Life is a celebration . . .

Note: The news earlier this week of the death of Ed Lowe, renowned Dallas restaurateur, came as a shock, not only to his family and friends, but also to those who loved the family dining spot on Lovers Lane. I couldn’t help thinking of the last time I visited there. It turned out to be a much better experience than I had hoped, thanks entirely to the staff of Celebration Restaurant. Although I sent a note to the restaurant at the time, I’ll share the whole story here. I think Ed Lowe would like it, just as I am certain that his spirit lives on at his restaurant with every meal that is served.

There may be no better way to celebrate a special occasion than with a family group sitting around a table laden with good food. And, sometimes, going out is better than cooking at home.

So, it was with high expectations that I chose a place we had not visited for years, but known for decades, as the perfect surprise for a special birthday luncheon. It represented, in some ways, a trip down memory lane.WP_20180311_14_17_57_Pro (3)Celebration Restaurant on Lovers Lane in Dallas is known as the city’s first true “farm to table” enterprise. It has been serving up good food and good times for 46 years in a location not far from Love Field. It still exists in the same sprawling Bluffview neighborhood home where it originally opened. It has been expanded over the years, and now includes not only an outdoor patio, but also an adjacent retail market.

It’s homey in all the best ways.

Tables are set in rooms of varying sizes. There are private rooms available to accommodate groups large or small. The atmosphere isn’t trendy, but rather as familiar as a visit to Grandma’s house.

The food is much the same: No sushi, fusion or “nouvelle” anything here; just good honest beef, pork, chicken, fish and a choice of freshly prepared sides. The veggies, which vary by season, are served in family style bowls, a choice of three for each table. Every meal carries a choice of starters — soup, salad or fresh fruit; and desserts are too good to miss, even though ordering them reaches the borders of glut.

The concept was unique in the mid-70’s when Celebration opened. Now, after nearly five decades, it is still unique in a market that prides itself on its growing roster of award-winning chefs and innovative eateries.

Celebration is low key and pleasant. Children are welcomed, but the children’s menu contains “adult” food. Portions are reasonable rather than “super-sized,” but seconds on most entrees are available, and cheerily served. No one ever leaves hungry.

On our recent visit, there was a slight glitch with the reservations — some of our party arrived a bit early only to find that there was no record of our request for a large group. On a Sunday, the restaurant was already filled to overflowing. I learned of the problem when I arrived with my husband, the honored “birthday boy,” at the appointed hour. Needless to say, I was upset. We did not want to wait for two hours, and we did not want to go elsewhere. It seemed as impossible situation.

However, with only a few words exchanged and a delay of just a few minutes, we were made welcome at a table hastily set on the patio. Luckily, it was a pleasant, early spring day in Dallas, and overhead heaters warmed our bodies. The pleasant views of  fountain, fireplace and greenery warmed our spirits, as did the friendly smiles and attentive bustling of the servers.

I could go on about the impeccable service, the variety of the food, the courtesy of management. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that Celebration Restaurant is an example of the way it ought to be. There is no doubt that Ed Lowe’s visionary eatery is still in business after all these years because it consistently “gets it right!”

Would that it will continue in that tradition.

 

Grandmother’s lessons

Thanksgiving was low-key at my house this year. Not that there isn’t an abundance of things to be thankful for, but our small multi-generational family had an abundance of plans for the extended holiday. We gathered Thursday for what was to be a simple midday meal, before scattering in different directions to enjoy the long weekend.

What was to have been a small turkey breast to serve five (with enough left for a few sandwiches) became a 12-pound turkey. (The market had no fresh breasts available, and we had not built thawing time into the schedule; the option was a “smallish” fresh bird.)

The rest of it? A mix of traditional and easy prep. One large — overly large, as it turned out — fresh from the garden salad that boasted tiny boiled potatoes, green beans and dried cranberries. Roasted yams and wild rice stood in for mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Savory pumpkin gratin, recipe courtesy of Jacques Pepin, homemade cranberry-orange relish, and a freshly-baked Challah, as pretty to look at as it was good to eat, kept kitchen prep time to a minimum.WP_20171123_14_01_38_ProAs usual, “simple” morphed into too much!

