Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Favorite Things

The Chambers Clan
This October, some of my favorite people, [Poor] Donnie and [Dammit] Janet Chambers, visited their condo in St. Petersburg - one of my favorite areas in Florida.  So, we drove up to see them.  With them were Donnie's brother, Butch, and his wife, Jayne.  We came in towards the end of their stay and the 2 couples had already had a lot of fun on their vacation.  We arrived in the middle of the night having left Marathon when I got off work.

Sunrise over Boca Ciega Bay

The next morning, we were all up bright and early to watch the sun rise over the Boca Ciega Bay and Donnie, assisted by Butch, made us all a huge breakfast with eggs, sausage, gravy, biscuits, and hash-browns.
The tiny veranda
Afterwards, we all went out on the tiny veranda to talk about what we were going to do for the day, all of us hoping it would warm up a bit as the area was experiencing a bit of cold front with temps in the low 60's, overcast, and windy.

Butch and Abby

Us girls decided we would go to Target - a favorite of mine and a rare opportunity that I wasn't going to pass up.  The boys decided that they would do a whole lot of nothing, although they did manage to go to the liquor store.  A good thing, too, because shopping can be thirsty work.  With all of us back at the condo, the 6 of us and 2 dogs once again crammed onto the tiny balcony for cocktails and conversation.
Janus taking it all in

We decided on Billy's for dinner - certainly one of my favorite restaurants in the area - for some of my favorite food, stone crabs served warm with lots of melted butter.  Billy's was the first place I'd ever tried stone crabs and is still the best.
Got my ringer!

We played the ring game, enjoyed the live entertainment, and devoured plates full of crab claws...what a good time!

Afterwards, we all headed back to the condo where Jeff played us a bit of music on his guitar - another of my favorite things - before we all meandered off to bed.

The next morning, Donnie made us another fabulous breakfast...should I mention that more of my favorite things are a man in the kitchen and a meal I didn't have to cook?

Jeff had promised a to run an errand with our friend, June, so we set off along the beach road so I could drop him off.  My destination for this A.M. was Mazzaro's Italian Market - quite possibly my favorite place on earth that I've discovered so far.  The Chamber's brother's, fellow foodies, decided to accompany me on my grand adventure.
 The minute you arrive at Mazzaro's, you know you are somewhere special...and not just at any old grocery store.  Taking up nearly the entire block, the building itself is a work of art with intricate stone work,  murals of Venetian canals, Italian women waving from painted windows, and faux landscapes and architecture depicted on every surface.  The property is dotted with cozy grottoes, mystical archways, bubbling fountains, and Romanesque statuary...and a couple of art cars reside in the parking lot.

And that's just the outside!

Once you walk through the ornate front doors, that's when the wonderland truly begins - a maze of culinary magnificence!

You'll have to check out this slideshow for pics of the inside:  a MUST see click here for more Mazzaro's  pics!

My haul from Mazzaro's
As you enter, to the left lies the meagar produce section, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in quality.  Next to that is the butcher counter chock full of quality cuts of meat, stuffed chickens, fresh sausages, meatballs, kabobs, and one of the most beautiful pieces of ahi tuna I have ever seen.  Next you venture on to cases of cured sausages, soppresettas, and pepperonis situated next to cases full of butter and cheeses from around the world.  Then there's the array of coffee beans, freshly roasted, and teas for every connoisseur.  To the right, a whole room devoted to wine and cheese.  To the left, a wall of imported beers.

There's an olive bar, complete with toothpicks for sampling and a whole prepared food section loaded with heavy slabs of lasagna, rice balls, roasted peppers, crab cakes, and gourmet salads galore.  Around the corner is all the fresh, frozen, and dried pastas along with oven ready hand-tossed pizzas.  In the next corner lies the bakery with a number of pizzas by the slices, fresh baguettes, pepperoni rolls, and dozens of other fresh baked delicacies.  Venture further down the counter and you come to the sweets and every Italian pastry known to man along with fresh gelato.  At the coffee counter, the brother's ordered rich coffee drinks and Donnie bought me an ice tea...remember that shopping is thirsty work!
The middle of the store is devoted to can goods, dry goods, spices, oils, and vinegars...some of which were quite pricey!
When my basket was full and becoming too heavy to carry, I sadly brought my time at Mazzaro's to an end.  But what a haul:  white truffle oil, seasame oil, fresh mozzarella, cheese curds, cavatappi, rice balls, sesame encrusted seared tuna, truffle mousse, Parmesan flatbread, prosecco, and my favorite find - smoked bacon chipotle sea salt in a grinder!  Once in the car, the boys and I enjoyed bites of the nearly raw tuna drizzled with sesame oil.  Much of my purchases would make a tasty snack this afternoon...just as soon as the prosecco gets cold!

