Friday, September 26, 2014

Collecting wishes in my pockets...while gazing up at twinkling stars

It's Apple Season!  Time for them to take center stage...

It's been 5 agonizing months that our future has been in limbo.  My birthday came in May and our decisions were being weighed and measured and scrutinized.  Our wedding anniversary arrived in August, but then all possible decisions looked bleak and doubtful.  We decided to make a change happen in our lives...but so many factors had to come together in order to make that happen.

We decided to desperately place our wishes upon a star, but as the weeks crept by uneventfully, it seemed that it was just a childish gesture full of allusions and false aspirations.

Exciting changes were on the horizon one day and then seemingly vanishing in the shimmering humidity by the next day.

As late summer days ticked off slowly and the humidity level here seemed like it would never break its clammy grip,  we began to turn away from looking up and gazing hopefully at those twinkling stars.  Change is hard...routine is comforting.

Patrick's birthday rolled around and we were hopeful we could finalize decisions about an impending move possibility.  We have a September birthday and an October birthday and as I love these months, my mood is always upbeat and full of anticipation for seasonal changes to put on their dazzling show.

Patrick would be leaving for nearly a month of travel.  England, Italy, and California were on the roster of locations...for starters.  I wanted to celebrate his birthday with a delicious meal tailored just for him before the big send off.

Meals have been quick and easy for the past couple of months as we grappled with indecision about making life changing decisions.   

And then all the stars aligned in our favor and something special indeed happened.  We were given the job opportunity to relocate...anywhere in the U.S. This was the final piece of the puzzle that made our big picture scenario all come together.

We could scarcely believe this possibility was in front of us.  We checked in with each other daily just to shake our heads in wonderment that life could offer us the possibility to relocate to a location of our choosing.  We have moved 9 times during our marriage...and location has always been decided by job requirements.

All rational thought has been difficult to come by lately as we oscillate from one scenario such as living in an historic farmhouse to another such as living on a mountain top...or an urban condo?  Why not sell our home and be nomadic for awhile?  That in itself presents another range of possibilities.  

Dinners are unplanned and mismatched lately.  I randomly picked up some cherry chipolte sausages and grilled them until crisp on the outside. I absent mindedly added some tomatoes that were idly roasting in the oven with no particular intent and piled everything onto  thick slices of rosemary sourdough and called it dinner. 

No meal planning is happening over here at the moment...whatever is in the kitchen might land on the dinner, cold, ordered in, or thawed out.

One thing is for sure, we would love  to continue seeing an amazing sunrise or sunset each day

Maps have been open and strewn about on the kitchen table.  Our fingers have traveled from Seattle to Maine...from Portland, Oregon to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  With the decision on where to relocate literally at our finger tips, we were thrown into excitement...then panic...then elation...then self-doubt.

Penzey's Spice Rubbed Chicken Drummets with a Cilantro Green Onion Dip

Are we more of the relaxed earthy West Coast personality types or more of the salty little harbor town types of the East Coast?  We love both areas of the country and could easily see ourselves adapting to both locations.

Last November, while babysitting my little nephew Luca, I continued to fall in love with this gorgeous city here.  Just a few weeks before that trip, I rolled up and down the east coast falling in love with the small New England port towns on this trip here.

But, have we become so urbanized that if we move somewhere there isn't a Whole Foods 5 minutes away and 4 Thai restaurants vying for our Friday night contemplation...would we not be able to adapt?

Amidst all of the excitement of insecurity, change, and exploration, I decided I wanted to concentrate on one delicious meal for Patrick's birthday. One meal. One decision.  

Chicken or beef?   No, ravioli...he loves ravioli. No..wait.  He likes pork chops better.  It got to the point where the smallest decisions now seemed fraught with...indecisions!

He was about to embark on a whirlwind trek across Europe and while he was there, I planned to embark on the first leg of my own exploration for a potential location for us to call home.

Where?  Taking deep breaths and letting our fingers do the guiding, we decided I would start the search in

...New Hampshire.

Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Fresh Figs and Fig Walnut Compote

I bought several pounds of chicken drummets and wings and  seasoned them well with olive oil, salt and pepper and my special BBQ rub from the spice shop Penzey's.  It's a delicious BBQ rub that I typically use only on occasion because I never want to run out of it. they have online ordering, so I threw the spices on the chicken generously.

Soon the house smelled of roasting chicken wings alongside large plump baking potatoes.  We set out all of the baked potato toppings...dollops of sour cream, generous helpings of fresh butter, roasted garlic cloves, and snippets of chopped chives. 

Whole Foods supplied me with the most delectable goat cheese cheesecake.  Fresh figs are coming into the markets so I bought some of those and sliced them up.  I had a jar of Fig and Walnut compote from Stonewall Kitchen.  I gently heated that on the stove top and spooned it over the cheesecake alongside the fresh sliced figs.  Delicious!  I'll get around to making this cheesecake myself because it was so delicious...we were licking the plates clean!

So we're off in separate directions for the month of September after this birthday dinner.  The fun and excitement of it all is the complete uncertainty and dreaminess of it all!  Change is hard...but change is coming!

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Potterer's Patch, Peppermint Coffees, and a plate piled with Pig's Ears...

The open road, the lovely Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas, and a lone motorcyclist

We had a few weeks to recharge our batteries after a wonderful and surreal experience in France this summer.  It already seems like ages since we glided along the tiny country roads of the Loire Valley, breathing in the cool May air, shopping at local farmer's markets, and listening to the gurgles of the river that ran near our little white french rental.  

Once home, we unpacked and then packed up again to drive from Texas to the southwestern corner of Missouri for our Kenney family reunion in August.  

The plans involved lake time, boating time, shopping time, and time visiting some of the small towns in that part of the Midwest.

Being a person of bouts of flight and fancy, people would certainly describe me as a dreamer.  I've always been a dreamer.  "Dream big or go home" is a motto that would fit me nicely.  

Spending time drinking in the beauty of the french countryside in one month and then rolling over the gentle Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas in the next month doesn't help my over active imagination conjure up big dreams that include the possibility of changes to our world.  

Early morning road trips, dark roads and hot creamy coffee

Waking up in the early hours of the morning to leave for long road trips always fills me with such anticipation and thoughts of possibilities.  Drinking in the pastoral scenes of the open road, discussing for hours on end life situations happening to the four of us, and slowly sipping my hot coffee, strongly brewed but with a touch of cream and peppermint, is one of my favorite drives of the year.

As a family, we had much to discuss on the drive this summer.  The winds feel like they have shifted around us and the planets must have slightly realigned.  Our family, sometimes known as the rolling stones, is feeling a tremor of movement as those rocks, that have sat heavy and solid in Houston for the past four years are starting to tremble slightly.

We have Madeleine who is moving into the final years of college.  We also have Riley who is about to embark on his college experience next fall.  

Patrick and I have been looking at one another in the past year with a bit of a twinkle in the eyes.  We've been looking at each other as if seeing each other more clearly than in the last 20 years.  For 20 years now our roles have been defined by the title "parents". 

Our little birds are about to truly fly out of the nest.  Patrick and I had children young (early '20's for goodness sake! What were we thinking?!)  Truth be told, we have these moments of giddiness where we look at one another and see a glimpse of the former couple that we once were...carefree, silly, adventurous, and dreaming...always dreaming.

The front gardens of Joanne, my mother-in-law

As a foursome, we talked for hours on this road trip...more like adults instead of parents and children.  Hours spent laying out life ambitions as we headed towards Missouri. And more hours of discussing life plans and ambitions were had as we returned back to Texas.  

We are a very tight knit family of four.  We've moved seven times as a family so far.  When one is friendless in a new location, it is comforting to cling to one another in order to adapt to a new location.  That has helped us find comradeship with one another.  We've handled the constant tumult to our kids' lives by doing combinations of homeschooling, private schooling, online schooling, and Jr. college schooling.

