Saturday, April 30, 2011

Royal Wedding Report

After last week's pre-wedding post, I thought it only fair to return with a few impressions of the big day. As most of you probably guessed, I did get up at 3am on Friday to watch the live coverage.  It's rare that I actually watch TV (we only have one now because we're living in a hotel) so I thought I'd take advantage - and, in any case, what girl wouldn't want to see a real live fairytale in the making?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Perfect for a Princess: English Sweets and Treats for the Royal Wedding

The venue: Westminster Abbey

Everyone, it seems, has caught the Royal Wedding fever and with the big event only days away, I'm caving to the pressure with a London Foods themed post. There's something exciting and almost fairytale-like about the idea of a commoner-turned-princess - and, of course, I'm always eager for an excuse to rave about British sweets!

The pastry case at Harrods

It's been almost two years since I was last in London, visiting my sister and her husband in September 2009, but our family visited often during our years in England. We also had a few brushes with the Royal Family - I met Prince Philip at a presentation at St. James' in 2003, and my mum even appeared with Princess Diana on a national magazine cover. Before my decision to return to the States for college, I was accepted into the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where William and Kate met. I'm sure St. Andrews had a record number of applications during those few years, so I don't have too many regrets about resigning my place to another princess-hopeful!

Cream tea in the garden

I'm not sure if I'll be watching the wedding live (Matt and I are sharing a hotel room and he's none too excited about waking at 3am to watch TV) but I'll certainly catch some of the coverage and possibly celebrate with a tasty treat or two.  We've been informed that the royal wedding cake will be traditional English fruitcake, but I can think of several tastier options for a viewing party - many of which can be obtained or recreated right here in the U.S.A. Here's a round-up of some of my favorite British baked-goods and bon-bons:

The Allure of 'White Gold': White Asparagus and Mushroom Soup

Celebrating Easter on the road this year meant that I wasn't able to try out any new spring recipes, but if I'd been home, our Easter meal might have included one of my favorite seasonal ingredients - white asparagus. White asparagus is extremely popular in northern Europe, and Germany in particular, where it's sometimes called 'white gold.' During our time in Germany, Matt and I lived near a huge asparagus-growing area and I can remember driving past tarp-covered fields, waiting in eager anticipation for the season to begin.

White asparagus actually comes from the same plant as the more common green variety - the difference in color and flavor is due to the fact that white asparagus is kept out of the light during growing, which prevents photosynthesis (the lack of chlorophyll is what makes the asparagus appear white). It has a slightly milder and less bitter flavor, and the shoots are often thicker and more robust than their green siblings. On menus, white asparagus appears drizzled with hollandaise sauce, steamed with lemon juice, paired with seafood, blended in cream soups or even roasted on pizza. The highly-prized vegetable has a very specific growing season - usually late April until late June. In Bavaria, June 24th is celebrated as the end of Spargelsaison (Asparagus Season).

Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Belated Easter, Peeps!

Since Matt and I spent most of yesterday driving through Colorado, Kansas and Missouri, on the last leg of our month-long trip across the western United States, my Easter greetings are a day late but no less heartfelt! We attended Easter services in Colorado Springs yesterday morning and shared a quick meal with some friends before getting back on the road - I've enjoyed our travels immensely, but I'm looking forward to the day when we can unpack our suitcases and I can begin to explore a new state, our new town, and, most importantly, a new kitchen!

In the meantime, I've sought out some Easter-treat-related tidbits to tide myself over.  Lamb Cakes, glazed ham and chocolate bunnies certainly aren't the most vital part of this important holiday but they're still pretty tasty. Of course, one of the most iconic Easter treats is everyone's favorite neon-bright, sugar-shock-inducing snack: Marshmallow Peeps. Here is a link round-up with some fun facts about Peeps and a few ideas for what to do with the ones you have leftover after all the baskets are empty and the Easter grass has blown away:

Bake the famous Peeps Sunflower Cake from Taste of Home

Whip up some Peep-stuffed Brownies courtesy of Sarah Kickler Kelber at The Baltimore Sun

Go pseudo-savory with Peep sushi or Deep Fried Peeps from Serious Eats

Visit Terri's Peep Hut for a surprising array of recipes, including Peepuccino and Peep Waldorf Salad

Toast some Peeps S'mores at Eclectic Recipes

Check out this book about Peep crafts!

Make your own diorama for next year's Washington Post Peeps Diorama Contest

And finally, What's Cooking America has some interesting facts about Marshmallow Peeps - plus a recipe to make your own!

There are so many ideas out there, it's kind of amazing...but that's all I have time for, Peeps! (hehehe) Happy Easter!

Friday, April 22, 2011

TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo) at the Bouchon Bakery, Las Vegas

A few weeks ago, I tempted you with the mention of the famous Thomas Keller Oreo (or TKO, as it's commonly called). Well, our trip to Vegas is over, so I can officially say that I've been there and bought the cookie, and here are my thoughts:

The TKO is essentially marketed as an upscale rendition of the American junk-food classic - two thin wafers of rich, dark, chocolate sable dough sandwiched together with a filling of thick, creamy, white chocolate ganache. The cookie is a product of the amazing Thomas Keller (of French Laundry, Bouchon, Per Se and Ad Hoc fame) and has garnered rave reviews all over the web, so I knew I had to add it to my list of Las Vegas indulgences. Just one day into my Vegas adventure, I wasted no time in tracking down the tiny Bouchon Bakery outpost on the gaming floor of the Venetian Hotel.

