Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Crowd Pleaser

Do you ever have the occasion to take a dish for a potluck?  Covered dish? Brunch?  I have the knock-out recipe of all time.  My mom found it years ago.  We all fell in love with it, made it non-stop for awhile, then lost the recipe and forgot all about it.  Then, years later, it resurfaced thanks to the Internet.

Once we found it again, I made it one day when it was my turn for snacks at Sunday School.  The guys always love this dish because it's hearty, filling, spicy and it has pork (you know how they are about pork, right?).  The women always love it for all those reasons, but also because it's so out-of-the-norm and interesting.  After that first time of "guinea-pigging" my SS buddies, it's now become a staple.  In fact, when it's my turn to bring snacks, I sometimes get a request for this cornbread.  Most recently, we all met for wings the night before the Carolina-Clemson game and I remembered that two days later was my day.  The request was made.  I complied.  They ate, they smiled, they said nice things!

So, here's my recipe to share with you guys.  I must say...it is damn good and it's totally different, so it always gets people's attention.  It can be a brunch (or Sunday school "snack"), a lunch paired with a salad or soup, or a cool dish to take a sick friend.  I hope you'll try it and I certainly hope you'll love it as much as my family and friends do.

  • 1 lb spicy bulk sausage
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 (15 oz) can black-eyed peas, drained
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar
  • 3/4 cup creamed corn
  • 1/4 cup chopped pickled jalapenos (my husband loves fresh jalapenos, but the pickled ones are hotter, most of the time because of the pickling; fresh ones can be inconsistent in heat)
  • 1 (4.5 oz) can chopped green chiles
  1. Cook sausage in large skillet over med-hi heat to break up and brown.  I like to drain it well, let it cool and then chop with a butcher knife to make it fine.  This is because I'm not crazy about hunky pieces of sausage.
  2. Combine cornmeal, flour, salt and baking soda.
  3. Stir together the eggs, milk, and oil until combined. Add to the dry ingredients, stirring until just moistened.  The batter won't be smooth.  Add sausage, peas, cheddar, corn, jalapenos & chiles, stirring well.
  4. Pour into a greased 13x9" baking dish and bake at 350 for an hour, until golden and set.
***Freeze baked cornbread up to a month, thaw overnight in fridge. Bake, covered, at 350 for 30 minutes.  Uncover and bake 10 more minutes until thoroughly heated through. To reheat directly from the freezer, bake covered at 350 for an hour. Uncover and bake 10 more minutes until heated thru.

So, that's the magic cornbread recipe.  It may look weird on paper, but trust me.  Make it, share it with friends and you're going to get rave reviews.  And, future requests!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Flop

Looked pretty online, but real life was another story
I am the first to admit it when a dish goes South.  I told you a few days ago that I was making Balsamic Root Vegetables for Thanksgiving.  My reasons were:  I liked the picture, I've NEVER cooked or eaten a parsnip before, and since it was a crockpot dish, that would be one less project going on in the kitchen, one less body.  Well, unfortunately, it sucked.  

My mother-in-law liked it and I think maybe one other person was positive about it, but I was not.  The vegetables weren't overly mushy, but I probably could've stopped the cooking a little earlier.  The flavors were good.  But, for me, the failure was in the look of the dish and the smell.  The vegetables didn't retain their color and all kind of looked alike.  However, it was the smell that really did me in.  I can't quite put my finger on it.  Balsamic sauces usually smell very good, so I'm thinking perhaps it was the balsamic aroma mixed with the red onion?  It wasn't the kind of smell where someone would walk in and exclaim something like "What the hell is that smell?" but it was just "off-putting."  
  • I can't even believe I just used that phrase.  Donatella Arpaia uses it ad nauseum on the Next Iron Chef and it drives me up the wall.  I get her meaning, but I'm pretty sure "off-putting" isn't really a word.  But, in this case, it's the best I've got.
Chalk this one up as a "tried and failed."  No big deal; can't win 'em all!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Prep Work

I'm not sure why, but I'm super excited about this Thanksgiving.  My little sister is expecting a baby, so that's a new, exciting thing.  My aunt Jennie is getting married, so that's a new exciting thing.  And, Vivian is really into cooking now, so that's a new and exciting thing.  I'm suspecting these factors are influencing my excitement level.  I'm a cracker-jack detective, you see.

Neil and I both have today off and have had a great day together.  It's been a long time since we've had just a regular day together.  We have pretty much gotten all of our prep done and will have a low stress time tomorrow!

Neil is the turkey man of our family.  One Thanksgiving, we were in St. Augustine with Neil's mom, Mimi and his dad, Don.  I had heard of brining, but hadn't tried it yet.  Well, Mimi brined the turkey that year and for the first time I really, actually enjoyed turkey.  We lost Mimi shortly after we got engaged and Don a couple years later.  Since then though, Neil tackled brining and instantly mastered turkey roasting.  My mom is a turkey fanatic.  In fact, it has been established that if she ever ends up on Death Row, turkey & dressing will be her last meal.  So, if Dottie says Neil's turkey is good, well... AND, for Dottie to let Neil cook it instead of her, HUGE!

