Fish & Green Beans w/ Wasabi Mayo

I think you need a new weekend recipe.

I think you need a new weekend recipe that involves fresh fish, farmer's market green beans, and panko bread crumbs.

I think you need a new weekend recipe that includes a bit of wasabi. What's not to love about wasabi? (Well, besides the fact a jar of the powder is not cheap.)

And so, because you need it, here's the recipe.


Santa Monica Lovin'

As you may have noticed from my last couple of posts, I enjoyed the time I spent visiting My Sister in Santa Monica. How can you not love a city with a small-town, laid-back vibe, with an adorable Main Street and a beautiful beach beckoning just beyond the palm trees?

How can you not love walking under beautiful flowering trees

and past little street-side gardens designed to grow corn, squash, and beans—and educate passersby about the traditional gardening technique involving the aforementioned three sisters?

How can you not love peculiar plants

and big community gardens full of every flower imaginable?

How can you not love wrought-iron railings leading to the apartment where you're visiting?

And once you get in the apartment, how can you not love casual, light and bright decor

a friendly greeting

and a surfboard ready to go?


Fancy Food

When traveling, food is important.

It's an incredibly obvious statement, I know. We all require food whether we are traveling or not. What I mean is that when I'm traveling, a key component of any trip is the food. Dining on those local specialties you can't get anywhere else, exploring new restaurants ... all of this is what makes a travel adventure so wonderful in my book.

I'm sure this comes as a big surprise to you. Julie cares about food? No way. We never would have guessed that.

In California, the food was fresh and simple and oh so delicious. We dined on tasty little bites like this.

And had fish tacos on the beach.

Another day, we had lunch at a place called Cha Cha Chicken, with incredibly delicious fried plantains and beans and rice and spicy meats.

And we spent way too long eating to-die-for tapas, in a dark intimate restaurant where I didn't bother to snap many photos because I was too busy focusing on the tasty morsels in front of us.

We even made a stop at the farmer's market, where the selection was overwhelming. My Mom shared a bit of her amazing goat cheese and sundried tomato tamale.

And I shared a bit of my chocolate croissant, which was so good I was tempted to go eat another one on the spot.

It doesn't get any better than that, does it?


A Succulent Obsession

I love succulents, even though the only one I've ever had is the aloe plant sitting by our kitchen sink.

Whenever I see the petite, unique varieties in the houses featured in Sunset or on blog posts, I am enamored with them and dream of positioning them throughout our house.

The thing is, you don't see many succulents for sale in central Illinois.

But in California, it's another story.

They're everywhere—in the windows of little shops, on the tables in restaurants, on the counter of coffee shops.

Even in My Sister's apartment. A handful of varieties in big pots or a single one in a small container. In soil. In water. You name it.

Each one with its own personality, its own style.

I've decided I'm going to seek them out. If the greenhouses don't have them, I'll try to order some online.

And if that doesn't work? Well, then I guess I'll just have to go back to California and bring some cuttings home with me.

Boy, that sure would stink if I had to do that.


West Coast Livin'

I'm guessing that you've been sitting around all week wondering, "Where was Julie last Friday? What was she doing?" I'm sure it's consuming every waking moment. So, to put all your questions to rest, I thought I'd fill you in on last Friday's activities.

Just because I'm thoughtful like that. And just because I want to rub in where I was.

At about this time last Friday, I was sitting on a lovely little patio drinking coffee with my mother. We were in Santa Monica, which my nomadic sister now calls home. Then, we wandered down an adorable little Main Street of shops and restaurants, window-shopping because nothing opens early in this laid-back beach town.

Shortly thereafter, surprise of all surprises, we headed to the beach. It's a mere three blocks from My Sister's apartment. And oh so wonderful.

Right before you reach the beach, there's this big paved path, with lanes for bicyclists, roller-bladers, and skaters plus the occasional pedestrian. I may be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure everyone in Santa Monica travels on that path. If they don't, they should. Why wouldn't you?

We parked our chairs in a spot near one of the lifeguard houses, a la Baywatch. (No babes, though, but perhaps I'll tell Conservative Boy I saw some Pam Anderson lookalikes in order to get him out there with me next time.)

From there, we could enjoy views of sun and sand and beautiful West Coast waves.

It was lovely. It was perfect. I decided by noon on Friday I was never going to leave.



If someone had told me 10 years ago that at 27 I would spend my spare time baking and would get incredibly excited about a new apron, I would have laughed.

No way. No how. Not a chance.

Yet here I am, ecstatic about my most recent purchase and the mixed berry pie I made the other night. And I'm not the least bit ashamed.

Many of the mothers that raised my generation somehow, miraculously, juggled the demands of full-time work with the challenges of raising a family and maintaining order in their house.

They—my own mother included—did so with grace. And while they did it, they taught us that we can do anything we want. That our lives are what we make of them.

We can have a family and a successful career. We can travel the world if we want, all alone or with a companion. We can go ahead and not get married—ever. We can "settle down" and live a happy, traditional life. Or we can live a life unlike any that's been lived before. There is no formula. There is no right or wrong way. It's up to us.

We can do it all, these mothers told us. We listened.

And so, young, motivated, empowered (stop rolling your eyes, Conservative Boy), we set out to make over the world. To do anything and everything we set our minds to.

We went to college. We jumped into jobs that excited us, that energized us, that we loved.

Along the way, we're finding that sometimes our dreams have changed. The original career path we envisioned for ourselves (for me, being an investigative reporter the likes of Woodward and Bernstein) has moved in a new direction.

Our aspirations shift and change over time, but are no less important and relevant and possible. We have discovered that things we never thought we would be interested in—gardening, cooking, marrying—aren't something to be feared and shunned as the antithesis of who we are and ought to become.

Rather, some of those actions are to be embraced. Not because society tells us it's what we are supposed to do, that being domestic goddesses is our calling and all we were made for in this life.

But because there's something wonderful and relaxing and, yes, even empowering about spending time with your hands in the earth, about tending to a garden and watching the seeds you have planted grow into plants producing food that fills your own belly.

There's something worth rejoicing in the process of learning how to transform raw ingredients into a dish to be savored. There's something strangely exciting in finally finding the perfect pie crust or discovering a cookie recipe that makes everyone who tries it swoon.

It's a bit selfish, in fact, this love of all things domestic. It's another challenge to conquer, another new activity to try. It's something to succeed at and, when we fail, to keep trying to improve.

But there's also joy in making good food to be shared with loved ones. There's something satisfying about planting a garden that can be enjoyed not just by the people who harvest its fruits or cut its flowers, but by everyone who passes by.

And so I forge ahead, finishing up my master's and still figuring out what I'm going to be when I grow up. Dreaming about writing novels and somehow making a difference in the world.

And when I need a break from all that work, I find a moment of absolute joy by donning a cheerful apron.

When I'm bleary eyed and worn out, I find solace and strength and enjoyment in the kitchen, baking pies and trying new recipes.

I find happiness and serenity in the garden, playing in the fertile soil.

And that's OK.


Mixed Berry Pie

The berry season is winding down in these here parts, but I've been stocking up on the Michigan blueberries at the farmer's market the past couple of weeks and supplementing them with some rather lovely berries from the grocery store.

I decided it was time to do something with all those beautiful little pieces of fruit, and so last night I set about making a mixed berry pie.

After a quick online search for a tasty recipe, I settled on Cafe Hon's Mixed Berry Pie, from Food Network.

The result? Ooh la la. I'm in love. I think this crust may be a winner. It's much more flavorful than the last one I tried. I wonder if this is because it has butter in addition to the shortening. Or perhaps it's the fact that it relies on a food processor?

Either way, I made one heck of a mess in the process, as I overloaded the food processor at first. But still the crust came out delicious.

Perhaps the pie bird helped, too. This little black creature arrived at our house last year, a lovely little gift from Georgia given to me by Conservative Mom. I've been meaning to use it since then, but somehow with all the pie baking I do, I haven't remember to find a recipe with a full crust on top so I could try it out.

Until now.

Pie birds are popular with some Southern collectors, but they're also functional. You see, the little black bird has a hole in his mouth. He goes in the center of the pie before you load it with filling (in this case, berries).

Then, while the pie is baking, steam escapes out of that mouth so your crust doesn't get soggy.

How cool is that?

But now, back the pie. You're probably wondering about the berry filling. (I used a combo of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries.) All you really need to know about it is that it's divine.

Even Conservative Hubby said so, more than once. (Although, admittedly, he didn't actually say "divine." I'd hazard to guess that's not a word he's ever used.)

