Pampered Cycle Touring

I never even checked the menu online. And my quick glance through the windows which revealed white linen tablecloths didn’t register meaningfully. The name “Bistro” along with rave reviews about the creative dining sold me. In the last three weeks I’ve been in so many eateries specializing in “comfort food” that I jumped at the chance to have a meal prepared by a true chef. I set my heart on eating there.

My plans were almost scuttled when the predicted rain materialized about dinner time. I feared that Rich would balk at both having to cycle the two miles to dinner and risk getting wet. But a break in the weather allowed us to set off. The first few raindrops fell just as we approached the restaurant.

Stepping inside the Across the Street Bistro by Andreas in Corsicana, our cultural faux pas was instantly obvious. The sophisticated narrow dining room with Art Deco table settings, and the upscale attire of the diners was our first clue. The hesitation on the part of the hostess when we revealed that we did not have a reservation was our second. Her sidelong glance took in at once Rich’s track shorts and cycling jersey, my thermal top and capris tights, our clumsy cycling shoes and the helmets we gripped on one hand with our handlebar bags in the other. Sweat lingered in our jackets. The fleeting look of candid astonishment was quickly replaced with a professional warm welcome.

As it happened there was one table left, a high top table nearest the door and lacking a tablecloth. It suited us just fine. The hasty explanations we offered for our odd attire were graciously acknowledged, but clearly superfluous by that point. We were now their diners, and would be treated with the same high level of service granted any other customer.

Panic registered only momentarily as I watched Rich’s reaction to the menu. His eyes swept over the expensive full bottles of wine and nouveau cuisine, glowing large. But he recovered as quickly as the hostess. As I found numerous savory dishes to delight my palate, Rich honed in on the New York strip steak special that our server described in exquisite detail. I finally settled on the lobster risotto and inventive Bistro salad. And they even had a house Chardonnay by the glass. As Rich warmed to the idea I began to breathe again.

“I could have worn my polo shirt and wind pants,” Rich offered with his first sip of wine. We giggled, knowing it was not a huge improvement. “It’s okay, your bare legs are under the table now,” I concluded.

Molly and Rich at the Bistro

It was a dining experience worth savoring, and we did our best to slow down and linger. The service was highly refined, and the unhurried delivery of each course encouraged this leisurely pace. For added entertainment, we enjoyed people watching. The trendy young women gathered for a birthday party. The wait staff impeccably dressed in black aprons and starched white shirts, numbering no less than four to serve the party of five opposite us. The restaurant owner paid us a visit, and Executive Chef Andreas himself came around to greet all the tables, including ours.

Throughout our dinner, I could see the rain pouring down outside the windows. But as with the remainder of the meal the timing was perfect. There was a let-up in the showers just as we exited the restaurant. Giddy following our divine evening meal, we hightailed it back to our budget motel. The puddles and dripping trees posed more of a hazard than rainfall.

Rich outside the BistroMolly in raingear after the Bistro

Tomorrow will probably bring another cafe boasting catfish and chicken fried steak or Mexican delicacies. But for one night I dined in style. Even when cycle touring, I appreciate being pampered.

Taking in the Local Color

If it hadn’t been for the pizza, I would have missed the concert. It was a chilly night in Llano, when we wandered down to the tiny pizza joint just down the road. The sign boasted mesquite fired pizza, and sure enough there was the wood fire oven out back, with a small window for placing orders. Most of the seating was outdoors, but on that night we made our way inside where it was warm. Rough wooden tables filled the small room. Paper plates and paper towels for napkins were in an alcove. We had barely retrieved our wine bottle from its paper bag when two steaming pizza boxes arrived.

Rich at Pizza placephoto apr 07, 7 07 31 pm

It was the kind of place where conversation easily overlapped between the close tables, and we learned that this was the weekend for Fiddle Fest. A concert was scheduled for that evening. My antennae went up. While I may not be a devotee of fiddle music, I can’t resist an opportunity to take in unique local offerings. Rich was unenthused, so I made my own way over to the town square. There I found an old time movie theater complete with the glass box office window, and a real stage inside.

