Non-Valentine’s Day Picnic and Hike

I don’t usually do anything special for Valentine’s Day. When I think back to the three Valentine’s Days that Kyle and I have spent as a couple, I recall quiet dinners at home, nice bottles of wine, and my choice of romantic movies from Blockbuster (OK, that is a rare thing indeed). I think in the past we may have exchanged chocolates or cards, and I’m sure I’ve received a bouquet of tulips, but no major celebration comes to mind. We just don’t ever plan anything big for February 14th.

This year, we wanted to do something. We have had a rough start to the year and both wanted to take some time out of our busy schedules to recognize how much we appreciate each other’s support and companionship through it all. Isn’t that nice? Kyle suggested a fancy restaurant, I suggested we go somewhere for the weekend, and we both considered getting into a DIY dinner project like homemade sushi or fondue. But what really made the decision for us was the weather forecast.

For a weekend, things thawed out a bit and we were blessed with clear blue skies and bright sunshine that pierced the cold February air. This time last year, we were recovering from a massive snow storm. This weekend, we ventured out to Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County, Virginia to do an easy morning hike followed by a half-healthy, half-indulgent picnic. It was two days before Valentine’s Day, which was perfect. I’ve always been ambivalent about V-Day. Why would you need a holiday to show people you love them? I’ll take romance any day of the year, so this weekend I celebrated it on February 12th. at our Non-Valentine’s Day Picnic.

We began our hike with a beautiful view of Beaver Lake. The dark blue lake was gently moving as the bright sun cracked the thin layer of ice that slowly melted away as the day went on. We could see geese in the distance, perched on the last few sheets of thick ice that remained in a large, shady corner of the lake.

That's my valentine!

We did about two miles of the 2.5 mile loop before setting up our picnic at another point on the trail with lake access. As we meandered through the woods, the trail led us to wildlife observation areas, over a few creeks, and past some interesting landmarks that others had left before us.

We finally settled down to a picnic on the edge of the lake, and while we had to contend with strong winds throughout the meal, we enjoyed taking in the scenery with very few fellow hikers for company. I would imagine that a picnic here in the summer would be more desirable from a climate standpoint, but there is no chance we would have the lake and the trail to ourselves. It was so nice to experience the stillness and silence between the laughs and conversation that we enjoyed here.

The wine definitely helped to warm us up as we faced the chill of the breeze coming off the water. In addition to an ingeniously portable bottle/box of Bandit Merlot, we packed Azar’s roasted garlic hummus, baby carrots, a fresh baguette, Babybel cheese (more portable than a knife and a block of cheddar), green apples, and a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

Azar’s is one of my favorite brands of hummus. I’ve probably been eating it for about six years and I just realized it is made in Virginia. I don’t know how I ever missed it before. What a special treat!

Everything was tasty and fresh. We saved the chocolates for the car ride home, and let me just say that it was a good thing we only had eight in that box. We had no intention of finishing the whole thing, but they were almost all gone before we even exited the park. It is about a five minute drive from the trailhead to the park exit. If we had been trapped in that car for the 30 minute drive with more than three Ferrero Garden coconut chocolates, Kyle would have had to roll me out of the car and up to our second floor apartment. They were the best candy I have had in a very very long time. If you love coconut, find this candy!

And then find yourself a longer hike to work it off. Yum!

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A Very Veggie Christmas 2010

For the first time that I can remember, Christmas was not a Major Production brought to you by the McDonald household. Dad was recovering from a minor surgery, which gave us the excuse to have a quiet, relaxed Christmas at home this year. We woke up in the morning to fresh brewed coffee and pastries and we tore into our gifts. However, this year we didn’t have to rush through presents and quickly pick up and run to the kitchen to start preparing food. I especially enjoyed being able to watch my family members open their gifts and seeing their reactions to the presents I had carefully chosen for them. They reciprocated with some great thoughtful gifts too!

Here are some highlights…

Gadgetry:

I asked for the Joby Gorillapod and I am so excited to be able to take photos with my point-and-shoot in odd places with my new versatile tripod. With the surprise video camera, my family has requested more videos on facebook and the blog (eek!) and now I have no excuse. What should my next video be?

The Rec Stuff:

I’m super psyched to go hiking and biking in my new wool socks. Kyle got a hiking book and some socks too so I think we’ll be heading out with our packs and our camera and gorillapod soon! I also got a sweet lime green lock for my cute bike, and a Rodney Yee DVD.

Kitchen Toys:

Finally, a mandoline!

A serious triple timer! No more burning the granola!

We took our time getting ready as the snow fell lightly, dusting the ground and making it the first White Christmas in a long time. When the snow cleared up, we took a trip from Bel Air into Hunt Valley to visit with Mom’s side of the family and then came home to make a vegetarian dinner for four.

I can’t remember ever having a Christmas without ham, but with three out of four family members going vegetarian, a very veggie Christmas made sense. Mom was a great sport; she didn’t even sneak a steak onto the grill for herself. I’ll have to make it up to her somehow.

It was great to share the kitchen with Mom on Christmas, without all the stress of having to feed an army of family members. As we all got settled in, I started dicing onions and Mom said, “shall we commence the drinking?”

