Foodie Tuesday: Artful Eating

Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.

The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.Photos: Artful Eating (Series) 2014-08-05.2.artful-eating 2014-08-05.3.artful-eating 2014-08-05.4.artful-eating 2014-08-05.5.artful-eating 2014-08-05.6.artful-eating 2014-08-05.7.artful-eating 2014-08-05.8.artful-eating

Coming in for a Landing

Travel! When the opportunity arises, it’s such a joy. And one of the pleasures is that first glimpse of Destination from the plane as it’s approaching the airport. On the recent trip, that was Hungary. Well, Frankfurt first, for the layover and change of planes, because Budapest is, inconveniently, not a direct flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International by means of any airlines that wanted to haul 100 wonderful yet mildly wacky choristers and choir groupies like us over there.Photo: Wing Watching

But then there was the arrival in Hungarian airspace, the gradual coasting down below the thirty thousand foot level, the passing through a thick padding of cloud, and the gradual appearance, between shreds of the last clouds, of lovely farmland and countryside, soon followed by equally tantalizing sightings of increasingly suburban and urban zones. As the craft eases toward the runway, there’s that little tickle at the back of the brain that says, This is Finally Real! After weeks and months of planning and imagining and arranging the possibilities, thinking the adventure infinitely far away, suddenly one is looking out a plane window at trees and roads and buildings of a place-that-is-not-home, and it feels quite lovely, even if one is groggy from a long day or night (or more) of travel to get there.Photo: Aerial Patchwork

Returning home after travel can have something of the same effect, of course, since even when it’s awful to have the holiday or away-time end and worse, there are chores and jobs and catch-up of all sorts to attend as soon as the wheels touch the tarmac, there’s still that bit of gladness welling up at the sight of familiar yet unfamiliar land below, stuff not normally seen from such an elevated angle. And it also says that the known comforts of home are not far off after a long day or night (or more) of travel to return.Photo: Signs of the City

So I’ve now had both versions of the experience anew, more than once each as it happens, in a recent journey and, rather than dulling the pleasure, it reminds me afresh of what appeals and beckons about flying off to distant places. And about winging back to home turf, too. Flying from Dallas to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Budapest, riding in massive coaches with the choir from Budapest to Vienna to Prague; flying again from Prague to Stockholm, then Stockholm to Frankfurt to Dallas—and all the while, looking out windows for signs between the buildings, the trees, and the clouds to say that some new sort of excellence lies just ahead—this is a journey worth all of the weeks and months of labor and dreaming, plotting and packing, and one that only makes me hungry for more.Photo: Over Budapest

Foodie Tuesday: Some Useful Rules for Desserts

Our recent trip in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic served as a fine reminder that Europeans have some special talents when it comes to taking advantage of the fun factor of making and enjoying desserts. A cafe many of us from the choir tour group found on our stop just before crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border had a menu loaded not only with bright, shiny pictures but dessert items guaranteed to put any dedicated diner into a happy but instantaneous snacking coma.

Photo: Dessert Rules 1

You really have to admire any dessert that is not only as substantial as this but has booze or some effectively delicious substitute for it in the mix.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 2

Switch a few of the ingredients and keep the sugary deliciousness quotient (and possibly, the eaters) high, and the menu begins to expand. As do waistbands on both sides of the international border.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 3

Something with a typically European liquor flair keeps the menu distinctly local, perhaps. Even if your typography can’t keep up with your recipe tinkering, good taste will abound.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 4

Hot raspberry sauce = Heisse Liebe (Hot Love, a traditional romantic dish) when served over rich vanilla ice cream. A great dessert for honeymooners (I just happen to know), and another way to brighten up the sweetness of a giant sundae.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 5

No reason to limit the brightness of either color or flavor to raspberries and ice cream; why not add yogurt and kiwi fruit for some jazz?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 6

But really, if you’re going to get splashy with the colors and textures and flavors, why not get more elaborate yet?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 7

Or make some kid-crazy concoction that will invite the most stoic and stalwart child of any age to play with his food?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 8

Heck, why not just make the dessert as *big* as a kid. No point in being shy or subtle if you’re serious about making desserts that compel attention and ravenous attacks on the dish.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 9