Fiddle Fest in Llano

For my $10 I got two and a half hours of high energy music. The bulk of the evening featured a young fiddler who jammed with an older musician who used to play with his father. They each had their own guitarist – which seemed to be a common pairing. I’ve never seen fingers move so fast or notes fly so quickly. The two fiddlers reveled in trading the lead back and forth with just the mere suggestion of a nod, each seeking to outdo the other. It was foot stomping, leg jiggling kind of music – impossible to sit still while listening. Where else but in a Texas could I do that?

The following day delivered another dose of local color – literally. Bluebonnets and other wildflowers graced the roadside for most of our cycling. The pinnacle of bluebonnet viewing is on the Willow City Loop, 13 miles of narrow twisty rolling road that winds through private farmland. Cycling is one of the best ways to enjoy the views and the wildflowers. Just as we arrived at the start of the loop, the morning’s dark clouds broke, the sun came out and we had clear sunny skies for our sightseeing.

We could tell when we got to the best patch of bluebonnets by all the cars parked on the side of the road. Soon we too ventured into the blooms for the classic photo shots.

img_8370BluebonnetsMolly and Rich in bluebonnets

There were plenty of other cyclists out on day rides, and it was little surprise that they chose this loop for their route.

Cyclists on Willow City Loop

For our finale in Fredericksburg that evening, we chose to eat outside on the patio at the Silver Creek Beer Garden. The sun was warm on our backs as it dropped, and the cold bottles of cider really hit the spot after a long day of cycling. Two country singers belted out tunes as we consumed hearty meals and relaxed our tired bodies. We were in no hurry to move on. We had yet more local color to take in.

Silver Creek Beer Garden

Now that’s Service

It's really hit or miss. When bike touring, we don't plan very far ahead. A day or so for lodging and hours or minutes prior to looking for a meal. Google reviews or consulting TripAdvisor is sometimes helpful, but nothing is guaranteed to be accurate. So finding those hidden gems with folks who deliver exceptional service is often pure happenstance. And we've had a run of good luck recently.

Take The Cake Lady. Her bakery café in Mt. Vernon was the only place we found open, so our breakfast decision was made for us. The spotlessly clean and spare room bore no hint of the quality of the meal to come. Everything was simple but home made, down to the freshly chopped and cooked potatoes which Rich declared the “best ever.” I gratefully accepted the healthy alternative of fresh tomatoes, which was a nice touch. But the best was yet to come. With our large, moist biscuits hot out of the oven, she brought out a large canning jar of strawberry jam – from freshly picked berries and made just the night before. It was like spreadable sweet sunshine atop those tasty biscuits. I just had to request a second one.

Just outside of Clarksville, we came upon yet another Historical Marker. But this one was unlike all the other anonymous plaques. Flanked by both US and Texas flags, and adorned with the bountiful rose trees we have been admiring, we had to stop and check it out. This one was dedicated to Police Officer Tippet, who was gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald when he stopped him for questioning after JFK was shot. The sight was near the farm where he grew up. This man who gave his life in the line of service was well worth commemorating.

Approaching our last night in Texas, we found little to recommend the motel on the outskirts of Clarksville, and independently we each mentally justified the alternative of staying in the town's B&B. It was conveniently located in town and we looked forward to the splurge after some grim motel rooms. We were greeted with great enthusiasm by Perry, the owner of the Courthouse Inn B&B and instantly knew we'd made the right choice. It was more like being welcomed into his home than a formal guest scenario, as he heartily encouraged us to bring our bikes right on inside and saw to our every need.

