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Lots of great happenings around our home this holiday season.

I participated in my first-ever Reddit Secret Santa gift exchange, and what a terrific experience that was! My “Santee” listed traveling and sports as her primary interests, so I got her a couple of books (1000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die and 101 Places Not to Visit Before You Die), made her a “travel activity book” based on some of her other interests, and knitted her a set of hand warmers and matching scarf to help her stay warm during travels or sporting events.

My Secret Santa got me a handmade book of Victorian poetry and a knitted coffee (or tea) cozy:

On the days leading up to Christmas, I wrapped lots of presents, like this one:

And this one:

And these:

Grizz was a big help:

So was this:

Quite a nice haul from wine.com, thanks to a Groupon!

On the night before Christmas Eve, we went to dinner at Bluestem, then we each opened one present when we got home. Mr. Awesome got pajamas, and I got a really beautiful and super-cute charm necklace:

This was a new tradition for us. Mr. Awesome’s family does Christmas on Christmas Eve, and mine does it on Christmas Day. The tradition in my family is to open one present on Christmas Eve, and save the rest for the next morning. But since we open so many with Mr. Awesome’s family, we decided to start a new tradition of our own: we will go out to a nice dinner on Christmas Eve eve, then each open one present. Then it’s Christmas Eve with his family, and Christmas Day with mine. It worked out really well this year. More on that in a future post.

The holidays for us are about family, friends, happiness, love, joy, fun and celebration. They are a time to show appreciation for those that mean a great deal to us, to eat good food, to drink good wine, to laugh much and hug much and smile much of the time.

Come to think of it, the holidays aren’t much different from the rest of the year, except for all of the present-wrapping!

And don’t forget to hang up your socks.

‘Cause just exactly at twelve o’clock… he’ll be comin’ down the chimney. Down.

I finally got my Christmas tree decorated, and thanks to our recent purchase of Scat Mats, the tree and its associated decorations and presents are safe from the prying paws (and teeth) of sundry cats.

I’m just going to put this out there: I love Christmas music. I could listen to Christmas music all year long, and have a tendency to sprinkle some of it through my average work week.

There’s a whole lot of great Christmas music out there, and thanks to Spotify and my iTunes collection, I can listen to just about anything I want.

Some of my favorite Christmas albums this season are:

A Very She & Him Christmas by She and Him – The twee cuteness of Zooey Deschanel is tempered nicely by the raw talent of M. Ward.

In the Park: Christmas (Various) – A collection of instrumental and vocal jazz, as well as choral music, that’s classic and timeless.

Joy to the World by Pink Martini – the modern lounge act performs both traditional and international holiday music that’s as beautiful as it is interesting.

The Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs (Various) – talented women sing beautiful holiday songs.

A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas by Kristen Chenoweth – I’m a fan of her Broadway vocal style, which translates nicely to Christmas songs.

A Christmas Cornucopia by Annie Lennox – Annie Lennox has a voice that was forged for winter-flavored song.

Country Christmas (Various) – A nice compilation of songs by some excellent country artists.

Great stuff, all of these.

Did I mention I love Christmas music?

We recently had a craving for Mexican food, but not the kind that’s slathered in cheese and served with a side of gloppy beans. We wanted something a bit more authentic, but authentic isn’t easy in the suburbs. However, there are a couple of local gems to be found here and there, and one of them is a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place in KC called Ixtapa. It’s not the most authentic in the world, but it’s not On The Border, either.

My favorite thing on their menu is a plate of these delicious open-faced tacos with caramelized onions, grilled chicken, guacamole, cilantro and salsa verde. To. Die. For. And simple. So I figured I could recreate these little discs of goodness at home.

And I was right, for the most part.

Don’t those look delicious?!

We started at the bottom with the tortilla, and bought some corn tortillas from the grocery store. Next, we looked on the jarred salsa isle for some salsa verde. I know, I know – the best salsa is that which you make yourself, but I wanted these to be as easy as possible, and finding all the right ingredients for fresh salsa verde in December in a Kansas City suburb isn’t all that easy. I settled for Pace Salsa Verde and believe it or not, this stuff is really, really good.

Next was the chicken, which is where we get nice and creative. I got some espresso rub from Spices Inc. a few months ago, and it’s a little spicy, a little sweet, a little savory, and just seemed perfect for our tacos. So I covered some boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the rub, vacuumed sealed them, and popped the them in the Sous Vide Supreme for an hour at 146 degrees.