Of course, if you’re planning to entice the larger, older variety of child to eat, you might consider making some semblance of slightly more grownup-sounding dishes. How about a nice spaghetti-style sundae?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 10

What, that wasn’t flashy enough for you? Try a Pizza sundae. Not surreal enough in the spaghetti imitation department? Make some rich, red strawberry sauce to pour over the ice cream spaghetti. Or for the more soigné palate, perhaps a Carbonara version.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 11

Still, I have to admit that perhaps my favorite from this elaborate collection was the skillet-with-eggs doppelgänger, which in its simple ingredients would likely be a very yummy, creamy dream of an apricot cooler for a hot afternoon and also take a good run at pretending to be much better for me than piles of whipped cream and sweetened fruit.

All of this enticement aside—and I did, however reluctantly, lay it all aside despite the strong temptations, having already eaten a pretty substantial and dairy-laden traditional European meal of ‘fried cheese’ (crisply crumb-coated slow-melt cheese served with a sweet tartar dipping sauce)—there are other dessert paths to my heart, even in the heart of dessert-magical Europe. So I waited a moderate amount of time for my digestion, stroll aided, to recover from lunch before I opted for a much smaller and less elaborate dessert. elsewhere. It was only a single scoop of Stracciatella gelato, but it was cold, creamy, rich and delectable all the same. I’m not made of stone, you know.

 

 

 

Rancho Retro

digital painting from a photoWhere have all the cowboys gone?

Barely three decades ago, when I first traveled abroad, it wasn’t uncommon to be looked at as quite the curiosity by Europeans on their learning that I lived on the far western edge of the United States. It took me a bit of prying and a double-take or two to discover that some folk outside of North America had no more recent imagery attached to the American West than covered wagons and cowboys rounding up mustangs of a particularly non-automotive sort. I got the impression that a few of these acquaintances were genuinely puzzling over the image of me going to buy dry goods on the bench of a venerable buckboard. No surprise that this didn’t dovetail perfectly with the person standing in front of them sans bonnet and petticoats, so I suppose a little cognitive dissonance was to be expected.

What wasn’t expected was an idea of America that seemed so humorously archaic to me, but then the many years passed and I moved to Texas and discovered that the American West had merely shrunk a bit over the years. Once the tide of non-native migration had swept across the continent and splashed onto the shores of its far coast, the wave seems to have receded gradually and settled back a little farther inland. Where fishermen and foresters could more easily embrace the coastal life, the settlers who intended to keep riding the range with their herds were logically drawn into the vast middle of the country where land was still open enough to be that range. I can attest that I’ve not yet seen the old one-room schoolhouse in Ponder filled with current students, least of all equipped at their desks with inkwells in which to dip each other’s braids, nor do the hands all ride horseback every day anymore: they pile on their ATVs and into their big-axle F150s and go about their business with cellphones glued to their downwind ears.

The venerable and beautiful farmhouses and barns still dotting the highway side of the farms and ranches are largely in a state of slow collapse and empty as a politician’s promises, looking for all the world like Dust Bowl reenactor sets. But if I squint a little and slow down to avoid the road kill as the rest of the world zooms by on I-35, I can see that the ranchers have merely relocated to be farther back on the acreage and have more room for their massive faux-Chateau ranches with mile-high roofs and the barns for their hybrid beef cattle stretching to the invisible horizon beyond. Even the hay bales have grown into giant water tower-sized behemoths that would crush the balers that used to pop out little sugarcubes of hay. Every darn thing is bigger and more commercially driven and faster…and yet, there they are on the ridgeline over there, a couple of leathery guys on paint horses, sauntering toward the gully as they hunt up the boss in his Jeep, who isn’t answering his cellphone because on a 14,000 acre ranch nobody can be bothered to find him to make him do it.

And as briefly as I’ve lived in Texas, I know by now that when the three of them eventually get back to the ranch house, they’ll be putting up their boots, eating brisket that’s been on the smoker since this morning, and washing it down with a cold Lone Star longneck. Some of the cowboys may have traded in their saddles for a four-wheel drive, but some things haven’t changed so all-fired much.