But, when you are a family of four and you all want to stay together as parents and grown children, it does take some coordination to meet everyone's dreams.  We've never set down roots in one location.  I don't know that we ever will or even want to set down roots at this point.  We're not sure.  We're talking. And talking. Perhaps we'll just keep nudging those stones along and see where they land next.

Being back in Missouri, among the lush green rolling hills, reminds us how fond we have become of rural beauty.  Living in NYC years ago, I thought I was the ultimate urban girl.  Perhaps I was back then, but the lure of country roads, old barns, and thoughts of peace and quiet are pushing to the forefront of our thoughts as we imagine where we might land if we leave the urban sprawl that is Houston.

I think perhaps because of my newfound hobby of photography, I see the light in different places like I have never seen it before.  Patrick, a country boy at heart, has no problems with considering a lifestyle that wouldn't require highway commutes, blaring horns from cranky drivers, and most particularly hot sticky humid runs late at night trying to avoid the worst of the heat.

So we gathered all our thoughts while we relaxed up in Missouri this summer.  We spent time at the family's country cabin.  We boated along the web of water that makes up Table Rock Lakes.  We walked along forested paths watching the squirrels scramble to collect acorns.  We tried to catch the occasional glimpse of the crimson red cardinals that flutter from tree to tree.  Every now and then, we spotted the deer that warily cross the back woods of Patrick's parent's family home.

We listened to all of the sounds around us in the woods, on the water, and among the hills.  We questioned if we could we simplify our lifestyle and let go of some of the urban amenities that we have become used to in this restaurant saturated city of Houston and accustom ourselves to a more rural lifestyle?

On this trip, we discovered there is a town in Arkansas that seems to have found the perfect blend of urban style and country comforts.  We spent a day in Bentonville, Arkansas in order to check out the new museum that has been built there in the last few years. 

The new museum there is called Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.  No, the location doesn't have anything to do with a crystal bridge. It is named that because on the site is  a natural spring, called Crystal Spring. 

Not only was the museum an absolute delight, but the town of Bentonville was charming, quaint, hip and cool, and filled with one delicious restaurant after another.

My Steak Salad with Slivers of Pigs Ear (think...pork belly fried or cracklings)

Before exploring the museum, we decided to lunch at a new brasserie called "Tusk and Trotters".  The restaurant is just a stone's throw off the town square.  The menu was filled with descriptions of dishes whose ingredients are sourced from local produce and alter as the seasons change.  

Tusk and Trotters in downtown Bentonville

It was a super fun spot for lunch and we all enjoyed the casual atmosphere, the delicious food, and the combination of local folk dishes combined with current food trends.

City Sidewalk Murals

I decided to be daring and order the Crispy Pig's Ear Salad.  I was torn between trying that or the Crispy Pig's Ear Nachos.  As an appetizer, we had the deliciously crispy on the outside and creamy in the inside Risotto Balls.  These golden balls were deep-fried Arborio rice with ground beef, housemade sausage, fresh herbs, roasted garlic, parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes & roasted garlic-basil aioli.  I could have eaten the entire order as my meal.

Artwork in the Crystal Bridges American Art Museum

Other fun menu items included Pork Belly Cheese Stix, a wild boar patty burger called the Hogzilla, and the Ozarkcuban, a play on the Cuban sandwich.  Tummys full and happy, we were ready to spend the afternoon getting lost in a collection of 5 centuries of American masterworks.

The museum grounds are buried with a lush wooded forest that is both calming but seemingly vast. 

Included within the collection are iconic images such as Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol’s Dolly Parton, each reflecting a distinct moment in American artistic evolution.

Smoked Salmon and Broccoli Quiche

The entire museum flowed seamlessly into a deep valley filled with thick woods and natural materials.  At times, I felt like I was in a treehouse at the top of the Amazon forest and at other times I felt like I was at the very bottom of a tropical jungle looking up at a canopy of trees.

