Foreign Exchange

We just recently got back from Chatel, France where we went skiing with our travel buddies from the UK and Amsterdam.  Good travel buddies are hard to find.  Being good friends with a person does not automatically make them a good travel companion. In fact, many a good friendships are ruined over vacation incompatibilities. So when you do find that special person or persons with whom you can successfully seek out adventure without too much additional drama, you make sure to nurture that relationship and put it to good use time after time.

We have tested our travel relationship with Andy and Lis (from South of London) and Niels and Minna (from Amsterdam) over the years by exploring multiple cities in the US and Europe.  Dean can be credited with cultivating these relationships after he lived in Amsterdam for 6 months during college.  I always had a bit of the travel bug, but got it full fledged after attending each couple’s wedding in their home countries. Then, we went to Florence, Italy and Javea, Spain. We missed a very good trip to South Africa when we first moved to Austin but enjoyed the couples visiting us as we moved from state to state before settling here. Recently, we have taken two ski trips to the French Alps. The first to Samoens in 2009 and this trip to Chatel.

Over the years, we have become attached to certain things from each other’s countries. In our bag this trip, we packed:

1) Twinkies: always a favorite.  Maybe it’s due to the lore that they have an indefinite shelf life. Maybe it’s the sweet mix of creamy and spongy goodness.  But we can always count on Twinkies to represent the best America has to offer. Wink. Wink.

2)Breakfast Tacos: These were a little harder to pack. Just kidding. But I did have to bring a package of flour tortillas and a can of chiles in order to make the breakfast tacos. Breakfast tacos are unfamiliar to many of my friends outside of Texas no less outside the USA. They were particularly impressive to Niels and Minna so we decided to reinvent them this trip.

3) Green Chile Mac ‘n Cheese: By that same token, we introduced Niels and Minna to Green Chile Mac N Cheese at the Alamo Drafthouse this past fall while they were visiting Austin. They seemed to enjoy it, so I snuck a couple of cans of green chiles and jalapeños into our luggage and Dean recreated the popular dish in France.  Mexican cheeses were impossible to come by as was jalapeño jack, but it was a decent attempt.

4) Baby Ruth: These became a favorite of Lis’ a few years back, and who can blame her what with the peanuts, caramel and chocolate nougat. Mmmm.

5) Goldfish: Now that we have kids in the mix, we have entered a whole new terrority. Andy and Lis’ son Harry calls these golden rockets. Juliette is apt to agree at the rate at which she eats them!

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In exchange, we receive the following:

1) Lion Bars: These are my favorite. The bar consists of a filled wafer, caramel and cereal covered in chocolate. The combination is sweet, crunchy and delicious. I do not know why they do not routinely sell them over here!

2) Frey Chocolate: in our quest to take home some Swiss Chocolate, we came across Frey in the Geneva grocery stores. Not an upscale brand but still yummy, we will be going back for more of these.  The milk chocolate truffles were my favorite.

3) Ice Cube Bags:  I get poked fun at over my obsession with these convenient ice cube bags.  You fill the bag with water and then pop or shake out the ice.  Yes, I have an automatic ice maker. I also have ice cube trays, but these are cute and so very nice for taking on picnics or to the beach. Minna always brings me a supply and I horde them, only bringing them out for special occasions.

4) Tuc crackers: With fun flavors like cheese, paprika and black pepper, these are more of a delicious snack than a plain cracker.

5) Crisps: Chips are so much better outside of the US. Maybe it is because they are referred to as crisps. They are way crunchier and boast of flavors that I can only describe as “lovely” such as parsnip and feta cheese.

6) The Flu: Yes, we came home with the flu. It seems that foreign germs are even harder to fight off as all 3 family members were down and out for a week. Boo! What a way to end a vacation!

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Fortunately, I can relish in the fact that it is a marriage made in heaven, this product exchange we have going on.  I can’t wait for our next trip and our next new foreign product discovery!

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Carly’s Floral Bridal Shower: April 2011

Universally loved are weddings and babies.  I am no exception to that rule.  When I heard my friend Carly was getting married, I was filled for joy for her and husband-to-be Joe. I was also filled with a little joy for myself because I knew I could finagle throwing her an Austin bridal shower. What could be sweeter than that?

