Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My Trip to Seattle: Space Needle & Chihuly Garden and Glass

Last week I was in the Seattle area visiting an old friend. Our friendship, which dates back to our first day of Kindergarten, has not only lasted, but has grown over the years. We both realize how very lucky we are to have such a longstanding, close friendship. We can talk to each other about anything and have very similar tastes in decorating, clothing, food and more. Although time goes by without seeing each other (we do live on the opposite ends of the country after all), I always feel as though it was just yesterday that we spent time together.

I had such a lovely time in Seattle, thanks to my friend who went out of her way to make sure I had a great time. And boy, did I! On Sunday, after attending church, we went to the Ballard Farmer's Market. The Ballard Seafood Fest was taking place that day and we had some of the most delicious salmon for lunch, followed by two scoops of fabulous gelato at D'Ambrosio. I bought a box of delicious fleur de sel caramels -- a gift for my husband -- from Seattle-based Jonboy Caramels. They are amazing! Later that day I enjoyed a chilly (or at least it was chilly to me!) swim in Lake Washington's clear water.

One thing I really wanted to do was go to the top of the Space Needle. My friend is not a fan of heights and gets a bit dizzy, so I was grateful -- and very proud of her -- for joining me on the ride to the top. What amazing views. The weather was perfect the whole time I was in Seattle, but it was extra clear the day we visited the Space Needle. 

Right next door to the Space Needle is the Chihuly Garden and Glass, featuring the exquisite work of Dale Chihuly. This was a real treat. It's one of my friend's favorite places. Her 7-year-old son loves it too, and I can see why. The whole time I felt as though I was walking through a child's storybook -- the sculptures are so colorful and whimsical. The garden is especially beautiful. I love the way they combine the glass with the plantings.

Stay tuned for more posts from my trip, including the peaceful Seattle Japanese Garden, the original Glassybaby store and a mini tour of my friend's lovely home! 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Taking a Break ... and a Different Basil Pesto Recipe

I'll be taking a short break as I travel to the Seattle area for a visit with my best friend and her family. I am so looking forward to it! The weather will be sublime (hot, but no hotter than where I live and with less humidity). It's been six years since I've seen my friend and her family. Her son was less than a year old at the time! I'll be sure to take photos of the area and share them with you when I return.

Meanwhile, I wanted to share this wonderful recipe for basil pesto with you. It's different from the one I posted here last year. This recipe uses no Parmesan, which I guess makes it vegan. It's just as delicious as the version with Parmesan. In fact, my husband likes it even more! I made this batch the other evening because my basil plants are so prolific right now and I didn't want any to go to waste. I'm afraid they won't fare well much longer in this heat.

Basil Pesto (no cheese)

1 cup pine nuts, toasted at 350 degrees for about 5 minutes
8 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1) Bring 5 cups salted water to a boil. Add basil and quickly submerge leaves with a spoon. Immediately drain in a colander and rinse with cold water until cool, then pat basil dry with paper towels.
2) In a food processor, combine pine nuts, basil and garlic; season with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Process until nuts are finely chopped. With machine running, pour oil in a steady stream through feed tube. Process until smooth. Use immediately or freeze for up to six months.

To use from frozen: defrost pesto at room temperature or at 30-second intervals in the microwave. Mix well before using in recipes.

Lastly, I harvested our first cucumber of the year. It's the first time we've grown cucumbers and I've been very excited about it, checking the plant nearly every day for signs of fruit. All of a sudden this beauty popped out. The plant is taking over the side yard. My husband has built an intricate web of stakes and string to keep it off the ground. 

I believe this has to be the most delicious cucumber I've ever tasted!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blondies with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Wow, am I in love with this blondie recipe! I'm experimenting with my gluten-free flour and recently made blondies with two kinds of chocolate chips and walnuts. These bars are fantastic and the gluten-free flour worked beautifully. Of course you can make these treats with regular all-purpose flour too. Give them a try and let me know what you think!

