Archive for the ‘What I have been up to’ Category

Itcotton_600px‘s Indian Summer here in the Midwest although the official First Day of Autumn was last week. Pumpkins and Indian Corn popped up at the farmers market several weeks ago and I broke down and made my first batch of pumpkin-inspired baked goods this weekend (Pumpkin Cookies with Brown Butter Icing).  I have successfully denied myself the bags of Halloween candy in the supermarket so far but my resolve is waning.

Each year around this time, our school garden hosts a “night out” to invite families and kids into the garden, to picnic and watch a movie out-of-doors. And each year I’m asked to do a short presentation on something exciting in the garden. This year, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but fluffy, white, puff balls of cotton in the Land of Lincoln. Yes, cotton can be grown as an annual anywhere with approximately 120-180 days of warmth. Our cotton plants have grown to at least 7′ high and about as much wide! Not your typical variety grown in the southern states, but certainly the same end product. I remember seeing my first cotton field in Alabama, a sea of white, and thinking it was so beautiful. I’ll give you the cliff notes version of my garden lesson:

  • evidence of cotton cloth has been discovered as far back as 7,000 years ago
  • the U.S. produces over $25 billion of cotton annually and is a major world producer
  • 95% of all cotton becomes clothing or textiles
  • cotton seeds were first planted in the colonies in the late 1500’s and cotton was considered a specialty crop because it was so labor-intensive
  • in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which revolutionized the separation of seeds from lint (fluff) and created a huge demand for labor to pick ever more cotton
  • the demand for slave labor increased as the production of cotton exploded throughout the southern states
  • production of cotton rose from 156,000 bales to 4 million bales in just six short years following his invention
  • our garden variety has both yellow and pink blossoms which flower, die back, and leave a green boll that looks like a venus fly trap to me
  • the fibers inside the boll expand pushing out the seeds as the boll ripens until hard and brown and the lint literally pops out

It’s still a little early for the cotton harvest in the South but here in Central Illinois ours will need to be picked soon and will be carded, spun and used in fiber art by the kids at school. Nature creates such amazing things on its own that I don’t need to work too hard to find something “exciting” in the garden.


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What stuff?  And who is Dave?  And so begins my tale of a Tuesday night road trip to the booming metropolis of Lincoln, Illinois (population 14,000). Home to the beautiful Logan County Courthouse built in 1905, Lincoln was the first city named after Abraham Lincoln before he was elected President (they must have been feeling lucky).  And why was I venturing out on this sultry, humid evening?  Not because I wanted to purchase Black Velvet coffee at By the Bean or because I wanted to try the sauce at Guzzardos’s Italian Villa, but because I was meeting a guy to pick up the stuff.

We met on the square.  Ate lasagna and eggplant parm.  Walked out the back door. Ducked down when the 40’s Ford Deluxe drove by (just in case). And then made the hand-off as twilight descended.

The guy ⇒ my brother, aka “The Stinger”
The stuff ⇒ fresh from the hive honey

As a newly christened beekeeper, my brother collected his first, 20 lb batch of honey from two hives (population 40,000).  I was pick-up and delivery for the Peoria “syndicate” (there was a lot of excitement). This will be the only honey harvested since it’s the first year, the hives are still developing, and the bees need food for the Winter.  A quick taste when I got home (safe and sound) presented a rich, smooth, and slightly lemon-y flavor that will be perfect with goat cheese and maybe a date or two.

As for “The Stinger”, he drove back to D-town to double check nobody had messed with his remaining stuff … it won’t be pretty if they have.


Guzzardos’s Italian Villa
509 Pulaski St.
Lincoln, IL
(217) 732-6370
*Been around for 50 years – located on the square through the Arcade. Enter by the back door off the patio (there really is no front door).  It will seem like you’re going into the kitchen, but just head up the stairs.  Known for their prime rib.  The Pizza, Lasagna, and Eggplant Parmesan were all great comfort food in large portions.  Loved the full salad bar with kidney bean salad.