We spent a wonderful afternoon at this fabulous museum lost in the canvases of American artists.  It was a perfect day for putting aside mulling over our life decisions. We had fun exploring a budding section of Arkansas that offers a blend of midwestern comfort and hip urban fun.

Later that week, Kenneys from all over were gathering to the lake house down on the Table Rock Lakes in the Ozark Mountains.

Big fat tubes, with names like "Big Bertha" were blown up and strung up to the back of lake boats with long ropes. Water skiis were readied for those that dared to zig zag on the surface of the water at top speeds.  Bbq grills were fired up for grilling everything from sausages to steaks. 

Chester, who presents his canine self as the ultimate froo-froo pooch most of the time, tries hard to "rough it".  After getting dunked a few times in the lake, he looks pretty ragged-for-wear, his dignity exposed until he finally collapses, of course on a nice soft towel (or someone's lap).

A decades old tradition...Pop's Dari Dell for ice cream!

I scored big on this trip with a fabulous pottery shop find.  We were taking the back roads to the lake one morning.  I saw this teensy pottery shop sign just barely sticking out among the bushes.  

I convinced my crew to please PLEASE let me stop to see what was inside that nearly hidden shop.  Score!  It was a fabulous shop with a quirky and amusing potterer who delighted us with local stories from his childhood.

Add caption

As my eyes wandered over his array of pottery selections, they landed on a rickety shelf of mismatched coffee mugs.  I loved them...all.  Not very often can I commit to coffee mugs but soon I was caressing them and carrying them over to the wooden counter to claim as mine, as a squirrel would carefully arrange his prized nuts in his nest.

Scenes along the drive

So at the end of a wonderful reunion, we all packed up again...ready for the trek back home to collect another year of events to chat about at next year's gathering.

Conversation in the car, with more hot coffee in hand,  flowed again to life goals, ambitions, and dreams.  Could the Kenneys be on the move again. Is it time to wave bye to Houston?  Where to next?  How, as a foursome do we decide where we would like to launch our lives together, but, in reality apart, as my babies grow into adults?

Meals have been simple, rustic, and quick this summer.  Patrick has brand new job frontiers to explore.  We're feeling the frenzy of an impending move but have so many large and small decisions to ponder.  Fresh fruits and vegetables from the farmer's market and quiches assembled with all assortment of leftover whatnots from the week become easy no fuss dinners on week nights.

Quiet Serene Sunrise of Table Rock Lakes in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri

One morning, I woke up before anyone else was stirring.  I carefully stepped over sleeping bags and make shift beds on the floor and made my way to the deck to wait for the sunrise.

The sky was already starting to glow with faint pinks and yellows along the horizon.  The sun edged its way up over the Ozark hills readying the day for boats to zip up and down along the lakes,  boats to relax and tie up in the many hidden quiet coves, and the happy but hungry boaters that will be ready for another sunset of grilling, laughing, and enjoying life. 

This is the country road that leads to the cabin.  I gaze at this photo and try to see if some sort of answer appears that might give insight as to what our path might be this year of 2014.  I do love to ponder the mysteries down those long windy roads that have unknown endings.  

Is it the destination that matters?  Is it the journey that should be savored?  Or is it the allure of dreaming big that is essential to this collection of life's footsteps we are fortunate to be enjoying?  Unsurprisingly, this quote is swirling through our hearts and minds...

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth...

- Robert Frost

(Quiche Recipe coming soon)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Building Castles in the Sky and dodging fox in the lanes...

Chateau de Valençay

If you have built castles in the sky
Let not your dreams go to waste;
Just build the foundations under them."

― Henry David Thoreau

Château de Chenonceau

When immersed in the Loire Valley of France, these words by Thoreau certainly bring new meaning to his quote .  A leisurely 2 hour drive south of Paris, this castle studded valley demonstrates that during the 18th and 19th centuries, the words of Thoreau would have been undaunting to the aristocrats and architects of these amazing time periods.  

