European Hanging Basket and Herbes de Provence Dinner

Several years ago my friend Norma and I took part in a “Holiday Decorating on a Shoestring Budget” workshop at a magical place in the countryside of southwest Michigan, Southern Exposure Herb Farm. We were delighted with the experience (you can read more about it here) and finally got a chance to go back recently.

Norma and me at Southern Exposure
Here we are in the Hog House, where the cheese demonstration took place.

The retreat we took part in this time was the European Hanging Basket and Herbes de Provence Dinner. It was a little early in the season for many spring flowers to be appearing on the farm yet, but the place still looked enchanting and it was nice to be able to see it in the daylight.

The owner, Curtis Whitaker, remembered Norma and me (or seemed to) which we found very charming. Two other groups of ladies were at our table but they all seemed to want to converse among themselves, so Norma and I had a chance to chat and catch up (and share the carafe of white wine conveniently placed in front of us).

The food was sublime: homemade bread with herb butter, chicken stuffed with brie, a fresh green salad with artichokes and more brie, haricots verts, and the most amazing scalloped potatoes I’ve ever had. Since both of us have been trying to detox and eat clean for the past several months, the meal was beyond decadent; in fact, neither of us could finish our plates. The dinner was followed by apple pie with lavender ice cream, which Norma didn’t touch but I had to at least sample. It was absolutely amazing; I never thought I’d like lavender flavored anything but the ice cream was wonderful.

meal
The photo doesn’t do the dinner justice. Those potatoes!

Following the dinner we were split into groups and moved to different areas of the farm where the resident experts gave us a variety of demonstrations. My favorite was the lesson on how to make the perfect mojito.

Place into a glass:

  • ¾ – 1 oz. simple syrup
  • 4 mint leaves (no stalks)
  • ½ lime, quartered

Muddle the mixture and add 1.5 – 2 oz. rum and ice. Top with club soda and stir. Take a small mint bunch and give it a “slap” to release the scent; place in glass as garnish.

exterior
Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of the mojito, but I did snap a shot of this beautiful space right outside the Milking Parlour where the demonstration took place

Finally, we ventured into the tented workspace where we put together our baskets. The baskets were already filled with the individual plants, so all we had to do was take them out of the containers and make room in the baskets for everything, then cover it all with moss to hide the soil. The baskets are filled to the brim with edible flowers, herbs and scented botanicals that are meant to be snipped and used for cooking and drinks all season long.

The baskets include:

  • Swiss chard – for soups and salads
  • Purple flowering kale – decorative; leaves can be used for salads and garnish
  • Viola – salads; nice as a garnish on cakes and desserts
  • Dianthus – ideal to accent drinks and desserts
  • Mojito mint – ideal for mojitos of course; also good for tea and dessert garnishes
  • Basil – pasta sauces, salads, chicken and other meats
  • Creeping rosemary – lovely with chicken, fish, potatoes, casseroles
  • Lemon thyme – vegetables, chicken, salad dressings
  • Parsley – any food except sweets; add at the end of cooking
  • French tarragon – good with chicken, salad dressing, sauces

Here’s the finished basket. It needs to be hung in full sun with good ventilation, and the plants should be trimmed regularly to keep them full and healthy. I can’t wait to hang mine at the lakehouse to enjoy all summer long!

finished basket

A few other tips and ideas we brought home include:

  • Herb butter is easy to make: make sure to use sweet cream UNSALTED butter that is at room temperature (but not runny). Mix in 8 lemon thyme leaves and 8 chopped rosemary leaves (no stems), place into a pastry bag and pipe onto baking sheet; freeze and use as needed.
  • Herbed brie is a simple, delicious appetizer: trim the rind off the top and sides but leave it on the bottom so it can served as a base. Sprinkle the top with chopped rosemary, basil, lemon thyme and lemon zest. Slice into small pieces and place onto individual crackers an hour or so before your guests arrive.
  • For the best homemade pesto, use Pecorino cheese.
  • Plant creeping rosemary in strawberry jars.
  • As the lemon thyme spreads in your basket, add soil to the tentacles (mist with a bit of water). This will help it grow. In the garden, press the tentacles of creeping herbs into the soil.
  • Violas are lovely as garnishes on cupcakes or muffins. Use a bit of honey to make them stick to the top.

