Buffalo for dinner at the edge of wilderness

About a two hour’s drive away is a completely different world that I only just experienced for the first time. Last week Jan took me up to see Florence and Edison lakes, an area that he spends some time patrolling at work. After driving to Huntington Lake on Highway 168, we took the turnoff for Kaiser Pass. The road soon turned into a narrow, bumpy, one-lane road that Jan said is purposely kept that way by Southern California Edison to limit traffic. And lonesome it is, except for the marmots, lizards, and deer we saw along the way. I asked Jan, “Really? This is your cubicle!?” It was beautiful. 

Drive through Kaiser Pass = backroads bubbly

Both Florence Lake and Edison Lake sit at the edge of the John Muir Wilderness area, and offer services to backpackers either about to embark on a journey or need of more supplies. Both lakes have boats to ferry hikers to the other side of the lakes, and each has a small store, restaurant, or both. After a picnic lunch at Florence Lake, we checked out Vermillion Resort at Edison Lake, where Jan has eaten many times while fighting lighting fires in the area. 

We hiked through a muddy path to see some of the volcanic hot springs, but I had forgotten insect repellant and was getting eaten by mosquitoes and didn’t want to stay for a dip into the water. 

Homemade blue cheese dressing perfected

We stopped for dinner at Mono Hot Springs River Rock Cafe, and on a Tuesday night, had the entire patio to ourselves. After enjoying salads with homemade blue cheese dressing (yum!) we watched the sunset over the mountains and ordered two specialties of the house: Corned buffalo for Jan and a buffalo burger for me. 

Buffalo burger and rice pilaf

Both dishes tasted similar to their beef counterparts, but were leaner. Our server Lea offered a great finale to the end of an excellent birthday with New York cheesecake. And even though I’d previously made fun of Jan for celebrating his birthday for the entire month of April, I did have to admit that celebrating my birthday for a week and a half was far better than my previous attempts to simply pretend the day wasn’t different from any other. I had, by that time, completely forgotten about getting another year older. 

A tasty end to the birthday celebrations


Time for tamales

Tamales are traditionally made around the holidays Christmas and New Year’s, but when my freezer’s supply runs out, which is usually around March, I start craving them, hoping my dad might get the inkling to make more. No tamale I’ve eaten in any restaurant or bought pre-made could compare to the recipe and technique used by first my grandma, and now my dad.

My dad and I have started our own tradition of making tamales together in small batches, and since they require some teamwork and a bit of time, our method seems to alleviate the feeling that making tamales is a gargantuan task that can only be tackled once a year.

My dad’s process requires no secret recipe, but it’s always been something that intimidated me, and I’ve yet to make them on my own. However, after spending this father’s day making tamales with my dad, I think I’m ready to try it on my own next time.

My dad had already prepared the meat ahead of time, but he assured me it would be easy to do on my own next time. He used 5 lbs of pork butt (actually the front shoulder of the pig), cooked slowly, then seasoned and cooked with the mole sauce.

Here was our process of making the tamales (I’ll post the full recipe when I go through all the steps on my own).

Since the local SaveMart carries the corn masa only seasonally, we headed to Vallarta Supermarket, where there was quite a selection. We found the Vallarta brand, which contained no lard (we’d add vegetable oil, baking powder, salt, broth, and chili powder to it at home) and was made fresh in the store.

 At home, we soaked the corn husks in warm water until they were pliable. After mixing the masa, which we originally added too much broth to and had to re-thicken with corn meal, we began the process of spreading it on the smooth side of the ojas (corn husks). Then we added the filling, which was the meat mixed with mole sauce and black olives, wrapped the edges around each side, and folded in half.  

My dad showed me how to correctly prepare the tamale pot, which is basically a giant steamer. He placed four dimes at the bottom of the pot, filled it with a few inches of water, then added the metal divider which we would place the tamales on top of. We used an upside-down funnel in the center of the pot and places the tamales, open side up, around it in a circle. Next, we used the rest of the ojas to cover the tamales, creating a tent that would direct the steam and water around the cooking tamales, not in them.

We placed the pot on the stove and listened for the sound of the dimes rattling, indicating that there was still water at the bottom. If the dimes are quiet, you need to add more water, or the tamales will burn.

