Friday, December 30, 2011

Review of The Hidden Vine Wine Bar in San Francisco

The Hidden Vine in San Francisco, California

The Hidden Vine's Fireplace
The Hidden Vine is just like it sounds, a wine bar tucked away on a barely traveled side street in the Financial District of San Francisco. The atmosphere is dark with barely enough candlelight to read the menu, but the fireplace, warm wood and brick interior and comfy furnishings make customers feel relaxed once they've finally found the place. It is a perfect spot for an after work Happy Hour, and most of the patrons appear to be locals.

The Hidden Vine in San Francisco, California

The Hidden Vine Wine Bar

My friend has brought me because she's printed out a voucher from the online discounter, Living Social, and we simply had to come before the coupon expires. I have learned to appreciate Kate's bargain hunting forays as I get to share the spoils, and tonight is no different.

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Wines From Portugal
We select the wine flight of the month, two whites and a red from Portugal. The first is a sparkling wine called Luis Pato Bruto, which tastes like pears and sets us up for the full-bodied and buttery Quinta de Amead Louerio. The lone red is called Singularis Trindadiro Aragonez Alcante Bousehet, which goes down smoothly despite its tough name. We also try a 2008 red from the Central Valley of California called Turley Cinsault, which tastes distinctly like cherries with a black pepper finish.

Crab Sliders
The food offered is a list of appetizers and after much discussion, we choose a Charcuterie Plate with three meats for $21, Crab Sliders for $13 and the Honey Crisp Apple and Asian Pear Salad for $11. The dishes pack a variety of ingredients and we relish each one. The crab is accompanied with a tiny container of house pickled veggies and the salad is small but presented like a work of art. The Charcuterie contains a smear of Dijon mustard, duck prosciutto, wild boar and sopressata, a glorified version of salami. The boar is rich and gamey, and the duck is fabulous.

Charcuterie Plate

We move on to dessert but discover the menu has only two choices. Unfortunately, tonight only one is available, a four-ounce glass jar of chocolate truffles for $9. The candy comes in four varieties, raspberry, red wine, French bread and Kahlua, so we go ahead and order. The truffles are a delight, made of high quality cocoa that is smooth and rich.
Private Room for Small Parties

The service at The Hidden Vine is friendly, the decor appealing and the cuisine small-portioned but excellent in flavor. The menu is good for light eaters or those who plan to head elsewhere for dinner. It is limited and pricey, so arriving with a coupon voucher from Living Social has made it more palatable. The wine bar is located at 408 Merchant Street, between Battery and Sansome Streets, and definitely worth a visit.

The Hidden Vine Wine Bar

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review of Tadich Grill in San Francisco, California

Tadich Grill in San Francisco, California

The Tadich Grill is a tasty San Francisco landmark which opened in 1849 as a tent-covered coffee stand serving the massive rush of gold miners. Owned by three Croatian men, it flourished along with the city, changing locations and its name a couple of times as it developed into the stellar dining emporium it is today.

Tadich Grill in San Francisco, California

Fine Dining in San Francisco at Tadich Grill
The first thing one notices is that the white-uniformed servers are all men old enough to be grandfathers. Most of the customers are male, too, dressed in business suits. Waiters hustle up and down the long bar extending the length of the narrow building while patrons watch the chefs working in the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. For more intimate dining, tables on the left side are sectioned off by mahogany walls to provide more privacy.

The decor is masculine, warm and inviting, with a rustic plank floor, high ceilings and dark wood walls topped with stained glass. Fancy mirrors seem strategically placed to give the long rectangular room the illusion of more width.

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The dinner menu is pricey with entrees starting at $20, appetizers $12 to $25 and desserts $7 to $8. Fresh baked sourdough bread and butter appear on the table while one peruses the menu. Everything looks good and it is hard to pick, but we finally select dishes from the roster of "Today's Specials." I have Jumbo Seafood Ravioli with Rock Shrimp and Light Creme Pesto. When the plate arrives, the fish is drenched in a parmesan flavored sauce alongside tender-crisp broccoli and carrots. The shrimp is cooked to perfection, not chewy, and the color is great. It is a fabulous dish.

Private Alcoves at Tadich Grill
My friend orders Pan Grilled Cod, Curry Crab Aioli, Rice and Vegetables. The cod tastes very fresh, and is nice and hot. The aioli is a welcome change from tartar sauce and is not too spicy, even though it's laden with curry. The entree portions are so ample, we pass on dessert.

