Friday, December 30, 2011

The Juicy Lucy

I love Food Network.  I don't think we go through one single day without watching something on it.  My daughter recognizes chefs by name and just the other night proclaimed who was going to be chopped because his dish wasn't "balanced."  I swear she said that; Neil and I almost fell out!

I think it was Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives where I saw a piece about 2 restaurants in Minneapolis that battle over who serves the Original Juicy Lucy burger.  The Juicy Lucy is a burger with tons of ooey, gooey, American cheese oozing out from the inside of the patty.  Interestingly, Neil lived in the twin cities area for many years and he's never heard of this phenomenon.  Nonetheless, we have been destined to try one.

The J.L. isn't difficult to make, but there are a couple of details that I think are important.  They are as follows:
  • REAL CHEESE.  I shouldn't have to put this in all caps, but the American public has been duped by marketing execs for decades.  Kraft Singles are NOT real cheese.  Real the package.  Don't buy anything that is called cheese food, cheese product, cheese thingie.  It should simply say American Cheese.
  • Kosher salt and a good, healthy dose of it.  You have to season meat.  Period.  Don't believe me?  Watch Food Network.  You'll see more people get their asses handed to them because they failed to just add some salt to the meat.  
  • Technique.  Practice makes perfect.  The key here is to seal the patties together really well so you don't have any cheese rupture toward the end of cooking.  You want all that gooeyness to stay inside where it belongs.
  • The right meat.  You can't get a good, juicy hamburger that holds together well from 90/10 meat.  It's gotta have some fat in it to bind it and to flavor it.  If you want to make burgers for dinner, buy the meat that day and cook them fresh.  You'll notice the difference for sure.


Measuring out what we need
Divide into two thin patties, stuff and put back together
Cook 'em up old school in cast iron
Viola!  Final product
So, our Juicy Lucy's were a great success!  The little one gave it her signature "10-thumbs up."  Neil hardly said a word as he was busy devouring his and I've changed out of my jeans and into yoga pants! You know what I'm sayin'. 

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

All ham is not created equal

Here in the South, we like pork.  We grow up eating pork chops, ham, ribs, BBQ (all year long!), bacon and sausage of all varieties.  Most people in other parts of the country are familiar with these pork preparations too, but there's one thing that you can only get here.  Country ham.  It's different.  In a good way.  It's Southern.  



I first realized that not everyone gets the ham thing when I was in Colorado one time.  Hardee's is a Southern-based fast food chain that has been serving breakfast biscuits since about the time I was 8 or 9.  When my sister moved out to CO, she was surprised to find a Hardee's in Fort Collins.  When I visited, we decided to swing by for a biscuit.  Of course, I ordered my old stand-by, the ham biscuit.  I unwrapped the biscuit and exclaimed, "What the hell is this??"  It was a beautiful Hardee's biscuit filled with sliced, pink, DELI ham.  I thought, "OMG, they mixed up my biscuit with a hot ham 'n cheese!"  But, then my sister looked at me, almost apologetically and said, "Oh yeah.  They don't get the whole country ham thing here."  

***SCREECH***  They don't get it?  What's to get?  Ham biscuits are made with country ham.  Period.  End of story.  Deli ham on a biscuit?  It's an abomination, that's what it is.

If you're unfamiliar, country ham is a style of curing.   A whole ham is smoked and salt cured, sometimes up to 3 years before being packaged in a cloth sack and hung up in your butcher shop.  It's a big ham too; the whole enchilada.  Picture all those European cooking scenes with sausage links, hams and upside down chickens hanging around the butcher shop.  

Most people seem to always think of country ham & red-eye gravy.  But it's also good just warmed up in a skillet and served with eggs, grits, toast, etc.  And of course, on biscuits. In fact, down here, it's not uncommon to find little mini ham biscuits at even the  most formal bridal showers or other elegant affairs.  But here's a tip:  remember that scene in the American President when Prez Shepard sends Sidney that Virginia ham?  Bad idea.  You can't cut up a whole country ham at home.  Unless you keep a table saw in your kitchen.  

Why am I telling you this, you must surely be wondering?  Last year, my sister and her husband received a whole country ham at Christmas from a friend.  They stared at it.  And stared at it.  They wielded knives at it but then thought better of it.  Hmmm.  What to do?  They bought an electric knife.  That helped.  Little by little, they sawed away at this big boy and finally the last of the country ham had been cut and happily consumed.  Then, just a few days ago, <<Ding Dong>> the doorbell rang.  There at the door was a cheerful delivery man holding that familiar cloth sack with you-know-what-inside.  
So, long story short...you're still awake, right?  At the end of our Christmas weekend, our parents transported that big lump of yumminess back to Columbia.  They found a butcher who sliced the entire thing  for FREE.  Free is oh-so-good.  So, now, we all have delectable country ham ready for immediate use!  