While the chicken was doing its thing, I caramelized some onions and Mr. Awesome chopped up some cilantro. When the chicken was done, we took it out of the vacuumed-sealed bags and tossed the breasts into a smokin’ hot cast-iron skillet for a quick sear before slicing into strips/chunks.

Better-Than-Your-Average-Taco Tacos
Servings: 4

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Spices Inc. Espresso Rub (or another flavorful rub with a little heat)
2 large yellow onions, sliced
1/2 c. chopped cilantro
12 smallish corn tortillas
Salsa verde (we used Pace)
Guacamole (we used some store-bought organic guacamole)
Canola oil
Cooking spray
Salt and pepper
1 lime, for juice

Preheat the Sous Vide Supreme to 146 degrees F. Rub the chicken breasts with the espresso rub until sufficiently coated. Put the breasts in a food-safe plastic bag and vacuum seal on Medium. Put the bag into the Sous Vide Supreme and cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remove the chicken from the Sous Vide Supreme, take out of the bag, and let cool slightly.

When the chicken is almost done, heat a wide-bottomed skillet coated with canola oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and spread them out to cover the bottom of the pan. Let the onions cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. You want them to brown slowly, but not burn. If they stick, add a little bit of water. I keep a cup of water nearby and just splash some in there every once in a while. About halfway through cooking, season the onions with salt and pepper. The onions are done when they are very soft and caramel-colored.

Preheat a cast-iron skillet coated with canola oil over medium-high to high heat. When it’s really hot, add the chicken and sear for 1 minute on each side. Remove from pan and slice into strips/chunks.

Preheat an indoor grill (like a Cuisinart or Foreman) to high heat. Spray a little cooking spray on each tortilla and grill for 1 to 2 minutes per side until warmed and soft. Don’t overcook, or they’ll harden up.

To assemble:
Place three tortillas on each of four plates. Top the tortillas with some caramelized onions, then chicken, the some guacamole, then cilantro. Squeeze a little lime juice on each taco. Put the salsa verde in a bowl on the table, and add a spoonful of salsa verde to each taco before eating it. You don’t want to put the salsa verde on in advance or else the tacos will get soggy.

The biggest difference between my tacos and the ones served at Ixtapa is the tortillas. The Ixtapa tortillas are smaller and softer, and I like them better than the ones we found at the grocery store. I think I’ll hunt around for a store that sells more Mexican products and would hopefully have a better tortilla selection. Better yet, maybe I can find a place that sells homemade tortillas… any thoughts?

As for my tacos, despite the not-perfect tortillas, they are really delicious. They go great with some red sangria and a little Latin-flavored chill-out music playing in the background.

As part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program, I received coupons for some Duncan Hines products in the mail last week. Part of my commitment to being a better cook includes not cooking anything that comes from a box, but I bent my rule a bit for this. Rather than making a cake according to package directions, I decided to make some of my all-time favorite (and all-time easiest) cookies: Chocolate Crinkles.

How easy are these things?

Here’s the recipe:

Chocolate Crinkles
Servings: about 30 cookies

1 (18 1/4 ounce) box devil’s food cake mix
1 (8-ounce) tub Cool Whip (thawed)
1 egg
Confectioner’s sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix all ingredients together. Batter will be sticky. Pour some confectioner’s sugar into a shallow bowl, coat your hands with it, and roll the cookies into 1-inch balls. Place cookies 2 inches apart on Silpat-lined sheets and bake for 7 to 9 minutes. Cool a bit on the cookie sheet before removing to wire racks to finish cooling.

See? Easy like you wouldn’t believe, right? Perfect for last-minute gifts, snacks for work, or just because you want something chocolaty. I shared these with my office last week and they were a big hit.

I’ve gone through life up until this point believing that making a pecan pie was difficult. I was so, so wrong. Not only is it not difficult, it’s ridiculously easy. Stupidly easy. You-could-make-this-pie-blindfolded easy.

Normally, pecan pies use corn syrup as a key component, but I don’t like corn syrup. Especially after reading the Princeton study. So I was thrilled when, browsing a magazine while getting my hair done last week, I came across a recipe for a bourbon-molasses pecan pie that replaces the corn syrup with sweet and smoky molasses. I’m a fan of molasses.

The basic formula for pecan pie is to mix up the filling, pour it in an unbaked pie shell, and bake until done. When Pillsbury came out with their ready-made refrigerated pie crusts several years ago, my grandmother said they were every bit as good as hers and vowed never to make another pie crust from scratch again. Summoning the spirit of grandma, I used Pillsbury pie crust for my pecan pie.

