Category Archives: Spring

Hearthside Happy Hour: Sangria

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In typing the title there, I realize that I’m going to have to rename this series of segments someday, as we have no hearth in our new home.

I’m going to be so, so sad about that come Fall. But right now, it’s springtime and sunny. And there’s a festive reason to eat and drink this weekend (though you know me, I don’t need a festive reason to do either of these things).

I got an email from a reader (remind me to teach you guys how to comment soon) asking about a Sangria recipe, as there are many out there and they vary widely in ingredients and additions. Some call for lemon lime soda, some call for orange soda, some call for orange juice, some call for brandy and some don’t, ad nauseum. I’m here to tell you, it’s going to depend on how sweet you want your punch. I personally like to let the fruit and wine do the talking and let the sweetness take a back seat. This is a twofold preference, as the sugar added to the red wine makes for a Wicked hangover if you have too many. And a red wine drunk is bad, but a red wine hangover is awful.

Or so someone told me.

Here are a handful of tips:

  • Make your sangria at least 4 hours before you’re serving it and stick it in the fridge. This will help with keeping it cold later.
  • If you are heeding my advice and making it hours ahead, add the sparkling water just before serving (and make sure it’s cold before adding).
  • Use an inexpensive red wine, but not an out-and-out cheap wine. I prefer using Yellow Tail over Two Buck Chuck.
  • I personally like my Sangria a little less sweet, and so I use mineral water or club soda in place of the lemon lime soda. You may do as you wish, but in my personal polls most people dig it without the sweet soda. It’s more refresca that way.
  • You can easily sub in white wine for the red if the mood strikes you.
  • For a larger party or open house, I like to make fruit skewers to put into the glasses and serve the punch from a dispenser. And I drizzle my skewers with a little bit of Triple Sec for some added kick.
  • Speaking of fruit, the I list the basics in the recipe. You can add strawberries, blueberries, apple slices and melon cubes to your skewers or serving glasses.
  • And if you are using additional fruit in your dispenser or punch bowl, wash and freeze it prior to adding it to the container. Helps keep your punch cool.
  • If you’re using a beverage dispenser, do yourself a favor and pick the seeds out of the citrus. Nothing slows a party down like having to disassemble the nozzle and pry out a seed. And it’s not as easy as it sounds.
  • And last but not least, adding ice cubes directly to the Sangria if you’re serving it punch bowl or dispenser style will water it down in a hurry. Keep the ice on the side and let people fill their cups with it on their own.

And without further ado, here’s the recipe.

Sangria
Makes 8 servings, and scales up easily

1 750-ml bottle of dry red wine
1 1/2 cups of club soda, mineral water, or lemon-lime soda (regular or diet)
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 lime, thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 orange, thinly sliced
1/2 cup brandy
1/4 cup sugar or honey or agave
2 tablespoons orange liqueur (triple sec, Cointreau, etc.)

Combine all in a large pitcher and let sit for at least 30 minutes prior to serving. Serve over ice with additional lemon, lime and orange slices, and any other fruits you wish.

Cinco de Mayo ~ Taco Bar and Side Dishes

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A taco bar is one of the easiest, most festive buffets that you can lay out for people. I love having sit-down dinners for a handful of people, but sometimes we have open house-style get togethers where people are coming and going throughout an afternoon and it’s nice to be able to have food come out in waves, or to be able to replenish as the day goes on. With a little bit of careful planning and menu construction, you can have a full-blown taco bar for an entire day.

My favorite taco bar set-up includes the following:

Carnitas or Carne Asada
Margarita Marinated Chicken or Shrimp
Tortillas, corn and flour (because my gringo self loves a flour tortilla)
Salsas, rojo and tomatillo (green)
Diced green onions
Pickled red onions
Shredded cheddar and crumbled Cotija cheese
Shredded cabbage or iceberg lettuce
Chopped cilantro
Lime wedges
Many, many hot sauces (and in fact I have been known to host a hot-sauce competition, getting everyone to bring one and we vote on which is best)
Fruit salad
Black bean and corn salad (mine is similar to this one, without the salad greens and sometimes with cucumber instead of mango)
Tortilla Chips
Refried beans
Guacamole (lots and lots of guacamole)

And of course, beverages:

Sangria Rojo (or Blanco, but only if the weather is REALLY hot)
Mexican beer selection
Lots of cut up limes

What, no margaritas? Depends on the size of the crowd, but usually, no. I’m too cheap to buy stuff for marges, because I only like them top shelf. Tequila also has a way of turning a party into a Par-Tay so I usually steer away from it. I never turn a soul down that wants to bring them, though.

