Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Microbrews Cruise: OMB


As Terry pointed out in the comments of my last post, I negligently brushed off a wonderful, somewhat unique event Miss Chef and I enjoyed last Wednesday.  It occurred at our favorite playground, the US National Whitewater Center.

But before I go any further, I’d just like to take a moment to mention how incredibly fortunate we are to have this resource within a 20-minute drive of our front door.  The center has been open since the fall of 2006, with much local controversy.  Though it’s a world-class facility (in a city that desperately wants to consider itself world-class), many residents were unhappy with public-funded lending provided to the center, especially when it operated in the red for the first two or three years.  There was also a lot of grumbling about the original access route to the place by those who lived in the neighborhood; even including gunshots aimed at drivers and mountain bikers on the trails!

However, I am happy to report that today the controversy seems to have settled, the Center has paid back its loans, and as far as I know it is at least breaking even.  Based on the crowds I’ve seen the last several times I’ve been there, its popularity is growing fast.  Finally, I think Charlotte is beginning to realize what we have here.

A little taste of the competition channel

And just what do we have?  Well, the main attraction is a double-channel artificial recirculating river offering class II to IV rapids for kayaks, canoes and rafts.  Fifty dollars gets you a guided 90-minute whitewater rafting trip for anyone from age 8 on up, regardless of fitness level (within reason!).  If you really fall in love with whitewater, you can sign up for private and group instruction in whitewater kayaking, as Miss Chef did last year. 

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If you’d rather get your adrenaline rush on dry land, there are plenty of other options.  14 miles of trails in the woods are open to mountain bikers, runners and hikers.  Right by the main entrance rises one of the largest outdoor rock-climbing walls in the world.  An 1,100-foot long zipline zooms you over the whitewater channels, and there are more zipline courses back in the woods.  Suspended adventure courses challenge your balance, agility and comfort with heights.  A 40-foot controlled free fall lets you feel like a stuntman (or woman).
With so much in one location, it’s a great place to try out all kinds of new activities.  A day pass includes rental of mountain bikes, GPS units for geocaching, flatwater kayaks/paddles, stand-up flatwater paddleboards, along with whatever helmets, harnesses and pfds are required for any of the other activities.  And when you’re done with your workout, you can plop yourself down at a full-service restaurant boasting an actual chef and an excellent selection of beers on tap.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand.

The USNWC offers a series of Microbrews Cruises throughout the summer, highlighting different craft breweries from around the country.  Last Wednesday featured a local favorite, Olde Mecklenburg Brewery (OMB).  We headed out to the Center after work, arriving at the kayak barn at 6:00.

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You don’t actually get a kayak here (unless you’re doing whitewater).  You can see the paddles to the right, next to the umbrella-protected sign-in station.  You also get a pfd (lifejacket, for the uninitiated), and directions to the flatwater dock down on the real river.

The first part of the experience was a guided hour and a half kayak tour on the Catawba river.  Which happened to follow the exact trip I usually do on my own!  We were a group of about a dozen, plus a couple of guides.  Most opted for single kayaks, but a few couples decided to try the tandem kayaks.  You can see one such pair in this picture.

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The, erm, unusual paddle positions might give you some idea of why the guides refer to them as “divorce kayaks.”  Miss Chef and I tried one a couple of years ago, and while we didn’t end up in a paddle fight or anything, I’d much rather go single.  Not only do you have to coordinate your paddling, but the longer boats are much more difficult to maneuver.

Here’s a photo of us taken by the Divorce Kayak guy.  See, happy smiles all around!

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I’m leaning back like that to make sure I fit in the picture—ha!  Notice the bare feet?  We’ve learned it’s much easier to leave our shoes on the dock than to squish our way back up the hill.

But I digress…back up the creek we go.  We only went about 2/3 of the distance I had gone the previous Saturday, but I was happy to learn a bit more about that particular stream from our guide.  For example, the old beaver dam we used to see—which got washed totally away this spring—used to be eight feet high!  Also, I had no idea there were river otters in the area.  Unfortunately, they seem to be crepuscular, as our guide has only seen them early in the morning and around dusk, outside the normal operating hours for the kayak barn.

