Friday, February 27, 2015

Apéritif Friday - Two Bite Canapés

Sometimes, the best things are simple. While I love a culinary challenge, I do prefer to balance a complicated endeavor in the kitchen with something easy. Sometimes that's a simple appetizer paired with a more time-consuming entree, and other times it's an evening full of cooking followed by something I can whip up in a jiffy the next night.

A few weeks ago dinner was hours away, so I held off the dogs with some Two Bite Canapés.  
The beauty of these is that they come together fast, and are as versatile as the ingredients in your refrigerator. The only critical ingredient is a high quality French loaf of bread - the fresher the better. From there, it's all up to your imagination.

I made these three ways, given the ingredients I had on hand. The winner by unanimous vote was the meatball bites. I bought the meatballs in sauce at Zeppe's Italian Market in south Naperville. Check it out if you are local to the Western Suburbs. Even my mom agrees that they make good stuff - so much so that she recently purchased about six dinners worth of food to keep in her freezer for nights she doesn't feel like cooking.
Two Bite Canapés
French Loaf, sliced on the bias
Olive oil
Mascarpone Cheese for spreading
Provolone Cheese slices
Meatballs in Sauce from your favorite Italian Market (or homemade)
High Quality Capicola, Pastrami or Corned Beef cold cuts
Sauerkraut
Smoked Salmon
Mustard of your choice (I used a horseradish dijon blend)
Chives

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Drizzle the French loaf slices with olive oil and place in the oven for approximately 15 minutes or until lightly toasted, turning the slices after about 7 minutes. Remove to cool.

Warm the meatballs in sauce and slice them into medium discs. Warm the cold cuts and sauerkraut, if desired. To assemble the canapés, place a piece of cheese on the toasted bread, then top with the meatballs and sauce. Garnish with chives. For the reuben canapés, spread a thin layer of mascarpone cheese on the bread, then top with a slice of capicola, top with sauerkraut and chives. For the smoked salmon appetizer, spread a thin layer of mascarpone cheese on the toasted bread, top with a slice of salmon, dot with mustard of your choice and garnish with chopped chives.

These are outstanding with any apéritif. Given the continued winter weather we are experiencing, I recommend something hearty, like a gin martini or bourbon manhattan. 

Cheers!
XOXO,
Jen


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Come, Take a Walk With Me in Dana Point

Picking up where we left off on Tuesday in sunny, beautiful, seventy-five degree Dana Point, CA...let's go for a couple of walks.

Just north of Laguna Beach a valley emerges on Pacific Coast Highway, with sirens calling to weary travelers to stop, park and explore the expansive backcountry, numerous tide pools and underground passage to miles of pristine sandy beach. We saw this park on our exploratory drive up the coast a few days earlier, and it immediately landed on my bucket list.

Crystal Cove State Park did not disappoint. After a foggy start to the morning, the sun broke through and cautioned us to watch for rattlesnakes. Gratefully the snakes stayed off the trail, but we did see a few lizards and a coyote. The struggle was real up the backside of the mountain,
but the walk back down proved breathtaking and worth every single step.
The prize at the end of our five mile hike?
A stunning beach view to mesmerize us into tranquility. And if I had an RV?
No question. This would be a destination on the "park it and stay for a month" list.

Jake's absence really bummed me out that morning. He would have loved the challenge of hiking up an actual mountain instead of the wimpy hills that grace our paths in Wisconsin.

We stopped in Laguna Beach on the way back to the condo for a little romp down memory lane.
I know a few people will recognize this. My brother and sweet sister-in-law tied the knot in the Rose Garden at the historic Hotel Laguna a few years back. In honor of Throwback Thursday...
I miss you guys!

Day four, and pathetic Mr. Sicko stayed in again. We tucked him in on the couch with some netflix and headed out. This time we ventured locally, on a path just several yards from the condo we rented. Why hello, lovely bird.
And funky red flowering bush.
This is why we never spied a single, fat, slovenly local resident.
I mean, can you imagine if this walking path were in your backyard? Leading to this?
Gulp. But OK.
The walk along the Dana Point Headlands trail is worth every single reptilian threat in the world. Eventually, we landed in Lantern Bay Park.
Also known as THE TOWN PARK! I should have snapped a picture of Plainfield's town park today, just to make you laugh. It pales in comparison to the view to the right of the town park. Hello magnificent panorama.
My walking partners stopped dead in their tracks. Clearly, something caught their eye.
Mr. Musky found it. Theeee one. His dream deck....
...for the months of March and April, at least. Can you imagine Happy Hour atop that house, with the views? I'm thinking the sparkling, citrusy Apéritif would taste like dewdrops on your lips and the fresh grilled fish like succulent, buttery goodness. Let's all close our eyes and meet there tomorrow afternoon, the gentle sea breezes caressing our faces.

