Monday, September 5, 2011

Sightseeing in Chicago: Millennium Park

"Gigantic, willful, young,
Chicago sitteth at the northwest gates."
-- William Vaughn Moody, 1901

One of the highlights of our summer this year was visiting Chicago for a day. I'd never been there before, so we decided to see some of the main sights. Luckily for us, many of them are in one spot: Grant Park.

Founded in 1844, the 319-acre park lies on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan and encompasses gardens, museums, fountains, open spaces, woods and sculptures. It is the lovely centerpiece of the city. 

The northernmost portion of Grant Park comprises the new 24.5-acre Millennium Park, which opened in 2004 on the grounds of a formerly blighted industrial site. Inside Millennium Park is the five-acre Lurie Garden, home to a perennial garden with many native plants, including the Pale Coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) pictured at the top.

Among the beautiful flowers in Lurie Garden, we also saw these White Blazing Stars (Liatris spicata 'Alba'):

Also in Millennium Park is Crown Fountain, which consists of a shallow reflecting pool of black granite flanked by two 50-foot glass brick towers. Using LED technology, the towers display gigantic faces of 1,000 different Chicago residents intermittently spouting streams of water from their mouths. It really is a technological wonder and is interesting to watch. On the day we were there, the Midwest was in the grip of a heat wave, so the reflecting pool was filled with children (and a few adults) wading and splashing in the cool water.

One of the glass bricks was not working properly.

If I were a kid, I would have joined in the fun!

From the park's border, one can look past lush flowerbeds toward nearby shops in historic buildings.

One highlight of Millennium Park is Cloud Gate, a 110-ton elliptical sculpture coated in shiny stainless steel that reflects not only the sky and city skyline but also visitors who reach up to touch the sides and crowd underneath to look into the swirling images above. I think the sculpture looks a bit like a giant bike helmet, but many locals call it "The Bean."

Cloud Gate, aka "The Bean."

I'm the tiny pink dot standing in the very center and looking up.
Here is part of the city's skyline reflected in the side of "The Bean."

The last highlight of Millennium Park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a large band shell that hosts the Grant Park Music Festival, which is the nation's only remaining free outdoor classical music series.

The pavilion seats 11,000 people on the Great Lawn under a sweeping metal trellis, and its state-of-the-art sound system is designed to mimic an indoor performance hall. Its stage hosts all kinds of groups every year, from classical music to rock, opera, folk music and jazz.

For lovers of modern art, music, wildflowers and family fun, Millennium Park has much to offer. Consider stopping by the next time you're in Chicago!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dashboard Pizza Bagels

Guess what! Today's high was ONLY 95 degrees! That's actually a cooling trend for us this summer in Dallas, and it's about time, too! This summer went down in the record books as the hottest summer ever recorded in Dallas, although we missed tying 1980's record of total days over 100 degrees (69 in 1980) by only two days. (See article here.) To commemorate the heat wave, an enterprising Texan is now selling T-shirts proclaiming, "I survived the heat wave of 2011"!

I think I speak for just about everyone here in Texas when I say we're ready for some nicer weather. A cool front is supposed to be arriving tomorrow, bringing us a much-deserved low of 59 degrees F! (I'll believe it when I see it!)

Anyway, I'm wrapping up this summer's series on Car Cookery with a snack we ate a lot in college: pizza bagels.

I made these a while ago when our heat wave was still in full force. The outside temperature was 105 degrees, and it was 158 in our trusty Suburban. It's a recipe so easy that even college kids can make it.

First, grab a bagel, and cover the center with a slice of pepperoni so the sauce and toppings don't fall through the middle.

Then add whatever toppings you like. I added pepperoni, black olives, red onions, garlic powder and mozzarella cheese.

Put them in a pan, and then broil them in your oven, toaster oven or hot car.

When all the cheese is melted, take a bite! They're awesome!

If you've enjoyed my entries about Car Cookery, you may want to read some posts by a woman in Phoenix in her series titled "Dashboard Dining." Her stories are funny, and I'm really impressed by the elegant three-course meals she has cooked in her vintage Mercedes Benz. Maybe next summer I'll be inspired to cook something gourmet on my dashboard.