Friday, we were content with turkey sandwiches, salad and television movies. Saturday was a quiet day, with only a few must-do’s, and no plans for a “real” meal. Snacking at will was the order of the day.

When faced with options, make soup

I am grateful that my grandmothers were good cooks, and that I had a chance to hang out in their kitchens many years ago, not only during holiday preparations, but afterwards as well.

I learned the truth of “Waste not, want not,” and I learned to “make do” and make meals out of what was on hand. I also learned that simple meals are best!

Those were lessons well learned.

So, for Saturday supper, soup it was. Pan drippings and turkey parts that would have become gravy had we served mashed potatoes and dressing on Thursday became the catalyst. Leftover wild rice added heartiness. Fresh celery, carrots and onions, constant staples in the refrigerator crisper, are the basis of any good homemade soup, right? And leftover Challah is still delicious!

It was a large pot of soup, enough to feed son and daughter-in-law who stopped in unexpectedly Saturday evening, with enough “left over” for Sunday lunch.

No pie, you say? Well, not exactly!

It bears repeating that our Thanksgiving was pared down and simplified in many ways. There was no pie — not pumpkin, not apple, mince or pecan. No brownies, no ice cream. Apples and oranges, yes, but even they went untouched. None of us suffered from a lack of food; desserts were not missed.

However, I had purchased pie crusts, just in case. (No, I do not see any reason to make my own!)

So, for tonight’s dinner, the plan is to have Turkey Pot Pie. Actually, I can picture it already: Colorful carrots, peas and potatoes joining small bits of turkey meat, oozing with creamy goodness and threatening to bubble up through the golden crust. Chilled (leftover) cranberry sauce will add color and tart flavor to the simple dinner. With a green salad, it will be nutritious and more than ample.

Will one pie suffice to clear the refrigerator of leftovers? I am not yet sure, but if there’s enough turkey to make two, I will be happy to have an extra to pull from the freezer.

On this weekend, especially, I am thankful to have the blessings of home and family, a warm, comfortable hearth, good health and good food.

And those leftovers!

Eating well in Puerto Limon . . .

High above the harbor, where the air is clear and the streets are filled with cars and people rather than warning signs and concertina wire, our cab driver pulled to the side and indicated a colorful sign and an open doorway. We had arrived at our destination, and a smiling waiter came out to greet us. 100_4759

Crew members on board our cruise ship had said this was the place to go for lunch in Puerto Limon. We were early but it was comfortable enough to just sit and “be.” The big-screen TV that hung from the ceiling, thankfully, was not blaring, and the hum of quiet conversation from two or three adjoining tables was pleasant “background music.” We ordered cool drinks. We did not expect to be alone for long.

The ‘back side’ of Costa Rica

This is not the tourist’s Costa Rica. Puerto Limon, the busiest port in the country, has the look and the feel of a “real” town. Bananas, grains and other goods leave here bound for destinations across the globe, but it has not yet become a prime cruise ship destination. It retains its working class flavor, refreshing in a time when glitzy storefronts and undistinguished trinkets welcome disembarking passengers in most other ports.

This Caribbean port has island roots and they stretch all the way back to 1502, when Christopher Columbus set foot on the land. Beaches stretch in both directions, and the sea is beautiful, but the city itself is a bit disheveled and has suffered the ravages of earthquakes, storms and economic blight. Like much of Latin America, it is defined by gates and barricades, and the ever-present concertina wire.

Limon is not postcard pretty, but the people we met were gracious and friendly, although busy with their own pursuits and not impressed by cruise ship crowds. We had no desire to shop in town, but the fruits and vegetables displayed at the market looked lush, ripe and inviting.

