Part 14: The West, the wildfires and … remission?

For most of the summer of 2021, I have ben traveling the western states. After my brother and I explored Yosemite (see my last post), I spent a couple of weeks in San Diego, hanging out at the local campgrounds, in Ocean Beach, and getting medical tests done. After it was all over, Dr. Vlad told me I was in remission (!), which was a complete shock … I still don’t know how I can go from literally being told I was about to die (and feeling like it as well), to being told there are no signs or symptoms of disease. On one hand, I am ecstatic, and on the other, I don’t want to get too cocky about it, since six months before my back was broken, they were telling me that all of my tests looked great then too. It simply never occurred to me that I would be in remission (or that it was even a possibility), so I can’t say it was a mission.

But hell, yeah, let’s say mission accomplished! Every day is a triumph in this crazy world, and cancer makes it even worse. Any measure of success? I’ll take it.

So… great. I still have cancer, but it’s just not breaking my bones anymore. That’s definitely a plus. But … now what? I gave up most of my stuff. My furbaby lives with my brother. I dumped my boyfriend in California. I live in an RV. I don’t have a home anymore.

Not dying anymore is a great problem to have, but it’s the second time in two years that I have gotten life-changing news. I don’t know how many more of these I can do.

Anyway, after all of the tests and exams and MRIs and medical stuff was done in San Diego, I spent a few more days in southern California.

I went all around: a night in the desert in Murrieta…

… brunch in Long Beach…

… a couple of nights in Ventura with my brother and his family (and my sweet Janis kitty!), and camping at Malibu Creek state park.

It’s a really cute park, and it has some fantastic views, even from my campsite/camper door.

They used to film movies here!

The heat wave started when I was camping with no hookups in Los Angeles county. Luckily I was in a canyon, so I managed to avoid the worst of the heat that week.

The next week, I was in Lee Vining — in the Sierra mountain range near the east entrance to Yosemite.

My stepbrother and that whole side of the family camps there on Fourth of July week every year, and this was my first time hanging with them over the holiday (as you may know, my 4th of July BBQs on the beach in OB were epic).

It was hot up there, but thankfully not as smoky as it got to be later in the month.

My nephews washed Dolly for me (sort of), and we had a great time. We waded in the creek, we grilled tasty snacks, and we saw a bear.

It was a lovely area, even from my stepbrother’s camper (which tries, but of course isn’t as nice as Dolly). We also enjoyed a lovely Fourth fireworks celebration with Indian fry bread tacos and sparklers for the kids.

And my nephew, who is totally adorable … well, he just gets cuter …

After returning to sea level (that always feels so great after time in the mountains, especially when it’s hot, both for me and for Dolly), I spent a night in Lodi wine country …

… and then in the Bay Area …

… both at amazing Harvest Host wineries and breweries. I highly recommend the Ale Industries Brewery in Oakland — you know, a lot of Harvest Hosts people talk smack about urban Hosts (i.e., in cities, as opposed to farms or wineries in the middle of nowhere) because you have to park in parking lots, but personally, I don’t mind. As long as the area is safe I am OK camping there.

I stayed at Ale Industries in Oakland, and I highly recommend their IPA!

Also, I loved being in the Bay Area, even if it was “just” the east bay. The heat and smoke from the many wildfires sparking up everywhere were the mildest on the coast.

I headed further north and stayed at a Harvest Host Winery in the Redwood Valley …

The heat really started to get nasty as I made it north to Santa Ana and stayed overnight at Testa Vineyards in the Redwood Valley. It was 99 degrees while I was sipping my requisite tasters.

It cracked 105 degrees when I was in Humboldt county. I think this was right around the time that the fires in northern California and southern Oregon started to get really bad.

I had reservations at the Red Bluff campground in Mendocino county, but it was another campsite without hookups.

I had managed in Malibu Creek when it was in the 90s, but that day was topping out at 115 and it was a bit too much. My sister offered to put me up in a motel for the night … and just this once, I caved.

This definitely was great – I got to charge all of my devices, have WiFi and cable at the same time, and god knows, I enjoyed that air conditioning – but staying in a motel when it got too hot is not a trend I wanted to start.

I really was excited to see the Redwoods, but the heat was almost unbearable by the time I got there. I traveled through Humboldt county and the Avenue of the Giants, which is just breathtakingly beautiful. The fresh oxygen and cool shade provided by these giants was the only saving grace for the heat during those couple of days.

I had some pleasant surprises, too … People think (or at least, I thought) of “the redwoods” as a single state or national park.

In reality, everything in that part of California is either a state park, a national park, a county park, a conservancy, a wildlife refuge, or a public space of some sort -interspersed with tiny towns and farms and communities in between.

I was there for a few days and I barely saw a fraction of it. I felt sad that I didn’t get to see it in better times.

This feeling – wishing I was there during a less hot and smoky time, and hoping to be able to come back again soon -was a recurring theme for the next several weeks.

Luckily, now that I am in remission, I don’t feel as much like I am on such a severe time crunch. Instead of doing a whirlwind tour of the east coast in 14 days, or hauling ass through wildfires to see the area … well. It’s nice to have more time.

I stayed at a Boondocker’s Welcome host again, two days in the middle of several state and local parks. It was a home with a lovely English garden.

It was also a little bit rainy because I was at sorta low elevation, so that was very welcome indeed. I even gave Dolly a little break and took the bus into Eureka to look around and do some shopping.

I spent a couple of lovely nights in the redwood area, then a very hot night at the foot of Mount Shasta, where the (city of) Weed fire started to get out of hand.

I was in a prime spot for a lovely view but could barely even see that the mountain was there.

I camped that night at the Mt. Shasta Brewing Company, which has great beer and pretzels. As a Harvest Host, they pretty much only need to give you a parking spot, but due to the extreme heat, they were kind enough to let me (pay to) plug in and run my air conditioner overnight. I have a small generator (not the camper one, but it plugs in to recharge and works very well), so I can run a fan; but when it’s over 100 degrees and the whole area is on fire, something stronger is necessary.

After I got to Oregon, the wildfires had basically created their own weather system, so I had to call an audible. I decided to change some of my reservations and stay closer to the coast.

It was definitely the best decision – I went straight west to Tillamook, where I enjoyed fresh oysters on the half-shell…

… and a walk around their adorable downtown.

I had no idea that the Tillamook area was as famous for seafood, especially oysters, as it is for cheese. They have a bunch of little oyster farms everywhere, and the fresh ones are just delicious. The local oyster bar I found was just lovely.

I also did a self-guided tour of the Tillamook cheese factory, …

… where they had some amazing ice cream and cheese dishes …

… definitely try the deep fried cheese curds (with the cheddar ranch dipping sauce) if you ever find yourself around there.

Tillamook was one if my favorite parts of this trip.

I camped out at the Blue Heron cheese factory (along with every other RV on the west coast), I ate a rack of oysters that had just been in the water that morning, I sat on the cow bench in Tillamook, and I ate some of — well, everything at the Tillamook factory.

As I made my way north, I stopped in the coastal towns of Seaside and Astoria, and camped at a Harvest Host in southwestern Washington that’s a lavender farm.

I can’t even describe how fresh and clean it all felt … the sea air and the pine trees and the lavender fields … especially after all of that heat and smoke.

It was even chilly! I needed a hat!

Then I stayed in two different spots near Seattle …

… first on the western shore facing east…

… and then on Anacortes Island, near Deception Pass.

I have good friends on Anacortes island and some distant stepfamily members nearby, so I got to have a nice dinner with family, then a nice evening with my old friends, tasting local beer and eating pizza.

I told them about the amazing oysters I tried in Tillamook, so they hooked me up with some amazing local oysters and showed me how to open them and eat them properly!

