Saturday, January 29, 2011

My love of all things artichoke

I really do love artichokes.  I love chicken with artichokes and olives, steamed artichokes, sauteed baby ones, fried artichoke hearts, artichokes on pizza and in pasta.  It's a serious love affair we have, me and the artichoke and it all started many, many years ago in our backyard...

The house I grew up in was my Dad's labor of love.  He bought this property out in the country, acted as his own general contractor (people who do this do it like my Dad...ONCE) and moved us out of the city.  We had about 3 1/2 acres.  Our house sat on the top of a really big hill; I think technically it's called a bluff.  When the leaves were gone, we could see the Broad River.  At the bottom of the hill were fields (the flood plain); we had vegetables, the guy with the property behind us had cows.  You could hike across our field with an inner tube and hop in the river.  We could ride bikes, build forts, have deer run right past us, paint our faces with blood root, play kickball barefooted on our dirt roads and go down to the pond to fish for bream with our cane poles.  When it started getting dark, my Mom would ring this brass bell mounted outside our garage and every kid in the neighborhood knew it was time to go home.  It was a pretty damn fine place to grow up.  

My parents' master bedroom had a porch that overlooked the hill.  One afternoon, Katherine and I were running around doing who-knows-what when we came around to the backyard.  Mom was just coming out onto that porch with a platter of food.  We came up to see what the snack was.  That's when I first laid eyes on artichokes.  They were simply steamed with little dipping bowls of melted butter.  Beautiful, exotic, crazy!  So, we pulled up a chair and had Mom and Dad teach us how to dip and scrape.  That's what started it all.  It actually became a recurring event.  We would ask for artichokes in the grocery store so we could all meet on Mom and Dad's porch to eat them together.  It's a good memory.

When I was in the 3rd grade, my Dad had a business associate who offered us his house in Palm Beach.  Not West Palm, or around Palm, but the actual Palm Beach where the Pulitzers and other filthy rich oddballs live.  My Mom is very creative and decided it would be cool for us to take the train to Florida.  So the plan was that we'd all go down by train and then drive one of Mr. Dial's cars back to Columbia.  This place was unbelievable.  It had a loggia.  I'd never seen a loggia before. Just beyond that was our own private, heated pool surrounded by hedges that were about 30 feet high.  The kitchen was enormous The "servant's kitchen and servant's quarters" (yeah, they really had that) were such an oddity.  The entire house's floors were marble and all the couch cushions were stuffed with down, so they looked like pillows filled with air.  When you turned on the light in the bathroom, music started playing.  And, they had some state-of-the-art TV network called "Home Box Office."  You get the picture.  It was Richie Rich's house and we had it all to ourselves!

Anyway, we ventured out into town and found this little restaurant that had a garden courtyard in the back where you could eat lunch.  We started perusing the selections and lo and behold...this place had whole, steamed artichokes on the menu!  Thank ya Jesus!  Katherine and I both ordered artichokes as our lunch.  The waiter couldn't believe it.  We were drawing stares...two kids, a 1st grader and a 3rd grader are sitting here in the garden eating artichokes?  Alert the media, phone the neighbors.  So, this is where we had lunch almost every day of our stay in Palm Beach.  Another great memory.  

As time progressed, I continued my relationship with this cute little thistle.  When I discovered a bag of baby artichokes at my Publix, I wanted to kiss the produce man.  Up until then, I'd never found them in Columbia, so I'd only read about them.  When the Whitlarks opened the Pizza Man I was overjoyed because we finally had a local pizza joint who was offering artichokes.   An antipasto plate is incomplete without 'chokes, marinated or not.  

In summary, I love artichokes.  I hope I've managed to convey that sentiment to you.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bye bye Bangkok

Back in the early to mid 90's, my best friend Heidi and I were in our early 20's and were just starting out as "real adults."  She and Lloyd finished grad school and moved to Atlanta.  Being single, I could jump in the car and head to ATL pretty much at a moment's notice to hang out for the weekend.  Not only were these trips to spend time with "The Hoser" and "The Barber" (it's a long story) but for all the cool dining that Atlanta offered that Columbia didn't.  

On one trip, Heidi took me to my first Thai restaurant.  As a former Thai delegate to the Model U.N., I couldn't be more excited!  (Ha Ha...can you believe that?)  It was a place in  Virginia Highlands and was completely new to me.  I loved every second of it.  But, malheureusement, there were no Thai restaurants at home.  But, somewhere along the way in the mid 90's, my dad found Bangkok.  