White Christmas? Oh, no. It was a Red Christmas for me. A Cabernet Christmas to be exact.

It looks like we were cooking dinner vegology-style. Who needs printed recipes when you have a laptop and two square feet of counter space?

A wire cooling rack makes a great laptop stand! One thing that was missing was my santoku. I am seriously spoiled by my cutlery and rarely have to hack into one of these with such a small knife.

I didn’t butcher it too badly though, all things considered.

We made a delicious little menu of spaghetti squash, black bean cakes, and roasted vegetables.

We ended the night with some seasonal cookies: eggnog, cranberry, and pumpkin. Then we had a Christmas night viewing of my favorite holiday movie, Love Actually.

Hope you had a joyous weekend. Stay warm!

Homemade Granola

During my visit to my hometown over Thanksgiving weekend, I picked up a bag of some of the most delicious granola I have ever tasted:

Michele’s Granola!

I tasted some of the pumpkin spice granola at a local coffee shop and was immediately hooked. I bought the 12 oz. size for around $7.50 and enjoyed every single oat and nut cluster in the whole bag. As the weekend drew nearer, the bag felt lighter and lighter. When I could see the brown paper at the bottom of the sack of granola, I panicked.

I considered stocking up on the stuff (which I highly recommend) but when I added up the cost of 2-3 months’ worth of Michele’s Granola and considered the impending drain on my bank account around the holidays, I figured there had to be a more cost effective way to get my fix. It was time to make some homemade granola. And it was a great way to get the holiday-related baking itch out of my system, without gaining 5 pounds of cookie dough around my midsection.

I burned the first batch while texting my friends about how awesome I was for making my own granola. The second batch was perfection. I did dump a whole batch of burnt granola in the trash, but on the bright side, now I can show you a color reference so you can tell the difference between “too long in the oven” and “just right.”

too long in the oven

just right 🙂

Speaking of bright sides, I replaced my 100-watt soft white kitchen light bulb with a GE Reveal light bulb, which is supposed to mimic daylight. This is particularly important for photographing your late night cooking and baking adventures for your food blog. No matter how hard I try, I rarely cook an entire dish during the 6 hours of daylight we get this time of year. I thought, “this light bulb will save me!”

At first, the only thing it revealed was the horrifying collection of crumbs on my kitchen floor that I couldn’t even see in normal light. However it also improved the lighting situation for my photos so I am proud to present to you my 11:00 PM granola adventure, in all its GE Reveal glory.

Basic Granola

Ingredients

  • 2 cups old fashioned oats
  • 1/4 cup shredded coconut
  • 1/2 cup unsalted nuts (I used almonds, but any nut will do)
  • 1/4 cup unsalted sunflower seeds
  • 1/8 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Optional: 1/2 cup other mix-ins (dried fruit, chocolate chips, etc)

Preparation

1.Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

2. Combine the oats, coconut, nuts, and seeds in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

3. Combine oil and honey over medium heat in a small sauce pan. You may add the brown sugar at this step or in the next one. Bring to a boil then remove from the heat and whisk to combine. It will look a little angry when it starts to boil, but it will be OK. This is necessary to get the honey to jive with all the other ingredients when you toss everything together.

4. Carefully pour the oil-honey mixture over the granola and stir to combine. Add brown sugar if you have not already. Add vanilla, cinnamon, and salt and toss all ingredients together.

5. Pour the granola mixture onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Use a wooden spoon to spread it into an even layer.

6. Bake in preheated oven for ten minutes, then stir to turn over and return to oven for ten additional minutes at 325 degrees F.

Make yourself a cup of tea while you wait.

7. Remove from oven and sprinkle mix-ins over the top of the granola. Let the granola cool completely on the baking sheet before packing in an airtight container. Granola should keep for 1-2 weeks, although I doubt it will last that long!

I made a few variations of this granola and all varieties made fine accompaniments to our weekend activities. The cinnamon raisin went well with Saturday hiking.

And the gingerbread version was great for Sunday decorating.

When inspiration strikes, I hope you find this granola a fun and easy snack to go along with whatever you get yourself into this winter.

For more holiday baking ideas, check out Brittany’s 12 Days of Cookies over at Eating Bird Food. My persimmon cookies were featured last week, and all of the other cookies she has highlighted look delicious too!

Farmers’ Market 12.04.10

Shall we?

I decided I had to make it to the last SOTJ market of the outdoor market season, and I dragged Kyle along with me in the cold this morning. I promised him coffee before and hiking after, so he was sold. I am so glad we went!

Here is what we picked up this week, and the loot includes a very funny looking character called a Black Spanish Radish. I’m eager to see what I can do with these. They are my kitchen challenge for this week.

click for a closer look

 

  • Cauliflower
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Apple cider
  • Black pepper linguine
  • Black Spanish radishes
  • Goat cheese wrapped in hot peppers, rosemary, and corn husk

As we finished tasting all of the goat cheeses that Bonnyclabber had to offer, our coffee cups went empty and we had only one thing in mind. In the interest of squeezing in all of the Fall activities that we love to do, we headed on to hiking. The first snow of the season is scheduled for tonight so I think we both had an urge to celebrate Fall as much as possible while we still could. Onward to the crunchy leaves and scenic river views.

