December 28, 2006

The definitive banana bread

I have a confession to make: I am a banana bread snob. There aren't many I've tried that I genuinely like. In my opinion, all banana bread/loaf/cake/muffins can be found at either one of the two extremes on the flavor pole: dry & bland or moist & delicious. Even if they are ok, yet don't measure up to those in the moist & delicious camp, they might as well be banished to the other end of the pole because I won't waste my calorie count on them (IF I was counting calories heh).

My sister used to make banana bread that was the bomb! I haven't had it in years because she moved to Canada 15 years ago. (mental note: bug her for her recipe!). A few years ago at a cooking and recipe forum I used to be active in, someone had posted this recipe and a promise that all other banana bread recipes would pale in comparison. The reaction for months after was nothing short of a craze. Everyone who had tried the recipe gushed about it, prompting its inclusion to the forum's recipe hall of fame.

All of this, I discovered happily later, was well-deserved. It became the definitive banana bread to which I have since compared every other one to. I have had this recipe for over 4 years now I think, but I regret not taking down the name of the lady who originally shared it with us so I can give her credit it now.

I prefer my loaf to have a streusel topping because I love the added crunch so that part is my own addition. You may choose to omit this, of course.

Banana Bread

2 cups flour
1 t salt
1 t baking soda
1 cup melted butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 cup very ripe bananas, mashed (about 6, depending on the size)
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°.

Grease and flour loaf pan (or muffin pan). Stir & toss together flour, salt, baking soda then set it aside. In a large bowl combine butter, sugar, eggs and bananas. Add the combined dry ingredients until batter is thoroughly blended. Pour into a greased loaf pan. Sprinkle with the streusel topping.

Baking time:
banana bread loaf: about 1 hour.
muffins: 15 mins.

Check center for doneness with a toothpick. If it comes out clean, it's ready. Remove from oven then let cool for 5 minutes before inverting.

Streusel Nut Topping: (from BHG Cookbook)

1/2 C packed brown sugar
6 T all-purpose flour.
4 T butter
2/3 C chopped walnuts

In a small bowl, combine the sugar and flour. Then using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the walnuts. Sprinkle this on top of the loaves or muffins before baking.

December 25, 2006

My wishes for you this Christmas

(I received this from a friend and thought it was too beautiful not to pass on to you.)

If father Christmas himself were to burst through my door and offer to grant me some spectacular power for this day, I know what I'd ask for the power to wish you...not a tree full of partridges and pears, not a collapsible sauna bath nor a day of feasting and surprise....but six moments.

I'd wish you a moment of peacefulness...a deep down flowing through your toes and fingers calmess. A stillness at your center that soothes all the hurts and heals the weariness.

I'd wish you a kind of resting in God that enables you to feel the texture of Christmas...the softness and the toughness and the radiant reality. And the knowledge that inner peace is always within your grasp.

I'd wish you a moment of merriment...a soul-skipping, heart-dancing kind of freedom from all that keeps you earth-bound and drudge-blinded.

I'd wish you the capacity to forgive and to let go of old resentments and past bitterness and horrid feelings so that you are set free to really live.

I'd wish you a moment of courage...the courage to do something you've wanted to do for a long time. To tell someone you're sorry or to bridge a chasm or to reach out and touch a person who needs to hear you say, "I love you".

I'd wish you the spunk to look deep down inside yourself and if you find the grounds for it, to say with honest boldness, "I've been wrong. Forgive me".

I'd wish you a moment of gratitude...for all that has been, the good and the bad that has molded you and taught you and made you what you are. I'd wish you the expectation and the eagerness for all that is to come. but most of all, I'd wish you awareness of all that is - right now.

I'd wish you a moment of love...not a selfish, seeking, "give me" kind of love, but such an all-encompassing caring for yourself and others, the world and God who made you, that you'd feel as if you'd touched the star of Bethlehem itself.

I'd wish you a moment of truth...of knowing who you are and what Christmas is. I'd wish you the knowledge that Christmas isnt "out there" somewhere to be found in colored lights and presents and flaming plum pudding. But that Christmas is in you. That God has put it there. And that all you have to do is reach out and touch it.

A magical Father Christmas isn't going to burst through my door to give me some special kind of power, of course. But he doesn't need to. I can wish these things for you without that.