The whole area around the islands and Deception Pass is really amazingly beautiful.

My friends are biologists and know all of the amazing spots for hiking, birding crabbing and fishing. I spent a wonderful day exploring the park and the area around it.

I stayed out west as long as I could, and moved a lot of reservations around in order to avoid wildfires. But eventually I had to head east, where I knew the fires – and the heat – were going to get considerably worse.

I was only in Idaho for one night, and in western Montana for a few days. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I got the best out of Montana. (This photo, below, was about as clear as it got the entire time I was there – and that day it was almost 100 degrees outside. It sucked.)

Hopefully, I will get to go back, because I basically didn’t see the “big sky” the whole time I was there. Total rip-off.

The whole time I was there, I felt like I was walking around in a campfire. Smoke. Heat.

The sky was hazy and gray when I visited the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.

Most parts of Glacier National Park were too narrow to fit my RV.

Despite the heat and smoke, everything was packed. It was crowded.

I was disappointed.

It wasn’t all bad, though – I did have some tasty food – one of the Harvest Hosts I stayed at was the East Shore Smokehouse, a great little old-school hunting lodge remade as a new age restaurant. They had this amazing appetizer dish called “Montana hot ends,” which are pork rib tips, smoked and braised and tossed in chili and brown sugar, and served with slaw and ranch dressing.

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever had before.

And then, my chemo drug started to give me problems. I am taking an oral chemotherapy pill, so the side effects aren’t (normally) as bad as the infusions. Most of the time I have a little nausea and a slight headache from these drugs, but that week, perhaps as a result of all of the coughing I was doing due to the wildfires and smoke – I was super nauseated. Most Harvest Hosts don’t let you plug into electricity or water, but one in Montana thankfully allowed it, so I hung out for two days enjoying air conditioning and not driving or doing anything else. It was just what I needed.

The last night I was in western Montana was the calm before the storm I was camping at a brewery – Big Sky Brewing in Missoula – which had a great atmosphere, ridiculously cheap beer, and very nice people.

It was also almost 100 degrees, plus smoke and fire and smog.

I tried to make the best of everything, but the heat was really starring to get to me.

One day … well, it was the worst day. I had a lot of driving to do – nearly six hours according to Google, which always ends up being more in an RV – and I felt sick as soon as I woke up. I tried to fight through it, but in the middle of the morning I threw up (luckily into one of my handy barf bags). It was actually kind of impressive the way I did it while driving. Not an hour later, traffic started to tighten up – an accident had literally just taken place, and I passed emergency vehicles arriving at a gruesome scene. The poor driver had crossed multiple lanes of traffic and hit a hillside; and he was hanging out of his window – either dead or extremely injured – right when I passed. It was terrible.

About an hour after that, the weather was starting to get into the high 90s. I got a call from my friend Jen, who had flown from San Diego into Billings, Montana. We had decided to meet there (hence my long day of driving) to travel through the Dakotas, and then I would drop her off in Minnesota, where she would visit her family and fly back home to San Diego. I was super excited to meet with her, even if it was a long day of driving to get there. I was maybe an hour or two away when she calls me to tell me she landed, and she was headed to a cafe to wait for me. I was coasting down a hill, playing a political audiobook.

Then the engine died. The “check engine” light came on, the gas pedal stopped working, and the brakes felt a little wonky too, since I was headed down a 7% grade with a half-full black tank. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to end up like that poor man I had just seen on the side of the road in that awful accident. I managed to get the RV to stop, and after a lot of back-and-forth with everyone who had an idea about what it might be, I got towed to the nearest repair shop.

It was around 4 p.m. at that point, so they did their best that evening, but by the time the shop closed, they still had no idea what was wrong with the engine. The engine would start up briefly, run noisily for a minute or two, then shake and die. The check engine light wouldn’t flash, and Dolly is a 1996, so the mechanics couldn’t hook it up to their code readers.

Even though they couldn’t figure it out, they let me camp there overnight. Jen was safe in a cool “dude ranch” motel in Billings, while I was plugged in with my a/c blasting in the middle of a repair yard in Livingston. We were both stuck for two nights, but as a stroke of major luck, the two nights we were delayed were also two nights that we got to enjoy the air conditioning when it was almost 100 degrees in Montana. If Dolly hadn’t broken down, we would have been sweating our nips off in a brewery in downtown Billings. And it wasn’t just the heat; the air quality was horrible, and it was hard to breathe sometimes.

After two nights in a repair yard, they managed to finally figure it out. and lo and behold it was the same nonsense that had broken Dolly down in Missouri, last November: rodents! Rodent damage to spark plug wires from the time it was in storage (before I bought it) finally got too hot or whatever and gave out. It was a $12 part. It cost me almost $400, since it took them hours of diagnostics, but it was better than a new engine.

Two days late, I finally picked Jen up in Billings, and we got the heck out of Montana as fast as we could … which, in an RV, is not really fast. I basically drove as fast as Dolly would take us all of the way to Williston, North Dakota. It was out of our way to go to the very south part of South Dakota, but my dear friend Belinda was there for work, and I couldn’t be in the Dakotas and not stop in to see her. We drove for almost 10 hours, but she’s the best friend and was waiting for us with hot showers and a hot bowl of her famous albondigas soup. That’s the type of food that puts the blood back in your veins when you’ve had a hard day!

But after all of that driving, luckily we were back on schedule at that point. So instead of a day with Belinda, we had like two hours in the middle of the night, then we had to get up early and get to Roubaix Lake in South Dakota before nightfall.

Roubaix Lake is really great. There aren’t electrical hookups, but the weather and the fires had cooled off (and we had gotten far enough east) that it wasn’t too hot and uncomfortable outside – it was in the 70s, plus we had a nice lake to jump in if we wanted to.

Of course, we didn’t swim in the lake, because our one full day there was spent in Deadwood and around Mount Rushmore.

Roubaix Lake is about halfway between the Mount Rushmore National Monument and the historic town of Deadwood, which is really cool.

They have an old west shootout in the middle of the street a few times a day, and all of the touristy shops are super cute.

We were in the area about a week before the Sturgis motorcycle rally, so lots of motorcycle riders were starting to congregate.

(But they were preparing for it, so it still looked like “Sons of Anarchy” threw up out there.)

My friend Jen got a tattoo (a lovely purple star, no less) to commemorate our awesome trip together.

I couldn’t join her for a tattoo (even though I would have liked to; it’s a no-no when you’re on chemo), but it was so cool that she got one.

It’s nice that’s it’s to commemorate our fun time instead of some wack “in memoriam” tattoo, too!

After a couple of nights at Roubaix Lake (and a very full day of historic Deadwood and Mount Rushmore), we had another long day of driving, this time as far as we could get into Minnesota. I had to drop Jen off east of Minneapolis in the morning, so we drove all day to get there in time.

We stopped to see the grasslands, and to enjoy lunch at Wall Drug, but most of Jen and I’s time together was spent driving.

Luckily, Dolly is the ultimate luxury vehicle, so we still had a great time. I miss riding around with friends!

Coming soon: Read all about my adventures through the Midwest, including visiting friends in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan; all of the food I ate in Chicago; my college roommate’s wedding; all of the cheese and beer I consumed in Wisconsin; and of course all of the details from Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and my trip back home to San Diego. Belinda is (hopefully) going to join me in Wyoming for some national parks explorations, so it should be epic!

Are you enjoying this content? Please support my adventure by donating to my Gofundme here!

Part 8: How many wine countries can there be?

As I mentioned in my previous post, my friend Belinda is one of my oldest friends, and it was really a blast having even a short trip with her. We managed to fit a truly incredible amount of fun and food into a small amount of time!