Riley and I were unprepared for the enormity, unspoiled beauty and remoteness of the castles of the Loire Valley.  We spent the month of May meandering tiny country roads, thinking we were lost, only to turn one bend or another and come upon huge stone castles, built years ago to offer the city-fatigued aristocrats of Paris...over-the-top countryside escapes.  

My son was a "castle kid" when he was little.  Whereas some children gravitate to sci-fi toys and movies like Star Wars or Star Trek, my son was building trebuchets, collecting stone weapons, learning about dragon lore, and reading the stories of Robin Hood.

We had Lego villages and Playmobil castles complete with moats, drawbridges, and hidden treasures of gemstones.  When he was very young, we had the opportunity to live in Wales for awhile.  During the weekdays and weekends, we roamed from castle to castle. 

The children scrambled over  massive stone remnants with no idea that these were the foundations of castles built in the sky centuries ago.  So many of them were crumbling right in the middle of green pastures as grazing sheep looked on wondering what was all the fuss.  Perhaps that youthful venture prompted Riley's fascination with the medieval time period.

Of course, these days, as a sometimes surly teenager, he wouldn't readily admit to any of my childhood descriptions of his boyhood interests.  Truth be told, however, he used to always have some motley collection of stones in his tiny pockets.  These little worthless stones were his beloved "treasures" to be squirreled away in make shift chests and hidden drawers in his room.  Interestingly, the pursuit actually evolved into a hobby of gemstone collecting over the years.  Today, he particularly enjoys the lore surrounding how they were used in ancient time periods of many ancient civilizations.

So as we roamed from castle to castle this past summer in the valleys of the Loire River, I knew to leave him to his own devices.  No teen likes to follow along with his mother like a little puppy. So I rented audio tours with headphones for the two of us.  We waved goodbye to each other and took off along the castle interiors to escape into a world, that for me was filled with dark and moody kitchens, softly lit rustic table settings, and heavy solid furniture covered in tapestries and leathers sitting in shadowed corners under slivers of soft light.

I really preferred some of the castles we toured that were more "off the beaten path".  These castles were less popular than those more sought after by tourists wanting to see more opulence and grandeur.  

I quickly realized that the castles built during the 14th and 15th centuries held more appeal to me than those of the 18th and 19th centuries.  

Château de Chenonceau

Two of my favorites were the Chateau de Montrésor and the Chateau de Montpoupon.  These were more remote castles. They were situated in parts of the valley that were quiet and  unassuming.  There were no grand build up of signs leading to the castles and stimulating the visitor as to the impending awesomeness will appear in a few minutes.

Rather, we simply stumbled onto these two landmarks, vestiges of a time period that for my son and myself hold such intrigues and mysteries of captivating eras of history.

I stood alone in the one of the grand kitchens with images of baking breads and roasting meats playing in my mind's eye.  How would they keep everything fresh?  How would they prepare the game meats without all of the modern appliances we have today?

Outside a castle bedroom window at Chenonceau

My son was carefully studying the drawbridges that loomed over the long dried up moats.  I imagined he was wondering how difficult it was to protect the castles from attacks.  As we cautiously ascended narrow stone staircases, the mood  seemed so still and lonely.  We imagined spending long winter months in the brooding and nebulous rooms with the mighty fireplaces crackling and popping from logs hauled in from the nearby forests.

Chateau de Villandry

Every day foraging and hunting must have been so vital to those who managed these massive hulking country chateaus.  Many of the rooms were filled with stuffed and mounted animals hauled home from the successful hunting expeditions through the countryside in order to ensure game for the castle feasts.  

What a thrill it must have been to take down a wild boar, or turkeys, or deer in order to successfully bring home need protein for stews and roasts.  It must have been such a right of passage for young hunters trying to make their first impressions of success.

I imagined sweets were rare during these medieval times.  Fruits and berries probably offered the only sweetness in recipes...honey from bees would have been such a jolting sweet treat.