And I do. I tenderly do. But knowing all the time that only you can make them come true.

And thats my last wish.That you will.

May this holiday season be the merriest ever, and may 2007 be filled with blessings of joy, good, health and laughter for you and your family!

December 22, 2006

A Moroccan Lamb & Apricot Tajine for 45 Years

There's a summer place
Where it may rain or storm
Yet I'm safe and warm
For within that summer place
Your arms reach out to me
And my heart is free from all care

For it knows
There are no gloomy skies
When seen through the eyes
Of those who are blessed with love

And the sweet secret of
A summer place
Is that it's anywhere
Where two people share
All their hopes
All their dreams
All their love

- Theme from a Summer Place; their theme song

Forty-five years ago with God as their witness, they vowed to live the rest of their lives together as one. Now 5 children and 8 grandchildren later, they still dance cheek to cheek to the same theme song. :)

We celebrated their anniversary with home cooked dishes, good wine and adorable performances from the kiddos. The kitchen was abuzz with activity as Julio serenaded us from the porch. Rusty cheekily tried to steal food from the table. It was a picture from my childhood, except this time we were in the kitchen while an entirely new generation chased each other around the house.

My brother and his family were in town over the weekend so we chose to have our dinner on Sunday instead of Thursday.

For starters we brought out some salchichon & cheese with crackers and slices of french bread, while we continued to work in the kitchen. My sister brought mechado (Filipino beef stew) and made an Oriental salad while my mom cooked her delicious fabada and steamed a nice fresh fish. I, on the other hand, was busy with my Moroccan Lamb & Apricot Tajine with couscous.

As you may have noticed, because the decision to have the dinner at home instead of going out to a restaurant was made at the last minute, we didn't coordinate the menu to the detail. We just basically assigned each other (my sister, mom and I) a dish or two each. So the buffet was a hodge-podge of Spanish, Filipino, Oriental and Moroccan, yet somehow everything seemed to come together very well.

I am a big fan of all things Moroccan, especially Moroccan food, and lamb tajine is a favorite. This dish is traditionally cooked in a clay pot also called a tajine (ahem ahem, anyone still looking for my gift, you are welcome to give me a nice tajine, I'll be happy with a Le Creuset. heehee. No I'm kidding! Seriously, it doesnt' have to branded ;) ). It comes in 2 pieces - a shallow clay casserole for the bottom, and a conical lid which fits snugly into the other piece. It's such a wonderful dish because it can go from stove-top to oven to table.

This is adapted from a recipe my friend ripped out of a magazine .

Moroccan Lamb & Apricot Tajine

2 tbsp olive oil
600 g lamb shoulder or neck (3m cubes)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
½ tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 red chillies
½ tsp cumin
Black pepper
227 g can plum tomatoes (not drained)
300 ml lamb stock (or beef)
400g can chickpeas
100g dried apricots, cut
1 small handful fresh coriander, chopped

Preheat oven to 160 deg C.

Heat the oil in a large casserole dish. Brown the lamb in small batches, set aside.
Fry the onion until soft, then add garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, chilies, cumin, black pepper and rose petals (if available). Fry for another minute. Then add tomatoes and stock.
Bring to the boil and return the lamb to the casserole. Season and bake in the oven with the lid on for 1 hour. Add the chickpeas and apricots and stir. Then cook for another hour until tender.
Remove from the oven and stir through the chopped coriander.

The original recipe calls for 2 tsp dried rose petals but I had to leave this out because I didn't have any. I like to serve it together with the couscous and some apricot jam on the side for those who prefer it a little sweeter.

Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!! I love you! :)

December 17, 2006

My fabulous Vegas birthday

"I'm living on things that excite me, be they pastry, or lobster, or love..."
- Jimmy Buffet

I started my birthday the way I always start my birthday, with a prayer of thanks. This year, I had something extra special to be thankful for: this trip and the gift of spending my birthday with my sister. I truly could not ask for more.

My phone had about 11 unread messages at that point, sweet greetings from friends and family back home. I always feel extra loved on my birthday. :) I was the last one to wake. I was assaulted with kisses and hugs when I walked out of the room. They quickly led me to the breakfast table where they had arranged my presents. Oohh la la! I love presents!

