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The Charm of Wild Hibiscus

A Champagne Season

It’s champagne season here at My Own Sweet Thyme.  My husband and I celebrate our wedding anniversary and birthdays within the space of a single month. I am always looking for ways to make each occasion special and nothing says “This occasion is special!” quite like champagne.

Making each occasion unique can be more of a challenge. Even champagne occasions can begin to blur in our memory if our approach to raising a toast is always the same. That’s why I took special note of an article about Champagne Cocktails that ran in the Wall Street Journal some time ago. It offered advice for impressive embellishments that add interest to a simple glass of champagne.  

Easy Embellishment

Among the “super-easy champagne drinks” suggested, my favorite was a Hibiscus Royale. This drink added a single wild hibiscus flower to the bottom of a bubbling flute of champagne. There the beautiful syrup-drenched blossom unfolded in response to the caress of the bubbles and infused the champagne with a layered scarlet sweetness along with the subtle essence of red fruit.

Eager to recreate that drink at home I shopped for Wild Hibiscus Flowers, without luck. Finally, I ordered them on-line but by the time my jar arrived another champagne season had run its course.  I unpacked the box and stowed the small dark jar in my pantry.

Sweet Memories

Now I find myself in another place and time….remembering that pretty drink. The Wild Hibiscus Flowers are easier to find now, in fact I saw them on the shelf at The Fresh Market the other day, just in time for another champagne season to unfold. This season those exotic little blossoms will add a unique twist to our anniversary toast. Then, at the bottom of the glass, is an invitation to taste something new (the wild hibiscus flowers themselves are said to taste of rhubarb and raspberries.) So often it is those sweet and simple touches that can make all the difference.

Wild Hibiscus Champagne Cocktails

dry champagne
a jar of wild hibiscus flowers in syrup

Spoon one wild hibiscus flower into the bottom of a champagne flute arranging it so that the petals are pointed upward.  

Drizzle a few drops to a full teaspoon of syrup from the jar over the hibiscus flower.

Pour champagne over the hibiscus flower to fill. 


Lunch at The Pour House

Roadside Alliteration

On a leisurely road trip east from Memphis, Nashville is ideally situated as a first stop: a place to stretch your legs, maybe do a little shopping, and get a good lunch.  We have followed this roadmap several times now and have yet to be disappointed.  On our last trip that good lunch came from The Pour House.

Located near the convergence of I-65 and I-40, near downtown, The Pour House was a practical stop on our way to Louisville. This urban roadhouse promised a menu of Burgers, Bourbon and Brews. As a fan of alliteration, as well as the three items listed, I was hopeful it would provide a satisfying midday meal.

A Taste of Things to Come

The necessary valet parking gave our arrival an unexpected touch of class. Inside we found a spacious dining room bathed in light. To one side of the large dining area was a stage that promised live entertainment in the evenings. To the other was a long bar. Instead of windows, numerous glass-paned garage doors invited in the light and separated interior from exterior space.  When we arrived several were rolled open allowing easy access to outdoor dining.

The Pour House offered a nice selection of beer and an amazing selection of bourbons. Why the focus on bourbon?  It seems that one of the owners hails from the great state of Kentucky, our afternoon’s destination, where 95% of all bourbon is produced. All the same, since we were on the road with more miles to travel before the day was through, I ordered Iced Tea instead and was delighted to sip it just inside the large open garage doors on a pleasant afternoon. 

Burgers and Fixin’s

Without studying the menu too hard I ordered the Bleu Cheese Burger. I like blue cheese but am sometimes wary of ordering it on a burger because the combination can be overly salty. Perhaps I was persuaded by the promise of bourbon cooked onions on top.  Or maybe it was the sliced avocado. In any case, it was an excellent choice. I ordered it without horseradish or other dressing, as I always do, and with a side of grilled asparagus.

The menu offered a nice variety of Fixin’s (sides). Besides the grilled asparagus the menu included beer battered mushrooms, grilled vegetable skewers and sweet potato fries. I was pleased with the asparagus, casually stacked beside my burger, and thought it was a great alternative to the expected fries.

My burger, piled high with the onions, bleu cheese, arugula, tomato and avocado slices, was inspired. The meat was well cooked, not too tightly packed, and flavorful. The blue cheese was tasty but not too salty or overpowering.  The avocado was nicely ripe, providing the perfect foil to the tang of the blue cheese and the bourbon onions added just a hint of warmly complex flavor.  All together it composed a very excellent burger.

Taking it Home

I was the last one to finish, as usual.  As I sipped the last of my tea the waitress brought our receipt and offered to refill our iced teas to go.  We accepted and got back on the road.

