Coffee Roaster Tour in Hawaii

To the left of the entrance to the cafe, they are experimenting growing coffee plants.

I recently spent a week in beautiful Hawaii. While my husband was cooped up in a conference, I was seeking out some of the wonderful food-related experiences available on the lush island of Oahu!

Because Hawaii is known for its Kona coffee, I wanted to pay a visit to one of the sources of this liquid gold. I discovered Lion Coffee, the nation’s first coffee roaster and distributor.  I was able to see how they roast and package their coffee, and I learned a lot about coffee history in the U.S.

Lion Coffee was founded in Ohio in 1864 by Alvin Woolson as part of The Woolson Spice Company. Mr. Woolson noticed that green coffee beans, shipped over long distances in questionable conditions, wound up being pan roasted in households, often resulting in burnt bitter tasting coffee. His experience in the spice industry gave way to “fancy roasting,” a more reliable and consistent way of roasting coffee beans.  He then ground the roasted beans and began selling the ground coffee in prepackaged one pound bags.

Woolson launched the first great advertising campaign in history by offering customers “promotions” with purchases–picture cards, pins, holiday items, and other trinkets. His promos created buzz about the product and encouraged customer loyalty. Demand became so great that Lion Coffee began distributing coffee through a mail order company. The mail order business was incredibly successful–so much so that the U.S. Post Office had to come up with a new shipping category for “bulk” shipments!

In their cafe, a display of antique roasting and brewing apparatuses dating between the late 1800’s to the 1920’s shows the evolution of roasting, grinding and brewing techniques.

Lion Coffee was purchased by Jim Delano in 1979 and relocated to Honolulu. They launched a website in 1999 and have been delivering coffee to loyal fans all over the world since then.

The master roasters start every day in the cupping room where they taste the previous day’s roast.

My tour started in the cupping room. In this laboratory-like room, Lion’s master roasters perform a cupping ritual every day.  Samples of the previous day’s roast are ground and tasted according to strict protocol for quality control. This daily step ensures that every bag that leaves their facility meets the high standards for which Lion Coffee is known.

My next stop was the warehouse where massive stacks of burlap bags of raw coffee beans were stacked nearly to the ceiling. Much of the coffee is the prized Kona coffee which is grown only in Hawaii. The favorable weather conditions, combined with Hawaii’s mineral-rich, well-drained volcanic soils, create the ideal growing conditions for Kona coffee. Lion Coffee is the largest roaster of Kona coffee in the world.

This is the parchment, or outer hull of the coffee bean. The hulls are very lightweight and look a little like peanuts.

The first step after receiving the coffee beans is to put them through a machine that removes the parchment, a lightweight hull that surrounds the coffee beans. The green beans are then placed in a roasting machine for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees to achieve the perfect roast.

The roasting machine looks a little like a flying saucer and works hard throughout each day roasting the beans that will make their way to stores, hotels and restaurants throughout the country. The smell is glorious!
The beans are constantly swirled during the roasting process to ensure uniformity in color and roast.
The bags are formed from a roll of flat foil lined film.

Once roasted (and sometimes ground), the coffee is sent to a bagging machine. The machine forms the bag from a roll of film, applies the label and a one-way valve. The valve releases the natural gases the coffee produces and keeps air from entering the bag. Any remaining oxygen is forced out of the bag by injecting nitrogen. This ensures that the beans stay fresh. Once bagged and tagged with their golden insignia clip, the coffee is boxed and shipped to various distributors, restaurants, and mail order customers all over the world.

This machine forms the bag from the flat roll and sends it off to be filled with coffee.
These bags await receiving their golden clip, a Lion Coffee signature feature, which helps preserve freshness after opening.

Lion has a complete espresso bar/cafe and a gift shop at the end of the tour. You can sample their various products, enjoy a beverage and a freshly baked pastry, as well as purchase bagged coffee (and tea) to take home.

I ordered my first “nitro-brew,” an iced coffee concoction infused with nitrogen gas to create small bubbles and a foamy head on top of the coffee. This technique makes the coffee richer and creamier than standard coffee brewing techniques and I found it quite delicious.

For a coffee lover like me, touring the roasting facility was educational and gave me a greater appreciation of how my morning cup of java is created. I purchased several bags of this delicious coffee and am now brewing my own Lion coffee at home.

