Category Archives: Family

Picnic at Northwest District Park

Picnic Food

Rami and I stayed close to home for this weekend’s picnic, at Northwest District Park in the Shoal Creek neighborhood of Austin. This park is one of my favorites in the city, and it’s the perfect place for families to hang out on Memorial Day Weekend.

Northwest District Park Sign

Northwest District Park has lots of picnic tables, a pool, a pond, basketball courts, and a large playground. It’s a huge park, with two entrances: one on the east side of the park at 7000 Ardath Street, and another on the west side of the park at Shoal Creek Blvd. between Dover and Pinecrest Blvd. The park has many grassy lawns and paved walking areas shaded by tall trees.

One of the best things about picnicking at Northwest District Park is its abundance of picnic areas. Like many of Austin’s parks, Northwest has three large, reservable picnic areas with many tables. However, it also has several more secluded picnic tables tucked around the park.


We chose this one to set up our picnic since it was situated in the shade of a pecan tree and overlooked the playground.

Our menu for this picnic was our favorite yet.

  • Mint sun-tea from Zhi Tea: fill a large mason jar with water and add two teaspoons of tea for each six ounces of water. (I used a large tea filter like this to hold the loose tea.)
  • Peanutty Carrot Tea Sandwiches: these are a wonderful alternative to plain PB&J. We skipped the raisins and used Confituras marmalade in the recipe. Yum!
  • Corn Radish Salad with Jalapeno Dressing An awesome spicy salad that uses radishes! I’m going to play with this recipe again for next week’s picnic since we enjoyed it so much.
  • Strawberries and Blackberries: sadly, local strawberries are gone for the season, but the blackberries from Wheeler Farm were super sweet!
  • Summer squash bread with beet-pecan sandwich spread.
I loved the corn radish salad and the blackberries. Rami’s favorite thing was the peanutty-carrot sandwich spread and the iced tea. And see the mint leaves garnishing the berries?? I grew those in a flower-pot outside my house! 😀

One thing that’s not coming across in these pictures is the ridiculous number of bugs swarming around us and our food. I got 13 mosquito bites while I was plating the food and taking this picture!

Because of all the bugs, Rami and I ate in record time and hightailed it outta the park. We spotted an egret at the pond as we left, just before the sun set.


Picnic at Montopolis Youth Sports Complex

The second weekend in our picnic adventure took Rami, Barclay and me to far east Austin. We stumbled upon the Montopolis Youth Sports Complex when we were looking for Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park on Saturday night.

After a jaunt east on Airport Boulevard from I-35 and a winding drive through the Montopolis neighborhood, Rami and I found ourselves at 400 Grove Boulevard, the address registered with Google Maps for Guerrero Park.There is a parking lot and some trailheads that lead into Guerrero Park at that address, but the more obvious landmark there is this lovely sports area. Montopolis Youth Sports Complex has a few baseball fields with concession stands and bleachers, a batting cage and a small playground. We counted six picnic tables at the park, situated near trash cans at the edges of each playing field.

There are lots of tall trees at the park, and most of the recreation areas around the baseball fields are in full or partial shade. It’s obvious from the manicured lawns and clean trails that the Montopolis Sports Complex is well cared for, and it’s probably very busy during baseball, softball and tee-ball seasons. However, Rami and Barclay and I were the only souls there at dinner time on Saturday night. The solitude at the park was great! We enjoyed our whole meal uninterrupted and Barclay was able to run around on his long lead and explore the park.

The menu for this week’s picnic featured tons of local veggies in various salad preparations. We were gluten free except for some pita bread and vegan, since I forgot my bacon-laden potato salad at home:

These salads were a really easy picnic menu since I was able to make most of them ahead of time during the week. I don’t know what I was thinking packing pickled beets on a picnic. They taste awesome, but the magenta beet juice threatened to stain our orange picnic blanket with every bite! Rami did a smart thing and packed a few paper napkins so that we could wipe down our dirty plates before we packed up to head home.

The wax beans and green beans from Acadian and Tecolote Farms were the standout ingredients in this week’s picnic. I used these fresh treasures in place of canned green beans in my favorite four bean salad recipe.

Four Bean Salad (serves 6)
One bunch fresh green beans
One bunch fresh wax (yellow) beans
15 oz. can garbanzo beans
15 oz. can kidney beans
Two green bell peppers, seeded and ribbed
Red or purple onion
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup red wine or cider vinegar
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

Preparation: trim ends off of green and yellow beans, then snap beans into bite-sized pieces.Bring a scant inch of salted water to a boil in a large saute pan. Add fresh beans, cover and cook for about five minutes, until beans are tender. Drain the beans and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, open and drain canned beans. Chop the bell peppers and onion into small pieces.  In a small bowl, whisk together oils, vinegars, sugar, salt and pepper. Put all the beans, onion and pepper into a large salad bowl and pour dressing over the top. Cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.