It was decided that Carly would have an intimate brunch gathering when her Mom was scheduled to visit. That put the shower in April, which is a lovely time of year in Austin. Winter is long past and summer is just starting to creep up, but it’s not too hot yet. I guess that would make it SPRING!

I enlisted the help of neighbor and mutual friend Carrie in coming up with the decor and a few other friends in developing the menu.  The theme was derived from the shower invitations, which were found on Wedding Paper Divas:

Carrie and I spend many evenings bringing the invitations to life with paper carnations made of tissue paper and embellished with marker.

The carnations were super easy to make using simple directions from FoldingTrees.com. We scattered them throughout the designated eating areas to add pops of color to the festivities in progress.

The carnations also inspired the shower favors- seed packets. What better way than to commemorate Carly and Joe’s love than with flowers that grow and bloom.  This idea for DIY seed packets came from Inspired Kara.

At my own bridal shower, my Mom and sister presented me with a box to keep my wedding keepsakes including cards, invitations and pictures.  I keep the box under my bed and pull it out whenever I want a dose of wedding cheer. After searching high and lo, I was able to find a Hallmark keepsake box for Carly.  During the shower, it was filled with markers and a book on marriage. Guests were asked to write in their own thoughts or advice for Carly and Joe. I hope they had more than a few laughs reading what their friends wrote.

Along with traditional gift giving, we gave Carly a Wishing Well.  This is a basket that guests fill with unwrapped gifts. The idea is to give the bride something useful in the kitchen or home that she may not have thought of when registering. Carly’s treasures included an apple corer, strawberry huller and several gadgets I had never before seen but know that Carly has since put to good use.

Most importantly, the bride was glowing and we all enjoyed her floral-themed spring shower!

At the July wedding, we took bets on when I’ll get to throw her an Austin baby shower. I hope it’s not too long of a wait! I’m itching for a reason to throw another party in her honor.

Free Printables via my Scribd Account:

Foodies Unite Part II: The Food

After weeks of preparations, it was finally time for our food party.  Our final menu included six courses and five paired wines. Carly also made a cheese platter with cheeses complementary to each of the wines that we could nibble on between courses (just in case we didn’t get enough to eat!) Each couple introduced their course and told us a little about their wine selection.  Some were very serious about this little bit of homework I issued, and we all learned a lot.

Course 1: Christy’s favorite salad featuring feta cheese, caramelized pecans and balsamic vinagrette

This was paired with a Washington Hills 2008 Riesling, which featured key lime, crème brulee and mineral essence. It had a creamy texture with nectarines on the finish. It is suggested as an aperitif, with ham, Asian cuisine or salad with red onions and feta- thus, an excellent choice for this course.


Course 2: Baked Shrimp Scampi

Carly pulled this recipe out of the Barefoot Contessa‘s cookbook.  Any meal of Ina’s is sure to be a winner and this was no exception. I especially loved the use of Panko breadcrumbs, which gave it a good texture.

The dish was paired with a Lockwood 2009 Chardonnay. 2009 was apparently a very good year in Monterrey. This wine boasted aromas of fresh pineapple and orange blossom supported by French oak nuances. Flavors of nectarine and white peach could be tasted on the front palate with citrus tones through the finish.  The chardonnay complements a variety of seafood and chicken dishes and was a perfect choice with shrimp.


Course 3: Penne alla Vodka

This is one of my favorite dishes and served as the perfect pasta primi. Who doesn’t love pasta?

Pasta without chianti is like bread without butter. The two go hand and hand. A DaVinci Chianti was selected for this dish. Forgive me as I do not recall the year. DaVinci Chianti is a well-balanced wine of medium weight with jammy flavors of ripe plums, cherries and red fruit. It has a long, peppery finish and pairs well with all starters, pastas and meat dishes.

Even though I employed a liquor spout to ensure small pours of 2 oz, at this point, we were – quite frankly- getting a little drunk. The bellies were also starting to get full, so we took a break to converse and walk it off before our palette cleanser and main course.