If you would like to purchase Lion coffee yourself, you can buy it at their online store.

The last stop on the tour is their cafe and gift shop where you can sample all their coffees. Lion’s baristas brew up a plethora of delicious coffee drinks. And of course, you can also purchase bagged coffee and tea here.

Note: I have received no compensation from Lion Coffee for this blog. All opinions expressed are my own.

Italian Dinner Party – Pasta and Polenta

This is the final post in a series on the Italian themed dinner party we hosted a few weeks ago. If you’d like to catch up, you can read about the appetizers and cocktails here:

Part two on the table setting is available here:

This post will cover the menu and recipes for the meal, as well as a small parting gift we gave our guests at the end of the evening. 

Primo: Homemade Spaghetti with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Basil

After our guests were seated, the first course was served, homemade pasta with roasted cherry tomatoes and basil. While you can certainly use boxed pasta, homemade pasta is not difficult to make and the flavor is substantially better than boxed. I find it is worth the extra effort to make it when entertaining. I promise a post on how to make it soon!

The cherry tomatoes were oven roasted with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. They were added to the cooked pasta along with toasted panko breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and fresh basil. I served a small portion as a first course for this dinner, but it’s a hearty dish that would also make a wonderful main course. Here is a link with the recipe:

Segondo: Polenta Board with Shredded Beef in Wine Sauce and Kale Mushroom Saute

Years ago I saw a television chef serve up a dramatic polenta board and vowed that I would do it one day. This was my moment! I headed to my local hardware store and purchased an eight foot long 12″ wide pine plank and had the hardware store cut it in half for me. I covered both boards with parchment paper and wrapped them like gifts by taping the edges of the paper down on the underside. This provided a sanitary surface upon which to spread the polenta.

The polenta was spread out in a thin layer on each board and served with shredded beef in wine sauce and sauteed kale and mushrooms alternating down the board on top of the polenta. I learned that it’s important to form a lip around the edge of the polenta to keep the sauce from dripping out.

I kicked everyone out of the kitchen for the night’s biggest surprise–bringing out the polenta boards. It required two people to carry each four foot long polenta board to the table! According to our guests, this was the highlight of the evening. Each table had its own board, and every guest was provided a large spoon and invited to serve themselves by scooping up the polenta directly from the board. There were lots of oohs and ahhs when the boards came out, but it became oddly quiet once the polenta board began to be consumed.

Here’s the recipe for the shredded beef sauce:

The recipe for both the polenta and kale mushroom saute can be found here:

A crisp citrus fennel salad was served as an accompaniment. It added just the right contrast in temperature and the licorice-like flavor of the fennel cut through the heavier flavors of the polenta board. I used toasted pine nuts instead of walnuts and added a little arugula to this recipe:

Dolce: Tiramisu

One of the most well-known and beloved Italian desserts is tiramisu. Importantly it does not require any last minute prep, other than a shaving of chocolate on top for garnish. It can be made a day or two ahead and kept refrigerated.

I found a recipe called “The Best Tiramisu You Will Ever Make” and couldn’t resist trying it. It was creamy and delectable. I didn’t tinker with the recipe one bit (other than topping it with shaved chocolate rather than cocoa powder). Given that I’d only made tiramisu once before, I can honestly say it is the best tiramisu I’ve ever made!  Here’s the link:

We concluded the meal with a digestif of limoncello, a cold, sweet, lemon flavored Italian liqueur. While the actual medicinal benefits of digestifs are yet unproven, it is thought that such drinks help to digest the prior meal. I don’t know whether it assisted anyone’s digestion at our party but it did give us an excuse to remain around the dinner table a little longer.

Parting Gift

To make the memory of our evening linger, I prepared two types of biscotti for our guests and packaged them up as a parting gift. Each guest was given a pair of cookies upon their departure. While there are many variations on this twice-baked cookie, I made chocolate walnut and lemon anise almond flavors. I placed the cookies in separate bags so that the flavors wouldn’t mingle. The two cookies were tied together with a tag that said, “Ciao Bella.”

Ciao means both hello and goodbye in Italian. Hopefully our guests will come back soon so that we may greet them again with ciao.

Italian Dinner Party – The Table Setting

Last week’s blog focused on cocktails and appetizers for our Italian themed dinner party.   In case you missed it, you can check it out here:  This post will describe the table setting. Next week, the last post in the series will cover the menu and recipes.