I picked up the big envelope which embraced the prettiest card ever! My niece and my nephew had hand crafted it themselves. I choked back tears as I read their touching messages inside. Janine & Holly got me stuff from the Cinnamon Bun Heaven line of Bath & Body Works which smells as heavenly as it sounds! It's a delicious blend of spicy cinnamon, creamy vanilla icing and warm brown sugar. They also gave me the Wickedly Hot Chocolate tinted lip gloss, also from B&BW, that smells so good you want to squeeze it directly on your tongue.

My pressies!! :)

Then came my sister's presentS, with a capital S! Oh my goodness, the gift bag was HUGE! Like Santa Claus' loot bag. I loved everything! She gave me 2 Baker's Secret cooling racks (not in picture), Baker's Secret 2-pack baking sheet, Trudeau 5 pc. measuring cup set, Trudeau 5 pc. measuring spoon set, 3 pc. Oxo Good Grips mixing bowls, a tub of The Body Shop coconut body butter, Belle de Provence lavender soap, 3 silicone spatulas, a nutmeg grater, a bookmarker and some books. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, but really I was a squealing and gushing kid on her birthday morning! My sister is really one of the most generous and thoughtful people in the world. :)

Sandra, a friend of mine who lives in Vegas, arrived at the hotel around 10:00. It was her day off so she dedicated her entire day to celebrating with me. Yay! So the first order of the day was brunch at the Round Table Buffet of Excalibur. An all-you-can-eat feast fit for a King for only $12.00! There was a hot food section, cold food section, carving station, Chinese station, dessert station and a self-serve beverage station. While the quality of the food was nothing to write home about, the quantity of it was. The sheer volume of food was crazy!

Round Table Buffet lay-out

If I had eaten a bite more, I would have had to be lifted off with a crane. That was pure gluttony. We walked, some of us waddled, to the Bellagio hotel eager to see their autumn masterpiece. Each season and holiday is celebrated at the Bellagio's Conservatory & Botanical Gardens with a unique and elaborate creation. The garden was a festive autumn tableau of pumpkins, gourds, topiary ducks, scarecrows, a water mill and a massive banyan tree. My favorite scene was the 3D 'painting' which had ducks flying out of it.

Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden's Autumn masterpiece

As if we hadn't eaten enough, we had some cheesecake and chocolate from the Jean-Philippe Patisserie just around the corner from the conservatory. This patisserie is the realized dream of Pastry Chef Jean-Philippe Maury “Our approach was not to think that we were selling pastries, rather, we approached the space as if we were selling exquisite jewelry." And what an exquisite and tempting display indeed it was! Each petit fours and chocolate is dressed and displayed as lovingly and delicately as a bejeweled engagement ring would be.

There are four rotating shelf-towers with a dazzling display of cakes and chocolate, a gourmet crepe station, sandwich station and the piece-de-resistance: the world's tallest chocolate fountain! Imagine a 27 foot waterfall of milk, dark and white chocolate, cascading in a lyrical descent swirling from one receptacle to the next. It is utterly mesmerizing! I would have given anything to stand in there with my tongue sticking out.

Precious gems at the Jean-Philippe Patisserie, Bellagio
The white chocolate-covered cheesecake (bottom center pic) was to die for!

For my birthday, I had only one request - to have dinner and drinks in Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville at the Flamingo hotel. If you don't already know or have not seen my Jimmy Buffett page in my old website (constructed back in 2001) , I am a self-proclaimed Parrothead. And until I find my own Margaritaville, I am content to live vicariously through Jimmy (yes, we're on first name basis cos we're tight like that ;) ).

Like in most popular Vegas eateries, there was a minimum 2 hour waiting list, so we left our names with the hostess around 5pm after which she handed us a pager. The place was already bursting with fun. (It IS always five o'clock somewhere!). Folks spilled onto the streets, swaying to Jimmy's tunes playing from the outdoor speakers as they sipped their margaritas and pina coladas in take-out cups, parrot shaped balloons bobbing on their heads created for them by pirates on stilts. We went back home to freshen up a bit before returning at 7. I was so psyched! Sandra's husband joined us and so did my 2 aunts and their friends.

