Friday, February 18, 2011

Destination: Family Vacation

A Day at the Beach by Ellen McHale

Mid-Winter break begins today,  pretty much as soon as the kids get off the bus at 3:00pm.  It has me thinking about some of my favorite places that we have travelled over these years - some during February break, others in April and many during the summertime.  I gathered a few of my favorite pictures and some of my artwork that was inspired by our travels to share with you.  

Atlantis Resort

No matter where we have travelled in the world, if you ask my son what his favorite vacation spot was, he will always say Atlantis in the Bahamas!  So, I thought it fitting that I start with a picture of his favorite destination of all.

Flying Fish by Ellen McHale

The beautiful waters of the Bahamas and the abundance of gorgeous fish inspired this piece of work.

The London Eye

I am partial to London.  We lived there for two years and my husband still works there now -  so we are lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel back and visit our friends and see our favorite sites.  It is a wonderful walking city with plenty to keep you occupied throughout your stay anytime of the year.

The Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace

Travel Series London by Ellen McHale

My version of the Queen's Guard ...

Hampstead Creperie

The Hampstead Creperie is our number one destination whenever we get back to London.  It is worth the long queues to have a crepe with chocolate and banana for dessert or our favorite savory crepe, ham and oozing melted cheese.  Yum!  These guys can be found on the High Street in Hampstead.  Simply the best.


This past summer we finally got to Venice.  It was one of the most beautiful places that I have been to in my lifetime.  If you have a "bucket list" then make sure that Venice finds a place on that list.  

Travel Series Venice by Ellen McHale
My version of Venice ...

A place to tie up your gondola

The streets of Venice

Even the mundane tasks are made beautiful

Travel Series Paris by Ellen McHale

Paris is an all time great destination for any age.  So much to see and do and get swept away by.  You can never get tired of Paris and what she has to offer.

Paddington Bear at a cafe in Paris

Many years ago our son had a school project where Paddington Bear had to travel with him on vacation.  He had to document Paddington's trip in photos and in a journal.  This Paddington Bear had some of the best trips courtesy of the children at The American School of London.  I wonder if he ever made it back to Peru?  

An artist in Montmartre, Paris
There is my young son having his portrait done by one of the many artists that set up shop in Place du Tertre the artist filled square atop Montmartre.

Park Guell, Barcelona

This little Hansel and Gretel house in Park Guell by Antoni Gaudi is located in Barcelona Spain.  We had the opportunity to travel to Barcelona last year and were transfixed by the surrealist works of Gaudi.  His imprint is on architecture everywhere from the famous Park Guell to the Sagrada Familia.  Barcelona is a warm and welcoming place to visit with food that is out of this world!

Sagrada Familia
My pictures do not do Gaudi's Sagrada Familia justice.  You have to stand before it to begin to process it's magnificence.  The Sagrada Familia has been dubbed the 8th Wonder of the World and you will agree when you have to opportunity to lay your eyes upon it.


I can't talk about great vacations without giving a shout-out to our trip to Finland - quite possibly the most adventuresome trip that we have ever taken.  Above is a picture of one of the Sami-people, reindeer herders, that we met.  He taught us how to drive a reindeer pulled sleigh and introduced us to the indigenous people of Scandinavia.  It was a trip of a lifetime.

Wood Island Lighthouse, Biddeford Pool, Maine

Maine has always pulled at our heartstrings because of it's rugged beauty and beautiful unspoiled beaches.  There is nothing like a lobster roll from our favorite little places in Maine.  The real-deal:  a toasted bun, fresh lobster meat and just the tiniest amount of mayo to hold it  all together.  It's pure and it's simple and we crave it all year long ...

View from Little Beach in Biddeford Pool, Maine
A gorgeous Maine sunset

My version of Wood Island Lighthouse

Travel Series Boston by Ellen McHale

There is so much to do when you vacation at home.  We are so fortunate to live in an area where there is so much to offer.  From the ICA to the MFA and the Celtics to the Red Sox there is something for everyone both young and old...

Segway Tours in Boston
A few months back we decided to act like tourists in our own hometown.  You will be surprised by how much fun you have.  The segway tours in Boston are a really fun way to see the city. We went with Boston Gliders as our tour guides.   You get a wireless audio tour that is led by a guide that takes you to all the hotspots in Boston. Sure you look a little goofy but that is half the fun of being a tourist - isn't it?

Travel Series NYC by Ellen McHale
New York City can't be beat for a fun filled travel destination especially when you are travelling with teenagers.  The city offers so much excitement from theatre, restaurants, tourist spots and just plain shopping.  This is one of our frequent mini-vacation spots throughout the year.

The boys take Manhattan ...

Times Square

Franconia Inn, New Hampsire

If you are not tired of the snow as of yet and a skiing adventure is on your list, the Franconia Inn is a great place for a weekend stay.  Cannon Mountain (the ski home of Bode Miller) is a stone's throw away.  You can skate, cross country ski, snowshoe and sled all in it's backyard.  You are only 2 plus hours away from Boston so it is easy.