As I sliced handfuls of tiny key limes for my Key Lime Pie and whipped the meringue with my modern appliances, I thought about the feat it would have been to deliver something like this dessert to one of those castle tables.

The cooks in the kitchen certainly would have milk from the cows.  Did they know about condensed milk during that time?  Was the evaporation of water from cow's milk something that was discovered by accident?  It would certainly have added richness to desserts back then but without sugar, was it used the way we use it to make such sweet desserts today?  Probably not.  Sugar certainly did revolutionize our palettes and menus.

Speaking of sugar, Riley and I quickly learned to time our castle visits for mid-afternoons.  After getting lost in the voluminous rooms and ample grounds of each chateau, we were ready to sit down to relax and to process these surreal experiences.  Unsurprisingly, each chateau has cozy nooks with seating just for this purpose. Often ice cream, gelato, or hot crêpes, oozing with creamy nutella, are offered nearby.   Absorbing the scenery and relaxing in the shadows of castles was certainly enhanced by a sweet treat in hand.

We would tumble along up and over the mellow quiet valleys that were spread out in between each castle.  France is a very quiet country in the month of May.  The air was still cool in the mornings and evenings.  Often a rain shower would break up the day.

On one castle tour, it started to storm outside.  There is nothing so delicious as a May storm raining down on the windows while meandering spooky and quiet castle rooms.  Riley and I both love the rain.  The castle tour through the Chateau Chaumont-sur-Loire was a memorable one because of the storm adding to the ambiance of the experience.

Beautiful Gardens of Château du Clos Lucé (Parc Leonardo da Vinci)

Dark clouds started to tumble across the flat fields in the distance.  The darkness of the sky against the brilliance of the greens of the field only enhanced the grey stones of the castle.  We truly felt like we had left the 20th century for awhile.

In between going in and out of castle life on the many tours we took during the month, glimpses of life in the french countryside of today offered scenes that might not be much different from the countryside of long ago.

Château de Chenonceau

Many families were outside tending to their gardens.  The winter wasn't that far behind and sprucing and cleaning of the gardens was in full swing.  Hay was being rolled into huge rounds and the fields were dotted with their chubby collections.  

We stopped for a fox to cross the road.  Upon exiting a little Boulangerie with baguette sandwiches in tow, horse back riders sauntered through the village as if this were a perfectly normal everyday scene.  Signs advising drivers of the presence of boars crossing the roads were everywhere.

But, something in particular about modern day french countryside continues to connect the traveler to the olden days of castle life.  Many of the country homes still burn coal in iron stoves for warmth.  Spirals of smoke could be seen wisping out of rooftop chimneys early in the evenings.

We could smell the faint aroma of coal in the air as we cruised along the tiny country farm roads.  It wasn't a bad smell at all.  But a smell that certainly enhanced our visions of the romantic past of castles and ancient time periods.


As I mixed and stirred the ingredients for my smooth and creamy Key Lime Pie, I couldn't help but think of the barely lit fruit and vegetable still life pantings from the Medieval time period.

I often like to keep the lights off in our home and only rely on natural light.  The deep velvety green of the key limes next to my  tawny copper colored pitcher with the leathery looking crusty ginger snap cookies reminded me of the colors that I remembered from the castle kitchens.

These colors change during the day as the sun skims over the house casting various shadows and sunbeams that alter the mood and light before me.  How grateful we are to have all of the modern gadgets and whirleygigs that making cooking a snap in this time period.  But, oh how fascinating it would be to peek into those bustling huge castle kitchens during the 1500's, then 1700's, then...


List of Castles visited in the Loire Valley of France:

1.  Château Langeais
2.  Château de Ussé
3.  Château Azay-le-Rideau
4.  Château de Villandry
5.  Château du Clos Lucé (Parc Leonardo da Vinci)
6.  Château de Chenonceau
7.  Château de Montpoupon
8.  Château de Montrésor
9.  Château de Valançay
10. Château Chaumont-sur-Loire