Blondies with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup gluten-free or all purpose flour (I used Cup 4 Cup flour from Williams-Sonoma)
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup white chocolate chunks (I used Whole Foods 365 brand)
1 cup chopped walnuts

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter an 8" square baking dish; line pan with a piece of parchment paper, leaving a 2" overhang on two sides. Butter the paper.
2) In a large bowl, whisk melted butter and sugars until smooth. Whisk in egg and vanilla. Add flour and salt. Mix just until moistened (don't overmix). Fold in half the semisweet chocolate chips (1/4 cup), all the white chocolate chunks, and half the walnuts (1/2 cup). Transfer batter to prepared pan and smooth top. Sprinkle with remaining chocolate chips and walnuts. 
3) Bake until top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes. Set pan on a wire rack and let cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to two days. Enjoy!

And happy Independence Day to my friends in the U.S.!

Adapted from Everyday Food

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Coconut Tapioca Pudding

Coconut Tapioca Pudding with Pineapple

1 large egg 
1 can (13.5 oz) coconut milk (I used Thai Kitchen organic unsweetened coconut milk)
1-1/2 cups milk (I used skim milk)
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca (shake box before using)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup small pieces of fresh pineapple or 1 can (5.5 oz) pineapple tidbits, drained

1. In a medium saucepan, lightly beat egg. Add coconut milk, milk, sugar and tapioca. Whisk to combine. Set aside at least 5 minutes, until tapioca is slightly softened.
2. Stirring constantly, bring mixture to a boil over medium heat (don't try to rush this, and don't stop stirring, even to get a glass of water. Trust me on this.). When mixture has come to a rolling boil (meaning it doesn't stop boiling even while stirring), remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract. 
3. Transfer mixture to a heat-proof bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let cool until no longer hot, about 30 minutes. Refrigerate until cold, 2 to 3 hours (or up to 3 days).
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread coconut in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Toast, tossing once or twice, until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool.
5. Just before serving, whisk pudding to loosen. Divide among four bowls and top with pineapple and toasted coconut.

from Everyday Food

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Going Gluten Free

Two months ago I discovered that I have a sensitivity to gluten. This realization came to me quite by accident. After two or more years of recurring digestive "issues," I was beginning to get used to living with them. Then in April I realized that for two days in a row I felt great. I went through a mental checklist of what had been different those two days, and after reviewing everything I had eaten, it dawned on me: I had not eaten anything with gluten in it. No cereal, no bread, no pasta. 

For the next two weeks I avoided all wheat-based foods, and ate no processed foods to be sure I wasn't consuming any "hidden" gluten. I felt wonderful! And I realized that what I had been feeling for so long was not normal. This was normal! 

I reported my findings to my doctor and she ordered a couple of tests: one for celiac disease and one for an overabundance of bacteria in the small intestine. Fortunately both tests were negative. However, that left me without a diagnosis. I had only a strong gut feeling (excuse the pun) that I have gluten intolerance.

For the first several weeks after this discovery, I was careful to avoid all gluten. The results were great. Then I began to experiment, having a bit of gluten here and there. Sometimes I would regret it, sometimes not. I had pizza at my favorite pizza place  (a big risk, but worth it) and felt fine afterward. The restaurant buys their flour from Naples ... I wonder if there's something about it that makes a difference? Another evening when dining out, I ate half a slice of cake and paid the price for it (it wasn't worth it). 

If you're wondering about the symptoms I had been experiencing for two or more years, I'll fill you in (if you feel this is too much information, just jump to the next paragraph). The most frequent symptom I was having was bloating and cramping -- and lots and lots of burping. To the point of ridiculousness. I was also having heartburn more frequently,  which at times was very painful, as well as acid reflux, which can damage the esophagus over time. On really bad days I had all of the above.

Since going gluten-free, these symptoms are gone. When I tell people that I've given up gluten, the response is usually, "Oh, I could never do that. I love bread and pasta too much." My response is, "You could do it if it meant feeling 100 times better." Plus, there are so many gluten-free products on the market now, some very good ones. Bread and pasta are still possible, they're just different. In a future post, I'll share some of the products I've tried and offer my personal review of each. 