The Table, Place Cards, and Menu

What could be more classic for an Italian themed dinner than a red and white checked tablecloth? I put two folding tables together to form one long banquet style table and placed a red checked tablecloth over both.  To this foundation, a white table cloth overlay was added to the center and the table was set with white dinner plates. I designed my menus and place cards using free online clip art and repeated the logo throughout the event, keeping the font and colors consistent. A printed menu was placed on each plate and place cards were mounted in little wooden place card holders next to each plate. (These were purchased but it would be easy to make them from fallen branches.)

The Napkin Fold

I used a napkin folding technique called the “twin candle roll” for my white cloth napkins and placed them in the stemware. They added height and whimsy to the table and couldn’t be easier to do. I recommend starching your napkins first as they will stand up better. Here is a video which shows how to make them:



A Conversation Piece

Around the holidays last winter I came across a gigantic bottle of Italian wine and immediately knew it would be perfect for an Italian themed dinner party. I purchased it and held onto it for this moment! It was placed front and center on the table and quickly became a conversation piece. It is not terribly common to see a magnum of wine and my guests spent a little time trying to figure out how many regular sized bottles of wine it contained. (The correct answer is three.)

The Centerpiece

The pièce de résistance for the table setting was a large floral arrangement of red gladiolas in the center of the table. I used a classically-styled urn to raise the arrangement up off the table. Floral foam was used to hold the long stems in place and the flowers were arranged in a spray design. I added a few stalks of spiky palm leaves and some lemon leaves from my backyard to fill out the base of the arrangement and provide additional texture. A floral arrangement of this scale certainly makes a statement and can really give your table a “wow factor!”

My sweet husband lit the fire and directed guests to their places at the table.

Creating Ambiance

A few weeks prior to the party, I began saving empty wine bottles to use as candle holders. The bottles were soaked in warm soapy water to remove the labels and candles were inserted into the openings. They were placed on the mantle above the outdoor fireplace. Our weather turned chilly that evening and we ended up lighting the fireplace for warmth.  The flickering glow of the candles and crackling fireplace made for a cozy and convivial setting.

Next week’s blog will provide the menu and recipes for the meal and will feature a dramatic polenta board. Stay tuned!

This picture was taken the morning after the party. The dripping candle wax covering the wine bottles is evidence that the party lasted late into the night.

Italian Dinner Party: Appetizers and Cocktails

Who doesn’t love Italian food? It has become a mainstay of American cuisine and seems to be the epitome of “comfort food.”  Many classic Italian dishes can be made ahead of time which makes it perfectly suited to a dinner party for a crowd. We invited twelve friends, some old, some new, for an Italian themed dinner party al fresco.

This is the first of a three-part series. Today’s blog will cover the appetizers and drinks. Next week’s blog will address the table setting, and the following week will cover the dinner menu and recipes.

The Signature Cocktail:  Sparkling Negroni

The Negroni is a classic Italian cocktail developed by a bartender in Florence in 1919 as an adaptation of an Americano.  When the bartender replaced the soda water with gin and added an orange peel zest instead of lemon, the Negroni was born.

A signature cocktail is a festive way to set the tone for the evening. Preparing the cocktail in a punch bowl or large pitcher also allows the host to make drinks ahead and not have to deal with last minute mixing.

I decided to add prosecco to the classic cocktail to cut some of the bitterness of the Campari.  Here is the recipe for a crowd.

Sparkling Negroni (Serves 12-16)

  • 1 cup Campari
  • 1 cup Gin
  • 1 cup Sweet Vermouth
  • 2 bottles prosecco
  • Orange peel zest for garnish

Mix the Campari, gin and vermouth in a punch bowl with ice. Add prosecco and gently stir until blended. Pour into glasses and garnish with sliver of orange peel zest.

I also set up a self-serve water dispenser with lemon slices and made Italian grapefruit soda and Pellegrino Italian sparkling water available as non-alcoholic drink options.

The Antipasto Board

In Italian, antipasto means “before the meal” and is typically a selection of cured meats, cheeses, olives, marinated vegetables, and other finger foods intended to stimulate the appetite. Antipasto is a great choice for a crowd because it is simple to put together and can be endlessly varied, made more or less complicated depending on your preferences, time and budget.