I think we will stop at The Pour House again. I’ll probably even order the same thing. I liked the atmosphere, the service was adequate and the food was good. In fact, I’ve been thinking about that burger regularly since we left. It’s the simple things really. I am now loving the idea of adding avocado slices to a homemade blue cheese burger in my own backyard. I’m even thinking I’ll saute a few slices of onion in a little bourbon to go on top.  I never really thought of that exact combination before but at the moment that Bleu Cheese Burger is haunting me and promising to be one of my favorite tastes of the summer. 

Forbidden Rice Salad with Ginger Dressing

Would you like to add a touch of drama to you picnic fare this summer? Here is a wholesome salad that can do the job.  Not only is it beautiful and easy to prepare but its main ingredient has a long history and a reputation as forbidden.

Shopping at Costco for wholesome grains I was intrigued when I found a bag of black rice. I was drawn to it, remembering a forbidden rice salad I had purchased from the deli at Whole Foods earlier.  I had wondered then where I might find the handsome nutty black rice it was made from. I could see the possibilities in the darkly intriguing color alone.

This was the first recipe I tried and it’s a winner. Simple and straightforward it works with the elegant purplish-black of the rice and adds a few splashes of flavorful color in the cranberries and green onions. Then, with reference back to the Chinese origins (where the rice earned its title of forbidden, because it was deemed too fine for anyone but the emperor), adds a modest amount of Ginger Dressing to spice things up. Nutty, tangy, chewy, and fragrant this impressive yet simple salad is sure to please.

Forbidden Rice Salad with Ginger Dressing            
Adapted from a recipe on the back of the bag of Nature’s Earthly Choice Black Rice

1 Tablespoon hazelnut oil or peanut oil
1 cup uncooked black rice
2 cups water
1 teaspoon vegetable bouillon
1/3 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
¼ cup dried cranberries
3 green onions, chopped on the diagonal
1/3 to ½ cup Ginger Dressing (I used Newman’s Own low-fat Sesame Ginger dressing)

Heat oil in a medium saucepan or skillet.  When shimmery, add the rice and sauté, stirring occasionally, until toasted (approximately two minutes.) 

Add the water and bouillon to the skillet, stirring to mix.  Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low.  Cover and cook for about 35 minutes, or until rice is tender. Remove from heat and allow it to cool. 

When cool, combine the rice mixture, pecans, cranberries, green onions and ginger dressing in a  large bowl.  Store in the refrigerator.  Serve cool or at room temperature.

Note: For a homemade Ginger Dressing try the one I use on this Wild Rice Salad with Ginger Dressing.


Tennessee Traditions - Bacon Apple Pie

Tennessee Tradition

Only a few miles south of I-40, between Memphis and Downtown Nashville, lies a Tennessee tradition.  There, along TN highway 100, sits the Loveless Cafe, a destination that has served weary travelers for more than 60 years. 

Though it has seen a number of important transitions during that time it still offers guests a good southern meal and homemade biscuits made from the same recipe used by the original owner, Annie Loveless, back in the mid-1900’s.

I don’t know that I would have found the Loveless Cafe on my own.  Though highway 100 was once a well-traveled route, these days we traverse the Tennessee countryside mostly by Interstate. It wasn’t until I looked up Nashville highlights at Southern Living Travel that I learned about the Loveless Cafe.  It made both their list of "7 Nashville Restaurants You Gotta Try" and "Must-See Sites in Nashville".  With such high praise from a trusted source we made a point to take that short detour south of 1-40 on our next trip through Nashville.

Taking a Detour

We stopped by in the early afternoon one Friday.  The place was packed.  Our wait for a table was expected to be thirty minutes or so but the day was nice and there were lots of things to divert us while we waited.  We walked across the parking lot to a building just beyond the restaurant and looked around the Hams & Jams Country Market.  We passed on the "Make Biscuits, Not War" T-shirts but bought some nostalgic sodas in glass bottles.  Back outside we sat at a picnic table near the highway sign and let the taste of root beer and orange sipped from the cold glass take us back some.

Once seated, we learned that this is the place to go for a crash course in country cuisine.  The menu includes fried chicken, livers or gizzards with a dish of gravy, fried pork chops, pit-cooked pork barbecue, Southern-fried catfish and even country ham and red eye gravy along with a wide variety of side dishes. The meal comes with a substantial plate of biscuits and a variety of fruit preserves. And if that’s not enough to tempt your taste buds, how about a slice of Goo-Goo Cluster Pie (based on yet another Tennessee tradition)! To wash it all down you can get a big glass of tea, sweet or unsweet, or even a taste of moonshine in a petite mason jar mug.

Roadside Souvenirs

We enjoyed our lunch. The food was good and the conversation was even better. The home-style menu gave us occasion to remember the way Mammaw used to serve country ham steaks and red eye gravy made from strong black coffee for holiday dinners. We laughed about Uncle Hal’s dessert of homemade biscuits and Karo syrup and the way my Dad cooked chicken livers, gizzards and any number of other obscure country delicacies back in the day. We talked about Aunt Hen’s days as a waitress at several of the roadside restaurants that once did a big business along highway 42 before progress diverted travelers from the highways to the interstates. As we walked back to our car I think we all took something more from the experience than just our leftovers and souvenir moonshine jar.