This post is sponsored by Greenling Organic Delivery and appears on their blog “Eating Out of the Local Box.”

Picnic at Walnut Creek Park

Two of the best things about living in Austin are the weather and the outdoors. In 2009, Forbes named Austin one of the “best outdoor cities” in the nation. Yet, after almost a decade living here, I have explored just a few of Austin’s public outdoor spaces. This summer I’m working to fix that. My husband Rami and I have resolved to take weekly picnics around Austin so that we can visit lots of different parks in the city and enjoy some great food together.

We are well outfitted for our picnic adventure: we’ve had a nice insulated picnic basket for years, courtesy of my mother in-law, and we threw down $7 at Goodwill last week so we’d have a proper picnic blanket.

We’re hoping these picnics will be a fun, cheap way to spend time together over the summer, and a chance to experiment with new recipes. I rarely cook lunch for us, so cooking sandwiches and picnic dishes with seasonal, local produce will be a nice way to stretch my cooking chops.

We started our picnic tour on Sunday at Walnut Creek Park in north central Austin. On the menu were sliced apples drizzled with local honey, a bagel sandwich with a root vegetable omelet, and a bottle of Texas wine.

The meal took us about 45 minutes to make. I packed two whole apples in the picnic basket along with a paring knife and the bottle of honey. For the sandwiches, I used Scott Ehrlich’s recipe for Spanish-Style Beet, Carrot and Egg Sandwich published by Food and Wine. Rami and I made the sandwiches with carrots from Acadian Family Farm, beets from Massey Farm, spring onions from Bar W Ranch and Farm and Yukon potatoes from Green Gate Farm.

In the sandwich, sweet onions and carrots, earthy beets, and buttery potatoes are sliced very thin and cooked until they’re tender. These become the star ingredients in an omelet, which serves as the filling for a toasted bagel sandwich. A spicy mayonnaise-based sauce complements the omelet perfectly. (Recipe here.)

The sandwiches were easy to cook, and the omelet portion of recipe will probably join our regular brunch rotation, especially when we get beets in our local box. (I never seem to use those up!) For the picnic I assembled the sandwiches at home and wrapped them individually in foil for transport. Our insulated picnic basket kept the sandwiches hot until we arrived at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park, which is just 10 minutes from our house.

Walnut Creek Park has extensive hiking and bike trails, an off-leash area for dogs, plus a baseball diamond and a playground. There are 26 picnic tables at the park and Rami and I had no trouble finding a quiet, clean place to eat around noon on Sunday. Our picnic table overlooked a shady clearing near a trailhead to the north, and a playground to the south. There’s also plenty of free parking available on the park property.

You can’t tell it from this picture, but this part of the park is very popular for dog owners since it’s near the off-leash area of the trail. Our dog Barclay was on his leash at the picnic table, and he enjoyed greeting several other dogs who walked by during our meal.

All in all we considered this first picnic venture a success. The sandwich was good, the wine was sweet, and the park was a pretty relaxing place to spend our Sunday afternoon.

Butter Bars with Chameleon Coffee Frosting

I’m sharing this recipe in support of Austin Bakes for Japan, happening Saturday, April 2nd!! Please join us at one of the five bake sale locations in Austin on Saturday starting at 10 AM. If you’re not in Austin, you can follow our progress that day via Twitter or our online giving page.

Butter bars with Chameleon Coffee Frosting

So remember when my mom and I threw a book-themed baby shower for my sister Beth? One of the things we had to make for Beth were butter bars with coffee frosting. This cookie recipe is her very favorite. It is a pretty straightforward icebox cookie, named for the butter in the dough, and the shape of the bar of the dough before the raw cookies are sliced.

This recipe is one of my favorite family heirlooms, and I love it more than any china or jewelry I’ve inherited. My Grandma Hakes (mom’s mom) gets credit for the recipe, and for three generations, women in my family have been making butter bars. Make that four generations! Beth had her baby in January, and Ella was in tow in the Snugli when we were making these cookies on Saturday.

My mom’s Butter Bar recipe card is a little tattered at the edges, and it lists ingredients in her usual way. She always writes in impeccable print the measurements and ingredients, in the order that they should be used. Mom’s instructions for recipes are always spare; here she writes “shape into bar, wrap in foil, chill. Cut into 1/4 inch slices.”

