Prelude to Colorado

This week is a prelude to my big trip: the big trip I’ve been waiting for since June. I have several hesitations about this trip, none of which have anything to do about where I’m going. Oh, where am I going? Colorado. That’s right: Colorful Colorado has been calling my name since I became friends with T and learned of all of its natural splendor.  I began hiking a year ago and found that plopping myself in the middle of the wilderness with a backpack stocked with water & food was the ultimate test for me.  It made me stop thinking and start pushing myself past my boundary of comfort.  I admit that since my last foray into the wilderness, I haven’t been back: dehydration in the middle of nowhere has a way of scaring the shit out of you. I intend to re-introduce myself to light hiking in the Garden of the Gods this coming weekend. Keep your fingers and toes crossed for me; being an exercise-induced asthmatic has put the fear of God into me about doing anything physical in a place with such a high elevation. Thin air and breathing problems do not mix, my friends.

At any rate, Friday, far before the crack of dawn I’ll be awake, face painted and in the car on the way to Dulles airport to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Denver. The greatest thing about flying out west? I’ll be gaining time. Yes, I’ll be zombie-like from being awake for several hours by the time my feet hit the ground in Denver, but it’ll only be 7 a.m. by the time I get there.  This means that I’ll have an entire day to explore Denver and part of Colorado Springs with my friend Charity, whom I have not seen in at least six years. Via email & Skype during the last three months, Charity and I have been scheming and planning, planning and scheming to pack as much as we can into this trip; after all, this is our “summer vacation”: three days albeit a short vacation, a vacation nonetheless. I’m lucky that my travel companion would prefer to plan on educational excursions like museums and historical monuments.  After tons of research, thumbing through a Colorado Springs guidebook, a Frommers Colorado book loaned to me by a generous friend, and lots of internet research hours, we’ve decided to hit a few, if very specific sites. We’ll be visiting the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center so that Charity can attain one of her life goals: to have her picture taken with a wolf. Then, we’ll be heading to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to see lions and tigers & bears (and monkeys and giraffes and…) oh my! I haven’t been to a zoo in a long while, so I’m super excited about this one.

I’ve been fascinated by the Garden of the Gods since learning about the magical rock formations a year ago: Balanced Rock, Kissing Camels, Cathedral Spires. I’ve built this place up in my mind to be almost mythical: huge rocks jutting out of the earth in robust colors resembling creatures and magnificent manmade structures. How did they get there and how did they get their form? I so excited about seeing this park in person and taking as many pictures as possible!  Our next destination, Manitou Cliff Dwellings holds the same mystical status in my mind. I’m fascinated by Native American cultures, so seeing the abode of Anazasi tribe will prove, I’m sure, to be thrilling. I’m debating the opportunity to experience the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.  This girl has breathing issues as it is at 410 feet above sea level, and I fear the problems may be amplified at 14,114 feet above sea level. However…when else will I have the opportunity to stand at the top of freaking Pikes Peak?

English: Balanced Rock in Garden of the Godsa segment of the "Cathedral Spires" ...

Kissing Camels red rocks from inside Garden of...

Kissing Camels red rocks from inside Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs, CO. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With everything planned, now all I have to do is wait. And, anyone who knows me will agree that waiting is not my strong suite. Indeed, I’m incredibly impatient. The other hurdle that I have to hop is the three hour and forty-eight minute flight. Ugh. Flying. I’m not a fan. I’m good with the actual in-the-air part of flying…if I stay plugged into music, close my eyes, don’t peek out of the window at all and don’t think about the fact that I’m in a rather small enclosed space with over a hundred other people with recycled air. I’m not so good with the taking off and the landing parts of flying. Ugh. Flying.  I’ve decided, because I cannot drive to Colorado Springs in the time period allotted, that I can be an adult and grin and bear the flight. Honestly, I’m so excited about checking out Denver and Colorado Springs that I haven’t dwelled much on my fear of flying. Here’s to hoping that it stays that way!

 

There Aren’t Enough Orange Foods: The Making of Pumpkin Soup

I’ve been one hell of a Betty Crocker this weekend! It used to be that I did the majority of my most creative cooking when I was upset; it seems that I’ve turned a page and now can try some creative stuff just when I feel curious. Not only did I can seven more jars of hot pepper jelly (leaving seeds in this time around to make a jelly with more kick as requested by a couple of people), I also baked two loaves of zucchini bread (a first for me, made with a huge garden grown zucchini) and made a soup that harks to the coming of fall.

Ain’t that a purdy punkin’?

