Sunday, September 25, 2011

Housemade liqueurs

There's just something civilized about finishing a long meal with a light liqueur like limoncello. I was introduced to this after-dinner tradition many years ago in Florence, Italy and it wasn't until many years later that a friend taught me how to make these tasty citrus liqueurs at home. Limoncello (lemon) is the standard, but he also makes Arancello (orange).

There are many recipes out there, and I suggest you try a few and see what suits you. I like keeping both on hand, and pairing the drink to the dinner or my mood.

It all starts with the zest of your citrus of choice, in this case lemons. You can use something like 10 lemons for a full bottle, 6 for a half.

Add the zest to a bottle of Everclear, Vodka, or other neutral grain spirit. The higher the proof, the faster it will extract the citrus oils. Store the soaking mixture in a glass jar or bottle, and be careful using things like plastic funnels as very strong alcohol can mar plastics.

Let the zest soak for 4 days up to 4 weeks away from sunlight, shaking or swirling the jars occasionally.

Strain the zest using a fine mesh strainer and cheesecloth. Add simple syrup and water (if using a higher proof spirit) to taste. Store your concoction out of sunlight, possibly in your freezer. One serving option is to toss an ice cube in and have it melt to add water and chill.

Tastes from the past - making my own applesauce

Applesauce brings back memories - for many of my generation it triggers terrible flashbacks to overly sweet mush in tiny plastic tubs emerging from in brown paper (or Strawberry Shortcake or Transformers themed) lunch bags, to be eaten or traded in the lunchroom at school. Applesauce might remind others of family, being served as part of Thanksgiving dinner. For me, I remember the tangy, almost too tart flavor of the Rhubarb Applesauce my Nana served me when we visited on Sundays. I miss it, and her.

This weekend I found myself at the farmers market with my parents staring at Bramleys Seedling apples, which were noted as being the consumate English cooking apple perfect for making applesauce. My new roommate had brought with him his Grandmothers Foley foodmill, just like the one my Nana used. And with that, we started down the path to making applesauce.

My dad remembered that unlike many recipes, my nana cooked her apples with the skin on and let the foodmill do the work. So that's how we did it.

We used the Foley foodmill, and it was truly satisfying to turn the crank & watch the apples disappear, leaving their skins behind.

I divided the spoils into little Pyrex bowl (just like Nana used to have!) and tried a few different ways to flavor the applesauce. Plain, no sugar added was good - but just a teaspoon of Turbinado sugar in 1-2 cups of sauce was a favorite. Light brown sugar lent a nice round sweetness, but that was improved with a dash of fresh lemon juice.

We tried stirring in 2-3 tablespoons of rhubarb sauce and a dash of fresh lemon juice into one, and a teaspoon of Turbinado sugar + a dash of cinnamon into another bowl. While it didn't have the zing of my Nana's Rhubarb Applesauce, it was very tasty, and low in processed sugar. I think if next time I add unsweetened stewed rhubarb, I might have a flashback to when I was sitting in a booster seat in my Nana's dining room enjoying a batch of her Rhubarb Applesauce.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Indispensable road trip items

Summer is full of roadtrips and travel. As we embarked on a 33 day road trip, I thought long and hard about what to pack. I was struck with fear from my "be-prepared" instincts, "What if I leave something really important behind?! What if I don't have what I need?"

While unpacking from the trip, I stopped to evaluate what items I found really useful in my personal kit (purse or backpack) that I want to bring with me next time.

  • Stainless steel straw - Hydration is important while traveling. Some places don't do straws, or servers forget, but I need a straw help me drink my water at a reasonable pace.

  • Bamboo utensils - Avoiding using wasteful, flimsy plastic utensils for eating take out or leftovers. Bamboo is reusable, sturdy enough not to snap mid-meal, and can be there anytime, like at midnight in a hotel room when you really need some leftover Thai food, or when you discover they didn't put a fork in the bag for you at the take-out place. To-go ware comes with it's own handy carrying case.