After all these years, 162 to be exact, Tadich Grill is still operating under Croatian hands. One senses the tenured management has inspired loyalty among its employees and customers who regularly fill the place. San Francisco is known as a Mecca for foodies, and Tadich Grill must be one of the reasons for this deserved reputation. Located at 240 California Street, it's easy to find and within walking distance of the Embarcadero Bart Station. Anyone who ventures in to try their fare certainly won't be disappointed.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

What is Marriage?

What is Marriage All About?

In a nutshell, the purpose of marriage is to reflect who God is in human relationships and to depict the gospel in action. This spiritual aspect of marriage transcends what appears merely to be a couple falling in love, reciting vows and signing a piece of paper. To really understand the definition of marriage, one would need to refer to Genesis, the book of beginnings in the Bible, to discover the Creator's original intent.

What is Marriage All About?

photos by Dianne Smith & Earl McHugh
Marriage is not a human invention but a divinely inspired plan to help people understand some complex spiritual truths. First of all, Genesis 1:27 says mankind is created, male and female, in the image of the Triune God, who is comprised of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons unified in one. So how is the Trinity reflected in human beings, specifically through the institution of marriage?

The three roles in the family unit, that of husband, wife and children, reflect the roles within the Godhead. I Corinthians 11:3 says, "the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." Like the Heavenly Father, the husband has authority, and like the Son who submits to the Father's will, wives are admonished to submit to their husbands (Philippians 2:5-8, KJV). When children are born, they are the fruit of the marriage and reflect the role of the Holy Spirit as He follows through with the fruit of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:9).

The marriage union is a bond made of the strongest glue, sealed by a solemn vow and a covenant for life. Both partners are to leave their parents and "cleave" to each other. Their relationship takes precedence over all others, and no one should divide it asunder (Matt. 16:6). It will only end by the death of one of the spouses because, according to Jesus (Mark 12:24-25), there is no marriage in heaven since everyone will be like the angels. Divorce is also specifically rebuked by Him, justified only when there has been adultery.
Ephesians chapter five is the most comprehensive passage in the Bible concerning marriage, beginning with the opening statement, "submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God (v. 21)." The husband is the leader in the couple and the wife is to defer to his position of authority. She must respect her man, but he is then commanded to love her as he loves his own body. "He that loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it (v. 28-29)."

Other texts regarding marriage (I Cor. 7:1-2, 8-9) indicate singlehood is possibly a preferred state to marriage. Because married persons are rightly concerned with the needs of their spouses, they are distracted from giving their undivided attention to the Lord. However, to prevent immorality, Paul says, "Let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband." Most people do eventually marry despite the New Testament's high regard for remaining single.

Christ's Relationship to the Church

The other purpose of marriage is to glorify God by demonstrating the gospel, as seen through the way spouses treat one another. Thus marriage is a vehicle for people to learn the profound love of Jesus Christ, who paid the most expensive bride price ever by dying on the cross for her sins. His free gift of salvation was very costly, and is an example for all husbands to follow. No wife deserves such a price, but the groom unselfishly paid it anyway. Jesus is every husband's role model, showing how to sacrificially serve his wife, not because she is worthy, but because of agape love. "This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32)," wrote Paul about this spiritual aspect of marriage.

Contrary to contemporary thought, the primary purpose of marriage is not romance, worshipping a partner or even personal happiness. Of course, a healthy marriage would involve sex, romantic love and physical attraction, but relationships will still have their highs and lows. Romance and happy feelings are wonderful but fleeting, and cannot always be depended on. When one partner becomes unhappy, it is not a loophole for throwing away a spouse, but rather an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel. Choose your love, but once the wedding is over, love your choice.

Every culture provides rules and mores for marriage, but those based on mere human understanding will be flawed. When individuals assume the transient values and belief systems of their day, especially when it involves something as critical as the definition of marriage, they will surely be disappointed with the results. A car owner wouldn't consider filling the gas tank with tomato juice or driving his tires over nails. He knows the car is a machine and what it needs to function properly, and doing anything contrary to its design will ruin the automobile. Even so, marriage is designed to work optimally when Christ is at its center. When a husband and wife reenact the gospel through their behavior with one another, their union is a blessing to themselves and to all who are watching from the sidelines.

Read more:


Kwon, Ryan. (November 6, 2011). Marriage - Reenactment of the Gospel. In Sermons. Retrieved November 12, 2011, from

Holy Bible. Authorized King James Version. Ed. C.I. Scofield. New Scofield Reference Edition. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review of Sweet Treasures Wine Bar in Punta Gorda, Florida

Wine Tasting at Sweet Treasures in Fishermen's Village, Punta Gorda, Florida

Sweet Treasures is a specialty shop at Fishermen's Village in Punta Gorda, Florida that sells tropical wines and accoutrements with a tropical twist, like goblets and wall plaques embellished with mermaids, seahorses or dolphins. For anyone who has been to Napa Valley, California, comparing the two wine tasting experiences is great fun. None of the Floridian wines come from grapes and they are all young. The bottles don't declare any vintage year since they aren't aged, but according to an employee named Cheryl, will last up to two years on the shelf.