As we came back out of the creek, the sun was beginning to set.

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Immediately after I took this picture, a large bird swooped across the river from right to left, landing in the trees at the edge of the woods.  It was a large brown owl—I don’t know what kind—and it sat there unmoving, looking down its beak at us as we paddled on by.  Unfortunately, it was too dark back in the trees for me to get a picture, especially while floating down the river.  This picture illustrates some of the challenges of low-light photography from a moving transport with no brakes!

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However, I did manage to get one last pretty shot as we approached the creek’s entrance to the main river.

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As the sun settled toward the horizon, we paddled back to the dock, hauled our soggy asses up the hill to turn in our paddles and pfds, and headed to dinner!  At a well-designed firepit area in a piney woods, the chef and staff of River’s Edge, the on-site restaurant, served up a buffet-style barbeque feast.  They’d smoked their own pork and chicken and had a proprietary sauce to top them with.  They also had a potato-and-pepper side dish and suprisingly good corn on the cob (since it’s still a month or so from corn season down here).

But before we got to the food, we were greeted by an employee of OMB who offered us a generous pour of one of the three beers he’d brought: Copper, their original and still best-selling altbier, a seasonal pilsner and an amber ale.  Once the last stragglers arrived, we had a few introductions to some of the staff, greetings from the chef, and then we were able to dig in.

After we’d had our fill, the brewery employee (whose name I know Miss Chef could remember), told us very enthusiastically of the history of OMB and the art of brewing.  Then he guided us through a tasting of each of the beers—except for me.  I’d already had one and a half, and Miss Chef mentioned in passing that I was probably going to have to drive home, so I passed on the extra tasting.

I won’t go into details about the brewing processes and differences among the beers, mostly because I can’t remember them!  But the talk was truly interesting, and Miss Chef and I would have enjoyed chatting more with Mr. OMB.  As it was, the hour was growing late, and things began to break down when a small group of young twenty-somethings reached obnoxious loud-mouthed inebriation and decided their smartphone games were more interesting.  However, a visit to the OMB taproom and a guided tour of the brewery has been added to our list of things to do…someday.  Miss Chef is very interested in bringing her students there, too.

I leave you with a last picture of the side of the raised firepit, which was graced all around with the USNWC logo.  It kind of captures for me the unique quality of this one-of-a-kind place.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Garden Update

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This long Memorial Day weekend kind of snuck up on me after all the post-Mother’s Day recovery.  Well, that and I’ve been kind of obsessed with flatwater kayaking lately.  We had a great time at the Microbrews Cruise Wednesday night, and I was back out on the water Saturday afternoon.  I thought about heading out again this morning, but the mess in the house could use some attention.  Besides, there’s always tomorrow morning…

Since I decided to make today a stay-at-home catching up on chores kind of day, I of course ended up outside in the morning hours.  With temperatures back up in the 90s, afternoon is for air-conditioned comfort.

So, let’s see what things looked like last month…

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Huh, I guess we have had some progress, haven’t we?

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The peas have finally, reluctantly it seems, decided to give climbing a try.  I’ve collected a good handful of pods the last several days, though once they’re shelled I’m sure it’ll be a small serving!  We’ve pulled a few beets and carrots already, but as always I don’t know what to do with my radishes.  Miss Chef promised she’d use them in the school restaurant, but somehow she never needs any.  Hmph.  They’re always super spicy because of the heat and dryness, so I can only stand to eat so many myself.

Here’s a closer picture of that back-right corner that’s partially hidden by our flowering parsley bed.

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The right side is our solid-looking beet crop, next to it is basil.  There are a couple of peppers behind the beets, and to the left are a few of our tomato plants.

Which are getting ready for what I hope will be a big show.

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These funny-looking guys are san marzanos, renowned among gardeners as the great sauce tomato.  We ended up with four plants, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll get enough at one time to make homemade sauce a possibility.

This is a summer squash, slowly preparing to take over the world garden.

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Notice I’ve given it plenty of room!

Of course, no matter how much time and attention you lavish on your garden, some things are beyond your control.