Southern Exposure is truly a hidden gem in southwest Michigan. If you have the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful outing for friends, sisters and mother/daughter groups, book clubs and bridal parties. They offer a plethora of hands-on workshops in the spring and fall, as well as theme dinners, bus tours, garden weddings and travel adventures around the world. To learn more, visit here. Just make sure to sign up early because all of their events fill up fast!

Sourthern Exposure exterior
Here’s one of the buildings at Southern Exposure with the gardens in full bloom.
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Laguna Bayou

One of the things I’ve loved doing is taking pictures of the bayou our lakehouse is situated on. I love capturing the changing light, leaves and water. The changes from season to season are the most dramatic, of course, but subtle shifts happen even from moment to moment.

Spring Lake is unusual in that it is very long and narrow with a ton of little bayous and bays. Some of the larger bayous have names but there are many smaller ones that don’t, at least as far as we know. We used to drop anchor in an unnamed bayou that we dubbed “Spartan Bay.” When we bought the lakehouse, we weren’t aware of a name for our little bay so we named it “Laguna Bayou” after one of our favorite places – Laguna Beach, California.

Here’s the first bayou shot I took, shortly after we took possession of the lakehouse. This was a happy day, because we had just gotten the boat out of storage and brought it to the dock for the summer!

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Here’s Just Like Heaven, all ready for summer. Judging from the lack of boats in front of our neighbors’ cottages, we may have been a little over-eager to get our boat into the water.

This is the bayou in early summer, late in the day. I love the golden glow from the late afternoon sun.

laguna bayou

This shot is the one that’s featured in my blog header. It was taken in the middle of the afternoon on a beautiful Sunday in July. I had a heavy heart when I took this because it was time to head home. There’s nothing sadder than having to tear yourself away from this!

Laguna Bay

Here’s another late afternoon shot taken toward the end of summer.

Late afternoon on the bayou
You can see the tiki lights that we added to the boathouse. Rich really wanted to have at least one gaudy decoration at our new place, so this is what we decided on. They’re actually super festive and fun!

This was a gorgeous fall day, with the leaves just starting to reach peak color. We had just taken the boat over to be stored for the winter.

Bayou

We got an early snow in mid-November, while there were still leaves on some of the trees.Snowy bayou

We went back to the lake the day after Christmas and there was no snow, but I loved this beautiful sunset.

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Rich’s sister and brother joined us for New Year’s Eve at the lakehouse. I caught this shot right after we got there as the sun was setting. I love the combination of colors with the periwinkle clouds and the pink sunset.

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Then just yesterday Rich was snowed in for a while, and he sent me this shot of the lake effect snow that had hit the west side of the state. It was amazing because we had nowhere near that amount of snow in the Lansing area. This picture almost looks like it has a black & white filter on it, but this is actually full color!

wintry bayou

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of capturing the changing beauty of our bayou, and I’m especially looking forward to seeing it all decked out for our big event on July 25.

Eight Things

This post was inspired by another blog, Cupcakes and Cashmere. Her original post was titled “Eight Things Every Happy Woman Should Have,” but that seemed a bit too grandiose for me. Using her categories, I’m calling mine “Eight Things.”

image
Rockin’ my brand new Stormy Kromer hat, a gift from Ricardo. This is the “Ida.”

Eight Things


Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Disclaimer: This dish was not created at the lakehouse. I’m afraid that now that summer has drawn to a close, there will be less lake activity to share. However, this is a wonderful end-of-summer recipe that I plan on making again many times, and I’m sure that will include at least a few times at the lakehouse next year.

My friend Norma and I had big plans to can tomatoes this summer, but like many big plans, they never materialized. To be honest, while I’ve always liked the idea of having a supply of home-canned tomatoes all winter long, I have never been very interested in the actual process of canning. It just sounds hot, labor-intensive, and messy, and the last thing I would want to do on a beautiful summer weekend.

However, during my most recent mammogram I was having a nice friendly chat with the tech, and she told me how she roasted tomatoes and froze them, saying it was so much easier than canning. It sounded like a much more do-able way to preserve tomatoes, so Norma and I decided to try that instead. But again, summer got away from us and by the time I went to buy a bushel (or bushels) of tomatoes from the farmers market for a big roasting party, it was too late. All that were available were a few random quart-ish sized containers – not enough to buy in any sort of quantity.