Inside was the perfect laid-back party atmosphere. We were seated at the center of the restaurant. Above our table hung a life size replica of Jimmy's seaplane, manatees hovered above the Coral Reefer bar next to the "lost shaker of salt". To the left of that is a tiki hut that serves as the stage for live bands and for Jimmy, of course. The booths are designed to look like the backs of fishing boats complete with fishing rods. I was immediately transported to a tropical beach far far away, I loved it!

Search for the lost shaker of salt on the bottom right picture

Patrons can order their "boat drinks" from 2 other bars, the walk-up Volcano bar outside where you can order your drinks to go and the patio bar on the second level overlooking the Strip. Adjacent to the Volcano Bar is the Margaritaville gift shop. I got such a kick out of all the Buffetisms rendered on all types of things like wooden signs, mini surfboards, bottle huggies, light switch plates, even wooden furniture.

A friendly waiter in a floral shirt, shorts, and flip-flops served us volcano nachos, crab cakes, "cheeseburgers in paradise", and chicken caesar salad. All this washed down with, what else? Margaritas! We ordered 2 of those huge cylinder/dispensers with the spout. They were fab, just the right sourness and kick.

Shortly after we finished eating, the waiter came to the table with a slice of cheesecake and set it in front of me and everyone at the table started to sing. I thought it was so cute that the cake, for the lack of a candle, had instead a makeshift flag made out of a drinking straw and paper with the words "Happy Birthday" on it. Normally, I hate it when people sing to me in a restaurant, but this time maybe because of all the tequila in my system, i didn't mind at all. I even agreed to 'blow' the flag for the camera. Funny!

I had freaked out the day before when I found out Jimmy Buffett was playing live at the MGM on the night of my birthday. I would have given my arm to watch him, but I didn't want to have to drag anyone with me who didn't care for him or his songs. And besides, we had already made plans to meet up with my aunts. But as if my birthday couldn't be any more perfect, they broadcast the concert live at the bar! How cool was that? :)

My niece's pretty doodling

Round Table Buffet

Excalibur Hotel
3850 Las Vegas Blvd. S

Jean-Philippe Patisserie
Bellagio Hotel
3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville
Flamingo Hotel
3555 Las Vegas Blvd. So.

December 14, 2006

Vegas, Baby!

Las Vegas was never on my list of places to visit. I can name over a hundred other places I would rather spend my money traveling to before I even considered Vegas. It didn’t matter that friends who had been there raved about it, or that I was hooked on shows like CSI or Las Vegas with cutie Josh Duhamel. It’s in-your-face glitz and “fakeness” did nothing for me.

The main purpose of this leg of my trip was to meet up with my sister and my niece who I hadn’t seen in almost 7 years. They were flying down from Vancouver, BC so we could spend 6 glorious days together! We decided on Vegas for our reunion because it was not too far for her and was en route for me, but more importantly because neither of us had been there so we would share in this discovery. Shortly after we made our decision, she informed me that my cousin’s wife and her daughter were coming along as well. Two of my favorite aunts were also coming down from Vancouver, but staying with friends away from The Strip Yay, the more the merrier! I couldn’t have been more excited!

It was bittersweet leaving Phoenix. I felt sad saying goodbye to Sheila but I was also extremely eager to see my sis and niece. So after one last hug and a promise from her that she would come to Manila very soon, I was off to the 'Entertainment Capital of the world'.

Barely an hour after take-off, we started our descent into McCarran Int'l. Airport. From my window seat, I had a bird's eye view of The Strip and recognized the pyramid-inspired Luxor Hotel, the towering Stratosphere, and the replica Eiffel Tower of the Paris Hotel. Pretty impressive. But my attention was involuntarily drawn to the brownness, flatness and bleakness of the desert that surrounded all that. The absence of any greenery or body of water was startling and slightly unnerving.

The taxi made its way to the Polo Towers where the 5 of us were staying. We rented my friends timeshare, a one bedroom suite, complete with kitchenette, dishwasher, breakfast table and living area. The location was excellent! Right in the middle of the strip between the Aladdin Hotel and MGM Grand. And as a bonus, we had a pretty nice view from our balcony which included the fountains of Bellagio. (pic at right)

I had plenty of time before the rest arrived, so I unpacked all the stuff I brought for them from Manila which occupied half my suitcase. A lot of it was sent by the rest of my family. I freshened up and went to get something to eat and to explore my immediate surroundings. Directly in front of us was the Hawaiian Marketplace. Here I discovered Kapit Bahay, a fast-food Filipino restaurant, which has delicious longganisa (Filipino sausages).