We cooked the tamales for about 2 hours, and then removed them to let them cool, though of course I couldn’t wait very long before enjoying one. My dad and I divided up the tamales, and knowing they would all be eaten within the next few days, I set out to make them very soon on my own.

Napa Valley mini vacation, day two

Breakfast, first course

We began the next day back at the inn’s dining room, which was a converted cellar with exposed stone walls and great ambiance. When we sat down, a bowl of fruit and champagne glasses full of orange juice were waiting for us. The glasses were actually half-full of orange juice, and Jan and I briefly considered filling the other half from the bottle of Domaine Chandon sparkling wine we’d bought the day before. Mimosas sounded excellent, but we decided against it.

Breakfast, second course

The innkeepers said the breakfasts there were always hearty and meant to sustain guests for a day of wine tasting. As soon as we finished our fruit, the staff brought in the next plate, which consisted of an apple crisp and also an egg and potato soufflé.

After checking out we headed north, with a plan to drive to the top of Napa Valley and slowly make our way south before heading back home. Our first stop was Château Montelena, which I wanted to see after recently watching the film Bottle Shock. The building was beautiful, just like in the movie and the grounds featured a lush garden, lake complete with geese, and red pagodas.

Next we walked downtown Calistoga, enjoying the sunshine, but no mud baths that the town is famous for. I was too happy and clean after soaking in our room’s Jacuzzi tub to have any desire to be covered in mud at the moment.

Culinary Institute of America

We continued our drive, heading south on Highway 128 and stopping to tour the Culinary Institute of America, which was housed in an imposing but beautiful old winery. No celebrity chefs were spotted this time, but we saw plenty of students and checked out the winemaker’s hall of fame, learning a little more of the area’s history. At this point we were starving, so we drove through St. Helena, a town I would want to revisit in the future.

Deli counter at Oakville Grocery

We had lunch at Oakville Grocery Co., which came recommended to us by other guests staying at the Old World Inn. I ordered the Chicken Gruyere, which also had pancetta, balsamic onions, Dijon, and mayonnaise on a baguette, while Jan ordered the Classic Reuben, which had corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing on rye bread. We also asked for two plastic cups so we could enjoy a glass of wine with our picnic outside. The sandwiches were delicious, the only thing we were missing was a pickle to go with them.

Cheesy Gruyere goodness

As we were eating lunch, the Napa Valley Wine Train passed by. I’m not sure how the food compared there, as I’ve heard the train is an experience not to be missed, but I could have sworn some of the passengers were eyeing our sandwiches.

I had heard about the art at the DiRosa Preserve, and that was to be our last stop. However, when we arrived, we were told that we had missed the last tour for the day, and that there wasn’t much to see in the entry gallery. But we weren’t too disappointed, as we added another item to our list for our next visit. As it turned to late afternoon, and we’d reached our limit of wine, food, and sunshine, heading home to Fresno was exactly what we wanted to do.

Napa Valley mini vacation, day one

When I couldn’t come up with anything I wanted for my birthday, Jan decided we’d take a last-minute getaway to Napa Valley, taking advantage of his mid-week days off to experience it without the crowds. Neither of us had been to Napa Valley before, so we did some research on bed and breakfasts in the area, Jan found a good deal at Napa’s Old World Inn, and we booked a room for the next night. 

We arrived a few hours before check-in, but the innkeepers graciously took us to our room (which had Ghirardelli chocolate squares on the pillows, they really knew how to win me over!) and informed us of the various items on the inn’s schedule: freshly baked chocolate chip cookies would be put out in the library at 3 p.m., appetizers and wine tasting in the dining room at 5:30 p.m., desserts at 7 p.m., and breakfast served the next morning at 9 a.m. Just as I was starting to think I should be writing this down, they offered their suggestions for places to visit that afternoon and circled those on the map.

Grapevines at Goosecross

For me, wine tasting is one of those things that’s better in theory than reality, as I’ve learned I can’t handle tasting at more than one winery without feeling the need to curl up for a midday nap. The next solution would be to taste the wine without drinking the wine, but that, along with all the wine sniffing and glass swirling, seemed a bit too much for me. I just want to drink good wine. So, without aspirations to be wine connoisseurs, we headed north on the Silverado trail for an afternoon drive. 