The notes on the bottom right of the recipe are in my Grandmother Hakes’ hand. She was on hand for the cookie making at Christmas 1996. I don’t remember the specifics of that visit very well, but  I always smile when I see Grandma’s notes on my mother’s recipe cards.

I’m not sure whether Grandma iced her butter bars when she first started making them. My mom developed this coffee frosting recipe, and our family has perfected it over many years of practice and testing.

I’ve given Mom’s frosting an Austin twist by using Austin-brewed Chameleon Cold-Brew coffee in place of the instant that she uses. I think the cold brewed coffee has a stronger, sweeter flavor than regular coffee that pairs perfectly with the toasty crunch of the cookie. In fact, the first time I tasted Chameleon Coffee at TECHMunch, I knew I had to use it in this recipe. Disclosure: the bottle of coffee that I used for this batch of cookies was a gift from Chameleon Coffee to all TECHmunch participants, so I didn’t buy it with my own money. Thanks, Chameleon Coffee!

I’ll be joining hundreds of other bloggers, bakers and local businesses this Saturday for Austin Bakes for Japan, a city-wide bake sale benefitting AmeriCares work in Japan. We have five locations in town, and there will be 24 packages of butter bar cookies at the East and Central locations. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that each package of cookie will pull in $5 or so, and my contribution to Saturday’s $10,000 goal will be over $100! Don’t the cookies look pretty on the plate?
Items at the bake sale have to be wrapped and ready to sell, so we packaged six cookies each on rectangular appetizer plates that Mom found at Party City. The plates of cookies fit perfectly into Ziploc freezer sandwich-sized bags (about an inch longer than regular sandwich bags).
Here’s what the cookies will look like on the tables Saturday.
Brown Sugar Butter Bars with Chameleon Coffee frosting (yields 4 dozen frosted cookies)
1 cup butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Cream butter, brown sugar and vanilla using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add flour and keep mixing until it is completely incorporated into the dough. It will be thick and very crumbly. Divide the dough and shape each half into a log 1-3/4 inches in diameter. Wrap each bar in foil and chill for at least an hour. Preheat oven to 350. Cut dough into 1/4 inch slices and bake in preheated oven for 8-10 minutes, until cookies are golden brown. Allow cookies to cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet before moving to a wire rack to cool completely.

Here’s a step by step of the rolling, wrapping and cutting process:

These cookies will not spread much on the cookie sheet, so it’s good to put them close together:

1/3 cup butter
2 tablespoons shortening
4 tablespoons Chameleon Cold-Brew coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 to 4-1/4 cups powdered sugar
Cream butter, shortening, coffee and vanilla using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add powdered sugar 1 cup at a time until frosting reaches a spreadable consistency. Spread frosting on completely cooled cookies. Top each cookie with a chocolate covered espresso bean, a few cocoa nibs, or (my mom’s favorite) a coffee flavored jelly bean.

Thanks to my mom and dad who bought the ingredients for these cookies, my mom and sister who made all the cookies and packaged them for the bake sale. Mom and Dad also gave $50 to AmeriCares through the bake sale’s online giving page. My sister Beth is going to be helping with the sale on Saturday. Rah, rah, rah Hutchisons, Decks, El-Farrahs!

Two Healthy Salads by my Husband

Tonight, Rami and I enjoyed one of the best meals we’ve had at home in quite a while.  We ate a gingery citrus cole slaw and a quinoa broccoli salad, plus whole wheat beer bread. And the best part, I didn’t cook a single thing!

Earlier tonight I was busy making chocolate chai truffles for a food swap on Monday when Rami walked in the kitchen and said, “How can I help?”

That’s a dangerous question in our house, because in a matter of minutes, he had been put in charge of making our entire dinner. He prepared two salads, Kathy Patalsky’s Napa Cabbage Cole Slaw and Amy Sherman’s Quinoa Arugula Salad, plus a loaf of whole wheat beer bread as a test for another food swap recipe.

The beer bread turned out really well (whew!) and the salads were awesome.  I’m planning a full post on the bread in advance of Monday’s swap, but in the meantime, here’s a recap of the salads:

The cabbage slaw is one of the best cabbage recipes I’ve found online.  Rami is typically not a fan of cabbage, and I don’t care for tangerines. However, in this recipe, we loved both of those foods!

Rami did make a few substitutions in Amy’s recipe according to what we had on hand: tangerines from G&S Grove instead of oranges, double the amount of regular mayo instead of vegan (sorry, Amy!!), and a green bell pepper instead of yellow.  Next time we make this, we’ll experiment by using less ginger and even more tangerines.  And the flavor of the dressing is so strong, I think I might be able to get away with adding a whole bag of sunflower sprouts to the mix.