My journal note from the day:

“The Red Snapper (or Da Domenico; we were never quite certain exactly where we were!) is unassuming from the street, pleasant enough within; with a friendly local ambience not unlike bars and restaurants elsewhere in the tropics. Sea breezes circulate under a soaring ceiling, wafting through open-air rooms like invited guests. Dark wood interiors punctuated with spots of bright color keep it cool, but lively. And the good-natured banter emanating from the kitchen makes us smile. So, too, does the sleeping dog that patrons are careful to step over or around!”

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Views of the harbor — our glistening white cruise ship seemed far away and far below — were mesmerizing. We looked over the rooftops toward the horizon and were captivated. We drank in the beauty of the sea, ordered cool drinks, and knew we had been given good advice.

We also knew it was going to be a long and satisfying lunch! We were not disappointed.

Sampling the sea’s treasures

Because the best part of travel involves putting aside the familiar, we asked our waiter for lunch suggestions. We specified fish or seafood. Little did we know what a feast would be set before us, so we also decided to share a pizza marguerita “appetizer.” No way could we consider it a mistake in terms of flavor, but there is no way a starter course was necessary!

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Our surprise dishes were delightful — and the three of us happily shared two distinctly different orders. The first, a whole fish served with fried plantain and a fresh green salad, was not only impressive to behold, but would have offered sufficient food for three on its own! And it was presented as beautifully as cruise ship fare.

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The second house specialty included perfectly-prepared seafood steamed in a delicious sauce and served in its own foil pack hot from the oven. 100_4748Overloaded with shrimp and mussels swimming in flavored sauce atop a bed of pasta, it was Caribbean in character, boasting plump cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and subtle exotic spice, perfectly executed, but too much for one person!

When our congenial cab driver returned to pick us up, he obliged by taking us on a short tour through his town — a request we always try to make. As we made our way back to the dock, we were happy to have shared a great meal in Puerto Limon, sorry that we had no more time to explore this back side of Costa Rica more fully.

We will savor the experience we had, and we will continue to wonder about our young waiter who dreamed someday of joining a cruise ship crew to see the rest of the world.

 

Good food is all about . . .

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I met a 10-year-old a couple of weeks ago who told me in all seriousness that if he were offered a choice between doughnuts and salad, he would have to go with salad. He volunteered that tidbit after telling me that he liked all vegetables, especially salad greens. I had asked about his favorite lettuce, and he answered “Romaine” with no hesitation.

We were standing in the demonstration greenhouse of DFW Aquaponics Farms in Burleson, Texas, where I was photographing lettuces, chives, kale, Swiss chard and tomatoes in various stages of development. I had heard the young boy talking with his dad about how delicious the produce looked, even though many of the plants weren’t yet mature and the tomatoes were still green.

I’m not sure that at age 10 I even realized that there were different varieties of lettuce. I ate salad, I think, because at that age I ate most of what was put in front of me. It was simple food. I grew up during the days of family meals served at home, punctuated by an occasional sandwich at the downtown drug store soda fountain as a Saturday treat.

I vividly remember the taste of those sandwiches, and the special delight of a fountain Coke! To this day I occasionally long for a real fountain drink, rich with syrup and bubbly from the seltzer.

I also remember that home-cooked food varied by the season. Winter brought soups and stews, spring and summer were filled with fresh salads, bright peas and juicy watermelon, and fall was full of crunchy apples, and tasty pumpkin, squash and spices.

Because I was a city girl, I knew little about growing food. But I knew that when the right season rolled around, there were ways to judge the ripeness of fruit and vegetables.

However, had I been given a choice, I am certain I would have opted for a chocolate chip cookie, a scoop of ice or even a just-picked strawberry over a ripe carrot or a stalk of fresh romaine, no matter what the season.

Today, like that 10-year-old, I too prefer salad over doughnuts, although ice cream is still as tempting as that fountain Coke.

I have learned what I am sure my farm-raised grandparents knew: Freshly-picked and locally-harvested food tastes good. It’s that simple. It’s immensely satisfying to create a salad or an entire meal from what one has grown.