Sweet Treasures Wine Bar in Punta Gorda, Florida

photos by Dianne Smith
Florida Orange Groves Winery in St. Petersburg develops all the wines from citrus fruits, passion fruit, mangoes, pineapples, berries, watermelon, bananas and even tomatoes. Only two fruits are imported to Florida from other States, the cherries from Michigan and cranberries from Massachusetts.

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Cheryl says she used to be a nurse before moving to Florida, and loves her laid back lifestyle on the gulf coast. She makes visitors feel at home as she offers a flight of six wines for just three dollars, a refreshing change from Californian prices. The hard part for visitors is narrowing down all the choices. Blueberry Blue is a navy colored, semi-sweet wine and Hurricane Class 5 is a white sangria blend with key limes, passion fruit, watermelon, mango and pineapple, touted as uniquely Floridian and an accompaniment to any food. Both were flavorful but a wine named Cocoa Beach was particularly delicious, with its blend of orange and chocolate.

Sweet Treasures is located at 1200 West Esplanade, Punta Gorda, and is one of about thirty restaurants and boutique retailers set in an open air mall called Fishermen's Village, with timeshare guest rooms above on a second floor. The small resort is built on a pier in the Peace River basin, affording stunning sunsets in a quiet setting. The marina offers deep sea and inland fishing tours and yachting excursions, so the place obviously caters to fishermen and boat lovers. However, anyone who enjoys sampling wine will find Sweet Treasures well worth a visit.

Fishermen's Village in Punta Gorda, Florida

Friday, October 21, 2011

Best Menu for Christmas Dinner

photo by Celeste Hutchins

Tired of traditional roast turkey and ham for Christmas dinner? Try fixing chicken in a different way that's sure to be a winner with family and friends. Along with a cheese dish, mandarin salad, roasted potatoes, date nut bread and best ever apple pie, holiday guests will feel like kings.

Party Food Ideas for Christmas

The festivities begin with a healthy and colorful appetizer before dinner, like an attractive fruit platter. Place strawberries, cantaloupe and pineapple on a bed of ruffled red leaf lettuce for an eye catching dish. In some areas, however, fruit can be pretty expensive during the winter, so a great alternative would be a cream cheese and salsa dip with tortilla chips.

To make it, put an 8-ounce block of cream cheese onto a small serving plate and spoon some salsa over it, letting it drip down the sides. Microwave for one minute, and then serve it with tortilla chips. For larger groups, two blocks of cream cheese can be stacked, and then the microwave cooking time is doubled to two minutes. This very simple appetizer is extremely popular at parties.

Colas and other sodas can be boring and take no thought, while a delicious fruit punch livens any party. The punch bowl can be garnished with floating orange slices, each topped with a maraschino cherry. Or straddle the bowl with an orange slice. Another beverage to serve at Christmastime would be Sparkling Apple Cider, which mocks champagne and is a favorite non-alcoholic party beverage for children.

Christmas Dinner Menu
  • Rolled Cheddar Chicken (click here for the recipe)
  • Herb Roasted Potatoes
  • Mandarin Salad
  • Sourdough or Garlic Bread
  • Relish Tray, with mini or sliced dill pickles, olives and marinated artichoke hearts
  • Best Ever Apple Pie or Birthday Cake for Jesus for dessert
Balsam Hill LLC

Christmas Dinner Recipes

How to Make Herb Roasted Potatoes:

  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 2 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. coarse Kosher salt
  • 30 small new potatoes, quartered
  • 1 small onion, cut into rough chunks
  • Ranch dressing
  1. Place the olive oil, rosemary leaves, thyme, black pepper and Kosher salt in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Mix well, and add the potatoes and onions. Toss and mix well again.
  3. Put the coated potatoes and onion chunks on a shallow roasting pan.
  4. Bake at 425* for 45 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375*, stir potatoes slightly so they don't stick, and cook for an additional 30 minutes. Makes 8 servings. Serve the potatoes with Ranch dressing on the side.
Rolled Cheddar Chicken and Herb Roasted Potatoes have different cooking temperatures and times, so if two ovens are available, use one for the chicken and one for the potatoes. If only one oven is available, change step 4 of the potato recipe to "Bake at 425* for 45 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350*. Stir potatoes slightly so they don't stick, and then put the Rolled Cheddar Chicken on another shelf in the oven. Cook the potatoes (and chicken) an additional 40 minutes, and remove only the potatoes from the oven, allowing the chicken to bake another 10-15 minutes. Cover the potatoes with aluminum foil to keep them warm."