I'll admit, it can be tough to avoid all gluten. Eating out is more challenging. And if you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you may know how much I love to bake. However, I bought a gluten-free flour called Cup 4 Cup, sold by Williams-Sonoma, and used it to make a favorite cake (the cardamom coffee cake below). The results were great! I plan to experiment and use it in more of my favorite recipes. Go here to learn more about Cup 4 Cup and watch a video about how it was developed.

Are you or someone you know avoiding gluten for health reasons? If so, please share your experiences! What gluten-free cooking tips or products do you recommend?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Watermelon Margaritas

Like watermelon? Like margaritas? Combine the two for a refreshing cocktail that is perfect for summer. I have to admit, this recipe is a bit labor intensive, but it's worth it. What a unique taste! I cut the recipe in half, below, to make two drinks. Double or triple the recipe to make a pitcher full.

Watermelon Margaritas

1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 cup cubed seedless watermelon
1/8 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
3 ounces tequila (Note: recipe calls for white or silver tequila but I used the darker aged reposado tequila and it was delicious)
coarse salt

1. In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Remove syrup from heat, transfer to a heat-proof glass bowl and let cool.
2. In a blender, puree watermelon until smooth. Through a fine-mesh sieve, strain into a pitcher, pressing on solids (you should have about 1/2 cup of juice). Discard solids. Stir in syrup, lime juice and tequila.
3. Place 1/4 cup coarse salt on a small plate. Wet the rims of two glasses with lime wedge, then dip the rims in coarse salt. Fill glasses with margarita mixture and enjoy. Cheers!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Porch Sitting and the July Issue of House & Home

Father's Day morning was glorious: sunny with cool temperatures in the low 60s and a steady breeze. Not typical June weather for this part of the country! While my husband was out on a long walk with Ella and Henry at a nearby park, I took our old girl Phoebe on a shorter walk around the neighborhood. She's 15 now, and starting to slow down. I say "starting to" because until recently she has been pretty much the same as always. Plenty of energy and always ready to go! However, in addition to the huge tumor on her chest, we're starting to see other changes: she is weaker in her hind legs and gets winded more readily, especially in warmer weather. So mornings like the one we had yesterday are perfect for her. My heart was full as she pranced along on our walk, in the lead as always. I savor every day she is with us and feeling good.

Once back at the house, I brought her bed out onto the front porch so the two of us could enjoy some porch sitting. Phoebe enjoyed watching the world go by, alert to every passing dog walker. I enjoyed two new magazines: Better Homes and Gardens and House & Home, a Canadian publication that is my favorite magazine. Are you familiar with it?

There is an article in the July 2014 issue of House & Home featuring the Chester, Nova Scotia, home of designer Deb Nelson (read an interview with her here) that I am completely in love with. Her style is totally my style -- lots of white with hits of black and rich wood tones for contrast. The fact that her house has an incredible view of the water makes it even better! Oh how I'd love to step into the pages of this magazine, even if just for a weekend visit ...

Lastly, I thought I'd share with you a couple of photos of our porch planter, which has filled out nicely. The pink impatiens are blooming beautifully (the white ones were, but aren't right now), the fuchsia is so pretty (and has attracted a hummingbird), and the coleus is beginning to trail a bit. I also added to the porch two hanging Boston ferns, the epitome of summertime. Our flag went up for Memorial Day; we'll probably keep it up until after Independence Day, or maybe the whole summer. I love how it looks hanging vertically. 

I hope you're enjoying the start of summer, too. What have you been up to?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chickpea Salad with Buttermilk Dressing

Here's an idea for a simple and healthy weeknight supper ...

Chickpea Salad with Buttermilk Dressing

green beans, stem ends trimmed
1/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
1/4 cup reduced fat sour cream
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 can (15.5 oz) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 radishes, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 cup walnuts, broken into small pieces

1. Boil green beans 1 minute. Drain and cut into 1-inch pieces. 
2. In a small bowl, mix buttermilk, sour cream, vinegar, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. 
3. In a large bowl, combine green beans, chickpeas, radishes and walnuts; toss with half the dressing. Serve over green leaf or Boston lettuce, and drizzle with remaining dressing.

from Everyday Food

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Calla Lilies

I didn't need flowers -- just a dozen eggs and a few Siggi's yogurts -- when I ran into Whole Foods the other day. But then I spied these dramatic calla lilies and couldn't pass them up. Funny how that happens. There were also calla lilies in white, pink and lilac, but this deep, red-orange color appealed to me most. I like how their color is similar to the walls in our dining room, where I took this photo. But I chose to put the little bouquet on the coffee table in the living room instead, next to this bowl of shells.