The barn at The Franconia Inn

Charlie the Horse in Franconia, New Hampsire

We loved meeting Charlie the belgium work horse who pulls the sleigh for his owner Charlie ( which came first - I don't know?!) at the Franconia Inn.  There is something magical about a sleigh ride on a crisp, cold night with the stars twinkling above your heads.

Thanks for letting me share some of my favorite destinations with you.  No matter where you go or what you do this week or this weekend, I wish you a happy time with your family.

see you soon,

Friday, February 11, 2011

diy: Vanilla Valentine

Homemade Vanilla Extract
Valentine's Day is right around the corner and if you are looking for a sweet gift to make for your "food-loving-valentine" than this is a delight to make.  It is oh-so-pretty in it's presentation and it is also the kind of gift that keeps on giving.  Vanilla extract is particularly easy to make or should I say "assemble".  It is a wonder that more people don't make it themselves instead of buying the expensive supermarket substitutes that quite frankly -  are not so good. This does require a small amount of patience as the extract does have to sit on a shelf for approximately 2 months before it is ready yet it will only improve with age (like a fine wine) and it has an indefinite shelf life.

Flask Bottles from The Concord Shop

You will need some pretty bottles to hold your liquid gold or vanilla extract.  I found these lovely flask bottles for $4.99 a piece at my favorite kitchen store, The Concord Shop. You can get large bottles and then decant to smaller bottles if you are giving them out as gifts or you can start with a bottle that holds about a cup of liquid - a nice size for a generous gift of vanilla extract.

Gather your Ingredients
The ingredients for vanilla extract are few and fairly easy to source.  A liter of premium vodka, a small bottle of your favorite dark rum (optional) and good quality vanilla beans.  Remember quality always counts in cooking.  Always use wine and liquor that you would drink in your cooking - it ensures that the taste of your finished dish will be superb.  The same goes for making vanilla extract - use only premium liquor and vanilla beans and your gift will be a luxurious treat.

Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans

I am using Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans that I purchased at Whole Foods Market.  The "bourbon" in these vanilla beans refers to the Bourbon Islands in Madagascar and not the liquor.  

Vanilla Beans in Bottles

Clean your bottles before you use them.  I run them through a full cycle in the dishwasher.  Split your vanilla beans from top to bottom with a sharp knife  and place three beans in each of your bottles.  You will be using three vanilla beans to every one cup of vodka (or other liquor). 

Vanilla Extract by Me for You!
Use a funnel to pour one cup of vodka into each flask.  (if you prefer to use rum instead of vodka you can).  I am also adding one teaspoon of dark rum to each as well.  The usual recipe that I use is 1 cup of vodka to every 3 vanilla beans.  In the book, Gifts Cooks Love by Diane Morgan, she recommends using a dash of dark rum - so I think I'll try it for this batch.  Seal your bottles and then the fun stuff begins - presentation!  You know that presentation is everything to me ...

Preparing a wax seal for my bottles
I really want my gifts to look thoughtful and let's face it - a little decadent.  I am going to put a wax seal on each of the bottles to elevate my simple gift.  I am using a stick of sealing wax, a votive candle to melt the wax on a spoon and a wax seal to press into the melted wax.  Even though a wax seal seems to be from a bygone era - you can still purchase the seals and the wax sticks at quality stationary stores.  Paper Source, a favorite of mine, has many seals to choose from as well as a plethora of colored wax.  You can even put the wax sticks into a glue gun to make it that much easier.  I am sitting in my kitchen and have a votive candle at hand, so I am going to do it the old fashioned way ... 

Glue Dots

I am laying out a sheet of glue dots so I can make a sheet of wax seals that I can use not only for my bottles but for my valentine cards and some future art projects that I'm planning.  You will pour your melted wax onto each glue dot and then press your wax seal into the wax for about 30 seconds.  Gently remove your seal when the wax has cooled and hardened.  Your seal will remain on the glue dots and can be peeled off when needed.  It's back will be sticky from the dot and you'll be able to place it anywhere. 

Seal placed on Glue Dot

Strip of Wax Seals

I will use the wax seals for my bottled vanilla extract gifts and will also save some for future projects.  They are a great finishing touch for all your gifts or special cards.  You may want to add a dab of glue to the back of the seal if you are using it on a bottle so that you can be sure that it will hold otherwise the glue dot is strong enough for an envelope or paper box.  

Vanilla Extract with Seal

Tie some twine or ribbon around the neck of the bottle and press the seal (I placed a dab of super glue) onto the bottle.

Ready for Gift Giving
Do the same for all the bottles that you plan to give as gifts ...

Tag on Bottle

You will want to tie a small tag to the flask giving the date that the Extract was bottled.  Your vanilla extract will be ready in  approximately 2 months from the day it was bottled.  As I said earlier in the post, that vanilla extract improves with age. The longer it is on the shelf, the darker it will get and the stronger the vanilla extract will become.  You want to give it at least 2 months to cure.  Once a week, you will want to give the vanilla extract a gentle shake to mix the ingredients that settle to the bottom.  Because of the high alcohol content in all pure vanilla extracts, it's shelf life is indefinite.  You need only to pour more vodka into the bottle when you want to replace the extract that you have used up. 