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We’ve had an ongoing residence of rabbits under our shed since we moved here.  I’m not much into trapping or killing animals just because they’re hungry, so we haven’t done much about them, other than try to plant enough tomatoes to share.

Fortunately, we also have a lethal canine with a strong prey drive to patrol the backyard.

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In spite of what you see here, Rosie loves to chase anything smaller than herself.  She’s even killed a couple of birds, and has enthusiastically charged after rabbits and squirrels.  But I think she has realized she has no chance in hell of catching this one so close to home…so her wide lazy streak takes over.  She watched this rabbit for about half an hour, eventually laying her head back down.  After checking on her now and again, I finally grew disgusted enough that I called her in.  The rabbit didn’t move.

Speaking of the patio, check out this accidental garden:

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Early in the spring I planted a few kale seeds in pots and planters around the patio.  None of them took where they were supposed to.  The seed for this big one must have washed out of the planter where I’d put it; I have no idea how that little one ended up back under the swing!  The big one is really bug-eaten, but every couple of weeks or so it seems to recover and put out a fresh set of leaves.  We haven’t been eating much of it, so I figure somebody should get some use out of it! 

At the far end of the patio, the rose of sharon is starting to bloom.

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And further out in the yard, on the opposite side of the vegetable garden, we have a regular army of wildflowers on the verge of erupting.

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Notice the gap in the middle?  That’s where the original bed was, where there used to be purple echinacea, which eventually got overgrown by the brown-eyed susans I seeded in there.  Somehow they came back everywhere except where they were supposed to.  I had a little chat with the folks who mow my lawn, and we selected a small patch they would mow around so I could still have some of my flowers.  When they came back two weeks later, I laughed to see they’d mowed around another patch further out.  Apparently they appreciate a good patch of wildflowers as much as I do.

I can’t wait to see what the full floral invasion will look like.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Work, Food, Paddle

I remember writing in a post after the last holiday season about how I wasn’t blogging much because I was too busy living life.  That about covers the last several weeks.  Since I originally conceived this as a journal for myself, though, I’d hate to let it all just slip away into the porous cavern of my memory.

Be thee warned, fair traveler through these pages…prepare thee some libation and refreshment, for the journey will be long.  If thou should persevere to the end, the rewards will be…well, there will be pretty pictures.  Feel free to skip ahead.

I think I shall begin just before Mother’s Day.  Miss Chef and I were valiantly trying to keep up with ourselves…well, we were actually both trying to keep up with Miss Chef.  This quarter, she is teaching the course in which students are thrown into a working restaurant kitchen at the school.  She runs the kitchen three days a week, Chef Adam is teaching the other “half” of the course on the other two days.

Now, seeing that she’s quite capable of running the real restaurant’s kitchen in Chef Adam’s absence, you’d think that would be a breeze, right?  Well, there are a few caveats…first, her class was down to six students.  Second, as part of their rotations, the students are also required to act as servers in the dining room, and run the deli area where many of the staff and other students get their lunch.  All of which means she’d be down to about three students in the kitchen!  The head of the department hired a student to take care of the deli, and Miss Chef has somehow managed to talk some others into volunteering as servers.  Have I mentioned that she has a lot of fans in the student body?

There were some other problems which, for discretion’s sake, I shall refrain from going into.  Suffice it to say, the first several weeks of that class our only conversations at home seemed to consist of Miss Chef’s profanity-laced rants about the ridiculousness of the situation.  There wasn’t much I could do but listen.  I did a lot of listening.

So Mother’s Day weekend was going to be a bit of a challenge.  Sunday is the only non-work day on Miss Chef’s schedule, and it’s generally devoted to an all-day session of grading and Miss Chef’s own homework for her MBA class, which she was already falling behind in.  We were girding our loins and gritting our teeth—well I was, anyway—for a long, two-week slog.  And then, Chef Adam put a wrench in the works. 

On one of his weekly group bicycle rides, he wiped out on a wet road, landing on his chest.  He was mostly ok, but after an ER visit and a later trip to the doctor, he’s most likely got a cracked rib or two, and most definitely lots of bruised tissue.  In other words—major ouchie-poo.  Also, working in a kitchen slinging giant stainless-steel pots and pans around?  Not on the doctor’s orders.