My antipasto platter included a selection of cured meats, a hard cheese, a soft cheese, olives, pickled peppers, marinated artichoke hearts and grapes.

I used shipping tags to identify containers of avocado honey, white bean rosemary spread, and garlic mustard aioli. Guests are more likely to try foods if they know what is in them.

Condiments are a nice addition to any antipasto board to provide variety and additional flavors.  Along with a garlic aioli mustard, I added a dish of avocado honey which is particularly delicious drizzled over cheese. To complete the antipasto board, I made a white bean spread flavored with lemon, garlic, and fresh rosemary and served it with baguette toasts and crackers.  Here’s the recipe:

Note the interplay of colors, textures and flavors. The round, smooth, colorful grapes contrast with the crunchy linear bread sticks, while the chewy saltiness of the cured meats plays off the creaminess of the cheese.

For my table setup, I used a wine crate from Italy as a platform and tucked in fresh greenery from my yard around the perimeter for additional color and texture. Two cans of San Marzano tomatoes were used in the meat sauce I made for our dinner, and I thought the cans were so colorful and authentic looking, I decided to recycle them for table decor. A bouquet of flowers was arranged in one can and bread sticks were placed in the other.

I was delighted to find a set of rather ingenious appetizer stem holder plates online and couldn’t wait to see how my guests liked them. They have an opening for the stem of the wine glass to be inserted so that both the glass and food can be easily handled with only one hand. Guests commented on how nice it was to have a free hand and not to have to awkwardly juggle their glasses and food plates! I have a feeling these plates will make regular appearances at future parties. In case you’d like to get some for yourself, here’s a link:  

After our guests, some of whom didn’t previously know each other, spent a little time together sharing Negronis and antipasto, they were in a good mood and ready for the meal.  Stay tuned next week for part two in this series which will feature the table setting.

While most of our guests congregated around the appetizer table, a separate seating area was available with plenty of space to comfortably relax.

The 2017 Pasadena Showcase House of Design

This rotating garden greeted visitors upon entering the property. The circular disk spun slowly giving movement and life to the walkway. Design by Haynes Landscape Design.
The loggia overlooks the pool and is a relaxing spot off the living room. Design by Ederra Design Studio.

After many years of reading about and ogling photos of the Pasadena Showcase House of Design in national design magazines, I finally was able to see it in person. Founded in 1948 as a fund raiser for the arts, this project has become a major annual event that draws people from all over the United States, and indeed the world. It features the area’s best designers, landscapers, architects, and artists at their best. It is an “over the top” experience for those of us passionate about design.

The blue and white living room is a beautifully proportioned room with a fresh coastal feel. Design by Robert Frank Interiors.

The featured home for 2017 was a stunning 8,000 square foot English Tudor style mansion built in 1916 designed for actor Samuel Hinds, best known for playing Peter Bailey in the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The house has been featured in numerous movies and television programs such as “Beaches,” “Mad Men”, “Parks and Recreation” and more recently, “La La Land.”

The master bedroom suite features a drop-down flat-screen television hidden in the ceiling! Design by Home Front Build, Inc.
The level of detail continued outside of the main house and is shown in the brass bumblebee door knobs and honeycomb leaded glass doors to the Bee’s Bliss Cottage. Design and photo by Rose Thicket Botanical Design House.

This is a large scale event that includes so much more than just a house. The outdoor areas included a lagoon style swimming pool, loggia, bee keeper’s cottage, numerous patios, waterfalls, and stunning gardens. The organizers enhanced the experience by including a cadre of carefully selected vendors in an outdoor market called “The Shops.” Vendors sold home decor items, clothing, designer jewelry, linens, natural bath and skin care products, and local gourmet foods. And in case all that design inspiration and shopping stirred your appetite, the organizers also set up a full service restaurant, bar and bistro on the grounds!

The vaulted ceiling in the grand staircase was designed and printed on fabric to resemble Trompe-l’oeil, while the tree landscape on walls at the base of the stairs was hand painted to give the illusion of looking through a window. Design by L’Esperance Design.
Design by Jessica Today Designs.

Built at an original cost of $25,000, the house is believed to have last been renovated sometime in the 1950’s. Fortunately the designers and contractors saved and restored many of the original bones of the house including the leaded and stained glass windows, carved newel posts and balustrades, elaborate wood paneling throughout the first floor, a jaw-dropping arched stairwell ceiling with corner grotesques (reminiscent of a European cathedral!) and an amazing ironwork entry door.