It was (and still is) a small place in a strip mall on Garner's Ferry Rd.  I remember going there first with him and mom and was overjoyed to find the place.  I have been there many times and ordered many dishes, but haven't been in years.  I always had positive memories and sentiments about the food.  I met Neil there today for lunch, as he was working nearby.  Alas, my discovery of Mai Thai has prejudiced my palate and Bangkok has either changed for the worse or my memory was just being generous.

Bangkok is still small, which I always find endearing.  But, it's showing age and frankly, neglect.  Dingy carpet, cheap chairs, crack-n-peel numbers on the wall over the booths, a cashier stand crowded with junk and a kitchen door that needs paint and a proper door handle were the first things that caught my eye.  We were given a table but then Neil had to get up to get menus for us. Now, here's what alarmed me about the menu.  They've always had Chinese stuff on it and that's ok.  So, they have it separated out into the Chinese lunch menu and the Thai Special lunch menu.  The Thai menu doesn't have ONE SINGLE curry dish on it!  What?  How in the world can you NOT have curries on a Thai menu?  They do have Pad Thai, Pad See-iw, some other noodle and rice dishes, satay and one noodle soup, but this stuff is all "mainstream" Thai.  Frankly, this is what everyone was introduced to back in those early 90's days.  Now that Thai is so well-known in America, I can't believe the lunch offerings are still so rudimentary.  It was a disappointment.

The server irritated the #*&%! out of me.  She's one of those hurried people that rushes up to you and immediately says something charming like "What do you want to have?"  I asked her if we could get a lunch size curry and she said "yes." Great!  I proceeded to order a Panang Curry with Shrimp.  As I saw her write on her pad a figure that started with '12',  I asked her again.  This time she said, "no."  Well, that's what I just asked you lady!  So, I fell back and punted with the Pad Thai.  After all,  I'd remembered that their version was good.

Well, disappointment again.  The shrimp were nicely cooked on the grill, but the dish just plain lacked flavor.  I know the peanuts were there because I could feel them, but they had no taste whatsoever.  That can only mean they weren't fresh.  The green onions were cut into 1 1/2" pieces, cut right across the scallion.  So, they were like green onion stalks.  Not really edible that way.  The bean sprouts tasted completely raw.  I can eat raw sprouts; my mom used to grow them in a dark kitchen cabinet.  But in a dish, they should be at least slightly cooked and warmed.  Overall, this pad Thai just tasted bland and honestly, looked bland too.  Thumbs down.
Just didn't cut it!

Next, Neil's dish:  he decided to go the Chinese route and ordered pepper steak and asked if they could make it extra spicy.  As you all know, he likes EVERYTHING spicy!  Really spicy.  So, when he asks if you can do it and you say yes, then do it.   Well, you guessed spiciness at all!  Pepper steak is pretty straight forward; bell peppers, onions, thinly sliced steak.  Neil reported that the entire dish was merely "okay."
No color: bell peppers are green but they are hidden in this mess

To wrap up, we both decided that we're taking Bangkok off our restaurant radar.  When it comes to Thai food in Columbia, we just have no restaurant that measures up to Mai Thai.  They have our loyalty.  

Bangkok Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Husband + Cooking = Happy Wife

Neil took the reigns on dinner Sunday night and I couldn't have been happier.  A) I wasn't in the mood to cook (it happens occasionally you know) and B) he was making my favorite (pizza!).  God bless him...he took stock of what we had on hand, went to Publix for their bakery-made dough and made a plan.  (If you haven't tried Publix's pizza dough, you better put it on your list.)

Here's what he put together:  Crumbled hot sausage, artichoke hearts, black olives, onions, colby and swiss cheeses.  The result?  Fantastic!  I had no idea of this combination of cheeses until he told me.  I could tell there was a little "Je ne sais quoi" in this pizza, but couldn't put my finger on it.  That was it; a new and different combo of cheese.  I would recommend that you either try his combo or mix it up on your own, with whatever you have available.  Also, we use a pizza stone, which really helps with crisping your crust.  If you don't have one, you may want to give it a shot.
This is Neil's creation: delicious!

The ingredients Neil chose worked well together.  Of course, I think artichokes are like manna from Heaven.  As the pie was cooking, the house smelled divine.  We were so looking forward to dinner. 