After our incident with the snowy mountaintop, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the trip. Our first evening on the road had been at Giessinger Winery in Fillmore, where we enjoyed great wines as well as the quaint little town and the local farm-to-table bakery. (We also stayed at Giessinger on the way home, so see the end of this post for more about the lovely town of Fillmore.) The next night we were at the top of that precarious mountain, and we didn’t want anything like that anymore.

But we can always count on Harvest Hosts to be a good time, so we headed towards Lodi and planned to decide on a Harvest Host when we got there. We were supposed to meet a friend there, but he got delayed for a couple of days. So we headed slightly east, to the Somerset area, where there a ton of wineries, and several are Harvest Hosts. Since we had already stayed at a winery, we opted for the one guy in that area NOT growing grapes – the Windmill Creek Olive Oil Company.

(We needed olive oil anyway.)

It was really great to sample Windmill Creek’s olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and we got to pick up some awesome gifts for friends … or at least the ones who don’t drink wine. Then we headed to Lodi for a couple of days.

Like several areas around California, Lodi has rich farmland that has become a “wine country” — and as such, there are a bunch of wineries and farms that are Harvest Hosts as well.

As a kid in California, I always thought of “wine country” as Napa Valley. When I moved to San Diego as an adult, like everyone else, I got suckered into at least one birthday or wedding party in the nearby wine country of Temecula. I never realized how many “wine countries” there were, nor how organized they were. Lodi, Napa, Somerset, Livermore, Paso Robles … all of them had great wine associations and easy local signage that made it easy to taste and visit there.

Anyway, we didn’t want just wine, we are foodies as well. We really wanted to stay at the Spenker Family Farm that first evening, but we couldn’t confirm with the hosts in time. Luckily Viaggio was nearby and was beautiful.

Viaggio Estates is a spectacular winery and event/wedding center jut a few miles away from downtown Lodi. It was a little chilly outside, but we enjoyed the lovely grounds and the whole event center. It was a very peaceful and relaxed place to spend the night.

Wine tasting during a pandemic is unusual … there are rules against actually sitting or standing at the bar, or handing glasses back and forth. Some of the wineries insisted on plasticware for tasting or standing outside for your flight, but the best ones, like Viaggio, gave you a flight, glasses for the actual sampling, and extra munchies for the process.

In the cooler for the cheese and charcuterie, we noticed some Spenker Farms goat cheese – yes, it is literally a winery, a goat cheese farm, and a Harvest Host – so we had some amazing goat cheese, salami and crackers with our Viaggio wine! Around the same time, the Spenkers got back to me to confirm our stay for the next night, and we were so excited to hang out there and pet the goats who made the cheese we had just eaten.

So, for two nights in a row in Lodi, we sampled local wines and local goat cheese. It was incredible. The Spenkers gave us flights of their local wine as well as their homemade cheeses; paired perfectly. We ended up buying a ton of different cheeses — they had a soft chevre, a spicy aged cheese and a hickory-smoked gouda that was divine.

The Spenkers also make soap and lotion from their goat milk, so you know I got some of the all-natural goodness to take home!

We also got to meet up with someone important … my buddy Seth is a cannabis grower who produces high-quality CBDs for cancer patients and other people in need. He started helping me with CBD treatment years ago when I had breast cancer, and he has been a good (if only online, until now) friend since then. When I was re-diagnosed this past summer, and set up my GoFundMe to raise money for my adventure, he donated a ton of his own money, then started an auction to raise thousands of dollars more, by selling his own hybrid seeds! His company, Str8organics, does a lot of great things for the community, and he’s just a really awesome guy. He even bought us a lovely sushi dinner!

It was a blast to meet him in person and enjoy the best sushi and Japanese food in Lodi. If you want to support Str8organics’ mission, please click here and buy some merch!

The next night, we were scheduled to meet up (socially-distanced) with a friend who had just moved to Sacramento. We told him we would arrive at night, so we had all day to hang out and check out Sacramento. Neither Belinda nor I had ever really been to the area, so we checked out the internet for suggestions.

The first item was a three-hour downtown walking tour of the food and history of Sacramento.

Sold.

Like I mentioned last time, I could write a huge post on every aspect of this tour, Instead I will just give you the highlights.

The very first stop was Mayahuel, a Mexican restaurant that has a tequila museum; so, we could have spent all day there. Instead, we had 2 hours and 57 minutes left of a three-hour tour. Plus, I still had to drive an RV later, so Belinda took one for the team and drank my share.

At least the virgin cocktail was pretty.

As I said, you can spend a whole day just at Mayahuel, learning about tequila and mezcal and the history of Mexican food and Mexican-Americans in Sacramento. Most people don’t think of Sacramento as being the melting pot of cultures that it is, or the farm-to-table capital … at least, I didn’t. I was really pleasantly surprised by the beauty and culture and history of the whole area. In San Diego we tend to think we have a monopoly on California’s beauty sometimes.

We also got a sample of this amazing poblano crema soup. It was just enough to energize us for more walking. We continued down K Street, which the city has designated for public art and recognition of historic areas.

Although the tour took three hours, not all of it was walking around, and it was only a total of a few blocks. I was a little worried that a three-hour walk might be too much for me, but it was perfect. The second stop was the Allspicery, a lovely little spice store right next to the state capital building.

Because of Covid, we weren’t allowed to go inside or sample any spices, but we each got a custom blend of tea and seasoning spice mix, and I was allowed to kind of lean in the door to quickly take some photos without touching anything. But just being able to smell the cloud of sensory delight when the door opened was enough to keep us going.

The next stop – after a lot more art and history – was a Nashville hot fried chicken place, which I was looking forward to, especially after my recent trip to Hattie B’s. Nash & Proper used to be only a food truck, and got a brick and mortar store right before the pandemic hit. Luckily, they were well set up for takeout, and haven’t suffered as much as other businesses that weren’t able to adapt. And they still have a food truck schedule. The chicken sandwich was really good; although I have to say I have had better.

Then again, I am a food snob. Our next stop was the best of all.

The Odd Cookie is a bakery, a deli, and a bar. And it’s no joke. The owner and head chef is an art-loving, super-creative, whiskey-slangin, rock music-blaring, purple-haired GENIUS.

You know how sometimes, the fancier a cupcake or cookie is, the worse it tastes? When they pack all the fondant and paint and stuff, so it ends up tasting more like plastic than food? Yeah … this isn’t that.

Observe this brief video of the display cases:

As part of the food tour deal, I got to pick one, which ended up being one of the hardest decisions of my life. I picked the Great Balls of Fire (see below) … and we took a four-pack to my friend’s house for later, so I got to eat one of those banana ones as well!

If you’re ever in Sacramento for a day, I highly encourage you to check out the Local Roots food tours, and the Odd Cookie bakery. It was a day well spent.

That weekend was my friend Ali’s wedding anniversary, and we had yet to meet her husband (we hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years). We decided prior to arriving that the four of us would be headed out to the Calistoga area to celebrate their anniversary in some hot mineral baths. So after a night outside their house in Fair Oaks, we drove the short 2 hours to Calistoga, found a sweet hotel, and they checked in while we parked Dolly outside. It worked out really well, since Belinda and I got full use of the room, bathroom, and pool/spa area, but we could still camp in the RV and give our friends some wedded bliss privacy. Calistoga is still in the Napa wine valley, so it’s beautiful and lush, but it’s much less snobby and pretentious (or so we were told).