Our other neighbors were Walgreens, McDonalds, 7-11, CV Pharmacy, the Harley Davidson Cafe, and M & M World. I made a beeline for Walgreens. I'm like a kid in a candy shop in there. After about an hour of scanning every shelf top to bottom, I went back to the hotel armed with fruits, muffins, Krispy Kremes, juice and other breakfast items, then took a quick nap.

I don't remember what time I closed my eyes, but I woke up with a start and without checking my watch I hurried down to the lobby. Strange I know, but there they were! I nearly wept with joy! We hugged for so long, individual bear hugs and then a group hug. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

That afternoon, we explored the Desert Passage Mall in the Aladdin Hotel. I loved the whole Moroccan souk-inspired theme going on here. After shopping and a dinner filled with laughter (my sister is a hoot and a half!) at Max's Cafe, we went back to the hotel to wait to wait for the rest, my cousins wife and her daughter, who were arriving on the evening flight from Vancouver. I was meeting them for the first time. They turned out to be loads of fun!

The Strip:
Top: View from New York,New York, the Bellagio, New York New York
Middle: the Paris Hotel, MGM Grand, man on stilts outside the Flamingo
Bottom: M&M World, Vegas bus, lions at MGM Grand

The next 5 days were a blast! We shopped, gambled, ate, walked, marvelled at dancing fountains, sighed at couples in gondolas, made faces at Simon Cowell's wax figure, posed by the Arc du Triomphe, guzzled margaritas, walked some more, bought Coca Cola and M&M souvenirs, stuffed ourselves at a buffet, rode a limo, gawked at lions, window shopped at The Forum, saw Elvis, watched a light and sound show downtown, walked the streets of New York, ate kung pao chicken in SoHo, watched a volcano erupt, wasted away at Margaritaville, walked the gardens of Bellagio, had oyster shots... Now what was that again about Vegas not being my kind of town? heehee

Vegas has something for everyone, no doubt about that. Party place. Shopping haven. Gamblers paradise. Foodie heaven. But it can be overwhelming. By the end of the 3rd day I was ready to run from the Strip with arms flailing around me. Thankfully, my moms friends invited us for a very pleasant lunch (NOT on the strip) and drove us around the suburbs. It was a much needed break from the craziness.

Vegas by Night :
Top row: The Venetian, the pirate ship at Treasure Island, erupting volcano at The Mirage
Middle: Casesar's Palace, the Bellagio (both pics)
Bottom: Fremont Casino, The Venetian again, famous icon of Fremont Street

Some of the famous chef's restaurants:

Wolfgang Puck's Bar & Grill, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Emeril's New Orleans Fish House

They don't call this Sin City for nothing!
L to R: Wall-to-wall M&Ms , candy apples, deep fried oreos (!)

My first oyster shot - I loved it!

December 12, 2006

Arizona: Let your spirit soar in Sedona

Bell Rock

We continued our drive along Route 179 towards Sedona city proper which was just minutes away. Up ahead, I caught my first glimpse of Bell Rock and my heart skipped a beat. Its fiery hues in the shape of a bell (hence the name) loomed over us as we approached it slowly. I’m glad I wasn’t driving or I would have probably driven us off the road. Without looking away, I reached into my bag and blindly groped for my camera and freed it from its case. I managed to take a couple of pictures before it disappeared behind us. Beautiful!

This was just a teaser, the amuse bouche before le plat principal.

Sedona is a budding artist colony. Some of America's most talented and respected artists are featured in the wealth of galleries around town and in places like Hillside. Here we browsed beautiful and unique works of art in oil, watercolor, acrylic, ceramic, clay, bronze and silver. A visitor to Sedona will immediately understand this bounty of talent.