Welcome back. If you're in the midwest effing tundra, I apologize.

We decided to take a page out of the locals' book and walk a different route back to the condo. The pictures don't do it justice, but see that road in the background?
Imagine a ridiculous slope? Grade? Angle? I need my civil engineer brother to weigh in and give me a lesson. Whatever. Let's just call this a very steep, treacherous mountain road (albeit short and paved).
Oh - and I should probably indicate that my walking partners are two non-risk takers, deathly afraid of heights, passing automobiles, steep angles and things out of their control, like blind curves.
I told them to pipe down and quit the bellyaching. Mama Bear had the lead and would sacrifice her life for theirs as her calf muscles screamed in agonizing protest. It would all be OK, because we safely reached the evacuation area in the event a tsunami came to kill us when the earthquakes come.
And this, my dear friends, is why Californians aren't fat. They don't sit around in sub zero temperatures, dependent on a layer of winter blubber for survival, guzzling brandy old fashioneds and cheese curds in a dank bar, negotiating with the Devil to allow Spring to erupt even though the first fifty degree day taunts them from 86,000 minutes into the future.

Not that there's anything wrong with brandy and curds. I could go for some now.

Conversely, Californians easily reach 12,000 steps on their Fit Bits by noon, to return home to dine on the worlds best sushi. Ever.
Oh the food. We literally ate fish every single meal. The sushi is the best we've ever had, and we ate it twice from the same place - Gen Kai restaurant. We purchased fresh fish at the harbor and grilled it for dinner. We bought smoked fish and ate it with thinly sliced onions, cream cheese, capers and English Muffins while the sun burned off the fog in the morning. The food in this town is exceedingly fresh, delicious, and superbly prepared.

Day Five. My Mommy Guilt reaching all new highs, we ambled out without the ailing child yet again, but remained close to home. It really does stink to have a sick kid on vacation, but it had to be even worse for him.

This time we drove to the harbor and sat on "Baby Beach" - an adorable little wave-free beach area where all the kayakers and Stand Up Paddleboarders launch. Mr. Musky wasn't down with the SUP experience, but Jake would have been so I guess we will just have to go back.

We did get a little SoCal drama up front and personal, however. Some men were fishing off an elevated dock into the bay while another gent on the shoreline drove his remote controlled speed boat all over the harbor like a maniac. The boat tied up one of the fishing lines, pulling the entire pole right into the ocean as the fisherman attended to another line. A shouting match ensued, and the next thing we knew...
...the OC Po Po arrived in style to investigate the crime.

I chuckled. Midwest brawls are brash with plenty of swearing and fists flying. This was an easygoing disagreement with plenty of "Dude" salutations. And the Sheriff came. Over a toy boat and a fishing pole.

Proof that Californians thrive in California.

After a bit we wandered around the backside of the Ocean Institute to check out the rocky shoreline north of the harbor.
We weren't really dressed properly for this walk - flip flops and craggy coast do not equal safety or ease of investigation.
Nonetheless, somebody crouched over in sunshiny, marine life heaven.
I love the cliff homes, but like the one peeking out here, I can't imagine living in fear of plummeting to a death on the Pacific Coast thanks to a rattling earthquake.
We will have to return to this spot in appropriate footwear - the expansive tide pools provided hours of interesting exploration. Not to mention the swarming hive of bees mating on the walk back...
...and the bird of prey devouring a snack above. Check out the flying feathers.
Wildlife certainly abounded on the little stretch of coastline around the corner from the harbor.

We meandered back to the condo, lounged by the pool for a few hours, administered medicine to the invalid, then cleaned ourselves up for dinner. We ate in often, but also planned for a few special meals out. Notice...
 ...no boy.
The dude got sicker and sicker. Even the promise of surf and turf couldn't lure him out from under his blanket.
Shelving the growing tide of mommy guilt yet again, I determined that leftovers from a fish house/ steakhouse surely warranted our departure. Because nothing kills a cold like lobster and prime, medium rare beef. Chicken soup be damned!
Even though an earthquake left us unsettled on the final evening, we'll be back to this gem in Southern California. It just won't happen soon enough. Meanwhile, we're channeling our inner snow queens and are heading out to enjoy some dazzling winter wonderland this weekend. On flat land, but at least we've got deciduous trees. Not to mention brandy and curds to warm us up.