On our way north from San Diego, Belinda hadn’t been very picky about where we went or what we did; with three small exceptions: she wanted, when we visited Paso Robles, to visit a four-star Italian restaurant, and to taste wine at a winery that was one of our favorites, and, she wanted to have dinner at the Calistoga Inn. She offered to pay for my dinner at both locations, but that wasn’t why I agreed … Belinda is one of very few people whom I trust explicitly when it comes to food. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t normally want to try; if she tells me to, I will. If she says this restaurant is the place to eat; I’m there.

Of course, the Calistoga Inn needed no introduction. We ordered half bottles of wine and fresh, farm-to-table appetizers. But I stayed clear of it all because I knew that this yoooge ribeye was on its way!

Isn’t that glorious? I also splurged on dessert; I got a peanut butter chocolate pie, with a glass of the dessert port they recommended and a couple fingers of a glorious 18-year scotch. It made my tummy hurt a bit the next day, but it was worth it … I mean, I hadn’t had scotch in almost a year, but if you can’t enjoy a scotch when you’re having an epic meal in wine country, when can you?

On our way out of Calistoga the next day, we stopped at the California Old Faithful attraction, which was actually really nice.

It’s a private attraction (pretty much every landowner in the area has a mineral spring in their backyard) and they have these cute little pool cabanas and a petting zoo and garden to hang out at in between the eruptions, which happen every 45 minutes or so.

We finally had to begin heading south, so we went a short drive southeast to Livermore, yet another of California’s many wine countries and a very peaceful and nice town.

We camped at another Harvest Host, the Leisure Street winery, which had tons of lovely space to park and drink and walk around. There was a huge parking lot and lots of permanent campers who worked at a nearby electrical plant, so we got to meet some interesting people.

In a way, pandemic traveling makes you feel a lot more isolated from people, but that’s another great thing about Harvest Hosts. We got to meet lots of great people – hosts and other guests – at the socially-distanced wineries. Even better, we were able to support small businesses who need the money in these crazy times!

The next day we headed to my great-aunt’s house in Santa Cruz. I hadn’t seen Aunt Lesley in about 10 years, and I was looking forward to seeing her and to meeting my third cousin I had never met before. I initially parked on her street, a lovely tree-lined cul-de-sac smelling of eucalyptus, but after a quick (masked) hug, we insisted that I park in her driveway. As she was guiding me in, I didn’t notice (not did she) a piece of gutter sticking out from her carport at a weird angle. I didn’t see it until it was smashing through my window!

Belinda had a tiny cut, but other than that no one was hurt. The problem is that I have a $1k deductible and my RV is 25 years old. so finding a replacement piece of glass isn’t easy. As I write this, I am sitting in San Diego, recovering from this trip, and waiting to see a mechanic who can find us a replacement. It’s only the glass that’s broken, so if I am lucky (and I usually am), I can get a replacement from a junkyard for cheap. Worst case scenario, I need to get a custom-cut piece of tempered glass, which will be less than my deductible but still expensive.

That night Aunt Lesley took us to a lovely dinner at a scenic spot in Santa Cruz (check out the Crow’s Nest if you’re nearby), but I felt really bad about not seeing her for 10 years and then basically crashing into her house. I guess Dolly likes to make an entrance.

But we still had things to do. We still had two days planned in Paso Robles and another back in Fillmore before we headed back home, so we patched up the broken window and got the heck out of there!

First we went straight to Dark Star Cellars, a small but very cute winery on the outskirts of Paso Robles. They have a great tasting room, which I am sure is a lot of fun when it isn’t a pandemic, and their vintners are very educated about their wines. We had a great tasting and bought a couple of bottles, then cooked ourselves a great dinner and relaxed in the RV all night.

The next day, we knew we were going to throw down at this fancy Italian dinner Belinda kept talking about, so we decided to be productive early. Belinda gets to do a lot of her work remotely and had been working a couple of hours per day while we were stopped. So we emptied the dump tank (I am getting really good at it now) and filled Dolly up with water, then cleaned ourselves, and I did laundry while Belinda got some work done.

That afternoon, we checked into our Harvest Host (Tobin James cellars this time), and had a great tasting.

Pro tip: the back side of their tasting menu has the reserve bottles that they don’t sell at Costco. That stuff is way better than the mass-produced bottles!

We then took an Uber to Chronic Cellars, one of our favorite brands, This was literally the only winery that we stopped to drink at that wasn’t a Harvest Host. And while it isn’t technically mandatory to drink at the Harvest Host, the idea is to support the business while they let you camp for free.

But we had to go to Chronic .. as you can see, Belinda is the Ultimate Fangirl.

The Chronic Cellars wine is incredible, but I really love their designs and their labels.

We spent a pretty insane amount of money on merchandise, but it was worth it!

So. About this Italian restaurant. As I mentioned, Belinda hadn’t insisted on much, but this was one of the restaurants and spots she insisted upon. She said it was better Italian food than she had enjoyed while she was in Italy, and that I had to try it. And everywhere we went in Paso Robles, when we mentioned that we were headed to Il Cortile for dinner, the person we said it to got a dreamy look on their face, and then quietly mouthed the words “you’ll love it!”

We did not hold back. The first course was the antipasti … we got a beef carpaccio with parmesean sauce and shaved truffles. It was DIVINE.

I really could have left it there, but we kept going, We had lots of good bread and balsamic/oil for dipping, and we also ordered a polenta and poached egg antipasti dish. Then we (wisely) split a pasta dish, so we could each properly annihilate an entree. This is the pappardelle noodles with a wild boar ragu. Literally every bite (and you know it was washed down with some impeccable wine!) was perfect.

Belinda had opted for the Osso Bucco, since she had it there before and was in love with it. I had to go for the veal chop, and I was not disappointed. I think there was a little veggie or something in there, but wow, that shank.

It was epic.

Our last night on this trip was back in Fillmore. I picked that place because if you’re heading south, it is the last Harvest Host before Temecula. Also, it’s about 30 minutes from my brother’s house, so he came to hang out with us when we stayed there the first night, and the last night he came to take me to his house for my nephew’s birthday party. But I also went back there because we really loved the Giessinger Winery, and the area it’s in is fantastic.

The first time we stopped there, the server told us about an amazing bakery where we scored a bunch of yummy baked goods for the rest of our trip.

The winery is situated right in the historic downtown area, which is super adorable, and there is a (now-closed) railroad and historic railroad station. We were able to walk to get sushi the first night, and when we went back, we had some excellent Mexican food.

I am currently recuperating and getting Dolly fixed up, and I plan to be out in the desert for the majority of the month of March.

In April, I will be headed back east, and I plan to go to my mom’s and then to the east coast for a couple of weeks before I head back to San Diego again for more doctor’s visits in June.

Thank you for following my adventure! Please subscribe to get notifications of new blog posts. and please donate to my trip GoFundMe here.

Hatch Chile Season in Full Effect

Hatch Chiles are truly a marketing marvel of modern times. Typically, from around the beginning of August through the end of September, you will see many of your local stores featuring the mild New Mexican chile pepper, and many of them will offer free roasting as well.

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I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a “Hatch bag” from the Lazy Acres Natural Market in Mission Hills (on Washington Street, if you’re in San Diego). It’s a wonderful natural foods market, and they make a ton of their own products. I was given a bag not just of the chili peppers themselves, but a plethora of items made with Hatch chiles.

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That’s pie, cornbread, wine, crackers, cheese, cream cheese, beef patties, orange juice, guacamole, cream cheese, fiesta mix, and of course, some Hatch chiles, both fresh and roasted. Wow! Who knew they even made Chile Wine? (Not me.)

The first thing I did was grate up some of that Hatch chili cheddar cheese, and I used it in my Sunday meal prep to spice up my breakfast casserole.

The recipe for the casserole is wicked simple: the crust/bottom layer is crumbled up biscuits, then cooked sausage with mushroom and onion, then scrambled egg mixed with a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Top with cheese and bake til done, like 30 minutes on 400 degrees.

