On The Strip and Fried Pickles

This past weekend was a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas to celebrate our daughter’s wedding reception. We’d been at the actual chapel wedding back last summer (no, not done by Elvis), but this was the Covid-free mix and mingle of the families.

The Strip is a unique place, and it really is fun to visit. It’s not a place the locals go unless they have visitors in town. I’ve been in Vegas a lot over the years, often trapped in a single hotel for days on end during a conference and never stepping foot outside the MGM Grand. This trip, my husband and I took advantage of our position on the far end of the strip at Excalibur to take an early morning walk while it was still relatively cool — 80 degrees at 8am, but it’s a dry heat. Bonus points for those who get that movie reference (answer below*).

We started on the sunny side of the street first. Everything on the strip is further away and takes longer to walk to than you’d think it would, and involves a lot of up and down as pedestrians are routed over the streets on walkways. Most of the time, the escalators work, but if you want a serious workout, take the stairs. My quads were screaming by the end of our walk, but it was worth it. I also washed my hands multiple times, as I did have to grab the handrails. If Covid has done nothing else, it has made me a prompt hand-washer.

I was very impressed with the Aria and its adjacent high-end shopping mall. It’s exactly as if Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills was transported indoors. The air conditioning was welcome, even after only fifteen minutes of walking.

We saw men working on the fountains at the Bellagio. There’s an odd job—fountain maintenance. It was fun to watch them don their scuba gear and hop off their boat, presumably to clear trash away from the fountains so they could do their thing unimpeded later in the day.

The inside of the Bellagio is lovely. Nice bathrooms too.

Caesars Palace is iconic and less tacky than you’d think. I can never see the outside of it without thinking about the cataclysmic end of Stephen King’s “The Stand.” I remember a long time ago when it first opened, you could get into the place, but it was hard finding your way out. Now they have convenient signs helping you with arrows to point the way. I love the shops at the Forum. The ceilings here (and in the Venetian) are all painted in trompe l’oeil style, to fool you into not knowing what time it is. You could swear the clouds were moving.

We crossed the street to the shady side. It was 10am, and the strip was starting to bustle with tourists and the street pros had their hustle on. Girls in bikinis and big feathered headdresses coaxing to take a picture for a fee, men with placards proclaiming the end was near, costumed characters, and a crazy shell game guy that rooked someone out of $600 while we watched. We popped into the Venetian for some more coolness. It has marble floors for miles and a canal running through it, with gondoliers who can belt out an opera tune or two as they paddle. It also boasts a full replica of St. Mark’s square, and you can have a gelato there. We didn’t indulge, but you could.

Our son and his wife were meeting us at our hotel, so we had to dash back past the venerable Flamingo without going in, but I noted from the billboards that Wayne Newton was still headlining a show there. He is 80 years old, bless his heart. Bet he can still make ‘em swoon.

We ended up having lunch at an Irish pub in New York, New York. Maybe it was the 20,000 steps we’d walked, but the fried pickles there were the best we’ve eaten. Here’s a recipe to make your own at home: Fried Pickles – Sugar Spun Run

Afterwards, we checked out the Hershey’s store. I did not buy this item, but it caught my eye.

I’ve been curious for years about the Luxor, the Egyptian-themed hotel that has a light on the top of it that can be seen from space. It’s literally the brightest light in the world. (Side note: as you can see from this picture, our hotel window faced this light but thankfully the Excalibur had excellent black-out curtains.) It is accessible via moving walkway and tram from our hotel, so I dashed out on our last morning to take a gander

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The interior is pretty fun. It reminded me of those old Holiday Inns where all the rooms faced into an interior courtyard. This hotel, along with the Excalibur, is dated… but if you’re of the mindset that you just want a place to sleep at night, but still be on the strip they are good, economical choices. One thing though—even though these hotels have been renovated, the smell of old cigarette smoke lingers. And since pot is legal… prepare for contact high as you walk along. Good times!

*Aliens. Bill Paxton says this quite ironically in the movie and it’s become one of those quotes our family uses often. It’s always funny to us.

On Urban Hiking, Finding Peace, and Guacamole

I like people. I really do. Just not in big doses. Or over long periods of time. The length of a televised pro football game is about as long as I can hang. Which is good, as I quite like football, and make a killer guacamole that I’ll bring to your house when we watch the game. Recipes below for an Easy Guac, and a more time-consuming one.

While there are days when I wish I had my very own cone of silence to retreat into and just breathe until my metaphorical inner ear finds its balance again, most of the time I content myself with either curling up with a cup of tea and a good book on my kindle, or I go for a nice walk.

Goodness, that was a long sentence. You’d think I was Charles Dickens writing at a penny a word for a periodical.

But I digress, which happens to introverts who’ve been around too many people for too long. Thoughts scatter and it gets difficult to stay on track. We fray around the edges and need to regroup. These days, simply going to more than two stores in a row can create this state, even if one of them is a bookstore.

On a walk, I don’t listen to books or music. I enjoy hearing the birds and the way the dried leaves and scattered acorn husks crunch underfoot. The rustling and clacking trees make when the wind bends them. That soundtrack is part of my centering process. Within that song, that I regain my sense of peace. It’s also when my book characters speak to me, or new ideas filter up from the creative pond muck.