Farewell to the market at Forest Hill Park. . . until next year.

18 Hours in Charlottesville

This Friday evening I traveled to Charlottesville for some good food and a great hike in the beautiful surroundings of Autumn in Central Virginia. Kyle and I soaked up the beautiful weather while visiting family and we made some great stops along the way.

I met Kyle in Charlottesville, just over an hour’s drive from Richmond. On Friday night, we visited with family members and then grabbed a bite to eat at our favorite pizza place in Virginia. Our Cville adventure started around 7:00 PM with cold beers and hot pizza.

The Mellow Mushroom (website)

We had a medium Mega Veggie pizza to share. The piping hot pie was loaded with delicious veggies and it was perfect as the night was getting colder. I had waited too long for dinner and was starving for that perfect crispy-doughy crust. And their pizza sauce is unbelievable; the combination of crust and sauce is what makes this pizza special.

We washed it all down with a few cold beers, including a new one that we had not seen before: Midnight Project #3, Oxymoron. The Midnight Projects are a series of collaboration beers created by Terrapin (GA) and Left Hand Brewing (CO). As the third installment in the series, Oxymoron was a highly anticipated beer that made its debut this Fall. Kyle and I were BIG fans of Midnight Project #2, Depth Charge, which was an espresso milk stout that was released in the Fall of 2009. Oxymoron is an India Pale Lager, which appealed to us because Kyle is really into IPAs and I love a good lager. It was very interesting and I think we will try it again when we are more focused on tasting beer and less focused on tasting pizza.

The service was excellent from the hostess and the wait staff. At the end of our meal, the owner/manager stopped by our table to make sure we were having a good time. We were very impressed that he stopped to check on us, especially on a busy Friday night. The Mellow Mushroom, as usual, did not disappoint these hungry travelers. It remains one of our favorite places to visit while in Charlottesville.

Humpback Rocks

On Saturday morning, we got up bright and early to make the 30 minute drive to Afton and hike up to the Humpback Rocks Overlook. We did a longer version of the same hike 6 months ago, and this time we just climbed up and right back down because we were pressed for time. It was about a 1.5 hour hike that we completed while the sun was rising over the mountain. I had to stop to catch my breath several times on the ascent, but the view from the top was worth the climb.

The views were spectacular and we wanted to stay all day at the top of those rocks. But our stomachs were growling and we had a tight schedule so we had to hike back down. On our endorphin highs, Kyle and I brainstormed how we could fit more hiking into our schedules. I hope we get at least one more good one in while the leaves are still changing.

We got back to our hotel with 25 minutes to shower, pack, and check out of the room. I made it out with wet hair, a crumpled mess of clothing stuffed into my overnight bag, and a fistful of cosmetic products in my hand to hide my dark circles during the car ride back to downtown. Kyle drove towards UVA with the single goal of calorie replacement.

Boylan Heights (website)

We had been meaning to visit this “gourmet burger bar” at the Corner in Charlottesville for awhile. Our timing was perfect as we ducked in for an early lunch. The place filled up with students in the hour that we were there; the crowd grew from two tables to twenty and we were glad we got out orders in when we did.

I must have had 40 ounces of water while we were there because I was so thirsty after our hike. We both ordered veggie burgers, and the patties were unlike any others I’ve ever had. They were homemade patties formed from a mixture of quinoa, black beans, and fresh vegetables and then deep fried so that the outside was crispy while the inside was soft.

The taste of the burger was great, and my only complaint was the consistency. It fell apart while I ate it, and I think the burger could be made better by either the addition of lentils or more mashed beans to the mix, or a reduction in the size of the veggie pieces. The recipe includes white beans but they don’t stick the patty together very well. I just like my burger to stay on my bun while I’m eating it. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t eat every last errant crumb with my fork after the bun was history. I was not crazy about the fries on the side, but I will be back for that burger again. I even caught myself daydreaming about it earlier today.

Another note on Boylan Heights: I really liked the concept of the restaurant and the prep-school theme was integrated throughout the experience in a creative way. I was also impressed by the branding, which was done very well with a clean and academic looking logo emblazoned on every inch of the restaurant space, from the menus to the napkin dispensers to the toothpicks that poked out of the tops of our burger buns. The folks at Boylan Heights know a lot about burgers, but they also know a thing or two about marketing, which helps them stand out.

Home Sweet Home

After about 18 hours in Charlottesville, we drove back home to get some other weekend chore stuff out of the way. Again we took advantage of the beautiful weather and walked to dinner in the Fan. The excitement of our quick trip woke up the travel bug in us and caused us to talk about vacations, school, our careers, and the future. It was a great conversation and as we walked the streets of our own beautiful neighborhood, we reminisced about exploring Richmond when it was new to me (Kyle grew up here), and we dreamed about exploring other cities too. Although after a healthy meal and a stroll back home, with the comforting smell of freshly baked cookies wafting over from our tiny oven in our little apartment kitchen, in that moment we were happy to be right where we are.