Thursday, June 30, 2011

Coco for Coconut Oil!

You may have noticed a lot of coconut oil sneaking into recipes on this blog lately. Matt's mom gave us a big jar during our recent visit and I've been taking every opportunity to try it out since. It was great in my Black Bean Brownies, added a bit of Asian flair to some beef-and-broccoli, and totally transformed a Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. The oil may seem a little pricey, but a little goes a long way - I've been able to reduce the amount of fat called for in some recipes and still have more than half a jar left!

The appeal of coconut oil isn't just it's slightly tropical flavor - it also has numerous health benefits. It's high in lauric acid, a natural antibacterial and antiviral agent which helps the body fight diseases. It also protects cardiovascular function by helping to prevent high blood pressure and cholesterol. In addition the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil are also thought to aid weight loss and thyroid function, while antioxidants keep hair, skin and nails healthy. Doesn't it sound great?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Food at Your Fingertips!

So, I had planned to post something else today...and then I stumbled across these adorable fake food rings and thought I'd share them instead! I've always been captivated by miniature things and these rings are just so extraordinarily detailed.

All pictures courtesy of Sou Zou Creations
Sofia of Sou Zou Creations sells these amazingly realistic and unique rings in her Etsy store and they've been popping up in various blogs for a few weeks now. You can tell she's based in Japan when you look through her collection - there are lots of sushi or matcha-themed items and the attention to detail and focus on all things kawaii (cute or charming) is characteristically Japanese. Even if they're not your style, it's a lot of fun to look through her collection and be impressed by her creativity - these rings look good enough to eat!

P.S. This isn't a promotional post - I just thought these rings were cute!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Another Sleep Cheap Option: Farmstays!

Long-term readers may remember the Sleep Cheap in Europe series that appeared just weeks after I started this blog. This three-part series covered youth hostels, bed-and-breakfasts and camping, and I've had a great response to these articles - they've even been republished, in a slightly adapted form, on Yahoo. Well, a few weeks ago, I was reunited with my beloved Budget Travel magazine (wouldn't you know the one issue I missed was the Food Issue!) and I realized there's another budget-friendly option I've overlooked - farmstays.

This option not only offers the local exposure and unique locations of the other accommodation choices, but also enables you to get even closer to nature, by pitching in on a working farm! Agrotourism has long been popular in Europe (remember, the original youth hostels were designed to help German youths get close to the land), but these days the opportunities are truly global - from apple orchards in the American northwest, to vineyards in the sunny south of France, or sheep farming in verdant New Zealand. Whatever your interest, there's a location to suit.

What can you expect? Well, your experience will vary greatly depending on the type of farming, and even the individual location you choose.  Some farms are designed as luxury, 'fresh-air' retreats, where guests can pitch in little or as much as they desire. Other sites are geared toward the younger crowd, offering a chance for kids to try their tiny hands at milking lessons or egg-collecting. Other farmstays emphasize the farm, rather than the stay: workers sleep in basic, dormitory conditions and put in a full day's work, regardless of weather. One thing most farmstays have in common is excellent food - when you're that close to the source, the food is just about as fresh as it gets!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Practically Polish Cookies (a.k.a Kolacky Cousins or Hard-Boiled-Egg-Yolk-Cookies!)

Don't let the name frighten you, these rich little cookies are nuggets of tasty Eastern European goodness! Their name may be strange but, believe it or not, the process that led to their creation is even stranger. Sometimes even I'm surprised at the unusual things that come out of my kitchen...and the desperate lengths I'll go to to bake when the whim takes me.

Not surprisingly, I'm most creative when the cupboards are nearly bare, or at least sporting sizable bald spots. This time, I had to find a recipe that used minimal sugar and called for hard-boiled egg yolks. I have an abundance of hard-boiled eggs in the fridge and have been slowly eating my way through them, but I'm not overly fond of the cooked yolks so I scoured the web for ideas, beyond the usual egg salad and a few unusual sauces, and came up with these little gems.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Camino de Santiago - A Documentary by Joel Addams

A year ago at this time, I was in Spain finishing up my 600-mile journey on foot across the north of that beautiful country. I've mentioned this trip several times on the blog, usually from a culinary perspective (of course!), but this documentary gives a more complete glimpse of life on the Camino de Santiago.  It was directed by Joel Addams, a talented, Utah-based photographer whom I met during my first evening on the Camino, so the experiences of those in the film are very much contemporary with my own - some of the interviewees even became my traveling companions! The film does a good job of illustrating the many and varied reasons pilgrims are drawn to the Camino.  Not everyone walks for reasons of faith, but nearly every pilgrim comes away stronger and refined by their experience. This short documentary is a great place to start for those interested in learning more about this centuries-old pilgrimage route through Spain.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Easy Frozen Yogurt (No Ice-Cream Maker Required!)

