrying in Westminster Abbey is a royal mistake and bad luck indeed….

Big Ben...

Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guards…

Trafalgar Square and The National Gallery where we swooned over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

And another memorial to the fallen soldiers of WWI.  

We had traditional English fare of Fish and Chips and beer at an old English pub on The Strand called the Coal Hole.  

As you can see, it was a lovely day in London.  As the sun was setting, we took the Tube back to Hammersmith to retire for the evening.

The next morning, we boarded a bus to Dover.  The White Cliffs of Dover are breathtaking and these photos do not do these majestic Cliffs justice with its striking facade of chalk highlighted by streaks of black flint.  In the past, the Cliffs were critical in that they represented a natural barrier to England, protecting the British from invasions.  The Port of Dover was the primary route into Britain prior to air travel. 

The boat on which we crossed the Channel in was like a floating shopping mall, complete with a Starbucks.  I had to remind myself, several times, that I was crossing the English Channel…it was all extremely dreamlike!  We crossed the Channel, landed in Calais, France and then boarded a bus for the 250 mile drive through Belguim to Amsterdam, Netherlands.  

When we arrived in Calais, we were greeted by our Tour Guide for the rest of the trip, Boudi, a delightful and knowledgable multi-lingual chap, born in the Netherlands and now living in Berlin, and our vigilant driver from France, Christian.

The day we crossed the Channel, we were in four different countries on one day! What excited me most about this trip was the chance to see the European countryside as we traveled by bus to our various destinations and, boy-oh-boy, we were not disappointed.  

The glorious European countryside is dotted with centuries-old structures as sheep, cows, and horses provide a watchful eye.   And, as a bonus, the rest stop food in each country was absolutely amazing…..fresh and tasty and, you could get a beer, so I had to get a Grolsch.  

We arrived in Amsterdam that evening and settled into our hotel, anxiously anticipating our cruise along the Canals the next day….I could not wait.

In the morning, we hopped on a tour boat to experience Amsterdam from the water level.  It was a wonderful perspective to enjoy the gables, bridges, bicycles and houseboats so popular in this water-locked town.  We learned about the old spice trade, sailed past Anne Frank’s house and got to see the houseboats up close and personal. 

Amsterdam used to be connected to the open sea and was an important port town.  Vessels from all over the world sailed into Amsterdam and trips to the East Indies were quite momentous because the sailors returned with spices.   Back then, spices — most significantly, pepper — were more precious and expensive than gold.   The house below is called “The Pepper House” and a local financier of spice expeditions built the house, complete with shutters, so that thieves could not peer in and inspect the newly transported goods!

Later, while strolling about, the not-too-faint scent of legal cannabis filled the air, no doubt procured from one of the many “coffee shops” that dot the seriously charming, tree-lined streets.  Those trees, by the way, are mostly elm trees, planted because their thirsty, long, and strong roots stabilize the buildings along the Canals.

Bicycles are the most common form of transportation in Amsterdam and there are more bicycles in the city than in Bejing.  Bicycle lanes abound and the cyclists have the right-of-way which gives new meaning to looking both ways!  Even the street lights have a bicycle light.

In the evening we took a tour of the Red Light District.  The legend is that sailor’s wives would wait, looking out of their windows, for their husbands to return from their voyages.  Since many vessels were lost at sea, some sailors never returned and the new widows had to find a way to support their families, hence the proliferation of prostitution. For privacy reasons, no photos are allowed in The District, and I was surprised by how friendly the workers were.  The ladies “advertise” behind a glass window and every now-and-then, one dressed in her Victoria's Secret finest would wink or waive to our curious group.   Since prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, the ladies register their business, rent “office” space, pay taxes and keep healthy (and beautiful!). Fortunately, no one in our group was unaccounted for that evening! 

The next morning we visited a windmill village, saw a demonstration of how wooden shoes are made and melted our way into a fantastic cheese shop.  Windmills served an important role in the Netherlands.  There are no mountains in the country and it also sits below sea level so the windmills were used to pump water out of the often-flooded city .  

We continued on our journey and stopped in the quaint port city of Volendam.  We feasted on local seafood (so incredibly good), strolled along the “boardwalk”, meandered into the lovely little shops and, all the while simply appreciated the wonders of our holiday.  I could not believe we were in Europe!  

We left Volendam and drove along the seriously charming Dutch countryside towards Germany.  I love the juxtaposition of the nature and the industrial feel of the modern windmills in the photo below.


I’ll write about Germany, Switzerland and Paris in Part II of this post.  
I took many notes!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Cranberry Sauce

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  Today is the day to remember that there is always, always, ALWAYS something for which to be thankful.  Family, of course, tops the list for me, followed closely by my cherished friends, and my dear readers. 

I am also thankful for pre-cut butternut squash.  Not having to cut the bulbous gourd to make my family favorite and holiday tradition, Butternut Squash Apple Soup, is convenient indeed....and expedient!  A sharp knife meeting a roly-poly vegetable absolutely frightens me.

And, I am thankful for Google and The Pioneer Woman who shared this easy and delicious recipe for Cranberry Sauce.  I made a few adjustments and substitutions, but regardless, the house smelled heavenly while these flavors happily congealed together.  I used lemon zest and lemon juice instead of orange zest and juice. Ree instructed that anything citrusy would work. Also, I did not have straight-up cranberry juice, so I used Cran-Grape juice.  I used 3/4 cup of maple syrup and added 1/4 cup of brown sugar and a dash or two of cinnamon. 