 

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Next, I used the Hatch chili cream cheese and the grated Hatch chile cheddar cheese, plus ranch dressing and chicken breast, to make this amazing little snack.

If you’re ever stuck needing a quick, easy, potluck dish, or just a regular appetizer or snack, this is for you. Simply mix the chicken (canned or fresh/cooked) with ranch and cream cheese, then top with grated cheese and bake until bubbly. This is a very versatile  – the original recipe is buffalo sauce and regular cream cheese instead of Hatch-flavored cream cheese and cheddar cheese – and will be an instant crowd-pleaser.

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I also used the spicy orange juice (I was too chicken to drink it) in my Instant Pot to make some delicious ribs … just cook the ribs (on their side, like pictured below) on a rack inside the pot, pressure cook on high pressure for 25-30 minutes (and natural release), and then finish off on the grill or under a broiler with your favorite BBQ sauce. You won’t be disappointed!

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I also used the cornbread for a few dishes … it was a perfect accompaniment to the sweet taste of the Mississippi “Coke” Roast I also made in my Instant Pot.

Coke Roast is one of those recipes that sound really crazy when you read the ingredients, but you know it’s for real as soon as you taste it. This particular insanely easy and fast Instant Pot recipe is a pork loin (or beef chuck roast, but I think the pork is more tender), a can of Cola-Cola, a stick of butter, half a jar of pepperoncinis (with the juice), a packet of ranch dressing mix and a packet of au jus gravy mix. Pressure-cook for about 30 minutes with natural release, and serve over something spicy.

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I used the Hatch chile cream cheese and cheddar cheese for variations on a few of my favorite recipes. In addition to the chicken-cheese dip, I also made one of my favorite side dishes with a spicy twist.

These onions are usually made with Asiago cheese … simply wrap a slice of bacon around a half an onion, then add broth, cream, and roast until tender. Then add a bunch of grated Asiago cheese on top. I followed this same recipe but added Hatch cheddar instead of Asiago. It doesn’t have the same funky Asiago flavor, but the spiciness certainly made up for it.

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I think my favorite item in the bag was the delicious beef patties … they were clearly handmade, stuffed with cheese and lots of chunks of Hatch chiles, and the meat was very tender and fresh.

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I served the burgers on cauliflower sandwich thins with ketchup, mustard and mayo, and topped it with some sautéed mushrooms and fresh Hatch guacamole from the Hatch bag.

It was EPIC.

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What’s your favorite Hatch chile recipe? Let us know in the comments and your recipe might be selected for our Hatch feature next summer!

Instant Pot Love – How to make yogurt, cheesecake, meatloaf and more

Do you have an Instant Pot yet?

It was apparently the hottest gift for the 2017 holiday season, so if you’re like me, someone who loves you bought you one of these babies.

Happy Holidays to me!

It’s really an amazing machine.

It’s a pressure cooker – but not one of those old and clunky ones that your grandmother used to have that made horrible noises and looked like it might explode at any moment.

This is a computerized cooking machine that is smart enough to remember your past settings and cook everything from hardboiled eggs to cheesecake to BBQ ribs.

After using this machine for a few weeks, I was able to happily donate my old slow cooker (because the IP has a slow cooker setting that doesn’t involve pressurization), my rice cooker (it makes all rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and any other type of grains in half the time of the best rice cooker on the market), and my yogurt maker.

Yogurt

Speaking of yogurt, you can literally make a ton of it at the touch of a button. I recommend setting it up before you go to bed at night, and you’ll wake up to yogurt!

All it requires is:

  • a gallon of milk,
  • a small container of plain yogurt (approx. 6 oz.), and
  • a 5 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk.

Put it on the “Yogurt” setting for 10 hours (or more) and then refrigerate.

That’s it.

Six quarts of homemade Greek yogurt.

That yields 6 quarts of yogurt.

Wow!

Adapting Your Favorites to the IP

My first experiment with this machine was for a tagine recipe … one of my favorite Moroccan dishes with chicken, chicken livers, green olives, preserved lemons, and other veggies.

Instead of slow cooking this for 8-9 hours, or on the stovetop in a fancy tagine clay pot, I simply placed all the ingredients in the Instant Pot and pressure-cooked it for 25 minutes.

Instant Pot Moroccan chicken

I have to admit, I was still a little nervous. Would that be enough time to cook chicken? And to make sure all of the flavors were properly cooked in to the meat?

To my pleased surprise, it turned out beautifully. If you are trying to adapt your favorite recipes to the Instant Pot, check out this link.

I think the most important thing when adapting is to check the pressure release – a “quick release” of the pressure will let the steam escape right away and are for recipes that are not generally slow-cooked (see, for example, the meatloaf and mashed potatoes recipe, below).

For a recipe like this chicken where you want the flavors to be infused into every bite, you will want to do a “natural release” method after the cooking time is over. It takes a few extra minutes, but it’s worth it. And it’s still ready to eat in a fraction of the time.

Sweet Dishes

One of the first rookie mistakes of the Instant Pot is to neglect the sealing ring. The IP comes with a clear ring that fits on the inside of the pressurized lid.

At the very least, you need to make sure the sealing ring is cleaned after every use, or the flavors from whatever you cook will stick to the ring and get into everything you cook later.

If you intend to use your Instant Pot for savory dishes (chicken, ribs, eggs) as well as sweet dishes (cheesecakes and desserts), then the first thing you need to do is buy at least one extra sealing ring. I got a pair of them on Amazon.

Now I only use the red sealing ring for desserts and sweet dishes.

I also purchased a springform pan that fits inside a 6-quart Instant Pot, and I can use this for cheesecakes and other desserts as well as lasagna.

Cheesecake

I made a couple of different types of cheesecake to see how well it worked. Basically, you can make the crust however you like (crushed cookies with melted butter, or even a brownie that is only partially baked in the oven).

Oreo crust!

Then the filling recipe is simple:

  • 4 8-oz. packages of cream cheese
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar

The most important thing to remember is that the cream cheese and eggs MUST be at room temperature. If not, they will not blend properly and will result in a lumpy cheesecake. Make sure all ingredients are blended and smooth, then pour into your springform pan.

Cook on the (high) pressure setting for 45 minutes, and use the natural release method (which will take about another 10-15 minutes).

Let it cool and garnish with your favorite toppings.

Oreo cheesecake with berries.

This is one of my favorite recipes because it’s so easily adaptable. Try it with lots of different crusts and/or toppings!

Turtle cheesecake with brownie crust

I have tried similar recipes in the oven before, and I even made some in the oven while I was making some in the Instant Pot, just so I could see the difference in flavor and texture. The pressure cooking makes the filling much softer and lighter!

Food parties

During my first couple of weeks with the Instant Pot, I organized a few friends for a tamale party.

If you’ve never been to one, it’s basically a fun way to make a party out of something that can be pretty boring and tedious – making tamales.

Tamales are a popular dish around the holiday season, especially in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They are delicious concoctions of many types of fillings and masa (corn) dough stuffed into corn husks and steamed.

They are also a giant pain to make. Hence, a party.

Tamale party setup

Instead of spending hours doing all the work yourself, you get a few friends, everyone brings fillings and masa dough and corn husks (as well as a few bottles of wine and snacks to sustain you for a long afternoon), and everyone makes a bunch of tamales.

It’s a little bit of work, but everyone goes home with tons of tamales to eat (or freeze for later).

Tons of tamales. Literally.

As you can imagine, the Instant Pot made a ton of work a little easier.