Nelley Kelley Valentines

Use your extra seals to decorate the envelopes of your valentines cards.  

Sweets for the Sweet

This is a wonderfully easy project to take get you through these next months of winter.  What a sweet surprise to be able to use it come Springtime.  This is a thoughtful gift anytime of the year not just for Valentines Day.  Make some now and store it away so you can give it as a hostess gift or a Mother's Day gift this May.  Make some for yourself - you will never go back to buying expensive and tasteless vanilla extract again.  Use this in your morning oatmeal or in your banana breads and cookie recipes.  Elevate a Creme Brule with your homemade vanilla extract.  You can even soak a cotton ball in vanilla extract and place it in a little container at the back of your refrigerator to eliminate odors.  Plan on making some in the Fall so you can give them out as your holiday gift.  


Wishing you a happy Valentine's Day!

see you soon


Friday, February 4, 2011

A February self-portrait and other thoughts ...

Self-Portrait Winter 2011

Yes, this is me or at least how I feel during this very cold, very long and very snowy winter.  Each week a new blizzard bullies us and keeps our kids home from school.  The sky mocks us with glorious sunshine and glistening snow piles but once it lures us out of our home - the ice and freezing cold reach deep into our pockets and steal whatever warmth we have hidden.  I want it to end ... but wait, there's more to come and February has only just begun!

My house and backyard this morning

We shovelled, although you can't tell can you?  This is my deck and backyard.  It is very quiet here except for the sound of icicles snapping and plummeting into the snow. 

My house and backyard in my dreams

This is a picture from my dreams ... or maybe it's an actual picture of my backyard in Spring time.  It is usually filled with the sounds of birds singing, kids laughing and the trickling of our water fountain.  I long for this picture to re-appear.

Brimfield Antique Show this Spring
When a relentless winter has held you captive in your home for so long, you begin to dream about sunny climates, vacations that don't entail skiing or snowshoeing and other fun things to do in Spring.  The Brimfield Antique Show signals the real start of Spring for me.  This year it will be held May 10-15th. 
But that seems an eternity away ...

Cambridge Antique Market
I recommend that you bundle up, strap on your snowshoes and get yourself to the Cambridge Antique Market at 201 Msgr. O'Brien Highway in Cambridge, MA.  If you enjoy the thrill of the hunt at Brimfield and want to get a head start on your treasure hunting then the 5 floors of vintage and antique goodies will definitely delight you and help to get you out of your snow rut. Grab a friend and a little bit of cash and have a fun two hours or so hunting down something fabulous for your snow covered home.  I'll share with you some of my finds all for under $100 ...

Vintage Brass Tray with bamboo details
I was looking for a sweet tray for our bar area and came across this beautiful vintage brass tray for $19!  It was covered by years of tarnish but had a beautiful shape and design to it.  

My Brass Tray

I gently cleaned and polished the tray and found it to be so beautiful - now I use it for display as well as for my bar.  Great find and a great deal too!

Vintage Bench

Hidden under a pile of junk, I found the perfect little antique bench.  It needed some sanding and some polishing and now fits perfectly into a little nook near the front door.  A little perch for handbags and packages ...

Tapestry with nail head trim tops my found bench

Hand Painted Pochoir Prints by Davis Gray

These prints may have been my best find of the day.  They are now hanging in my son's "man-cave" or as we mother's affectionately call it, "the playroom".  I actually stumbled upon these on the top floor of the market.  It was my last walk through and I saw them in a crate on a chair.  Through the layers of dust you could see that they were hand painted or so I thought.  No matter, the scenes were dear to me ... 4 paintings of the American Revolution including the battle at the North Bridge. 

It turns out that these prints are very collectable.  They are hand-painted pochoir prints by Davis Gray (aka: E.B. Walden 1929-1995).  Pochoir means "stencil"  - these are actually lithographs that have been hand painted by watercolor artists.  The originals were created by Davis Gray and he then created lithographs  which were then given to one of his talented artists to watercolor.   These hand painted pochoir prints are no longer being produced and have become extremely collectable over the years.  You can buy laser prints of these very desirable scenes  at Grays Watercolors.  Let me give you a closer look at my find ...

Pochoir print of Battle at North Bridge

Pochoir print of Boston Massacre

Pochoir print of Battle of Bunker Hill

Pochoir print of Lexington Battle Green

I just thought these were great.  The subject matter was so exciting to me and that is really where the value is - as long as it is something that speaks to you - you really can't go wrong.  The fact that I paid only $14 for each of them, meant I really didn't go wrong at all!

Frozen bird statue in my backyard

So, to all you snow birds that are looking for an adventure close to home and more importantly away from home ... do some treasure hunting.  You just might find something magical.

...the whited air Hides hills and woods,
the river and the heaven,
 and veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet Delayed,
all friends shut out, 
the housemates sit Around the radiant fireplace ...

Ralph Waldo Emerson

self-portrait after the next blizzard
see you soon,