And surprisingly enough, there's another way to cook with  your car: on its engine block! I first heard of this when I watched an episode of Food Network's "Extreme Chef" TV show. The contestants had to cook an appetizer on a hot car engine, and miraculously, two of the three dishes turned out OK! Apparently this is not a new idea. You can check it out on WikiHow, WiseBread, YouTube or Instructables. There's even a whole cookbook on engine-block cooking titled "Manifold Destiny"! So feel free to be creative in your future cooking experiments. Engine cooking would even be good when it's not hot outside, so you could do it in the spring, fall or winter. Why not try it the next time you're camping or going on a picnic?

I hope you've enjoyed my posts on Car Cookery. It's been fun. Let me know if you've ever tried cooking anything in an unusual way!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It's Official: Our Hottest Summer Ever!

Whew! It's official! The National Weather Service announced today that this has been the hottest summer ever on record for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, eclipsing the Awful Summer of 1980 for the highest average temperature with 90.6 degrees.

Although we missed tying 1980's 42-day streak of 100-degree days by only two days, we've still made it into the record books for something. I'm glad that after enduring this relentlessly hot summer, we at least have some bragging rights!

And we still may tie the 1980 record for the most total days over 100 degrees. Today was Day 65, and the 1980 record was 69. (See the full story here.)

I've gotten so used to this heat that it will feel really strange when this heat wave finally breaks.

But won't it feel nice?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dashboard S'mores

Hello again from the Land of Always Summer, aka Dallas, Texas.

This year is turning out to be the second-hottest summer in recorded history, trailing only the unbearable summer of 1980. (I'm glad we didn't live here then!) This month we finally ended our 40-day streak of 100-degree-plus temperatures with a day in the high 90s, meaning we came within two days of tying the 1980 streak of 42 days. Rats!

And now, as we wind up August, we've had 63 days of at least 100 degrees. Right now it's only 95 degrees, which actually feels good by this point. The record of the most 100-degree days in Dallas is 69 days in 1980. So we still have a shot at meeting that record, although I'm not sure I want to.

One of the more interesting things we've done this summer is to try our hands at dashboard cooking in our old Chevy Suburban. We've made quesadillas, garlic bread, grilled-cheese sandwiches, cinnamon toast, hot dogs, bruschetta and beef jerky. As the temperature inside the car can easily hit 120 degrees and above on a hot day, most of our experiments have turned out quite well.

By far the most popular experiment with our kids was the dashboard s'more. Easy and tasty, it came out great! Since then, I found this funny song on YouTube titled "Dashboard S'mores." It takes place -- you guessed it! -- in Texas. Where else?

I've also come across several people who've baked chocolate chip cookies in their cars! You can find out more at Discover Magazine, Baking Bites, SnarkyVegan or Completely Delicious. We'll have to try that sometime as well! I bet the smell inside your car is heavenly. :)

I've also found a surprising number of online articles about solar cookery using cardboard boxes covered in aluminum foil, or funky reflective dishes that look like giant woks. This turns out to work great in hot places such as Africa, where they don't have electricity or Suburbans. And it might be fun for a Scout project.

For now, though, we'll continue trying car cookery and hoping for our heat spell to eventually end. But maybe it would be nice if we could break that 1980 record, for bragging rights anyway.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Happy Back-to-School Day!!!

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved going back to school: picking out my favorite outfit to wear, seeing my friends again, toting a brand-new lunchbox with a PBJ and a Hostess Ho Ho, wearing new leather shoes, meeting my new teachers, and seeing which boys had grown taller and more handsome over the summer.

Now that I'm a mother, the first day of school has morphed into my all-time favorite holiday of the year! The above video accurately reflects the states of mind in our house as I excitedly prepared the kids for school and they looked at me glumly and asked why they had to return to that horrid place.