Now even though I've gone down my Southern road in this post, I'm not going to talk to you about old standards like biscuits or red-eye gravy.  Instead, I want to share with you one of our favorite recipes from my Dad.  He originally got this from a magazine that featured a recipe from a restaurant in Charleston.  Over the years, we've all tweaked it a little and since that restaurant isn't around anymore, I think we can claim it as our own now.  

Dad's Kiwi Shrimp
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 1/2 oz country ham (if you don't have the real deal, you can use proscuito
  • 1/3 chopped shallot (remember these are not scallions, which is another name for green onion)
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 lb shrimp (peeled and deveined of course,  duh!)
  • 2 med. kiwis, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup cream  (don't rob yourself by using milk here)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp pepper
Heat oil over high heat.  Saute ham, shallots & red pepper for about 30 seconds.  Add wine & boil until reduced by half (about 2-3 minutes)

Add shrimp, kiwi and cream.  Reduce heat to med. low.  Cook shrimp until they are pink and remove them from the skillet.  Boil the sauce 2 1/2 to 3 minutes.  Add shrimp back in, salt & pepper.  Serve over rice.



Lick your lips and smack Loretta; 
this is some good damn eatin'

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Asheville Eats

I hope this post finds you all well and happy after celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah.  I'm sure everyone has had their fill of other people's holiday tweets, Facebook posts and photo sharing, so I'm not going to do that to you.

Instead, I want to tell you about a little restaurant we checked out while in Asheville over the holiday.   My sister Katherine took us to Universal Joint.  What a cool, cute, funky little place!  It's totally got the kind of vibe that gets me and Neil going.  It's an old gas station building that has been turned into a local microbrew and sandwich shop.  There are photos of what the place looked like in the old days as a gas station and the garage's roll-up doors are still in place.  The garage contains a bar, tables and displays a chalkboard with a pretty extensive list of microbeers.  We chose to eat in the garage.  There is also outdoor seating available.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Better Not Quit My Day Job

I've baked off and on my whole life.  But, in recent years, things haven't been going so well.  I've concluded that I would flunk out of pastry chef school on the first day.  If I had to roll out dough for a living, I'd be living without any dough ($).  Is it this annoying rolling pin that always sticks no matter what I do?  Is it the temperature in my house?  Is it bad luck?  Is it just me?

The wunderkind decided that this year, Santa needed gingerbread men instead of a traditional cookie.  I have been nervous about this project.  Hey!  Maybe that's it; psyching myself into failure?  Last night, I dreamed about having to roll gingerbread dough.  So, bright and early I got my gingerbread baker hat on.  Needless to say, it's been a stressful and trying endeavor. Just like I thought it would be.

I chilled the dough for 2 hours, just like the recipe said.  Time to roll it out and then freeze it...this dough is sticky, soft, not really like a cookie dough at all.  Then, there's my <bleep> rolling pin with gingerbread goo stuck all over it.  I improvise with a plastic cylinder sprayed with Pam.  I got it rolled out into a thin sheet, but it wasn't pretty.  Then, after the 20  minutes in the freezer, separating it from the parchment paper was quite a feat.  Took me and Neil together.  And, as we all know, the purpose of parchment is that stuff doesn't stick to it. 

So, we managed to get 4 gingerbread men into the oven.  They look like they are supposed to; a Christmas miracle!  

Yeah, we decorate cookies in our bikinis...what of it?
R) my cookie  L) Viv's Santa cookie
The Miraculous Gingerbread Men

But, the remainder of the dough in the fridge is weighing heavy on my mind.  Should I bolster myself to fight with this dough again and crank out as many little men as possible?  Or, assume that Santa doesn't need more than 4 gingerbread men and just call it a day?  And, before someone tells me that Martha Stewart has a good, easy recipe let me say this:  I officially loathe M.S.  but I DID go to her site and used this recipe.  Damn, maybe it IS just me.  

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Peas in a Pod

Our friend "Scarby" shares my opinion that soup is very UNDER-rated.  I think people think since it's liquid and in a bowl that it can't be filling or satisfying.  It's a shame because they are so wrong and really missing out.  

There is one soup that goes largely ignored.  Then, when it does catch one's attention, it often receives a bad rap.  I'm referring to the "lowly" split pea soup.  It just so happens that this is one that Neil and I both absolutely love.  Yesterday just seemed like the right kind of day for a big pot of soup.  So, I pulled out the crockpot first thing in the morning and got busy.

By 6:00 we had a big, steamy, gorgeous pot of soup for supper.  This was Viv's first time with split pea and I'm happy to report that it got a thumbs up from our resident mini-gourmet.  Neil and I were so pleased with it that we were already discussing making more to keep in the freezer.  Today, Neil was bitterly disappointed at how little we had left over from last night. I have to admit:  it was damn good.  I should have called Scarby and offered him some, but I was greedy and kept it all for us.  But, in the spirit of Christmas, I type this entry in order to share it with him!  