In the midst of all this, our little one was complaining of her ear hurting.  This was strange because she never complains and she hasn't been sick at all.  But after about a half a slice of pizza and over 2 hours of our sweet baby crying and tossing and turning and Tylenol not helping, we packed it up and went to the hospital.  Fortunately, it was just a sudden onset ear infection and easily treatable.  And, on the bright side of the pizza; we got to have it (in its entirety) for dinner last night!  

I salute my husband for a successful concoction and many thanks for doing the cooking!  Now, ready to try your hand at lobster thermidor?  (Hint, hint)

Doh! Dog Biscuits

I'm here in front of my computer contemplating whether to write some witty entry on my blog, empty the dishwasher or take a nap.  As I am rolling all these options around in my mind, I offered my dog Babs a little dog treat.  
I mean, look at that cute little chocolate face!

As she was crunching away on her little biscuit, I continued my day-off reverie then realized I was slowly lifting a dog cookie up to my own mouth.  Just as it hit my teeth, I snapped out of it and rescued myself from a big disappointment and dramatic gross-out.  Good thing; there would have been lots of spitting, tongue wiping-off and profanity.

This all reminded me of a funny thing that happened a few years ago.  

I used to belong to a Girls' Night Out group.  We'd meet about once a month for dinner and drinks and to hang out.  At Christmas, we'd have a party at the Capital City Club and do a gift exchange, drink wine, eat....general Christmas revelry.  There was a girl named Stephanie who was a serious animal lover (not lover, just an animal proponent.)  She sent us all home that night with cute little baggies of homemade dog biscuits that she'd baked.  The bags had cute little labels inside and festive curly ribbon to keep the bag closed.  NOTE: The cute little label said "Homemade Dog Biscuits" on it.  Remember that.  It was clearly marked!

So, I arrived home and put my purse, Christmas gift, dog treats, etc. on the counter and went to change into comfy clothes.  As I came back through the kitchen, Neil is eating a cracker and says to me, "These are really dry and they could use some salt or garlic or something!"  That's right...I looked and the curly ribbon had been unfurled and my husband is chowing down and critiquing Stephanie's dog biscuits.

As you an imagine, before I could tell him, take it from him or otherwise act on the situation, I busted out laughing.   "What?" he says.  Since I'm coming completely unglued and cannot even speak, I just reached into the bag and handed him that cute little label.  Well, you can probably guess what happened next...there was lots of spitting, tongue wiping-off and profanity.  Of course, once he regained his composure, Neil relaxed as he realized they had been baked in a real person's kitchen out of real kitchen ingredients, not some animal "by-products" from the dog food plant in Redneckville.  Then, we could laugh about it together.  After all, it was clearly marked!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Yoplait Giveaway Winner: Lucky Duck

I apologize...we got off our promised schedule for having Neil draw the winning name, but all is well.  Everyone can breathe easy.  

My good pal Kelley has won the Yoplait gift pack, courtesy of Yoplait and Blogspark.  I will forward this info on to the proper folks and your gift pack will be on its way.

Thanks for participating friends!  And congrats to Kelley!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Did someone say beer and more beer?

Yesterday was a big day for beer drinkers here in good ol' Metro Columbia.  The World Beer Festival took place at the Convention Center.  When Neil and I met, we were both pretty regular and accomplished beer drinkers. Over the years, we've pretty much evolved into winos, but both of us still know and appreciate a good beer when we taste it.  This year's festival was our 3rd.  If you've never been, you should put this on your calendar for next January.  

It's a really well done festival.  There are beer vendors on both floors of the Convention Center, live bands, food booths from area restaurants and lots of swag.  Just ask Neil....he's one swag snaggin' son-of-a...  All in all there were about 300 beers to try.  It's conducted a lot like a wine tasting.  Everyone receives a little plastic beer glass. They pour you a 2 oz taste.  If you like it, come back and have another.  But, if you don't like it (like that one that tasted like a tall drink of grapefruit peel) you can dump it in the bucket and rinse your glass at the rinsing station.  Thank goodness; that grapefruit crap was just vile.  I'm not usually one for fruity beers or hard ciders.  I did try one beer that surprised me.  It was a light ale with apple in it.  You could smell the apple and taste it, but it still tasted like a beer.

