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Mardi Gras Magic

You don't have to be in New Orleans this year to add magic to a Mardi Gras celebration. It's easy to create a festive atmosphere at home, even at the last-minute. Mix traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple into your table setting, and you’re on your way to a special celebration of Fat Tuesday.

When I create a tablescape such as the one pictured, I begin by selecting a predominant color that sets the theme for the entire table. In this case, amethyst Waterford crystal champagne flutes and a matching crystal vase I recently received as a gift were my starting point because they’re a bold Mardi Gras color. On the other hand, inexpensive glassware in a similar shade would have worked just as well, or even clear glassware on a purple coaster or cocktail napkin.

Next, I searched my cupboards for accessories in other shades of purple – chargers, napkins, and candles. To expand the three-color theme, I chose gold-rimmed dinnerware, antique salad plates with an elaborate gold raised pattern, wine glasses trimmed in gold, and finished off the table decor with colorful masks and an abundance of green, gold, and purple beads. The overall effect is simple, but dramatic. Open your cupboards and see what kind of Mardi Gras magic you can create! Laissez les bons temp rouler!


BIG Flavors For The BIG GAME!

Millions of American football fans will be tuned into their television sets this Sunday to watch the faceoff in Houston, Texas between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. Yes, I’ll be in front of my TV set too, but I’m mainly there for the ads and the FOOD!

These days, it seems the game-day buffet is every bit as popular as what's happening on the football field, and that can be a good thing, because food has always been a conduit to bring family and friends together. Chips, dips, hearty sandwiches, pizza, ribs, wings, and beer – traditional football fare is as varied as the household hosting the party. One thing these menus all have in common though, is bold flavors and food that’s easy and fun to eat.

On Sunday, my buffet's main feature will be crunchy, juicy, chicken drumsticks with two dipping sauces. I know…wings are on most cooks' radar these days, and there are many popular restaurants built around the wing theme, but I prefer something meatier on my plate. In my book, wings are just too much trouble to eat. Three bites, and they're gone.

Being a girl-from-Texas, even if I love spending as much time as I can manage in the Rocky Mountains, I adore fried chicken, but traditional preparations of this Southern favorite are higher in fat – and it's messy to boot! So, for my Oven-Fried Chicken Drumsticks with Sweet and Smoky BBQ Dipping Sauce and Teriyaki Dipping Sauce, I've taken plump, skinless chicken legs, dipped them in a crunchy coating of ancient grains cereal, bread crumbs, flaxseed meal, wheat germ, and seasonings; then baked them in the oven until the meat is done. The coating seals in the chicken's juices, while providing the crunchy texture I adore with every bite. You can even prepare the coating one day ahead; then dip and bake just before game time. That’s a real winner in my book!



Oven-Fried Chicken with Two Dipping Sauces

2 cups Heritage Flakes® or other whole grain cereal flakes
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons flaxseed meal
2 tablespoons wheat germ
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large package chicken legs, about 14 pieces
2 -3 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons buttermilk (optional)

Early in the day or one day ahead, crush the cereal flakes in a pie plate or shallow bowl with your hand until the flakes are approximately ¼-inch size. Add breadcrumbs, flaxseed meal, wheat germ, salt, thyme, garlic powder, onion powder, and pepper. Stir to mix well and set the mixture aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Drizzle olive oil in the bottom of a large roasting pan, and set it aside. Using a paper towel for a better grip, pull the skin off the chicken legs and discard. In a medium shallow bowl, whip egg, water, and buttermilk together with a fork until it is well blended.

Dip a chicken leg into the egg mixture and turn it to coat all sides of the meat. Roll the meat in the crumb coating, sprinkling any uncoated areas with additional coating as needed. Place the meat in the roasting pan, and continue with the remaining chicken legs.

Bake 50 to 60 minutes, uncovered, or until the meat is done and the coating is brown and crisp. Serve immediately with dipping sauces.