We grew a large pumpkin in the garden, so I asked a very creative culinary friend of mine the burning question: What can I make with pumpkin? The looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said very simply, “Pumpkin soup.” Being as I’ve never had pumpkin soup, or butternut squash soup for that matter, I found this both intriguing and a bit of a challenge. I asked how one goes about making such a soup; he told me to roast the pumpkin with olive oil and salt and when finished, purée it to prep it.  I figured this would be a long process, but once I had cut and removed all of the pumpkin’s guts, it was very simple: drizzle and roast. The roasted pumpkin came out of the oven sizzling with an earthy aroma and a rich orange color.

Pumpkin Drizzled with Olive Oil and Sprinkled with Salt Prior to Roasting

I allowed it to cool a few minutes and scooped the soft pumpkin flesh (ew, flesh) with a spoon into a bowl, leaving only the skin to dispose of.  Then, I scooped the soft, roasted pumpkin into a food processor and blended until it was puréed.

Pureed Pumpkin

I turned the pumpkin soup experiment into a two-day event because I waited until fairly late Saturday night to roast and after my second glass of Perrin Nature Cotes Du Rhone I was in no frame of mind to finish making soup.  Today, my mind clear and unaffected by copious amounts of deliciously rich Cotes Du Rhone, I completed the task.

After scooping the puréed pumpkin into a big, cast iron dutch oven I added half a cup of water and about two cups of chicken broth, stirring to dilute the pumpkin.  My friend had said all I really needed for this to work was chicken stock or broth, cream and spices, so I figured even if this experiment went awry, I could say I’d made the attempt.  I relied heavily on my taste buds and after adding cream ( I have no idea how much, because I just poured until the consistency was smooth and somewhat thin), I added cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, salt and sugar (again, I failed to measure) and stirred until all spices were well mixed.

Addin’ the Flavor

I chose to thinly slice a few baby carrots and finely dice a medium sized white onion from the garden and saute with a large pad of butter and chicken broth until the carrots were soft to the touch and the onions were translucent, and then added both to the pumpkin and spices. I remembered a friend making and incredible tomato bisque for me, and him using a blender to combine herbs and spices thoroughly while giving the soup a tremendously smooth texture, so I employed the same technique to introduce my sautéed vegetables. After tasting, I was thrilled at the outcome! It was rich and smooth and the blended carrots and onions added a fantastic earthy flavor to the hearty soup.

The Finished Product

After this experiment, I fully intend to try my hand at more soups this fall and winter and now I know that while soup making is slightly labor intensive, it’s totally worth it.

Since I seem to be turning into a regular culinary queen, there will be more to come!

Adding to My Goddess List: I’m A Jelly Makin’ Fool

jelly makin’ fool

This Saturday, I took the opportunity to add something new to my “Goddess List” (the list of all of my abilities and talents and named affectionately by a very sweet friend of mine who continually reminds me that I am indeed a goddess and deserve only the best).  Because the garden has been so very fruitful this season we have a plethora of jalapeno peppers; the fridge is overflowing and the peppers have been slowly but surely wilting. My dad and I were discussing what we should do with the harvest one day and it dawned on me: hot pepper jelly.

This condiment is something my family enjoys with unabashed joy during the Christmas season. For some reason, there is nothing better than spicy green jelly and cream cheese spread on a cracker when it’s cold outside.  I should interject here that while I’ve made a good many dishes and experimented in the kitchen, I have never, I repeat NEVER tried my hand at canning. And never before have had I had the urge.

I planned on joining my Aunt Mary, a seasoned canner, for a lesson, but plans fell through.  Being as I’m hard headed and had canning on my schedule for the day, I decided that I would try it out myself. After all, how hard could it be? I took to the web for a recipe and got some tips over the phone.  Forty dollars, two dozen jars and lids, two boxes of pectin and several sweet peppers later, I was ready!

cannin’ supplies

I was excited! I had a recipe and decided I’d follow it to a T and go from there. Washing the jars, lids and rims and putting everything into pots to boil on the stove to sanitize was annoying and tedious. After I finished that chore, I began to doubt the decision to delve into this venture alone.

big ol’ steamy pot of jars

Chopping up a cup and a half of sweet green peppers was easy. Chopping a quarter of a cup of jalapeno peppers, however, was an ordeal and experience in and of itself. By the time I even got to this part, I was sweaty and nervous as I glanced to a huge pot filled with steamy water to sanitize my jars and a separate sauce pan bubbling over and sizzling on the stove to sanitize the lids and rims. Then, things got a whole lot worse: I think I inhaled a seed because all of a sudden my nose started burning, my eyes started watering, I started coughing uncontrollably like something was caught in my throat and I began sneezing like a son of a bitch.  At this point, I cursed the peppers (I mean really REALLY cursed them), nibbled on some bread and threw the chopped sweet peppers and chopped and seeded jalapenos into the food processor to turn them into tiny slivers.  Then, I dumped both kinds of peppers into a big pot, added six and a half cups of sugar, a cup and a half of vinegar, stirred it all up so it looked a little like this:

jelly fixins’