But it was the level of detail added by the designers that most impressed me. I loved the hand painted ceiling in the lady’s office, the pull out ironing board cabinet in the laundry room, the bee motif door knobs and honeycomb leaded glass motif on the doors to the beekeeper’s cottage. I loved the emphasis on original art which added so much personality to every room. While each designer clearly expressed their own aesthetics, the house maintained flow and felt cohesive.


The laundry room is large, light-filled, and features a small powder room. It also houses my favorite practical feature in the entire showcase house–a pullout ironing board and broom storage cabinet. Design by Dana Triano Designs.


Photos courtesy of Dana Triano Designs.

Design by D. Christjan Fine Cabinetry Design and Manufacturing.

If your city has a major design showcase house or if you can make it out to Pasadena next year, I encourage you to go. You will leave feeling inspired and with the satisfaction of knowing that you have made a contribution towards furthering a good cause in your community.

Note:  Photographs courtesy of the Pasadena Showcase House of Design except as noted. Photographer Peter Christiansen Valli.

In the Shakespeare Garden, a mosaic was created using succulents, drought tolerant plants ideally suited to the climate of Pasadena. Design by GreenLink Landscaping and John’s Tree and Landscaping.

Creating a Gallery Wall

Do you have a hallway or stairwell wall that is currently empty because you can’t figure out what type of artwork would work there? Do you have family photos that you’d like to display but can’t figure out how to do it in a tasteful way? Or perhaps you have a mishmash of disparate pieces of art and photographs that don’t seem to go together and need a way to display them?  A gallery wall just might be the solution!

We recently purchased two sofas for our family room which necessitated a room makeover. Suddenly the wall that formerly was taken up by our television was now blank. Because this wall faces the living room and is immediately visible upon entering the family room, I wanted the wall to make a statement.

Here is the room before the new sofas arrived. The modern sofas were from our previous home and didn’t go well in our 1927 Spanish style house.
With the new sofas and the television moved to the wall with the window, you can see how empty the wall now looks.

I did a quick inventory of my home to see what artwork I had on hand that might be useful. I had a few larger pieces in neutral black, white and sepia tones, all framed in black  I knew I had a few smaller black frames in storage and that I could easily put together a gallery wall which would make a statement in the space.

Here are the steps to creating a gallery wall.

  1.  Curate your art.  While gallery walls can be a mixture of frame styles, colors, and different types of artwork, I decided to put together a mostly black, white and sepia toned color scheme to create a calm effect. Adding in dimensional pieces, such as the coral in the shadowbox and the square shelf box shown in the picture below, creates interest and adds texture.
  2. Lay out the artwork on the floor.  Play around with the layout until you find an arrangement that looks balanced. You don’t want things to line up too perfectly in this style arrangement so don’t worry about making the spaces between frames exactly the same. Mix up your frame orientation with some hanging horizontally and others vertically. You can also mix in different shapes, e.g., a round or oval frame. Adding in a mirror or small shelf can add interest.
  3. Take a photograph. Once you are happy with your layout on the floor, take a picture as a reference to transfer the layout to the wall. While your original layout doesn’t have to be set in stone, you will refer to it often as a guide.
  4. Make templates.  It takes a little extra time to do this but it is well worth it.  I cut out templates from newspaper for each frame and marked where the nails would go in red marker so that it would be easy for me to hang the artwork once in place.

    If you mark where the nail should go on your templates before attaching them to the wall, you will find it makes hanging the pictures a breeze.
  5.  Transfer the layout to your wall using painter’s tape.  Attach the templates to the wall following the layout from your photograph. You will probably need to adjust the spacing a few times before you get it right, but the painter’s tape makes it easy to move the templates around. Better to play with the layout using tape than with nails in the wall!

    I used a combination of photography, pencil drawings, fabric, and natural objects that all had meaning to me. The black frames and color scheme unify what could have been a random looking assortment.
  6. Nail it down. Once you are pleased with the layout of your templates, go ahead and put nails in the spots you have marked in red.
  7. Peel the templates off the wall and hang your pictures.  Use a level to make sure each item hangs level as even one picture out of square can make the whole display look disheveled.

    Notice that open spaces remain where new pieces can be added at a later time if desired.