So, today we got the bird in the brine and it's soaking away in the fridge.  My pumpkin ice cream turned out to be nothing short of fantastic!  (btw, if you don't have your own nutmeg grinder, ask for one for Christmas).  I hope that will be a surprise for everyone.  I have toasted pita bread for the hummus, sliced celery, made curry dip, sliced all my veggies for the Balsamic Root Vegetables.  Then, I made the "white" mashed potato dish.  Potatoes with sour cream, cream cheese and evaporated milk.  They will go in the oven tomorrow; I'm pretty excited about this, believe it or not!
Pumpkin Ice Cream

After all that, I'm typing all of this fascinating information to you  as I have a glass of Chardonnay (I'm on vacation, dammit!) and try to think of what, if anything, I've forgotten.  I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  

I'm thankful that you read this blog!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Prep

I posted this statement on Facebook, so sorry for the redundancy.  Every year at Thanksgiving I remind myself that I desperately need a bigger fridge.  But, as soon as Thanksgiving is over, I forget about this until next year...

That's where we are today.  Currently, I have all the usual suspects: Brita pitcher, milk, wine, juice, eggs, a million mustards, jellies and salad dressings.  But, now add the new players:  13 pound turkey, bag of kale (it was a steal, I HAD to buy it), a head of romaine, bowl of ice cream custard chilling, tupperware full of jello, hummus, pie crust, parsnips and carrots.  In short, the damn thing is packed to the gills.  And, tomorrow, the turkey has to get into its brining vessel, requiring the removal of a shelf.  Guess I'll be trucking groceries over to Mom's tomorrow for temporary storage.  That or packing a cooler.  

Yeah, I wish!  Mine has about 1000X this much stuff right now!
I started prep work today.  Made 'sweet and spicy pumpkin seeds' that my girl Trudie turned me onto.  Now, I usually don't mix and mingle much with Lady M, but here's the recipe.  My sister loves pumpkin anything.  So, I'm making homemade pumpkin ice cream and will sprinkle the seeds on top.  I think it's going to work well.  And, I did REAL ice cream.  That's right...cream, egg yolks, cooked on the stove. 

Tomorrow, I'll embark on this crazy tradition from Neil's childhood..."white" mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving!  Never in my life!  But luckily Aunt Jennie is bringing her sweet potatoes so the Earth will not fall off its axis.  That reminds me; I'll have to give y'all the recipe for Jennie's S.P.'s.  If our family doesn't have these at Thanksgiving there is a mutiny. Things could get ugly.

So, here it is.  I hope you'll take the time one day to try this recipe.  They are so perfect and I think you'll be glad you tried it out.  And if you're a sweet potato and marshmallow kinda guy/girl, that's ok. Try these on a non-holiday and see what you think.  I think you'll ditch the marshmallows, but that's just me.

  • 3 cups cooked sweet potato
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 stick butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 Tbs frozen orange juice
Mash up your sweet potatoes until they are a nice, smooth puree.  Mix in all this other stuff.  Make the topping:

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1/3 stick butter/margarine
Have the butter at room temp. Blend in the brown sugar and flour; add pecans.  

Spread sweet potatoes in casserole dish.  Spread topping on top.  Bake at 350 until the topping is melty, brown and looks right!

Lamb Chop: Not the Puppet

Can food make a mama proud?  Yes, yes it can.  Lately, my sweet Vivi has been very eager to help in the kitchen, which is something I've waited for.  Even before she arrived on Earth, I always thought about one day having my own little girl and teaching her to cook.  Well, she's here and at 4 1/2, she's very quickly crossed over into "big-girldom."  And, the cool thing is that as long as she helps, she's totally down with trying whatever it is that she just cooked.

A few days ago, some of my beloved Facebook buddies were giving me a hard time about my post:  

Elizabeth Webber Akre It just feels weird driving around with a rack of lamb just laying there in the passenger's seat.

 I got questions like, "Raw or Cooked?", "Seat belt or Booster?"  Then this:

Elizabeth Webber Akre Got the Neilio cooking lamb chops for me and the Vivver.

This prompted comments like:  That's good because the thing has been in your car like 3 days in 70 degree weather. :) I love this one!  Good one, Kat.


Neil wanted to experiment with some different marinades with the idea of serving lamb "lollipops" for the holidays.  He's been mixing up all kinds of spice concoctions and cooking 2-3 rib "racklettes" over the last few days.  Sunday, Viv got involved and helped with the next marinade invention, which of course means she was all about EATING the lamb chops.  Remember, she's 4. I mean, 4 1/2.  I'm so glad she wasn't here to hear that faux pas...I would have been sharply corrected.  