So now Miss Chef was pretty much running two kitchens, both essentially staffed by students.  The one at school is not usually very busy, but the books were filling up fast at the other one.  I know Miss Chef’s a superstar, and she thinks she’s invincible, but even she had to face up to reality.  So she withdrew from her MBA class.  (She can pick it up again this month.)  She also called in a favor from a teaching colleague to take her class Monday morning, because she knew she’d be useless after a double on Sunday.

I once again was hostess for Mother’s Day brunch.  It went pretty smoothly, though I was worried about Miss Chef making it through.  After working a long, busy Saturday night, she was in the kitchen at 8 am on Sunday, not to emerge until after dinner service.  Chef Adam was defying doctor’s orders as much as he could stand…and just watching him standing, hunched over with a slightly dazed look, was painful in itself.  When I rounded the corner into the kitchen to witness his lifting a 5-gallon stock pot to shoulder level and pour it into a larger one, I didn’t even say anything.  I let him finish, then gave him a few seconds to put the pot down, blink a lot and start breathing again, before asking him the question I had come for.  He’s old enough to know when he’s being stupid.

We served over 120 at brunch, and when I left at 4:00, there were 75 on the books for dinner.  Somehow, both chefs limped through and served them all.  If only the diners knew the superhuman effort involved in the lovely dinner they were treating Mom to that night…


The ensuing week was almost like a vacation, since Miss Chef didn’t have to try to keep up with her own homework.  We went to the movies one night, to a wine bar another.  And I had a little mini-vacation planned for myself last Friday.  A friend and I were meeting for lunch at the school restaurant, to see what Miss Chef and her students could do.  I even took a half-day off from work for the occasion.  Who’s a loyal and supportive wife, eh?

There were only two other tables dining, so the chef was able to give us lots of personal attention.  She suggested we do a chef’s sampler menu, to which we readily agreed.  I mean, who knows better what I like, and what better way to see what her team could do?

Hilariously, almost every dish contained at least one major ingredient that I generally avoid eating!  The first thing to come out was an amuse-bouche, or palate-teaser, of a chopped shrimp salad.  Ok, I’ve been known to occasionally order shrimp, but I generally dislike seafood.  Still, it was only two bites, and of course it was delicious.

The first actual course was chicken florentine soup.  I am kicking myself that I forgot to take a picture, because it was a gorgeous bright, dense green.  That came from spinach, which is not one of my favorite vegetables.  Of course, with lots of chicken stock and some cream, who am I to turn my nose up?

The second course was a salad roasted beets and local greens and goat cheese.  In fact, Miss Chef is inviting different farmers to her class each week to talk to the students about what they do.  They had already met the woman who grew these greens, and will soon be meeting our favorite Goat Lady, Michele of Bosky Acres.

Oh, I did remember to take a picture of the salad.



Those are roasted beet slices along the edges.  I don’t like beets, either.

Now that I had my camera out, I was much better about remembering to photograph my food.  (Miss Chef wanted good shots of her dishes, too.)  Can you believe she served me fish!  I hate fish!



This is a crispy-grilled salmon with spinach puree and creamy risotto.  The risotto was delicious.  The salmon was…salmon.  Sorry, fish lovers, I’m not much help with the critique here!  My dining companion said it was wonderful, and it was flakey and moist, which I guess is what you want, right?  I don’t know from fish.  But don’t worry, I ate it all.  Because I love my Miss Chef.

Onward we went.  Next up was the pork chop I was planning to order before we ceded all control to the chef.



Please keep in mind these were supposedly “sampler” portions.  (At some point my friend asked Miss Chef how much more food we should be expecting.  She said to me, “Do you remember how we felt after our meal at Tru?  That’s what you should be expecting.”  *gulp!*)

Anyway, this would be a pork chop—well, half a pork chop—with local stone-ground grits and a clever barbeque beurre blanc sauce.  (Beurre blanc is a very traditional sauce made with butter and wine and some other goodness, but honestly…who cares, beyond butter and wine, amiright?)