When dinner time approached, Perry came through with a wonderful recommendation for the Italian Bistro down the street. There the young owners not only served up a delicious meal, but provided the best service we've ever had. In fact, they colluded with Perry to make it an extra special meal for us. It was such a mild evening that I returned to the front porch of the inn to read until bedtime, while Rich captured the inn, courthouse and me in some fantastic night time photography.

It was a luxury indeed to relax the next day while the overnight rains continued into the morning hours. Perry doled out equal amounts of entertaining conversation and story telling with his cooking, and assured us we could hang out as long as needed.

They say good service is hard to find these days. We've certainly gotten our share lately. Thanks, folks!



Rainy Day Activities

What to do when the weather’s cold and miserable?  It’s that terrible in-between season.  Too cold for comfortable cycling.  Too soon for snow and skiing.  I’ve returned to my old faithful running routine to fill the gap and get in shape for the ski season.  Fortunately, I’m fine with running in marginal weather.  In fact, once I get out there I rather enjoy pushing through the dreary skies and wet pavement and enjoy running for the pure exercise.

But days on end of gloomy weather do invite restlessness.  With few mid-week offerings on the cultural scene, I decided we should make our own fun.  What better cold weather activity than making homemade pizza?  Normally, it’s reserved for our traditional dinner on Christmas Eve.  I know, kind of strange for the Christmas holidays.  But the boys love it, and request it every year.  So when they read this, I’m sure they will be envious!

It’s really not all that difficult to make, so I’m not sure why we don’t do it more often.  I rounded up the ingredients, and prepared the dough.  From there, it was a group activity, layering on the toppings and shuffling the pizzas in and out of the oven.  Voila!  Homemade pizza dinner and a good evening’s entertainment.IMG_4804 trimmed IMG_4803 trimmed

Another rule of pizza, at least when it’s just the two of us – we settle ourselves by the fire in the great room, in more relaxed environs rather than the dining room table.  It all started when we were first commuting up to Duluth.  We’d arrive in the evening with hot pizzas straight from Sammy’s that we’d consume as soon as we carried in our worldly goods.  Now that we’re permanent residents, it’s a ritual we have continued.  A good one.

The weather is still gloomy, but we did enjoy our pizzas.  In the event that the sun doesn’t shine for a few more days, here is my recipe for homemade pizza, adapted from a Blackwoods Restaurant recipe.

Homemade Pizza

This is a version of the recipe you can print or save: Homemade Pizza

Eat, Eat, Eat

There’s no doubt about it. Cycling burns a lot of calories. Especially when that’s what you do all day long, covering an average of 50 miles. For weeks on end. Throw in hills and wind, and the effort and calories required are multiplied.

Take two people who set out on a 2,400 mile cycling trip. Both are already in good physical shape and don’t carry any extra weight. They trained diligently for the physical exertion of cycling. But nothing prepared them for the amount of food it would take to sustain that level of activity.

That’s us. Rich and me on our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour. We thought we were eating enough, but three weeks into our trip we stepped on the scale at our host home. Rich had lost 10 pounds and I’d lost 5. That’s over 5% of body weight for each of us. It was quite a wake-up call. We just weren’t keeping pace with the calories we were burning.

A few days later, we arrived at another host home to find out that they had prepared a huge mid-day meal for us. Having just eaten lunch an hour earlier, we thought we’d never be able to face it. But with one bite, our appetites returned and we thoroughly enjoyed – and did justice to – the wonderful home cooked meal. And we did the same again that evening at supper. It showed us just what we could eat when it was put on front of us. And we probably needed it.

Ice cream stops are our favorite perk

Ice cream stops are our favorite perk

It’s a rough problem to have, right? Needing to eat more and more? I’ll admit that it has its perks. We regularly stop for ice cream breaks in the afternoons, and I don’t feel at all guilty picking up a KitKat bar now and then or indulging whenever I can find a bakery. I’ve never enjoyed breakfast more than the thick stack of raspberry pancakes I demolished this morning.