The Other Great Train Robbery

photoThere’s the legendary Great Train Robbery, the otherwise-known Cheddington Mail Van Raid, and that one was the classic sort of train robbery where mean and greedy people stole a big bunch of loot that was traveling by rail. Then there’s the other one, the baby version perhaps, but equally thoroughgoing: the way riding trains stole my heart. The first trip I remember taking by rail was when I was in junior high school and  went to help out a little at my aunt and uncle’s place across the state after the birth of their second child; I got to take the train home all by myself, and I sat up on the second, viewing deck watching the splendid scenery as we all rolled by, and that was it. I was smitten.photoThe marvelous European expedition I was privileged to share with my older sister when I was in college sealed the deal perfectly. Besides being convenient and allowing hands-free and restful travel with the simple ability to bask in the scenery, to rest or read or work, and no traffic or parking worries, train travel delights me with its multitude of stories to tell. It’s full of history and adventures–past, present and future–and the romance of all those tales surrounding me gives me an instant surge of pleasure and hope.photoAll subsequent opportunities to ride the rails have only fed my infatuation. I don’t much care if it’s for a short day jaunt on the subway or a cross-continent push in a sleeper car, I’m nearly always ready to get on board for another train outing. Is that a whistle I hear beckoning me with its come-hither siren song? Make way! I’m headed for the nearest station, and I’ve got my passport burning a hole in my pocket as we speak. All aboard!photo

A Beautiful Sun-Baked Land

photoBread for the morning came from five-o’clock ovens fired with passion and streaked with musky, pungent olive oil; the steam rolled out of those great clay caves and up the terraced resin scented hills of vineyards’ cool and shadowed kiss. Inside the chalk-white walls with their gauzy curtains strewn and the brick brown pavers all around worn by pacing wiry dogs and treading cats, the whole countryside slept, immobile, somewhat far retreated in their beds before the wavy rays of fourteen-karat sun-baked into turquoise heat our ceiling of sky.

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A Little Texas Secret

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Have you heard?

When people say Everything in Texas is Bigger it’s true–up to a point. Texans in general are happy to point out the vast number of marvels, from natural resources to business and entertainment, culture and personalities, that are bigger than life in this part of the world. Is Texas full of tall grass and longhorn cattle and bluebonnets and armadillos, sizzling days and stormy nights, oil wells and roughnecks and rodeo riders? You bet.photoBut there are amazing and unexpected and even–gasp!–tiny details that also sparkle throughout the Lone Star State and help to make it far more varied and unpredictable than the image Texas has beyond its borders might lead anyone to believe. A spectacular water-lily park? Why, yes, that’s here. Masses of beautiful, delicate butterflies? Oh, yes, those too. I think it’s safe to say that not many people are likely to think of French food when Texas is mentioned, but not only does la cuisine Française exist in Texas, it’s even featured in an eatery in the also seemingly non-very-Texas named town of Humble. I mean it: Texas is full of surprises, and not all of them even Texas-big.photoSee, that’s the thing about stereotypes, archetypes, assumptions and expectations. Generalizing about any place or culture may give us a handy entré to allow us the chance of learning to know it better, but it skims the surface of reality far too much to be dependable as a gauge for the whole of the thing. On my first trip overseas I was immediately struck by the odd conversations I overheard between the locals here and there and the American travelers. It’s not uncommon for natives to ask visitors what things are like where they live; what I found out is that it’s also pretty common for said visitors to pontificate as though their limited experience of life were the standard for all and sundry where they come from–not just all the folk in their house but all in their town, county, state, region–heck, I heard fellow US citizens abroad telling foreign nationals with utter nonchalance what ‘America’ was like. Just as though every part of America were completely homogenous, every US denizen interchangeable.photoI’m perfectly happy to state that not only is that a ridiculous barrel of hogwash but I have seen evidence very much to the contrary in places all over this country. Not to mention in the great state of Texas, in our county, in our town. Yes, in our own household. Texans do like their BBQ and their tall tales, their football and pecan pie and yes, their guns. The real secret, if you must know, is that no place is precisely, and only, like its image. No matter how small or grand that image happens to be.