The point of this story, you ask?  That night, we said "What the hell, let's see what happens."  So, we made her a plate of roasted potatoes, collards (her request; I know, right?) and lamb chops. The child ate 3 lamb chops.  Left nothing but shiny bones behind!  Yes, I'm very proud.  I have my baby eating lamb before the age of five.  I think that's quite an accomplishment, frankly.  This is what I've been hoping for; to have an adventurous little eater who loves to cook.  I think I'm on the right road.

Showing off the carnage.  Nothing but the bone left behind!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shrimp Cocktail: What's in a Name?

What's in name?  Sometimes a lot. South Carolina's state dance is The Shag.  Start talking to a Brit about all the people shagging on the dance floor and they'll have a friggin' heart attack.  

Back in the early 70's, my parents went on a business trip to Spain.  I would have liked to have been an adult in the 70's.  First, your company sent you on biz trips to SPAIN.  Everybody had a couple of drinks at lunch and when you got an invitation to a party, you WENT, happily.  Today, a business trip is on your dime to exotic places like Myrtle Beach.  If you order a vodka/tonic at lunch some nosy broad at the table next to you gives you the "oh, great, I'm sitting next to an alcoholic" vibe.  And heaven forbid someone actually invites you to a party.  Life is just so darn busy, in a crummy way, that I certainly can't be bothered with a PARTY.  Inserting fun into my stressful existence can't possibly be the answer!  Ok, sorry, I digress...

So, mom and dad went to Spain and they had a blast.  Dad told everyone that mom was fluent in Spanish (a couple semesters = fluency...NOT) so they slipped away from the others as often as possible to avoid her responsibilities as 'official translator.' On one of these outings, they found a little cafe in a teeny tiny town.  They stopped in for some vino tinto and a bite to eat.  They ordered a shrimp salad-type dish.  I don't know what on Earth it might have been called, so all you Spanish majors, don't ask me.  Anyway, they loved it and upon returning to the States, my mom recreated it to the best of her memory.  It's shrimp, shredded lettuce, pickles or capers, and a 1000 Islandish sauce, and boiled egg.  Whenever she made it, she would serve it in these little cocktail glasses, or I guess maybe they're called parfait glasses.  Little glass bowls elevated on stems.  So, the Webber family referred to it as shrimp cocktail.  And, the confusion begins.

On a trip to Fripp, mom and dad had some big party to go to.  Katherine and I were probably about 8 & 10 at the time, so we decided we'd go to the big dining room on our own.  (In those days, you could let your kids roam free on the island because everyone knew each other).  Mom and dad gave us "the card."  Back then, we just showed people "the card" and we could get food, drinks, stuff, seemingly for free.  Just choose what you want, flash "the card" and walk away.  Nice and easy.  So, we got all dressed up and walked over to the dining room.

Katherine is a big fan of mom's shrimp cocktail, so when she saw it on the menu, she was quite excited.  She placed her order.  But, when it came, we locked eyes.  What was this?  I mean, really, what is it?  The waiter placed a cocktail glass in front of my little sister that was filled with cocktail sauce and had boiled shrimp hanging from the rim of the glass!  I'm sorry, were we not clear?  This is obviously some kind of joke.  So, we just politely employed the procedure we'd seen grown-ups do from time to time and sent it back.  That's right; this isn't what I ordered, take it away!  So, then, we had the manager at the table apologizing profusely and asking what else they could bring.  I'm sure that woman was so baffled about what she was apologizing for. I wonder if she still thinks about that night when she sees a shrimp cocktail.

Anyway, we finished eating whatever else we ordered, flashed "the card" and went on our merry way back to our condo.  When mom and dad came in, we told them all about the crazy mix-up.  How could a restaurant not know what shrimp cocktail was?  Then, mom laid it all out for us.  HER shrimp cocktail was really her version of a Spanish shrimp salad.  We just CALL it cocktail.  

That would have been really good to  know.  

There's no telling how many employees of that dining room and kitchen thought either they had lost their minds or that we were two little uppity kids who didn't know jack about fine dining.  Either way, we still maintain that shrimp cocktail is much more than boiled shrimp hanging from a glass of cocktail sauce (probably really humiliating to the shrimp I would think).  Now, we just know that we have to make the distinction between Mom's Shrimp Cocktail and the rest of the world's Shrimp Cocktail.  Nomenclature!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Girls' Night Out

Neil was out of town for a couple of days this week, leaving us girls to our own devices Wednesday night.  So, we decided to make the most of it.  

We started with a play-date with a little girl who lives around the corner.  Vivian thoroughly inspected each of the kid's toys, banged out a few tunes on their piano, checked out the vermi-composting in the backyard, then we all headed out to the park for some good ol' fashioned playground fun.