We all know I'm a baked goods girl, but when I get a craving for something smooth and cool, frozen yogurt is my usual go-to treat. I love all the little self-serve fro-yo places that seem to be cropping up in every town in America these days - but what I don't love is how much they charge for their chilled confections. Their by-the-ounce prices may look good, but by the time I get to the check-out with my tiny tub of yogurt, I invariably end up spending $5 or $6! Of course, I know you can buy a tub of the stuff for much less at your local grocery store, but I began to wonder whether you could make your own frozen yogurt more cheaply and easily at home - and, thus, an experiment was born.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mary Poppins Pancakes

Practically Perfect in Every Way...I'm talking about the pancakes, of course. These blonde beauties swept into The Traveling Spoon last week, via Lisa at Sweet as Sugar Cookies. She got the recipe from The Pretend Chef, who got them from Martha Stewart Living, so it seems like these fluffy hotcakes are slowly spreading their magic across the food blogging world.

Matt is our resident pancake connoisseur - he rarely eats breakfast during the week (and to be honest, I might not either if I had to get up at 4:30!), but I can usually tempt him with a pancake or two on the weekends - so he was excited when I decided to whip these up for breakfast on Saturday. The recipe promised fluffy, light pancakes and it certainly delivered, even though I substituted whole wheat flour for plain! I halved the original ingredients to get six large cakes - and the best part? All it needed was a spoonful of sugar (sorry, I couldn't resist!).

This is a great base recipe and a blank canvas just begging for customization; I made Matt a cinnamon-sugar version and a couple of chocolate-Ovaltine cakes, but I was daydreaming about combinations involving chocolate chips, blueberries, apple butter or fig jam. Whatever you choose to mix in, these pancakes are a practically perfect indulgence for weekends and weekdays alike.

Practically Perfect Pancakes
adapted from Good Things For Kids: 63 Fun and Easy Recipes the Whole Family Will Love
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons sugar (or cinnamon sugar)
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil (or melted butter, or coconut oil)

Warm a small amount of oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, eggs and oil. Pour over dry ingredients and stir until just incorporated. Be careful not to overmix!

Pour about 1/3 cup batter on hot frying pan, for each pancake. Add toppings if desired. Flip when small holes or air bubbles appear (after about 1 minute). Cook second side until just golden. Serve warm with syrup or delectable toppings of choice.

This post linked at:
33 Shades of Green: Tasty Tuesdays
This Chick Cooks: These Chicks Cooked
Sweet as Sugar Cookies: Sweets for a Saturday

Monday, June 20, 2011

Take me Paris?

I'm not usually a twice-a-day blogger, but I just stumbled across something that I just had to share, in case any of you happen to be spending your Monday afternoon/evening browsing my blog (if so, Hi!). Jordan, of the beautiful and creative blog Oh Happy Day, is hosting a giveaway. If you've been around the blog world for a while, you know how much excitement a giveaway can create, but this one isn't for cake mixes, or homemade goods or even a new cookbook - all of which are excellent things, by the way, but just not in quire the same league as the actual prize.....a trip for two to Paris!

Between this contest and my recent post about the charmingly French La Baguette Bakery and Cafe in Colorado Springs, I'm suddenly craving a fresh croissant, a steaming cup of drinking chocolate, or some real macarons. If you're interested (and who wouldn't be!) you'll have to act fast because today is the last day to enter. Follow this link to find out more and enter yourself for a chance to win. Bonne chance!

Best of the West's National Parks (Part III)

At last, it's here - the installment of my National Parks series and the part where I dish up the dirt (no pun intended!) on some of our National Parks.  Until now, my reviews have been fairly positive - we visited some truly great places so this part's been easy - but now it's time to let you in on a few of our disappointments.  To find out which parks were a great trip and which were just a great waste of time, read on.