Sunshine Skyway Bridge
 Then we missed our exit and had to take the scenic route across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and back.  I finally made it to my car and as I headed to meet Jeff, the other menfolk went back to the condo to collect their wives.  The plan was for us all to spend the day with June, certainly another one of my favorite people, at her Madeira Beach home, another of my favorite places.  The house itself has come a long way since my first visit 6 years ago.  Originally one story and below the flood plain, the house qualified for a F.E.M.A. grant and underwent a spectacular rebuild. 
The first floor now consists of a 2 car garage, office, bathroom, and my favorite part - a tiki bar overlooking the pool, hot tub, and the Boca Ciega Bay.  The upper floor, with it's open floor plan and dream kitchen is a site to behold, second only to the panoramic view highlighted by the generous floor to ceiling windows.

We had a great time all hanging out together in the Florida sunshine.  It turned out to be a beautiful day, warm and sunny.  After sunset, we moved the party inside, ordered pizza, and fired up the Wii bowling.  The Chambers clan eventually ventured back to the condo, but I decided that after sharing the couch with Jeff for the last 2 nights I would avail myself of June's hospitality and the cushy spare bedroom.
I slept like a rock!  [Thanks, June!]
June and Jeff

Casa June
Janet, June, and Jayne
The View
Unfortunately, the next morning rolled around and it was time for us all to go our separate ways.

We said good-bye to June and headed to the condo for the rest of our things and to bid the Chambers family farewell. 
Their vacation was over and they had a long and progressively colder ride back to Kentucky ahead of them.

But, it was another great adventure...and full of all my favorite things!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Series of Firsts

Jeff's Aunt Karen came for her first visit to the sailboat and the Florida Keys earlier this month. She was accompanied by Jeff's mom, Denise - a sister's getaway! They arrived mid-afternoon on a Wednesday just as I was getting off work and we all headed out to the boat to relax and float around a bit. Jeff had planned ahead and grilled us a yummy dinner of flank steak spiraled around fresh spinach and cheese with a side of mashed potatoes.

Thursday was to be our day in Key West to see the sites - another first for Aunt Karen. First stop was the Southernmost Point for a photo op and then on to Captain Tony's for a pirate punch. Carl Peachey was singing and playing guitar so we sat and listened for a bit.

Next we meandered our way to and around the Historic Seaport and ended up at the Schooner Wharf Bar sipping margarita's and enjoying the melodic emanations of local legend, Michael McCloud.

Pepe's, the oldest restaurant in the Keys, was next on our list. We sat at the bar while the bartender squeezed fresh juice for our cocktails.
Tell me, can you beat that?

From there, we headed to Mallory Square to take in the daily sunset festivities/fiasco as well as a completely breath-taking setting sun.

Afterwards, it was time to find some dinner and head back to the Middle Keys.

We stopped at Mangrove Mama's where we shared an order of fish dip for an appetizer. I made a special request and ordered yummy fried, cracked conch on top of a Caesar salad. Jeff had the scallop special and the sisters had seafood nacho's...all fabulous and tasty.

Friday was a day we did a whole lot of nothing - but that is one of our favorite things to do and it was a request by Aunt Karen! So we whiled away the hours listening to music and enjoying one another's company.
Evening found us at Castaway's, where Dan Sullivan rocks on Friday nights, for a bit of entertainment and dinner.

Jeff brought his guitar and took a turn up the stage, to all of our delight. It was a great turn out with a myriad of friends in attendance, and we all had a great time.

Saturday, we woke to a very wet and rainy day after a big storm in the middle of the night, but that didn't stop us from having a girls "alfresco" breakfast at the 7-mile Grill followed by bloody mary's at Castaways. Once fortified, we were off to the grocery store to pick up supplies for the evening and the 2 boxes of fresh oysters [72 total count] that I had ordered a few days ago.

We were about to have an oyster and lobster feast!

