Tuesday, May 30, 2006

I Love Rock n Roll

One of my favorite pictures of myself as a child was taken in New Orleans when I was 7 years old. My stringy long blonde hair had been in braids for what must have been days, and they had just been taken out before the picture was taken. I am standing with my back against a door, my thumbs hooked in my jeans pockets, my hair huge and kinked into waves from the braids, and I'm wearing my favorite t-shirt with an "I Love Rock 'n Roll" glittery iron-on appliqued to the front. Best pre-adolescent groupie pic ever. Alas, we have no idea where that picture has gone to, so I've settled for the Odd Toddler playing the guitar in his underwear photo. Oh, that we could all play guitar with out toes.

Life in New Orleans came up again this weekend, when I made the New Orleans style Pralines recipe from the 1986 Southern Living cookbook. Making candy, which I remembered while fighting with the dangdest most annoying candy thermometer, is one of my least favorite activities in the kitchen. The Carnivore bought a candy thermometer for me during The Fudge Incident, and I have yet to figure out how to hold the bloody thing in the pan without either burning my hand or dropping it into the hot mixture and thus burning my hand anyway while I try to fish it back out.

I was afraid The Praline Project would be an expensive one, mostly due to the cost of pecans in the store, and the fact that my pecan trees haven't begun their annual carpeting of the yard. It took many tries and a plethora of recipes before I found a fudge recipe that sufficed for us, and I assumed the same thing would happen in this case. After all, with so many different praline recipes to choose from, what were the chances I would pick the right one on the first try?

The day had started badly enough. Odd Toddler was in a particularly cranky mood, and I had a list of annoying chores to accomplish, with a clingy, screaming 30-pounder on my hip, before I could get busy on the pralines. The Carnivore finally, sometime mid-afternoon, noticed my consternation and realized it was in his best interests to occupy the miniature terrorist so I could start cooking. I pulled out all the ingredients and pre-measured everything, nervous about the whole procedure. After accusing Odd Toddler of running off with the candy thermometer again, I finally found it and coaxed it into working.

The whole thing was easier than it seemed at the time. After the second time I dropped the thermometer into the EXTREMELY hot candy liquid, and scalded myself trying to retrieve it and clean the screen off, it stopped working and I completely flipped out. I could see The Carnivore on the porch and I waved out the window frantically, yelling desperately for help. The Carnivore looked askance at me, took the thing apart, and dragged it into the bathroom where I heard him drying out the wires with my hair dryer. After he lectured me fully on what happens to LCD screens when they get wet, and after I hollered about the piece of crap falling into the pot of its own accord, we popped the thermometer back in the pan just in time to see we had reached the right heat and it was time for the next step. I was frazzled over the thermometer issues, and the next step of the instructions had me really nervous.

Amazingly, the rest of this went off without a hitch. Apprehensive, I waited for the candies to harden, staring agitatedly at the too-small quantity. Finally, I picked a piece up and brought it to my mouth, afraid to get my hopes up. I took the first bite.

I nailed it. They were perfect. On the first try, no less. Maybe I'm finally getting the hang of this candy-making business. And now I know what everyone is getting for Christmas.


  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar (I used light brown)
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/4 cup butter or margarine (I used unsweetened real butter)
  • 2 cups pecan halves (next time I will use slighly less than this so the candy can stand out a little bit more on its own)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract (please don't use imitation vanilla - yuck)
  1. Combine sugar and milk in a Dutch oven (also known as a big, heavy pan); bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mixture reaches 228 degrees.
  2. Add butter and pecans, and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches soft ball stage (236 degrees). {I can only tell what "stage" the candy is at by using a thermometer - I have no idea how to tell what "soft ball stage" is just by looking. More power to you if you can eyeball it on your own.}
  3. Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture just begins to thicken. {This takes some serious muscling, and its important to beat long enough that the thickening has just barely begun, but not so long that it gets too thick to be quickly spooned out. I do wish the instructions in the cookbook had been a little more expansive on this point. And on the next one...}
  4. Working rapidly {VERY RAPIDLY, I found}, drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto greased waxed paper; let stand until firm. {Depending on the size, this will yield between one and three dozen. If storing, wrap individually in wax paper so the candies do not stick to each other.}

Try to not eat too many of these at once unless you have a very high tolerance for sugar. After I ate the first one, and made a flippant comment about how these weren't too sweet, I made the mistake of eating a second one. I nearly yakked. One of these at a time is more than enough for any sweet tooth.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fiend for Sweets

I keep bars of dark chocolate around the house for when I have a sweet tooth. I can break off a small square and satisfy my cravings while keeping my health and weight both in check. By the fourth night out of town this past weekend, I was jonesing for my chocolate. I hadn't taken any with me, for fear of it melting during the trip, and there is a serious dearth of good food in Myrtle Beach. Then PMS hit, and I was feeling a tad desperate.

