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……
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|
|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
It may be Easter, but it's been snowing rather heavily at Swan's Nest the past three days, so any thought of the Easter Bunny hiding colored eggs outdoors has been tabled until another year. My husband Randy and I tease that should we forge ahead and hide eggs anyway, knowing that either a fox will get them or we'll find them sometime in May after the thaw.
This year's Easter celebration won't miss a beat though, because the Easter Bunny is delivering a basket of egg-shaped Orange Cream Easter Cookies. These tender, orange-flavored cookies garnished with a thin layer of frosting and a sprinkle of tinted sugar, look every bit as festive as Easter eggs, and will add a festive touch to any Easter celebration.
Orange Cream Easter Cookies
|1||tablespoon orange zest|
|1||tablespoon orange juice|
|1/2||cup heavy cream|
|1 1/2||teaspoons vanilla|
|1||teaspoon baking powder|
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the eggs, sugar, and orange zest together at high speed until the mixture thickens. Add orange juice, cream, and vanilla, and beat at high speed 2 minutes until the mixture is the consistency of raw egg whites.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt. Gradually stir the flour mixture into the creamed mixture with a large spoon to form a soft dough. Cover the cookie dough with plastic wrap and chill 1-2 hours until it is cold.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease cookie sheets. On a floured pastry cloth or counter, roll half of the dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Using an egg-shaped cookie cutter dipped in flour, cut out cookies and transfer them to the prepared cookie sheets. Bake 8-9 minutes until the edges of the cookies are barely brown. Remove the cookies from the oven and immediately transfer them to a wire rack to cool. When they are cool, spread with icing and sprinkle with tinted sugar.
|2||cups sifted confectioners’ sugar|
|Tinted sparkling sugar|
In a medium bowl, whisk milk into the confectioners’ sugar a little at a time until the icing is thick and smooth. Add vanilla and whisk well until it is well blended.
Yield: 45 to 48 3-inch cookies
I've loved baking cookies ever since I can remember. Throughout middle and high school, and whenever I was home from college, baking cookies was a relaxing, creative outlet – one that continues today. The ritual of measuring and combining ingredients, watching the cookie dough come together, inhaling the aroma of the dough and sensing exactly how it will taste once baked, forming the cookies and placing tray after tray into the oven, and then the tantalizing reward of just-baked cookies cooling on a wire rack. These are the things that make me smile and give me joy in the kitchen.
Nothing compares however to the smiles on the faces of family and friends when cookies are presented as a gift. For Valentine’s Day, a gift of homemade cookies is sure to delight, and when they’re heart-shaped, it’s an extra special treat. My recipe for Valentine Linzer Tarts is adapted from one I developed for my first cookbook, The Family Table. These gorgeous, two-layer gems, shaped like hearts with a center of raspberry preserves, and enhanced by a dusting of snowy confectioners' sugar, make heartfelt gifts or a simple, but romantic Valentine's Day dessert.
Happy Valentine's Day!
Valentine Linzer Tarts
|1||cup unsalted butter, softened|
|1 1/4||cups sifted confectioners’ sugar|
|1||teaspoon baking powder|
|1||cup seedless raspberry preserves|
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and confectioners’ sugar until it is light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla, and beat until they are well combined.
In a medium bowl, stir together flour, salt, and baking powder. With a large spoon, gradually stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture to form a soft dough. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and chill 2 hours or overnight until it is cold.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll out half the cookie dough on a floured pastry cloth or counter to ¼ -inch thickness. Cut with a 3-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter dipped in flour and place cookies on ungreased cookie sheets. Cut the centers out of half the cookies using a 1-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter. Bake 6 to 8 minutes until the edges are barely brown. Remove the cookies from the cookie sheets and cool on a wire rack.
When the cookies are completely cool, spread the solid ones with raspberry preserves, mounding it slightly in the center of each cookie. Top with the remaining cookies. Sift with confectioners’ sugar, which will melt over the preserves, leaving a glossy center.
Yield: 22 to 25 cookies.
February is a busy month in our home - Valentine’s Day, my birthday, and our wedding anniversary – all celebrated in twenty-eight short days (well…twenty-nine this year!). It seems appropriate that someone with an almost-Valentine birthday should be so focused on sharing the love, not just in February, but throughout the year. Perhaps, that’s why I’ve always loved spending time entertaining and in the kitchen, whipping up memorable occasions and decadent treats for family and friends.
My husband Randy and I got a jump-start on Valentine’s Day over the weekend by hosting a dinner party for ten. The front doorway was festooned in greenery, tiny white lights, red ribbon, and shiny hearts – with a large, shimmering, sequined heart above the door. Even our giant plush snowman – a permanent fixture on the porch during the winter – is sporting a large Valentine at this time of year.
I draped the table in a red cloth, topped with a white cutwork tablecloth purchased years ago at my favorite shop in St. Thomas. Red chargers, white-on-white china edged in silver, sparkling crystal, my grandmother’s silver flatware, and tall, silver candlesticks ensured our guests felt pampered by the festive atmosphere of this Valentine table. The centerpiece was simple, but effortlessly pleasing to the eye. I created airy clusters of white chrysanthemums with lush, red roses into four square glass vessels, and interspersed them among the candles. While many of our guests exclaimed over my table decor, it was in all honesty incredibly quick and simple to do.
For dinner, I served a glazed ham with Southern baking powder biscuits, scalloped potatoes layered with mozzarella cheese and applewood smoked bacon, roasted asparagus, a composed salad drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, and for dessert, a choice of birthday cake for a dear friend who was totally surprised I remembered, and a warm-from-the-oven rustic apple tart with vanilla ice cream. Sharing the love can be so easy…and delicious!