This view of Cliff Palace is worth searching for!
Most Confusing/Worst Signage: Mesa Verde National Park, CO
If you like getting lost, this is the park for you. Several attractions appeared to be missing signs altogether, so be sure to pick up a map at the visitor's center - if you can find it!

These logs are impressive, but the park offers comparatively few other attractions
Least Value for Money: Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Petrified Forest National Park sounds fascinating, right? That's a trick question, because while the petrified logs are actually really interesting, the park kind of isn't. Apparently, much of the petrified wood from this area was carted away by tourists long before the National Park Service stepped in. The best logs are located at the far end of the park, and though the drive through this portion of the Painted Desert is pretty, it looks a lot like the parts of Arizona that you can drive through outside the park - for free. You can also see petrified logs for free, at several 'rock shops' outside the park, which means that there really isn't much reason to visit the park at all. Top Tip: If you have the Annual Pass, it's worth visiting the Crystal Forest and Newspaper Rock. Otherwise, you can satisfy your petrified log curiosity at one of the rock shops along the highway, or view the smaller specimens at Valley of Fire State Park, NV.

Crazy roads on the Artists Drive, Death Valley, CA
Least Accessible: Death Valley National Park, CA
This park was one of my favorites, so I hate to put it on the 'naughty' list - but it is out in the middle of nowhere. Matt and I broke our epic journey to Death Valley in a little town called Orlancha - which is also in the middle of nowhere.

A rare bit of empty trail at the busy Zion Canyon, UT
Most Crowded: Zion National Park, UT
It's a small park and we visited during National Park Week - not the best example of prior planning on our part.  We weren't able to get a spot on one of the campsites in the park, even though there are two, and ended up grabbing one of the last rooms available in a Travelodge in Hurricane, UT. Top tip: Campsites are first come, first served so arrive early!

At least this sign proves we were in the right place!
Biggest Disappointment: Petrified Forest National Park, AZ, Capitol Reef National Park, UT and Sequoia National Forest, CA
I've already explained my issues with Petrified Forest, but Capitol Reef and Sequoia make the list for far different reasons. Matt and I drove through Capitol Reef without even realizing it - we were too busy looking for the Capitol-like dome that we never saw.  I've heard there's some good hiking to be had in the park, and there's was an interesting looking orchard just outside the gates, but after visiting Bryce, Zion and Death Valley, perhaps we're too hard to impress. Sequoia makes our list of disappointments only because we drove six hours to reach it and didn't see a single Sequoia. Sadly, we failed to fully research our trip and didn't realize that the only access road through the centre of the park (you know, the bit with all the giant trees) would still be closed in mid-April. Sadly, the Ranger we spoke with at the visitor's center didn't think to mention this fact either. Bummer.  I'm sure the trees are impressive but, sadly, we may never get to see them. Top tip: Please, please, check to be sure the roads are open before you plan your trip!

The photos were the best part of our visit!
Least Favorite: Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
I hate to say 'all-time' least favorite, because it seems so final.  Still, after all the hype surrounding Petrified Forest, our visit was pretty disappointing. The logs are beautiful and it was fascinating to watch them change colors with the changing light of a setting sun, but I'm not sure I would have been satisfied if we'd had to pay the usual entrance fee.  The Painted Desert portion, which makes up the majority of the park, is not really unique in terms of Arizona scenery and it's a little strange to have a highway running straight through the middle of the park. Sure, some of the other parks had less to offer, but most of these didn't have the reputation - or the entrance fees - that made Petrified Forest such a stone, cold disappointment.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Surprisingly Delicious Black Bean Brownies!

Ladies and Gentlemen - we now have an answer for the age old question: given a working oven, a nearly-stocked kitchen and all the required utensils, how long will it take for Rachel to bake? Answer: Seven days...or one day, if you start counting from Wednesday, which is when we finally got around to grocery shopping.

The truth is, I've been itching to bake ever since we moved in but I'm trying to watch my sugar-intake, for health reasons, so whipping up tasty treats is not really prescribed behavior. Sadly, my domestic impulses finally got the better of me this week and, since I couldn't fight them, I decided I'd at least try to make something a little bit healthy. I've seen Black Bean Brownies all over the blogosphere and have always been a skeptic, despite the rave reviews. How can something so virtuous possibly taste indulgent? I mean, they're beans and this is chocolate we're talking about. Somehow these two things seem destined to always be separate.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vive La Baguette!: La Baguette French Bakery and Cafe, Old Colorado City

All this talk of hiking and adventuring is making me hungry, so it's time for a another little foodie gem from our time on the road. The gem in question today is actually a charming little French bakery, appropriately called La Baguette, in the Old Colorado City part of Colorado Springs.