I’ve had to adjust my eating habits in general. My preferred diet is heavy on fruits, vegetables and bread and low in fat. But that just doesn’t provide enough fuel. I’ve had to adjust to heartier breakfasts and make sure I have snacks. I’m not a fan of energy bars or Gatorade-type drinks. But granola bars work well for me. And I always carry my bagels and peanut butter. Even if my family made fun of me for packing that peanut butter into a backpacking tube.

Squeezing peanut butter onto a bagel

Squeezing peanut butter onto a bagel. Looks funny, but tastes good!

What amazes me is that I wake up hungry every morning. I’m used to working out before breakfast, and even on the days that I don’t, my body isn’t interested in food right away. But on this cycling trip, no matter how big the dinner the night before, I’m ready for breakfast as soon as I’m dressed. And I can eat a lot. I’m sure it is a good coping mechanism kicking in.

Rich has allowed himself huge omlets with all the trimmings and generous portions of French Fries (I still can’t go there). Gatorade is his choice of energy boost, particularly on the hot days when he needs extra fluids. We both find ourselves slathering jam on our toast – something we never do at home.

I’m not convinced we’re winning the war on calories. We haven’t seen another scale since that first one. And judging by the way our clothes fit with nary a bulge, I’m sure we’ve both lost more weight.

What really concerns me, however, is what happens when we finish the trip. No longer will we need the humongous amounts of energy when we scale back to cycling, running or skiing for just an hour or two a day. Will we be able to readjust to our former eating habits? I have no doubt that we will put the pounds back on and return to our normal weight. But hopefully we will be able to stop there. We will just have to remember we can no longer just eat, eat, eat.

Christmas Cookie Experiments

It seemed like a good idea.  Rich’s dad mentioned Tinker’s Dark Cookies last year, so I tucked the idea away and thought I’d add them to the package of his favorite Christmas cookies that I send him each December.  I managed to procure the recipe through pure luck.  My sister-in-law happened to be down visiting Dad in Florida, and she copied the recipe out of his wife’s hand written cookbook.  I was in business!

Until I read the recipe…  Hmmm, a list of ingredients, two conflicting sets of times and temperatures for the oven, and a note that warned not to grease the cookie sheets.  That’s it.  I figured I could deal with that, but on looking more closely I realized the real problem.  It called for 1/2 box raisins, 1/2 box currants and 1/2 package fruitcake mix.  Just how big were boxes and packages way back when she made them?  It was probably in the 60’s or so, as Rich remembers the cookies.  And there’s no asking his mom or Tinker any more.

Technology to the rescue.  Surely this recipe must lurk out on the internet somewhere.  After numerous google searches, haunting recipe sites and trying all combinations of descriptions and ingredients, I gave up.  It’s not there.  So next I tried the history approach. What does Sunmaid have to say about their packages back in the 60’s?  Nada.  They’re not telling. Not unless you’re interested in those little snack boxes.

I was on my own.  I was going to have to guess at the quantities.  In my mind, it boiled down to this:  Have packages increased in size along with the super-sizing of American palates?  Or have they shrunk with the marketing ploy that avoids raising prices by reducing the quantities we are buying?  Or have they done both?  In the end, I decided on the middle road, and just used existing package sizes.

Mixing up the batter, it seemed more cake-like than cookie dough.  It was rich and dark with molasses, spices and lots of fruit.  And no eggs.  I Cookie dough after adding more fruitcrossed my fingers and baked a cookie sheet full.  Rich was my official taster and quality critic, and I waited as he delivered his verdict.  He remembered more fruit and less nuts.  And the cookies spread more than his mom’s. Okay, version 2. Dumping in more of each fruit and making the cookies smaller resulted in a pretty nice little cookie.  Yes, that’s closer he declared!

Good enough, I figured, and finished baking the rest of the dough.  And Tinker's Dark Cookiesfrom the other room, Rich commented that they smelled good – just as he remembered.  The positive feedback was appreciated, as I waded through the uncertainty of this process.  I had to taste a few along the way for my own reassurance, and had to admit they were pretty tasty.  Moist and sweet, they’d be great with a cup of coffee.