Back at the boat, Jeff started the grill and then started shucking oysters. The first dozen were slurped down immediately followed by sips of Veuve Clicquot champagne, provided by friends, Charles and Hilary, and quite delicious.

The next dozen or so were topped with baby spinach, irish butter, a bit of red onion, bacon, and parmesan cheese and then put on the grill to melt into yummy oysters rockerfella'...Thin Line-style!

More were eaten on the half-shell and another batch went on the grill. In the meantime, the lobsters were prepped and wrapped in foil, and eventually tossed on the grill. One lucky lobster tail was transformed into ceviche. I was a little nervous about the raw seafood, but it turned out quite well and was absolutely beautiful.

The lobster tails, after being grilled to tender perfection on the Cobb grill, were served with fresh asparagus and buttered, garlicky orzo.

We're talking seafood decadence!
And, despite the crappy weather, we had a lovely time with friends and family.

By Sunday, the weather perked up a bit and after a couple of bloody marys in the sunshine, so did we. Since we girls had done all the shopping yesterday, today we sent Jeff to the store. He came back with an 8-plus pound chicken for us to smoke on the grill. It took most of the afternoon, which was fine by us. We did have one incident when it came time to add more charcoal to the grill. Being so heavy, it was hard to find a place to sit the hot bird and the grate slipped and our dinner became a "bucket of chicken"...fortunately it was a clean bucket and the chicken didn't travel any further than that.

Monday morning came around and it was to be the girls' last day of vacation. The plan was to go out on the snorkel boat with Jeff and see him in action. We set off in different directions: Jeff going to work and us girls to the airport to get the rental car. We met back at the Starfish and set off to the reef. It was another picture perfect day with calm seas and a light breeze. Once at the reef, we could tell right away the visibility was going to be great. We all donned our masks and fins and jumped on in....snorkeling being another first for Aunt Karen! The sisters seemed to be having a great time kicking about and holding hands while seeing all the underwater sights. Before we knew it, it was time to head back, and we enjoyed a beverage at the bar while Jeff finished up his boat chores.
We kept it simple for the evening and ordered pizza to be delivered to the marina.

The next morning, it was time for Karen and Denise to head back to the mainland. It's always sad to see people you love leave, but we know they had a great time and hope they will both be back soon!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I came, I saw, I snorkeled

This past Tuesday, Jeff came back from a day at the office [i.e. Sombrero Reef] with reports of a stellar day out on the ocean. The water was crystal clear without a ripple and the moon jellies were few and far between.

Come Wednesday, I was faced with a dilemma: get the laundry done or go out snorkeling in near perfect conditions?

All in all, it wasn't a tough decision. I am always game for putting off the laundry. What I am not always game for is getting in the water. I don't like it when it's choppy. I don't want to deal with jellyfish. Bad visibility, swift current - more good reasons for me to stay dry. So even though I'd been out on the snorkel boat, I hadn't actually snorkeled.

But that all changed yesterday.

I had dug out my long lost mask and snorkel and took it along - quite possibly another reason I hadn't gotten in the water...I wanted my own equipment. The fins I could care less about, but a mask and snorkel are personal.
I also brought along a long-sleeved shirt to keep the jellies at bay.

I met Jeff and the Starfish at the docks and we made the 20-ish minute commute out to the reef, tied up to a ball, and the pool was open!

And what a pool it is!

Full of fish and a cornucopia of corals, Sombrero Reef is a wonder to behold!

Once I was in the water, it took a few minutes and a couple of mask adjustments to get the hang of it all again but then I was off in search of what I could see. Right off, Jeff threw a handful of oats in the water and I was surrounded by yellow tail snappers. I saw a couple of barracuda, multiple varieties of parrot fish - all colorful and some of them absolutely HUGE, a large southern ray, and a plethora of fish and corals, big and small, that I couldn't even begin to name.

It was a good day to snorkel.
Laundry...eh, later.
Sombrero Reef: Fish & More Fish

Friday, August 19, 2011

New Job for Jeff

Jeff's last official day of work here at the City Marina was June 3rd. It was a personal choice. Life had become too political and complicated for a guy with a pension, so he resigned. There were several boat chores that needed doing, and some much needed R&R. But he was not deigned to be unemployed for long. A fellow harbor resident came to him with a tip that the charter company that she works for needed a captain - ASAP. Jeff went and talked to them the next day and shortly after he was making practice runs to see if he could handle the boat and/or wanted the job. He didn't hit the bridge and could get the power catamaran easily in and out of the slip.