The bakery is housed in handsome brick building, sandwiched between a bar and a gift shop. Inside, exposed rafters give the place a slightly industrial feel, but the interior is bright and airy. There are cozy white-washed booths to fold yourself into, with small tables and cane chairs completing the Euro-cafe aesthetic. A hand-painted cluster of grapes adorns the kitchen door and the walls are hung with local artwork and vintage-looking posters extolling the virtues of the French trifecta - bread, cheese and wine.

While I haven't sampled their namesake, I've dined here - and fallen in love here - on two separate occasions. The first time was a few years ago, with a tall, dark, and frothy hazelnut cappuccino - possibly the best cup of coffee I have ever had. Ever. Why else would I tip $5 for a $2 cup of joe?

I've warmed myself with the memory of that gorgeous coffee many times since and, based on this wonderful chance encounter long ago, I dragged Matt halfway across the city to make sure we came back on our way through C-Springs. Crazy? Yes, but with good reason. The food and atmosphere were just as lovely as I remembered - and this time I fell in love with their justifiably popular French Onion Soup.

I'm a big fan of French Onion Soup, which is strange because I don't usually like things that are overly cheesy or oily. Still, I'm a sucked for the clear, molasses-colored broth, the smooth, translucent onions and the slightly soggy raft of bread with it's silky skin of toasted cheese. I order it whenever I get the chance - even at places I shouldn't (a-hem, Applebees!). I've even resorted to canned French Onion, but only in times of crisis. So I was in luck because, in the world of French Onion Soup, La Baguette's is le roi (okay, so I don't speak French, but for this soup, I'd try!).

Just looking at these photos again makes me wish for a few sweet onions and some Gruyere. Can you see the bubbles of cheese, hiding perfectly caramelized onions and a sweet, clear broth beneath? C'est un miracle!

While I was rhapsodizing about my soup, Matt was devouring an equally delicious-looking turkey-and-swiss croissant whose dimensions closely approximated those of a wooly mammoth. One thing is sure - you won't go hungry at La Baguette. In fact, I'd had my eye on a few items in the pastry case - I've heard wonderful things about their eclairs and pastry cream - but, by the time I'd finished my soup, even my dessert stomach was full! I actually offered half of my crusty, white roll to Matt - which was astonishing because the bread was quite fresh and very good. Luckily, he still had a bit of stomach room left after finishing his mammoth-sized croissant. At least it went to a good cause.

Sadly, I also didn't have any room for my favorite hazelnut coffee...or their delicate Opera cakes, or their buttery, sugar-dusted almond croissants, or their rich, crustless quiche, or their escargot (yes, they really do serve it!), or the number of other delicious things on their extensive menu - all of which just means that someday we'll have to come back. Again, and again, and again.

La Baguette French Bakery and Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Best of the West's National Parks (Part II)

In Best of the West (Part I), I covered the major highlights of our thirteen-site National Park odyssey. I explained why Bryce Canyon is my all-time favorite, why Zion has a great shuttle system, and why you should camp at the Grand Canyon if you're craving s'mores. These tips might be enough for the casual, armchair traveler, but if you want the nitty gritty details of the West's great National Parks, you've come to the right place. Read on to find out more about our favorites and get details on a few newcomers.

River Crossing in Echo Canyon, Zion National Park
Best for Walkers: Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, UT
It's official - Utah is a great place for hikers! Bryce Canyon was home to my favorite hike (the Fairyland Loop, detailed in Part I) and Zion was the site of Matt's (Observation Point via East Rim), so it's hardly surprising that these two win our most 'foot friendly' award. Both parks boast a variety of hikes that cater to walkers of all ages and abilities. From two mile hikes, to hikes you'll still be feeling two days later, these parks have it all. All routes within Zion Canyon are reached via the free park shuttle, making them extra backpacker-friendly. The sheer volume of trails at both locations means you could explore for days and never hike the same trail twice! Top Tip: While none of the trails are really 'technical,' some are quite physically demanding (Zion's Angel's Landing trail, for example, has a cliff's-edge portion with chains to hold as you climb) and many will be closed seasonally or affected by adverse weather.  Be sure ask about current trail conditions at the visitors center before you lace up your boots.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Easy Tandoori Chicken (and my Super-Secret Cart o' Spices)