Some other interesting tastes were the coconut-pineapple mead, and a Thai ale that had hints of fresh ginger and lemongrass with a spicy aftertaste.  I like dark beers, so I always enjoy trying the chocolate porters and espresso stouts.  Neil prefers IPAs and at this festival you could probably spend the entire session drinking IPAs alone.  Lots of them!  Neil is recommending the Thomas Creek "Class 5 IPA".  This brewery is from Greenville SC.

Piggly Wiggly had a stroke of genius this year.  They sponsored the "Flavor Station."  They paired several beers with particular cheeses, sausages and crackers.   They had some very interesting combinations.  The Blue Marlin was there again this year serving up their Shrimp and Grits.  Most everyone in Columbia has had this dish I bet. What they were serving yesterday was characteristically delicious:  the shrimp were cooked perfectly and the grits were nice and creamy.  Since it's really important to keep food in your stomach while sampling 300 beers, we also had some of Liberty's blue cheese chips.  I'd love to know how they make that sauce.  It's so smooth and the flavor is super.  We came across a vendor called "Lusty Monk" out of Asheville.  They had 3 mustards to taste with pretzels.  They were so awesome that we bought a jar of each.  They are:  Original Sin fresh ground mustard, Burn in Hell chipotle mustard and Altar Boy honey mustard.  Any of these would elevate a bratwurst to a whole new level!

Once again, the World Beer Festival didn't disappoint us.  We plan on going again next year, so if anyone wants to join us, just say the word.  Cheers to you all!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mojito's has the MoJo!

Today I finally made it to Mojito's to give it a try.  I had posted a comment and a "Call to Action" a few days ago.  I'd like to publicly thank all of you who joined me today at my "Restaurant Rave" and supported this family business AND my friends who went earlier in the week to try them out.  Your dedication to local business is admirable and vital to our city's growth and culture.

Here we go...I love this place!  First, as soon as I crossed the threshold, I was impressed with the decor.  Rich wooden floors, warm colors, cool drinking glasses and plates, plants and the large screen at the back of the restaurant shows the surf rolling in and out on some beautiful Caribbean beach.  Nice touch.  Some of my friends were already there.  As soon as I joined the table, our very polite and friendly server was right for my drink order.  All of us opted for, you guessed it, a MOJITO.  Delicioso indeed.  

My friend Laurin and I decided to share two dishes so we could sample more.  She ordered the Mojito Cubano Sandwich with the cilantro-pesto pasta salad on the side.  I chose the Piccadillo Empanadas.  Our server suggested having one chicken and one beef for comparison.  This plate came with black beans, a side of yucca, grilled plantains and a vibrant yellow rice.  The Cuban sandwich was just as my Dad said: the best Cuban I've ever had.  Instead of roast pork slices, Mojito's uses roasted and pulled pork.  The pork had a very clean flavor; not over-seasoned.  Neil would really like it because too often he complains that dishes hide the meat's flavor; he just likes to actually taste the meat.  Also tucked in there was a nice smoked ham, delicious pickles, melted cheese and the bread was wonderful.  I'm not usually a big devotee of pasta salad, but the cilantro-pesto was a bright and pleasing dressing for the bowtie pasta.

Chicken and Beef Empanadas "Piccadillo"
The empanadas were also a "thumbs up" dish.  I've read a bazillion recipes for Piccadillo over the years, but have never made it myself so I was very curious about this dish.  My helpful server prefers the chicken, but since beef is more traditional, she recommended getting one of each.  I'm glad she did because it was interesting to compare the two. Laurin preferred the beef and I went the way of the chicken.  I felt like the chicken had more of the green olive flavor, which I really like.  The black beans and rice were both very well cooked, although I might add a light touch of salt if I were in the kitchen, but of course, y'all know I'm a big advocate of NaCl.  I've also never eaten yucca before so I was really looking forward to tasting it.  It has a similar feel and consistency to a potato, but sweeter.  And lastly, the plantains were sweet, well cooked and delicious.

Now, I had the pleasure of meeting Jane, the owner.  Her son and daughter are her business partners.  She is a delightful lady and the place just lit up once she arrived.  She talks to her patrons, but not hovering around your table like a Ruby Tuesday manager who says boiler plate stuff like "How is everything you guys?"  In a real way...Jane knows a lot of her customers by name, she laughs, she thanks people for being there.  She's a friendly face and certainly a hands-on influence in her it's supposed to be!