Here in Dallas, yesterday was the first day of school, and I've enjoyed seeing all the Facebook photos of my friends' kids all dressed up, brandishing their backpacks and ready to face a new year of classes. It's fun to see how all our kids are growing and changing, getting a little bit older and a little bit more jaded every year. Even though my own kids complained, I of course took their obligatory pictures in our front yard as well. It's a family tradition! I remember my mom took our pictures on our first days of school so many years ago, and it's fun now to look back at them and see the feathered hair, big jewelry and "cool" outfits we sported so many years ago.

The temperature here in Dallas this August is still well over 100 degrees every day (we're now enduring the second-hottest summer in recorded history), but band kids and high school football players have been marching and practicing for weeks already in the heat. And even though the thermometer doesn't say it's fall, it's nonetheless time to head back to school.

Although I may groan at the cost of binders and notebooks, I consider the small fortune I've spent on school supplies a fair price to pay for 6.92 hours of peaceful bliss every school day for the next nine months. With all my kids now safely at school, I can finally hear myself think for the first time in three months. You know those new kindergarten moms crying on the first day of school? I was practically crying tears of joy as I did my happy dance!

So while Back-to-School Day may not be an official holiday, to me it's the best one of all. Best wishes to all the parents, kids and teachers as they embark on another journey of learning.

And then start the party!!!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dashboard Beef Jerky

Our latest foray into dashboard dining is a blast from the past ... beef jerky! With our record summer temps this year above 100 degrees for 40 days in a row, we thought we'd try an ancient method of food preservation: drying meat in the sun.

According to "The History of Beef Jerky," Since prehistoric times, one of the oldest methods of preserving food was drying it in the sun. In North and South America, native Americans dried strips of deer, elk and buffalo in the sun to eat later. In the land later called Peru, a tribe called the Quechua (part of the Inca empire) dried meat and called it ch'arki. This term later became charqui and then jerky. In later years, North American pioneers dried meat by smoking it or by draping it over the outside of their covered wagons for two to three days as they headed westward.

At our house, my husband is a big beef jerky fan and usually makes his jerky in the oven or in his smoker. But last week he decided to try making his beef jerky on the dashboard of our Suburban because it was about 105 degrees, and the inside of the car gets really hot when it sits outside in the sun all day long.

First he bought some thinly cut beef strips and marinated them. Then he laid them over racks atop the car dashboard.

The jerky sat in the sun for several hours, with the car windows cracked open so the meat could dry more easily.

My husband said the jerky drying actually went more quickly than he anticipated. It came out perfectly and used no electricity to make. Just think how much easier and faster it could have been for the pioneers if they had had Suburbans instead of Conestogas!

And of course, we had to taste-test the car food to make sure it was safe to eat. In this case, the boys ate it all by the next day! Luckily for us, it didn't have to last us weeks on the trail.

Next up in car cookery: pizza bagels.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Return of Rain

  "The thirsty earth soaks up the rain,
And drinks, and gapes for drink again.
The plants suck in the earth, and are
With constant drinking fresh and fair."

-- Abraham Cowley,

After nearly a month without rain, and more than a month of 100-degree-plus temperatures, we awoke at 4:45 a.m. to a strange sound: rain!

It turns out that my husband had left the car windows open last night, so of course that's why it rained. If I'd realized that was better than a rain dance, we would have left them open earlier!

So after I ran out in the pouring rain and closed the car windows, we listened to the welcome patter of rain falling on the parched landscape, where streams had run dry and lawns have turned brown all over town. It rained for four straight hours! By the time we woke up this morning, our empty pond had filled up, the creek had overflown its banks, and everything was dripping wet with little pearls of water.

Almost the entire state of Texas is suffering from severe drought this summer, so this one rainstorm won't solve all our problems, but it brought wonderful relief after weeks and weeks of dry, deathly heat. Unfortunately, we endured 40 days of 100-degree-plus heat without even setting a new record! I was really rooting for Dallas to tie or break the old 1980 record of 42 days of 100 degrees in a row, but a silly cool front dropped down from Oklahoma two days ago and stopped us in our tracks at 40 days. What a cruel trick of Mother Nature to give us 40 days of 100+ heat and then make it 97 on Day 41! So this summer ends up in the record books as the second-hottest summer of recorded history. However, we have set some other heat records this year.