Bread selection at Bouchon Bakery

 I was also curious to see Yountville, a town with probably more fine dining restaurants per capita than any other place I’d experienced. Right away, we saw celebrity chef Thomas Keller posing for pictures for tourists in front of the French Laundry. We peeked into Bottega and Bouchon, both often referenced on Top Chef, but they offered far more than the small snack we needed, and we finally settled on the wheat-stalk-shaped epi baguette with butter and jam from the more modest Bouchon Bakery.

Old World Inn wine tasting

 We arrived back just in time for the inn’s happy hour, but we weren’t the first ones there, as the other guests seem to have had the same idea. While tasting a Merlot from winery Folie à Deux, we met Lindsay and Joe from Ottawa, Canada who seemed just as excited as us to take advantage of the complimentary happy hour.

After exhausting the allotted supply of the tasting hour’s wine and appetizers, we wanted to continue the party, and our new friends invited us to drink a bottle of Syrah they had purchased at Burgess Cellars during their wine tasting earlier. 

Shrimp cocktail on the balcony

 While Jan ran to the Safeway across the street for a baguette, some brie, strawberries, and shrimp cocktail, we set up on the balcony outside our friends’ room. Before we knew it, it was 7 p.m. and time for the desserts to be put out in the library. Lindsay and I returned with chocolate covered almonds, chocolate covered apricots and brownies. After enjoying the extended wine tasting and finishing the bottle, we said goodbye to our new friends and set out to find some dinner in downtown Napa.

Cheeseburger at Buckhorn Grill

After all that wine and cheese, we weren’t looking for something too big, so we shared an avocado-swiss-bacon burger and onion rings from the Buckhorn Grill, a place that reminded me of Fresno’s own Doghouse Grill. Now thoroughly stuffed, we walked back to the inn to rest up for another day in wine country. To be continued.

Breakfast in bed

Jan brought me breakfast in bed, and what I loved even more than waking up to the smell of bacon cooking and the amazing fruit and breakfast sandwich he prepared, was the fact that, unbeknownst to me, he photographed the plate before serving it to me. The next day, he asked me if I had looked through the pictures on my camera. I hadn’t, and there it was again for me to enjoy.

I was worrying that my increased photographing of our meals and their preparation was bugging him. After all, I do sometimes make him stop what he’s doing so I can adjust the light and arrange some of the elements in the background of the picture. Turns out, he just wanted to get in on the action as well. Photo by Jan.

Cupcakes and vodka

Birthday sunflowers
Setting the scene with happy sunflowers

And tri tip, and saffron-infused rice, and cheesy bread, and Louisiana hot links, and grilled zucchini, and taquitos, and fresh watermelon, and… You get the picture. It was a night of overindulgence. I hear that’s allowed for your birthday. However, my birthday is on the 22nd, and we celebrated early due to Jan’s work schedule. Now, I’ve got a week of using the birthday excuse and I hope I make it!

In addition to the treats I listed before, Kristi made Santa Maria beans and may be persuaded to share the recipe on her blog or as a guest contributor. I made the Czech potato salad using Jan’s recipe, which I will be posting in the near future, along with the recipe for the warm spinach artichoke dip we also enjoyed.

Birthday barbeque plate
Attempting to make room on the plate

Since Jan and I collaborated on the coleslaw, we called it Swedish-Czech coleslaw, but I realize that’s probably a lot more confusing of a name than it needs to be and we’ll have to work on coming up with a new one. We made it for the first time using the food processor, which worked well for the carrots, but I think it cut the cabbage into too small pieces. We combined green cabbage, carrots, and a fuji apple, then mixed with mayo, milk, white vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper.

We also had ooey, goey, warm out-of-the-oven brownies made by Amy. I was impressed with Ken’s homemade German chocolate cupcakes, and his firefighting-in-the-backwoods-while-eating-gourmet-Spam recipes were intriguing (another guest contributor perhaps?) I was very happy to hang out on the patio with family and friends, listening to my own CD of happy music (thank you Jessica!) with so many thoughtful wishes from everyone. I felt very happy indeed.