How to Make Mandarin Salad

  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1/2 head iceberg lettuce, torn
  • 1/2 bunch Romaine lettuce, torn
  • 4 medium stalks of celery, chopped
  • 4 green onions (with tops) thinly sliced
  • sweet-sour dressing (below)
  • 2 11-ounce cans of mandarin orange segments, drained
  1. Cook the almonds and sugar over low heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is melted and the almonds are coated.
  2. Cool on wax paper and break apart.
  3. Store the almonds at room temperature.
  4. Place the iceberg and Romaine lettuces in a large bowl.
  5. Add celery, onions, sweet-sour dressing and orange segments. Toss well.
  6. Add the almonds and toss again. Serve immediately. Makes 8-12 servings.
The sweet-sour dressing should be made ahead of time: combine 1/2 cup vegetable oil, 4 tbsp. sugar, 4 tbsp. vinegar, 1 tsp. salt, 2 tbsp. snipped parsley, two dashes of red pepper sauce and two dashes of pepper. Shake all the ingredients in a tightly covered jar and refrigerate.

Dessert for Christmas Dinner

Since Christmas is Jesus' birthday, why not bake him a cake and top it with candles for a child to blow out? A festive white cake for the occasion is Red and Green Christmas Cake. For those who prefer pies over cakes, Best Ever Apple Pie would also be a fabulous encore to the meal.

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How to Propagate Plants Cheaply With Cuttings

photos by Dianne Smith

Geraniums, roses and begonias are just a few of the many varieties of flowers that can be quickly multiplied through cuttings. Commercial nurseries grow many of their plants from leaf or stem cuttings off a parent plant, but anyone can master the simple technique. The process circumvents nature's usual propagation from seedlings, saving time and money.

Planting Cuttings Saves Time and Money

With daily watering, stem cuttings will sprout roots equal to the maturity of the stem, a shortcut to the growing process. Within a short time, the plant will look older than it is and be ready for planting in the ground. In a winter climate, this is a head start on spring planting.

Propagating new plants from cuttings is also economical as Mother Nature doesn't send an invoice. A garden can multiply itself using her free gifts of plant cell regeneration, rain, and sunlight. For a 
Cut Stem on Slant
Underneath a Node
garden filled with a variety of flowers, ask friends and others for permission to use cuttings from their prize rosebushes and flower beds. A beautiful garden can thus be grown cheaply.

A plant cutting can start its new life in a pot indoors during any season, but during late spring or summer, it can be planted directly in the ground. For the best results, begin with "easy to grow" plants like fuchsias, lupines, chrysanthemums, geraniums or begonias.

How to Propagate a Geranium or Begonia Cutting
  • a geranium or begonia plant
  • pot containing soil or a garden after the winter frost
  • scissors or small pruning shears
  • plant hormone root powder, if desired
  • water
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  1. During the early morning or evening, cut a three to eight-inch long stem from the mother plant 
    Remove Leaves at Node
    one-half inch under a node, the place where a leaf is sprouting. Use a "young stem," rather than an older part of the plant, and pinch off its developing tip. Make the cut on a slanted angle, so as to maximize the new growing surface.
  2. Gently remove any leaves from the lower two-inches of the stem, including the node.
  3. Wet the cut end of the stem. If desired, dip it in a hormone root powder that can be purchased at a nursery, and shake off the excess.
  4. Make a one to two-inch deep hole in a pot or a shady spot in a garden after the danger of frost is over. Plant cuttings need warmth and moisture to flourish.
  5. Carefully place the bottom of the stem in the dirt hole. Push dirt into the hole and pat it down firmly all around the stem. Make sure the dirt covers one-inch above the bottom node. 
    Plant With Dirt Covering
    One-Inch Above the Node
  6. Water the dirt around the stem, and repeat the watering every day for ten days. 
  7. The plant will have taken root, and should be watered and fertilized with the rest of the garden.

The Frugal Gardener. Videocassette, Creative Marketing Corporation, 1986.

Ivy Geraniums Grown From Stem Cuttings

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Candlelighters Halloween Fundraiser in Fremont, California

photos by Dianne Smith

Halloween Fundraiser
The Fremont halloween Ghost House is off to a great start in 2011, earning a record $8,900 on opening night. In 2010 the first day brought in $6,700, according to board member Cathy Leslie, still an excellent amount for a halloween fundraiser. Candlelighters haunted house is an icon in Fremont, drawing people from all over San Francisco Bay and beyond for sixteen days every fall, from October 15-30. One woman said she drove from Lodi just to eat one of their famous caramel apples.