This is project that is especially effective in stairwells, hallways, or other areas that can be difficult for which to select artwork. Family photographs can look especially artistic on a gallery wall if they are printed in black and white (or sepia tones) and framed in a similar manner. A gallery wall provides limitless options for displaying your artwork in a unique and interesting manner.

It’s a difficult job keeping the cat out of the photo shoot!

Do you have a spot in your home that would look great with a gallery wall?

Two 2 Ingredient Desserts

No, that’s not a typo. Today I’m going to share with you two desserts that literally have two ingredients each. They are both healthy, delicious and super easy!

Vanilla Chia Seed Pudding

I realize chia seed pudding has been around for a little while, but I was recently introduced to it by a vegan friend. It immediately became a go-to dessert and occasional breakfast for me.

Here’s the recipe (serves one):

  • 1 cup of vanilla coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds

Just stir these two ingredients together until the seeds are incorporated throughout the coconut milk and refrigerate. It will take a minimum of 2 hours for the seeds to swell up, absorb the milk and become gelatinous. I find it’s best to put the mixture in a covered container and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. The vanilla coconut milk contains some sugar but if you want a sugar free version, use plain unsweetened coconut milk. You can always add a little stevia, maple syrup, honey or agave if you prefer it sweeter.

I added some toasted coconut chips and a sprig of mint as a garnish.

To make a more decadent version of this pudding, try adding a tablespoon of cocoa powder, a pinch of instant coffee, and a tablespoon of coconut or nuts. For a fruity version, add a sliced banana or a handful of berries. Or switch out the coconut milk with almond, soy or regular milk. The options are endless and can be tailored to your tastes and dietary needs.

Two Ingredient Banana Ice Cream

The bananas should be very ripe with lots of brown spots. This makes the ice cream sweet without the need for added sugar.

I stumbled upon this recipe when I was making banana bread. I had frozen some bananas (skins removed) that were very ripe in order to preserve them for use at a later time. I needed to puree the bananas for my banana bread and had let them thaw slightly. I put them in my food processor to puree and realized they needed a little liquid so I added a small amount of half and half. I gave it a whirl and noticed that the mixture immediately became fluffy and custard-like, very similar to soft serve ice cream. And when I went to lick the bowl, I found it tasted just like banana ice cream. It was sweet, creamy and oh so good!

Here’s the recipe.

  • 3 very ripe frozen bananas
  • 1/4 cup half and half

Put the slightly thawed bananas and half and half in a food processor and blend until creamy and smooth. No sugar is needed if your bananas are very ripe. This recipe makes two generous servings.

If you want to make a dairy free version of this recipe, try using coconut cream instead of half and half. For extra deliciousness, toss in a handful of cocoa nibs, chocolate chips, or nuts. Add a drizzle of caramel sauce to take it to another level!

Since there are no stablizers (guar gum) in this ice cream, it does tend to melt rather quickly. If you put your serving dish in the freezer for 10 minutes prior to serving, it will help delay melting.

The best part is that you can enjoy both of these yummy desserts without guilt. They are gluten free, sugar free, and can be made dairy free and vegan with simple substitutions. I urge you to give them a try. They just might become your “go two” desserts too.



Mother’s Day Memories

As we prepare to celebrate Mother’s Day, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect upon and pay tribute to my own mother. My mom passed away at the age of 80, nearly six years ago. While her impact on my life is felt constantly, I feel her influence most when I’m in the kitchen.

My mother didn’t consider herself a “good cook.” She always said she felt embarrassed to take dishes to church picnics and family gatherings because she thought other people’s food tasted better than hers. (I’ve since come to realize all good cooks think this way!)  While she would, of course, have an occasional failure, I loved her food and thought she was a wonderful cook.

How I wish I had a picture of me as a child in the kitchen with my mother! But there were no cell phone cameras back then and we never thought to take pictures of such mundane activities.

For everyday meals my mother rarely used a recipe, and mostly prepared the native North Carolina dishes she had learned from her grandmother. Her southern cooking wasn’t particularly “healthy” by today’s standards. She used lard and seasoned with fatback; she made fried chicken for supper almost every Sunday, and we had bacon or sausage and eggs for breakfast every single day. She knew how to use all the stray parts of an animal.  Ever heard of souse, also known as head cheese? Yep, she made that! By no means could she be considered a ‘gourmet,’ but my mother cooked three nourishing meals a day every single day when I was growing up.  Fortunately for me, she was always patient and generous in sharing her knowledge.