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Today, because of greenhouses and modern technology, it’s possible to grow fresh food — including salad greens and seasonal produce, year-round in many different locales.

I am not still not committed to growing my own food, but I certainly understand the motivation. Luckily, at least in my area, farm stands, local markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) are increasingly popular. Fresh, seasonal, locally-grown, non-processed food is available. It’s a good time to experience the joy — and the flavor, texture, color and fun — of good, fresh produce any time of year. It’s simply better.

I am delighted when spring arrives and local farmers markets spring to life with colorful carrots, new potatoes, bulbous onions, butterhead lettuce and showy Swiss chard. Later I wait for the melons to ripen and still later I search out the most beautiful eggplant and squash — as much for their vibrant color as for their taste!

Food is always an adventure — whether picked from the garden and prepared at home, created by an award-winning chef at a renowned restaurant, or purchased from a trendy food truck at a community festival. I continue to learn new things about food and about people, no matter what the occasion or where in the world.

It was here at home that I learned another lesson about food. Kudos to my 10-year-old “teacher,” and to his dad for showing him the way.

Teach them young, they say . . .

The trip(s) not taken . . .

I had a calendar alert on my phone yesterday. It reminded me of a flight: 3.35 p.m. “tomorrow” to Toronto. I had crossed out the note on my desk calendar, but neglected to update my electronic devices. Seeing the reminder brought a tinge of regret.

The flight to Toronto this afternoon would have been the first leg of a journey that I had booked as an anniversary present to my husband. This end-of-April jaunt was to take us on to London, and then to Athens where we planned to spend a few days before embarking on a seven-day cruise to ports in Greece and nearby islands.

We were to board Majestic Princess April 30, during the maiden season of this new “royal class” vessel built especially for the China market. The ship is distinctive, bearing the stunning new blue and white Princess “Seawitch” logo on her bow, as well as her name in both English and Chinese. The Chinese name translates to “Grand Spirit.”

After a month or so in the Mediterranean, she will head to her permanent new home port of Shanghai, following a route that will take passengers through the Suez Canal, then on to exotic ports throughout the Middle East, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taipei, Japan and Korea.

Because she carries more than 3,500 passengers, several thousand guests will get a sample of her spirit and a taste of her distinctive food offerings while she is still in the Med. The maiden season is a way to “test the waters,” so to speak, to assure that ship and crew work in harmony and that all systems operate the way they are meant to function.

Not just another big ship

At almost 1,100 feet long and 224 feet in height, there is no doubt that Majestic Princess is a floating city. But scattered throughout the 19 decks, in addition to formal dining rooms, casino, pools, bars and performance stages, sports courts and promenade decks, there are numerous dining spots with palate-pleasing options.

This ship introduces Harmony, a specialty Cantonese restaurant, as well as La Mer, a French bistro, and international food stations that promise flavors from around the globe. A central buffet, according to the description, is designed to offer something for everyone with an “East meets West” assortment of “comfort food” from varied cultures. We were eager to fill our plates with Japanese satay and Asian noodles, and then move on to treats like Chinese buns, French crepes, and Italian gelato.

In addition, this new ship has interior signage in both English and Chinese, boasts a noodle and soup station as well as a dim sum and lobster bar. There’s a 24-hour International Cafe for quick bites or sweet treats, and a comfortable pizza cafe that serves made-to-order individual pies along with beer and wine by the glass.

We looked forward to sampling the food; and we were eager to be at sea amidst the clear waters and the natural beauty of the Greek islands. We were excited by the prospect of being aboard during the ship’s inaugural season. The anticipation brought back memories of our own cruising days, the combined anxiety and thrill of untying the lines for the first time. First days on any vessel are memorable.

We also had booked a cooking class in Athens, a short sail around Rhodes, and tours of local farms and wineries on other islands. A month ago we were counting the days. Where better to go for a short cruise than Greek Islands in the spring? New experiences in an ancient land — it seemed perfect.