I think I left some of this on my plate.  I’d already had about three meals!  But wait, there’s more…an inspired palate-cleanser Miss Chef was very excited about.



They freeze water in this martini glass just long enough to create a shell around the outside and on top.  They punch a hole in the top, drain the water and refill the glass with a strawberry-lemon-basil purée.  Then they add sparkling water (which Miss Chef was substituting for champagne), and add a quenelle of passionfruit-something sorbet on top of the remaining ice cover.

Here’s a side view.



I told her she should call it a strawberry sunrise.  You break through the ice with a spoon, then stir it up and either drink it or spoon it.  Yummy!

We also had a vanilla crème brûlée for dessert, but at that point I was too befuddled to remember the camera.  We also had Miss Chef sitting down with us at the table, as service was over, and she had to eat before cleaning up and jetting off to the other restaurant for the night.

Me?  My friend and I waddled out of there, then I went home to meet the A/C maintenance guy and catch up on laundry and yardwork.  Hey, my life’s not all glitz and glamour, what can I say?


Saturday morning started with more food—we went to the farmers’ market, of course!  I didn’t take any pictures there, either.  I did score in getting dozen eggs from Carl, our official Thanksgiving turkey grower.  After telling me he’d sold out, he realized he’d miscounted on his reserved orders, and waved me over from across the market to sell me his last carton.  We are so connected.

That afternoon, I was bound and determined to get to the Whitewater Center.  It had been two months since our last visit, and I had yet to get a paddle in my hands.  I was so motivated, I’d even bought a pair of cheap water shoes at the drugstore earlier in the week.  So after taking care of a few chores, I changed into my new shoes and old shorts, stuffed money, ID and camera into my dry bag, and hopped in the car.

It was a gorgeous sunny day in the upper seventies, and the Whitewater Center was very busy.  However, we have once again invested in annual passes, so I was able to bypass the milling crowds at the main entrance.  I parked at the far end of the lot, walked down the hill straight to the kayak barn, got my wrist band and grabbed my pdf and paddle.  Down to the dock I trotted…ok, I strode carefully, trying to avoid the larger rocks on the gravel path, because my new water shoes don’t have much of a sole.

Anyway, I got down there and finally got my seat into a kayak—then promptly fell over backwards with my feet flailing in the air!  Obviously, it had been too long.  Never fear, the kayak was sitting up on the dock, so I didn’t fall out of the kayak, just onto my back in the kayak.  The dock may have been part of the problem—I’m used to getting into a kayak already on the water—but I had to smile grimly at the slightly concerned look on the face of the girl waiting to push me off.  (I think it was just my imagination that she hesitated a bit before rather gently lowering me into the water.)

Once off the dock, I was relieved to know that my paddling skills were still intact.  I also noticed the water level was very high.  We’d gotten a record rainfall the preceding week, and it was still definitely working its way out.  I paddled easily through the island cut-through where we’d squeezed through last year when we spotted those feral pigs.  No pigs this time, just lots of other kayakers.  There were lots of families out there on the water, and lots of teens and young adults.  For some reason, the older teens like to take out whole flotillas of kayaks and paddleboards, go several hundred yards upriver, then hang out holding each other’s kayaks, held together like a giant adolescent raft while they sit and talk.

Beats getting stoned behind the neighbor’s garage.

Anyway, I continued further upriver, into the creek that I like to explore.  Now that we’ve been visiting it for a couple of years, it’s fun to see if I can spot any changes.

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Ah, beautiful, peaceful water.  Very high water, too.  That birdhouse on the left is usually standing in swampy mud come mid-summer.  And that grassy area usually has a muddy, gravelly beach stretching out in front of it.  Very little sign of fish or turtles.  Maybe they got washed downriver!

I ran across a few pairs and small groups of kayakers here.  We mostly say hello, how ya doin’, but there are no piles of chatting teens back here.  As I went further back, I exchanged terse hellos with another young woman, was ignored by two twenty-something guys talking about finance (seriously?  Can you stop the babble for five minutes, people?)…and then, eventually, it was just me and this guy.