The night before the party, I used my Instant Pot to make a vegetarian filling … literally a variety of vegetables and spices simmered for a few hours. Except that it literally took less than 20 minutes on the pressure setting. It took me longer to chop all of the veggies than it did for me to make a huge amount of delicious vegetarian filling.

Vegetarian tamale filling

I also made a chicken verde filling – literally a few boneless chicken thighs and a big can of salsa verde – that was ready in half an hour.

Saving the day at the tamale party

And, of course, tamales need to be cooked, too; and that usually takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours in standard steamer pot. But I actually brought my Instant Pot with me to the party (did I mention it’s very portable and has a handy handle on top?) and was able to steam a few batches right on the spot.

A full pot (I have a 6-quart) stuffed full of tamales steamed each one beautifully in 30-35 minutes. (Do a quick release afterwards.)

Weeknight Meals

Because the Instant Pot can make short work out of many dishes that would otherwise take hours and hours, it’s perfect for weeknight meals and holiday dinners.

For Christmas dinner I used it to make Brussels sprouts (in 3 minutes!); and for New Year’s, I made black-eyed peas and greens, a delicious Southern New Year’s Day tradition to bring good luck in the new year.

Usually it simmers in my slow cooker for 24 hours. This year, I made it in 35 minutes – from dried beans!

Black-eyed peas and greens for New Year’s Day.

Which brings me to another awesome feature of the Instant Pot – it’s multi-functionality! Although most recipes use the “pressure” setting, there is also an equally awesome “sauté” setting.

For example, before, when I made black-eyed peas in my crock pot, I would brown the onions and garlic and whatnot before adding them to the slow cooker.

With the Instant Pot, you can sauté the veggies, then add the rest of your ingredients and switch the setting to pressure to complete the dish! It saves tons of time in washing multiple pots and pans, not to mention that you are cooking the food in a fraction of the time.

Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes

The meatloaf and mashed potatoes recipe from I Wash, You Dry is definitely going to be a weeknight supper regular for me. It’s so easy!

Meatloaf and mashed potatoes AT THE SAME TIME!

You place the potatoes and chicken broth at the bottom, then put the wire rack over the potatoes and place the foil-wrapped meatloaf on top. You can even cook a vegetable side dish in there, too.

Meatloaf and potatoes dinner

With only 25 minutes on pressure, and quick release, you can have a delicious dinner on the table in no time.

Sous Vide Eggs and Meal Planning

I usually eat breakfast on the go, and it’s hard to do that and stay healthy sometimes. Luckily, the Instant Pot is also great  for meal prep.

This is another cool Instant Pot accessory … a silicone mold. The Amazon listing says it’s for baby food and egg bites, among other things, but I use it mostly for eggs.

Sous vide egg bites

The most important thing to remember here is to not fill the cups all the way. I made that mistake my first time, and the egg mixture expanded and almost popped out of the container!

Ah well. They still tasted good!

This is a really great way to prepare an easy and healthy breakfast.

You can customize the flavorings (and control the salt and fat, etc.), and make a whole pan of these in less than half an hour – 8 minutes of pressure cooking (which means it will take a moment to get to the appropriate pressure) and then 10 minutes to let the steam naturally release.

The result is a pan of delicious and super-fluffy egg bites you can eat all week long.

Coming soon

In addition to some fun and useful Instant Pot accessories, I treated myself to a new cookbook, too!

I really adore Indian food, and I can’t wait to experience how much easier it is to make at home with the Instant Pot!

Coming up soon on Starbright’s Kitchen!

Please stay tuned to Starbrightskitchen.com to see the creations from Urvashi Pitre’s Indian Instant Pot Cookbook!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herb and Eatery

A few of us lucky food bloggers got a chance last weekend to visit Brian Malarkey’s newest venture, Herb & Eatery – an extension, really, of his award-winning restaurant Herb & Wood.

Herb & Eatery is the front of the store and the Herb & Wood dining room is in the back.

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Herb & Wood has already won a ton of accolades for being the most stylish and sexy new restaurant in town- and now with Herb & Eatery, you can take all of the goodness home with you.

Jars of goodness at Herb & Eatery

Jars of goodness at Herb & Eatery

Herb & Eatery essentially has all of the goodies that make chefs (and humble food bloggers) swoon. Brian Malarkey gave us a sweet tour of the chef’s shop and restaurant before filling us with food.

Brian Malarkey

Almost everything is made in-house. You like the tapenade or the salsa that was part of your (award-winning) dinner at Herb & Wood? Come next door and you can buy a jar of it to take home.

Want some fresh herbs, fresh-baked croissants, imported cheeses, frozen ice cream cookie sandwiches, or even the designer flatware you used? It’s all for sale next door.

View of the pastries from the second floor

View of the pastries from the second floor

Herb & Wood was the first phase of this project; and this awesome shop is phase two. They have already expanded the upstairs area into a lounge for private gatherings; and the adjacent space into an art gallery and private event room.

Art on display in the private event space next door to Herb & Eatery

Art on display in the private event space next door to Herb & Eatery

In addition to a drool-worthy “chef’s shop,” a host of housemade pastries are available, every one of them made around-the-clock by pastry chef extraordinaire Adrian Mendoza.

pastries and kombucha

And don’t forget the house-made kombucha.

pastries

Speaking of croissants, YOU WANT THESE CROISSANTS.

They are made fresh daily (and sell out really fast) with tons of specialty imported butter and they are said to rival the best Parisian café. We enjoyed them plain, stuffed with chocolate, stuffed with meat and cheese, and made into these lovely breakfast sandwiches.

This is the Maple Croissant: filled with maple pork sausage, a fried egg, gruyere cheese, arugula and aioli.

croissant

We also got to sample a few of the baked eggs dishes: Brian was very exited about these … they take a loaf (bread) pan and fill it with scrambled eggs and potato, then bake it, slice it, and cover each slice in one of five different topping combinations.

This is the one with mushrooms, Humboldt goat cheese, herbs, kale, and crème fraiche. It was heavenly.

mushroom baked eggs

And this is the baked egg with tomato, capers, olives, basil pesto and lemon zest:

baked egg with tomato

We weren’t even close to being finished. Next we got to sample a few of the items from the All Day Menu (breakfast is only served from 8-11 a.m.).

One of my favorites was the poke & avocado salad, with kimchi, cilantro, housemade ponzu and mixed greens:

poke

… but I also loved the smoked curry chicken and cashews salad with kale and cilantro.

curry chicken salad

We also sampled some of their amazing sandwiches, like the banh mi with chicken sausage, papaya, and chicken liver pate:

banh mi

… as well as the amazing tuna melt with olive oil-poached albacore tuna, preserved lemons, herbs, capers and white cheddar cheese.

tuna melt

As if that wasn’t enough carbs to put us all into respective food comas, we also got a sample of two of Brian Malarkey’s favorite appetizers: a Marin triple cream brie with seasonal mustard and jelly:

brie

…  plus these beautiful sugar cane Thai chicken skewers:

thai sugar cane chicken skewers

And really amazing root fries with homemade smoked French dressing and yusu aioli:

root fries

Aaaand ice cream cookies …

ice cream cookies

The ice cream cookie flavor blends were perfect: they have chocolate chip cookies with mint chocolate chip ice cream; cranberry oatmeal cookies with vanilla bean (my favorite) and peanut butter cookies with banana ice cream.

I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise given the amazing reputation that Malarkey enjoys in this town, but LITERALLY everything they have is amazingly delicious.

This isn’t one of those places where you might drop in for a breakfast pastry because they have a good baker, but not come for lunch or dinner because other items aren’t as good.  Here, everything is good. You can tell that the chefs and employees there take food quality seriously and want you to experience the best. I’ll definitely be back!

The perfect cheese plate

Ok, I am not an expert on most things, but since I was a little kid, there are a few things I know I can do well.