Like the simple white tulips from a couple of weeks ago, these calla lilies brighten the room and brighten my spirits. Not bad for $4.00.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Garden Plants 2014

We've added a few vegetable plants to our garden this year -- a first for us. I've grown herbs in the garden, but never vegetables. Well, I take that back. I did try growing a cherry tomato plant once in a container, but it produced only a few tomatoes. I don't think that counts. 

Over the Memorial Day weekend, while we were at Home Depot, I suddenly got the urge to start a mini vegetable garden. In addition to basil, I purchased two cherry tomato, one cucumber and one bell pepper plant. At the strawberry fields, where we picked a few gallons of berries, I bought four Roma tomato plants. I have no idea if any of them will produce much (I don't sound too hopeful, do I), but it doesn't hurt to try.

Below are photos taken one week after planting. Fingers crossed, we'll be harvesting a few veggies before the summer is over, and plenty of basil to make fresh pesto.
 sweet basil

 Husky Cherry Red tomato 

 Roma tomato 

 Petite bell pepper


The dahlia is growing quickly. I can't wait for it to start blooming!

We also bought two new hibiscus plants this year, one red and one yellow and red (below). Aren't they spectacular? These flowers make me want to jet off to someplace exotic.

So tell me, what's new in your garden this year?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Fresh Tomatillo Salsa

Last week I took Friday off from work and enjoyed a wonderful, long Memorial Day weekend. I got several chores done, ran many errands and did a little clothes shopping. My husband and I bought some new plants: coral bells with dark leaves for the shady front garden and two hibiscus plants (red and yellow) plus a few vegetable plants (tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper and basil) for the sunny back yard. 

On Saturday morning, we picked strawberries under the best of conditions: sunny and cool with low humidity and a steady breeze. It was heavenly. We picked three gallons and purchased a fourth of pre-picked. After hulling four gallons of berries, my thumb sure was sore! 

On Memorial Day, we had our next-door neighbors over for hors d'oeuvres and wine and a lively jam session (both my husband and our neighbor play the guitar). As a snack, I made this fresh, delicious tomatillo salsa to have with chips. Before this weekend, I had never cooked with tomatillos. They are covered with a papery husk and have a sticky residue on them that should be washed off before using. Choose tomatillos that are bright green and firm with their husks still on. 

This salsa is tangy and slightly spicy -- perfect to have with margaritas. Give it a try for your next gathering and let me know what you think. If you're having a big group, I recommend doubling or tripling the recipe.

Fresh Tomatillo Salsa

In a food processor, combine:

  • 1 pound tomatillos (husks removed, washed and quartered)
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno chile (ribs and seeds removed for less heat)
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Pulse until finely chopped. Season with coarse salt. Serve with tortilla chips.

from Everyday Food

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Decorating with Shells

As I was tidying up the other day, I came across two bags full of shells in a drawer. Some are shells I've collected from trips to the beach. Others, like the brown and white cone-shaped ones below, were given to me by a former neighbor who is an interior designer. I believe he acquired them at the High Point furniture market many years ago. 

A lightbulb went off when I saw these. It's been years since I've used them in decorating, and I thought they would add a light, summery feel to the house. Since it will likely be fall before we make it to the beach for our vacation, I wanted to bring that beachy feel to our home now, and thought these shells would do the trick. 

Does anyone know what kind of shells these are? I think they are from the Philippines. 

The shells below are from our past trips to the beach. I put them in one of my favorite pottery bowls and set them on the coffee table. While they are not as exotic as the shells above, I think they are even more beautiful -- maybe because they were found by us and bring back pleasant memories of walks on the beach.