I guess I'm happy we don't live in Wichita Falls, which has been in triple digits for about 52 days and has shattered its previous heat record.

After baking in the relentless heat for weeks on end, our yard and plants eagerly drank up this morning's rain, and the heat index dipped about 30 degrees, making it actually pleasant to be outside! The rain cleaned the dust off our cars, filled our birdbath and formed reflecting pools on the street.

When the rain evaporated, it got really humid. But the respite from dry heat was nice while it lasted.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Let's Get a Bruschetta!

Hello again from Dallas, where we are closing in on the dubious distinction of suffering through the longest stretch of 100-degree-plus days in recorded history! As we parents wait eagerly for the start of school (yahoo!), our heat-addled brains have come up with new ways to entertain our families in the broiling heat of the summer. One novel idea for us is car cookery, or cooking food in the solar heat built up in our 1999 Chevy Suburban. With the city's heat at all-time highs nearly every day this month, we have more than enough solar energy to cook a few things in the car.

Why cook in the car? There are several good reasons for doing so:
1. to cook when camping
2. for summer amusement
3. as scientific experimentation
4. to save energy and lower your electric bills
5. to cook during power outages, and
6. to avoid heating up the house with your indoor oven

So if you live in a hot part of the country, why not try something new?

Today's entry into the annals of car cookery is much fancier than yesterday's cinnamon toast. We've already tried car-cooking plenty of kid favorites, such as quesadillas, garlic bread, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs and that all-time classic, s'mores. But man cannot live on kid food alone, so I thought I'd branch into something more sophisticated: bruschetta. 

Bruschetta (pronounced "broosketta" in Italian) is a yummy appetizer made with baguette rounds, fresh tomatoes and basil. For my recipe I looked online and found a five-star version here on When I made the bruschetta yesterday, it was 105 F outside and 158 degrees on the car dashboard.

First I sliced the fresh baguette into 3/4" slices.

 I toasted the bread slices for about half an hour in the car until they were warm and slightly crunchy. In the meantime, I chopped all the tomatoes and assembled the savory topping. Then I spooned some topping onto each baguette slice and sprinkled a little bit of mozzarella cheese on each one. 

Then it was back in the "oven."

I let the bruschetta broil under the windshield about 45 minutes, until the topping was warm and the cheese had started to melt. I could have let it go longer, but it was dinnertime, and we were hungry!

After I brought them in, I garnished each round with a fresh basil leaf from our yard. They looked so cute and tasted so yummy! Sadly, our kids were too chicken to try them (they prefer cinnamon toast), but that only left more for my husband and me -- oh, darn! We even had a bunch left over for our neighbor, who gladly tasted them even though they were cooked in our Suburban.

The bruschetta turned out to be the tastiest and most elegant food we've made in the car yet ... definitely a success!!!

And it's only a few more days until we break that 1980 heat-wave record!

Next up in car cookery: sun-dried beef jerky.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dashboard Cinnamon Toast

Cinnamon toast made in our car.

Hello, again! Here in Dallas, we're still in the middle of an extreme heat wave and extreme drought, so we're trying to entertain ourselves without using water and without being outside. One thing we're not in want of is solar power, so we've decided to use it to cook as many things as we can.

Yesterday it was 105 degrees in the sun and 181 degrees on our car dashboard, so I thought I'd try to make cinnamon toast. It was so easy that kids can do it.

(By the way, can you believe that if you Google "cinnamon toast," you'll actually see lots of recipes for basic cinnamon toast? I'm as surprised that anyone would need a recipe as I'm surprised people would actually buy little bottles of cinnamon sugar in the store. Seriously, can't people figure out how to mix cinnamon and sugar?)

Anyway, all I did was butter some sandwich bread, sprinkle it with my very own homemade cinnamon sugar and place it in a pie pan on the car's dashboard.

The bread before we put it in the car.

In about 15 minutes, the toast was done and ready to eat. It wasn't very "gourmet," but my boys ate it all.