The Best Laid Plans

In a previous post I wrote about a planned long weekend in Paris — the Paris in North Texas, not the one in France. We had a wonderful time there, but this cruise was to be the real anniversary gift that we had given ourselves.

Alas, four weeks ago tomorrow, my husband fractured a major bone in his foot and found himself immobilized in a full boot cast. He is still under doctor’s orders not to put any weight on that foot. Even though he is able to get around via crutches and scooter, the doctor nixed any thought of a long flight. Indeed, being aboard the mega ship would have been difficult, even with the availability of a wheelchair; it would have been impossible to walk up to the Acropolis, to board a tender, or to navigate Greek island cobblestones and inclines.

I had a fleeting urge to find another traveling companion, but we canceled the trip.

What Comes Next?

Majestic Princess was delivered to the cruise line during a ceremony at Fincantieri Shipyard in Montefalcone, Italy on March 30. She embarked on a quick maiden voyage to Rome with a group of invited guests the next day. Subsequent itineraries allowed her to show herself in most of the major ports in the Med. I have been keeping track of her whereabouts!

She has been to Barcelona and Gibraltar, to Toulon and Naples, and to Messina, Sicily and Kotor, Montenegro. She is about to complete an itinerary that takes her from Barcelona through Rome and on to Athens. 2017-04-26This morning she was at sea, bound for Corfu.

She will be ready to greet new passengers beginning about midday April 30, and is set to embark at 7 p.m. My husband and I will not be there, but you can bet that I will cruise along, if only in spirit, to all the ports she will visit. Due to modern technology, I can actually view her progress via 24-hour bridge-cam.

Even though we’re sitting out this sailing, I have no intention of staying home for long! But, trips in the near future will most likely be closer to home.

I’ve been thinking about Athens. There is one, you know, in North Texas! And it’s less than a two-hour drive away.

Planning the perfect vacation . . .

I don’t think it used to be difficult to plan a vacation. There was once a time when it wasn’t even about the destination — we just picked a place and figured out how to get there. We often didn’t even think about being there, or what would be involved in finding lodgings and food. Getting away was the focus.

Lately, however, no matter how much I would love to be my former spontaneous self, I find that planning is necessary. And therein lies the problem, as they say. Planning ahead (the old visual joke comes to mind) has never been my strong suit.

The dilemma — and a solution

As always, there is much too much world and far too little time. Comfort rules today. Long flights are no-no’s. Even long, leisurely road trips are less appealing than they once were. Packing and unpacking was always a pain, but now it’s a great turnoff!

Schedules, for the most part, are just not happening. Quick weekend trips are perfect, sans crowds and traffic. That all adds up to some serious travel limitations.

So, in considering where to celebrate an upcoming anniversary, my spouse and I started planning early. Many possibilities came to mind.

Cruises — of course! An island — conducive to relaxing days of little more than beach-sitting and book-reading — always a good choice. A long weekend in New Orleans — tempting because it’s been too long since we were there, but again — the drive!

What then; and where?

Paris!

We laughed. Then we laughed harder. And it was settled.

You see, we were married in Paris! Yes, that Paris!

But that Paris is not where we’ll be headed the end of this month. A trip to that Paris will require considerably more advance planning. It will have to wait.4289545362_a3906198e6_o

Instead, we’ll be spending this anniversary in Paris, Texas, only about two hours from our home, reasonable enough for a quick getaway.

We settled on Paris, Texas, with some giggles and guffaws. There is not a single scene of the town in the movie that bears its name; there is, however, a “quaint downtown square” with a pint-size replica Eiffel Tower. It’s notable because of the red cowboy hat perched at its peak, even though it’s only about 70 feet high.

We have always enjoyed small Texas towns — our favorites have quirky personalities that fit well into our idea of fun. This Paris fits the bill nicely.

So, we’ve booked a stay at a local B&B and run an online search of eateries and attractions, in addition to the Eiffel Tower. It all sounds promising!

As for eats, we expect Paris is much like other small Texas towns. We’re sure we’ll find the local coffee shop and favorite burger joint. There’s also a catfish cafe, a Japanese/sushi spot and a traditional steak house. We’ll be looking for others.