So now Jeff runs the snorkel boat, "Starfish," out to the reef with passengers on a regular basis.

I had the privilege of being one of the passengers quite recently and plan on making it a habit on my days off pending availability and weather.

The day I went, it was a beautiful, sunny, calm day. With a light breeze, the trip out to the reef was quite pleasant and much cooler than being on land. It was a full boat and I was barely able to squeeze in, but the boat has a capacity of 40 passengers and there were 39 paying.

Jeff cruised through the narrow span of the 7-mile bridge without noticeable concern....the only point of the trip that is particularly hairy or potentially dangerous.

Then we were in the open water dodging lobster and crab traps.

Out at the reef, Julie - the first mate, made quick work of getting the boat secured to the mooring ball and then it was everyone in the water!

I found a comfy place to lay on the nets to soak up a bit of sun and scenery and stay out of the way.

All was well until a couple of little girls were stung by jellyfish and screamed their full heads off. Jeff and Julie administered what first aid was possible and the girls finally quieted themselves when Julie produced a bag of oats to feed the myriad of fish surrounding the boat.

The reef was somewhat inundated with moon jellies, and while quite beautiful to watch swim by, can pack a powerfully, painful sting.

Soon enough, it was time to gather all the snorkelers and head back to shore with a pleasant boat ride to the bayside.


this is pretty much what a day at the office looks like for Jeff...

Congratulations, Captain.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Maddie Time!

July 26th was my niece, Maddy's, third birthday and I recently made the trek to Greensboro, NC to be a part of the festivities. I left Marathon on a Thursday morning along with my friend, Megan, who needed a ride to Daytona. It was nice having company for the first 8 hours of the trip and the stops at Robbie's of Islamorada for trinkets and The Blue Marlin in Key Largo for breakfast.

Then I was on my own. I stopped for the night in St. George, SC and then finished up the trip the next day.

Upon my arrival, I walked into my brother's house to a great big grin on a three year old who immediately broke the ice by announcing she had a wedgie...then promptly went about removing the offending article of clothing from it's delicate position in a bout of giggles.
The rest of the afternoon followed suit with lots of giggles, tickles, and hugs.

My father and his wife, Barb, had arrived on the scene the previous day. Now I just had to wait for for my brother, sister-in-law, and mother to get off work. We spent a jovial, family evening together...ordering carry-out from Elizabeth's Pizza and taking turns entertaining Maddie.

The next day was the big event: The Backyard Birthday Bash!

10 a.m. Saturday morning the party-goers started to arrive. Everyone was shown to the backyard which had been transformed into a party wonderland complete with play-set, tot-sized picnic tables, and 2 wading pools, along with an assortment of bubble-wands, squirt bottles, balloons, and snacks.

At some point, the cake arrived and shortly afterwards all our little guests were gathered up and taken home.

With just family left in attendance, lunch was served: a grand buffet of just-smoked brisket and pork shoulder, beans, slaw, and 7-layer salad. Delicious!

Afterwards, there were presents to be opened and little Miss Maddie could hardly contain herself. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging about in good company, with a bit of an outing to some of the local shops, and then a rousing game of Whist with my mom, my dad, and Barb in which some of the rules were suspect and quite possibly completely made-up by my dad.

Sunday morning I was up bright and early and asked Maddie if she would like to do some jumping jacks with me. Her response was enthusiastically affirmative. So, I did my Insanity workout with a 3-year old which proved to be truly insane. She grabbed my leg while I did leg lifts, sat on my back for push-ups, "got me" during several inopportune moments, and decided to switch to Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman part way through the DVD. Somehow, we got through it and while she ran off to get dressed, I hopped in the shower.

We were going to the farmer's market!
But, our first stop would be breakfast at the Moose Cafe.
After a yummy meal of biscuits, gravy, sausage, eggs, and bacon we set out to peruse the farmer's wares. I had big plans to buy some homegrown tomatoes since I hadn't had a good one since this time last year. Maddie held my hand as we strolled about gathering all my market favorites: grits, crackers, cheese curds, spices, a ham hock, and most notably - cherokee purple tomatoes!