I'm interrupting my normally scheduled blog post (i.e. more National Parks!) to bring you an awesome recipe I discovered just last week. It has all the perfect attributes - healthy, tasty and simple - and it's so good I've already made it twice! I love this recipe because it's strong on flavor, short on prep time and allows me to dip liberally into my horde of precious spices.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Best of the West's National Parks (Part I)

Exploring the Great American West doesn't get much better than setting foot on one of the many amazing National Parks that generously dot these expansive states. While driving across the trackless desert is still a Kerouacian experience, our National Parks provide some truly great opportunities for those who like to do their exploring with both feet on the ground. Here are some highlights from our experiences 'out West' (this list is collaborative, so you can get Matt's opinions as well as mine, for a change!):

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, UT
All-Time Favorite Park: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Matt and I were divided on this one - he favors the nearby Zion Canyon - but I chose Bryce because of it's stunning scenery and the wide variety of activities on offer.  The location is a bit remote, but well worth the drive. Technically Bryce is the edge of a plateau, rather than a canyon, but you'll be more interested in the unique scenery than in nomenclature, once you arrive at the park. Tall, slender spires of variegated rock, called hoodoos, create curtain-like projections that stretch out to the horizon.  At sunrise, the rocks are pastel pink, ash white and pale orange, at sunset they glow as if on fire.  It really is enchanting. The only downside is the weather - expect wintry conditions to persist until May, and check their website for the best times to visit. Matt and I pitched our tent on a foot of snow in late April!

Archaeological Site at Canyon de Chelly, AZ
Best Free Attraction: Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ 
For the budget-conscious, this location can't be beat.  Located in eastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) offers a variety of attractions, including guided tours to archaeological sites, an impressively scenic drive and an excellent, short day hike down to some well-preserved ruins at the base of the canyon. The Rangers on staff were extremely knowledgeable and - bonus! - we arrived on the site's 'anniversary' which meant free cake, a postcard and a full day of cultural events. Top tip: The Park is located on the Navajo Reservation, which means it observes daylight savings time - unlike the rest of Arizona!

Valley of Fire State Park, NV: Can you spot the Scream Mask? 
Best State Park: Valley of Fire, NV
Okay, this is kind of cheating since it was technically the only State Park we visited, but the site was so impressive that Matt and I both agreed it deserves a mention. We planned to spend only a few hours here but ended up spending an entire day! Only an hour north of Las Vegas, the Valley of Fire State Park might just as well be on another planet.  The park boasts some amazing red rock formations (it derives its name from their vivid color) as well as a few short hikes and even some impressive petroglyphs. Top Tip: You could spend a whole day here, as we did, but if you're short on time, check out the petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock and Mouse's Tank, catch a glimpse of some Petrified Logs and take a picture at Elephant Rock.

View from the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon, NV
Best Hike: Fairyland Loop at Bryce Canyon, NV
We started this 8.2-mile loop in the sunshine and ended - three hours later - in the snow, but every minute was absolutely beautiful. The scenery is stunning; between the multi-colored mineral deposits and castle-like rock formations, this route certainly lives up to its name. It's a fairly straightforward hike, but there is a lot of elevation change (including an almost 1800ft ascent) so it will be a respectable day hike for most hikers. Top Tip: The Fairyland Loop doesn't have the seasonal restrictions of some of the other Bryce routes, but this doesn't mean the trail won't be affected by weather. Portions were extremely muddy and some areas were still snow-covered in late April.  Improper footwear is the leading cause of injuries at Bryce so hiking boots with ankle support and 'lug' traction are strongly recommended.

Grand Staircase-Escalante: A geological smorgasbord!
Best Scenic Drive: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
Utah's newest National Monument, this scenic drive was a bonus attraction, connecting our visit to Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ, with our visit to Bryce Canyon in Utah. Given the option to take the highway or an unpaved scenic detour, we'll almost always take the detour, and this one certainly paid off. The drive is a sampler of geologic formations, winding past multicolored cliffs, table-topped buttes, towering pinnacles, and graceful stone arches. The two hours we spent driving through the monument were filled with breathtaking photo-ops and stunning vistas. Top tip: The roads through the area are unimproved and were still quite muddy in late April, so don't attempt this route in low-clearance, poor-traction vehicles. There are no gas stations once you enter the monument, so fill up before you set out.