We looked in the phone book for local coffee houses and dessert shops, and had little luck with either (apparently, everthing in Myrtle Beach is a chain). On Sunday night though, I found myself in a Starbucks on Ocean Boulevard, where I got a cup of passable coffee and found two hapless clerks who gave us conflicting directions on where to find a chocolate shop. The more credible-sounding of the two sent us to Broadway at the Beach, a complicated maze of shops amidst a meandering parking lot. We drove in circles for about 10 minutes, steadfast in our resolve to leave only with chocolate in hand. Odd Toddler happily gurgled away in the backseat, having a conversation with himself about every car and truck in the surrounding vicinity while The Carnivore and I snarked at each other, squinting to read the names of all the shops. Finally there was a triumphant sound from the driver's seat, and we parked behind River Street Sweets, a chocolate shop from River Street in Savannah that I was familiar with from a trip long, long ago.

Odd Toddler, who was close to his bedtime and who did not, under any circumstances, need to be aware of what I was purchasing, went with The Carnivore to explore a lighthouse. I sailed into the store, wallet open, eager to get my fix. There was fudge, truffles, pralines, bear claws, vat after vat of sweet candies, and only ONE clerk on duty. I got stuck in line behind a pregnant lady (argh - leave some for me, darnit), where I shuffled impatiently from foot to foot, trying to pare down my list so that we wouldn't go broke. Finally at the front of the line, I exercised moderation, ordering two lonely pieces of fudge and two impossibly tiny truffles.

We went back to the condo, wrestled Odd Toddler to sleep and then opened the bag of chocolates just as the season finale of Desperate Housewives was coming on. I bit into the tiramisu truffle and heaven exploded on my tongue. For a split second there, I was sure life could get no better. An ocean breeze was coming in off the balcony, there was sand stuck between my happy toes, and I was the proud owner, if for only sixty brief seconds, of the most beautiful truffle on earth. Alas, the ecstasy was over far too soon. And disapointment soon overtook our little party. The fudge was, well, lousy. The texture was odd, the sweetness was overpowering and the aftertaste was cloying. I scrunched up my nose and pouted. Maybe I had turned into a dark chocolate freak, and everything else was too sweet for me now? Was I becoming a food snob? Heaven forbid.

On the way out of town the next morning, The Carnivore steered us back to River Street Sweets, determined to get a bear claw (apparently I should have been able to read his mind and known that he wanted one when he sent me into the store alone the night before with NO requests). This time, the whole family went in. Odd Toddler lit up when he saw the gumballs (no food snob is he), and since he was in the arms of The Carnivore, he ended up with a bag full of them. I narrowed my eyes, but Odd Toddler grinned at me and pointed to the gumballs he was clutching tight to his chest. "Big balls!" he chortled.

I had planned to only get a couple more truffles, and The Carnivore claimed to only want a bear claw, but the geniuses of marketing were too smart for us. Samples abounded. The lady by the window who was making candy on site smiled and offered us a taste of pralines. I reached out nonchalantly, sure I would be even less impressed than I had been with the taste of pecan log that I received coming in the door. But then I popped the nondescript beige nugget of fresh praline, still warm from the oven, into my mouth and I almost fainted with pleasure. It dissolved on my tongue, the taste sending me hurtling back through time 25 years until I was in elementary school again, standing in The French Quarter in New Orleans, begging my cash-strapped mother for another "praw-leen." The word itself must be drawled, not clipped off, and never, ever, pronounced "pray-leen," unless, of course, it doesn't taste quite right.

And so we spent more money than we should have, although I will dismiss the expense in the interest of research. After all, I must taste-test so I get ideas on what recipes to tackle next. Six hours later, we were back home and I was climbing my stepladder to get the 1979-1996 Index of Southern Living recipes, paging madly to get to the praline recipe list. I ended up in my chair last night, weighted down by 15 years of Southern Living Annual Recipe books, reading each and discarding the books one by one until I had narrowed it down to the New Orleans Praline recipe from the 1986 collection. I know what project I'll be working on this weekend...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Seriously. Tonight's side dish was nasty. So bad that I took one bite, scrunched my face up, took another bite, and then got up from the table and scraped the whole thing into the compost bin. Blech. It was a baked couscous with squash and summer herbs recipe from Cooking Light magazine, a recipe I had been wanting to try for a while. And, honestly, 'twasn't my fault that it sucked. But suck it did.