Upon returning home, we got ready for our big night out together.  My sweet baby child is a pretty good litte eater.  While I haven't been able to get her to give sushi a try, she LOVES Japanese food.  So, we both had to get dressed up in fancy dresses, Vivian said.  She selected her entire outfit and then adorned her hair with as many bows and do-dads as possible.  She topped off this ensemble with a white faux fur cape, and we hit the road.

Fancy Schmancy

We went to one of those Japanese steakhouses, Sato in Forest Acres.  I knew going in that this particular place is my least favorite in town.  But, it's close to home and on this outing, that was most important.  First off, everyone that we encountered and passed by greatly admired Vivian's most fancy outfit.  She did look really cute, I must say.  We were seated with a family of mom, dad & their 7 year old girl and a couple down at the end.  Everyone seemed intrigued to see how a little kid would act and eat in a place like this.
This is not an actual photo from our dinner (full disclosure)

Well, this ain't Viv's first rodeo. My parents introduced her to Yamato's a couple years ago, so she knows how to handle a pair of kid chopsticks.  By the way, Yamato's blows the doors off Sato.   Vivian's meal consisted of a Shirley Temple, soup, and teriyaki chicken.  The chef showed her how to use her chopsticks to (effectively) eat rice with them.  I was so impressed; the child ate rice with sticks!  I can barely use chopsticks, so this is very exciting to this Mommy.  Anyway, she loved her meal and her big, grown-up Girls' Night Out.  We went home, got in comfy jammies and cuddled up on the couch to watch Food Network until she fell asleep.  

I just wanted you all to know.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Mullaney Salad

As a kid, I was a little weird.  When my friend Christina got glasses, I had to have some.  I carefully began to have trouble reading the blackboard, had increasing trouble seeing my music at piano and generally began to lose my vision.  Come to find out, an optometrist can TELL if you're lying about that stuff.  Then, I saw a teenager with braces...so, I walked around for months with tin foil on my teeth.  One day, in 2nd grade, I saw her.  Coming down the hall was this most majestic creature.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  My mind started racing about all the ways I could go about achieving what this girl had.  It was 3rd grader and she had BROKEN HER LEG.  She had the whole gig going on...white plaster cast, crutches.   This is how I met Mary Beth Mullaney.

Turns out, Mary Beth was the oldest of four Mullaneys.  Steven was next, then Cathleen (same age as my sister) and sweet little Brendan.  These kids and my sister and I would turn into friends and remain so...Steven is married to our former roommate Alyssa, Cathleen and Katherine have been close friends since elementary school and Brendan thought I was the dream girl when he was in high school.  Why is everybody laughing, dammit?

So, what the hell am I trying to tell you people?  It's all about their mom, Fran. Of course, back in those days, she was "Mrs. Mullaney" but we're all mature adults now (at least that's the theory) and we can call her Fran and she'll answer. Fran is a lot of things:  good faithful Catholic, super mom, vacuumer extraordinaire (no, really), philanthropist, athlete, beautiful and she's a damn good cook.  So, to answer your question, what I'm trying to tell you people is about the "Mullaney Salad."

I don't remember how old we were when we got the recipe, but we've been making this for years.  Katherine got it first from Fran and says Fran calls it "garlic salad."  That's a good name; it has so much garlic in it that one time I was accused at work of drinking that morning because of the garlic leaching out of my skin.  That's a true story.  So, for many, many years now, Katherine and I have been making what we call "The Mullaney Salad."  We've taught it to other people as well.  Not sure if my cousin Brooks is making it right now in Hanoi, but I'm pretty darn sure Amy is serving it up in Longmont, Colorado.  

Not only am I going to share it with you, but I had the pleasure of having my sweet little Vivian make it with me the other night.  She was so proud of her Mullaney vinaigrette (I'm teachin' the kid big words, ya see) and lettuce, as you can plainly see from the pix.  So, eat, drink and stink up the joint with this most amazing garlic (Fran) Mullaney Salad!  **Full Disclosure** I don't have Fran's actual recipe anymore, so each time I make this, I have to do "what looks right".  So, these measurements I'm giving you are approximate and you can tweek at will.  

Mullaney Salad
  • 1 head romaine (Fran says you wash your leaves, dry them, wrap them in a towel [like a baby] and put in the fridge.  I must admit, I often skip the lettuce swaddling because I'm impatient)
  • 1-2 tsp minced garlic
  • salt (the coarser, the better)
  • 1/4 red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
  • 3-4 shakes of Worchestershire
  • some pepper
Using the back of a spoon, mash the garlic with the salt. The idea is to use the salt as an abrasive to make the garlic into a paste of sorts.  Then, whisk in the vinegar, mustard, Worchestershire & pepper; whisk in the olive oil last.  Taste it and adjust the flavor as you wish.  Let it sit for awhile as you cook the rest of your meal.