For this weekend, at least, we won’t have to brush up on our French or pack any “goin’ out on the town” clothes. And that’s just the way we like it!

Photos by Joseph Novak/Flickr

Portovenere: Poetry in any language

My husband and I hadn’t really intended to be in Portovenere. We were driving through Italy with no particular destination in mind. At a small gas station in the port of Genoa, we stopped to ask general directions to the waterfront, with every intention of finding a charming out-of-the way inn along the way, perhaps one with a view of the harbor and a trattoria within walking distance.

We had no timetable. It was chilly. It was the end of January, not the height of tourist season along the Mediterranean coast. The prospect of a good glass of red wine, a simple pasta and a comfortable bed beckoned. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The station attendant pointed — Portovenere, he repeated — along with a rapid stream of Italian, most of which was lost on us. “Portovenere, Portovenere, Portovenere. . . ,” accompanied by hand waving, curliques in the air, motor sounds, big smiles and, once again the repeated word: “Portovenere!”

It was decided. We pulled out the map, pinpointed the location and the route, smiled at our benefactor and trip planner, and were off to Portovenere.

What a Delight!

The little city is nestled into the craggy cliffs that line the sea; it has all the charm and colorful beauty of better-known Cinque Terre villages. Along with them, Portovenere is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. They are all magnificent. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portovenere is ancient, and it retains the homey aura of a small fishing village, with terraced hillsides above.

Perhaps it was just because we arrived at dusk during a very slow season, but everyone we met, from the hotel desk clerk to local workers on their way to the trattoria, greeted us cordially and made us feel like long-lost friends.

The feeling was not diminished the next day, nor the next. We stayed on, enchanted by everyday life in this beautiful village. We walked the streets, sauntered along the docks, ventured up the steep, hillside cliffs when we felt like it. We breathed deeply of the fresh seaside air, and looked out on the waters of the Med, but felt no need to take the sightseeing boat to the nearby trio of islands that are major tourist destinations.

Familiar Comforts

The truth is that Portovenere wrapped us in the comfort of normal lifestyle, at a point in our three-week trip when we had tired of tourism. In some ways, it felt like going homeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We sipped aperitivos at the local bar, and watched local television with residents relaxing after work, and then we ambled down the street to enjoy fresh seafood, good wine and spirited, if awkward conversation with other diners in the sparsely-occupied room. I’ve forgotten the dishes and the details, but the warmth of the experience, and the certainty that it was a good one, remain. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I like to think it is still there, awaiting my return.

It’s a fanciful thought, I know, appropriate in some odd way for this Thanksgiving week. Going home for Thanksgiving is deeply ingrained in our consciousness, whether that trip is to Grandma’s house or simply a gathering that brings family and friends together for shared experience, wherever it may be.

Special Places and Times

That first and only visit to Portovenere was more than a decade ago and it still stands out in my memory as one of those places I would return to on short notice! That’s what I have been thinking about this week — the prospect of revisiting favorite spots across the globe, an irresistible urge to experience old delights once again. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pisa is on the list, and Assisi, along with Carrara, where Michelangelo found his stone. The tops of the mountains shine white in the distance, chipped away over the centuries to expose the shining white cores. Counter tops are still quarried here, some of them by old methods. It’s quite an experience to drive to the summit of a marble mountain!

There are other places, too, to revisit, most of them not the subject of travel guides and magazine articles. But that’s what makes travel special, isn’t it? Finding those places that speak to the soul is not something a traveler plans.

If it happens, it’s hard to deny. Portovenere is like that.

Savor the Good Times

In my mind, I can picture my return, just as I picture returning to my former home city of Santa Fe this year for a large family Thanksgiving.

May all of you find a special place in the heart this Thanksgiving. Maybe we can all search out those delightful spaces and places at other times of year as well.

If it’s impossible to return home in a physical sense, however, at least make a point to revisit those special places periodically in spirit. Savor those experiences.