Here’s a shot of my pie before I put it in the oven:

Isn’t it pretty?

Bourbon-Molasses Pecan Pie
Servings: 8 to 10 servings.

1 unbaked Pillsbury pie crust
4 large eggs, beaten
1 c. sugar
1 c. molasses
3 Tbsp. bourbon
2 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
Pinch salt
2 c. pecan halves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Unroll pie crust and press into a 9-inch pie dish. Pinch edges so they’re all pretty-like.

For the filling, in a large bowl, stir together eggs, molasses, sugar, bourbon, butter, vanilla and salt until combined. Reserve about 15 pecan halves, and spread the rest evenly in the bottom of the pie dish. Pour filling over the pecans. Arrange the reserved pecans in a decorative pattern on the top of the pie.

Using aluminum foil strips, cover the edge of the pie shell so the crust that’s exposed won’t burn before the pie is done.

Place pie on center rack of oven, with a foil-lined baking sheet on the rack below to catch any filling that bubbles over. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, removing foil strips after about 30 minutes, until firm around the edges and slightly loose in the center. Cool, then serve.

When you make this, and discover how simple it is, you’ll be stunned.

And now for the after shot:

A perfectly cooked, perfectly easy pecan pie with no corn syrup and a sweet, smokey flavor from the molasses. If you want to kick up that smokiness even more, substitute scotch for the bourbon. Serve warm with some ice cream for extra-awesomeness.

As I mentioned during my Donation Day post, I watched an episode of America’s Test Kitchen wherein the chefs made “the best blueberry muffins.” Usually skeptical of such claims, I vowed to reserve judgement regarding the “bestness” of these muffins until I could make them myself. However, I know from experience that America’s Test Kitchen recipes usually are as great as they claim.

We got back from Colorado on a Friday, and Sunday I whipped up some blueberry muffins.

I stuck fairly close to the Test Kitchen recipe, although I did make a modification in that I used some pre-made blueberry jam.

The finished product looked like this:

Lynn’s Best Blueberry Muffins
Servings: 12 muffins
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

For the Lemon-Sugar Topping:
1/3 c. sugar (2 1/3 ounces)
1 1/2 tsp. finely grated zest from 1 lemon

For the Muffins:
1 c. fresh blueberries (about 10 ounces), plus 1 Tbsp.
1 c. Trader Joe’s Blueberry Preserves
1 1/8 c. sugar (8 ounces)
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. table salt
2 large eggs
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter , melted and cooled slightly
1/4 c. Canola oil
1 c. buttermilk (see note)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

For the topping:
Stir together sugar and lemon zest in small bowl until combined; set aside.

For the muffins:
Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray. Bring 1 cup blueberry preserves and 1 Tbsp. blueberries to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened slightly, about 5 mi. Transfer to small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes.

Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl. Whisk sugar and eggs together in medium bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Whisk in buttermilk and vanilla until combined. Using rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining cup blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened. (Batter will be very lumpy with few spots of dry flour; do not overmix.)

Use a large spoon to divide batter equally among prepared muffin cups (batter should completely fill cups and mound slightly). Spoon teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into center of each mound of batter. Using chopstick or skewer, gently swirl berry filling into batter using figure-eight motion. Sprinkle lemon sugar evenly over muffins.

Bake until muffin tops are golden and just firm, 17 to 19 minutes, rotating muffin tin from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool muffins in muffin tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and cool 5 minutes before serving.

The result? These really are the best blueberry muffins. Hands down. For reals. The topping is crunchy and a little sticky, the texture of the cake is not too dry and not too moist, they’re not too sweet and not too tart. These are the Mary Poppins of blueberry muffins – practically perfect in every way.

I ate one, Frank ate one, and I shared the rest with my co-workers for Treat Monday, who want to know when I’m bringing in muffins again. :)

So, while I was in Colorado, I hit the motherlode.

I found my retirement grease!

Too bad the Jeep was too full of stuff from IKEA to fit it in. Sadness. I guess I’ll have to be a greeter at Wal-Mart in my golden years.