Toss lettuce with vinaigrette, croutons, parmesan, etc.  I like to add toasted pine nuts too.  It's your salad; do what you want.  My sister Katherine thinks it's best to mix up the salad a few minutes before serving because she likes the lettuce a little on the wilty side.  But, again, it's your salad :-)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Weekend of Food

This weekend has shaped up to be a few good days of feasting.  As you know, we hit Virtu on Friday.  Last night, we hooked up with friends at SakiTumi.  And, today was the church covered dish luncheon.  

Saki Tumi (for those of you who aren't here in the fair city of Columbia) is one of many sushi restaurants in the downtown area.  Neil and I particularly like this place because of the location, the atmosphere, and the owner's a nice guy.  We met one my my old friends (I mean, from way back, not old.  Um, nevermind) and her husband to quietly celebrate her 15th 29th birthday.  I won't mention any names, but if you're on Facebook today, you'll probably figure it out.  Neil, who I lovingly refer to as my B-A-C (ball and chain) and I arrived first.  I got a glass of wine and Neil ordered a Red Bull (1) and Sprite, separately.  (Yuck-a-Ducka with a capital Duck).  Once our friends arrived, Neil got another Red Bull (2). I don't know how people can drink that stuff.

Anyway, we shared some edamame & the Drunken Shrimp.  And Neil got a Red Bull (3). I've never really been clear on why they named it Drunken Shrimp.  I love it, but I'm not gettin' the drunken part.  They are nice, big shrimp fried in a very flavorful, seasoned batter and served with what I consider like a curried remoulade-type sauce.  Lots of great flavors, but still not understanding the drunken aspect.  Laurin  I mean, my anonymous birthday friend and I both ordered the shrimp tempura roll.  If you read my post before about sushi, you'll know this is what I always order.  Birthday girl's B-A-C ordered crab cakes and Neilio had the sashimi sampler plate and a Red Bull (4).  I believe it was two types of tuna and salmon.  The USC game was on the big screen, which normally would irritate the fool out of me, but I have to give them credit, it was a big game and a big win.  So, congrats.  There, I said it.  It was a great evening of good food, good friends and good wine and Red Bull.

Why am I keeping you up to speed on the Red Bull?  As I mentioned, I think it's the foulest of funk, but God help him, Neil likes it.  BUT,  once we got home, it caught up with him.  He was a little shaky & revved up and turns out that plate of raw fish wasn't going the distance. So, he ended the evening with a good fridge raid of macaroni and cheese topped with a healthy dose of homemade chili.  Most of you guys are probably nodding your heads about now. Come to think of it I'm betting, no, I'm sure Neil isn't the first guy to have another meal after leaving the sushi joint. 

Today, the church covered dish luncheon was complete with all the required elements:  fried chicken, casseroles a-plenty, deviled eggs (not my cup of tea though), macaroni and cheese & two tables packed with desserts.  The Vivver actually sat in a chair and ATE.  That's right, I saw chicken, macaroni,  and jello go down the hatch. Not sure if any vegetables made the trip, but that's ok every now and then, right? 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

**Restaurant Review**Virtu

Yesterday was Friday and Neil and I had time to go out together, thank you "Parent's Night Out" at Capital Karate.  As you know, restaurants are a high form of entertainment for me, so I was really looking forward to this.  But, I spent the better part of my day agonizing over where we should go. I even reached out via Facebook for suggestions.  Got a few good ones, but just wasn't feeling it.  I checked out countless menus online and finally came across one that interested me AND it was a place that I hadn't heard of yet.  How did this escape my attention?  My razor wit?  My eagle eye surveillance?

Virtu:  Located next to Dianne's on Devine.  Well, that would be the old Grazin' Monkey.  And, as irony would have it, Virtu is also a tapas restaurant, just like the Monkey of days gone by.  But, even though the menu looked fantastic, I left my office unsure.  Why, you ask?  

Over the  years, many places have popped up billing themselves as "Tapas Bars" and it's been disappointing.  See, true tapas is a snack and it's FREE.  That's right.  You go into a bar in Spain, order a drink and they bring you a little plate of their house tapas. Some places switch it up from time to time, some have their own signauture tapas that they serve all the time.  Keep drinking, they keep bringing you little snacks.  So, when America got a hold of this idea and Americanized it, what we got were restaurants serving micro-food with macro-prices.  This led me to my mediocre reaction to the discovery of Virtu, because cynicism crept into my brain and told me, "Don't get excited.  It's just another perversion of the tapas idea and you'll be pissed off about your bill."  Oh, cynicism, you're just so bad...

Ok, I need to speed this up...got home, mentioned a few ideas to Neil, he shot them down, then I casually mentioned this new place.  That's what he wanted.  I pulled up the menu to show him; uninterested in seeing it, we're going.  Ok, then.