A grand view of the Grand Canyon, AZ
Best Amenities: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
This isn't really that surprising, given that the Grand Canyon is one of the most visited National Parks in the country.  Ample parking, a huge visitors' center and an excellent, free shuttle system are just some of the features that put the Grand Canyon above the rest.  Add in two well-appointed campsites, two full-service lodges, a General Store (complete with cafe), a gift shop and a mini-mart, and the Park has all your needs covered. You can even buy firewood to kindle in one of the campsites' many fire pits - and the chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers to go with it.

Sunset at the Grand Canyon - I promise it's there!
Best Infrastructure: Grand Canyon, AZ and Zion, UT
Again, these are two high-traffic parks, so infrastructure is really important.  While the Grand Canyon is vast, Zion Canyon is small and narrow (so small that visitors must ride a shuttle to reach most of the park) so both make use of a great shuttle system to keep visitors moving. Both also boast impressive visitors centers, good parking, well-kept campsites and a whole host of Ranger-guided programs.

Salt at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA
Best Variety: Death Valley National Park, CA
This park is so much more than the barren, sandy wasteland I envision when I hear the name 'Death Valley.' Sure, it's home to the lowest, hottest and driest locations in North America - and also the famously salty Badwater Basin and the famously eerie 'sliding rocks' at Racetrack Playa - but there's a lot more to see than these well-known attractions. You can visit the remains of the Harmony Borax Works, for a bit of history, or explore the cool, polished marble walls of Mosaic Canyon on foot. Take pictures from the comfort of your car on the Artist's Drive or get a good workout climbing the shifting sands of the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Top tip: Visit in April when the temperatures are a little cooler - Death Valley also boasts the highest reliably recorded temperature in the Western Hemisphere (134 °F at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913). In addition, the park is vast and gas prices inside the gates are high so be sure to fill up before you arrive - you'll want plenty of gas to see all this park has to offer!

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley, CA
Best Value for Money: Death Valley, CA (variety), Zion, UT (views), Bryce Canyon, UT (hiking), Grand Canyon, AZ (legendary)
As you an see, this was a tough category to adjudicate! A lot of the 'value' of a site depends on what takes you there in the first place, so we came up with a few subcategories to facilitate your decision. The good news is that with choices spread across three different states, the chances are even greater that you'll eventually get the chance to visit!

Enough exploring for one post? We've given you the best of the West, but you can check back later for more categories, breakdowns, highlights and letdowns!

Friday, June 10, 2011

America the Beautiful: Discovering our National Parks

Some more unfinished business today! I'm typing from a cozy little nest of boxes and packing paper and, though I'm glad to finally be in our new home (and my new kitchen!), looking through these photos has reawakened some of my desire to be on the road. I'll have my feet firmly planted in Tennessee for a while (I'm attempting to assimilate into the local culture tonight with tickets to the CMA Music Fest!) but I'll be traveling vicariously though these catch-up posts over the next few days. I hope you enjoy the ride, too!

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

So, how do you top two weeks in sunny Las Vegas? Follow it up with as many back-to-back National Park visits as you can cram into a two week period! At least, that's what Matt and I decided to do, and it turned out to be a pretty great plan. We spent two weeks hiking, camping, eating and driving our way across 13 National Parks/Forests/Monuments and assorted other points of interest. It was breathtaking, enlightening and occasionally really exhausting - and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. Of course, I know not everyone can devote two whole weeks to rambling through the vast American hinterland, so my next few posts will seek to condense and summarize our experiences; you can 'travel' along with us or use our itinerary as a jumping off point for your own adventures.

Antelope Canyon (not a National Park, but still amazing!)
By sheer chance, the first half of our whirlwind tour coincided with this year's fee-free National Park Week. Judging by the traffic that week, many people schedule their visits during this time, but if you plan on visiting more than a handful of parks within a calendar year, it may be worthwhile to purchase the 'America the Beautiful' annual pass.  The price may seem steep (currently $80 for unlimited entries) but it quickly pays for itself and, in any case, preserving these beautiful places is well worth the cost.