XOXO,
Jen





Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Come, Go On A Trip With Me to Dana Point

The last two years found us in beautiful Dana Point, California for Spring Break. Sadly, that won't be the case this year. So I'm taking myself on a virtual visit via last year's pictures. Won't you join me? Especially considering that I teased you with only a few glimpses of our adventures last April?

First, for a repeat vision, here's why we love this place. Enough said.
On day one we headed out to the Farmers' Market. We lost ourselves in the sights and smells, sounds and tastes. Mr. Musky even walked away with a new wedding band that he wears to this day. Wonky, I know. But at least he's not high maintenance when it comes to jewelry.

I've never seen a dried fruit stand at a midwest market. But I dug it.
Oh, the ever loving strawberries. In addition to the Farmers' Market, they sell these babies on street corners down by the Dana Point Harbor. We bought pints during our stay. Several.
After gorging ourselves on fresh fruits and vegetables, we drove up the coast mainly to just show the kids some California landscape and scope out some of the northern Orange County beaches. We pulled over in a neighborhood and checked out the seascape.

My man, contemplating the Los Angeles Port in the distance - an operation critical to the success of his business. Threatening labor strikes are no bueno. But the Longshore Union reached a tentative contract agreement with their employers last Friday, so we're crossing our digits that things will settle down for awhile, once they process the logjam of ships and containers.
Chasing waves.
I love the first day of any vacation, when we're full of the joy of just getting started, with a weeklong eternity of warm sunshine ahead of us. It's quite the antitheses of the final night when the devil starts shaking you awake in the form of an earthquake, freaking you out so badly you just want Mommy and your own Midwest king sized bed with the down comforter. Suddenly waiting for summer doesn't seem so bad after all.

Take note: Two kids frolicking on the beach. Remember this so you won't think I sold one later.
After a quick stop to check out the sights in Huntington Beach, we decided the beach in Dana Point would be just fine for the remainder of the afternoon. Chilly, cloudy conditions kept the locals in their Uggs and North Face jackets. We had the beach to ourselves.

Some shacks on the beach. I'll take the one in the middle for $1000, Alex.
The kids scrounged up some wetsuits and boogie boards. Sixty-five degrees felt like a tropical paradise compared to below freezing temperatures back home.

I know this look. Jake is plotting.
Something's up.
Uh oh. They have to share this wave with a surfer.
How sweet. At least they're not punching one another.
COLLISION!
Jake loved playing in the surf. Even though he missed some hockey games.
 So did Kahley. But then, she loves everything about California. It's where she's in her element.
I think we all crashed at 8:30 that night, after dining on some grilled fresh fish and vegetables we picked up earlier.

The next day dawned much the same, with an even greater threat of rain. We marched ourselves to the harbor anyway for a ride out to Catalina Island.

Look who we found on the boat with us.
Grandma!
My mother-in-law lives in Palm Springs and came to the coast to hang out with us for a few days. She'd never been to Catalina and heard they had a few stores out there.
The woman can shop like none other. We walked into every store on the island. I don't exaggerate. She also can sniff out a glass of Chardonnay from a mile away regardless of the time of day or her locale.
Uh oh.
Somebody stopped feeling it. This moment marked the beginning of the end of vacation for my poor kid. Why is it that every family consists of at least one member who comes down with a vicious cold on every vacation? Or is that just my family, and this pathetic looking child? If only it were just a brain freeze from his (virgin) strawberry daiquiri.

The art on the island didn't disappoint.
Colors lined the sidewalks, and funky metal decorated walls on some of the local's abodes.
We decided that the island is cool and all, but taking the day ferry left us with little time to explore beyond the initial touristy section. It would be much more interesting to stay overnight for a couple of days. See that trail up there? In the background, behind the blue boat house?
There's an incessant itch niggling at me to get up there and see where it leads. To absorb the 360 degree views from the top of that mountain. To explore the flora and fauna. To just sit and breathe in the ocean air. Someday.

Tomorrow?

Nah. Instead, I'll suck it up and thrive in twenty-four degrees and three more inches of snow. Come back Thursday and we'll go on a walk through the Crystal Cove State Park and from our rental condo down to the harbor in Dana Point.

XOXO,
Jen