Fourth of July Feast...chills and spice to beat the darned Texas heat!

Every year I dread the Fourth of July celebrations.  I worry abut the heat, the heat, the heat.  And...every year, we end up having a blast and the weather seems to cooperate and we enjoy good food, good family, and good fun!

Fourth of July week this year brought all sorts of festivities.  I had been looking forward to and preparing for the month of July for awhile now and just had to take the attitude, " damned."

First, we had a family wedding in Dallas, Texas.  I haven't been to a wedding in ages so I was really looking forward to pretty flowers, elegant summer dresses, wedding cake, and just seeing family gathered in one spot for a few days.

We were all wondering how we were going to tackle the 100˚F heat that threatened to press in on Dallas for the weekend.  However, having an outdoor wedding at 8:30pm under thick lush southern oak trees, with a shimmering pool nearby, and twinkling lights wrapped in the branches of the trees made for a casual but elegant wedding ceremony.  Beautiful breezes gently swayed the trees as our family members took their vows in a pretty and gentle setting.

The wedding ceremonies ended with blowing soft bubbles all around the wedding couple, dining on deliciously juicy roast beef while drinking chilled margaritas and then finished off by joyously dancing the night away.

Some of the family caravaned down with us back to Houston for a week filled with summertime entertaining, summertime dishes, and summertime fun in the big sprawling city of Houston.

How fun to be a tourist in our adopted city.  It seems that we have barely scratched the surface of this city until family come to stay and then we uncover yet another layer of this diverse, fascinating, multi-layered  city.

I knew the objective of the week was going to be how to have fun and not melt away at each and every activity planned outdoors.

So, what did I plan for us to do first?  Go to the ZOO.  Yes, the Houston Zoo in mid-90's degree temperatures at the height of summer heat.  Crazy, I know...but it was terrific.

We arrived just as the zoo opened at 9:00 am.  After seeing the heavy foliage draping over the walkways, misting fans blowing out droplets of tiny beads of cool water, and several perfectly placed indoor air-conditioned sights, we realized the morning was going to be enjoyable and very doable.

I can't say enough positive things about our city's zoo.  It was smartly laid out, filled with animals that were active, happy, and playful, and just an all around beautiful setting to walk around and enjoy the outdoors...even in the blistering southern heat.  Thank you, Houston.  Thank you...thank you.

One of my solutions to playing tourist in our own city with our family and staying cool was to keep a supply of cool refreshing sorbet on hand when we returned home.

While in San Francisco recently, I was at the Ferry Building at Ciao Bella Gelato.  I spotted an interesting flavor sorbet -  "Lemon Basil" sorbet.  I sampled it and was surprised that I liked it.

I really wanted to try my hand at recreating this sorbet at home for the 4th of July week.  I'm not sure you can go wrong with cool, tart, smooth the blistering heat of the south.

From squeezing the tart lemon juice and breathing in the clean fresh lemon aroma to snipping the basil leaves from my patio, lemon basil sorbet is just perfect for mid-summer relief. 

A few shortbread cookies paired with the sorbet and a nice refreshing tingling dessert was on hand for our hot and tired group when we returned from fun and exhausting outings.

There is one lesson that I have to remind myself when I make sorbet.  That is to let the sugar/syrup cool completely before attempting to churn it in my ice cream/sorbet maker.  

If not allowed to get cold, the syrup mixture will churn and churn but not form the little ice crystals necessary to turn it into the consistency of sorbet.

So summertime means flowers, and color, and bees, and birds.  I added a few additions to our small back garden this summer.  I'm trying to start a bougainvilla vine growing around the back guest bedroom window.  My hibiscus bush is huge and dripping with the large red flowers that are beginning to attract hummingbirds.  I decided to get a hummingbird feeder out there and am now anxiously waiting to see tiny little flutters of movement.

As far as potted herbs, I've added lemon balm, mint, and sage.  It takes vigilance to keep all of these guys watered in this heat but so far so good.  I'm slowly learning what will survive the Texas heat and what will be a waste of time to grow here.