At 14 months, I wasn’t big enough to help in the kitchen yet.

Here are just a few cooking basics that I learned from my mom:

  • The big “T” stands for tablespoon
  • The small “t” stands for teaspoon
  • How to separate an egg yolk from the white
  • It is important to sift flour and cocoa powder when baking
  • How to whip egg whites and cream
  • How to test a cake for doneness
  • Not to over-mix pancake or muffin batter
  • Browned food equals flavorful food
  • Rinse out cans to get every last bit of goodness
  • It’s okay to take risks and make substitutions, improvising with what you have on hand. (This is a lesson for life as well!)

Over the years I’ve certainly added to this knowledge base and have challenged myself with far more complex recipes and techniques than she ever attempted, but those new skills could only be acquired after knowing the basics. She gave me a solid base on which to build.

In memory of my mother, Vada McLamb Dawson, June 15, 1930 – May 28, 2011.

Yes, one can certainly Google the answers to any cooking-related question nowadays. Cooking programs on television and cookbooks are abundant and are terrific sources of information. But Google can never replace the beautiful memories I have of learning how to cook at my mother’s side. And no cooking program or book can ever replicate the bond that grew from the time we spent together in the kitchen.


Removing Stains from Vintage Linens

Do you have any old family linens packed away that you never use because they have stains or yellowing that you can’t get out? Or have you ever come across an inexpensive tablecloth at a yard sale or thrift shop and passed it up because you thought the stains were permanent? Since I learned the secret to removing set stains from vintage linens, I no longer let stains deter me from enjoying the linens I have, or from purchasing great pieces when I find them.

I had an antiques shop several years ago and learned the secret to stubborn stain removal from a fellow antiques dealer who sold the most pristine sparkling white linens I’d ever seen. I asked for her secret and she was kind enough to share it with me. Since then I’ve used the technique numerous times with excellent results, removing most stains from natural fabrics (cotton, linen, hemp).

This is the starting point. There are quite a few stains, mostly around the border of the tablecloth. They are not terrible, but they are noticeable and I would probably not use the tablecloth in its current condition.

I recently came across a damask tablecloth with eight napkins at a thrift store for the ridiculous price of $5.00. The napkins were in great shape but the tablecloth had quite a few well-set stains and yellowed areas from storage.  Given that there was no structural damage, I decided to purchase them knowing that it was likely I would be able to remove the stains–or at least improve the situation substantially.

I enhanced the contrast on the camera so that you could better see the stained areas. They are old stains and may not come out completely, but I think I can substantially improve upon their current state.

The secret is twofold. First, put two tablespoons of Oxiclean powder into a container. Add a cup of boiling water. The mixture will immediately bubble up and dissolve. Dampen the stained areas and apply the hot Oxi mixture directly to the stains.

Then fill your wash basin with very hot water and put the entire piece in.  Extremely hot water is key!  I usually add two kettles of boiling water to a tub of my hottest tap water. Wearing rubber gloves, give it a good swish and make sure the soapy water permeates all the fabric.

Your wash water will get lighter in color with each subsequent change of water.

And here is the second and most important part of the secret to stubborn stain removal: let it soak for as long as it takes for the stain to release.  Set stains often need a prolonged period of time in the washing solution to loosen up the fibers sufficiently to release the stain.  Sometimes an overnight soak will do the job but it often takes longer. Believe it or not, I have soaked linens up to three weeks before the stains lifted!

If you are doing a prolonged soak, repeat this process daily, changing your soaking water with fresh hot water and more Oxiclean.  It takes a bit of patience but it’s very little actual work. Once you have your solution mixed up and your fabric soaking, you can walk away and forget about it until the next day. Check on the status of the stains by holding the wet fabric up to a window during daylight hours.  You should be able to see any remaining discoloration when the fabric is wet.

This picture shows the stain after 2 days in the soaking solution (center). You can see it has lightened substantially. I’m feeling optimistic that in another day or so it will be completely gone.

Whatever you do, please don’t put stained linens in the dryer or iron them before working to remove the stain. The heat will set the stains making them much more difficult to remove.