D & G Produce on Fremont Boulevard provide 8,000 fresh Granny Smith's and volunteers hand dip them on site in caramel, peanuts and candy. Other treats are lollipops, hot dogs, chili, nachos, sodas, hot chocolate and hot cider. Festive game booths offer a pumpkin walk, ring toss, duck pond, wheel of fortune and bean bag toss. There are also booths for photos, face painting and a general store selling small halloween trinkets.

Haunted House Registration Desk

Fremont Haunted House Fundraiser

The theme for 2011 is a haunted hotel and every corner of the Carriage House looks the part. Cobwebs hang from ceilings and caskets reveal their ghoulish contents. A creepy lobby with a registration desk greets visitors and points them toward a dark hallway. Guest rooms along the walls have numbers and the doors are locked, so visitors proceed through a maze of other rooms, including a parlor scene with a piano and harp played by skeletons. 

The hotel kitchen apparently serves gruesome fare, with brains sizzling in a frying pan and purple smoke ascending from a saucepan. Dirty dishes and a cookbook entitled Spells, Potions and Creepy Concoctions line the shelves. Spice jars are fillet of snake, spider juice and wool of bat. A human torso minus its skin, bat and a vulture all hang from hooks like meat in a packing plant. Moving on from the unappetizing scene is the hotel's clinic, with Dr. Jake taking care of a bedridden patient with rats crawling over him.
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Candlelighters Volunteers

Many high schoolers serve at the Ghost House to meet their 40-hour community service requirement. However, there are a number of areas requiring adult workers, including positions as board members, which the organization is actively seeking. Currently nine board members oversee the non-profit, with dozens of other volunteers serving as heads of committees, chairs of the stores, refreshments or rooms in the Ghost House.  

Halloween Carnival
An executive member serves about fifty hours per year, including setting up the carnival during any of the five Saturdays prior to opening day. Associate and new members volunteer twenty hours. Candlelighters kicks off each season with a big bash the eve before opening night and also gets together every three months at a luncheon. Compared to other fundraisers, the work is fun, taking only a few hours out of people's schedules during eight weeks in the fall, but rewards lasting all year. The Ghost House raises about $80,000 every October and the money is doled out to worthy charities throughout the other eleven months, with a particular focus on ones dedicated to education. Past recipients include the YMCA, Pregnancy Choices Clinic of Union City, and several schools, libraries and civic entities. Any non-profit meeting their criteria may apply for funds every other year.

The Ghost House is located at The Chadbourne Carriage House on Fremont Boulevard at the Fremont Hub (between Mowry Avenue and Walnut Avenue). Admission is $3.00 for the haunted house and tickets to play games cost only a quarter. For general information, visitors can call 510-796-0595 or view their website. Rumor has it that the historic Chadbourne Carriage House is actually haunted. Ghosts are certainly prevalent every October, so perhaps the rumor is true.

Candlelighters Ghost House 2011

Read more: Fundraiser Ideas for Halloween

Best Stocking Stuffer Ideas at Christmastime

Best Stocking Stuffer Ideas
photo by Jim Capaldi

The main presents are wrapped and under the tree, but what about the stockings hanging from the mantel? Oftentimes stocking stuffers are an afterthought to Christmas shopping, but they can be some of the best presents received. It doesn't even have to cost much. Here are some great gift ideas for men, women and kids.

Gift Ideas for Stocking Stuffers

Some people regard gift certificates to be impersonal, but that isn't true when they correspond to the receiver's interests. They can be purchased in small or large amounts conveniently at most grocery or drug stores, fitting any budget. Here are some suggestions:

  • Jamba juice
  • Starbucks or Noah's Bagels
  • iTunes for someone with an iPod
  • Kindle store of for someone with a kindle
  • Apple store
  • favorite restaurant
  • movie theater or
Dancing Deer Baking Co

Another idea is to visit the local dollar store, which is filled with cheap items. Perusing their aisles will mine goodies priced for only a dollar. Other things to please people of all ages and tastes are:

  • paperback book
  • personalized coffee mug
  • address book
  • Brag book photo album
  • CD's
  • blank CD's or DVD's
  • DVD's
  • Whitman Sampler or other brand of chocolate
  • candy cane
  • caramel corn
  • Christmas cookies
  • Christmas ornament, homemade or otherwise
  • disposable camera
  • box of Altoid breath mints with a ribbon around it
  • reading light
  • bookmarks
  • deck of cards
  • USB flash drive
  • postage stamps
  • pocket calculator