If you're interested, here's what I did:

1 lb split peas, sorted and rinsed
2 cups of chopped ham
3 carrots, chopped 
1/2 chopped onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 Tbs seasoned salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 1/2 quarts water

Layer the ingredients in this order in the crockpot.  Don't stir it up.  Slowly add the water.  Don't stir it up!  Cook on low for 8 hours.  Remove the bay leaf and dig in.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Delucca's: New and Improved

Small, family run, "holes in the wall" are some of my favorite types of eateries.  You may have read my post about Delucca's before.  Today, it's time for an update.


First, they've moved.  They've gone down Hwy 378 closer in to Columbia and are in that little strip center right next to the entrance of the Riverbanks Zoo's Botanical Garden.  Second, it's a newer shopping center than the previous one and they've been able to get a larger space.  There are actually two dining rooms now.  They still have the same dark red & gold color scheme, but everything is new and fresh.  Third, Brenda still works there, but we didn't get to see her today.


Delucca's new location certainly indicates that they are ramping things up a notch.  It has the feel of an upscale restaurant now as opposed to the cozy familiarity of the previous location.  I can only assume that means they are enjoying success and I'm happy about that, to be sure.  My only concern is that they have done away with their lunch menu.  I've only eaten at Delucca's for lunch and each time I've been there, the restaurant has been full.  Now, the only items that fall within what I consider an acceptable lunch price range is the pizza, paninis and wraps.  I just cannot and will not allow myself to order a $14 pasta for lunch.  And this is a shame, because their pastas and chicken with risotto and awesome dishes but I guess I won't be having them as lunch anymore. I hope making this change doesn't chase off their former booming lunch business.


But, back to the food.  My dad DID bite the bullet and order pasta. It was the penne with roasted vegetables and meatballs. 

Sorry this is kinda blurry

 His comments were that the meatballs were tasty and there were plenty of them.  The vegetables were well-cooked and he enjoyed it.  But, he made the same comment about the price for a lunch time order.  Mom ordered lasagna.  This is probably her favorite dish on Earth;  well, 2nd favorite.  The woman is a fool for turkey & dressing.  She said today it was "ok."  It has been better in the past. Well, we all have our days.

Beef lasagna


Vivian and I split a 12" pizza.  I was glad that Viv suggested it because I've never gotten around to trying their pizza before.  We got off easiest on the price.  We ordered 1/2 cheese for Viv and 1/2 pepperoni for me and we rang in at $7.50.  

That's just beautiful
This is good pizza, folks, and if you know anything about me at all, you know I am a pizza aficianada.  The crust is homemade and you can taste it.  The sauce was light yet full of flavor.  Some pizza sauces end up feeling heavier than the actual pie, but not this one. I can only assume it's made in-house because it was so fresh tasting.  The cheese is outta sight.  Very creamy, milky mozzarella and they don't skimp on it.  Pepperoni is pepperoni and is perfect any way you slice it.  Definitely will indulge in this pizza again!


Lastly, I'm going backwards to salad.  Mom, dad and I all had a caesar salad. 

Homemade croutons make me smile
I've always loved Delucca's caesar, but today was exceptional.  The romaine was so crisp and delicious, the homemade croutons were wonderful as usual and they serve their yummy dressing on the side.  Too many restaurants don't understand the caesar and drown it in dressing, completely ruining the whole thing.  I trust that the Delucca's folks would properly dress my salad, but I like that they give the customer the responsibility to dress to their liking.  I just think it's a really great caesar salad.


So, to recap:  Delucca's is in a new, larger location.  Lunch menu is gone.  Pizza and caesar salad are money.  Check them out, if you haven't already found them.
Delucca's Italian Grill and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Just in the (St.) Nick of time!

This past Saturday was my Sunday school class party.  As usual, I pondered for a couple weeks what would be my dish of choice.  I tend to be a last minute kinda girl.  I always know that I'll have a great idea, whip it up that day and take it along.  Only this Saturday, I miscalculated.  Big time.

I was working a special event at K.D.'s Treehouse.  Santa was there.  There was a jump castle, face painting, book signings, arts and crafts and of course, shopping in the store.  All of a sudden, it dawned on me that I had failed to make a decision and hit the grocery store that morning, as I had planned.  So, my mind went into overtime/panic/oh crap! mode.  Then it hit me.  An easy as pie little hors d'oeuvres that my parents taught me many years ago.

So, I grabbed the red phone and made an emergency call to Neil.  I gave him the list.  Told him "Go, go, go!  Meet me at home.  And hurry, man!"  

I beat him home, so I got a giant pot of water on the stove.  Just finished changing clothes when he arrived.  Placed two bags of tiny red potatoes in the boiling water.  Cooled with cold water.  Waited a little bit; had a glass of wine.  Then, the assembly line started.  I was actually pretty proud of how efficient the two of us were in cranking out our little hors d'oeuvres. 

**So what am I talking about?** 

What the heck are those things?


New potatoes with a shallow hollow made in the middle, sour cream and topped with black caviar.  Inexpensive, easy to make and (thank goodness) can be made REALLY quick.  We managed to get all this done and still get to the party on time.  So, next challenge is this:  what if everyone hates them?  Well, one friend told me that she'd never had caviar before but tried it and liked it.  Interestingly, her major obstacle was the sour cream, but she determined that she actually liked it combined with the salty roe.  At the end of the evening, she told me she'd eaten 8 of them.  I had a few other people tell me that they hadn't had caviar before either.  They were amazed to know that you can buy it at Publix and it's not expensive. At the end of the night all we brought home was an empty platter.

BTW:  this is a fantastic accompaniment to a whole smoked salmon (or whatever smoked fish you prefer.)  Try it!  You'll like it!  




Monday, December 5, 2011

Fox Field...Wow, not so sure

Neil and I are very passionate about locally owned businesses, especially restaurants.  We seek out mom 'n pop joints, holes in the wall, the stuff that Guy Fieri looks for.  So, a few months ago, when our friend Kathy moved Utopia down the street, a new establishment moved into her old space.  Fox Field Neighborhood Bar and Grille.  Since they've been there, I've been observing and asking around.  Here's what I learned up until now:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

When Life Gives you Lemons...

...you thank the citrus gods!  While in Florida, we scored big.  And I mean BIG.  Aunt Kathy has a friend who keeps her flush with fresh produce.  Including about 4 buckets of fresh lemons that I spied in her mud room.  Here's me:  "Hey Aunt Kathy, whatcha gonna do with all those lemons?" I said innocently.  Well, you guessed it.  A bucket of lemons made the trip back to SC.

But, don't be fooled my friends.  Don't feel all blase about my lemon score. You guys haven't seen lemons like these.  They are monsters!  But, in a good way.  Check this out:
I am lemonator...you are tiny golf girlie man

As a teenager, I came across a recipe for lemon squares.  From that point forward, my family expected me to make these for every Christmas, every party, etc.  I loved doing it because I loved the fact that they all loved my lemon squares. Then, I went away to college and kind of forgot about my sweet little yellow babies.  Yet, here I am today staring at these enormous Florida lemons and it all came rushing back to me.

You can surely guess what ensued.  The funny thing is that the lemon square needs 2 Tbs of lemon zest, which most recipes will tell you will require about 2 lemons.  Also, you need 1/2 cup of juice, which most recipes will tell you requires about 6 lemons.  Not so Chez Akre. I needed but ONE of Aunt Kathy's to satisfy both of these ingredient needs.  I'm tellin' ya... these are some damn big lemons people! 

In cooling mode

Finished product with a dusting of powdered sugar
And, to make matters even better, I still have more lemons.  Even so, I'm thinking of calling Kathy to see if she can FedEx me some more.  I can make lemon squares for gifts!  Homemade lemon curd.  Lemon meringue pie.  Lemon sorbet.  And, oh yes, if life gives me lemons, I can make lemonade.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanksgiving Tapas

Holidays.  Some people look forward to them all year, some dread them.  Some holiday gatherings go off without a hitch, some not.  Sometimes you have everyone together, sometimes not.  Sometimes people are missing. Sometimes you wish they were (ha ha.  But we all know it's true!)

When it comes to family gatherings, I have it easier than Neil.  My parents are here, my sister is 2 1/2 hours away, my aunt is 1 1/2 hours away and my uncle is about 45 minutes away.  We do have Neil's dad and Glenda (his long-time sweetie who I consider my mother-in-law) here in Columbia, but his brother is in Minnesota, and his younger brother and sister are in Florida.  Sadly, Neil's mom, Mimi, died about 2 weeks after we were engaged and his step-dad died just a few years ago.  

I think we all grow up with that "cool" aunt, uncle or cousin that is special and influential in our lives.  Well, that's where Aunt Kathy comes in!  Kathy is Mimi's younger sister and is the 2nd family member (after Mimi) that I was ever introduced to.  She is Neil's "Cool Aunt Kathy."  

Neil & his cool Aunt Kathy
Even before we met, I heard many stories about her and it was clear that she made a huge difference in Neil's life.  I couldn't wait to meet her.  (That was 1997.)  We've had many opportunities to spend time together since that initial meeting, but since the Wunderkind landed on Planet Earth, none.  So, this Thanksgiving, it was off to Aunt Kathy's we went!

Me and Marisa
The synopsis is this:  Neil and I both were ecstatic to spend time with Kathy and her daughter (Neil's cousin, Marisa) but even more to introduce them to Viv.  We are so proud of her, as you can imagine, but just to share more family with her was priceless.  She's only 5, but she was so interested and intrigued about learning more about her family and hearing the stories and getting to know more on her own.  It was truly a great holiday on so many levels.  

Okay, so you're wondering if I'm ever going to talk about food, right? Well, yes, yes I am.  We did the usual suspects for T-Day.  Neil was turkey maestro, I made Aunt Jennie's sweet potatoes, Marisa made green bean casserole and Kathy introduced me and Viv to Nana's "stewed corn."  It was a wonderful feast...so much so it sent Neil to an early slumber!  But my favorite part was the next day.


We indulged in leftovers for lunch but when evening rolled around, we went my favorite route of all time...SNACKS!  I'm not talking about Bugles and french onion dip.  No, no.  Real snackin' Akre style!  Aunt Kathy grilled the most amazing sweet peppers, apple/chicken sausages, smoked venison sausage, asparagus and scallions.  We dipped into spicy hummus, speared black pepper/white cheddar with picks and scooped up hunks of beautiful blue cheese.  

This is the smoked venison sausage

Chicken/apple sausage & beautiful pepper in background

Check the color...and these peppers were actually sweet!

Jalapenos, spicy hummus & blue cheese...oh my!
Of course, we had all of this accompanied by the appropriate wines, mixed concoctions and Viv's special "kid cocktails" which were various fruit juices with club soda in fancy glasses.  
Uh huh...I'm in Kindergarten now. I deserve a "kid cocktail"

Who said club soda was boring?
 


Our trip was fantastic for so many reasons.  Neil was able to show off Gainesville and some of its attractions and places of memory to his little one. We had a great Thanksgiving feast.  But most of all, we spent several days with family who we don't get to see often enough, teach our baby about more of her heritage and enjoy each other's company.  I hope your holiday was as fulfilling and rich as ours.  Time and family are both so precious.


Two beautiful ladies!

So happy to see these girls for Thanksgiving!

Me and Aunt Kathy
My little family unit




Saturday, November 19, 2011

Chop Chop!

We are fans of "the other white meat" around here.  Recently, I went shopping and had boneless pork chops on my list because they were on sale.  I bought a pack that contained about a dozen chops.  When I got home, I looked closer at the label and realized that they had been mismarked as "country style ribs."  This is significant because the ribs were about $2.00 less per pound.  Nice little accidental score!

Yesterday we had some cold weather again.  Last week we were wearing shorts, but now it's more November-like.  So, I wanted to cook something kind of homey.  I went to my old, well-worn Weight Watchers cookbooks. 


These are some of the best cookbooks that I own.  The recipes are excellent, they always work and they've been made healthier by the good people at WW.  This recipe comes from the book Simple Goodness.

Oven "fried" Pork Chops
  • 4 (6oz) lean pork chops
  • 2 Tbs pineapple juice (or lemon, orange, whatever you have available works)
  • 1 Tbs soy sauce
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/4 tsp dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • dash of garlic powder
Heat the oven to 350.  Trim the fat from the chops.

Combine juice and next 4 ingredients in bowl; stir well.  Combine bread crumbs, Italian seasoning, paprika and garlic powder in a shallow dish; stir well.

Dip the chops in the juice mixture and dredge in the crumb mixture.  Place on a broiler pan coated with cooking spray.  Spray the tops of the chops as well.  Bake at 350 for about 40-45 minutes.  Let them rest about 5 minutes before digging in.  



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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Forget Take-out!

I may have told y'all this before, but I'm a very ethnic eater.  I have to have variety or I lose my mind.  I'm glad that I'm this way because it has always lead me to try new dishes and new cuisines.  So far, the only cuisine I've determined that I can live without is Jamaican.  I've tried it numerous times; Neil loves it.  But, since I'm not a goat fan and I'm not crazy about chicken with bones in it, Jamaican doesn't have much to offer me.  But, put Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, French, Italian, Greek or Chinese in front of me and I'm one happy little food fan.  Last night, we decided to have Chinese...home cooked Chinese, that is.

I pulled out another of my old tried and true cookbooks, aptly titled The Complete Chinese Cookbook.  

Release your inner dragon
This is another one that I think I bought off of that traveling cookbook saleswoman back in the early 90's.  I love it because it's full of workable recipes that taste just like authentic "American-Chinese."  Since I'd just gotten a great deal on boneless pork chops, I zeroed in on the sweet & sour pork recipe.  

My handy dandy Williams Sonoma cookbook stand

 It's been ages since I've made it, but I remember how awesome it was.  So, there you have it.

This dish is exactly like what you get in a restaurant except it's better because it's being made at home with fresh ingredients.  You make a simple batter and fry the pork in the wok.  There is a good bit of corn starch in the batter, so the pork stays nice and crisp and stands up well to the sauce.  Stir-fry bell peppers, onions and pineapple then make the beautiful clear red sauce.  It's fantastic.  And it's gets a thumbs up from the little gourmet too.

Prep work


A little blurry...we were in a hurry to eat it!

 Now, here's something that you will either identify with me and understand, or you'll think I've lost it.  After this morning's soccer game, we returned home.  As I opened the door and stepped across the threshold, guess what?  It hit me.  My house smells like a Chinese restaurant!  And I think that's awesome.  Like I said, some of you may love that smell that I'm talking about or you might be wrinkling up your nose and saying something like "What the...?"  All day, I've left and come back just so I could get that Chinese waft as I entered the house.  

      美味
Per Google, this means delicious!

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Snacking with Soul

Send me to the grocery store and I'm armed with a specific list, a fistful of coupons and a pit bull will to pay as little as possible.  Send Neil, or most men, and they will return with whatever you asked for (most of the time!) and anything else that caught their eye.  That's how Palmetto Cheese ended up in our house.

It has soul indeed!


For those of you not from South Carolina, this is a SC product that we all love.  It's pimento cheese but much more special than that.  It's made with real cheese, real mayo, real pimento, by real people.  It comes out of Pawley's Island and we're proud to eat it, serve it at parties and claim it as our own.  But, Palmetto Cheese isn't cheap.  Don't get me wrong; it's not outrageously expensive but it's pricey.  So, I stop and look at it in the store, but then my coupon-psycho brain kicks in and talks me out of buying it.  

Delightfully, Neil ended up at Publix. He saw, he bought, he brought home.  While at first I looked at it and said to myself, "OMG, I can't believe he bought this!" I was secretly jumping for joy because I haven't had it in so long!  He chose the Palmetto Cheese with bacon. Highly recommended.  I've been snacking on it with pretzels.  Neil has varied his morsels this afternoon.  First, he started with a small spoon.  At the time of this post, he's using one of our home-grown jalepenos as a "cracker" and just topping it with the cheese.  I'm looking at him now...he looks like one happy little snacker.

If you haven't tried Palmetto Cheese, you should.  If you're a man, head on over to the grocery.  If you're a frugal woman, like me, send your husband.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Zucchini+Broiler=
Epic Win



I love squash.  Yellow,zucchini, acorn, butternut.  Spaghetti squash kinda freaks me out though, so there's one exception.  My dad always grew squash in our garden and I know how to cook it in various ways.  So imagine my surprise, all those years ago, to meet Neil and learn that he's not crazy about squash.  What the...?  How can you not like squash?

Well, turns out, if you grow up eating squash boiled to within an inch of its life, you don't really like squash when you grow up.

 So, over the years, I've occasionally tried out different preparations on him.  Some have gone over well. But some not so much...you turn your back on it and it'll soften up and get mushy in a heartbeat.  But, I keep trying because I love it and because it's good for us.  

As I planned dinner tonight, I was thinking green beans.  But we had green beans yesterday, which could very well get the "Day 2 Rejection" by the wunderkind.  Then I remembered the zucchini in the fridge. Hmmm.  What to do, what to do?  As I contemplated how to make tasty, non-mushy zukes, a thunderbolt hit me.  THE BROILER.  Yes, it's been staring me in the face all this time.  And the idea was formulated.

So, I sliced them kind of thick (this also slows down the mush time factor).  I placed them on the broiler pan and sprayed with Pam.  Broiled for a few, then flipped and sprinkled each slice with some parmesan.  Broily, broily and voila!  They looked acceptable.  Would they pass the test?  Well, test(s) really.  They had to make it past Neil and the wunderkind, who up until this point has been 50/50 on squash.  

I always make Viv's plate first so it can start cooling.  Before I'd finished making mine and Neil's, she was asking for more zucchini. ((What!/!))  Then, completely unsolicited, she said to me, 

"Mommy, these zucchini are great. I really like them.  And I like the way you put the cheese on top; it's kinda crunchy."

Wow!  What an endorsement.  Then, to top it all off, I sat across the table from my (tomorrow) Birthday Man and watched him polish off ALL of his zucchini and he looked happy about it.  This is what success feels like, my friends.  I have uncovered the secret to squash that my husband can enjoy.  As cliche as it is, this was an "epic" win.  Oh yeah, the cubed steak, rice and homemade gravy went over well too ;-)

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Winter Shelter

Well, winter time is creeping up on us here in the capital city.  We're reaching into our closets finding our fleeces and coats, hat and scarves and breaking out the Danskos.  Like most cities, I guess even small towns too, Columbia has a homeless community.  My church houses the Soup Cellar:  with the help of volunteers from other churches, the Cellar manages to feed about 200 people a day Monday-Friday.  But, we don't have a shelter.  

The City of Columbia runs a Winter Shelter during the cold months.  Our former Associate Minister is very involved in coordinating volunteers to staff the shelter.  It opens in the evening and provides a warm bed for the night.  They do their best to feed the folks a meal, but have to rely mainly on donations.  Last year, my parents began working at the shelter every Tuesday night.  My mom feels very strongly that no one should be hungry, so stepping up to help was right up her alley.  We put our heads together last winter and reached out to some caterers that we know.  After they cater an event, they can't re-sell or re-serve the leftovers.  Many of them have had to dispose of tons of food and it kills them to do it.  So, we took it off their hands.  It was such an awesome blessing to be able to provide BBQ or rice or leftover vegetables turned into a soup.  

Last night was the "opening night," if you will, of the Winter Shelter.  Mom and Dad and their fellow Tuesday nighters got together and planned a hot dog supper.  So, yesterday afternoon, I stopped by their house to find mom cooking up batches of hot dog chili.  

I asked what I could do to help and she said, "how about shred the cabbage for the cole slaw?"  Ok, sure.  These were no average cabbages, friends.  One of them weighed 4 lbs. and the other a mere 6 lbs.  I think that green leafy globe was bigger than my head.  Uhhh...how exactly do I go about shredding these giants?

Ok, food processor.  After realizing that I had the julienne blade upside down, things got easier! But despite using this wonderful tool, it was still an insane mess.  I have never seen so much cole slaw fixin's in my life.  




Last night I got a call that "my" cole slaw was a huge hit and was completely devoured.  They ran out of hot dog buns, so the creativity kicked in and they first went to hamburger buns then on to bread for a hot dog "wrap."  I could tell from mom's voice that it was a rewarding evening getting about 100 people in out of the cold weather and getting a meal in their stomachs. And, one of the folks who came in is an old acquaintance of ours.  He worked as a handyman when we met him.  Apparently, he got very sick and is now down on his luck.  I tell you this because it is a reminder to us all that when we see homeless people at the shelter, or at the Soup Cellar or catching some z's in a doorway, remember they are people.  They are handymen, single moms, people on disability with all sorts of circumstances that have left them down on their luck.  In today's economic mess, it makes me wonder how quickly anyone could have the bottom fall out.  


Count your blessings, hug your family and donate your time or money when you can.  If you're interested in helping at the Winter Shelter, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the right people.  Tonight I'll be thanking God for my warm bed and the hot meal that I was able to serve to my family.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Oodles of Noodles

No, no, not that kind!  Although I will admit ramen does have its place in the world every now and then.  I'm talking about the real thing.  My little one loves Chinese noodles.  And I love that about her.  The only problem with ordering from our neighborhood Chinese take-out place is having to (slightly) deconstruct the food.  You see, the Vivver doesn't care for celery.  She is her mother's child after all.  She is also a little wigged out by the bok choy.  I have observed some sneaking into her mouth and she's none the wiser, but when she spots it, she makes that supposition that she won't like it.  Innate in kids?  So, after I pick out the celery and greens, she's ready to chow down.

The even cooler thing is that we can whip up noodles at home and she's happy as a little Chinese clam.  Last night we were bachelorettes so a quick dinner of noodles was just what the doctor ordered.  As seems to be a pattern with me, I just opened up the fridge and pulled out what was staring back at me.  So, our noodles consisted of this:

I stir-fried onion, carrots, zucchini and baby corn.  I removed the vegetables from the wok and then stir-fried bite sized chunks of chicken.  Meanwhile, I cooked spaghetti noodles and made a sauce for the little gourmet.  For her, I mixed soy sauce, hoisin sauce, lemon juice and a little honey.  Then, I just tossed some noodles and the chicken and veggies in the sauce and there you go.  For mine, I used one of the sauces Neil picked up at that Asian market in Atlanta.  This one was labeled Coconut Curry Sauce.  Interestingly, under that it says "Portuguese Sauce."  I've been to Portugal twice and I've never encountered a Portuguese curry.  Curious.



Anyway, I used this sauce and a little water to toss with my noodles and veggies. I wasn't sure about the spice level, so that's why I made something different for Vivi.  Now I know she could easily handle this sauce next time. It was very similar to Panang curry, which happens to be one of my favorites at Mai Thai.  Next time I'll have some jasmine rice instead of noodles though, because the rice soaks up the sauce much better.  And I know from experience that Panang is awesome with shrimp.  So, this little jar from Atlanta has opened up all kinds of possibilities Chez Akre.  Stay tuned...

Friday, October 21, 2011

You like Dosai?

Today I find myself alone.  Since I walked the little one to school this morning, I've been essentially without people.  Don't get me wrong.  I like some alone time.  I can think.  I can plan.  I can write.  I can do things that no one else wants to do.  Like eat Indian food. 


Neil is about the only person who will engage in Indian cuisine with me, but since it's few and far between that we get to have lunch together or even go out at night these days, I usually only get Indian when I'm by myself.  Days like today.  There is an Indian restaurant near my office called Bombay Grill.  It's been there awhile, but I haven't found the time to go there.  All of my Indian friends tell me this is the best place in town.  That's where they go.  So, today that's where I went.






I'm sitting here typing to you with a very happy demeanor.  My lunch was fantastic.  Like so many ethnic restaurants anymore, they serve a lunch buffet.  Which is fine with me actually because it allows you to try things you haven't had and get adventurous. Today I chose lentils and chicken tikka masala which I put over basmati rice.  I had one vegetable pakora and something I've never seen before...it was a vegetable pancake.  This is probably meant to be eaten with a chutney (which I finally learned more about today.) Another new dish for me was green beans tossed with a spicy tomato-based mixture.  It was a sauce I guess, but not in a liquid sauce sense.  The spices were subtle but definitely had some kick.  And of course, I had a piece of naan.  Theirs was just the way I like it too.  Crisp edges but soft texture inside.  Yum with a capital Y.


Then came the question:  "You like dosai?"


A nice gentleman approached my table and posed this question to me.  I looked at him thoughtfully and replied "I don't know."  To this he replied "You don't know?"  So, I said, "No, think I should try it?" and he smiled, gave me a subtle nod and off he went.  This is the kind of thing that gets me pumped. I had no idea what was going to arrive at  my table and I could hardly contain myself.  When he came back, he placed a plate on the table with a folded, thin, crispy rice crepe that was as long as the plate was wide.  I peeked inside to see that it was filled with a vegetable puree.  I stared at it.  Hmmm.  Do I pick it up?  Do I cut it with a fork?  Do I fold it up and stuff it in my mouth?  I opted for the fork. (Sorry I didn't think to snap a photo as I was deep in thought over how to approach this thing.)


Wow!  This was really good.  I learned later from the nice lady at the front desk that I had the dosai masala, which is mashed potatoes and onions and (I assume) flavored with garam masala.  She gave me lots of pointers for how to couple the dosai with different sauces, chutneys and sambar next time I come in.  I also learned that the chutneys are meant to be eaten with the "finger foods" such as pakora.  


So for a modest $8.95 I had a very satisfying lunch, tried 3 new dishes, learned more about Indian food and got all this accomplished in under a half hour.  Like my Indian friends, I can say that I recommend Bombay Grill as well.  And, do I like dosai?  Yes. Yes I do.  
Bombay Grill on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hot 'n Juicy and FREE

I know, I know.  I just went off on Wendy's not long ago.  But today, I have to give them credit.  I received a coupon from the nice Wendy's folks for a free Dave's Hot 'n Juicy burger (not related to my rant, btw.)  There is one near my office and as hunger began creeping into my tummy, I glanced over and saw the coupon on my desk.  Expires November 3rd.  No time like the present...


The Wendy's near me is the one on Bush River Road across from Boozer Shopping Center.  (For those of you not from Columbia, the shopping center is named after a family named Boozer, not for all the drunks in town.  Just to be clear; this confusion has come up before.) My coupon stipulated that I had to buy a small fry and small drink.  So basically that allowed me to eat for 1/2 price once the burger was deducted from the bill.  Pretty nice to have lunch for $3 if you ask me. 


Dave Thomas used to own a golf course here in Columbia...did you know that?
 I'm not a fast-food frequent flyer.  Generally, I go because a) I'm traveling & in a hurry, or b) I'm starving and have about $2 in quarters in my purse.  Most of the time I find that fast-food burgers pretty much just taste like the fixin's that are on it.  I'm pleasantly surprised and happy to report that this burger today was the exception. First, it WAS hot and juicy.  And, it tasted like a hamburger...nice and grilly tasting and like beef.  The  toppings were nice too, but didn't overpower the flavor of the hamburger. They used red onion, pickles, lettuce (crisp, not wilted...I hate that), tomato, ketchup, and mayo.


I love this cute little box they present it in!
  
The bun was soft and warm, which is one of the things they are marketing about these new burgers.  The only shortcoming in the marketing is about the tomato.  All their printed materials mention thick sliced tomato.  Not so much.  Personally, that's not a big deal to me, but if you say it, do it.  


They are also serving new fries with sea salt. Finally, fast-food fries that were not over-salted and they were crisp, not greasy in the least and actually tasted like potato.  I know, what are the odds?  And lastly, the drink.  I am a Diet Coke devotee.  I know all the terrible things people speculate may happen to me one day because of it, but I love it nonetheless.  This time, I got the size I ordered without incident (ha ha.)


Since I'm taking the time to actually write about a fast-food joint, I made some observations for your information.  This particular Wendy's has been here forever.  My first memories of it were from riding up there after church with the Blackwelders to get a bowl of chili.  Living out in the country, this was a big deal to ride all the way over to St. Andrews for lunch. That would have been approximately 35 years ago.  The dining room has evolved over the years of course.  What I noticed today was that it's very clean.  There are no molded plastic booths to slip and slide around in; actual tables and chairs.  And I saw two baby highchairs.  I inspected them both and they did not have old food and who-knows-what caked on them. This was a major deal for me when the Vivver was little.  


So, in short, what I'm saying is that the Wendy's on Bush River Road is a pretty darn nice fast-food joint and they served me a tasty, hot 'n juicy, free cheeseburger today.  I really enjoyed it and I'd order one again.  I'd even pay for it.
Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers on Urbanspoon

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