Rocky road ice cream pie
The rocky road ice cream pie got a little messy

I made ice cream pies for dessert, and was a little embarrassed to reveal the recipe, as it was incredibly simple. It should be made ahead of time because there are few steps that involve allowing time for things to set in the freezer.

Rocky Road Ice Cream Pie

Chocolate graham crackers

½ stick butter, melted

Ice cream (you will use about ½ of a 1.5 quart container for one pie)

Whipping cream


The crust is made from chocolate graham crackers. Other cookies work well too, and I’m currently developing new crust/ice cream combinations using 1.) Animal crackers and 2.) Ginger snaps as the cookie crust base.

Crush cookies by hand or in a food processor. This time I used a food processor to grind the cookies for the first time, but I felt like I was missing out on half the fun. My usual technique is putting the cookies in a bag and beating with a meat grinder. I guess you could choose your method depending on whether you’re in a hurry or you need to let out some steam! Combine with melted butter until the mixture can be pressed into the bottom of a cake pan. I used about ½ stick of butter to one package of the chocolate grahams (about 13 whole crackers, or 26 squares.)

Adding whipped cream
Adding whipped cream

 Bake for 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven and let cool completely. Set out your ice cream on the countertop to soften, about 30 minutes. Fill crust with the ice cream. I made one pie with rocky road and the other with strawberry, but you could use your favorite flavor of ice cream, or get creative and mix things in with chocolate or vanilla. I mixed vanilla with strawberry once, which was tasty, but the strawberries stayed more frozen than everything else, prompting my friend Chanel to call the creation “popsicle pie,” which could be considered a good or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about popsicles.

Cover the ice cream with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 2 hours. Add a little bit of powdered sugar to whipping cream to taste, whip the cream, then remove plastic wrap and top the cake. Cover again and freeze for at least 2 hours.

When you’re about ready to enjoy, remove from the freezer and set out on the counter for about 20 minutes or so before serving.

A glorious truce with eggplant

I knew it wasn’t fair. I just didn’t like eggplant. I couldn’t even remember a specific time when I ate it and didn’t like it, we clearly just didn’t understand each other.

Then one day, Jan said he was going to make eggplant parmesan. “I don’t like eggplant,” I warned him, shaking my head. I sat at the countertop/bar overlooking our kitchen, pulled out a crossword puzzle, and sipped some red wine. A little bit later, Jan presented me with a disc, breaded and deep-fried, for me to try. I was skeptical, but instantly amazed. It was good. (This is not to say that the deep-frying technique will resolve conflicts with any vegetable I’m prejudiced against, as it did not work for mushrooms, Jan tried.)

Jan said that the trick with eggplant was slicing it horizontally, placing each medallion out on a tray, and sprinkling the eggplant with salt on both sides. Then the tray should be placed in the refrigerator for half and hour, letting the salt leach out the bitterness of the eggplant. Before cooking, the eggplant must be thoroughly rinsed of the salt water.

I was already amazed by the eggplant by itself, and the finished eggplant parmesan was even better. It was like lasagna, just with fried eggplant instead of the noodles and ricotta.

Now I request eggplant parmesan. The dish has opened up so many doors for me, this last time I decided it would open a new one. It was time for me to get over my fear of deep-frying. The last time I attempted to do so, I almost burned off my eyebrows a week before my wedding, setting a small but instantaneously out stove top fire in our apartment. Three and a half years later, my friend Heidi (who I was attempting to cook french fries for) still won’t let me live it down. This is also the reason a fire extinguisher now resides on our countertop, though it probably should have been there all along knowing firefighters’ propensities for starting fires.

So, when Jan began frying the eggplant slices for eggplant parmesan and asked me if I’d like to do the rest, I decided, why not? The fried eggplant is an amazing appetizer on its own, and one eggplant provides plenty of slices for constructing the layers of eggplant parmesan and for snacking on while you’re cooking the dish. And not an eyebrow or eyelash was harmed.

Here’s our simplified recipe:

Slice one eggplant and set out slices on a tray. Sprinkle both sides with salt and let sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly and place in a colander to drain.

Set up a breading station with three shallow dishes. Fill one with flour, another with egg and milk, and the last with seasoned bread crumbs. Pat eggplant slice dry with a paper towel, coat with flour, then dip in the egg wash, and last, cover with breadcrumbs.