So if you need to entertain your children cheaply in the summer, try toasting some bread in your car. If you don't like cinnamon toast, try regular buttered toast, and then add jelly when you bring it inside.

If your kids like the car toast, then they'll really like the car s'mores I made last week.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Garlic Bread "A La Car"

This is the "after" picture.

As Texas broils in a heat wave (Today is Day 35 of 100 degrees plus), what better time to make "Texas toast"?

Yesterday in our Suburban I made one of my favorite foods: garlic bread. So easy, and yet so delicious! The high temperature yesterday (which happened to be a record high) was 108, so it was more than hot enough to toast garlic bread on the dashboard of our car. (For more information on our heat wave, click here.) In fact, a reporter using a fancy laser gun measured the temperature of a car dashboard in the sun at 165 degrees. She also measured  the rubber mat on a playground at 180 degrees! (Click here for full story.) But I digress.

Anyway, I didn't have any French bread, so I used sandwich bread. First I buttered it, then sprinkled garlic powder on it, then layered some Italian cheese on top. After about 15 minutes, it was done. It turned out as well as any garlic bread I've made in our real oven, and this was energy-efficient because I didn't have to pay for the car oven. (And it's a good thing, too, since the Texas power grid has been straining all week to keep our air conditioners going, and they're asking everyone to conserve electricity.)

This is the "before" picture.

So the garlic bread was great ... yum!!! And there was a bonus, too: The inside of the car smelled really good! 

What will we try next?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hot Dog! It's More Car Cookery!

Greetings from Texas! It's time for more car cookery!

Today for lunch we tried heating up hot dogs on our Suburban's dashboard. The hot dogs are already precooked, so they need only to be warmed up enough to eat. Luckily for us, that was no problem.

We decided to steam them a little so they'd end up moist and not shriveled. First we placed four hot dogs in a pie pan, then added a little bit of water and covered them with a damp paper towel. It was 100 degrees F outside and far hotter than that inside the car as it sat in the sun with all the windows closed.

After about 30-45 minutes, they were warm enough to eat. 

Most of the water had evaporated, and the paper towel was completely dry, but the hot dogs were moist and had that good hot dog smell. We placed them in buns and added our toppings. The testers pronounced them satisfactory and ate all of them.

Best of all: We didn't have to use any energy to make them, because all the solar energy we could ever want is provided free by our friend the Sun.

Next up: garlic bread!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sandwiches, Suburban Style

As Dallas endures its 32nd day in a row of 100-degree-plus temperatures, we decided to make another entry for our upcoming Suburban cookbook. Today's experiment is ... grilled cheese sandwiches. No, not cooked on the car's grill, but on its dashboard.

We started by preheating a nonstick black frying pan on the car's dashboard as the car sat out in the sun with all the doors and windows closed. With today's outside temperature at 106 degrees, it was plenty hot enough inside the car. After the pan was warm, we put the buttered sandwiches in and cooked them about 15 minutes on each side.

The resulting sandwiches were hot and greasy, with melted cheese and toasted bread. Offering to serve as tasters were our two boys, both self-professed grilled-cheese experts. They pronounced the results edible but not as good as regular grilled-cheese sandwiches. The sandwiches looked OK to me, but apparently the bread turned out a little hard and didn't have quite the right texture.

Luckily the dog thought they were just fine. :)

So what should we try next?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Grand Haven Lighthouse

Last week my husband had a business trip to Grand Haven, Mich., and I tagged along. With our summertime temperatures here in Dallas in the 100s, we figured it would be a great time to enjoy the cooler weather up north.

Wrong! With our bad timing, we started our trip on the week when most of the U.S. was facing a record heat wave. Even 1,000 miles north of Dallas, we found unbearable heat and humidity. While we were there, Grand Haven was suffering through record-high temperatures, and the heat wave was big news in all the newspapers, on the radio and on TV.

However, even with all that record heat, Michigan STILL felt nicer than Texas, and it ended up being a nice vacation after all. You know why? In Michigan it actually cools down at night!