Jane bringing Mom that signature Avocado Pie
Before we wrapped things up, Jane brought our table a dessert smorgasbord.  First, that avocado pie that my Mom keeps raving about...I get it!  It is absolutely fabulous.  It is so smooth and creamy, not overly sugary and sweet, and it's beautiful to look at .  Also on the tasting plate was a wonderful coconut cake, a strawberry layer cake and a cheesecake that made Laurin oohh and ahh with delight. She's a cheesecake lover, you see.

In short, this is a great restaurant folks!  It's in the heart of the Vista and close to the "work" district (Main St., Statehouse, Assembly St.).  Family owned businesses are the key to a thriving local economy.  In Columbia, we are lucky to have a pretty decent restaurant scene for a town our size.  Without local restaurateurs there is no restaurant scene.  It would be corporate crap; just another Harbison Blvd.  Please try Mojito's.  I have a feeling you'll like what you find there and you'll be happy to become a regular customer.  Mojitos Tropical Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Skillet Pizza

I'm slowly working my way through this new cookbook I got for Christmas.  I really love it. It's full of "real life" dishes from around the country, they've all been tested and perfected and so far, they all turn out as expected.

As you know, I am a major proponent of pizza.  However, I have determined that it's pretty much impossible to get a really crisp, thin crust in a home oven.  Clearly, restaurant pizza has better crust because of the insanely high temps that can be achieved in a commercial oven.

This new book has a recipe called 'Skillet Pizza.'  The photos looked terrific, so I had to give it a try.  The result was a very thin, super crispy crust and the toppings I chose were so good I got a little emotional.  

Now, I share with you:

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/3 cup beer (I used Newcastle)
  • 7 Tbs olive oil
  • 4 med Roma tomatoes, seeded, cored and chopped
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup Mozzarella
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup chopped roasted red peppers
  • 1/4 chopped Kalamata olives
  • 2 large jarred Pepperoncini peppers, stemmed and sliced

Toss the tomatoes and salt and then let them drain on paper towels for about 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, combine the cheeses and basil in a medium bowl.  

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt & sugar in the food processor.  With it running, slowly add beer and 1 Tbs olive oil.  Process until the dough starts to pull away from the sides and is forming a shaggy ball.  Using floured hands, form the dough into a tight ball and cover loosely with plastic wrap.  Let it rest about 10 minutes.

Divide the dough in half and roll out to a thin 9" circle on a floured surface.  Heat 3 Tbs olive oil over medium heat until just smoking.  Transfer one round into the pan.  With a fork, poke any bubbles that form and cook until the bottom is golden brown.  Turn over with tongs.  Top with 1/2 the tomatoes, any other toppings you like (see mine above) and 1/2 of the cheese.  Continue to cook until crust is crispy and browned.  I covered mine with a lid to help the cheese melt.  Transfer to a cutting board, wipe out the skillet and repeat with the other crust. Viola!

Friday, January 14, 2011

YOPLAIT Giveaway!

I don't think I know anyone who doesn't eat yogurt.  When we were kids, it was essentially a foreign food.  However, today it's become so mainstream that we start our kids out on organic "baby yogurt."  My child puts yogurt in the dessert category.  I love smoothies in the morning with plain yogurt, fruit and flax.  And don't forget about substituting it for sour cream.  Its uses and health benefits are practically endless.

I'm sure you're all familiar with Yoplait.  They have launched a campaign to encourage people (particularly women)  to make sure they are getting the proper amount of calcium via diet. So they are giving away 1 million cups of Yoplait.  Find them on Facebook, "like" them and you'll receive your coupon for a free cup.  I just got mine in the mail today!

Also, the fine folks at Yoplait sent this humble blogger a gift pack via MyBlogSpark: in addition to my coupon, I received a Speed rope, sport towel, glass water bottle and a very  nice duffel bag.  Guess what else?  They will also send one of these gift packs to one of you, my faithful readers.  But, you have to earn it!
  1.  First, let me know if you subscribe to my blog.  If not, you may want to do so.  
  2. Post a comment below answering this question:  "If you were a Yoplait flavor, what would you be and why?"  Include your email in the comment. If you need inspiration, the flavors are listed on Yoplait's website.  
  3. Send me your comments by 6:00 pm on Wednesday, January 19th.
  4. You must be 18 and live in the U.S. 
I will have Neil draw the winner's name from all of the entries.  Even though we'll do it as a random drawing, we still encourage you to be creative and make us laugh.