I do not recommend using bleach on vintage linens–ever.  It is much too harsh and can weaken and erode the fibers.  If after an extended soak you are still unable to completely remove a stain, try using a little hydrogen peroxide. Dampen the fabric first and apply to the stained area.  This mild bleach will often take out any remaining shading.

I ended up soaking the tablecloth for four days. It is shown here lightly starched and pressed. Upon close inspection, I saw only one area where a very light amount of yellowing remained.  I doubt anyone will notice when this tablecloth is put into use.

Always be sure to rinse your linens well.  Yellowing occurs when soap residue is left behind. Rinse until you see no further suds. As long as the fabric is not too delicate, I put my linens through the regular wash cycle in the washing machine without detergent to remove any remaining soap residue. If you plan to store your linens for an extended period of time, adding a half cup of white vinegar to the final rinse can help prevent future yellowing.

Finally, to get your white linens to truly sparkle, lay down an old sheet on the lawn and spread them out in the bright sunshine for several hours. This trick will also help with any remaining discoloration.

I encourage you to pull your family linens out of storage and put them to use! And if you find a gorgeous bargain piece with a few stains–go for it!  Knowing how to remove stubborn stains should make you fearless about using and enjoying these beautiful items.

Pressed, lightly starched, and tied up with a pretty ribbon, my $5 tablecloth and napkins are ready for my next dinner party.



Natural Wine Class

I recently had the pleasure of attending a class on natural wines by a certified advanced sommelier.  The class was offered at Urban Kitchen, a cooking school in South Pasadena, CA. They provided their cool industrial-style kitchen as the venue, as well as a beautiful spread of heavy hors d’oevres to accompany the wines we tasted.

Urban Kitchen served up several lovely dishes including prosciutto, cheese and asparagus toasts, butternut squash filled cheese gougères, and several delicious incarnations of pimento cheese spread with bread.

The seminar was led by sommelier Melissa Gisler Mondanlou, founder of “Rock Juice.” Her company was established to offer those of us who desire to eat healthy foods the ability to enjoy those foods with wines that are produced in the most organic, sustainable and natural methods available. She travels the world to find small family owned vineyards that produce small-batch artisanal wines of high quality and brings them to the public through her wine club.

Melissa told us that the conventional wines we are accustomed to drinking contain far more than grape juice and can include a myriad of different chemicals and additives that are not shown on the label. Due to various loopholes in the law, wine makers are not required to disclose anything other than sulfur as an additive. While most of us are aware of the potential negative health ramifications of food additives, herbicides and pesticides, we tend to be unaware that the wine we drink can be tainted with the same ingredients we might steer clear of in our foods. Melissa explained that these additives are often used to make up for deficiencies in the fruit or farming practices that could otherwise make the wine unpalatable. Producers of natural wines seek to find varietals that are well-suited to the terrior so that chemicals are unnecessary.

All of the wines were quite reasonably priced, especially when considering the labor intensive production methods involved.
This pétillant-naturel wine is made from the Cayuga grape, a cold climate varietal. It undergoes one fermentation inside the bottle and has no added yeast or sugar.  Because it is unfiltered, there is a bit of cloudiness at bottom of the glass.

We tasted 5 different wines ranging from a pétillant-naturel, a sparkling kombucha-like wine from Maine, to a light-bodied Beaujolais-like red blend from the Loire Valley in France. I found all of the wines we tasted to be rustic and earthy in character with great minerality. Many of them are produced by using a method of extraction called carbonic maceration. This method simply uses the weight of the grapes and gravity to extract the juice. Few tanins are thus extracted, resulting in a lighter wine which allows the true flavors of the grape to shine.

All of these wines were lower in alcohol than conventionally produced wines and were light-bodied with a slightly acidic flavor profile. None of the wines contained a significant amount of sulfur. Anecdotally I would like to mention that my friend, who normally cannot drink wine without her eyes tearing up, commented at the end of the tasting that she hadn’t needed her tissues once! She attributed this to the lack of sulfur or other additives in the wine. Whatever the reason, we enjoyed these unusual wines and will definitely be keeping an eye out for natural wines in the future.

If you’d like more information on natural wines or their wine club, you can check out the Rock Juice website at  For more information on Urban Kitchen, go to

Perfectly prepared pavlova meringues were served for dessert.


Disclosure: I have received no compensation for this post by either Urban Kitchen or Rock Juice Inc.  I simply enjoyed the experience and wanted to share what I learned with my readers.