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pie_HMI have a chalk board I made out of an old frame that says “New Beginnings” at the moment.  It’s a rotating message board reflecting whatever pops into my head when I feel it needs to be changed. I simply open my mind and voila. It’s become a barometer of my life at any given time. New. Stress. Beginning. Stress. That makes perfect sense to me.  Change seems to be all around me at the moment. I try to control things by giving it a time frame of today or after next week or ’til things settle down … but really things change all the time; every day, every hour. And my crazy need to be in control and corral all that change leads to stress (I’m pretty sure someone really smart and insightful came to that conclusion before me). The shadow of excitement and anticipation briefly appears but is quickly swamped by the dark clouds of anxiety and fear.  What does this all have to do with pie you may be thinking?  Well, David Mamet said it best in the title of this post … and I took his advice. If you haven’t been to Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Evanston (or Chicago) it’s a great place for perspective … and pie.  I met my long-time high school and college friend there recently, who is incidentally going through her own major life change, to re-connect and de-stress.  It wasn’t an intentional choice of venue but, like opening my mind for chalk board sayings, it just came to me.  What is more comforting and re-assuring and instills a feeling like the warm breath of your Mama than pie.  Apple raspberry and blueberry were our choices out of about 8-10 available that day and close to 40 options available to order online (sorry, only pick-up. no delivery). If you don’t feel sweet, try a savory option instead.  The Evanston location is paired with Dollop Coffee & Tea Co. so you can get a decent cup ‘o joe too.  Swapping stories and sharing concerns and memories with a friend over pie is living in the moment even if that moment is full of great uncertainty … and you’d rather be hiding in the closet.  Take a breath and eat a piece of pie. Ahhh.


Thanks to EJM for the photos!

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IMG_0385Summer in the Midwest means corn – tall, green, hearty stalks that march on for miles along Illinois’ flat highways and byways. Visitors complain that it’s so FLAT, but to my mind, it’s breath-able and open and you always know what’s up ahead.  In Summer, it’s just more corn.  As the second largest corn-producer in the US, you’d think you could just hop out of your car on Route 116 and pick a dozen ears. Not recommended for two reasons:  1) our hard-working farmers will not be pleased; and, 2) that corn is not for eatin’ (at least for two-legged humans or until its been processed into things that no one has ever actually seen like high-fructose corn syrup).  Now, the sweet corn harvest, on the other hand, is just starting to come in stacked high at the Farmers Markets.  I eat mine raw, right from the cob, no cooking required.  The sweetness pops in your mouth with every bite and fairly bursts with sunshine. On a recent weekday travelling south to Champaign to pick up my daughter from volleyball camp my stomach is rumbling and “I got to get me some of that corn”!

Luckily, I can stop in again at Maize Mexican Grill to load up on hand-made corn tortillas and authentic Mexican fare that warms my palate.  The tiny spot right on Green Street (the main campustown drag) offers dine-in, carry-out, or outside dining on picnic tables.  Not fancy, and can get really busy with long lines out the door, the always hoppin’ place serves simple, hearty, homemade dishes with fresh ingredients and friendly service. Indoors is a small counter with colorful Mexican tiles where you can drink your Mexican coke from a bottle and feast on chips with two kinds of salsa and fresh limes.  On this visit I had a spicy, chorizo taco with loads of fresh cilantro, a grilled chicken quesadilla, and velvety guacamole piled so high we couldn’t even finish it!  They were also offering fresh watermelon water that day which the woman next me said was wonderful.

Collecting awards since opening in 2011, Maize says 90% of their menu is gluten free, how about that for hitting on a trend, and they offer some interesting ingredients to try on each new visit – chicharron (pork back) or pastor (marinated pork), zucchini blossoms, and huitlacoche (a corn ‘mushroom’ and let’s leave it at that).

Take a road trip this Summer before the students all come back and enjoy Mexican food in the middle of the Heartland celebrating the eternal kernal.