As for folks bringing things, you can make this a less expensive party if your friends are like ours and offer to bring things. Make a list of what you want on your bar (or snacks you’d like to have) and when people ask, say ‘why yes, if you’d bring four avocados it would be awesome!’ You can also word your invitation to have your pals bring a bottle of inexpensive red wine to keep the Sangria pot full or a 6 pack of their favorite Mexican beer. The hooch is by far the most expensive part of a party but spread out this way it becomes a lot more affordable for everyone involved.

On  my taco bar, the condiment that always seems to fly off the buffet, that I can never seem to make enough of, is the pickled red onions. They’re not traditional by any means, but a smattering of them gives a nice vinegary brightness to the food that cuts through the richness of the fillings. And they are so, so easy to make.

Pickled Red Onions

In a saucepan, combine 3/4 cup of rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice, a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Bring up to a simmer, stirring occasionally, to dissolve the sugar and salt.

Meanwhile, dice a medium-large red onion and place in a non-reactive, heat proof bowl or jar (I use canning jars for this). Pour your vinegar mixture over the top of the onions, submerging them in the liquid. Make these several hours ahead of time so they can really get pickle-y, or even a day or two ahead and cross it off of your list.

In the Meantime

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Well, the job front hasn’t been looking so hot, but I’ve done a pretty good job of entertaining myself and others in the meantime.

The food gig did not pull through which was really, honestly just fine for me. The idea was charming but the place wasn’t going to be right. I’m not ruling the whole food thing out, though. I’m just going to be selective. No use in jumping from the frying pan to the fire.

In that meantime, in between-time, I’ve been cleaning, cooking, hanging out with friends, rearranging the furniture, organizing cabinets in our cabinet-laden kitchen, and reading a lot. Nothing serious in the reading department, and nothing worth recommending that you run out and get it. When we moved I found a box of my favorite books from my childhood that I’ve been revisiting. Lots of Madeleine L’Engle, some Shel Silverstein, and a handful of others that are old friends. I think my resonant spring reading theme is Comfort in the Familiar While in the Land of the Unknown. I’ve also renewed my library card, as girls with no jobs have few pennies to spend at the book store. My tax dollars at work!

The weather is perking up toward spring, and over the weekend it was in the 90’s here in the wine country. That first spell of withering heat that seems to leap up out of nowhere catches every single person around here off guard every single year, and we all complain that it would be nice if the weather could go from zero to 60 (or in this case, 65 to 90) a little less quickly. And like clockwork, after the heat wave, it drops into the low 70’s again with a chance of rain, quite literally overnight.

This year was no different, as the weather is just about 65*F and very drizzly. And it’s these little rhythms that are keeping me chugging along while I bide my time until my next bout of work.

We missed the heat wave over the weekend, as we were camping at the coast with friends. When the heat reaches the mid-90’s inland, it’s a clear cut 75 with a light breeze in my favorite coast towns. The overnight lows dipped to only the high 50’s which made for pleasant evenings around the campfire. We camp with the same festive group annually, and the entire 5 days is spent drinking local wines and hand-crafted beers (with a tent devoted to the beer, of course), eating amazing foods cooked over open flames and a kick-ass rotisserie BBQ that my two favorite brothers drag out every year. Foods include things like whole roasted pigs, smoked pineapple, bacon-wrapped everything, campfire-roasted vegetables cooked on the wok, whole chickens filled with homemade sausage that are subsequently smoked until succulent, and lots and lots and LOTS of abalone, cooked in ways that you would never even dream up (think fritters, abalone Kiev, tacos and ceviche). No one starves on this trip, and if they claimed they did it was their own damn fault.

Mingled with the food is a lot of playing horseshoes, walks to the beach, walks to the Beer Tent, abalone diving and fishing for those equipped and licensed to do so, hiking the mountain trails and walking the sands looking for shells while the guys are in the water catching dinner.

I wish I had a recipe to share with you today, but alas I do not. I haven’t been writing any or tweaking any actual recipes lately, and have been doing a lot of cooking from the hip, using what’s in the fridge that needs eating and spending as little as possible at the grocery store. We’ve also been eating more salads lately too, in preparation for a week of heavy eating. And salads are not much of a recipe around here, they’re a handful of this and a pinch of that with a hardboiled egg and some chicken breast or leftover steak. But I promise, I’ll put something together and get it up here soon. I have some great Mexican recipes to share for Cinco de Mayo, so I’ll have one up here this week (and if you happen to go to the store and they have pork shoulder roasts on sale, pick one up and toss it in the freezer, because you’ll need it for what we’re making).