I can write well. I can put on eye makeup without the assistance of a mirror. I can smell when milk is even slightly sour. I can write my name using a pen between my toes. I can make an excellent mix tape … and that was back in the day, when you made a mix tape from recording songs off of the radio, and you had to be super-fast to hit the “stop” button before the DJ came on, talking over the end of the song you were trying to record. Nowadays the kids have it much easier with the mP3s and playlists. But I digress.

cheese plate

And I can make an excellent cheese plate. This isn’t hubris or boasting, it’s a simple fact. Part of the reason is because it’s nearly impossible to make a BAD cheese plate … I mean, honestly, just take a look at Pinterest one of these days and search for the term “cheese plate.” (Or check out mine right here! Shameless plug!)

mini cheese plate

Some people seriously pull out a pretty platter, slice a few bits of cheese and meat, and call it a day. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you’re going to do it …. if you’re going to have a great party and you want to really hit it out of the park … there are a few simple guidelines to follow.

1) Have a good selection.

Don't be afraid of the sample basket!

Don’t be afraid of the sample basket!

Seriously, people. No matter how much you love that one awesome cheese, not everyone at your party is going to like it. Present a blend of hard cheeses, soft cheeses, and stinky cheeses, and switch up the types of cheese as well … you want some sheep’s milk cheese, some goat cheese and some cow’s milk cheese.

cheese selection

My favorite local cheese shop keeps a basket near the register full of the odds and ends and weirdly-shaped chunks of cheese they have left over. This is an excellent way to sample certain cheeses you might not otherwise try.

2) The cheese is just the star. It needs a limo.

salted watermelon jelly and kokos gouda

salted watermelon jelly and kokos gouda

Don’t forget the rest of the plate! You want a nice crusty bread and at least one type of cracker, and some vehicles for cheese that are fresh fruits or vegetables.

apples and gjetost cheese

apples and gjetost cheese

Try mixing up different breads and crackers, and different fruits and vegetables like apples, pear, strawberries, endive, celery, carrot sticks, and radishes (slice them lenthwise).

endive and spicy cheese dip

endive and spicy cheese dip

carrot marmalade and port wine-soaked cheese

carrot marmalade and port wine-soaked cheese

Always have at least one savory spread and one sweet spread on the plate. I love the selection of jams and toppings from the Friend in Cheeses Jam Company, a small buisness that specializes in things that go great with cheese. (Seriously, how awesome is that?) More than once, their amazing creations like salted watermelon jelly, strawberry tarragon conserve, carrot marmalade and pisco pear butter have been the best parts of my cheese plates.

bacon jam and cheddar

bacon jam and cheddar

Meat items are also important to keep a good balance on your platter. The salty and sweet punch of bacon jam, or the smoky depth of smoked chicken liver pate or storebought liverwurst, are excellent accompaniments to most cheeses.

3) It’s a carpenter, not his tools. But get some nice tools.

mini cheese graterOk, not crazy tools. Or expensive tools. Just things like a tiny cheese grater so you can grate your cheese on the spot. Or a few of those tiny forks and knives for spreads and cheeses. Just a handful of toothpicks for your olives and your bits of meat, and a few small bowls or rammekins for those jams and jellies.

cheddar and strawberry tarragon conserve

cheddar and strawberry tarragon conserve

4) Be an artist about it.

cheese plate 2

I usually set up my larger selections on a handmade wooden board, but it’s certainly not necessary. A cracked plate works as well as a fancy decorative platter. What matters is how delicious everything looks.

cheese plate 3

cheese plate 4

Football Feasts and Easy Appetizers

It’s that time of year again. The time when appetizers and finger foods are piled high atop wobbly tables surrounded by rowdy sports fans. I love it.

In general, I am a huge fan of finger foods, hors d’oeuvres, tapas, appetizers, small plates, cheese plates, things stuffed with cheese, things wrapped in bacon, things topped with cheese/chili/other things, and of course, munchies. This time of year arouses my creativity as well as my hometown pride.

I am sure your Facebook feeds and inboxes are stuffed to the gills this week with plenty of cheese dips and spicy wings recipes, so I won’t add to that list. There’s no need to paint yourself into a foodie corner with your party menu.

Here are a few of my favorite party items. Try one or two of them this weekend (or for your next get-together) and let me know how you like them.

Prosciutto-wrapped cheese snacks

As you know from my many gleeful rants about cheese, you can make homemade mozzarella in about 30 minutes, at home, with no special equipment. It’s delicious, and it’s AAAH-MAZING when it’s fresh, creamy, and still a little warm. How could I make it better, you ask? Wrap it in prosciutto after you’ve worked it into a log, then slice it, place it on slices of crusty sliced French bread with a bit of salt and pepper, then a dash of olive oil and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar. That’s it.

Caprese Spears

Well, as long as you’re making cheese, put some chunks of it on toothpicks with basil leaves, cherry tomatoes, and the same salt/pepper/oil/balsamic seasoning. Now your one appetizer has become two … plus, the vegetarian sports fans don’t feel so left out!

Saucy Sausages

Seriously, two ingredients: tiny sausages and your favorite BBQ sauce. Heat and serve. Don’t forget the toothpicks.

Bacon-wrapped Tenderloin

This is another wicked simple recipe, so much that it’s not really a recipe (pork tenderloin and bacon). You will need a grill, however. It’s a great way to impress your party hosts (if you confirm ahead of time the existence of a grill), because you can buy your tenderloins and wrap them with good, thick bacon at home, then cook it at the party. If necessary, you may want to coat it with a little oil so it doesn’t stick to the grill.

Keep it on the upper rack so the bacon doesn’t burn before the pork is cooked through. If you cook an average-size tenderloin at 350 degrees for about an hour it should be perfect, just make sure the internal temperature is 160 degrees.

Bacon-wrapped Dates

This recipe is completely adaptable for a small gathering or a huge party. Essentially, each date (use the big, soft ones, like Medjool) needs to be sliced open, pitted, then the empty cavity where the pit was is stuffed with a hunk of blue cheese. Then you wrap it with a half-slice of bacon and secure the whole thing with a toothpick.

I usually make a huge pan of them ( for me, this is just a little too much work to only make a few), and I drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil and broil at 400 degrees for about 15-20 minutes. Top it off with another drizzle of balsamic vinegar — or, if you really want it to pack a punch, reduce about a half-cup of balsamic vinegar in a saucepan for about 20 minutes or until it thickens and reduces by half, then drizzle THAT over the dates right before serving. It’s concentrated. It’s tangy. It’s on top of cheese-stuffed-bacon-wrapped goodness. It’s divine.

Chili

This is the most valuable of sports event dishes. It’s spicy, it’s hearty, it can be topped with anything you like, and it becomes a myriad of other tasty dishes … namely chili dogs, chili burgers, chili pie, and, of course, my favorite, the big bowl of chili with sour cream and cheese, served with a big hunk of steamy, sweet cornbread (see the next item below).

Many people get very picky about their chili; some dislike beans and some dislike meat. Personally, I like it all.

  • 1 white onion, diced (plus another onion, diced, for topping)
  • 1 head of smoked garlic, diced
  • 1 whole smoked jalapeno, diced
  • 1 can each of crushed tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, rotel (diced tomatoes and chilis), white beans, light red kidney beans, black beans and whole kernel corn
  • 2 cans dark red kidney beans
  • 2 lbs ground beef or turkey
  • 1 tbsp. each of ground cumin, black pepper, chili pepper and paprika
  • 2 tbsp. salt
  • about a half-bottle of good beer

Brown the meat in a skillet with the diced onion, garlic and jalapeno. Mix it in a 5-quart crock pot with the canned ingredients and spices and let it simmer on high for about 4 hours (or, for the best, most slow-cooked flavored deliciousness, cook it on low for 8+ hours). Then add the half-bottle of good beer (or more if you like it less chunky, the beans absorb a lot of the liquid) and let it simmer another hour. Check the spices, add more if necessary, and serve while piping hot.