Maize Mexican Grill
60 East Green Street
Champaign, IL
11am – 9pm every day
Minimum $5 credit card purchase (and no AMX)


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IMG_0348It’s Summer … and it’s the perfect time for some cool jazz on the patio.  A great evening listening to Dave Hoffman on trumpet (hah, I’m just realizing he’s not in the picture ’cause he was taking a break) and members of Peoria’s jazz scene sitting in.  Yes, I said jazz and scene in the same sentence as Peoria. Dave was a long-time trumpeter with the Ray Charles Orchestra and toured the globe.  He’s accompanied Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson and Gladys Knight among many other music legends.

Friday nights at Two25 bring in musicians and music fans alike for a bit of food, some drinks, and swinging tunes … straight-up, standards I would say, in my un-educated opinion, with some amusing twists thrown in.  Did I hear a few bars of Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead ?!  There was a brief interlude of impromptu singing at one point and ribbing among the band members many of whom belong to the Central Illinois Jazz Society.  I love the whole informal, off-the-cuff feeling although I know there’s a lot of communication going on up there that I’m not aware of.  I raise my glass to all those who take risks, put themselves out there, and create some great art in the process so the rest of us can sit back and enjoy.  Cheers!

For an in-depth, and very interesting, background on jazz and the Peoria jazz scene, read Finding Jazz in Peoria published in Art & Society magazine.

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Cheese Please

206Wonderful, wonderful cheese.  My favorite of all … earlier this month I took the Cheese Making Class at From the Field Cooking School in Morton to learn how to make Mozzarella.  We made Ricotta cheese as well but I had already made that at home – luv it.  The Mozzarella was tricky and I’m not sure I would try to repeat it in my kitchen.  It’s not hard, but with most simple things there’s an art to getting it right.  I loved the stretching part … so once it’s cooked and still warm you stretch it to make it elastic, like taffy.  You don’t work it too much otherwise it gets rubbery (the tricky part).  That’s Chef Bryan draining fresh ricotta (it was a little temperamental).  It’s great fun being in a fully-equipped kitchen with loads of space (and, of course, no clean-up).  There were probably 20 of us that night and each group took a recipe.  All things cheese – we made Roasted Red Bell Pepper and Goat Cheese Rolls, Risotto with Four Cheeses, Roquefort Tart, Prosciutto Wrapped Bocconcini Crostini, and Chocolate Dipped Cannoli with Orange Ricotta Filling.

A great way to spend a Tuesday evening!

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228_cropIt was another hot, humid and sticky weekend kicking off Erin Feis in Peoria.  With my fourth year of serving afternoon tea in the Cultural Village came some “taking of liberties”.  Herbs, herbal history, herbal remedies was the theme and I chose recipes that highlighted different ones, but not necessarily traditional Irish sweets.  I even had one from Provence, but I figured since Brittany is one of the six Celtic nations that was a valid stretch.  I very much enjoy talking food, doing a bit of research, and baking different recipes each year.  I hope the folks who attended found some delight in it too.  Thanks for coming out in the heat.

Irish Afternoon Tea Menu
Irish Breakfast Tea
Lavender Scones with Clotted Cream and Lemon Curd
Cucumber Sandwiches with Dill
Herb de Provence Orange Butter Cookies
Lemon Fennel Pound Cake (see below)
Vanilla-Rose Water Cupcakes

*thank you Peoria Academy for donating many of the fresh herbs and flowers from the School Garden

Lemon Fennel Pound Cake
*recipe courtesy of Season to Taste, by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups of sugar
pinch of salt
5 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp fennel seed, toasted and crushed
1 Tbsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

Preheat over 325 degrees.  Grease and flour 9 inch tube pan with removable bottom.  In large bowl cream butter, sugar, salt.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, stirring in bit of flour after third egg.  Add remaining flour, fennel, zest and mix until combined.  Add vanilla and lemon juice and blend.  Pour batter into pan and bake 1 hour.  Remove cake from oven and cool in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes.  Remove cake from pan.  Store covered in plastic wrap or foil.  Note:  my cake baked in almost half the time so watch carefully.  I added a lemon glaze over the top mixing sifted powdered sugar with lemon juice and lemon zest.

Lavender Scone recipe note:  I mixed all my dry ingredients together, cut in cold butter, and then added the buttermilk to form the dough.

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