You know that taste you conjur up when you think of misguided health food from the seventies? That's how this tasted. Bland, weirdly textured, oddly colored, and vaguely nasty.

Sort of what you would expect if you went to the health food store and bought one of those organic, all natural "convenience dinners" where you just add water and then, surprise, it tastes just as bad as any other TV dinner, only more virtuous.

Yuck. What a disappointment. One ought not to sacrifice taste and decadence just for the sake of healthfulness. That's just missing the point altogether.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Power of Color

Odd Toddler knows that you're not really naked as long as you're wearing a hat.

We've been having a cool spell around here lately, a strange occurence for May in Georgia, but since I know the deathly hot days are just around the corner, I have held my tongue back on any complaints. This will be the first summer since 2002 that I am able to concentrate on a garden, and I'm excited about what that means for our table. During the four easy years I lived in the little pink house on Nantahala, The Carnivore and I cultivated the postage stamp front yard into the best looking garden in the neighborhood. We lined the beds with large rocks that we saved from a dumping site down near the railroad tracks, and over the course of a few summers we transformed a gravel-packed driveway into a work of horticulture art. I loved it. Neighbors would stop to see what we had done, and our friends would come by after work to sit on the tiny little front porch and chat amongst the greenery. I still miss that yard.

We moved in the summer of 2003. I was pregnant with Odd Toddler, and The Carnivore was beginning the restoration of the old, falling-down wrecks (not just one, but two of them) that we now proudly call home. Friends helped us to dig up our Nantahala plants and move them to the new property, where we slapped them willy-nilly into the ground and hoped for the best. The house was the focus at the time, not the yard. The Carnivore spent the next nine months working 10 hours a day, seven days a week working on the renovation project. It was a very trying time for us.

In the spring and summer of 2004, I was busy trying to figure out how to take care of a newborn and wondering if I would EVER get to do anything else again. By fall of 2004, I managed to get outside for a couple hours to plant a few hundred tulip, hyacinth, lily, crocus and daffodil bulbs. I knew the bulbs could take care of themselves, so I set my sights on a future vegetable garden, something that sounded more feasible now that Odd Toddler no longer nursed every fifteen minutes.

Finally, I am really getting somewhere. I now have 10 tomato plants in the ground, along with four basil plants (which I just realized yesterday will not be enough), two parsley plants, one rosemary and one bell pepper (also not enough). The object, during the dog day heat of the summers around here, is to eat only cold, fresh foods. I spent too many years without air conditioning to change this tradition now, so this time of year I am always on the search for recipes that will both be refreshing and cool, and will use the fresh bounty of the garden. There is, after all, nothing like a sun-warmed, fresh-picked piece of produce from your own yard. Even if I have now joined the middle-class and have an air-conditioned house.

It is for these reasons that I have been so in awe of this Fine Cooking Fresh magazine that Ms. Carr gave to me. The fresh flavors, the crisp textures, and the variety of colors in each recipe remind me of the joys of gardening and of the beauty and healthfulness in cooking with what is growing right outside my window. Thus far, I have only tried two recipes from this magazine, but they have both knocked me over with their flavorful impact.

This week, in preparation for the hot days ahead, I was happy to try a pasta salad recipe from the magazine. This has always been one of my favorite summer dishes anyway, because you can make a big batch and keep it in the fridge for days, grabbing forkfuls when you come in from the garden for a few minutes. Pasta salad was The Carnivore's domain until now, but I think he was happy to pass the torch, especially after we ate this particular recipe for dinner on Tuesday night and were amazed at how exquisite it was. It not only looked spectacularly beautiful, but the multi-layered flavors of the vinaigrette, the cheese, and the herbs was divine.

  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs whole-grain mustard (I used Grey Poupon dijon)
  • 1 Tbs finely chopped shallot
  • 1 1/2 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh dill (I substituted 1 Tbs dried dill)
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh chives
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels
  • 1/2 lb short, curved pasta (I used bow-tie pasta, which only made the finished product even more beautiful)
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 3 oz baby spinach leaves, washed and dried
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and very thinly sliced
  • 1/2 small red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 4 oz crumbled feta cheese (I used a mixture of goat cheese and tomato-basil feta cheese)
  1. Combine the lemon juice, mustard, shallot, honey and zest in a medium bowl and set aside for 5 minutes. Whisk in the oil. Stir in the herbs and season with the salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  2. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook the corn until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the corn and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, drain well, and blot dry.
  3. Bring the same water back to a boil; add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain thoroughly and immediately pour onto a rimmed baking sheet to cool. Toss with 1 Tbs olive oil to prevent sticking.
  4. In large serving bowl, toss the pasta, corn, spinach, and bell pepper. Add enough of the vinaigrette to moisten the pasta. Add cheese and red onion. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and add more of the vinaigrette, salt or pepper as needed.