Long story short (I know you're relieved), I was really impressed.  It's locally owned & operated, which is a biggie for me and the Neilix.  Our waitress, Nicole, was very professional, attentive, knew the menu and brought her *A* game.  Now, for the food.  We each had the "Three Hearts Caesar Salad" which features hearts of romaine (of course), hearts of palm and hearts of artichoke.  I tend to find that restaurants will tell you there is good stuff like heart of palm and you search and search to no avail for it on the plate.  Not so here.  The salad had a generous portion (but not too much) of palm and artichoke.  The lettuce was prepared the right way...bite size, no wilted or bruised leaves, like it's supposed to be.  The dressing was impressive too.  It contained all the classic flavors of a good Caesar dressing, but wasn't too acidic like some and the salad was properly tossed in it, not drowned in it.  The menu features this salad with tomato...I had mine without.  Success.

Then, we shared tapas.  We chose three...Cuban mojo chicken skewers, crab & artichoke fritters and langoustine ravioli in beurre blanc. The chicken was very flavorful and perfectly tender.  We received three skewers of bite-sized chicken breast and it was plenty for the two of us to share.  The sauce was delicious, the chicken tasted "grilly" and the presentation was very nice.  Success.  The fritters were a test.  So often, I find that fried dishes end up over-fried: too greasy, too hard, too damn fried.  And, again with the cynicism, so often, we get gypped on crab, even though we live in a coastal state where we can catch the little suckers all day long!  So, these fritters were going to be scrutinized.  Surprise!  They were very well cooked, nice deep gold color and the inside was soft and warm and CRABBY!  They were drizzled with a super remoulade sauce, making all the flavors work really well together.  Success.  Lastly, there were the langoustine ravioli.  I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, really outstanding.  The pasta was perfectly cooked and al dente...even fine restaurants have a tendancy to send out rubbery ravioli, in my experience.  Not the case here.  The filling was light and delicately flavored, which was complimented nicely by beautiful beurre blanc with a little bite of citrus.  Success.

I overheard Nicole tell the table behind us that the restaurant has only been open about 9 weeks.  It was a Friday, which is busier anyway, but I was pleased to see the restaurant full and people arrived, ate and more took their places consistently during the time we were there.  This, of course, is a good sign for a new restaurant.  And, if you like to support locals, like we do, this is very encouraging.  

Neil and I will definitely be going to Virtu often.  I recommend it wholeheartedly and would love to hear your comments after you try it out.  Maybe we could all hook up there!
Virtu on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dark Chocolate Takes over the World

I'm fascinated by the impressive marketing turnaround the chocolate industry has pulled on dark chocolate.  I'm 42 years old and for my entire life, the "special dark" Hershey's miniatures have always remained in the bag.  And getting stuck with those in your trick of treat bag?  What a rip-off!  Who ever thought kids wanted to eat dark chocolate?  Call it "special" all day long, it doesn't change things.  Those rejects tasted about as special as when you managed to get your sister to (once again) let her guard down and fall for the classic and timeless trick of all time.  You know, it goes like this...

"Hey Katherine, would you like a 'Chunky'?  I bought some with my allowance."  She eagerly accepts and pops that big ol' hunk of unsweetened baking chocolate into her mouth.  Ahhh, the rest is history!  That pays her back for all the times she's gotten me to chug an ice cold glass of hunky milk.  Yes, she's gotten me to fall for that one mulitple times over the years, I'm sorry to say.  

Anyway, I digress.  So, here we are in the 2000's.  That little French woman declares that all you have to do is eat dark chocolate and you'll be thin, and America fell hook, line and sinker.  Dark chocolate exploded on our chocolate scene.  And, it pretty much still sucked.  But, I'll be the first to admit if I'm wrong or if I've learned something new.  So, here goes.

I noticed before Halloween that Reese's peanut butter cups had introduced a dark one. Once again, I thought,  "Who are these people who think candy lovers like this crap?"  And especially at Halloween, I thought of all those kids who'd end up with those at the bottom of the trick or treat bag.  What a rip-off!  But, I've tried one and lo and behold, they're actually good!  I can't believe I'm saying this, but I believe I actually like the dark one better than the original.  (Blasphemy!)  It's not as sweet, which is what I like I think.  

Peut-etre, si je mange du chocolats noir avec du vin rouge, je serai petits comme les femmes francaises!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Be Alarmed, be VERY Alarmed

So, this morning, I posted on FB about the Keystone Kops in my town.  The fine capital city, Columbia, has the most idiotic police force on the planet.  After dropping Viv off at school, I turned onto Harden Street.  Now, for those of you who aren't from around here, it's a major artery through our college bar & restaurant district called 5 Points.  Here are THREE cop cars stopped in the right lane with blue lights a-plenty.  As I approach, I see that (whew! much to my relief) these fine officers are gathered together on the sidewalk to stare at a dead raccoon.  Thank God that little menace has been stopped once and for all!  And, it took 3 cops to bring him down.  Alert the media, divert traffic, summon the Mayor.  We can all sleep tonight knowing that there will be NO masked bandits in our trashcans as we count our Z's.   (btw: THIS NEVER, EVER FRIGGIN' HAPPENS AROUND HERE UNLESS YOU HAVE YOUR OWN PERSONAL DUMPSTER FULL OF OLD FISH).

So, anyway, after my post, my buddy Trudie replied not only with some comments, but bless her ever-lovin' heart, actually took it upon herself to research and locate a recipe for STUFFED, BAKED RACCOON.  Don't believe me, do you?  Click here, if you dare. 

Of course the holidays are around the corner and we're in a tough economy...I'm just sayin'.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Good Church-goin' Food

Next Sunday, our church has a covered dish luncheon planned.  I have had my mind going all day trying to decide on my contribution.  It's difficult.  My Deep-South raised mind immediately goes to the "classics" like green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, or broccoli casserole.  Even though I know there will several of these from various people of the congregation, it's hard not to want to dive into a big ol' creamy casserole.  If anyone out there is trying to pretend that they don't agree, well, all I can say is "shame on you!"

The classics are classics because everyone loves them.  Some will proclaim it from the mountain-tops, others will covertly admit their casserole love to a trusted friend, some will flat out lie and rebuke the casserole, knowing in their heart that they'd scarf one down in a heartbeat if they could do so undetected, and some (sadly) really don't actually like them.  Those poor souls with the mixed up taste buds!  My late mother-in-law Mimi once told me, "Every good Southern dish begins with a can of Cream of Mushroom."  I told her then and I'll say it now, "Rock on Mimi!"

Ok, having said all that, there's the other side of my brain that starts imagining all the different, creative, maybe even off the wall dishes that I could present to my fellow church-goers and see how adventurous they are (but not too off the wall-it's church with room temperature fried chicken you know) .  After all, we are all good Southern, enlightened and progressive people.  So, I wonder, what would they think of my tarragon/pecan/grape chicken salad in phyllo cups as a little appetizer?  Or that old crazy casserole that my Aunt Dianne used to make every now and then that had carrots and asparagus in it?  Or, what about that sour cream/bacon/green onion potato salad that my father-in-law loves?  Or, what about the brussels sprouts/candied pecan and blue cheese salad? I took that to Orangeburg for Thanksgiving one year and my Uncle John said to his wife, "Look honey, brussels sprouts!  Around here, that's like a foreign food!"

So, I'm looking for opinions and suggestions.  If you were on Death Row and you had a covered dish luncheon to go to for your last meal, what would you want to see on the table?  Ok, maybe that's a bit macabre, but you get my drift.  Speak up!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cran you dig it?

When the weather (finally) gets cooler here in the South, there's a mad dash to create some homey, autumny food.  Especially since we've just endured about 5 months straight of blistering, hot, steamy, humid bliss that we like to call "Splummer".  I wonder if Spring and Summer will ever be two distinct seasons again?  Anyway, it's just not fathomable to consume warm, toasty, brown, orange, red, stewy and homey food until the sweat beads on one's brow have officially retreated for the year. 

 Enter the cranberry...Neil loves cranberry juice. So, I had a pork loin roast in the freezer and decided it was time to create a Fall supper.  I found this recipe online.

My pork loin was only about 2 pounds, so I cooked it for 30 minutes, basting every 10.  Let it rest and it was perfectly cooked.  Paired with wild rice & steamed green beans (as you can see) and I think it was a great cool night supper.  Even though she helped me cook, Vivian proclaimed "I don't care for it," so she ended up with leftover ribeye from the fridge. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lasagna is on Everyone's Mind

Lately, I keep hearing about lasagna.  It's kind of weird, because in everyday life, you might hear about a celebrity, politics, events, etc on a regular basis, but rarely various people you know bringing up lasagna.  Most notably, I keep  hearing about "Crockpot Lasagna."  What the hell is this stuff?  I can't even imagine how it looks, or how you serve it?  But, I'm always willing to learn new tricks...

The first time I heard about it was a month or so ago, some of us were volunteering to make a lunch for the Youth Group at church.  My friend Cindy stepped up with the Crockpot Lasagna.  I was curious, but got preoccupied and forgot to inquire.  Well, fast forward and I saw it come up on Facebook.  Then again.  Then, just the other day, my friend Kathryn posted that she was making it.  So, I had to ask.  Apparently, the recipe is right there on Oprah's website.  And, thankfully for me, a photo.  

All this brings me to my own latest lasagna experience.  I was looking around the kitchen for what I had on hand and what I could do with it.  I know the Vivver likes lasagna, so I decided to "guinea pig" her with a vegetable version.  I'm pleased to report that my sweet little veggie lovin' pumpkin pie loved it. She ate a good dinner and asked to take some the next day in her stylish Hello Kitty lunchbox.  This is why I cook!

Here's how I did it this time:
  • 9 lasagna noodles (cooked, rinsed & placed back in pot covered w/cold water)
  • 3 large carrots
  • 3 medium yellow squash
  • 1 10 oz. box frozen chopped spinach (thawed & squeezed dry)
  • 1 container ricotta
  • 1/4 cup parmesan
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1 cup warmed milk
  • mozzarella
  • sauce
I'm not the most rigid measurer, so use your judgment!  Ok, so, I used my mandolin to slice the carrots & squash at 1/4".  I tossed the squash with salt, pepper & a little olive oil, spread on a cookie sheet and baked at 350 for about 10 minutes just to pre-cook them.  Similarly, I steamed the carrots for about 5 minutes to soften a bit.

Sauteed the garlic in 1 Tbsp olive oil with the crushed red pepper.  Then, slowly mixed in the flour (basically  making a roux). Gradually whisk in the warm milk.  Remove from heat and add in the ricotta, 1/4 cup parmesan & spinach; mix well.  Set aside.

For convenience's sake, I used a jarred sauce that I had in the pantry.  Spread a little on the bottom of your lasagna pan. Place 3 noodles on top.  Spread with about 1/2 of the spinach mixture, layer of squash, some mozzarella, layer of sauce.  Then, 3 more noodles, the rest of the spinach mixture, carrots, mozzarella, layer of sauce.  Finally, 3 more noodles, layer of sauce, mozzarella and parmesan on top.  

Cover tightly with foil, and bake at 350 or 375 for about 30 minutes.  Uncover & bake about 10 minutes or so until cheese is bubbly & just starting to get golden.  Basically, until it looks good to you!  I always let mine sit for about 15 minutes to "set up" before trying to cut into it.  You'll get better looking pieces that hold together better.

I have to admit, I'm curious now about this crockpot recipe.  The photo convinced me!  So, until next time,  Mangiare, bere e divertirsi!  (If you want to know what this says, go here)

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Kitchen Sink" Fried Rice

Making fried rice at home is the most efficient, and delicious, way to use leftover meats or vegetables that need to be used up before the rot monster gets them.  Plus, it's always so much better when you make it yourself.  I tend to make what we'll call Kitchen Sink rice because I'll throw in whatever I have that sounds good to me.  Which leads me to this evening...

Our dinner tonight was fried rice with shrimp, scallion-scrambled egg, baby corn, carrots, onions, bamboo shoots and a chiffonade of spinach added at the last minute.  It's kind of like pizza (see "The World's Most Perfect Food").  All the food groups (can) be represented.  In tonight's version, we had grain, dairy protein, lean seafood protein and vegetables.  Sounds pretty perfect to me.  And, when a 4 year old says, "Mommy, it smells like Chinese food" and then later "I love it!  You're the best cooker in the world!" then you know you're on to something.

Make a pot of rice in advance (2 cups of water, 1 cup of rice, 20 minutes, you know).  If you can make it a day ahead, it's even better.  If you need to make it same day, cook it as early as possible. Fluff it up with a fork to get some air moving around and stick it in the fridge.  You want it to dry out and let the grains become separate.  Have all your ingredients cut and ready to go, then...let the games begin!

I first scrambled one egg (and some egg beaters that I needed to use up) with scallions.  Now, y'all know scallions are green onions, which are not the same as shallots!  Remove from the wok & set aside.  Next, I stir fried the onion and carrots.  As the carrots began to soften, I added minced garlic and all the other vegetables, except the spinach.  Remove from wok & set aside.

I took a handful of shrimp (how ever much you want) and cut them in half lengthwise.  I stir fried them next.  Remove and set aside.  I added a little vegetable oil here and when it was  hot, I stir fried the rice.  Again, try to get it cooked and dried out a little.  Keep an eye on it and do it until it looks right.  Then, add all your stuff back in.  Drizzle soy sauce over (as much as you like) and sprinkle with ground ginger...oh, that smells heavenly!  Lastly, I stirred in the sliced spinach and mixed in, just to wilt it.  Then, we ate the heck out of it!

The other extremely cool thing about making your own fried rice is how ridiculously easy it is.  Make a pot of rice tonight, stick it in the fridge, & whip it up tomorrow when you get home from work.  The possibilities are endless and don't forget, if you're really in a pinch, use frozen or canned peas and carrots or asparagus, or broccoli...you see where I'm going with this.  

BTW-As you know, I am a cookbook junkie. If you enjoy rice, you may want to seek this one out.  It covers Asia, India, Middle East, Italy, America...the whole planet as it relates to rice.  Risotto is not to be feared!  It's crazy easy.  Indian Biryani at home?  Absolutely!  If you can read, you can cook. 


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