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About this time, I was trying to figure out where the big dam of fallen trees had been last year.  It had totally prevented any further exploration up this creek, but the water was so high now there was no sign of the blockage.  I continued on…past the fork Miss Chef and I had been able to explore only once before.  And even further…and further…I must have gone another half-mile beyond any place I’d visited before.

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As the creek continued to wind itself deeper into vast rooms of greenery, I eventually became aware of the sounds around me—no more chatting and shouting.  Just the plash and drip of my paddle, and the songs and calls of birds all around me. 

Well, there were plenty of low-flying planes, too.  We’re pretty close to the airport.  But between those planes, I heard hawks, ducks, chickadees, cardinals, crows, and plenty of others I couldn’t identify.  I swear I smelled honeysuckle at one point, even though I haven’t seen any blooming for a couple of weeks around home.  I smiled when I recognized the musky smell of black walnuts stewing in the damp.  And then I was hit by that smell of woods—leaves and dirt and compost and who knows what else.

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It was a sensory underload.  Remove the sounds of humanity, and I was hearing and feeling the world again.  I had to take pictures, because I couldn’t take the whole place back with me.  I felt too peaceful to leave this place behind.  As it was, I spent two hours on that kayak, coming back to the dock with sore arms and a numb butt.  And I felt absolutely blissed out.

This is my cathedral.

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I couldn’t ask for more from a kayak experience.  I didn’t even mind that Miss Chef wasn’t able to come with me.  We probably would have broken the quiet with conversation…then again, I suspect this place renders most people silent.  Churches tend to do that, I’ve noticed.

There was more food…Sunday we had brunch at a vegetarian restaurant, drove through uptown Charlotte on the way home, then on a whim, stopped at the 7th Street Market and toured through the Levine Museum of the New South.  We finished our cultural afternoon with a late lunch at Mert’s Heart and Soul.  Monday night we had dinner with Chef Adam at the Customshop, of omelette fame.  And there’s more ahead…tomorrow night is a Microbrews Cruise at the Whitewater Center, featuring kayaking and samples of locally-brewed beer.  There’s a farm dinner at our favorite restaurant on the 30th, and I just got an invitation to a bbq and beer party for Memorial Day.

Somewhere in there, I really need to hit the gym!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Glamour Session 2

Glamour in Flartopia?  See what inspired me here, and see Session 1 here.


Every spring, the whole neighborhood can enjoy Miss Chef’s blooming glory, right at the bottom of our driveway.


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This Asian lily stands about four feet tall and blooms for about a week.  It’s hard to tell in this picture, but the flowers are a deep, almost wine-dark red.


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I suppose that’s a nice photo, too…but I’ve recently re-discovered a window in our house that does not have those intrusive mullions on it.  So let’s see what happens when we bring these beauties into the “studio.”


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Ah, that’s more like it.  Of course, we have lots of flowers blooming.  Since I was in artistic mode, I convinced a couple of other models to pose for me.


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I love this next one.  It looks like a floral sunset.


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On the other hand, I encountered one model who insisted on natural lighting…and I wasn’t about to argue.


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She knows what she’s talking about, doesn’t she?


Thanks to Justina at Morning Bray Farm for inspiring me for a whole growing season!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

It’s a Process





Mess #1

Mess o'sugar

Cook 'n' stir


Mess #2

Worth it

The only ingredients are strawberries, sugar, lemon juice and pectin.  (Plus about 5 or 6 hours of my time, lots of water and the gas for the stove.)  I’m gonna check on prices when I go back to the store, and see if I can figure out how much a jar cost me in materials.  Not that it matters…the taste makes it worth more than anything you’ll find at Food Emporium.

Update: Surprisingly enough, a pint (16 oz.) jar cost just pennies over $2 to make.  A 32 oz. jar of Smuckers jam at my local Harris Teeter is $4.39.  Not only is that slightly more than my homemade stuff, but Smuckers is full of high-fructose corn syrup.  Even the expensive "all-fruit" preserves have unrelated ingredients like clarified pear juice.  I didn't do this to save money, but what a nice little bonus, eh?