I have to chuckle at the assortment of activities that we went to during the week.  I planned a visit and shopping trip to the the city's Middle Eastern Market, Phoenicia (so I could recreate a Turkish meal for my relatives). Then we meandered through the huge Houston Asian market, Viet Huong, with its wonderful fish stalls in the back.  We even visited the striking carved white marble Hindu Temple in Houston which sits sparkling in the sun and rising up like a huge wedding cake on the horizon.  It is one of six Hindu temples in the U.S. and even has a market/cafe offering all sorts of traditional Indian foods to sample.

At each stop we picked out a medley of foods to carry back home, so several meals had an interesting diverse ethnic mix of flavors. We had Japanese mochi, Turkish baklava, lychee fruit, kaymak and honey, and Indian spiced cashews. It all worked out well and we  had a fun time trying new things.

Aside from our diverse shopping trips, we jumped from outings like touring through the magnificent and striking Indian Hindu Temple here in Houston to the "Bat Bridge" in downtown Houston.  At sunset each evening, thousands and thousands of bats emerge from underneath a bridge in the middle of the city to forage on insects for the night.  What an experience to see.  We sat on a hillside and watched as the bats swirled from under the bridge, flew off into the sky and around the trees and disappeared.  

The twinkling lights of the Houston high rise buildings made a pretty backdrop and silhouetted the bats in the sky as they flapped and fluttered their wings in dizzying swarms.

One of my big decisions for the week was...what to EAT for our Fourth of July gathering this year.  I was at the reins of menu planning so the options were vast and I jumped from one idea to the next unable to decide among all of the BBQ options.  

I pulled out my favorite BBQ cookbook, The Cook and The Butcher, and I flipped through looking for something to catch my eye.  

I flipped to a photograph of a dish called "Straccetti with Roasted Cherry Peppers".  It looked delicious, smoky, flavorful, and...well...patriotic!

The dish involved roasting cherry peppers with olive oil, salt, and a head of garlic.  Being Texas, I figured I wouldn't have too hard to a time finding cherry peppers...and I didn't.

I added some cherry tomatoes to my cherry peppers just in case some of the family didn't like only peppers.  I also knew the cherry tomatoes would caramelize and give a little hint of sweetness to the savory flavors.  

The steak is thinly cut, much like Japanese shabu-shabu steak and pounded out a bit.  After quickly pan frying the meat with rosemary fronds, olive oil, and more garlic, it is put aside to rest.

Next, an aromatic pan sauce is stirred together with the drippings from the meat mixed with the roasted peppers, cherry tomatoes, and garlic.  Bold flavors of rosemary and soft flavors of oregano infuse the sauce as balsamic vinagrette is added.

The savory sauce is cooked down until rich and fullbodied then  poured on top of the steak.  

I knew when reading this recipe which sides I wanted to pair with it....Molasses Pork and Beans, and Roasted Baked Potatoes.  I roasted Idaho potatoes in the oven until soft.   Dollops of sour cream, creamy butter, chopped chives, and shredded cheeses made up the toppings.

It's not very often that we eat this side dish, but the southern "Hickory Smoked Pork and Beans" seemed to fit right into this menu.  My kids don't quite understand this sweet and savory bean dish with the chunks of hickory smoked bacon cooked into the dish.  This is certainly a southern dish; my southern roots yearned to match those  "pork and beans" with nothing other than big plump baked potatoes.  So the menu was set...Savory rib steak with caramelized peppers and tomatoes, molasses kissed pork and beans, and big fat baked potatoes with all the trimmings.

Finished off with apple pie, this Fourth of July was a wonderfully festive week filled with all manner of touristy field trips in and around the city for our family.  How wonderful to be a tourist in your own city and see it through the eyes of visiting relatives!

Another field trip was to see the Battleship Texas anchored on the Buffalo Bayou along the bustling Houston Ship Channel. 

Touring through the ship gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the shipmen during battles in WWI and WWII.  They even have sleepovers for teens in the ship.  What an experience to sleep deep in the recess of this enormous ship and re-enact life during the active days of the Battleship Texas.  

The fun and active week was capped off with a huge and festive fireworks show at our brand new Skeeter's Baseball arena that finished off the "red, white, and blue" -ness of the week.  

Thank you to Houston for not roasting us alive as we hopped from one outdoor activity to another.  We had such a fun and festive week full of laughter, exciting field trips, delicious meals, but most importantly "thyme" spent around the table, enjoying family and enjoying life.

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