But I was determined to at least give roasting a try and make a batch of sauce for pasta, so I bought one container of heirlooms and one of just plain old tomatoes. Yesterday was a rainy, chilly Sunday – perfect for spending some time in the kitchen.

Tomatoes before

Here are the tomatoes, minus one because I had already cut it up. The mammogram lady made a point of telling me the tomatoes needed to be dried carefully, so this is after they were washed and dried.

Core and coarsely chop the tomatoes. There seemed to be just a few too many tomatoes to spread onto one baking sheet without crowding, so I used two sheets.

Next, roughly chop an onion and four cloves of garlic, and sprinkle everything on both trays. Because I had peppers still growing in the garden, I roughly chopped a couple of those and added them to the trays but this is optional.

Some fresh herbs are next. I happened to have some fresh basil in the garden, so I clipped a small handful. I like oregano in my pasta sauces, so I bought some fresh and added that as well. The herbs are really up to your taste and what you have on hand; rosemary and thyme would be good too. Remove the leaves of the basil and oregano from the stems (not necessary to chop them at all), and sprinkle them into the mix.

Tomatoes ready to go

Finally, sprinkle both trays with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and drizzle olive oil over everything (a couple of tablespoons per tray). With clean hands, gently toss everything together to make sure it’s all coated with oil and seasoning.

Tomato roasting
I wish I’d removed those pots from the stove before taking this picture. I didn’t try to hide the glass of wine though, because after all, what would a rainy day of tomato roasting be without a little vino?

Place both trays in a preheated oven set at 325 degrees. Roast for one to two hours or until vegetables are tender (mine only took an hour).

Finished tomatoes

These tomatoes are incredibly flavorful! I ended up dumping one tray into a Ziploc bag and freezing it; the other I used to make pasta sauce. I cooked them down (discarded most of the onion and garlic and just used the tomatoes with their juices) with red wine and a small can of plain tomato sauce, but no extra seasoning was necessary.

Roasted tomato sauce

Oven Roasted Tomatoes (printable format)

  • About 2-½ lbs. tomatoes (any combination of heirloom, regular, Roma, etc., roughly 16 small or 8-10 medium-large)
  • Small bunch fresh basil
  • 4 sprigs fresh oregano
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, smashed, roughly chopped
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Wash and dry each tomato; core and coarsely chop. Distribute evenly among two baking sheets. Rinse and dry basil and oregano and remove leaves from stems. Sprinkle evenly over both trays; add onion and garlic, distributing equally. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. With clean hands, gently stir vegetables to evenly coat with oil.

Add both pans to oven and cook for one to two hours, or until vegetables are tender. Place in freezer Ziploc bags and freeze for up to six months.

If using immediately for sauce: Place all vegetables (I removed the onion and garlic; it’s completely up to your taste) in saucepan and add about ½ cup dry red wine. If desired, add small can plain tomato sauce. Cook until vegetables are broken down and incorporated. If you prefer a smoother consistency, use an immersion blender and blend or pulse until you get the right texture.

Falling for Fall

Today is last day of August. The MSU Spartans played their opening football game Friday night, tomorrow is Labor Day, and Tuesday Michigan’s public schools are back in session.  

I can’t figure out where the summer went. For one thing, Winter 2014, also known as the 2014 Deep Freeze, so damaged me (and many, many of my fellow Michiganders, I’m sure) that I really don’t think I’ve even thawed out yet. Plus Michigan summers always seem to fly by. And now another summer is over.

 But yet… but yet – I’m kind of getting excited for fall. I do love having college football games on TV (even though I rarely sit down and watch them)… I love seeing the colors change… I love fall fashion. I love putting a big pot of chili on the stove in the morning and letting it simmer, filling the house with delicious smells, all day. I love burning fall scented candles (this one from Yankee Candle is my current favorite). I love hearing the leaves crunch underfoot. I love fall baking. 

Most of all, I love decorating for fall. I’m not one to decorate for every single holiday, but I tend to get pretty into Christmas and fall décor. If budget allowed, I’d go completely overboard but I do have to restrain myself, limiting the fall stuff to the front porch and maybe a bit in the kitchen. 

This year I’m looking forward to also doing a bit of decorating at the lake house. Definitely not too much, but I’m thinking of doing some mums on the front porch (and maybe the deck too), with some cornstalks and pumpkins too. 