The cookies have all been boxed up with care, and the package is in the mail.  I’ll know if it was a good idea or not when Dad samples the contents.  If they meet with satisfaction, I’m golden.  I have carefully recorded my own precise measurements and methods for these  cookies.  I hope I’m done experimenting on this recipe.

Playing Favorites

We have always had a favorite restaurant. A place where we were regulars, could go on a whim, and know we’d be well taken care of and have a good experience. It’s not something we set out to find, it just happened. Over time, we discovered that we consistently chose that particular restaurant when we wanted to relax, spend some time together and have a meal out. In fact, as I look back, we also fell into predictable patterns when it came to ordering as well – we each had our favorites that we ordered consistently.

Our first home was near Trenton, New Jersey. We commuted to work together, and at our exit on the way home was a place called the Yardville Hotel. It was in Yardville, but it hadn’t been a hotel for years. But it was a comfortable, small restaurant that served good Italian food. My favorite was the meatball sub sandwich and I could count on Rich to order a pizza. Including our side salads and requisite half liter of wine, our bill was under $20 including tip. Rich even went there the night after our first baby was born, and baby Karen made her debut just ten days later. She spent many a dinner hour there in her stroller snoozing by our table.

During our child rearing years in the Twin Cities, Marcello’s Pizza became our regular haunt. We all loved the pizza and it was our favorite Friday night place. Suckers for the kids, and Dad the Monster chasing the kids down the deserted hallway of the mall after dinner were part of the ritual.

Since then, D’Amico and Sons has been our hang-out. We know the staff well, enjoy being able to eat outside in the summer months, and like the ambiance. We’re comfortable there and have mulled over issues as well as celebrated good news there. It has a varied menu, although once again we usually stick to our favorites – pepperoni pizza for Rich and the basic Neapolitan for me. Side salads and wine are still requirements, but the bill is higher these days.

Now that we’ve moved to Duluth, we are in need of a new regular spot. There are many good restaurants that we like, but so far none fits the bill for an old standby. Perhaps we’re trying too hard. We’ve gone out several times thinking “this is going to be it” but always leave still searching. We should know better. A favorite isn’t selected, it happens. Until then, we’ll enjoy sampling the local offerings.

Morning Muffins

I was tired of looking at the two boxes of Raisin Bran that were languishing on the shelf.  I bought them for my son, but he does not appear to be as fond of the cereal as he claimed.  So I dug out an old recipe for refrigerator muffins.  I got it from a co-worker in my very first real job, and that was more than a few years ago.  But I remembered it as being a good one.  The beauty is that it uses a whole box of Raisin Bran cereal and a full quart of buttermilk.  So no leftovers of odd ingredients.  And the batter lasts six weeks in the refrigerator.

I whipped up the recipe, baked a few muffins and stashed the remainder of the batter in the fridge.  Those first muffins were not what I remembered – the bran flakes had not had time to fully soak into the batter and I could discern individual flakes in a white batter.  The next set I baked a few days later, however, were perfect.  Dark brown inside with a hearty flavor.  Good lesson – they improve with time.  The best part was being able to pop a few into the oven early in the morning and Voila! fresh warm muffins.  It worked especially well when we had overnight company.  I could spoil her with home made muffins right out of the oven without the distraction of mixing them up while she was there.  And for several weeks afterwards, I had muffins at will.  I even got that same son to bake up a batch for himself to take to work in his lunches.  Turns out he likes the cereal better in muffins.

If one refrigerator muffin recipe is good, there must be more, right?  Sure enough, a search on the internet turned up numerous variations.  The one that caught my eye was for pumpkin muffins, of course.  It is still a bran muffin, which in my opinion is a good thing – they’re my favorite.  But the addition of pumpkin and fall spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice make for a tasty muffin.  This one makes a smaller batch, and only lasts two weeks in the refrigerator.  And now I have leftover canned pumpkin and buttermilk.  Maybe that calls for a second batch.  This recipe is from Pillsbury.