Yield: 14 oven-friend drumsticks


Teriyaki Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
3 drops Worchestershire
1 large clove garlic, peeled and mashed
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons honey, reserved

Pour the soy sauce into a small saucepan. Place the cornstarch in a small bowl, add 2 tablespoons of the water, whisk it together to form a slurry, and stir in the remaining water. Pour the slurry into the pan, add brown sugar, vinegar, Worchestershire, garlic, and ginger, and stir well to mix.

Heat the mixture over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the sauce comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cooking 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the sauce is smooth and thick. Add honey, stir, and cook 3 to 4 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Remove the sauce from the heat, cool, and serve. Sauce may be made one or two days ahead, covered, and chilled.

Yield: 1 ½ cups teriyaki sauce


Sweet and Smoky BBQ Dipping Sauce

1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup sweet onion, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
3/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup chili sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon molasses
1/4 teaspoon Liquid Smoke

Preheat a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the oil, swirl to coat the bottom of the pan, and stir in the onion. Sauté the onion 3 to 4 minutes until it is soft, stir in the garlic, and cook 1 minute more.

Stir in ketchup, chili sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, molasses, and Liquid Smoke. Cook the sauce until it comes to a low boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the sauce from the heat cool, and serve. Sauce may be made one or two days ahead, covered, and chilled.

Yield: 1 ½ cups BBQ sauce

Soup To The Rescue!

The first two weeks of the New Year have yielded historic snowfalls in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Here in Breckenridge, it's snowed almost every day, and shoveling the sidewalk has become a challenge as I try to toss each shovelful over the huge pile I've created on either side of the walk. It sure is great exercise, though!

Much of our country has been brought to a standstill at one time or another this month because of ice and snowstorms, and that can make trips to the supermarket difficult or even impossible. While I have a four-wheel drive vehicle, I prefer to stay off icy roads, rather than risk an accident on my way to or from the market. Thankfully, as winter approaches, I always stock my pantry and refrigerator with essential ingredients that will enable me to create healthy, flavorful meals no matter what Mother Nature has in store.

A few days ago, during another heavy snowfall, I craved a hearty bowl of soup – something healthy, hearty, flavorful, and preferably vegetarian. I knew I had celery, carrots, onion, and fresh baby spinach in my refrigerator crisper drawer, and a quick glance in the pantry yielded canned white beans and a large container of vegetable broth. Within minutes, I had chopped the veggies, and as they sautéed and their aroma filled my kitchen, the comfort soup evokes was already making me smile in anticipation.

I’m delighted to share the recipe I created this week for Winter White Bean Soup. This flavorful pantry-to-stovetop soup, featuring creamy white beans and tender vegetables served over a bed of fresh spinach, is a real lifesaver on a cold, wintry day. Enjoy!



Winter White Bean Soup


2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups carrots, rinsed, peeled and sliced to 1/4-inch thickness
1 1/2 cups sweet onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups celery, rinsed and sliced to 1/4-inch thickness
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped finely
4 cups prepared vegetable broth
2 cups water
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves and stems
1 bay leaf
  Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 15-ounce cans cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained
1 bunch fresh spinach, rinsed and dried

Preheat a soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, add oil, and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add carrots, onion and celery, and sauté 10 minutes or until the vegetables are starting to soften. Stir in garlic and sauté 1 minute more.

Add vegetable broth, water, thyme, bay leaf and black pepper, stir, cover the pot, and raise the heat to high. When the soup comes to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently 1 hour, or until the vegetables are knife-tender. Stir in the beans, and heat until they are cooked through.

Place a small handful of fresh spinach in the bottom of each soup bowl, ladle in the hot soup, and serve.

Cook’s Note: For a richer flavor, simmer the soup (minus the beans) for several hours, stirring occasionally. Shortly before serving, add the beans, heat until they are cooked through, and serve as above.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Route 66

Last week, my husband Randy and I put our busy lives on hold for a few days and took the road less traveled. Instead of driving the same highway to Texas that we've traveled since our sons were small, we opted to leisurely explore our way through eastern New Mexico to discover what – if anything – we’d been missing all these years.