Stocking Stuffers for Women

  • toiletries like a toothbrush
  • emery boards
  • hand lotion
  • perfume
  • nail polish
  • nail kit
  • scarf
  • hairbrush or comb
  • travel size items like tissues and Hand Sanitizer (Target Stores have a section devoted to these useful items)
  • gloves

Stocking Stuffers for Men

  • tire pressure gauge
  • cologne or aftershave
  • razor
  • comb
  • hair gel (if he uses it)
  • money clip (Sky Mall offers one that many men like)
  • batteries for the TV remote or other item he uses that requires them
  • key ring
  • travel sized items like shaving cream, toothbrushes and toothpaste
  • travel maps
  • gloves
  • mini tool kit
  • wallet
  • pocket knife
  • flashlight
  • golf balls
  • lighter

Stocking Stuffers for Cooks

Perusing a Williams-Sonoma store will give buyers all kinds of things to give someone who loves to cook or bake.
  • specialty food like coffee beans or bread mix
  • gourmet jam
  • herbal teas
  • whisks
  • pizza cutter
  • big spoons
  • candy thermometer or cake tester
  • vegetable brush
  • spatulas

Stocking Stuffers for Kids and Teens

  • journal
  • costume jewelry like a bracelet, necklace, ring, earrings or barrette
  • festive looking socks
  • stickers
  • $5 or $10 in an envelope
  • pen set, marker set
  • mittens
  • Rubik's cube
  • Sudoku, crossword and other similar games
  • small toys
  • whistle
  • doggie leash, collar or treats if a pet owner
When stumped over what to get a picky person, think of his or her favorite store and then go browse the aisles for potential gifts. Sporting goods and even hardware stores have small items by the cash register that interest their particular customers, and this is a great place to find suitable items. For something humorous, Spencer's Gifts has a great variety of small things sure to bring a laugh.

Shopping for Christmas stocking stuffers should be fun and easy when the recipient's age and tastes are kept in mind. The joy is not only experienced by the receiving, but also by the giver as he watches the reaction his carefully chosen presents elicit.
Balsam Hill LLC

Read more about Christmas:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Best Side Dishes for Thanksgiving Dinner

Best Side Dishes for Thanksgiving Dinner
photo by Christian Lemus

Broccoli Cheese Casserole and uncooked Cranberry Orange Relish are fabulous side dishes to go with a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Some recipes become family traditions at holidays, like Cranberry Orange relish. This simple to make, wonderful chutney is tangy and sweet at the same time, and so much better than canned cranberry sauce. Once a host or hostess serves this recipe, it will become an annual event.

Cranberry Orange Relish Recipe

Besides the taste, the best thing about this side dish is that it needs to be made two days ahead of time, freeing up precious time the day of the dinner party for other things, like entertaining guests.

  • 4 cups or 1 pound of cranberries
  • 1 whole orange
  • 2 cups sugar
  1. Grind the cranberries in a food processor or finely chop with a knife.
  2. Remove the seeds from the orange. Also remove the white stringy portion, if preferred, as it can taste bitter, and use only the yellow portion.
  3. Stir the orange and sugar into the cranberries.
  4. Place the relish in a covered jar and refrigerate for two days to ripen. Serve as a compote with meat or fowl. This recipe serves about eight to twelve people.
Balsam Hill LLC

Broccoli Cheese Casserole Recipe

Party givers are always on the lookout for a casserole to use as a side dish, and adding vegetables to a meal is a must. Green bean casserole is so commonly served at holiday dinners it is almost boring. Why not try another casserole that uses nutrient-rich broccoli? This is a recipe sure to become a family favorite, its appearance required at all holiday dinners.

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1/2 cup of chopped celery (113.4 grams)
  • 1/3 cup chopped onion (75.6 grams)
  • 16 oz. package (453.6 grams) of frozen broccoli flowerettes
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 8 oz. (126.8 grams) jar of Cheez Whiz
  • 3/4 cup (170 grams) INSTANT Minute Rice (Cannot be regular or long grain rice; it must be Instant)

  1. Place the butter, celery and onion in a saucepan and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Cook the frozen broccoli according to the package directions, usually on a stove with a little water. Drain the water when it is done.
  3. In a 3 quart (2.84 liters) casserole dish, gently stir together the celery and onion mixture, broccoli, soups, Cheez Whiz and rice.
  4. Bake uncovered in an oven that has been preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176°C) for 50 minutes, until the top is browned. Serves about eight.
Read more:

Best Ever Stuffing Recipe and Thanksgiving Turkey

Thanksgiving Turkey and Stuffing
photo by Christian Lemus

Turkey dressing stuffed inside a Thanksgiving bird will lengthen the roasting time, but it will absorb the succulent flavor of the turkey. The stuffing recipe cannot be written without including the instructions to roast the turkey as the two go hand in hand. Here's how to make this most traditional of holiday entrees.