Monday night I went to bed feeling a little achy. I slept well and woke up to the sound of a hotel alarm clock at 5:45am on Tuesday morning. I couldn’t have anything to eat since I was getting a central line inserted, so I drank a couple of big glasses of water, put on my comfie clothes and Frank and I headed to the hospital for the last time. We made ourselves comfortable in our own private room, complete with a bed for me, a chair for Frank and a television. One of the nurses came in and drew several tubes of blood, then gave me one last filgrastim injection. The last sting! We waited for the radiology group to call me down to get my central line and as soon as they were ready I headed that way. I was led to a large room that looked similar to this:

I had to put on a gown as four or five doctors and nurses moved around very fast doing doctor and nurse things. One of them put on some music and as I laid on the bed, with the commotion and movement and music that sounded like The Fray, I felt like I was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and tried to stifle my nerves.

The young Dr. Horner talked to me about going to medical school at KU, then told me that inserting a central line was easy – the easiest, most routine thing they do all day – but that he knew it wasn’t easy for me. He said that the hardest part would be the anticipation, not the procedure, and he was right. One of the nurses hung a sheet near my face so that I couldn’t see what was going on, and Dr. Horner injected some lidocaine in the general area of my neck. That stung a little bit, but not as bad as that first filgrastim shot. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I could feel pressure. Not pain, pressure. I felt like a clown’s pocket – like I was getting stuffed full of handkerchiefs. I had no idea what was going on, but it felt weird. Then it was over.

Dr. Horner said something about the Coldplay song playing – that it was “safe – you can’t offend anyone with Coldplay.” He was right, but I asked him what he likes to listen to, if not the safety of Coldplay. He said – and I’m not kidding – 60’s-era jazz organ records. I would have busted out laughing if I didn’t have a thing sticking out of my neck. I asked the room in general if anyone had ever heard of The Mighty Boosh and one awesome nurse answered affirmatively and started laughing. I said that Dr. Horner was Howard Moon, then we talked about Old Gregg and the Crack Fox until it was time for me to go back to my room. I thanked Dr. Horner for stabbing me in the neck and wished them all well.

‘Back in my room, it was donation time. The central line in my neck made it difficult to turn my head – the nurses told me it was fine, but I was scared the line would pop out and blood would gush out all over everywhere and next thing you know it looks like Night of the Living Dead all up in here. So I kept head movements to a minimum. I then got hooked up to this machine:

Sort of looks like some retro Atari rig, right? There were two tubes coming out of my neck, so they hooked an output tube to one and an input to another. Over the next five hours, my blood was sucked out, passed through this machine where the stem cells were separated out and filtered to a collection bag, then the rest of my blood was pumped back into my body. Since I could’t (wouldn’t) turn my head, I didn’t really see much of this happening, but Mr. Awesome said it looked really cool, if not a bit freaky.

During the collection, I did the following:

  • Slept
  • Ate a Denver omelette
  • Read Cooking Light magazine
  • Slept
  • Watched an episode of America’s Test Kitchen where they made the world’s best blueberry muffins
When I wasn’t sleeping, I looked pretty much like this:

That’s multitasking, right there.

Then, around 2:30 pm, a nurse checked the progress of the collection and determined that I was all done. Not only was I done, they were able to collect TWICE as many stem cells as were needed, so the extras could be frozen for use by the patient if she needed more! How awesome is that?!

Here I am, during one of the proudest moments of my whole life:

Shortly after, a courier arrived to pick up my cells and rush them to the airport for a 3:30 flight. It was right about then that I started to get all teary. All the emotion of the day, of the whole experience, was compressed into that bag and the courier and the journey my cells would be taking over the next several hours. It’s unfathomable, really. Ain’t science grand?

It was now time to remove the central line from my neck. Long story short, the nurses pulled it out, and then held pressure to the hole in my neck for about 5 full minutes. Then they put a chunky white patch over the area and told me not to do anything to strain my neck for a couple of days (like lifting luggage, bending over, etc.) No problem, ladies. I didn’t want to see the thing they pulled out of my neck right then, but Mr. Awesome took a picture so I could look at it later. I debated posting the picture here, but decided against it because it’s pretty disturbing. Not that the picture above of me holding a bag of blood isn’t disturbing, but you get the idea.

I got dressed, put on my shoes (without bending over – no easy task), then said farewell to the great nurses who took such good care of me and Mr. Awesome during our stay:

They’re laughing because Mr. Awesome tried to get foam hand sanitizer out of a dispenser, and it sprayed all over him. I sort of laughed, but didn’t because I was afraid of the whole Night of the Living Dead thing. You know how it is.

And that was it. I was officially a bone marrow donor!