The scenery here has the ability to inspire, perhaps even stick-figure drawers like me. Actually I might be a hopeless case. But there is so much natural art here and being in the midst of all this beauty is so uplifting. So much in fact that later, as I stood by the Chapel of the Holy Cross surrounded by all this blazing glory, I thought I was going to burst into song. (Don't worry I didn't, thank God. Can you imagine if I did?!)

View of the valley from the Chapel of the Holy Cross

The Chapel of the Holy Cross was designed and built in 1956 by Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was built directly into a butte and offers the most dramatic view of the valley 200 ft. below. Inside, the chapel is dim. What little light there is comes from candles in red votives and the fading sunlight streaming in through the all-glass wall behind the altar. To the left are stairs that lead down to a gift shop.

Chapel of the Holy Cross

But what most people really come here for is the 360° view from the plaza in front of the chapel. The sweeping vista is simply stunning! Also, if you look closely at the natural rock formations on the hillside nearby, you will see two similary shaped rock pillars dubbed "the Two Nuns". To the left of that is the unmistakable image of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus, the Madonna & Child. This is the image you will find in countless Sedona-inspired prints and paintings. These ones Sheila pointed out to me.

Madonna & Child (center) and the Two Nuns (right)

What I proudly discovered all on my own was the image of an eagle's head which seemed to be sculpted directly out of the hill. The photo on the left below is how it looked from where we stood and on the right is the zoomed in photo. Isn't that neat?!

Can you see the eagle head?

Sheila suggested we have lunch in Tlaquepaque (tuh-lah-kee-pah-kee), a quaint stucco-walled and cobble-stoned village of shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants. Not to be confused with the Tlaquepaque in the Jalisco region of Mexico, though this place may have been patterned after it. The sun streamed through the branches of the sycamore trees and onto outdoor patios where diners feasted on Mexican or French cuisine. I finally succumbed to the temptation of buying two prints from one of the galleries, I plan to hang these in the powder room of my future house.

She left it up to me to decide on a place to eat so I chose the Secret Garden Cafe, just a few yards away from the courtyard fountain. It turned out to be as enchanting as it sounds. We went directly to the outdoor patio the day was too beautiful to waste indoors. Wrought iron chairs were draped with warm woven blankets for diners to wrap around themselves should it start to get chilly.. I ordered the corn chowder which was excellent (I want to duplicate this) and the chicken salad. We enjoyed our meal in this serene garden setting shaded by lush foliage.

Sedona is the spiritual mecca for new-age folk. The whole area is said to be saturated with energy from vortexes - a funnel of spiraling energy coming from deep within the earth. Twisted juniper tree branches are an indication of where the energy is strongest.

It is no surprise then that there are many psychics here. Would you like to have your aura photographed or get your chakra balanced? Fancy a past-life regression? Or how about a regular psyshic reading? You can have all this done and more at the Center for the New Age, just across from Tlaquepaque. The center has a wide range of books on this particular subject matter, pamphlets explaining the power of the vortexes and maps to the strongest points, healing crystals and the like.

Sheila insisted on sponsoring a psychic reading for me so I obliged. Concetta (5th person down the list on the link) was warm and friendly, not at all what I expected. She led us into her little retreat upstairs where we sat on comfy chairs covered in pink satin and scattered with velvety throw pillows. A light breeze carried the soothing sound of the creek outside through her window. What happened next was more like a conversation between friends rather than a psychic reading. She told me nothing I hadn't already heard from countless psychics and coffee readers (yes, I went to a coffee reader twice) before her, but most if not all were head-on. She was indeed insightful, however I've long forgotten what it was she told me.

People visit Sedona for many different reasons. Some come to frolic in this big outdoor playground and hike the monoliths, some to get away from it all and to relax and be pampered in one of the many spas, some on a spiritual journey come for the vortexes, the healing energy that comes from within the earth that Sedona is well-known for. While many still, like me, come for the spectacular scenery, the pure natural beauty. But whatever your purpose for visiting this magical place, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Sedona isn't a place, it is an experience.

Chapel of the Holy Cross
780 Chapel Rd, Sedona, AZ
+1 928 282-4069

Tlaquepaque Shopping Center

336 Hwy 179, Sedona, AZ

Secret Garden Cafe
Tlaquepaque, Sedona AZ
+1 928 203 9564

Center for the New Age
+1 928 282 2085

December 10, 2006

Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!