And so, until the next time, we chat, I could use some book recommendations if you have the time to drop them in the comments (or email to me, if you’re too shy to post them). My stack of favorites is getting dangerously low…

No Where But Up

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It’s been a great month, being out of work. You’re not going to catch me dragging around because I’m gainfully unemployed. Granted I have to watch each and every penny we spend and it’s put my frugal ways through the ringer, and there have been a handful of days when I’m not exactly giddy and jigging, but in all I’ve been having a great time. Hanging out with Ted, sewing, taking trips to the library to catch up on some long-awaited reading, unpacking and organizing our new house in a way I didn’t think I was going to be able to until summer because of the office rule of no time off during tax season. I’ve done some cooking and some eating and made some things that I have never made before: ricotta, pasta, pita. It’s been quite a little adventure.

Part of not working is being home alone all day, because all of my friends and family work, of course. I spend many long hours alone with the cat, who is reluctant to use his words most days. It’s given me a lot of time to think about my next move in the world of the employed, and who I want to be if I ever grow up. I have specialized myself in administrative work, which translates roughly to sitting in a chair, in an office, in front of a computer, for about 8.5 hours of every day. Sometimes more. To be honest, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of sitting all day. I’m tired of hammering away on a keyboard in the confines of a fluorescent hell all day. I’m tired of wearing heels and having to be neatly pressed with perfect hair and being something that, well, I’m not, all day. I sit and work the day away in an office, dreaming of coming home and making dinner, going to the grocery store, baking muffins or cake, and having friends over to eat all of the loveliness with me. I love to feed people. It’s what I do. A week or so ago I got to spend an afternoon teaching a group of ladies how to make ravioli and realized how passionate I am about food and cooking. I got some compliments about my kitchen skills and food prowess that did a lot for my ego. It made me start thinking.

I’ve slowly come to the realization that I’ve misaligned my work life with my dream life. And after making a couple of tearful apologies to myself, I decided that I really DON’T want to go work in an office again. I DON’T want to be an administrative assistant, I DON’T want to be an executive assistant, and I really don’t want to push paper anymore. And I don’t care what it costs me. So many years of being a cog in the machine has given me stress issues that I have difficulty sorting through and a big fat secretary’s ass that I’m quite frankly tired of. And speaking of tired, I want to come home tired every day. Not just mentally drained because of X conference call or Y unruly coworker or Z office politicking, but really, truly, physically tired. I want to stand up for a change. Literally, on my feet, and move around.

And so, without further ado, I’ve made the decision that I’m hopping back in to the food industry. And no sooner had I made this decision than an offer of a potential position came my way. I’m trading up, going from administrative assistant to kitchen and catering assistant, if all goes according to plan. How’s that for a life change? Swapping my shoes from Choos to Danskos, hanging up my slacks and putting on my apron. And you know what? I can’t wait.

I meet with the general manager of a little Italian delicatessen-slash-ravioli factory tomorrow, after having met with both the kitchen manager and the deli manager last week. And if my meeting with the GM goes well, I think I’m going to have a new job quicker than I might think. I’m mostly ready; I had dreams of having the summer off and frittering away my time in the garden and reading books on the Plaza with a homemade picnic, but there are bills to pay and a cat to feed. We can’t rest on our laurels forever.

Tomorrow around noon, when you’re heading out for lunch or opening your leftovers at your desk, please send a happy thought in my general direction. I’m going to be giving the sales pitch of a lifetime about myself, with a side of this lemon pudding for the small staff of the deli to enjoy and as an example of my handiwork. If I can spread my sunshine and happiness about this development, I’m going to do it. And how am I going to do it? With food, of course.


Meyer Lemon Pudding
Makes 6 servings

3/4 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. cornstarch
2 1/2 c. milk (I used 2%)
3 extra large egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tbsp. finely grated Meyer lemon zest (or 1 tbsp each lemon + orange zests)
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 c. freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice (or 1/4 c each freshly squeezed lemon + orange juice)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. whipping cream
2 Tbsp. powdered sugar
Lemon zest, for garnish

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch.  Add the milk, egg yolks, zest, and salt and whisk until smooth.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently at first and constantly toward the end, until thickened (total time on the flame is about 6-7 minutes). Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the citrus juice, butter, and vanilla extract.  Divide the mixture into 6 serving dishes and let cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate, loosely covered (to avoid a watery pudding) from 3 hours to 3 days.