 The coupon, prize pack, and additional prize pack for this giveaway were all given to me from Yoplait through MyBlogSpark.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Call to Action:
***Local Business Needs Support

I have been asked to appeal to you, my loyal readers, to a true Call To Action.  As most of you know (or should) is that Neil and I, and my whole family for that matter,  are big supporters of local business, especially restaurants.  My parents (let's call them Jim and Dottie) have discovered Mojitos on Gervais Street in Columbia's 'Congaree Vista.'  I have heard their praises of this place but have yet to make it there myself.  Well, that's going to change.

Mojitos is a Cuban restaurant located at 1004  Gervais Street (zip 29201 for all you GPS'ers).  From Mom and Dad I've heard that the Cuban sandwich is good enough to make you slap your mama and call her Loretta.  My mom is in love with the Avocado Pie. Yes, I realize that sounds strange to us gringos, but from what I've heard, it's worth diving off the cliff and trying it.  In fact, my mom loves it so much, she and the mama of the family have formed a relationship as a result.  During the course of their conversation today, Mom learned that they just had a cook who was terminated and STOLE their family recipe book.  I hope I can find out who this tool is and circulate his name through Columbia's restaurateurs and "guarantee" his continued success in our restaurant scene.  And, thanks to our 'stellar' water pipe system, the City has Gervais Street dismantled right in front of their restaurant, blocking any street parking remotely close to them.  Anyway, the bottom line is that this restaurant is family owned, authentic Cuban cuisine, unique to Columbia and we need to support them and keep them alive in Columbia!
Mom says the avocado pie is similar to key lime, yet know, because it's avocado.

So, I am appealing to you guys here in Columbia to make the concerted effort to seek this place out and try it.  According to my Dad, you will not be disappointed.  And as strange as avocado pie sounds, my Mom assures me that it will stop traffic.  Here's my disclosure:  I have not been to MojitosNot because of lack of interest, but lack of time/opportunity so far So, I have a plan...  (oh, the suspense is terrible!!!)

I am proposing a RESTAURANT RAVE.  Yes, I just made up that term and patent is pending.  I have scheduled myself for lunch at Mojitos on Wednesday, January 19, 2010.  If you are available, and in Columbia of course, I'd love to see you join me.  Let's all show up on this day, try it out, give our support to a locally owned family restaurant!  If you like it, tell everyone you know.  Or, schedule your own RAVE within your Sphere of Influence.  We can't afford to let good family owned businesses fail in our community.  Post your comments so others can see your opinions!

I appreciate all of you who read this; I want to be sure that you know that.  If you're available, please join me in helping this family biz get more exposure and more fans.  Remember, what goes around comes around!  :-) 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow in SC and we're snackin' it up!

As you can imagine, snowfall in South Carolina is very, very few and far between.  Today, it happened. Not just a teaser dusting like we got a couple weeks ago, but REAL snow!  We have been out throwing snowballs, pulling Vivian in a kayak tied to her little motorcycle (I know it sounds redneck, but it's all good!) and now we're feeling snacky.

We aren't much on junk food around here, so we don't have typical chips and other snacks readily available to us.  In fact, while all our Southern brethren were raiding the groceries yesterday for bread, milk & eggs, we simply made a wine run.  We have our priorities straight, after all.  So, today, we opened the cabinets and the fridge and came up with a pretty damn nice snack plate if you ask me.  

For Christmas, Neil gave me two nice caviars: A paddlefish caviar, which is a small black roe and a wild caught Keta salmon caviar that is a large, brilliant orange roe. They are both fantastic but I think the salmon is my favorite.  We put this together with some simple water crackers, spreadable brie cheese and goat cheese.  And, of course, we tapped into a bottle of cabernet as well.  I'll speak for myself and Neil and tell you we have happy little tummies right now!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chicken Pesto Casserole...Yum

The other day, I was delighted to get my Earth Fare email newsletter and find a FREE 1 lb. of chicken coupon!    Earth Fare does these great deals where you spend $5 in their store and you get something for free.  I set out happily skipping off to the store.  I bought a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano and some organic flax seeds and swung by the meat counter.  Before I could say a word, the butcher cheerily said "Would you like a pound of chicken?" and just handed me this nice, white paper-wrapped pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast.  He was prepped and ready for people like me!  