Fill a saucepan with about 3/4″ of oil and heat. Then fry about 4-5 of the breaded eggplant slices at a time, flipping over to brown both sides. Remove from oil and let drain over paper towels.

In a baking or casserole dish, layer red sauce (this time Jan made his own with Italian stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste, and I messily completed the final step with the immersion blender), eggplant, sauce, cheese (we used an Italian blend of shredded cheeses), eggplant, sauce, cheese, etc., just like you were making lasagna.

Bake, covered, in a 400 degree oven for about 30 minutes (remove the lid for the last 10 minutes or so).  Remove from the oven and let rest for about 20 minutes before serving. Then enjoy! I am still enjoying the leftovers.

Will work for carrot cake

I’ve had a few requests for the carrot cake I made for St. Patrick’s Day (I didn’t know what an appropriate Irish dessert would be, and carrot cake seemed festive enough at the time). Jan’s coworker Ken loved it so much I decided to make it for a yard clean-up party/barbeque he was hosting, hoping that would get me out of doing any yard work. Besides, I was arriving with Jan, chainsaw and chaps in tow, so I think that together, we were covered.

This recipe is adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, and it turns out so moist and carrot-ey. I’ve toned down the sweetness of the cake, and the frosting tastes like pure cheesecake.

Favorite Carrot Cake

4 eggs (let sit at room temperature for half-an-hour)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1.5 cups granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3 cups finely shredded carrots, lightly packed (make sure carrot is finely grated or it will sink to the bottom during baking)

3/4 cup cooking oil


Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and grease and flour a 13x9x2 pan. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, combine beaten eggs, carrots, and oil, then add to the bowl of dry ingredients. Pour into a pan and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool, keep in the pan. While the cake is cooling, prepare the frosting.

1 8 oz. package of cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup butter, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla

1.5 cups powdered sugar

Combine the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla with an electric mixer. Gradually add the powdered sugar. When the cake is cool, frost (don’t do this too soon while the cake is still warm or the frosting will melt). Top with chopped pecans. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Cool summer cocktail

The suddenly summer weather has had me wanting a refreshing happy hour, and I’ve been loving the fresh strawberries in season. I created a cocktail using the infuser that came in a Level Vodka gift set and so far, it works best with easily squishable fruits like strawberries. (Level marketing people will be thrilled, I think Jan actually bought the set just for the cool infuser it came with, but the vodka is also excellent – and made in Sweden – so it’s got a lot going for it.)

Place strawberries at the bottom of the infuser, pour in vodka to the fill-line, and press down. You can also use a blender or food processor and strain after blending. Pour into a glass with ice cubes and add club soda (also works with tonic or ginger ale if you’re not a club soda fan). Garnish with a strawberry and enjoy!

Behold, the seven hour book club

I hosted this month’s book club at my house, and we had two new women joining us, so I was excited and determined to make sure everyone had a good time. Our book selection was Orangette author Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life,” and the plan was to make recipes from the book and/or blog.

We had an appetizer of an assortment of cheeses, breads, crackers, and fruits. For dinner, Laura made the Chana Masala, Nicea made the roasted tomatoes, and I made Burg’s potato salad. It was a challenge for me to step outside my tried and true potato salad recipe and make one with ranch dressing, dill, and caraway seeds, but I think it came out well, and there wasn’t any leftover–a  good sign.

The unanimous hit was the bread salad with cherries, arugula, and goat cheese. Beth used fresh cherries from the farmer’s market to add sweetness to the salad, and the toasted bread mopped up the juices from the cherries, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil with perfection.

Oh, and Beth showed me how to use the “food” setting on my camera, and we practiced getting more delicious food shots with about 15 different pictures of the dessert (winning entry here). Rachel made Hoosier pie: a pecan pie with bourbon and chocolate chips. It was rich and delicious, and I had to force myself to stop eating it.

It was 1 a.m. before we knew it. I wasn’t sure if everyone stayed later than usual because of all the wine we drank and their need to sober up, or perhaps that they were having such a good time they didn’t want the evening to end. Hopefully it was a little bit of both.