  • Self-filtering water bottle - I'm all for local flavor, but not in my water. Get your water from any tap to save money & avoid creating plastic waste, and stay hydrated! Sense a theme?

  • Hydrocortisone cream for bites, rashes, and burns - Itches happen when you travel, whether it's from voracious insects, heat rash, or a minor burn from a pot handle, traveling is more comfortable with hydrocortisone cream.

  • Pocket knife - useful for tightening screws, opening wine bottles, prying open cans, and oh yes - cutting things! Mine came with a little case that goes through belt loops or backpack straps, just remember to take it off before you fly.

  • Chapstick with sunscreen - I'm addicted to this stuff.

  • Battery backup UBS charger - Life support for mobile phones. For when you really need your phone and are unable to charge it normally... like in a tent. The iGo PowerXtender takes AA batteries, which is convenient. Make one like Minty Boost, or buy one.

  • Instant stain remover - Dribbles happen. Obliterate stains as they happen and keep your stuff from getting stained or looking messy before your scheduled laundry stop.

  • Flip video camera - small, unobtrusive, and takes great videos.

  • LED headlamp - Hands free light lets you make dinner or rummage through a bag with ease. Mine takes AA batteries, so while it's heavier than a watch battery they are easy to replace & I always carry AA's for other devices.

  • Soap strips - Rest stops, campgrounds, even some restaurants can fail to have soap. Stay healthy and clean by bringing your own single-use soap strips, they're just like minty breath strips... for your hands.

  • Paper maps - Get both detailed city and state/province maps. GPS's fail and get confused in some places, our smart phones were even worse - don't rely on them! But you do need some way to figure out your route, we had great state routes and sorely missed a city map in Calgary. Use a highlighter to mark your intended route to easily find your place on the map.

And... we're back! Roadtrip 2011

We just returned from a month long road trip across the north western US and Canadian Rockies. The experience was incredible. Our route took us through the Bonneville Salt Flats to Salt Lake City, then we visited the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier National parks where the views, wildlife, and geological features are all incredible.

We ventured into Canada where we explored Alberta and British Columbia taking in the charm of Waterton Lake, stopping to see incredible display of dinosaurs and the world's largest dinosaur in Drumheller, dined at Farm in Calgary, indulged our adventurous side riding a helicopter into the wilderness of Mt. Assiniboine for a 3-day backpacking trip, walked on a glacier that's part of the Columbian Ice Fields, tasted wine in the Okanagan wine region, stopped in Vancouver, and relaxed in Tofino on Victoria Island before re-entering the US.

On the last leg of our journey, we stopped in Portland, OR to take in the city, enjoying a delicious meal at Pok Pok, visited the Spruce Goose and other amazing aircraft at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, and toured Distillery Row.

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The van: A camper built for two
After considering options such as renting a truck and an Airstream trailer (swooon), or renting a small teardrop trailer, we settled on renting a minivan and turning it into a mini-camper-van.

The advantages of not backing up or positioning a trailer, no sewer hookups, more easily traversing mountain roads, and inconspicuously entering and parking in cities all made sense for this trip.
Making a van a home
We folded down the back seats, laid down an IKEA futon mattress with real bedding, and used the remaining 2 feet for storing a cooler, camp stove, and plastic bins that made up our kitchen. When sleeping, we moved our duffels to the front seats, otherwise they sat on top of our bedding. To make a bit more comfortable, we screened in the windows on the sliding doors to get ventilation and keep out insects.

I hung suit hangers to serve as a towel bars from the dry cleaning hooks, and employed seat back organizers as nightstands to hold glasses, books, and toiletries. We used a small battery-powered lantern when reading or hanging out in the van during late night rainstorms to avoid draining the dome light. To our delight the van came with numerous outlets (even a 2 prong outlet!), numerous storage compartments, and a remote control that opened and closed the side doors and back hatch! That's right, the back hatch would lower and latch on its own with the push of a button.

I'm not about to trade in my Honda coupe for a minivan by any means! I found the brakes insensitive and accelerator sluggish, but for long trips with groups or a camping trip like ours I'd consider renting one again.