I expected a little more than small sweets counter with a to-go cafe attached, but I was soon distracted and easily appeased by the beautiful array of baked goods in their glass-fronted cases. For a moment, I was tempted to scoop up armfuls of their giant cookies and artfully frosted cupcakes, but then I remembered my reason for searching them out in the first place and walked away with a lone TKO. I found a quiet place in the upper floors of the Venetian (which, in itself, is quite a remarkable feat) and prepared myself for an indulgent and transformative experience.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Taste of Americana: The Route 66 Restaurant, Santa Rosa, NM

You've been driving since dawn, fueled by little more than a bruised apple, a handful of pretzels, and a cup of sugar-laden gas station coffee.  With your eyes on the road ahead, the rest of the world fades until you suddenly become aware of a gnawing hunger that demands to be satisfied.  You scan the roads and rest stops, stuffed with the usual fast food fare. Convenience is king when you're on the road, but some places are worth taking a few minutes to slow down, pull over and enjoy - the Route 66 Restaurant, in Santa Rosa, NM, is one such place.

Always in search of the quaint and the classic, Matt and I uncovered this little gem on our cross-country trip from Oklahoma to Las Vegas. The first thing we noticed about the Route 66 Restaurant was the retro signage and the sea-foam green classic car in the parking lot. The inside was just as picture-perfect, with red vinyl-covered bar stools cozied up to a low bar, and matching booths along walls covered with Route 66 memorabilia.

Monday, April 18, 2011

National Park Week (April 16-24, 2011)

Zion National Park, Utah

I'm writing from Bryce Canyon National Park, having just finished an 8-mile hike through some of the most breathtaking scenery I've ever seen (more on that later!), so what better subject to cover than the fee-free National Park Week that's going on right now at the nearly 400 National Parks scattered all across the country! Matt and I already have an annual pass, but for those of you who don't often get the time to get out and enjoy these areas of natural beauty, this week might be just the perfect opportunity.

From now until April 24th, National Parks are offering free admission (which can add up to huge savings, in some cases), and many boast further discounts in their on-site stores and extra Ranger programs to help you get the most out of your visit.

In the past couple of weeks, Matt and I have explored a wide variety of sites - from the Grand Canyon and the lesser known, but still awesome, Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, to Death Valley in California, and Zion and Bryce Canyon in Utah.  Each has something different and exciting to offer and I plan on doing a more detailed review of each in the weeks to come - perhaps when I'm able to stop lurking outside of buildings or buying lots of unnecessary coffees in order to connect to the internet!

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley, CA

While I know not everyone can make a quick trip to the Grand Canyon or Death Valley this week, I encourage you to get online and see if there are any National Parks in your area that you've yet to explore. Most parks are experiencing increased traffic this week, due to the promotion, but you can work around this quite easily by arriving early and choosing sites or trails that are less populated or more challenging.  Matt and I have tried the longest or most "strenuous" route at each site and have encountered few other hikers and no real crowds.

If you can't take advantage of this special week, or just don't relish the idea of fighting the crowds, there are lots of State Parks that offer a great experience which may be less hectic and less expensive during regular fee periods. The Annual Pass also represents a great value, if you're planning on visiting more than a handful of parks in the space of a year. In any case, warming temperatures and gradually longer days offer the perfect excuse to get outside and explore - take advantage of this fee-free week if you can!

Waterfall crossing in Zion National Park, Utah

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Prairie Dog Habits

You may be asking what prairie dogs have to do with food and travel - well, maybe not much, but they make for some very cute pictures.  These furry little guys are all over southwestern Oklahoma, and there are even dedicated 'prairie dog towns' in the park and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

It's fun to watch them interact and listen as they squeak alarmingly at anyone curious enough to get too close.  Usually these chaps are the picture of innocence, but on our last walk in the park near our Oklahoma home, Matt and I stumbled upon some disturbing scenes:

Somebody has a guilty indulgence...
...and this will make their fur stink!
Oh, say it ain't so!
I sure hope these cute little guys can get their act cleaned up before things go too far!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Shrimp and Mushroom Risotto with Black Truffle Oil

I think it's time for another recipe from my non-existent kitchen and this time I'm going to ask you to use your imagination, because we're making risotto. This Italian favorite, like gnocchi, has a reputation for being finicky and complicated.  I like to think that my recipe proves this false, but, just in case, we'll imagine that we're cooking under the watchful, but knowledgeable gaze of an Italian nonna, in a cosy cucina bathed in late-afternoon Tuscan sunlight. It's a stretch, sure, but since I'm writing from a kitchen-free hotel room, I may as well go for it!