So I thought and thought yesterday about what to do with this nice, fresh chicken.  And something that I could get the Vivver to eat without much coaxing and fussing.  I remembered seeing this casserole dish on  for a chicken pesto casserole. I went back and found it, saw that I had all ingredients on hand and said to myself, "Self", I said, "We're making this tonight!"  Since I got the recipe online, you can simply follow this link rather than me typing it!  Creamy Chicken-Pesto Casserole.  We really enjoyed it.  As usual, I thought of some changes I may make next time.  For instance, I think adding chopped artichokes would be an awesome addition and I might add a little more pesto just to ramp up that basil flavor a bit.  

I told you all before in this post  about how much I like the reduced fat Buitoni pesto.  I used that and a reduced fat/calorie Alfredo sauce in my dish.  Oh, by the way, if you make it, I would not recommend changing pasta types.  The radiatore works well because the sauce sticks to it and all its little crevices, it's easy to fork (for kids and grown-ups alike) and it stands up well to the other ingredients.  I think a different shape would get lost. I was really pleased with the outcome, how fast and simple it was to prepare and it will no doubt enter my repertoire of dished to take to friends who are ill or recuperating. 

**Restaurant Review: Za's**

One of Vivian's new pastimes is going out to "the restaurant," as she refers to it (this applies to ALL restaurants).  One of her favorites is the spaghetti & meatballs at Za's.  Neil and I like taking her there because it's one of the few meals we order that she eats without a bunch of fiddling around and playing and non-eating.  Interestingly, she rejects spaghetti at home, but will plow through a bowl of Za's spaghetti.  

If any of you read my post "How my husband has influenced the Columbia restaurant scene"then you know we are no strangers to this restaurant. So this isn't a new place review, just a review of today's meal.  

Vivi ordered her usual, and as usual, ate very well.  She gave it a thumbs up and was very pleased to be able to demonstrate to our waitress her "happy plate."  For those of you without kids, that means a clean plate.  She was also delighted about the itty bitty grapes that were included in her side of fruit.  I must admit they were quite cute indeed.

Neil ordered the roast beef sandwich.  It's thinly sliced beef on a crusty sub roll with peppers, onions and cheese.  I tasted it and thought the roast beef was nice and flavorful, but the steak sauce that they served with it didn't do it any favors.  It was thick and very vinegary, but Neil tells me "It's just steak sauce.  That's how food service steak sauce tastes."  Ok, then.

I ordered an old favorite, the personal size (although I can only handle 1/2) "Zeus Za." Za's has very nice thin crust pizza that is baked in a wood-fired oven.  The Zeus is a beautiful combination of tomato, Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, red onion and feta.  My pizza today was quite good, but the chef du jour was pretty heavy-handed with the red onion and light on the feta.  The onions were well cooked and soft but there were just too many.  A little more feta would have provided that subtle little goaty "bite" that makes feta so special.  

This is not an actual photo of my Zeus, but it looks pretty similar...
For any of you who have never been to Za's (and I doubt there are many who have not) I do wholeheartedly recommend this restaurant.  It's a comfortable yet mod locally owned spot right in the middle of Shandon & Heathwood.  They will make you happy whether you're there for appetizers before an event, drinks on a crowded people-watchin' Friday night or just a good ol' fashioned pizza and beer outing.  Check out their menu here, and then give it a go. I'm pretty darn sure you'll leave there happy.

Za's Brick Oven Pizza on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lazy Friday Night "Supper"

So, I've been a cooking fool this week, which makes me happy.  But, today I returned home with no plan in place, yawning my 'you-know-what' off and tons of leftovers and knick-knacks in the fridge.  Yes, it was time for mystery "antipasto."

I assembled a few things:  a plate of Greek black olives, garlic marinated green olives, Alouette spreadable brie (Neil hates brie rind.  I mean, really hates it so this stuff works for him), pepperoncini, pepperoni, sharp cheddar slices and water crackers.  And, I sauteed a couple of mini-crab cakes, although at the time of this writing Neil hasn't eaten his, so he's about to forfeit them.

Neil has a biz trip coming up, so this weekend will be more fun for cooking while he's here.  I have my (FREE) pound of chicken I got from Earth Fare and some nice looking pork chops in the fridge, so I think I can make an interesting weekend of it.  Since tomorrow is the Iceman Challenge, he'll probably be hungry enough to eat shoe leather tomorrow night.  

