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 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.  

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

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 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. 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.


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