Equally tasty was this broccolli arugula quinoa salad:

Rami was pretty liberal in his interpretation of the original recipe, which originally called for shaved asparugus, avocado, and lemons. He used  broccoli from Texas Daily Harvest (he added it to the quinoa pot for the last 5 minutes of cooking time), subbed tangerine juice for the lemon juice, and skipped the avocado.  The textures of steamed broccoli and quinoa really work well together, so next week I’ll be looking for more recipes that call for them together.

Fennel Potato Soup with Turnip Greens

Hey you guys! I’m an aunt! My sister Beth had a beautiful baby girl last Thursday night. Meet Ella:

Thanks to Ella’s arrival, we ended up eating out for dinner on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights with family.  I’m not complaining– we finally got to show off Blue Star Cafeteria to my parents– but I do have a lot of leftover produce in my fridge today. Four meals’ worth, to be exact! Plus, I feel a little bloated.

In order to knock out a lot of veggies and help my poor stomach, I turned to this Potato-Fennel soup recipe from the Mayo Clinic Foundation for Medical Education and Research. I knew the potatoes would give the soup a mild flavor, and fennel is supposed to be great for digestion.

I adapted the Mayo Clinic’s recipe by incorporating turnip greens and radish tops into the soup, and by increasing the liquid in the recipe accordingly.  And since I had just one half-pound bulb of fennel on hand, that’s all we used. (I couldn’t taste it a bit in the final dish.) I happened to have radish tops and turnip greens in my fridge today, but any cruciferous dark green would work well here.  However, I would avoid would be mustard greens; their spiciness would probably overpower the delicate balance of flavors in this soup.

All weekend I’ve been imagining what kinds of food Ella will enjoy as she gets older.  Hopefully some day I can make her a big steamy bowl of this fennel soup and tell her all about the weekend that we met!

Fennel Potato Soup with Turnip Greens (4 large servings)
adapted from the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 large russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
4 cups chopped dark greens, such as turnip, arugula, radish, spinach, or kale
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground pepper
Sour cream for garnish
Fennel fronds for garnish

Chop the onion and fennel bulb*. Heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add chopped onion and fennel. Saute until the onion is translucent and the fennel begins to soften, about 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, peel and chop potatoes and wash and chop greens.  Add potatoes and greens to the pot, along with the broth and milk.  Bring the soup to a boil.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the potatoes are very tender, about 20 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. Taste and season accordingly. Ladle into bowls, garnish with fennel fronds, sour cream, and additional pepper.

*If you’re new to fennel (anise), like me, it can be tricky to know how to cut the bulb open. Here’s a great video with instructions:

Click here for a printable copy of this recipe.

This post is sponsored by Greenling Organic Delivery and a modified version appears on their blog, Eating Out of the Local Box.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s Cherry Pies

What it is about mini cherry pies that makes them so much tastier than the regular sized ones? Perhaps they are easier to eat. Or the tiny crust-to-cherry filling ratio is better. Maybe it’s the cute factor.

For whatever reason, these mini pies were one of the most popular dishes at my sister’s book-themed baby shower last month.  I made them using my standby pie crust recipe (seen here and here) and a jar of wild cherry preserves homemade by my aunt in Carlisle, Iowa.

The process for making mini pies is pretty simple as long as you have some biscuit cutters and a mini muffin tin. Here’s what I did:

  1. After rolling the pie crust to 1/4 inch thickness, I used a 2-5/8 inch biscuit cutter to cut the top and bottom crusts.
  2. Then I placed a bottom crust into each well of a mini-muffin tin, using my fingers to press the crust flat down into the tin.
  3. I put a 1/2 teaspoon of cherry preserves in each pie and brushed the edges of the bottom crusts with egg wash.
  4. I placed the top crusts on the filled pies, pinching the crust edges together with my fingers.
  5. Finally, I used the tip of a paring knife to cut four vent holes in the top of each finished pie before giving them a final brush with egg wash.
  6. I baked the pies for 35 minutes at 350, until the crust was golden brown.

A full recipe of double crust and 1 cup of cherry jam yielded 32 tiny pies.

This assembly method was effective, but next time I’d like to experiment to get a prettier finished product. Although the pies stayed sealed, I wasn’t happy with the fluting effect I got with my bare fingers and the muffin tin, plus the tops of the pies were lumpier than I wanted.

None of the guests at the baby shower complained about the fluting, so I’m not sweating the cosmetics here too much.  Still, I’m eager for the next time I have occasion to make these so that can figure out a better way to attach the top crust. Any advice, fellow pastry-obsessives?