The process wasn’t completely painless, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected, either. I didn’t have lots of soreness due to the injections like some people report. I preemptively addressed some of that by having Tylenol at the ready just in case and by drinking lots of water. The donation process itself was very easy. Mine was a bit more complicated because of the central line, but I highly recommend a central line to other donors because it keeps your hands free and because they can collect more cells in a shorter period.

I would donate again tomorrow if I asked. No hesitation.

We went back to the hotel, freshened up a bit, then headed to a celebratory dinner. Yep – I felt good enough to go out to dinner. I wore a turtleneck and you couldn’t even tell I had a huge patch on my neck covering a gaping clown hanky hole.

With dinner, our day went from AMAZING to OMFGAMAZING. How? We had the best sushi we’ve ever eaten. In landlocked Denver. A mile above sea level. On a Tuesday.

Sushi Den is the most incredible sushi restaurant we’ve ever experienced.  Operated by the Kizaki brothers, Toshi, Yasu & Koichi, this is sushi like no other. Toshi and Yasu live in Denver and run the restaurant. Koichi lives in Japan and buys fish in one of Japan’s largest fish markets every morning, then ships it to his brothers the same day. The result is that there is fish on the menu in Denver that was swimming 24 hours before. That’s not something you run into every day in the midwest or mountains. Among the incredible pieces we sampled was some seared fatty tuna. It was a flavor and texture that was entirely new to me and I could have eaten a whole plate of it. We’re looking forward to a trip to Colorado next summer for lots of reasons, including a return visit to Sushi Den.

Donation done, dinner eaten, back to the hotel for a nice, long sleep.

Next up – the day after, and we learn about Shoulder Season.

(This is a cross-post with my not-so-foodie site, Sit. Stay. Good Blog. It’s important, so I want as many people to learn about bone marrow donation as possible.)

Another good night’s sleep, another morning sleeping in – but we almost slept in too much! We had arranged to be at the hospital at 9:30am on Monday morning instead of noon so we could have more time to spend in and around Denver, but we woke up at 8:30 and had no idea it was so late!

Another Starbucks breakfast, another visit with the nurses and another stinging (but not too bad) injection of filgrastim.

The weather on Monday was much cooler – in the mid-50s – and a little drizzly. Rather than go into the mountains again, we decided to spend the day in Denver, mostly indoors.

We headed to IKEA.

We had never been in an IKEA before. I’d never really even looked around the company’s website. We were in for a very pleasant surprise.

Everything is awesome. Everything is inexpensive. I felt like we rubes in Kansas City are being cheated by the lack of an IKEA in our area. It’s the best store I’ve ever been in. The upper level is room after decorated room of design ideas, including an entire 500-some-odd square foot “house” with multiple rooms filled entirely with IKEA goodness. I could totally live in that space and be blissfully happy. The lower level is room after room of stuff to buy. Kitchen stuff, bedroom stuff, bathroom and office stuff. Wall stuff, candles, picture frames, lamps, rugs – you name it, if it goes in a house, IKEA has the coolest version of it at the best price. As Mr. Awesome said while we were looking around, slack-jawed, “I used to think families on TV were inexplicably wealthy. Now I know they all shop at IKEA.”

There were things in that store that I didn’t even know we needed. And we needed them. To wit, the Ställ:

This shoulder-high shallow dresser looks unassuming enough… until you open one of the cabinets:

It’s a shoe holder! Oh my god! Have you ever seen our garage? It’s full of shoes. Not anymore, though. We bought one of these puppies, loaded it in the Jeep and thanked our lucky stars that such a wonder exists.

Aside from the Ställ (yes, everything has cutesy-sounding faux-Swedish names), we bought a couple of awesome floor lamps, some glass paneled lights to hang on the wall, a blanket, some LED lights to mount behind our TV and a few sink brushes. You can never have enough sink brushes.

Then, we ate lunch at IKEA:

Full-on Swedish lunch – smoked salmon, Swedish meatballs and lingonberry juice. Bork, bork, bork!

After IKEA, we headed across the street to the Park Meadows Mall. What a beautiful shopping center! Lots of wood, vaulted ceilings, wide walkways, huge skylights. We walked around for a bit, and I bought a couple of sweaters.

Then, I started to feel pretty tired, and my back was fairly sore. This was really the first time I had some extended discomfort and I felt like resting for a little bit. So we headed back to the hotel and relaxed until dinner.