Smokin’.

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Extra-Corny Cornbread

The single best accompaniment to chili is also pretty darn easy. I use a boxed cornbread mix (you know, the ones where you just add a bit of milk and an egg), plus I add a can of creamed corn and maybe a handful of pepper jack or some other spicy and/ or tangy cheese. Bake it according to the package instructions, as a cake or muffins.

Turophiles Unite Part II – Easy Cheesy

So you may recall my last cheese experiment, where I discovered the ease of making my own mozzarella and ricotta cheese. I used a handy kit from the good people at the Roaring Brook Dairy that I found at my local fancy cheese shop, but you can find it on Amazon for a decent price … or you can save some cheese (haha!) and buy yourself a pack of rennet tablets, a container of citric acid, a few plastic gloves and a good thermometer. I am glad that I used the kit for my first attempts at cheesemaking — they make it seem very non-threatening.

Really, making your own cheese of various types is incredibly easy … you just need a good thermometer and to keep your eyes on the temperature. Letting the mixture burn or adding the culture(s), rennet, acid or other additives at the wrong time is really the only way you can totally screw it up. For example, when making mozzarella, you have to add a citric acid solution when the milk reaches 85 degrees, then the rennet solution when it hits 100. If you don’t, it won’t work properly.

Essentially, fresh cheeses are milk brought to temperature and then cut with an acid, which makes the curds form, and then the curds are strained and formed into cheese. When making ricotta, you can use the whey left over from making mozzarella (“ricotta” means “re-cooked”) by adding milk, bringing it to 190 degrees, and adding vinegar. Strain it through a cheese cloth and you’re done. You can also eliminate the whey and simply bring the milk to temperature, then add the acid and strain.

Goat’s milk or sheep’s milk makes awesome fresh cheeses. I scored a quart of delicious and incredibly fresh goat’s milk last week at a Queso Diego cheese club meeting, and wanted to make some cheese with it right away. Now, in order to make a creamy chevre, you need cultures, which I did not have on hand. But I still was able to make a big hunk of incredible fresh goat cheese using basic ingredients from my kitchen, plus some fresh herbs I picked up that same day. The whole process took less than 20 minutes, although the cheese admittedly tasted better the next day, after it had hardened a bit in the refrigerator.

Super-Easy Herbed Goat Cheese

(did I mention I love cheese?)

Step One: Procure a quart of the freshest milk possible. Make sure it has not been ultra-pasturized (regular pasturization is OK, no pasturization is best).

Step Two: Pour it in a pot and make sure you have a good thermometer. Bring the milk up to 190 degrees, stirring occasionally to make sure the milk doesn’t burn.

Step Three: Remove the pot from the heat and add 1/4 cup of vinegar. It will curdle pretty much instantly.

Step Four: Remove the curds and place into a bowl covered with a cheese cloth. Add salt to taste and herbs of your choice.

I used ground black pepper and chopped fresh dill. I packed it into a small bowl and ate some right away, but it was pretty crumbly; the next morning it was easier to spread after refrigerating overnight.

If you don’t care for ricotta or goat’s cheese (shame on you!), there are several other delicious fresh cheeses.

For homemade queso fresco (aka queso blanco), bring a gallon of milk to 190 degrees, and as soon as you remove it from the heat, add the juice of 4 limes and a couple of teaspoons of salt. Strain and enjoy.

For homemade mascarpone, bring 2 cups of heavy cream to 190 degrees and add a teaspoon of lemon juice. No salt is needed. Strain and serve with your favorite fruit for an impeccable dessert.

Turophiles unite! Cheese is so easy ….

I. Love. Cheese.

Soft cheese, hard cheese, grated cheese, sliced cheese, crumbly cheese. American cheese, French cheese, Spanish cheese, Italian cheese, Greek cheese, Swiss cheese. Sharp cheese, sweet cheese, smelly cheese, spreadable cheese, gooey cheese. Cheese with things on top or cheese stuffed inside of other things. Cheese coated in nuts or studded with berries. Brie, provolone, Swiss, cheddar, chevre, blue cheese, cotija cheese, feta cheese, manchego cheese. Goat cheese, sheep cheese, cow cheese. All of it. I make a wicked good cheese plate, and given the choice of a decadent hot fudge sundae or a plate of delicious cheeses and accompaniments, I would probably take the cheese.

And, of course, mozzarella and ricotta are probably two of my favorites. Both are easy to cook with in pretty much any dish, or just by themselves. Is there anything more lovely than a caprese salad/sandwich/snack?

The last time I was perusing my local artisan cheese shop, Venissimo (seriously, check them out if you’re in southern California, they let you take full advantage of their tasting policy!), I noticed this cute little package.

Mozzarella, you say? All I need is one gallon of milk? And in less than an hour I will be shoving cheese into my face? Sounds good to me. And there was enough in this kit for me to make a pound of cheese out of a gallon of milk four times. Heck yeah.

I decided to give it a try. Upon closer inspection, this was simply a convenient kit with all of the little things you need to make cheese. No grand kitchens or fancy equipment needed — however it is handy if you are like me and cannot seem to locate rennet tablets anywhere in your town. (After I made this, I discovered this post from Simple Bites, and it’s exactly the same recipe. Although clearly she has a rennet hookup.)

The kit came with instructions, gloves, a thermometer, citric acid, salt and rennet tablets. I mixed the rennet into water and the citric acid into another cup of water per the instructions, and started the process.

Step 1: Gallon of milk (not ultra-pasturized, as fresh as possible) goes into a great big pot. Turn on  the heat. Not boiling but not too low either.

Keep the thermometer handy. Cheesemaking isn’t complicated, but you need to keep an eye on the temperature.

Step 2: When the milk temperature reaches 85 degrees, add the citric acid solution. Keep stirring.

Step 3: When the temperature reaches 100 degrees, add the rennet solution. Keep stirring, but start moving your spoon in a gentle up-and-down motion.

Step 4: Stop stirring. As the temperature continues to rise you will see curds starting to form, like this:

Step 5: Cover the pot and let the curds rest for 5-10 minutes. Then strain the curds out with a slotted spoon or colander, and place in a microwaveable bowl.

Step 6: Microwave the curds for 30-60 seconds at a time, and each time you remove it, strain more of the liquid out (squeeze it with your gloved hands), and fold and stretch the cheese. Sprinkle the salt over the cheese at this point. Repeat this process two or three times (but don’t add any more salt).

Your cheese should, at this point, look like cheese, and you can shape it into one large ball or several small ones, as well as string cheese strips.

The shaping is where I had some difficulty, as you can see. This was my first try with the ball-shaping, but it was still delicious.

Then, of course, what are we to do with all of that whey left over in the pot?

Well, let’s just say, they don’t call it “recooked” for nothing ….  ricotta, that is.

It’s made from the leftover whey you have after making cheese, plus some extra added milk and a little vinegar. According to SB Canning, you need to make the ricotta less than three hours after the mozzerella, but other than that, it’s incredibly fast and easy. Brilliant!

So … take the whey you have left over, and add a quart of milk. Bring up to 200 degrees, and keep stirring so you don’t burn the whey. Then add about a half-cup of apple cider vinegar and let the curds and whey sit for a few minutes.

Strain over a cheesecloth-lined colander, and once all of the liquid has drained out, you have a big pile of ricotta cheese, ready for stuffing into your favorite pasta!