First of all, when buying the turkey, allow one pound (453.6 grams) for every two people invited to the feast, or more if leftovers are desired. Then when ready to cook, make sure the giblets are removed from the body cavity and the neck area, or the wishbone cavity. Many chefs cooking their first Thanksgiving dinners are unaware there is a bag of organ meat inside their turkey and inadvertently roast it with the bird. This isn't always a fiasco but highly undesirable, and will most assuredly make the cook the butt of family jokes every Thanksgiving thereafter.

Prepare the turkey for roasting by rinsing it with cold water and patting it dry. Then rub the insides with a little salt. In a small cup, mix some olive oil, 2 cloves of crushed garlic, ground pepper and a dash of oregano, and then brush it all over the poultry. Put 2 bay leaves under the skin at each breast.

Bread Stuffing Recipe for a Holiday Turkey

There should be 3/4 cup (170 grams) of stuffing to each pound of turkey. For this stuffing recipe, large turkeys are best, but if the turkey is ten pounds or less, the stuffing can simply be placed in a crock pot and set on low heat while the turkey is roasting.

  • 6 tablespoons of chopped onion (85 grams)
  • 3 cups finely chopped celery (380.4 grams)
  • 2 cups of fresh mushrooms, chopped (453.6 grams)
  • 1 stick of butter (not margarine)
  • 14 slices of day old bread, cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (2.4 grams)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (2.4 grams)
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning (4.76 grams)
  • 1 teaspoon ground sage (4.76 grams)
  • 8 tablespoons of water or chicken broth, or a little more (113.4 grams)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, optional but delicious if they are included (113.4 grams)
Balsam Hill LLC
  1. In a large pot, cook the onion, celery and mushrooms in the butter until tender.
  2. Add the bread cubes and the seasonings, and then gently toss.
  3. Toss with enough of the water or broth to moisten.
  4. Add the walnuts or pecans and gently stir.
  5. With a large spoon, ladle the stuffing into two areas of the turkey, the body and the neck cavities.
  6. To keep the stuffing from leaking out, secure the wishbone cavity with a metal skewer. For the main body cavity, generally the two legs can be tucked under a flap of skin, but skewers may still be needed to close it. Insert a meat thermometer in the center of the inside thigh muscle, away from the bone.
  7. Roast the turkey, breast side up and the wing tips twisted under the back, at 325* (162.8°C) until the meat thermometer reads 180* (82.2°C). If not using an oven bag, loosely cover the top of the bird with foil. During the last 45 minutes, cut the band of skin between the legs and the tail. Remove the foil and baste the bird with the juice in the bottom of the pan every so often to keep it moist. The cooking time is as follows:
  • 6-8 pounds 3.5 - 4 hours
  • 8-12 pounds 4 - 4.5 hours
  • 12-16 pounds 4.5 - 5.5 hours
  • 16-20 pounds 5.5 - 6.5 hours
  • 20-24 pounds 6.5 - 7.5 hours
Reynolds oven bags are great for roasting turkeys as they reduce the time and make the meat very tender and juicy without having to baste it. Simply toss a spoonful of flour into the bag and shake it so that it is well coated, then add 4 celery stalks and a quartered onion. Carefully put the stuffed bird inside the bag, with the breast side up and the wing tips twisted under the back, close with the nylon tie, and then place it in a roasting pan. 6 slits should be cut in the top of the oven bag to allow steam to escape. With an oven bag, the cooking time for a stuffed turkey is as follows:
  • 12-16 pounds 2.5 - 3 hours
  • 16-20 pounds 3 - 3.5 hours
  • 20-24 pounds 3.5 - 4 hours
When the meat thermometer indicates the turkey is done, the bird should be removed from the oven and set aside for 15 minutes or even longer, still in the oven bag. Meanwhile, slit a corner of the bag and let the meat juice drain into a container, which can be used for homemade gravy. Then remove the stuffing and carve the turkey for a fabulous feast!

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Monday, October 3, 2011

City Guides Walking Tour of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco

Garden Court of The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California
photos by Dianne Smith

City Guides offers free walking tours throughout San Francisco, fascinating jaunts led by locals who love their city so much they donate their time to share it with others. The Palace Hotel, an historic landmark, is located at the southwest corner of Market and New Montgomery, above the entrance to the Montgomery Street Bart Station, and tours lasting about an hour begin on Saturdays and Tuesdays at 10:00 am and on Thursdays at 2:00 pm.