This was taken in fall 2011. My porch decor has improved since then, but I like this picture because of the dog squeezing her head between the two of them.
This was taken in fall 2011. My porch decorating skills have improved since then, but I like this picture because of how the dog is squeezing her head between the two of them.

My friend Norma and I discovered the most amazing pumpkin farm, Tomac Pumpkin Patch, not far from our hometown. They grow heirloom tomatoes in gorgeous colors, along with all sorts of crazy gourds. Plus they are very good at displaying their produce and putting together these fabulous stacks of mixed pumpkins, which of course makes you want to buy some so you can duplicate the look at home. I’ve been doing that for several years, and just love the look.

 

pumpkin stack
An example of stacked heirloom pumpkins at Tomac Pumpkin Patch.
Norma with gourd
Norma displaying some of the interesting produce at Tomac Pumpkin Patch.

Then I found this pumpkin stack on Pinterest, with straw layered in between the pumpkins.

pumpkins

I think the straw makes these stacks so much more fun and fall-y! I’m always amazed at how just the littlest touch can elevate something from pretty good to really special. 

I’ve also always been drawn to flowering kale as part of fall décor. I love the dark, textured foliage, and they’re just a bit less predictable than mums. If I have time and can find what I’m looking for, I might do something like this in the flower boxes at the lake house.

basket

I’m not sure where to find bittersweet though, so I will be on a quest to find it somewhere. Can’t wait to get started!

 

 

Mopedin’ Around Town

When Rich first brought two brand spankin’ new Mopeds home to the lake house, I was less than thrilled. I guess I’d been damaged from our scooter rental experience in Key West. It SEEMED like it would be fun, but I had a difficult time controlling mine and almost steered into oncoming traffic several times. Plus I’m not a big fan of speed, loud noises or adventure in general. But it turns out, there’s nothing to be scared of on these little puppies! I mean I definitely would not want to be on one in heavy traffic, but they’re perfect for tooling around town. And Spring Lake has lots of little side streets and cute neighborhoods, so it’s really an ideal place to have them.

moped mama3

On this particular outing, we decided to take the scooters over to Spring Lake’s popular dive bar, Stan’s. This little watering hole is a favorite among the locals. Plus you can order a pizza from the nearby pizzeria, Mamma Mia’s, and they’ll deliver it to you right in the bar!

Rich at Stans
The rear entrance to Stan’s. I didn’t notice the “in-out” sign when I took the picture, but I see now that it’s pointed directly at Rich’s head. I think it’s referring to his listening skills.

But I think my favorite thing about Stan’s is the wine pours. None of this fancy pouring until the wine hits the proper spot on the bowl of the wine glass. No, Stan’s bartenders take special pride in pouring to the very top of the glass.

Stans pour

It may not be particularly good wine, but you’re going to get a lot of it!

Though summer is drawing to a close, I think we still have a good month or so of Moped time left. I definitely want to explore those little lakeside streets and take some pictures, which I will share here. In the meantime, cheers to the wind in your hair, summer days and good pours!

 

 

Tropical Pots

I love planting these containers. I started doing these a number of years ago when a friend introduced me to Coleus, which I wasn’t familiar with. I had always done beds and and planters with very conventional plants like geraniums and impatiens. But I got kind of hooked on this darker,”urban” look.

best planter

These look great grouped in the planters we found at Costco this spring. They’re huge, heavyweight, and at about $40 apiece, a bargain. We sort of spread them across the upper deck at the lake house and then just let them do their thing. Little tip we got from a local gardening guru: fill the bases of huge pots with packing peanuts! They’re light and do a great job of taking up space in that base that really doesn’t need to be filled with heavy – and expensive – potting soil.

2 planters

I always start with a big anchor plant in the center. In this case, it’s a spiky tropical; Elephant Ears make great anchors too. Then I plant fillers at the base – sweet potato vine, regular ivy, Coleus of course, asparagus fern and spikes if there’s room. The goal is a mix of dark, light and contrasting foliage.

dos planters

We sometimes move these planters inside and try to keep them going through the winter, but I don’t know if that’s possible at the lake house because there really isn’t enough room for these babies. In the meantime, we’re going to keep them outside to remind us of warm, beautiful days for as long as we can.