Even the bathroom shelf is now home to these two ivory-colored shells (again, from our former designer neighbor). I have a few more of this type of shell. I think they would look pretty in a bowl or wide cylindrical vase.

Do you like to use natural elements such as shells around your house? How do they make their way into your home decorating?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Simple White Tulips

I picked up this small, simple bouquet of white tulips at the grocery store the other day. Just $4.00 for the bunch, yet they bring so much joy to my day and brighten up the living room so beautifully. Tulips are one of my favorite flowers. What flowers bring you like to display in your home?

P.S. For those of you who don't blog and aren't sure how to reply to this post, just scroll down to the small text at the end of this post. Between "Labels" and "Posted by" is the word "comment" with a number in front of it. Just click there and you will go to a form where you can type your reply. I'm not sure how other bloggers are able to customize their message, such as "Leave a comment." I've not been able to figure that out, nor can I move the location of my comment link. Any tips, fellow bloggers?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Highlights from an Historic Home & Garden Tour

One of my favorite things to do is to go on home tours, especially of older homes. This past weekend there was a tour in a nearby city that I had learned about Saturday night as I was knitting and watching the local news. I was thrilled to hear the tour was taking place on Sunday, too! And yesterday was the perfect day for a home tour, with temperatures in the mid-60s.

The tour featured eight historic period homes and their gardens. As is true of most home tours, no photography was allowed inside the homes, which I can totally understand. While I would love to share with you the interiors of a couple of the homes in particular, I was respectful of the rules and did not sneak any photos. The outside of the homes, though, was another matter. Here are some of my favorites from the tour.

This adorable English-style stone cottage is as cute inside as it is out. The decorating was eclectic, traditional with a nice mix of antiques and modern touches. The bathroom upstairs is especially unique, as is the kitchen. Both have a rustic, almost European feel. The bathroom features a large, dark wood dresser-turned-vanity with a brightly patterned sink reminiscent of something from Portugal or Spain. Just off the small living room is a little library (to the far left of the house as seen in the photo below) that's full of charm and so very cozy.

I fell in love with the light fixture by the front door, which the owner had had professionally restored and rewired. According to a tour volunteer, it took a long time to source the white glass to replace some original pieces that had been broken or cracked. And those house number tiles are cute, don't you think? 

The window below is the only photo I took from the inside (after asking permission). I just loved the shape of it, how the light was coming in and the pop of red from the geraniums in the window box.

The next house is a 1920s airplane bungalow, a style that is more common on the west coast than in the Southeast. Airplane bungalow style is characterized by a small second story that pops up in the middle of the house, resembling an airplane cockpit. The upstairs rooms also tend to have lots of windows. On the back side of this house, a bedroom had windows on all sides with lovely views.

The next home was the first one we visited on the tour. The outside of this 1928 home in the minimal traditional style is cute, but the inside is amazing! I loved the decorating -- a perfect mix of modern and traditional with some antiques. This home is also full of wonderful artwork throughout. The room on the left side with all the windows is a sun room that features an elegant writing desk, upholstered chair, modern chandelier with white fringe, and a turquoise surf board propped in a corner to add a touch of whimsy. I loved the interior of this house as well as the wonderful deck and landscaped yard, complete with stream and koi pond, below. 

The last house we visited was my husband's favorite, and my second favorite. It is a mid-century modern home built in 1969 with soaring ceilings, two great big fireplaces, exposed brick walls, multiple decks and a very unique kitchen with rustic wooden open shelving. I didn't take photos of the outside because it is a dark brown house literally surrounded by trees. Plus, the outside was not the interesting part (except for the saltwater pool, below). The inside was fantastic. The homeowner is an interior designer and her use of large, antique armoires combined with black and white photography and original artwork, industrial-style light fixtures and vintage accents was very unique and personal. A large dining table, tucked into the corner of the open living space, is surrounded on two sides by banquette seating with lots of pillows and cushions, and chairs along a third side. I could just envision a dinner party at that table, with the adjacent wall of sliding doors open wide to the large deck lit with strings of white lights. What a great home for entertaining! 

I hope you have enjoyed the highlights of the home tour I was able to capture and share with you. Thanks for visiting!
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