The Palace Hotel Walking Tour

The Palace Hotel
On the morning of October 1, 2011, the tour group meeting in the lobby was so large, two docents divided them in half and led separate tours. Cara Tramontano was an excellent guide, making the hotel's colorful history come alive.

William Ralston
  At the time the hotel was built in 1875, it was "the grandest hotel in the world," according to Andrew Carnegie. No expense was spared in its luxurious and sturdy construction, a seven story structure with two-foot thick concrete walls embedded with iron supports. It was the brainchild of William Ralston (1826-1875), who envisioned San Francisco as a world class city someday. Unfortunately he died just before his beaux arts hotel was completed, and it fell into the hands of his partner, William Sharon, whose family then held it for decades.

The opulent building had the first elevator west of the Mississippi, a "rising room" of sofas that could hold twenty to thirty people. 755 lavishly furnished guest rooms each had their own bathrooms with flushable toilets, air conditioning and electronic call buttons for room service. Meals were served with fine china, silver and crystal, and electricity was installed as soon as Edison invented the lightbulb in 1879. 

The Rebuilt Palace Hotel
Overlooking the Garden Court
From The French Parlor
The infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed the hotel, but it was painstakingly rebuilt in 1909 to more modern standards. The hallway of the second floor mezzanine level has a photo gallery of the original and rebuilt buildings.

The Garden Court, originally the horse carriage entrance, became a magnificent restaurant, with a tinted glass ceiling of 63,000 individual panes to bring in natural sunlight. The ceiling is reinforced with seismic webbing and attached to a second glass canopy. Crystal chandeliers weighing 750 pounds each suspend over elegantly set tables.

The cuisine always showcased the finest of local agriculture, introducing California's bounty to an international clientele. Some well known foods like Green Goddess salad dressing and chicken tetrazzini were created here. The list of luminaries who dined in the Garden Court are too numerous to mention, but one memorable guest was Nikita Kruschev in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. The kitchen crew called it "a horrible night" because he gave a speech in Russian lasting over two hours.

The grand ballroom is called the Ralston Room, and its signature feature are the chandeliers with their crystals cut into apple shapes and then chained together into giant pears. Another large room for conferences is Sunset Court, an area of new construction on the roof of the old building.

The French Parlor and The Pied Piper

French Parlor at The Palace Hotel

Overlooking the Garden Court is an ornate reception hall called the French Parlor with fancy arched windows. During Prohibition, the windows were boarded up and covered with red velvet, turning the parlor into a glorified speakeasy. Apparently San Franciscans didn't take the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution seriously during the fourteen years it was in effect, and the Palace Hotel was one of the worst offenders.

The Pied Piper Bar and Grill

City Guide Tour
Pied Piper Bar & Grill of
The Palace Hotel
The Pied Piper Bar and Grill is another intriguing part of the hotel. The old-fashioned gentlemen's bar with dark mahogany walls and rich, comfortable furnishings has witnessed the consummation of many business deals, the men puffing away on their cigars and pipes. The centerpiece of the bar is an amazing 1909 painting by Max Parrish called The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The famous artist was asked "to do a nice painting," and since children's fairy tales were highly popular, chose one of them for his subject. He painted his wife as one of the women, and the children depicted were ones he personally knew. He also included himself as the main character, tooting away as the Pied Piper.

The painting is a prize possession of the Palace Hotel. Someone once offered $7,000,000 for it, but they wouldn't bite. Prominently displayed under the painting is a 100-year old bottle of cognac. One shot costs $125 and the person who drinks the last drop will get to keep the bottle. The bar leads to another mahogany paneled room with a grand piano, glass ceiling and more artwork that pictures famous San Franciscans like Lotta Crabtree, an actress who got her start in San Francisco and gifted the landmark Lotta's Fountain to the city.

Also profiled is Emperor Norton, a beloved crackpot from the 1860's and 70's who told everyone he was the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He strutted around the streets in regal clothing, making public proclamations and printing his own currency. Everyone humored him, allowing him free meals, lodging and the best theater seats. When he died, 10,000 people attended his funeral.

The Palace Hotel is part of its San Francisco's cultural heritage, a fabulous place that has witnessed history within its walls and regularly hosts celebrities of all stripes. For anyone interested in learning more about the city's past, City Guide's walking tour of the hotel should top the list of things to do.

Glass Ceiling of French Parlor

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