And read the recipe. I was supposed to wait for things to boil for three minutes. It was weird to see this gloopy mess come to a rolling boil and thin out, creating a thin green film around the perimeter of the pot.  The timer sounded and it was time to squeeze in two pouches of thick, sticky pectin.  The liquid slowed its boil and strangely morphed into a sticky boiling mess. I stirred the concoction, set the timer for minute and waited. I’d reached the last part of the recipe that I’d been waiting for! I removed the heavy, cast iron Dutch oven from the burner and set it aside to cool for five minutes, and skimmed the pot, removing a thick gooey layer.  Beneath that disgusting layer lay a lovely green shade of sweet, sticky jelly! Made with my own to hands! I was so excited and broke out my canning funnel and sanitized jars, lids and rims and set to fill them all up. Sadly, I was introduced to one of the “joys” of canning: lots of work and sweat with a very little bit of product; my batch filled only six and a half jars.  No matter, I thought. This wasn’t so bad; I’ll do it again and fill the rest of them!  And then I realized how hot, sweaty and sticky everything was and had second thoughts.   I decided six and a half jars were good enough for a Saturday afternoon.

spicy, homemade yumminess

Today is Monday and the more I think back to the hassle that canning is, I really do get why people do it.  It harks back to the days when people were resourceful and used what they had in everyday life. Not to mention, anything homemade always tastes about a million times better than anything you’d get from a store, it’s much healthier and it’s not packed with preservatives and chemicals.  I’m really excited that I’m developing a new skill and would like to try my hand at other forms of canning.  I’m hoping that round two of jelly making’ is as successful as round one! I wonder what’ll be the next addition to my Goddess List?

Food (and Wine) = Love: Adventures in a Wine Shop

Fewer things in life make me happier than bread, cheese and (good)wine. Friday, the day that begins my weekly gluttony fest that runs from Friday night through Sunday evening, I decided to make a trip to an incredible wine shop downtown, Vinosity.  It’s quietly nestled in a deceivingly large storefront facing the main thoroughfare of Culpeper’s bustling downtown section.  Walking in, you’re greeted with original wood floors, tall ceilings and warm lighting.  Wines from all over the world are nestled in wracks and line the entire left wall of the shop. It’s a bit like heaven and the few times that I’ve ventured into the shop, I’ve gotten carried away and spent far too much money (but all in the name of research…yea, I’m researching the world’s vineyards and their bounties).

It was a rare and shining achievement that I was able to find a parking spot just across the street from the shop. I decided to take it as a fortuitous omen for my wine buying trip.  I was greeted and offered a tasting of an incredibly earthy Chilean Carménère (Santa Digna) with rich and peppery finish while I perused the shelves in search of something Italian or French to help me enjoy my night (that I planned to spend curled up on the couch enjoying my scary ghost shows. I know I live a really exciting life).  The very helpful store clerk offered several suggestions, two of which I decided to bring home and begin a wonderful friendship: Perrin Nature Côtes du Rhône & Château de Gaudou Cahors (a Merlot, Malbec &  Tannat blend).  I knew that Vinosity was also a purveyor of various cheeses and breads, so after tasting a remarkably velvety, bleu veined Cambozola that melted the moment it hit my tongue, my brain screamed. That’s right, it actually screamed,  “Take that home!” Naturally, I listened to my screaming brain, and added a very large baguette to my order, paid and was on my merry way home.

Having tasted the robust Carménère at the shop, I decided to crack open the bottle of Côtes du Rhône.I feel a bit of a traitor to my long-time favorite vino, Tomassi’s  Puggio al Tuffo Cabernet Sauvignon when I say this: I am in love with this wine. It’s is so smooth and so rich, with minimal acidity and a clean finish that make it quite easy to drink. I paired the Côtes du Rhône  with a simple margherita pizza (because nothing goes better with pizza than red wine…or a cold beer).

I still had a glass left of my new favorite beverage left over on Saturday, so I chose to engage in the most intense love affair I’ve had in a while: I created a delightful and quite possibly the most perfect of summer suppers: warm, crusty yet chewy baguette, opulent Cambozola and ripe, juicy garden tomatoes paired with the remaining Perrin. And, to finish the meal, I used my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe (using my favorite of all the chocolates: Ghirardelli) to create chewy, melty, hot chocolate chip cookies that are the best anyone will ever taste and make you want to slap your momma.  After my meal, I was incredibly satisfied with a full belly of decadent flavors.

Isn’t it funny how simple, full-flavored foods and wines can create the perfect ending to a lazy Saturday?  Now, my advice: Run, do not walk to your nearest wine shop and buy all three bottles of the above mentioned wines and enjoy!