Before serving, gently whip your cream with the powdered sugar until it forms soft peaks, dollop atop your puddings and dust with the lemon zest. Serve chilled.

Feeling Green?

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One thing I’m not is Irish; my people hail from Italy, Spain and Portugal. Like the rest of America, though, I get my green out and get my Irish on for St. Patrick’s Day every year. I washed my favorite green dress yesterday, bought some Guinness and some whiskey, and made a batch of Irish Cream so we could spike our coffee this morning.

Wikipedia says that – what, no history lesson? Well, for those that are interested to know who St. Patrick actually was, here’s some info. He was an interesting fellow, and is the most widely celebrated saint in the world. And for the rest of you lot, I give you the recipe for Irish Cream.

While this isn’t the exact consistency or sweetness of the little brown bottle on the shelf, it comes pretty close, and I like that it isn’t as thick and that I can adjust the flavors to my liking. I also made the Unemployed House Wife version, as I found myself without any freeze dried coffee, and used about a quarter cup of cold, strong brewed coffee instead. Those little insta-packets that come from America’s Favorite Coffee House work brilliantly in this application, if you have them.

You’ll see that this recipe calls for what amounts to enough whiskey to bring down an elephant. I’ve successfully made it with only 1 cup of the hooch, but hey, if you aren’t driving anywhere or are going to rebottle it to give as gifts, make it as leaded as the recipe says. Your hostess and St. Patrick will thank you.

Get out your blender, and put on a pot of coffee, because by the time the joe is finished your Irish Cream will be too. It does taste best when it’s refrigerated for a bit, if you can stand it, but if not just dive in. I won’t tell.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all! Be safe, wear green, and be merry!

Irish Cream
From Cooks.com 

Makes about 5 cups, which goes surprisingly fast.

1 3/4 c. Irish whiskey
14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk (NOT EVAPORATED)
1 c. (1/2 pt.) whipping cream or half and half (use the heavy cream, you won’t be sorry)
4 eggs*
2 tbsp. chocolate flavored syrup
2 tsp. instant coffee
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. almond extract
In a blender, combine all ingredients; blend until smooth. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Shake before serving. Makes about 5 cups.
*If you’re worried about egg safety in your area, you can substitute either pasteurized eggs, found near the regular eggs in most markets, or powdered egg substitute, reconstituted according to the package directions.

The Fine Art of Camping

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Howdy campers! The season is nearly upon us for some good old fashioned tent camping! I grew up camping in lieu of a lot of vacations (and think I came out ahead in comparison to some of my friends). It’s good, dirty and inexpensive family fun to tent camp, once you have the equipment investment done and paid for. Do you and yours partake in this fun-for-all excursion? The breeze has warmed up in the last week and I can smell the campfire and bug spray in the air, taste the sausages cooked over the fire and the s’mores toasting over the coals. Heaven!

N and I bought a new tent this year, and are headed out this weekend to go get us some cots (no sleeping on the ground for us), and I’ll drag out our camping bins to take inventory and stock up for the season. We also have a new camp stove, some great new spatter ware plates and mugs and bowls, and a lantern given to us by a dear neighbor. With the addition of some camp grub and beer we’re about set for our first trip, scheduled for the end of May.

There are several different levels and types of camping out there to be enjoyed.  First up is backpack camping, whereby you literally drag in all of your worldly goods on your back and therefore must be a healthy, stealthy, serious type with a mean set of packing skills. And did I mention strong? I don’t subscribe to the backpack sort of camping, my knees and back can’t take it and I need more stuff than that in order to properly rough it. Wherever would I put my french press?

Another popular type of camping is drive-in camping, state park style. This is more my speed. You pack the car with everything that will fit, and back yourself into your chosen spot at your favorite campground. Unpack car, set up tent, set up kitchen, and you’re about done. Well, almost. For me this also includes putting my tablecloth out on our picnic table, unrolling the outdoor rug outside the tent door and a wildflower hike after my first beer to forage for something to make a centerpiece out of. A girl has to have standards.

Then there’s Type 1 Glamping. My aunt does this type of camping and for the first time we’re going with them this year. It’s a solid notch above tent camping. They have a 10×20 tent that has a living room (to include a bistro set and couch) and two bedrooms, and she has martini glasses for cocktail hour, to list just a few of the things she brings. You can only imagine the set-up and tear-down that must go in to this but it sounds like a hoot (and it sounds like we’re camping with the Royal Army, what with the tents and rugs and china). I personally can’t wait, her camping trips are legendary. I’m just glad she brings her own sherpas (my uncle, namely) so all I have to do is set-up and tear-down my own spot.