Our route yielded glorious vistas of aspens displaying eye-popping hues of bright yellow, set against Carson National Forest's dense fir and spruce trees. Not to be outdone, groves of towering oak trees, at the peak of their autumn finery, hugged the meandering river beside us, and made it impossible to drive without pulling over to take photo after photo.

Our ultimate destination was Tucumcari, New Mexico, where the vestiges of Route 66 remain. Route 66 was one of the first U.S. highways, and during its heyday, it became one of the most-traveled roads in the country. During the Dust Bowl years, folks traveled the highway west in search of work, and during WW II, the road was heavily used by industrial manufacturers to transport equipment needed for the war effort. As a result, the growth of Route 66 spawned the development of numerous small towns. After the war, exploring America by automobile became a new pastime. Remember the ad sung by Dina Shore? "See the USA in your Chevrolet!" And Route 66 was one of the most popular ways to get there!

Eventually overtaken by superhighways, driving on Route 66 now takes a bit more effort. With a guidebook and map in hand, we exited Interstate Highway 40 at Santa Rosa and navigated our way onto a two-block area of Route 66. Sadly, not much was left of the 1940's and 50's buildings, so after a quick photo, and we were on our way to Tucumcari, just 52 miles east. This is what we had come for – two miles of vintage hotels, some outlined in neon lights and others featuring colorful, nostalgic artwork painted on the walls; a gas station with pumps usually found in museums; and everywhere we looked, the mystique of Route 66 on display for……

- Christy

Fun and Festive Fall

I think autumn must be my favorite season. There’s something about nature’s vibrant colors, cooler, crisp temperatures, pots of chrysanthemums clustered by the front entry, and the urge to take long walks in the forest one minute; then nestle indoors the next that fills my heart with utter joy. And the aromas! For the past several weeks, I’ve been looking forward to baking the season’s first squash pie, fragrant with cinnamon and freshly-grated nutmeg, and cooking anything that involves just-harvested apples. Spicy gingerbread warm from the oven and topped with a generous dollop of Chantilly cream, or a hearty soup simmering on the stove make me practically salivate at the very thought of autumn cooking and baking.

It’s easy to fall in love with Fall this early in the season when we’re at Swan’s Nest. While our neighbors in Dallas are still coping with temperatures in the low 90’s, Randy and I noticed the first signs of fall at Swan’s Nest in early August. All at once, we had to don a heavy sweater in order to enjoy dinner on the veranda overlooking the mountains, and by mid-August, our rooftop was coated in frost nearly every morning. Two nights ago, we had our first freeze – before Labor Day!

Incapable of resisting another moment, I took advantage of our son Timothy and his girlfriend’s visit last week to Swan’s Nest to fill a rustic wheelbarrow with a bale of straw, a large pumpkin, and a pot of yellow mums, and placed it on the porch next to the entry. A second pot of mums and a decorative copper pumpkin next to the wheelbarrow completed the scene and provided a fun and festive, seasonal welcome.

As temperatures cool and the first signs of Fall appear in your area, my easy, incredibly-flavorful Creamy Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup is perfect for a casual dinner with friends or Sunday night with the family. I hope you’ll make it part of your Fall celebrations this year!


Creamy Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups peeled and diced carrots
1 1/2 cups diced celery
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 tablespoons flour
2 1/2 quarts chicken stock or chicken broth
3/4 cup uncooked wild rice
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
  Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Preheat a large stockpot over medium heat, add olive oil, and swirl to coat the bottom of the pot. Add carrots, celery, and onion and sauté 5 minutes or until the vegetables have softened. Gently stir in mushrooms and sauté 2 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and cook 2 minutes more, stirring constantly. Gradually pour in a small amount of chicken stock, stirring gently to loosen the flour mixture from the bottom of the pot. As the mixture thickens, add additional stock, a little at a time, stirring well. When the mixture is smooth and thick, pour in the remaining stock and stir well.

Raise heat to medium-high, cover, and bring the soup to a low boil. Reduce heat to low, stir in wild rice, cover, and simmer 1 hour or until the rice is tender. Stir in cream and check the soup for seasonings. Cover and simmer 10 minutes more. Stir in parsley and serve.

Yield: 8 servings