Check back over the next few days as we 'visit':
Petroglyph National Monument, NM
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Hoover Dam, NV
Death Valley National Park, CA
Sequoia National Forest, CA
Valley of Fire State Park, NV
Zion National Park, UT
Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Antelope Canyon, AZ
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Arches National Park, UT
Mesa Verde National Park, UT
Four Corners Monument, NM
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, CO
Garden of the Gods, CO

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Four Corners and Frybread

Phew! The movers came on Tuesday and I've been opening boxes non-stop ever since. Now that Matt and I are finally in our new place, I'm hoping I can get back into some sort of rhythm with posting on the blog and, of course, bring back more recipes!!! There's still some unfinished business, however, from our months on the road and today's unfinished business takes the form of some delicious Navajo frybread that we picked up on our way back east after our stay in Las Vegas.

I've tasted a few varieties of frybread in my time, but nothing as authentic as the stuff we picked up during our visit to Four Corners Monument.  The Monument marks the point where four state lines, those of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, all intersect. Located in the middle of nowhere, this quadripoint has become a huge tourist attraction. Naturally, we couldn't resist joining a line to take pictures at the intersection and even adopting the obligatory contortionist's pose with a limb in each state.

In addition to the actual monument, which tells the story of the state lines and showcases each state's seal, there's a marketplace where visitors can purchase traditional native crafts (the Hopi, Ute, Navajo and Zuni tribes all have some jurisdiction and presence in this area) and taste foods both traditional (my frybread) and not-so-traditional (Matt's Navajo Burger - a burger wrapped in a frybread 'bun').

There were a few frybread stands, but Matt and I chose one in a trailer a little distance from the marketplace, hoping its more remote location would somehow make our experience a little less touristy and more authentic. Whether or not this was the case, my frybread was delicious, freshly prepared in the back of the trailer while we waited. We consumed our lunch on a bench in the sun, listening to the chatter of Navajo radio station (it's no surprise this language was used as a secret code during WWII - it's like nothing I've ever heard!).

I elected to keep my frybread simple, covering it in a dusting of cinnamon and sugar. Matt chose the Navajo burger - a juicy slab of beef and some veggies sandwiched into the fold of an enlarged frybread. Both were fresh, hot and so very light. I was amazed at how filling these light, airy breads turned out to be - definitely a good road trip food.

The bread we tasted at Four Corners was nothing like the other kinds I've tried - the texture was much more open, full of air pockets and puffed dough.  Maybe it's the recipe or just practiced technique, but if anyone knows the secret to light, puffy frybread, I'd love to hear it!

For a fascinating post on the history of Navajo frybread, check out this post at What's Cooking America.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Peach, Almond and Black Pepper Jam: Between a Hotel Room and the Emergency Room

Every recipe tells a story.  Once I've followed a recipe, it's forever imprinted with the circumstances of that first baking and any subsequent creations only serve to enrich the tale.  Often, a recipe will remind me of the people I've cooked it with, or for; there's the breakfast sausage casserole my family makes for Christmas morning, the Snickerdoodles I always send to my grandmother, or the perfect, stay-soft chocolate chip cookie recipe I use in care packages for friends serving overseas.

Sometimes, the recipes have a more specific memory attached: like the time I burned my fingers making homemade Thin Mints for Matt (what won't a girl do to impress her guy?), the time I made 'Blackberry Coconut FAILcake' (I may have over-modified a recipe a bit too much during our final days of dwindling ingredients in Oklahoma), or the weekend my college girlfriends and I decided to make a grape pie (which actually turned out tasty - but what a process!). Well, today's recipe is definitely one of those.....

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tips for Staying Fit on the Road

Schedule some 'fun' fitness to stay in shape as you travel
I spend a lot of time on this blog discussing my favorite foods and indulgences but, until now, I've been virtually silent about another passion of mine - fitness and exercise.  Life is about balance and it's important to me that my dedication to exercise and fitness is equal to my love of delicious baked goods and chocolate (well, nothing is exactly equal to Cadburys, but I try!).  As a food and travel blogger, a certain amount of indulgence comes with the territory, but that doesn't mean that I completely throw caution to the wind and eat with abandon. When I'm home, my workouts are usually as regular as clockwork, but staying fit during our weeks on the road has been a challenge. Between unpredictable schedules and many more meals at restaurants, I've have had to get creative to keep the workouts frequent and challenging.