Today my second box ( The first one I sent home from Vegas and this one I had sent home from SF a week later) arrived and along with it the books I purchased from Amazon and those which I received as presents for my birthday!! Wheeeeee!

More books about food and travel, my favorite kind:

1. Entertaining by Donna Hay
2. The Gourmet Cookbook: More than 1000 Recipes by Ruth Reichl
3. Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (present from an aunt)
4. Classic Rachel Ray 30 Minute Meals (present from another aunt)
5. Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell
6. Her Fork in The Road: Women Celebrate Food & Travel by Lisa Bach
7. Mañana Mañana: One Mallorcan Summer by Peter Kerr
8. Havana Salsa: Stories & Recipes by Viviana Carballo
9. Muffins & Other Morning Bakes by Linda Collister and Philip Webb
10. Brunch by Lousie Pickford & Ian Wallace
11. Very Funny, Now Change Me Back Again by Peter Biddlecombe
12. The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

Other books I received as a birthday gift from my ultra-sweet sister (Love you mucho, Lils!) while in Vegas and which made it into the first box:
  • Atonement: A Novel by Ian McEwan
  • Philadelphia Cream Cheese Classic Recipes
  • Hershey's Classic Recipes

I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed, but in a good way. I have to make space for them in my shelves, and even more challenging would be to make time to read them all! I wish I could speed-read. I can't wait to try out recipes from all these cookbooks, and settle once again into armchair traveler mode with the rest. Christmas comes early for this gypsy soul! :)

December 5, 2006

Arizona: Images of the Southwest

Road trip!! I love road trips. Especially when done with good company and when the destination is a place as beautiful and magical as Sedona.

Bright and early on the morning of October 16, Sheila and I jumped into her SUV and hit the road. She was just as excited as I was though she’d been to Sedona twice before. Without giving away too much, she told me about her past trips to Sedona with family and how the place had left a significant impression on all of them.

We rolled down the windows and let the wind play with our hair as we headed north on I-17. Arizona is the definition of sprawling. Green arid landscape dotted with tall cacti stretch out on each side as far as the eye can see. It is mostly flat with some hills, much of which is Indian reservation. The scenery is lovely in the morning light. My cactus friends are out in full force, waving those prickly arms – did you know that the Saguaro cactus only sprouts arms when it reaches the age of 100? And that they stand anywhere between 15 to 50 ft. tall? Yup, just in case you haven't learned anything new yet today. :)

The landscape gradually started to change, the soil now a sparkling reddish hue. We were approaching Oak Creek Canyon, renowned for its stunning red buttes and monoliths. I shifted in my seat, barely able to contain my excitement. I was about to see terrain so completely and utterly foreign to me. I enjoy this thrill of discovery immensely, this is when I feel most alive! I let out a squeal when I saw my first red rock butte. The redness of the unique formation was a stark contrast to the blue sky and the green sycamore trees.

My first pumpkin patch!

We stopped at the Son Silver West store and gallery, a fine place specializing in western art and various knick knacks like chile ristras, jewelry, pueblo pottery, souvenir items, saddles, and other cowboy paraphernalia.

No, I didn't get any kicks cos we weren't on Route 66. I hope to drive on the historic Mother Road someday soon though. This is part of Son Silver West's facade.

But what dominated the grounds were the chile ristras (string of chili). Hundreds of years ago these chilis were laid out to dry and then strung together as a way for the people to preserve them long after the growing season. Long after the invention of the freezer, these chile ristras continue to be a popular kitchen ornament found in many southwestern kitchens.

Chile Ristras

The sun-bleached cow skull is another typical symbol of the Southwest

Chimineas, these are front-loading outdoor fireplaces usually made of clay

The image of the Kokopelli or Flute Player (the cute hunched-over figure with the funky mohawk in the picture below) is commonly found in traditional southwestern pottery, jewelry and artwork. Legend has it that the Kokopelli traveled around the the Southwest and Mexico playing his flute to announce his arrival to villagers. This mystical deity is now regarded as the universal symbol for fertility.

Kokopellis, geckos and sun faces

Being a sucker for local crafts and souvenirs, I left with some prickly pear cactus jelly, a pair of dainty silver & turquoise earrings, and a pretty Native American clay pot. We then climbed back into the car to cover the last few miles to Sedona.