Ah, dinner. Another wonderful adventure. This time, we had reservations at one of Denver’s best restaurants, Rioja. We split a black mission fig and goat cheese tart, then I had a delicious roasted squash salad, and Frank had a salad of candied beets and greens. For our entrees, I had veal saltimbocca with polenta and Frank had braised short ribs. We shared a cake pop from Starbucks from dessert before heading back to the hotel once more.

My donation was the next morning, so we went to bed fairly early. I had to be at the hospital at 7am the next day!

Up next – donation day and the best sushi we’ve ever had.

(This is a cross-post with my not-so-foodie site, Sit. Stay. Good Blog. It’s important, so I want as many people to learn about bone marrow donation as possible.)

I slept really good on Saturday night.

Sunday morning we slept in a little, then got up, had breakfast at Starbucks, and went to Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center for my third injection. I met with the nurses who would be with me during the donation, and talked to them about how the donation would work.

They checked my vital signs, conducted a brief health history, and evaluated my veins to see what type of collection method would work best for me. When they asked whether I’d had any trouble with blood draws in the past, I told them that sometimes it takes lots of sticks to hit the right spot. One of the nurses said that it might be a better idea if, instead of collecting the cells from my arms, I would get a central line inserted in my neck. This way, there would be one port with two stems – one to collect the cells and one to put my blood back in. The nurse said it was an additional procedure, but that overall it was a better way to go – the cells collected this way were usually of better quality and quantity, and I would be more comfortable during the donation procedure. I was sold.

I got my third injection and again, it stung, but not nearly as much as that first time. Hurray for meaty arms! Again, the injection site itched a little, but I rubbed on it a bit and it stopped being noticeable after about 10 minutes. This part of the day completed, we headed for the hills!

I’d heard that elks like to roam around Estes Park, Colorado, this time of year, so we drove up that way to see what we could see. We stopped at Whole Foods for a quick bite (there’s one on every corner, it seems) before heading north through Boulder then on to Estes Park. The drive was punctuated by sweeping ranch land and splashes of yellow aspen trees among wide swaths of green pines. Colorado may be most popular in winter and summer, but autumn is really a spectacular sight.

Upon arriving in Estes Park, we were greeted by a large bull elk in the center of an intersection. It was just like the opening scene of Northern Exposure, when the moose is walking through the center of town, only this was real. Also, elk are really, really large and we were glad we were in a vehicle. The elk looked around a bit before a policeman chased him off into a lawn. We then noticed a large group of people gathered around a fence by a golf course, and pulled into the Estes Park Visitor’s Center next door to find out what they were looking at. Elk. Lots and lots of elk had taken over the golf course. There must have been 20 females, 5 or 6 young and one huge male. Occasionally other males would try to approach and the huge male would chase the interloper off into the hills.

Did I mention elk are huge? They are also loud – the males anyway. At one point as we were watching the action, the big bull male turned toward us spectators and let out this loud, long call. It started off low, then pitched higher and higher until it sounded like one of those obnoxious plastic horns found at sporting events. Local volunteers did a good job of keeping the crowd back and answering questions about the animals.

I had hoped we’d see one elk off in the distance. I had no idea we’d get up close and personal with dozens. So, so cool.

I had made dinner reservations at Jax Fish House in Boulder (where Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg worked for a while) for that night, so we headed out of Estes Park and took the long way back to Boulder, through Boulder Canyon and stopped to see Boulder Falls. By this time, my lower back was hurting just a bit, and every once in a while I’d get these twinges in my back and thighs that lasted for just a couple of seconds but were sort of surprising each time they occurred.

Dinner at was just wonderful. The atmosphere in the restaurant was vibrant, but not too hipster, and even though it was Sunday night, the place was packed.We shared a Charcuterie Trio of smoked colorado trout pate, tuna confit and sockeye salmon pastrami. I had Char Grilled Alaskan Salmon with wild rice griddle cake, curried cauliflower, heirloom squash and pickled cherries. This dish tasted exactly like this rice dish my mom makes for holidays, so I planned on recreating the spirit of it when I returned home. Frank had Skinned Colorado Striped Bass with duck fat roasted yukon golds, eggplant agrodolce and cumin yogurt. For dessert, we split a slice of Key Lime Pie.

After dinner, we walked around Pearl Street Mall for a bit before heading back to the hotel for another good night’s sleep.

Next up – Injection day 4 and the most wonderful store in the world.

(This is a cross-post with my cooking site, Sit. Stay. Cook. It’s important, so I want as many people to learn about bone marrow donation as possible.)