I've always loved risotto and I think it's a texture thing - there's something so nourishing and comforting about warm, creamy foods, and I love the way the dish is transformed by the addition of various add-ins. A seafood risotto is very different from a truffle-and-bacon infused dish, or a risotto simply flavored with good, aged cheese. Good risotto should be richly creamy, but still slightly al dente, retaining the core texture of the separate grains. It should 'flow' over the plate, without being runny, and is often served in wide, flat bowls to facilitate this. It's best eaten immediately after cooking because retained heat will continue to cook the rice and may cause the risotto to become dry or gummy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Travel Tips: Sleep Cheap in Europe (Part III)

Welcome to the third, final, and slightly belated segment of my Sleep Cheap in Europe series!  Perhaps this installment should be called 'Sleep Super Cheap in Europe' since it's dedicated to those of you who are keen to save as many pennies as possible on the road (while not depriving yourself of unique, fun and diverse local experiences, of course).  In Part I, I discussed youth hostels - how to find them, how to book them, and what to expect when you arrive.  Part II took us slightly higher up the accommodation spectrum with a look at pensions and bed-and-breakfasts, and today I present our most budget-friendly option - camping!

A view from our campsite in Bled, Slovenia

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lonely Planet's Best Countries for the Hungry Traveler

Fresh peppers in a Croatian market
Right before our move, I received Lonely Planet's March e-newsletter and was excited to see 'The World's Best Countries For Food' as their featured article.  Just glancing at the list made me incredibly hungry, and somewhat regretful that I've only visited a handful of countries that made the cut; of the ten listed (Thailand, Greece, China, France, Spain, Mexico, Italy, India, Japan, Indonesia & Malaysia), I've visited only four (France, Spain, Mexico and Italy).  There are some that sound extremely appealing - I love Americanized Thai food and have tasted some delicious Greek food, albeit outside Greece - but I'll have to reserve my judgment until I've had the chance to try them firsthand.

Of course, I do have a few favorites from my own travels and am always interested in hearing the recommendations of others.  While I don't generally pick my destinations solely on the basis of their food, I'll admit that it does play a part! So, how does my list stack up against Lonely Planet's? Well, here it is for your perusal:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New England Grape-Nut Pudding (and how to scald milk!)

Just because I don't have a kitchen doesn't mean you shouldn't get recipes, so I've been saving this one for the past couple of weeks.  Grape-nut pudding is a classic New England dessert composed of a rich, egg custard, lightly spiced with nutmeg, and layered with a 'magic' Grape-Nut crust - magic because it appears as the custard bakes and the cereal settles in the baking dish.  This dessert is surprisingly simple to make and, with a few tweaks, can easily be elevated from a comfort food classic (see above) to an elegant entremet (below).

If Grape-Nut Pudding doesn't sound that appealing to you, I'd encourage you to put your reservations aside and give this dish a try.  Sure, the cereal has something of a spartan reputation - it's a little low on sweetness and flavor, and each little box seems to last forever -  but it's really transformed in this pudding. The recipe is also a great way to use up some of that never-ending cereal, which is what alerted me to the existence of Grape-Nut Pudding in the first place, as I cleaned out our cupboards in preparation for our cross-country move. For the nutrition nuts out there (myself included!), it's also a relatively low-calorie dessert and is high in protein thanks to all those lovely eggs.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Wayne's Drive Inn - Where else could you order 'steak fingers' with a large 'Love Potion No. 9?'

I'm writing from Las Vegas, and though I'm eager to share some fabulous food finds in this city (and some we uncovered during the few days we spent driving to reach it), I still have a bit of unfinished Oklahoma business to which I must attend - the business of introducing you to the last location in my three-site, "ultimate burger crawl" through south western Oklahoma.

Just to recap, my first stop was the Meers Store & Restaurant, in the middle of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, serving up large, but lean Longhorn burgers, some giant-sized sides and some not-so-lean desserts.  My second destination, Burgess Grill, in downtown Lawton, boasted a wide selection of burgers and typical diner fare with a few interesting additions (orange chicken or a Kamikazeburger, anyone?) and a huge local following. After visiting these two favorites, the third stop could only be Wayne's Drive Inn - another local institution and a popular contender, together with Burgess and Meers, for the best burger in/near Lawton, OK.  Since each restaurant has its loyal and vocal champions, I decided to test this decades-old rivalry myself and settle it once and for all.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Top 10 Foods For the Road

As most regular readers will know, Matt and I are in the midst of a big road trip (I'm writing from a hotel in New Mexico!) as we depart Oklahoma for an assignment in Las Vegas, and then head back east again.  I love the novelty of being on the road and seeing new places, but it has its challenges as well. With no kitchen and no way to keep foods fresh, we find ourselves eating out much more often; what starts out as a fun and exciting treat can soon become routine, taking its toll on more than our wallets and our waistlines. For this reason, I rarely set out on an extended journey without at least a few things tucked away in a basket or cooler. 

One of the things I look for in travel food is convenience, but nutrition and taste are also important. Muffins are a favorite grab-and-go food, and whipping up my batch of Road Trip Muffins last week got me thinking about the other foods I enjoy eating on the road. Unfortunately, it's hard to be gourmet when your kitchen is the passenger seat, but, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are my top ten travel treats: