Monday, August 22, 2016

the summer of blackberries

Collage - Blackberries
If I remember the summer of 2016 for anything, it will be for the Olympics and the blackberries. I've spent the past few months avoiding society and generally hiding from the world. Perhaps it's not the most constructive way of dealing with things when life gets tough, but it's what I tend to do in overwhelming, uncomfortable, and stressful situations. So I've spent the summer as a homebody - drawing in my sketchbook, watching the Olympics on TV, and eating my weight in blackberries.

I like to go berry picking in the summer and on the last day of July, Larry and I set out in search of some nature therapy and some berries. At the time, I wanted blueberries. I knew the blueberry season was coming to an end, but we checked the websites of several farms which said there was still scattered blueberry picking available. We decided not to go to our usual berry farm and to try somewhere new, so following the directions on the website, Larry called Catoctin Mountain Orchard to verify that they were open and had blueberries available. The answers were yes and yes, so we drove 65 miles to Thurmont, Maryland. Upon our arrival, we inquired about blueberry picking and were told "Oh, we don't do u-pick on Sundays." WHAT. I was more than a little peeved. What's the point of calling ahead if you get incorrect information...anyway, it was time for Plan B. So we headed back to our favorite, reliable farm, Butler's Orchard, in Germantown. In the past, we've picked blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries at Butler's, but it had been a few years since we were last there. I was dismayed to learn that they now have a cover charge to get onto the picking fields. It really irritates me to have to spend money to get into a place where I am going to buy something. That being said, since we had paid a cover charge, I didn't feel bad about sampling a few berries straight off the vine. (Maybe this is why they have the cover charge? Are people eating the produce in the fields? Anyway, between the two of us, the cover charge was equivalent to the cost of two pounds of berries, which we certainly did not eat from the vine!) Enough complaints, though, onto the picking...

We drove up to the blueberry fields, and as we had been warned, the blueberry picking was "scattered." There were very few berries, and the berries that were left were puny. It wasn't much fun, so we headed to the blackberry fields instead, which were dripping with huge juicy berries. We picked almost 9 pounds of blackberries! I've lost interest in carrying my DSLR camera with me and photographing everything these days, so here are a few iPhone pics:
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
summer of blackberries
Everyone always asks me what I do with 9 pounds of berries. For a berry-addict like me, it isn't hard to use up all those berries, plus I enjoy the challenge of finding and testing new recipes. It was Iron Chef Battle Blackberry in the Smoellke Test Kitchen and I think blackberries have comprised 75% of my diet over the past few weeks. I love trying new recipes, but honestly, my favorite way to eat any berries, is straight up in a bowl. Blackberries are also a great drink ingredient, so I made more than a few purple cocktails.
summer of blackberries
Here are 15 ways we ate and drank blackberries this summer, as pictured above, left to right:

 1. Straight up with a little sugar
 2. Blackberry Gin Fizz
 3. Blackberry and Pecan Grilled Pizza
 4. Blackberry Piña Colada
 5. Big Ass Salad with Blackberries and Fig Balsamic Vinaigrette
 6. Blackberry Whiskey Sour
 7. Blackberry Cheesecake Galette
 8. Blackberry Mezcal Smash
 9. Blackberry Cream Pie with Toasted Oat and Sesame Crumb Crust
10. Bourbon Blackberry Collins
11. Vegan Pancakes with Blackberry Syrup
12. Blackberry Shrubs: Blackberry-Rum Shrub and Blackberry Bourbon & Maple Syrup Shrub
13. Blackberry Cornmeal Muffins
14. Blackberry Pineapple Smash
15. Blackberry-Pineapple Sidecar

That Blackberry-Pineapple Sidecar is one of my favorite cocktails ever. I may have drank three last night. They're good medicine when you've had a tough few months, but perhaps an even less healthy coping method than hiding under a rock. ;)

And with that, all the blackberries are gone and the Olympics are over. Until next year/2020...

Friday, July 15, 2016

the headless squirrel

the headless squirrel
Sigh.

Another day, another dead animal in the backyard, another haiku (or six). What luck that decapitation has five syllables!

More backyard drama:
Banjo has a bloody beard.
A headless squirrel.

Just another day 
in the Smoellke backyard. The
body count is high.

Two dogs, one body.
At least it wasn't a fox.
Stop killing things, jerks!

Another squirrel.
And what happened to its head?
Decapitation.

"The head is torn off!"
Larry investigated.
"Want to see a pic?"

Yummy squirrel brains.
A backyard delicacy.
Banjo licks his chops.

Friday, July 8, 2016

weekend adventures | hiking rose river loop

rose river falls
Larry and I have been trying to hike as much as possible in 2016. We've always been good about hitting the trail whenever we have a nice weekend, and we hike a lot when we travel, but this year I've been trying to plan out some hikes ahead of time and be a little more intentional about it.

After our short walk on the A.T. in February, and reading about the National Park Service's A.T. Hike 100 Challenge, I set a goal of hiking 100 miles in 2016. I realize this isn't very far, and that a seasoned thru-hiker can complete 100 miles in three or four days. But I am not a thru-hiker - I am a weekend hiker who is just trying to get outside and get some exercise whenever I can. Our typical weekend hikes are about 5-6 miles, which means we'll need to hike 15-20 times this year to hit our goal. Considering that the only months that generally have acceptable hiking weather in Virginia are March through June and September through November, that means we need to hike 2-3 times per month. And since we work during the day and live in the suburbs, we only have a few weekend days per month available for hiking, and that all depends on weather, and if we don't have house projects to do on the weekends. Anyway, that's the long-winded backstory to our little goal for the year.

With spring approaching, I created a trail log and started researching hikes in VA/WV/MD, to avoid the dreaded Saturday morning "Where should we hike?" discussion. I think Larry and I had both been getting a little bored with local hiking because we felt like we'd done every trail in the area. Obviously, this is not true, but we were definitely stuck in a rut and needed to discover some new trails, branch out a bit, and challenge ourselves. We've mostly hiked in Northern Virginia and the northern part of Shenandoah National Park. Virginia is a big state and there are many other regions that we need to explore. It would just take a bit of planning ahead. I found Virginia Trail Guide to be a great resource, and came up with a long list of potential hikes, which I taped to the wall in my office. They ranged from easy local trails for when we only have a few hours or want to bring the dogs, to trails in Shenandoah that we've missed (we still haven't hiked Old Rag, but it's on the list for this year!), to hikes in the southwestern part of the sate that will require a road trip and weekend cabin accommodations, to more ambitious hikes with steep climbs that I feel like we need to train a bit for first. I was pretty amazed at some of the incredible hikes that Virginia has to offer - Devil's Marbleyard, Mount Rogers, Brumley Mountain Trail in Great Channels, Cascade Falls, Devil's BathtubMcAfee Knob, to name a few - and it got me excited about exploring our state again. Who knew there were boulder fields, slot canyons, and wild ponies on the trails in Virginia?

This post is going to be a bit of a let-down after that introduction, as we didn't try any of the ambitious hikes on my list, and instead opted for a 4-mile loop in good ol' Shenandoah. I'd actually been wanting to hike Rose River Loop for years since I'd seen it described as one of Shenandoah's best trails for streams and waterfalls. We headed out to Shenandoah the day after we visited Hillwood Gardens. It's always surprising how far behind the seasons are in the mountains. With spring in full bloom in DC, it was a bit disappointing to get out to Shenandoah and see that everything was still brown. I lugged my camera up and down the trail (which seemed to go on forever, and felt like much longer than 4 miles!) and took very few photos, because brown-on-brown just isn't that photogenic. It was still a pretty trail along a stream with lots of waterfalls, but I imagine it being a lot prettier in late spring/early summer.

Anyway, here are a few photos of Larry's back hiking through the brown:
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
rose river falls
Spotted in the wild: Two dorks, inadvertently matching

I'd love to go back to Rose River Loop when there are leaves on the trees and we could take a dip in the pools, but that probably won't happen any time soon, because there are lots more trails on my list and lots more mountains to climb...

Thursday, July 7, 2016

weekend adventures | exploring hillwood gardens

hillwood gardens
Spring is always such a beautiful, yet fleeting, season in DC. It seemed to disappear even more quickly than usual this year, I think because we were traveling and because horrible weather (a month of rain) kept us from enjoying our usual outdoorsy activities. But in the middle of April, we had a weekend of perfect weather, so we took my mother to explore Hillwood Gardens for her birthday. The gardens were in full bloom, the sun was shining, and the sky was vivid blue.

Hillwood Gardens is an estate purchased by Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1955. Marjorie was the owner of Post Cereal, the founder of General Foods, and the richest woman in America. We toured the mansion, and it was ridiculous what money could buy - she collected Fabergé eggs, French and Russian art, and jewelry, had multiple estates, and a huge staff that kept everything running smoothly. I much preferred the gardens to the interior of the house (which was filled to the brim with all the expensive useless things that money could buy). But despite her tastes in decorating (so many portraits of herself!), Marjorie was a philanthropist, an excellent employer, a skilled businesswoman, and an animal lover.

But back to the gardens! I think of DC as such an urban space, and always find it surprising to stumble on gardens and wooded areas within the city. From the mansion's portico, there was actually a view across the lawn to the Washington Monument in the distance. Just imagine the garden parties you could have here. Someone get me a cocktail!
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
hillwood gardens
Most of my photos were taken in the Japanese garden because that was my favorite. But there was also a pet cemetery, a cutting garden, a French parterre, a putting green, a rose garden where Marjorie's ashes are located, and the lunar lawn which is watched over by Leo the stone lion and which offers that billion dollar view towards the Washington Monument. While I enjoy the gardens at the National Arboretum more, what's remarkable to me about Hillwood is that it was a privately owned residence. It's a lifestyle I just can't imagine living, though it was fun to pretend for a day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

another one bites the dust


Our yard has been teeming with wildlife this spring and summer. There's a family of foxes - including two baby foxes, who we often see romping and rolling in our yard on weekend mornings. I haven't been able to get a picture of them, but fox kits are just about the cutest things I've ever seen. Gravy and Banjo disagree. I'm surprised they haven't broken a window in their rage that these critters are playing in their yard! I've seen the vixen almost every day over the pasts few weeks, too. And the bunnies! SO MANY BUNNIES. Bunnies, bunnies, everywhere.

I've watched three bunnies zip around our yard chasing each other, and then witnessed two of them doing unspeakable things in the bushes. (Making more bunnies!) I've watched tiny baby bunnies - some the size of hamsters, some the size of guinea pigs, hopping across our patio on a daily basis. They are fearless and clueless and sometimes get within two feet of me. I've tried to scare them off to prevent bloodshed. With a greyhound and a coonhound constantly patrolling our backyard, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred. I only wish it hadn't happened right in front of me!

Unfortunately, it's time for more haikus.

Dear Rabbits, I tried
to warn you about the beasts.
Our yard is not safe.

Why do you come here?
Two eighty pound dogs wait to
kill you with their mouths. 

Hippity hopping
Baby bunnies everywhere
No sense of danger.

From flat dog to fast 
dog. Gravy is built for speed.
Zero to fifty.

Greyhound on the loose.
Run bunny, run for your life! 
Oh no, you're too slow!

Lounging on my chair,
drinking a beer. Gravy runs.
Baby bunny dies.

A flash of red fur,
Gnashing teeth in the flowers.
RIP bunny.

In a split second
Gravy runs, grabs, and kills it.
Apex predator.

A murderous scene
Happens in my own backyard
Cold-blooded killer.

There's fur in his teeth
Now he has a taste for blood
Let's catch another!

Scream bloody murder.
That was me yelling at dogs.
Please don't call the cops.

Yard full of babies.
So tiny and sweet. Gravy
chews on bunny meat.

A summer's evening.
Peaceful, calm. Interrupted
by canine killers.

Mother Nature, so
cruel. I did not need a
front row seat for that.

Woke up the next day.
More baby bunnies in the
yard. They never learn.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

canada | île d'orléans

quebec city
After spending the morning at Montmorency Falls, Larry, Bryan, and I drove across the bridge to spend the afternoon on Île d'Orléans. Once again, we knew nothing about where we were going. When we asked the woman at the front desk of our hotel in Québec City about the best way to get to the Falls, she suggested we go to Île d'Orléans afterwards. (This lady was an incredible resource and everything she suggested, including the restaurant we ate at in Lower Town later that night, was excellent. We should have asked her for recommendations earlier in our stay, before we trudged through the touristy neighborhoods with mediocre restaurants full of Americans.) Anyway, she said Île d'Orléans was a good place to spend the afternoon and get something to eat. In my mind, I was picturing a small natural island with a park and picnic tables where we could eat a sandwich while looking out at the river.

What we found was SO much better!
île d'orléans
As instructed by the woman at the hotel, we stopped at the visitor center as soon as we crossed the bridge onto the island. Larry stayed in the car to take a conference call for work, while Bryan and I went in. The visitor center lady gave us a map, and then explained everywhere to visit on the island, circling all the places that were currently open for the season. We went back to the car, and I said to Larry, "This place is awesome! Basically it's an island full of vineyards, cideries, breweries, orchards, ice cream and chocolate shops, farms, and bakeries. There's a loop road, and you eat your way around the island!"

Everything I love all in one place! Seriously, was this heaven???
quebec city
For our first course we started with ice cream, because we're adults and we can eat dessert first if we want to! We stopped at Chocolaterie de Île d'Orléans and ordered dark chocolate dipped ice cream cones (enrobées de chocolat crème glacée). We took our treats outside to eat, and all three of us were moaning in ecstasy. "This is the best ice cream we've ever had! This chocolate is SO good! Oh myyyy goddddd!" Because it was a chocolate shop, the chocolate coating was incredible (made from imported Belgian ingredients), and about 1/4" thick - it formed a sort of chocolate cup around the ice cream, which was also really good. We talked about these ice cream cones for the rest of the day and the next day, too. "I wish we could go back to Île d'Orléans and get a chocolate dipped cone for breakfast!", we said as we were driving back to the U.S. the next day. I also tried to figure out how I could transport a cone back to my ice cream-loving mother. Sorry, Mom, we'll have to take you to Québec instead! Anyway, our first stop was a winner!
quebec city
We drove onwards, through a series of quaint little towns and farming communities flanked by the Saint Lawrence River. Île d'Orléans was one of the first parts of the province of Québec to be colonized by the French, so it has a rich French-Canadian history. It has been described as "the microcosm of traditional Québec and the birthplace of Francophones in North America."

Our next stop was at a bakery called La Boulange. We took our paper bags full of pastries and sat on a low wall next to a church overlooking the river to enjoy them. I never turn down the opportunity to eat pain au chocolat, which are called chocolatines in Québec. Isn't that the best word?

Yum.
quebec city
collage - church
quebec city
Our third stop was climbing the tour d'observation at the northeast end of the island, for a view of the farmland and river from above.
quebec city
collage - tower
quebec city
quebec city
Then it was time for the happy hour part of the tour as we drove around the west side of the island which was dotted with wineries, breweries, and cideries. We tasted wines and ice wines at Vignoble du Mitan, local brews at Microbrasserie de L'Île d'Orléans, and ice ciders at Cidrerie Verger Joe Giguère. I had tasted ice wine before (a special treat, and not that easy to get in Virginia), but I didn't even know there was such a thing as ice cider. (Which is made from frozen apples and is delicious!) Everyone we spoke to was so friendly and enthusiastic about the products that they made and the history of the island. Plus, is there anything more romantic than tasting wines poured by a native French speaker?
quebec city
quebec city
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quebec city
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quebec city
I wish we could've stopped at every local business on the island - there were many more wineries and restaurants that we didn't get to try, along with art galleries, fromageries, and in the summer - strawberry farms! The main crops on the island are strawberries, potatoes, and leeks, but since we were there so early in the season, many of these places were not open yet. But we did come back with a few souvenirs...
île d'orléans
How lovely would it be to spend an entire weekend on Île d'Orléans, staying in a bed and breakfast, biking around the island, and indulging in French-Canadian delights along the way? Like I said, this place is heaven.

(P.S. After writing six posts about Canada, I finally figured out how to type accents on my MacBook! I suppose I could've googled this, but it was much more fun to find out by accident! Just hold down the key for the letter you want accented and a pop-up will appear with all the accent options.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

canada | montmorency falls

quebec city
When our friend Bryan decided to join us last minute in Quebec, he told us "One thing I want to see while we're there is Montmorency Falls." Since we had done pretty much no research ahead of time, neither Larry nor I had even heard of Montmorency Falls! We googled it on our phones and were immediately game to check it out. Point for Bryan!

Montmorency Falls is a 276-foot tall waterfall (98 feet higher than Niagara) reached via aerial tram. We set off to check it out the morning after the Pearl Jam concert. We considered renting bikes and riding from Quebec City to the falls, but ultimately decided to drive. (This was a good decision - the ride was not picturesque, plus having a car allowed us to explore Ile d'Orleans afterwards.)

We took the tram from the visitors center to the top of the falls, checked out the museum, walked across the suspension bridge over the falls, and then down 487 stairs. There's also a zipline, if you're adventurous/insane. There was lots of mist coming off the falls, which provided lots of rainbows. The geographic feature across from the base of the falls is called the Sugar Loaf (pain de sucre). The Sugar Loaf becomes a gigantic cone during the winter when the mist from the waterfall freezes, and people go there to go ice climbing and tobogganing. (!!!)

We also took about a million photos. Here are a few pictures of the waterfall (and by a few, I mean 30):
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If that doesn't earn me a merit badge in waterfall photography, I don't know what does! (Actually, I should've brought a tripod and attempted some longer exposures, but I'm a lazy photographer.)

There are no pictures of me on the bridge or smiling while looking out at the waterfall - this is because my photographer needed to get across the bridge as quickly as possible without looking down, sideways, or stopping for photo opps! ;)