Type 2 Glamping is one that I want to try when our pocketbooks are a little more flush. This is where you pack your hiking boots and overnight bag and head to a campground with tent cabins. These babies are canvas tents on a steel or wooden frame with a real floor and a real bed with sheets, an electric blanket and heated mattress pad, electricity and a heater. Some also have real windows and doors, and one ‘campground’ I read about has nice folks with a jitney that not only bring you firewood every day but will set your fire for you if you ask real nice. Meals are taken at the Lodge. Sound like your cup of chai? Check out this article in the June issue of Sunset magazine. They captured it best and I couldn’t have said it better: camping for people who love nature and indoor plumbing. Another campground I read about on the ol’ internet had comfort stations complete with saunas and heated floors. We’ve stayed here, but in the lodge, not the campground, and we seriously want to go back and camp!

I’ll have a couple more posts over the next month about provisioning our camping boxes and packing up food for our trip, and will keep you posted on our adventures over the summer. I’m hoping it’ll inspire a couple of you to get out there and try it!

Spa Foot Soak

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So, remember the bath fizzie venture? It left me with some extra epsom salts and an idea for my newly exposed, not-quite-ready-for-springtime toes: a spa foot soak.

Add a half cup of epsom salts to the bottom of a large tub or bowl, along with a drop or two of essential oil or a tablespoon of lavender flowers (or both, if you’re feeling fancy or in need of extra pampering). Top with hot water and swirl the water around until the salts melt, making sure not to fill the bowl too high or make it too hot, since you still have to stick your feet in there.

Carefully retreat with the bowl and a towel to your favorite seat in the house,  have a seat, and soak your tootsies for 10-15 minutes. Try to find a moment of inner peace and not scream at the Giants on TV for letting the Dodgers take a 3 run lead.

After you’ve had enough soak time, carefully extract your feet and try not to get the lavender flowers all over the floor like I did (sorry, honey). Dry off, apply a thick layer of your favorite rich hand cream or body balm to your feet and ankles, pull on socks, and let the lotion soak in. If you can stand sleeping in socks keep them on overnight, but they should stay on for at least an hour. Voila! A fancy-pants foot soak at home that saved you a trip to the spa and about $30.

Purse Strings and Belt Notches

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Every now and again a rainy day becomes a when-it-rains-it-pours day, and we’ve had a couple in a row. It’s been a rough week around the Young’s household, to spare you the details, and it means that we have to reevaluate exactly how lucky we are to have each other (and that rotten cat) and all of the wonderful things we are blessed with: a cozy home, a warm fireplace, a loving relationship, our friends and family, and the good sense to do our very best with what we have and not constantly feel that American need for more. Which is a good thing, because we’re in one of those patches where less is going to have to be enough and that’s all there is to it.

Another blessing I can count is that I am a very resourceful girl, and I can share my ‘less is plenty’ lifestyle with all of you, and I’m going to have more time to do it. The promise of spring is on the wind today, and the bluebells are about to bloom…

….it’s a time of year that makes me rub my hands together and start thinking of the promise of longer, brighter days and the bounty of our area. That sniff of spring makes me excited to get things cleaned up, get some projects going, and get outside.

The first notch on the belt that gets tightened is the grocery notch. No more artisan cheeses bought on a whim, no more exotic breads, no more fancy Greek yogurt, no more flowers for the dining room table. It means that I get to exercise my creative abilities and make exotic breads, make my own yogurt (to be done this weekend, I can’t wait), and grow my own flowers. Farmer’s Market is a very pricey venture that I will have to X off for the most part, and my community garden plot’s rent is a luxury that I will have to forgo, but Mom and I are going to start our own garden patch in their back forty, which means I’ll have home grown organic vegetables AND flowers a short drive away. The Magical Fruit Alley will soon have figs, blackberries and French prune plums available for the picking for jams, pies, and putting-up.

A need for a new skirt means getting out the sewing machine, and new patio cushion covers mean the same thing. I’ve been saving scraps and such to make a rag rug for the living room, which I’ve never done before but it can’t be too hard. Those with birthdays or giftish events coming up look out – you’re going to be getting some homemade lovin’ from me.

And so I sit, daydreaming about all that can be and all I can do, and try to shift my focus from the negative to all that’s positive. Enough of my rambling thoughts… it’s time to get crackin’.