Son Silver West / Robson Design

1476 Hwy 179, Sedona, AZ

Phone: + 1 928 282-3580

Up Next: Arizona: Let your spirit soar in Sedona

December 4, 2006

Arizona: Phoenix & the desert landscape

“ the Arizona sky, the sky is bigger there.
It took my breath away, that doesn’t happen everyday”.

My mental music playlist immediately switched on this tune by China Crisis when Sheila and I emerged from the driveway of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and onto the freeway. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. The sky does seem bigger there. And bluer. A deep blue, two shades deeper than sky blue on the color wheel. The words "where the earth and sky are endless" became reality.

I was staring at the sky when something caught my eye at the side of the road. It was a cactus! A tall one at that, and with arms. I’m sure they aren’t called arms, maybe branches, but they looked like arms to me. Like that cartoon cactus with the cowboy hat or sombrero and red bandana with waving arms. Arms that seemed to be waving and saying: “Howdy! Welcome to the Southwestern United States!”. (At this point I start to wonder if maybe I had too much caffeine and too little sleep, or maybe there was a tad too much pressure in the plane’s cabin).

I hadn’t seen Sheila, an old friend from 5th grade to high school, in way over 5 years. I couldn’t pass through Phoenix on my way to Las Vegas without spending a few days with her to catch up. We tried to cram 5 years worth of updates and gossip into our 10 minute drive to the mall in Chandler where we continued our gab fest over lattes. It was so nice to see that she hadn’t changed one bit. Sure she was a mother of four beautiful kids now, an experience which wisened her in ways only mothers can be wisened. But she was the same gorgeous and smart person I knew back then with the same contagious laugh.

She told me about what life was like for her in Phoenix and how she's still trying to acclimitize to the scorching dry heat. From June to September, the temperature can reach or exceed 105°F. Luckily, I missed the heat by a week. We had beautiful weather, sunny and breezy, which was certainly a blessing since we planned to spend a lot of time outdoors.
Phoenix, the largest city in the state of Arizona and the largest capital city in all of the US, is located in the Salt River Valley or Valley of the Sun in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. The Phoenix Metro area is huge, it includes Mesa, Glendale, Chandler, Gilbert, Sun City, Tempe and Scottsdale among others.

After we finished our coffee, we headed to her house in the Ahwatukee Foothills. Her front yard was decorated by the kids for Halloween. She set me up in her guest room which she fixed up with pretty sheets, a bowl of fruits, another bowl this one filled to the brim with assorted flavors of Lindor chocolates, and a vase with beautiful fresh flowers. A brand new shower curtain was hanging in the bathroom, there were freshly laundered towels laid out, and a basket filled with goodies like body wash, lotions, shampoo, and body sprays. When I expressed my surprise (and gratitude of course!), she told me to humor her since she rarely gets any visitors in this part of the world, plus this is merely a product of her hotel training.

After I met her beautiful family (and her adorable dog, Cali) and freshened up, we went out to dinner at Roy’s for some Hawaiian fusion cuisine. Roy’s is the eponymous restaurant of Chef Roy Yamaguchi who was named by the NY Times as the 'Wolfgang Puck of the Pacific'. We ordered the canoe appetizer plate and I had Roy’s Classic Roasted Macadamia Nut Mahi Mahi which was superb!

One of the places I asked Sheila to bring me to was the Desert Botanical Garden. This garden serves as a comprehensive introduction to the desert landscape and all its glory. This 50 acre garden which is located near Papago Park, is home to thousands of species of desert plants and succulents. With map in hand, we explored the trails and learned not only about desert plants but also about the desert dwellers, specifically the native people of the Sonoran Desert and how they lived.

The Garden was teaming with school kids on an educational field trip. We went into the butterfly pavillion with one of the groups. I had fun watching them go gaga over the butterflies. In this age of video games and chat rooms, however, this kind of interaction between youngin and Mother Nature is a rare sight.
More butterflies outside the Butterfly Pavillion

We were shown the versatility of the prickly pear cactus (right)
It is used to make candy, juice, jelly, hair conditioners, and added to omelettes and soups.

Up Next: Arizona: Images of the Southwest