It was during our shopping that Maddie learned to use the word "cooperate" even if she didn't totally grasp it's meaning. She loves to hold on to 2 adults and swing in the middle as we walk. My brother, Keith, obliged for several such swings and then dropped Maddie's hand in search of produce. Maddie looked to me for a solution to her swinging dilemma and I shrugged my shoulders and told her that daddy simply wasn't cooperating. Without missing a beat, she grabbed Jolene's hand and said, "Cooperate, Mommy!" as she threw her weight forward resulting in the desired swinging effect.

With our shopping complete, we headed back to the house.

Later that afternoon, I ventured out to Morning View, the assisted living facility that employs my mother, to give her a hand with calendars and bulletin boards. Then it was back to the house for me for a fantastic dinner of BBQ pork and a myriad of fresh veggies and tomatoes from the market.

Monday morning came early to the Henning household as everyone set out in different directions...my brother to work, Maddie and Jolene to daycare and work, and my dad and Barb to take the scenic route back to Indiana. I worked out in the peace in quiet - unmolested this time around - and ran a few errands. But, it was quickly back to the house for me for Maddie's 10:15 arrival. After her swim lessons, I had her for the rest of the day!
And what a busy day it was!
My mother arrived around 11:30 to find Maddie and I soaking up some rays and splashing about in the princess pool. By then, we had already played with play-doh, watched approximately 30 seconds of 4 different DVD's, covered a multitude of paper with watercolors, and had a snack.

While Maddie and Sarah went upstairs to get on some dry clothes, I made us some lunch.

Next, we made dog biscuits and baked sugar cookies with sprinkles. Then we played a game, stuck some stickers, went for a walk, had a snack, painted more watercolors, read a couple of books, got out the dominoes, dumped the building blocks, and lots of Maddie's favorite activity - playing with my phone.

We were all happy to see Jolene/mommy when she got home but for entirely different reasons.

I could have certainly used a nap at that point, but it was a great day!

Tuesday rolled around much too soon and it was time for me to say good-bye... and saying goodbye to Maddie was certainly the hardest.

After she headed off for school, I packed the car, made one last trip to Target, and went over and spent a bit of time with my mother. Her and I had lunch at Brixx's Pizza and then I hit the road.

But, it wasn't quite time for me to start off for FL. Instead, it was a 2 hour trip to Kenly, NC, to visit with the Smiths - family from a previous marriage. It was great to see my niece, Josie, my nephew, Zachary, and Mark and Anne. We had a great time at the local Mexican restaurant with good food and drinks and a variety of friends.

Unfortunately, this was to be a rather short visit - although a little time spent together was better than none at all.

The next morning, I was merging onto I-95 shortly after 5am.

I would like to say that it was an uneventful ride and that I made it home in the expected amount of time, but that was not to be.
I noticed on one of my stops to get gas that my rear tire was low. I filled it to the appropriate pressure and hopped back on the road. An empty tank later and the same tire was low again, only this time I go to air it up and the valve stem comes off in my hand. I immediately think that this is not good, so I use the GPS [Thanks, Jensina!] to locate the nearest repair shop. I call the top one on the list and am informed that I have contacted a mobile service and after listing his exorbitant fees for his assistance, he told me that there was a Wal-mart nearby that would probably do the trick.

Well, Wal-mart was not as close as I was led to believe, and after another stop to make sure I was headed the right direction I decided not to risk driving any further on my lame tire and change to the spare. This is when I discovered that a very vital piece of my jack had gone missing. Luckily I had a bit of help from a gentleman who very graciously changed my tire using a part from his own jack. I proceeded to the Wal-mart rather anxious and ambivalent about my impending repair bill, but my mind was immediately set to ease when the technician behind the counter told me that a flat repair would be $10.
I was expecting something much worse.

The boys at Wal-mart made quick work of fixing my tire and stowing away the spare and then the final bill came: only $2.12 for the broken valve stem!
I couldn't ask for better than that.
A quick run through a drive-thru and I was back on the road with 4 tires holding air and only 2 hours behind schedule.

I left the mainland hit Highway 1 just as the fading sun set into the purple sea. I had one more stop for gas and the Arby's that I had promised Jeff. I arrived at the marina after a long 16 hours in the car and boy, was I happy to be there!

I slept very late the next morning and then had a nice trip out to the reef with Jeff on the snorkel boat...but that's another blog entry entirely!

So traveling is all well and good, and I had a lot of fun with family and friends and all those I love in North Carolina, and I especially enjoyed my Maddie time...


Home is where the boat is!