His praise means something, because Conservative Hubby does not heap on unnecessary praise. He's a man of few words, and more often than not says very little by way of compliments. So when he mentions that something is good more than once, it means he likes it.

And when he says he only wants a small piece of pie but then disappears into the kitchen to eat more straight of the pan, you know he really likes it.

If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.


A Harvest

I didn't realize how many green vegetables I planted until last night, when I brought in the first harvest of the year.

A cucumber, a zucchini, a handful of beans, two peppers, and some basil. Yum, yum, yum, yum, and double yum.

Now if only all those green tomatoes would start turning red ...


Creamy Butter Pecan Ice Cream

A few weeks ago, I decided to branch out from my plain ol' vanilla ice cream life (not that there's anything wrong with homemade vanilla—it's divine) to try something new. Conservative Boy was quick to suggest one of his favorites: butter pecan ice cream.

And, as luck would have it, the handy little cookbook that came with the ice cream maker included a recipe for that very thing.

It was, I discovered, a bit more complicated that the vanilla recipe. But oh goodness oh goodness it was worth the work. Treating myself to a little bowl of this is one of the highlights of each day.

The process begins by melting 4 tablespoons of butter in a skillet. As you may have learned by now, any recipe that starts out with butter is going to be good. I speak the truth.

Once the butter is melted, add 1 cup pecan halves and pieces and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook over medium-low heat until pecans are toasted and golden, stirring frequently, about 4 to 6 minutes. (I may have let mine get a bit too golden but, alas, every cooking adventure is a learning experience.)

Remove the pecans from the heat, strain (you can save the pecan-flavored butter if you like), and chill the pecans.

Next you'll combine 2 1/4 cups whole milk (although you can use a lower-fat variety if you like) and 2 1/4 cups heavy cream in a medium saucepan. Use a sharp knife to split 1 whole vanilla bean in half lengthwise, and use the blunt edge to scrape out the "seeds."

Stir the seeds and bean pod into the milk/cream mixture. Bring the mixture to a slow boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Combine 4 large eggs, 2 large egg yolks, and 1 1/8 cups sugar in a medium bowl. Use a hand mixer on medium speed to beat the mixture until it is thick, smooth, and pale yellow (about 2 minutes). Remove the vanilla bean pod from the milk/cream mixture and discard it.

Pour out 1 cup of the hot liquid. With the mixer on low speed, add the cup of hot milk/cream to the egg mixture in a slow, steady stream. When it is thoroughly combined, pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and stir to combine.

Cook, stirring constantly, over medium-low heat until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a sheet of plastic wrap placed directly on the custard, and chill completely.

Now pour the chilled custard into the freezer bowl of the ice cream maker (or prepare your ice cream maker using whatever method is required to make ice cream) and let it mix until thickened (20 to 25 minutes in my mixer).

Five minutes before mixing is complete, add the pecans, and let them mix in completely.

Chill for about 2 hours for firmer ice cream like this.

See? I told you it wasn't exactly easy. But as I believe I mentioned way up there at the beginning of the post, it's oh so good.


The First Weekend in July

I'm a little miffed that June left without even saying goodbye, but I guess I'll get over it since July is taking June's place. July is hot, busy, the heart of the summer. It's farmer's markets and far too many weddings and fireworks.

This weekend, I'm engaging all three of those activities, in that order.

This morning, it was the most bountiful farmer's market visit yet. For only $20, I came away with:

The old standards: tomatoes, green beans, and potatoes.

Beautiful blueberries (from Michigan, as I think we're done with that season here; but still, buying fresh fruit from the region at the farmer's market beats the pants off of blueberries picked who knows how long ago and shipped from California).

The first Illinois peaches of the summer. (Which inevitably lead to me to sing "Millions of peaches, peaches for me. Millions of peaches, peaches for free." Only they weren't quite free.)

The first Illinois corn of the summer, plus a lovely little spaghetti squash and some onions.

Oh, and a little treat for me.

I passed on a few staples that were in abundance–namely, cucumbers, zucchini, and peppers—as I'm about to pick my own from the front-yard garden.

And so there you have it. The first of the three Fs.

Then tonight, comes the first of the July weddings—after a stop at the pool for a few hours to get some sun.

And tomorrow? The fireworks, of course. And perhaps a bit of grilling, because isn't that what the Fourth of July is for?

Have a safe and happy Fourth of July, dear readers. I hope yours is full of fresh local food, good friends, and fun.