Yes, I prefer my walks to be nature-heavy. I wish I lived in Colorado year-round so I could just do a mountain trail, but there are nice areas here too. There’s a lake in Dallas that works quite well for that if you go at odd hours. Otherwise, there are lots of bikes and, you know, other people on the path too. Defeats the purpose. But it’s lovely. There are several long trails that branch off of the one around the lake, too. Only thing about those is that there are people living beneath the multiple overpasses and it makes me feel awkward and like I shouldn’t be there.

I’m lucky that I live in a neighborhood where I can just step out my door and go on a walk for an hour or so. Three miles does the trick most of the time. Sometimes I need longer to unwind, and I’ll go for five. I see all sorts of things on my walks.

The only time I don’t like to walk in the neighborhood is when the political signs go up in yards. It’d be nice if I didn’t think less of people because of their affiliations, but I do. I’d much rather admire their holiday decorations or pretty flowers, or the way their porch invites you to come up and sit for a spell.

You never know what you might see, or what could happen on an urban hike. Yesterday my walk took me next to the high school football stadium, and they were blasting old Madonna songs before a soccer game. My pace picked up. I *might* have busted out a move or two. The mail delivery person saw me and laughed, and she danced in the street too. It was fun to Vogue again.

I will say while the streets here in Dallas are pretty bad, which you wouldn’t think they would be, seeing as how the weather is sunny and warm 80% of the time, the sidewalks (if you get any) are worse. Here is an example of a bumpty sidewalk. There are lots of these as trees planted when the neighborhoods were originally built have grown into massive, towering things with big roots that don’t care about the strip of concrete. They’re going wherever they please. The shade in the summer is much appreciated, so I won’t complain about them, I’ll just keep a sharp eye out for where my feet are going.

Soon the insanely hot weather here will once again push my walks to before sunrise. That’s a different sort of walk. You get the double gift of seeing the sun rise and feeling smug about it, but you also have to deal with the people who’ve been in the bar all this time and are just now weaving home. During this brief winter interlude, I’m enjoying going out anytime I need to find my peace again. It’s a blessing.

GUACAMOLE: Easy and Less So: Both serve about 6 people. Double if you need/want to.

EASY: Get 4-5 ripe avocados and a container of TJs Pico de Gallo (I prefer mild). Mash avocados, drain Pico, dump in and mix. Seal tightly and refrigerate.

LESS SO: 4-5 ripe avocados, bunch cilantro, washed and stems removed (this is the time-consuming part), juice of one seeded lemon, 5 seeded and chopped Roma tomatoes, 1 bunch green onion, diced, 1/4 red onion, diced, dash of cumin, pinch of salt. Put lemon and salt in bottom of bowl first, then add onions and tomatoes. Mix. Dice avocado and add the cumin. Mash to desired consistency. Seal tightly and refrigerate.

On Red Beans and Rice and Chilly Weather

Photographic proof that Dallas gets cold sometimes. This is the fountain in our courtyard.

It looked this way for days, and I was thrilled. I love the colder weather. I know, I’m at outlier. It’s ironic that I’ve spent most of my life living in quite-warm to absolutely-freaking-hot parts of the US.

Now, I’m willing to admit my love of snowy days, rainy, overcast days, and simply cold days could be a by-product of living in those hot places for so long. That it’s the novelty of the chilly that is enjoyable, accompanied as it is with the underlying knowledge that this won’t last long.

Or could be that growing up in a badly insulated house in Dubuque, Iowa gave me the chops for winter weather. Or perhaps my British and German heritage predisposes me to it by thoughtfully providing “extra insulation” that’s stubborn about going away no matter the diet or exercise plan.

Chilly weather is also an opportunity to make my favorite soups and stews. I prefer recipes that are more about assembling than anything else. And you only have to wash a cutting board, a knife, and the pot you cooked in. And yes, the bowls and spoons you eat it with. Don’t quibble with me.

This week I made Red Beans and Rice, and it came out SO WELL. Below is my very own recipe for a big pot of it. You can tweak the heat of it if you’re one of those weirdos who likes to scorch their mouth. Bless your heart. This took me about 45 minutes to chop and throw together (outside of the bean soak). It made a hot, nourishing meal that had us wantiing seconds. Below recipe easily feeds 6 people, and the leftovers freeze well.

RED BEANS AND RICE

INGREDIENTS

1 bag dried red beans (Yes, you can use canned beans, I won’t judge you. Not as good though, imo. You need 4 cans of red beans if you opt for this, don’t rinse them.)

1 box chicken or veggie stock

Olive oil to coat bottom of the pot

1 large bunch celery

2 large yellow onions

3 bell peppers, I use all the colors

4-5 garlic cloves

1-2 cups water

1 package Andouille chicken sausage (or any sausage, or no sausage if you’re veggie)

¼ cup of red wine vinegar

Za’tar spice (new to me, but OMG so good), Paprika, Cumin, Thyme, Red Pepper flakes, 2 Bay leaves, salt and pepper

Brown rice

METHOD

Soak dry beans for about four hours and then cook in your stock (enough to cover the beans by about a quarter inch, save the rest for later) – I use an Instapot, and it’s a lifesaver. The beans can wait while you finish the rest. If you use canned beans, dump them in when indicated below.