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Syracuse Salt Potatoes

I'm sure this will come as no surprise, but I got a new cookbook for Christmas (Cook's Country 2008)!  This one features regional faves from around the U.S.  I've browsed it twice and used one of the recipes last night with grilled ribeyes and steamed broccoli.  It caught my eye because 1) I'd never heard of it before 2) the picture was intriguing and 3) it is ridiculously simple.
1914: John Hinerwadel put these on his clambake company's menu.  They became so popular, he started selling these "kits"

Syracuse Salt Potatoes 

I'll paraphrase from the cookbook...this recipe calls for merely boiling whole potatoes in VERY salty water.  The salt concentration boils at a higher temperature causing the starch to cook completely, resulting in a creamy potato interior. The salt then forms a crust on the skin so no additional seasoning is needed.  Traditionally, people eat them with melted butter for dipping.  The recipe writer jazzed it up with fresh chives.  Also, it was noted that if you use regular table salt, that you use NON-iodized to avoid a mineral flavor.  Lastly, why are these so popular in Syracuse, New York and how did they come to be?  Apparently in the  mid-1800s, Irish salt mine workers threw whole potatoes into evaporation vats full of boiling salt water.  If anybody can cook a potato, it's the Irish!

  • 8 cups water
  • 14 oz salt 
(use 1 1/4 cups of NON-iodized salt OR 1 1/2 cups Morton Kosher salt OR 2 1/2 cups of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt [I don't know why this Kosher salt is different than Morton, but apparently it is]) 
  • 3 lb small white or red potatoes, scrubbed
  • 1 stick (8Tbs) butter
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh chives
  • 1 tsp pepper
Bring water to a boil in Dutch oven over med-high heat.  Stir in salt & potatoes. Cook until potatoes are just tender, 20-30 minutes.

Drain and then place them on a rack set over a baking sheet.  Let them dry until a salt crust forms, about 1 minute.  

Meanwhile, microwave butter, chives & pepper until melted.  (I skipped this; just served with a little plain butter).

So, that's it.  It's so crazily easy that it makes me laugh that I actually just wrote that down.  And all you Sodium Psychos out there can relax...the interior of the potato stays nice and soft and creamy and the salt remains on the exterior.  So, don't eat the skin.  But, the nice little bit of salty crust in a bite is quite good.  At least that's my take on it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Chuck Roast: What Next?

I got a good deal on boneless chuck roast a few days ago.  Usually, I do the ol' crockpot beef stew thing: carrots, onions, garlic and new potatoes.  Neil loves coming home and opening the front door to that kind of aroma.  So I usually don't even tell him I'm making it so he'll be surprised.

But this time I wanted to do something else.  Surely people use this meat for something other than my usual, right?  I turned to the trusty Internet to seek out recipes.  One of the first ones I came across was for chili.  I immmediately skipped over it because a) chili recipes seem to abound and b) I have chili in the freezer.  But after perusing countless "roast" and "stew" recipes, I returned to the chili and actually read it.  Then, I read people's reviews.  That's what convinced me to give it a whirl.  I didn't have everything exactly as the recipe called for, so I improvised and made it my own.  Neil and I were both very pleased with the result.  
This is Neil's idea of manna from Heaven

Chunky Beef Chili

3 lb boneless chuck roast, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 Tbs chili powder
2 6-oz cans tomato paste (I was out; see note at tomato sauce below)
32 oz beef broth (I used chicken broth and added beef bouillon)
2 8-oz cans tomato sauce (I used a can of diced tomatos and pureed with sundried     tomatoes to give it the earthy flavor that the tomato paste would have added.)
2 tsp granulated garlic
1 tsp  salt
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp cumin (generous tsp; I love cumin)
1 tsp Spanish smoked paprika
1 tsp freeze-dried minced onion
1/2 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne (I am out, so I used Hot Hungarian paprika)

In a Dutch Oven or stockpot, brown the steak pieces.  Remove meat, reserving the drippings in the pot.  Add chili powder and cook, stirring constantly about 2 minutes.  Stir in tomato paste, if using.

Return beef to the pot. Stir in broth and next 9 ingredients; bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for 1 1/2 hours or until the beef is tender.  

We topped ours with cheddar, sour cream, and Fritos.  Neil added some kidney beans to his bowl.  The reviews I read state that this is very "Texan" because of its lack of beans, but as I like to point's your chili.  You want beans, add beans!  I think it would also be interesting to brown the meat in larger pieces and then shred.  Just a thought.  


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