This was so good I'm gonna make a double-batch next time.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Everything Revolves Around Food

It all comes down to the food. I have tried to come up with a list of hobbies and interests that do not revolve around food, but it didn't work out the way I expected.

  1. I like to garden. Of course, the gardening I did this weekend included preparing and planting 10 tomato plants so that I could can salsa this summer to get us through the winter when we won't have fresh tomatoes.
  2. I like to play with my son. But we have the most fun when we cook together. When I turned on the mixer on Sunday (while making peanut butter brownies), Odd Toddler perked up, ran to the kitchen utensil drawer, grabbed a plastic spatula and scooted hopefully over to me, waiting impatiently for a taste.
  3. I also enjoy reading. Then again, the book I am reading right now is Tender at the Bone, a food writer's memoirs about, you guessed it, food. This book, by the way, is hilarious. I was laughing so hard last night when I was reading about the author's cooking-challenged mother (yes, there are similarities in her life and mine) that The Carnivore told me to hush. More than once.
  4. And of course, I like to write. But its probably obvious, since you are reading this blog about cooking, that the thing I write about is, well, food.

The only shopping I like to do is at the book store, where I am most likely looking at new cookbooks, or at the grocery store or farmers market, where I try to look for new ingredients. Yard sales can be fun, but only so that I can look for kitchen implements and cookbooks. And my favorite TV show is on The Food Network. This is absurd.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Boycott the Gringo

My salsa problem has finally been solved. I should have known to go to my sister Cristy in the first place. Mom has been singing the praise of her salsa for years, but I never managed to get to mom's house fast enough to eat any of it, due mainly to the fact that mom never told me about it until AFTER it was all gone.

I moaned and groaned to Cristy one afternoon last week about my salsa failures, and it was only a day or so later that she showed up at my house with a copy of her recipe and a jar of her salsa. It was perfect, but I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to duplicate the results. I went to the store and picked up the ingredients the next day, but then eyed them warily for the next week, too apprehensive to even try, sure that Cristy's salsa was so good only because she had the magic touch.

I saw her on Thursday and she asked me how I liked the jar of salsa she had brought over. I gushed about it, but admitted I hadn't tried to make it myself yet. And I was distracted at the moment by the black and white shirt Cristy was wearing. I needed to wear black and white to an event on Saturday, and while I owned plenty of black clothing, there wasn't anything white in my wardrobe. I'm too clumsy to wear light colors, and I had thus far been unwilling and unable to part with any money to buy something. I sheepishly asked Cristy if I could borrow her shirt for Saturday and she didn't even blink an eye. She said "Let's trade right now," and pulled the shirt over her head and handed it to me. I was humbled.

The Carnivore requested a Snack Meal for dinner on Sunday, so I rummaged in the pantry and the fridge and decided to make black bean dip and to finally try out Cristy's salsa recipe. The recipe came out beautifully, and The Carnivore agreed it was the best batch I'd made yet. We FINALLY have a dependable salsa recipe. I should have known to trust Cristy from the beginning. This is, after all, the sister who will give me the shirt off her back.

CRISTY'S SALSA (makes 4 cups)
  • 10 very ripe Roma tomatoes
  • 2 tsp sea salt, divided
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
  • 3 jalapenos, diced (most recipes tell you to seed the peppers - since this one didn't specify, I decided to leave the seeds in to spice up the salsa even more - a very good decision)
  • 1 medium white onion, diced (I left the dice fairly large, and we loved the chunky onion bits in the final result)
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped (love it)
  • 1 lime
  1. Boil the tomatoes and one tsp sea salt for 10 minutes, or until tomatoes start to crack and peel.
  2. Under cold running water, peel and discard the skins from the tomatoes.
  3. Chop and smash down tomatoes in a bowl.
  4. Add cumin, cayenne pepper, and remaining tsp of salt to the tomatoes. Continue to smash down tomatoes until desired consistency is reached.
  5. Add jalapenos, onion, cilantro and lime, and stir well.