Check-in and Check out the Gym: When you're shopping around for a place to sleep, pick a hotel with fitness facilities and you'll be much more likely to stick to your regularly scheduled workouts.  Sure, these rooms may not have all the comforts of your home gym, but hotel fitness facilities are improving as major chains respond to patrons' requests; the Hilton Hotel even offers 'health-fit rooms' which boast in-room exercise equipment! If 'Hilton' isn't a word your budget can accommodate, check out La Quinta Inns and Suites, our usual hotel of choice since most locations have fitness centers and they have a great rewards program (and hot waffles for breakfast - it''s all about balance, right?).

Get Geared Up: Make your workout clothes, running shoes, iPod, and heart rate monitor the first things that go into your bag when you're packing for a trip. If you have space, toss in a few workout DVDs and a jump rope for some of the most portable workouts anywhere.  If you have the gear on hand, you'll be less likely to spend time changing channels in your hotel room. Don't have room for running shoes in your carry-on? Visit the hotel pool or limber up with yoga or pilates, all you'll need is a hotel towel.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Digging Up The Past

At last, our final night in the hotel has come! Matt and I will be moving into our new place tomorrow and I'm excited to get our things and start unpacking and making a new home. In addition to spending these weeks house-hunting and cooking up strange things in our hotel room, Matt and I have also started exploring our new hometown.  We've tried a few local eateries (including a great little place called Duke's Diner that serves Pad Thai and Green Curry alongside burgers and fries) and immersed ourselves in the local culture (i.e. checked out the country music scene in Nashville), but many of our adventures have been historical in nature. Matt and I are both history buffs, so a few weekends ago our exploration took us to the Civil War site of Fort Defiance, a former Confederate outpost.

Fort Defiance Interpretive Center

We timed our visit perfectly: the new Fort Defiance Interpretive Center had just opened a few weeks previously and we were able to enjoy the exhibits, talk to a local guide, and take a stroll along one of the many the newly paved walking trails. There are only embankments and depressions in the ground where the fort once stood but it's still interesting to view these sites and imagine the existence of a very different town than the one we're just getting to know.

Just over a year ago at this time, I was working at another historical site - uncovering the remains of a Roman settlement in Wiesbaden, Germany.  I've always been fascinated by archaeology and was glad to get the experience, uncovering several examples of Roman metalwork and pottery, and even a few older, Iron Age finds during my weeks on the dig. I learned a lot about the practical business of archaeology and preservation, but also got a taste of how personal and rewarding the work can be.

It's much more physically demanding and less glamorous than Indiana Jones would have you believe ( golden chalices or high-speed chases in cars, boats and planes?), but there's nothing quite like the knowledge that the piece of pottery you're holding was last touched, centuries earlier, by Roman hands.

German archaeologist Christian with one of our finds - how beautiful!

I've been looking for more volunteer opportunities ever since and hope to find something during our time in the TN/KY area. The archaeological community seems a little hard to break into, but I'm hoping that with diligent research and an ample helping of enthusiasm, I'll be able to find a way. Of course, even if nothing turns up, Matt and I will still keep exploring and learning from others who are digging up the past.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sometimes Bitter is Better: My First Experience of Underberg Bitters

Ask someone in the United States their favorite flavor and you'll likely hear 'sweet' or 'salty.' Once in a blue moon, you'll run across a 'sour' lover - that rare individual who just can't get enough pickles and Lemonheads - but I've never, ever run across a person who prefers bitter flavors above all else. We are, by and large, a nation of sweet-tooths and salt cravers, and a walk through the snack section of any American grocery store will quickly prove this point - Little Debbie, Hershey's and Mars cater to the sweet lovers, while salt cravings are satisfied by Lays, Planter's and Oberto. Even our restaurants trade on these preferences, and food industry insiders often refer to the crave-inducing trifecta of sugar, fat and salt.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (with a tropical, Coconutty secret!)

The search for the perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie is one of life's enduring challenges. Ever since this iconic American treat was created by Ruth Wakefield, in 1930, bakers have been searching for the perfect recipe - one that blends crisp, browned edges with a sweet, chewy center flecked with rich, melted chocolate chips. The search has spawned countless cookbooks, thousands of recipes and even a much-talked about and heavily researched article in the NY Times. When David Leite released the recipe that resulted from his research for the Times, the search finally appeared to be over. And yet, almost three years later, new recipes are still cropping up and people - bloggers in particular - are still searching.