Back home I took inspiration from the Loveless Cafe to the next level when I found their “legendary recipe” for Bacon Apple Pie.  This recipe transcends the label of "legend" by daring to combine the sweet charm of a home-style lattice topped fruit pie with the enduring salty savor of an ingredient that approaches contemporary cult status: bacon.

Sweet Inspiration

When I found this recipe I had to smile!  The synergy seemed so obvious and yet, while I have cooked bacon in some interesting ways, I have never thought of using it to top an apple pie. (Of course I would have never thought to make a bacon scented candle either but Yankee Candle is giving that a try.)

Though the recipe is featured right on the Loveless Cafe website I followed it mainly in concept. I used my friend’s favorite pie crust recipe along with the basic outline from my own recipe for Rustic Apple Pie. With reference to the Loveless Cafe’s recipe I added a pinch of cardamon to the filling and then topped the pie with the thinnest sliced bacon I could easily find at my local grocery store.

I had my doubts when I put it in the oven.  I like my bacon crispy and I wondered if the bacon topping would really cook through. And, while I like to use bacon drippings to flavor green beans and potatoes I wasn’t too sure I would like the way it seasoned an apple pie filling.

Conflicts and Complements

Out of the oven, I was pleasantly surprised.  The bacon cooked through and was close to crispy.  Using a pair of kitchen shears to pre-cut the bacon lattice into wedges before slicing the pie, it was easy to divide and the slices were plated prettily.

From there it got a little confusing.  I would normally top a slice of apple pie with whipped cream or ice cream but felt a little conflicted about scooping either on top of bacon.  I had a late thought that it might be appropriate to top it with a dollop of mayonnaise but since I don’t keep the stuff in my house I let that thought pass. In the end I served the pie unadorned.

The reviews were good, especially from the men.  The tangy sweet taste of spiced apples was well complemented by the salty bacon and the contrasting textures of the crispy lattice over a soft filing cradled in a flaky pastry were appealing. My husband ate every bite of his and then suggested it might be even better served as an entrée for breakfast or brunch than as an after dinner dessert.

Bacon Apple Pie

Pastry for a single crust pie
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup flour
¼ teaspoon cardamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
dash of salt
6 cups apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
8 -12 slices uncooked bacon

Gently line a 9-inch pie plate with the prepared pastry. Set aside.

Mix sugar, flour, cardamon, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl.  Sprinkle this mixture over the sliced apples and toss to coat.  Turn the apples into the prepared crust.

Starting at the center of the pie, spread the uncooked bacon slices across the filling weaving them over and under in a lattice pattern as you go. (You should have approximately 5 strips of bacon running horizontally and another 5 strips vertically.)  Trim the bacon strips evenly to the outer edge of the pie dish and gently roll the ends into the crust. (The bacon will shrink somewhat while baking.)

Cover the pie loosely with aluminum foil.  Bake 55 minutes at 350F.

Remove the foil. Turn the heat up to 425F and continue baking for another 25 – 30 minutes or until the crust is golden and the bacon is cooked through.

Remove the pie and allow to rest on a wire rack until cool enough to cut. 

For an even appearance use kitchen shears to cut through the bacon lattice before slicing through the pie with a knife.

Serve and enjoy!

Dijon Blue Chicken Salad

Warming Up to….

With summer just a few degrees away, my dinner cravings take a sharp turn from meat and heavy side dishes cooked in the oven to grilled entrees and creative salads using fresh ingredients, simply prepared.

This salad recipe, from a food feature in The Commercial Appeal, makes the transition beautifully.  It uses fresh ingredients, ever mindful of their tender texture and bright appearance, and dresses them with the bold transitional flavor of a country Dijon mustard marinade.

…the Dijon Blues

This is a chicken salad like I have never tasted chicken salad before. Not only does it avoid mayonnaise (a big plus in my book), it uses the sassy sophistication of Dijon mustard to both marinate the chicken and dress the salad. Balancing the bold flavor and earthy color of country Dijon are bright bites of asparagus, slivers of red onion and chunks of bell pepper. To seal the deal these lovely contrasts of flavor and texture are accented with a handful of sharp yet creamy blue cheese crumbles.

Served with a fresh green salad and crusty roll, or alongside a bed of brown rice, Dijon Blue Chicken Salad makes an interesting and satisfying addition to a warm weather menu.