Here are versions of the recipes you can print or save:

Raisin Bran Muffins and Refrigerator Pumpkin Bran Muffins

Happy muffin mornings!

All things pumpkin

I love fall.  And this year’s foliage as been particularly spectacular, especially Up North.  The yellows, oranges and reds all burst on the scene at once, rather than being interspersed with the more reluctant trees still holding on to their green.  I don’t know when I have enjoyed the colors more.

But there is something I anticipate even more.  Pumpkin bagels.  I wait all year for Brueggers to bring them back for the fall season.  I haunt their doors and hope they have enough for me to bring home a dozen.  And of course, they are the best when fresh and spread with pumpkin cream cheese.  Mmmmm.

Earlier this fall, while still waiting for pumpkin bagel season to start, I found something new – pumpkin English muffins!  Yup, none other than Thomas’ English muffins makes them.  They toast up crispy and spicy, and slathered with peanut butter they complement my coffee nicely in the morning.

Even though canned pumpkin allows us to bake pumpkin muffins all year long, somehow they taste best in the fall.  Pumpkin chocolate chip is a particularly decadent version, and a favorite of my daughter’s.  I prefer Bran Pumpkin muffins with raisins or dates.  I needn’t even mention pumpkin pie.  It’s a required staple on our Thanksgiving table.

Pumpkins themselves are particularly appealing.  The outdoor fall decor at the New Scenic Cafe caught my eye as I passed by on my bike recently – so festive and seasonal.  There is nothing like a pumpkin patch, and searching out just the right pumpkins for carving.   It’s been a few years since we’ve carved a pumpkin, but what is better than inviting a mess by scooping out seeds and carving the face?  And I love to see the candle flickering inside, illuminating the pumpkin’s personality.

Hmmm, I think I will have to pay those grandkids a visit soon.  Perhaps they need help carving their pumpkins.  And I’m sure they’d love a pumpkin bagel.

These cookies are Ambrosia

You never know where you will find a good recipe.  This time it was at the South Bay B&B on Lake Whatcom, near Bellingham, Washington.  We were there with our youngest son, Erik, who was a high school senior at the time.  These chocolate chip cookies kept magically reappearing as Erik cheerfully did his part to empty the cookie jar each time he passed.  I had to agree, they were good.  Fortunately our hostess easily parted with the recipe, which she readily admitted came off the enormous bag Ambrosia chocolate chips.

Now I have plenty of experience in failing to successfully replicate others’ recipes.  But this one truly worked.  My results were every bit as good as those at the B&B, and disappeared equally quickly.  Over time, in different kitchens and any season, these cookies consistently turn out to my liking.  That is no minor feat.  Not only are they my family’s favorite, but my son-in-law and now my grandson both ask for them.  What more evidence do I need?  After all these years of testing cookie recipes, I think I can say with utmost confidence that I have finally found the formula for the ultimate chocolate chip cookie.  It is moist, chewy, substantial and generously pocked with chocolate chips.  Nothing better.

I can also attest to the durability of this recipe.  It stands up to a 2-year-old’s manipulation and fascination with dough.  Baking cookies has become a favorite activity of mine with my grandson.  He has his own idea about how cookies should be formed.  But the result is still always delicious.  And he and his daddy are happy when they get to take a bunch home.

Sadly, the lovely B&B is no longer in operation.  But it will be fondly remembered each time we bite into a chocolate chip cookie, because it is unlikely I will use any other recipe.

In the event that you have the same passion for home made chocolate chip cookies, I can save you a lot of research and trials.  Here is the coveted recipe:

Here is a copy of the recipe you can print or save:  Ambrosia Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

Now I will have to start on a new recipe quest.  I don’t think my family will mind.