Cranberry Sauce
by Ree Drummond
One 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 cup cranberry juice
1 cup pure maple syrup
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon grated orange rind

Wash the bag of cranberries under cool water, and then throw them into a medium saucepan. Pour in the cranberry juice and maple syrup. Add the orange juice and orange rind (you could also do lemon rind and lemon juice - anything citrusy). Stir together and turn the heat on high until it reaches a boil and the berries begin to pop.

Turn down the heat to medium-low and continue cooking over the lower heat until the juice is thick, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow to cool, and then chill in the fridge until Thanksgiving dinner is ready. It should have a nice jelly-like consistency

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Zucchini Nut Bread

We all have them. 

That favorite family or personal go-to recipe that that we don’t really need a recipe to make but consulting it is like clutching a security blanket.  For me, it’s my Grandmom’s Meatballs, a Butternut Squash Soup recipe that I clipped out of the Philadelphia Inquirer 25 years ago and a Zucchini Nut Bread recipe from one of Sister’s first cookbooks, the Country Fair Cookbook.  I asked for custody of the treasure several times, but she has refused. 

Several swashbuckler-like attempts to commandeer the book have also failed.    

Anyway, originally published in 1975, all recipes in this book are Blue Ribbon Winners from State or Country fairs around the United States.  I grew up in Philadelphia and we didn’t have Country Fairs –unless you count the bake sales at Saint Francis Xavier – so there are no local entries.
At least that I remember.
And, as you just read, I don't have the book to consult.

I have tweaked this recipe over the years introducing some brown sugar, whole wheat flour, shredded carrots and sometimes eliminating the walnuts, like I did this time.  I think my modifications have made the bread better, but do make it both ways and you be the judge!  Either way, it is a very moist bread and if you wrap it tightly with foil and refrigerate overnight, the flavors will mellow and each slice will be like a little piece of baked bliss. 

So pick up some zucchini, collect your spices, grab your grater and bread pan and prepare to have your home smell like the best, most calming bakery you ever meandered into.  This bread is great slathered with cream cheese  or butter and paired with a freshly brewed cup of tea.

The following recipe is as published; my changes are in parentheses.

Zucchini Nut Bread
From: Country Fair Cookbook

3 cups sifted flour (I use 2 cups of all-purpose white flour and 1 cup of wheat flour)
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs
2 cups granulated sugar (I use 1 ½ cups of granulated sugar and ½ cup of brown sugar)
1 cup of cooking oil (I use canola oil)
1 Tablespoon of vanilla
2 cups of unpeeled, grated zucchini squash (I also use ½ cup of grated carrots)
½ cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven at 350 degrees.  Sift together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt and baking powder.  Set aside.  In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs well.  Gradually add the sugar and oil, mixing well.  Add the vanilla and dry ingredients; blend well.  Stir in zucchini and nuts.  Pour the mixture into two prepared bread pans and bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Chicken Pot Pie

We finally seem to be enjoying the fabulous fall weather and all the smells and chores that come along.  I love seeing the bright autumn leaves fall to the ground always appreciating that Mother Nature’s eye for color is the most magnificent and refined (sorry Martha, she has even you beat).   I also don’t mind raking the leaves either….it gives me a great sense of satisfaction to see a glorious multi-colored mound, sometimes two feet high, at the curb ready for the Borough’s industrial strength shop-vac  to come gather them up.  Of course, the prize for all that raking and collecting is the wonderful organic mulch we enjoy in the spring! 
I might feel differently about leave raking if I had to bag the twirling beauties.

Regardless, even when the kids in the ‘hood romp in my well-ordered yet temporary suburban knoll, the crisp air, the earthy smells, and the runway of crispy leaves remind me to delight in the wonder of season and take it all in. I love to people watch in the fall, all bundled up in their newly resurrected woolen favorites….I like to try to spot the hand-knitted pieces!

Autumn is also when we begin to enjoy heartier dishes, baked in the oven, aromatic and served piping hot.  Sometimes it’s hard to wait for the dish to cool and congeal before diving in!  Take Chicken Pot Pie, for instance.  That a look at this stunner that C. served last Wednesday!

Pot pies have deep roots (the Romans served them with live birds that flew out when cut!), but it was the Brits who perfected meat pies.  The west-ward bound English settlers brought the recipes with them to the new land and we still enjoy varieties in the States today.

There are a gazillion recipes for Chicken Pot Pie.  The one I share below is from an old and well-loved cookbook of C.’s.  I also have a favorite that uses phyllo dough for the crust but the filling is very similar.  C. used Trader Joes pie pastry crust….it’s made with real butter, not some butter charlatan. Making pie crust is a precise skill, so with options like TJ’s or Pillsbury available, why bother with homemade! 

Chicken Pot Pie

3 cups of cooked chicken
3 Tablespoons butter
1/3 cup of sliced onions
1/3 thinly sliced green pepper, seeds and membranes removed
3 Tablespoons flour
1 ½ cup chicken stock
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
3 Tablespoons white wine
½ cup frozen peas
Minced chives and parsley
2 pre-made pie crusts

Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.  Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces.  Melt the butter and sauté the onions (also celery if desired). Placed the sliced peppers on top and cook slowly for 5 minutes.  Stir in the flour gradually.  Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chicken stock, the egg yolks, the peas and the chicken.  Stir over a low heat just long enough for the sauce to thicken.  Add the white wine. 

Place the chicken mixture in bottom pie crust. Pour hot liquid mixture over and sprinkle with the chives and parsley. Cover with top crust, seal edges, and cut away excess dough. Make several small slits in the top to allow steam to escape.

Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown and filling is bubbly. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

I am a week behind in my posts but this past week it was my turn to cook and I made Shrimp Scampi with gluten-free pasta…that’s all I’m going to say about that little episode.  In a redemptive maneuver, I made Zucchini Bread and I'll share that recipe with everyone.