Dijon Blue Chicken Salad
from a recipe by Jennifer Chandler for The Commercial Appeal

3 or 4 servings

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard, divided
1 lb. pencil-thin asparagus, cleaned and trimmed
½ cup thinly sliced red onion
½ cup sliced red bell pepper
½ cup sliced yellow or orange bell pepper
salt and pepper
½ cup crumbled blue cheese

In a shallow pan, whisk together 2 Tablespoons olive oil and 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard (I like the texture of country Dijon but any Dijon will do).

Add the chicken breasts to the dish, turning to completely coat in the mustard mixture. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile: Cut asparagus into bite sized pieces.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Add 1 Tablespoon olive oil and heat until shimmery.  Add the asparagus and cook, stirring frequently, for a minute or two. 

Add the onion and bell pepper slices to the skillet.  Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until tender, approximately 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.

When you are ready to cook, season the chicken with salt and pepper and grill over hot coals, or under the broiler, cooking approximately 7 minutes on each side, or until cooked through (to an internal temperature of 165F.)

Allow cooked chicken to rest for 5 minutes.  Slice thinly, against the grain.  Set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a large bowl, toss together the chicken, asparagus, onion, and bell pepper.  Add the remaining 1 Tablespoon of mustard and 1 Tablespoon of oil.  Toss to coat.

Add the blue cheese crumbles.  Toss gently.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

Serve salad chilled or at room temperature. It can even be made the day before and stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve.


A Bowl of Tea at the Golden Pavilion

From my Japan journals:

It is the stuff of dreams: a tiered pavilion, dressed in gold leaf, standing in a pristine garden.  The image is framed by a wooded hillside and boldly reflected in a tranquil pond. Even the sunlight falls like a golden veil on a humid summer afternoon.

Gold is a symbol of prosperity and purity. We think of the streets of heaven paved in gold. Gold suggests comfort, hope and security. Gold is big and bold and self-assured.

Among the temples skirting the edge of Kyoto, Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, stands out.  It is one of the most popular tourist attractions, not only in Kyoto but in all of Japan. It is beautiful and evocative, an elegant structure in an harmonious setting.

Beyond the Golden Pavilion and through the garden stands a teahouse. It is open to guests and offers a bowl of matcha and a sweet.  Shoes are left outside and guests are ushered to a space on the tatami mats.  A bowl of frothy green tea is promptly served along with a single tea sweet on a small plate.

Here at Kinkakuji, that sweet is firm, like sculpted sugar, and flecked with gold. The surface is impressed with a small image of the Golden Pavilion itself.  The firm shell is filled with sweet red bean paste.  The hostess motions for each guest to eat the sweet first, then sip the matcha quickly, before the tea settles.

On my tongue the sweetness of the gold flecked wagashi is intense, so intense that my children do not finish theirs. The thick green matcha that follows is bitter to my lips but when it meets the lingering sweetness on my tongue the flavors harmonize to an agreeable balance.  The two blend, developing a complex and pleasing symmetry.

I am fascinated.  The recess is brief; the interlude of a few sips of tea following a single sweet, refreshing.  I tuck the experience away for further reflection.

Outside the teahouse I buy a small box of the gold flecked sweets, a souvenir of this new discovery.  Then we continue our journey out the gate and along the roadway toward Ryoanji. 

Marinated Bourbon Steak

An Agreeable Subject

At times food photography can be a joy. The subject sits there still and without objection.  It can easily be moved to various settings, with light falling on it at different angles. When there is nothing to get cold and no one waiting at the table, hungry and ready to eat, I love photographing what I create in the kitchen. 

At other times, the challenges involved in photographing dinner can be frustrating. Fresh off the grill this Bourbon Marinated Steak was beautiful, the aroma tantalizing.  Eager to share this simple recipe in time for Derby Day I took the steak from the grill near twilight on a cloudy evening and did my best to get a decent shot before the steak got cold and my diners rebelled.

A Good Choice

I wish I could say I knew enough about photography that you could see my success.  Gladly I am a little better at choosing recipes than camera settings for low light situations. What I can say is that the steaks were delicious, with a flavor hinting at bourbon’s oaky complexity without being overpowered by it’s strength.

Serve these delicious steaks as a main course or slice them thin and serve them on little Rosemary Biscuits as a hearty appetizers that gives a nod to the Bluegrass State.

Marinated Bourbon Steak
From an old magazine clipping of unknown origin

½ cup bourbon
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 (1-inch) beef top loin strip steaks (about 1½ lbs)

In a shallow pan, stir together the bourbon, lemon juice, brown sugar and cracked black pepper until the sugar is dissolved.

Add the steaks to the dish, turning to completely coat in the marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, turning occasionally.

When ready to cook, remove steaks and discard marinade.

Grill over hot coals (around 425F) with lid down for 7 to 8 minutes on each side or until  done as desired.

Serve as is or slice and serve sandwiched on small Rosemary Biscuits.