Here in Texas, we get no lake or ocean breezes, and it stays hot all night long. Our "low" nighttime temperatures have been hovering around 85 degrees F. But in coastal Michigan, the heat subsided as the sun went down, and it soon became pleasant enough to walk the quaint downtown streets, stroll along the lakeside paths and saunter along the sandy beaches. In fact, we were surprised to see how many people were out and about enjoying the balmy evenings. In Dallas, most people hole up in their air-conditioned homes from about June to September. In Michigan, it was refreshing to see people actually enjoying the summer and relaxing outside without sweating.

Grand Haven is a cute, charming little town on the shores of Lake Michigan with a population of about 10,400. Founded by French fur trappers, the city later became a logging center and a manufacturing hub. Nowadays it attracts tourists with its picturesque views and white-sand beaches. In fact, Grand Haven State Park has been rated one of the country's top five beaches.

Coming from Texas, we were surprised to see how clean and pristine the beaches were, with no trash, no jellyfish and no seaweed. The beaches were beautiful and filled with families and teenagers having fun in the sun.

The most noted landmark in Grand Haven is its historic lighthouse. We walked out a long jetty to reach it one evening. The breezes were so cool and nice, and the views were picturesque. The main lighthouse, painted red, was built in 1875 and is connected to the shore by a metal catwalk once used by the lighthouse keepers. The lighthouse marks the mouth to the Grand River and is now owned by the Coast Guard.

I thought the lighthouse was incredibly scenic and hope you do, too.

Friday, July 29, 2011

S'more Car Cookery

Today it was over 100 degrees again (for the 29th day in a row!). Maybe the heat is baking our brains a little, but we thought it would be entertaining to try another experiment in car cookery.

This afternoon we tried cooking s'mores on the car's dashboard. First we assembled the s'mores.

Then we placed them in a cake pan atop the dash.

After about 20 minutes, they were ready to eat! We found out that if you like your chocolate a little less melty, you can start the marshmallow first.

Either way, they were delicious!

And we didn't even need a campfire. :)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Car Cookery

So it's over 100 degrees again, the kids are out of school, summer camp is over, and everyone is bored. What can you do? Car cookery!

You probably have heard the saying, "It's so hot, you can fry an egg on the sidewalk!" This is a great cliche but cannot actually be done. (For a fun look at a person who actually did this experiment, visit

People have shown that an egg must reach a temperature of at least 158 degrees before it will cook. This theoretically can be done on the metal hood of a car. (Check out

Here in the Dallas area, summer is always HOT. The only variables are exactly how hot it will be, how humid it will be, and whether a stray thunderstorm will drench us on any given day. But it's impossible to escape the heat for several states in every direction. This month, the whole Midwest is experiencing a severe heat wave, and the rest of the country is finding out how it feels to have Texas' weather: awful! But at least we're used to it, so we don't whine as much about it.

In these sizzling days, hot cars are a horrible fact of life. The heat sears your hands and backside in your car, the heat bakes you like an oven, and you start sweating like a basted turkey. The heat is hard on your car and hard on your body. The heat even tends to zap your car batteries in the summer. However, there is ONE advantage to a hot car: It's a free way to cook your food!

This summer we are starting a new series on car cookery featuring our old green Chevy Suburban. We are going to see what can be cooked in the car. This provides several benefits: saving electricity, providing amusement and giving us ideas for our next summer camping trip.

Almost all of Texas is currently in a state of severe drought, so most of the state is under a burn ban. So when you go camping and can't build a fire, how do you cook? The answer ... pull up your car!

Our first experiment in car cookery took place a few days ago at 5:45 p.m., when it was 102 degrees F in the sun and 152 degrees inside the car with all the doors and windows closed.

We preheated our frying pan on the dashboard of our Suburban until the pan got really hot, then created a quesadilla with a tortilla and shredded cheese.

About 15 minutes later, voila! The quesadilla was done. The taste testers agreed that it was edible and very much like a regular quesadilla, except that we forgot to fry it in butter. We'll remember that next time.

So, what do you think you can cook up? Bon appetit!

P.S. You are welcome to try this in your own car, but MAKE SURE NO ANIMALS OR CHILDREN ARE LEFT INSIDE THE VEHICLE.