Put olive oil in the bottom of a big stock pot to coat.

Chop veggies – I get the celery going first, then add the onions and then the onions and garlic, and finally the peppers. Sautee until they are all soft.

If adding sausage, dice small and cook separately. You can add shrimp in too, if no one in your house is allergic.

Add in whatever is left of the stock, water, and red wine vinegar to the pot.

Dump in your cooked meat, and then the cooked beans and the stock from Instapot. Add in the spices – I did about 2T for each, except for the Red Pepper flakes. Those just get a tiny pinch. Tuck in bay leaves. Eyeball it. If it looks like it needs a bit more water, add it. Let it simmer together on low.

Wash out your Instapot and put in the brown rice, let that cook. By the time rice is done, the flavors in the pot will have melded together. Add salt and pepper to taste, or let people do their own at the table. It’s even better the next day. Keep leftovers refrigerated.

On Spanakopita and Booking a Flight to Greece

I must be one of those zany optimists. I’ve forged ahead with plans to travel overseas this year. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, but I can’t bring myself to lie low and not give it a go. I have hope!

Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, I don’t want to get my hopes up…” I want to ask them, why not? Why not get your hopes up, and move in the general direction of happiness? My friend Sally challenged me years ago when I said that very phrase. She asked me, “Would you rather keep your hopes in the gutter? Where they belong?” I’ve thought differently about not keeping my hopes up ever since. That Sally, she’s good at asking the tough questions. I love having her as a friend.

And… I found a really great deal on a Finnair flight. Round trip to Crete for about $600. Yes, I’ll have a killer layover in Helsinki for twelve hours coming back, but I can manage. I’ve had a SwimTrek trip on the books to Crete for a couple of years now, and I’m marching on with the hope and expectation that it is happening in 2022. A week of swims in the Mediterranean Sea with some of my wonderful swim friends and a room with a view.

If I squint really hard, I’ll be able to see Africa from the tiny coastal village of Loutro, where we are staying. Not really, but it’s out there. And another almost-week of exploring Chania and Heraklion and the ruins of the Palace of Knossos and a swim or two in the Sea of Crete. Here is their website, they do swims all over the world, and I’ve found them easy to work with. https://www.swimtrek.com

After a bit of a break during Christmas, I’m back to learning Greek using Duolingo. It’s challenging, but fun, and I gotta figure it’s just as good as sudoku for keeping my aging brain making new synapses with the added benefit of not having to do math. My aim is to be able to read signs and menus, and perhaps have a bit of a chat with a stranger or two over coffee or gyros. I do love a chat.

In celebration of finding a great flight and taking one step closer to making my since-fourth-grade dream of treading the stones of Knossos where Ariadne spun her web and the Minotaur roared, I made Spanakopita this weekend. We’ve found a great middle eastern grocery here in Dallas, and it makes for a fun road trip getting the supplies. There are two groceries, actually, if you want to check them out. Sara’s Bakery and the brand-new Jasmine next door. https://http://sarasmarketbakery.com/

This recipe is from www.themediterraneandish.com She has great additional instructions, especially for properly thawing your frozen phyllo dough. You’ll want to buy your dough frozen, trust me. No one in their right mind would try to make phyllo from scratch. Most of us simply do not have the counter space or patience for it. I’d looked at several recipes, and my addition to this one is to use a bunch of freshly chopped dill weed rather than 2T of dried dill.

You do you on that one. This was easy, made enough to feed six hungry people, and was tasty. Or gnostimo, as we say in Greek!

Spanakopita Filling:

16 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed

2 bunches Italian parsley, chopped

1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped

1 large yellow onion, chopped fine

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 T olive oil

4 eggs

10.5 oz good feta, crumbled

Freshly ground pepper.

Mix all of that together, and set to the side. Then open up your phyllo, and have slightly damp dish towels to keep it from drying out as you do this next step. It helps if you are in a Zen frame of mind, or listening to a good book on tape for this next bit.

You need about a cup of olive oil and a pastry brush. Brush bottom and sides of a 9×13 baking dish with olive oil.

Put down two of the phyllo sheets, letting them overlap and go up the sides of the dish a bit. Yes, they might tear. No big. Brush them with the olive oil (remain Zen, you’ll get the hang of it). Then lay down two more, brush with olive oil.

Do that with 2/3 of your phyllo sheets. This took me about fifteen minutes. Preheat your oven to 325, rack in the middle. Spread your mix onto the sheets.

Put down two phyllo sheets, brush with olive oil, and do that until you run out of sheets.

Fold over the edges and brush top with olive oil. Splash a few drops of water on the top. Score squares through just the few top layers. It makes cutting much easier later, and cooks better.

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Bake for an hour, until it’s all brown and crispy and melty cheesy. We had ours with delicious creamy tzatziki on the side. Opah!