Course 4: Lemon Sorbet

By definition, a palate cleanser is used in the middle of a meal to remove any lingering flavors from the mouth so the next course can be enjoyed with a fresh perspective. The French also swear by them as a digestive to avoid heartburn and indigestion and to stimulate the appetite so you can eat, eat,  and eat some more. As this was our general goal, it seemed appropriate here.

Course 5: Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Pepper Jelly Sauce accompanied by Jen’s famous cheesy potatoes and green bean saute

I was a little skeptical about involving jalapeño jelly with beef tenderloin but the balsamic vinegar took away some of the bite leaving only yumminess.

A cabernet was served with this course. I have searched high and low for a picture of the cabernet we drank and I simply cannot find one. My excuse is that I was probably too buzzed or too full at this point to take any more pictures. Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir are usually good matches for beef tenderloin.

Course 6: Chocolate Tort

This delightful dessert was a Williams Sonoma masterpiece.  Our neighbor Carrie is an expert at desert and she did not disappoint.

With each bite chocolately goodness, we enjoyed sips of Rosa Regale, a semi dry red sparkling wine. This Italian lovely is a bit lighter than champagne and tastes of rose petals, fresh raspberries and strawberries. I cannot imagine a better complement to the sweet, rich velvety chocolate of the tort.

Finally, we were done eating and drinking.  Being much too full to retire, we stayed up chatting until well past my usual bedtime.  Until the next time.  Cheers!

Foodies Unite Part I: The Preparations

I just realized that it has been two years since I hosted my absolute favorite party of all time (Sorry Juliette, this one was before your time)- a foodies gathering. Dean and I love to eat. We will travel high and low to try new restaurants. Dean, who is the much better cook in this duo (I am more of a casserole queen), is not shy about trying new recipes.  We also love to go wine tasting and are fortunate enough to live in the Texas Hill Country where wineries are plentiful. We have a lot of like minded friends. This led us to host a food and wine party for 10 of our friends in January of 2010.  My friend Carly, who is Martha Stewart herself, was my partner in crime for planning it out.

We decided that we could probably squeeze in four main courses (appetizer, soup or salad, primi, secondi)  with a choice or cheese, dessert or both after the main meal. Each course would be paired with a complementary wine working our way down from whites to reds to sweets. Small pours and small plates would be key so we could make it through the meal without passing out.

Carly and I could not throw a dinner party without adding some personal touches, so we got to work looking online for ideas for place cards, napkin rings, centerpieces and personalized wine glasses. We were originally going to purchase all that we needed but quickly realized our budget was small but our talents were large. We had no choice but to make it a DIY delight!

Our first project was wine cork napkin rings. We got this idea from a seller on Etsy. Her napkin rings were great, but we couldn’t afford to get as many as we needed so we did our very best to make our own using brown satin ribbon, corks from some of our favorite wines and upholstery tacks. The result was stunning (in my humble opinion).

Next, we went to work on personalized wine glasses. We found small wine glasses for an amazingly good price at Goodwill. Our plan was to stencil them with the initial of each attendees surname. We originally tried this with a paintbrush, stencil and glass paint. The result was less than satisfactory. After ruining several of our precious glasses, I gave up and Carly assured me she would find a way to make this idea work. She ended up hand writing each initial with puffy paint intended for glass. They came out beautiful and many, many washes later, my glass is still in tip top shape.

Meanwhile, I went to work on place cards and favors. For the place card, I printed each name on heavy card stock and cut a small slit in the top of a wine cork. Voila- wine themed place card holders. For the favors, I thought it would be nice for each couple to have recipe cards for the foods presented. I also printed these on card stock and tied with the same brown satin ribbon used in the napkin rings.

I was at a loss as to what to do for centerpieces, but only had to say the word and Carly had the solution- breadsticks in pilsner glasses and white tea lights. Simple, elegant and the breadsticks pulling double duty as a palette cleanser- brilliant!

Now the only thing missing was food and friends.  More on that in my next post!

Once Upon A Birthday Party Part IV- Free Printables

I have finally decided to make use of my Scribd account.  Today, I learned how to embed files directly to WordPress.  I am now exercising my new skill using free printables from Juliette’s birthday party.  I have also made a permanent free printables page on my blog with links to the Scribd documents. I think this will be real handy moving forward!