The Best Revenge: My Top 10 Tools For Living Well in 2015

17 01 2015

Let’s get this out of the way right up front, shall we?  Anyone who says that “stuff doesn’t matter” is a liar and a fake.  Of course stuff matters!  I don’t mean matters as in I’d-pause-to-remove-my-Rolex-before-saving-a-drowning-child matters; that kind of stuff-matters person could benefit from being the one drowning while some other pompous ass removes his watch.  But I’m talking about basic stuff – a decent place to live, indoor plumbing, a really good rain slicker, a healthy meal, you know, stuff.

If you are pissed off about not being born into money, or your shitty job, or are coveting your neighbor’s new lawn mower, remember that living well is the best revenge.  You don’t have to be rich to cherry pick the best tools for your life and purposefully acquire them.  I’m not talking about collecting stuff for stuff’s sake.  I’m talking about collecting a small, carefully curated selection of quality things that will make your life easier.  In my life, creature comforts rule.

top10Presently I’m all about deciding what’s important to me and getting the best stuff for my circumstances.  Unless you are the timekeeper at a billion dollar sports arena or the New York Stock Exchange, you probably don’t need a Rolex.  But if you are trying to put your new portable kitchen island together for your apartment, you need a decent drill/driver.  The cheap one will piss you off and negate any joy from having solved your space problem.  Big buzz kill.  You deserve to enjoy life, no matter your lot in it.  That’s why you go to work every day.

Having the right tools for a given job makes all the difference.  Whether that job is making an angel food cake or installing flooring or simply staying dry in a rainstorm, the right equipment makes it easy and the result is a happier, nicer you.  Fixing a bad attitude is as simple as handing someone the right tool for the job.  Let’s call it situational therapy.

So instead of making you a list of resolutions about all the great things I’m going to do to make me a better person in 2015, I decided to get real.  I made a list of the must-have things for 2015 according to me.  Things that make my life as a human easier, and therefore make me a nicer person to be around.  What we all really need are the right tools for the job, whatever job we are doing, in whatever circumstances we are doing them.  Aren’t you glad I spared you all that motivational drivel about self-improvement?  Instead, I hope you find some inspiration to set your own priorities for purposeful acquisition of the tools you need for living life well. You are welcome.

  1. A nice place to live, even if it costs a bit too much. Your home is your castle, whether you own or rent.  It should be a place that puts you at ease and welcomes you. My awesome castleapartment is indeed my castle, and it’s new insulation and windows save on my utilities, so it all works out.  Homeownership is totally overrated.  But if you must do it, go for the newer, slightly-too-expensive, already-remodeled, water-tight home of your dreams.  Those fixer-uppers never really get fixed up before something else happens.  Trust me on this.  Been there three times.IMG_2748
  1. Reliable transportation. Now by reliable, I don’t necessarily mean new or pricey.  In my case, it turned out that reliable meant new and rather cheap because I have a slim budget and needed an all-inclusive vehicle.  The only way to get a vehicle with the maintenance expenses included is to go new. I got a rolling cargo box with just enough get-up-and-go to keep me from beating on the steering wheel in frustration.  It’s a cool little car.  I could go on, but you are already losing interest.  So just set yourself up with a decent vehicle that will not die on the road and leave you unable to pay for repairs on your modest salary like my last one did.
  1. DanskoClogA really good pair of shoes. If you sit behind a desk all day, this might not be on your list. Yet.  It may be number 8 here, but it’s really all the numbers.  If you are in agony over the pain in your feet, knees, and back because of your bad shoes, nothing else is going to be ok.  For an all-day stander and walker like me who can’t wear athletic shoes at work because they are not appropriate, check out brands like Dansko and Merrell.  Restaurant workers will love Dansko and Shoes for Crews (stick with the clogs).  In the trades?  Check out Timberland and Red Wing.  What’s on my feet is now the key to whether I’m having a good day or a really shitty one.  Your feet are your foundation.
  1. DanskoTriclimateOuterwear that actually keeps you warm, dry, or both. Is it cold where you live?  Does it rain a lot?  Then I have one word for you:  North Face.  OK, so that’s two words, but not when you type northface.com.  There is no better jacket to protect against cold and rain.  It is that simple.  I recently invested in their Boundary Triclimate model and have absolutely no regrets.  None.  It is rare that I make a purchase over $100 and don’t beat myself up about it or consider returning it as a frivolous purchase.  Spending over $250 is monumental for a working class chick like me.  I have not been cold or wet one day since owning it.  Best. Purchase. Ever.  I look forward to being warm and dry for years to come.  Bring it, global warming.  We got this.
  1. Good tools. Like, you know, tools.  I remodeled 2 houses using crappy tools and the 3rd pushed me over the edge.  Using crappy tools made things way harder than they had to be, resulted in glaring mistakes, and ultimately cost more money as I had to re-do projects because the crappy tools ruined them.  One of the best purchases of my life was a Dewalt Dewalt pry barDrill/Driver.  It cost $200, which I think is the cheapest model they make.  But it works like a million bucks, every time.  That’s a stupid amount of money for the average homeowner to spend on a tool I told myself.  For years.  Then, tears streaming down my face and on the verge of a break down, I went to the hardware store and took the plunge.  Why the hell did I wait so long?  Black & Decker, I’m sorry, but your so-called drills and drivers suck.  Also, this handy little thing called a pry bar is the diggity bomb for a myriad of tasks.  Bite the bullet and get you some real tools like the pros use.
  1. Benriner Mandoline. Speaking of pro tools, chefs love these. If you don’t cook up anything more than reservations, you can skip this one.  If you cook at all, and ever need to slice anything, or want to make noodley julienne things (like carrots or zucchini, or potatoes for hash browns), you need this tool.  It is simply the best.  Full disclosure:  I am a cook and I manage a gourmet kitchen shop.  But that’s actually good for you, because I have used all the mandolins.  The good, the bad, the cheap, and the expensive.  And I can say unequivocally that this bad boy is the best.  It comes with 3 different julienne blades, is adjustable for Benrinerthickness of slices, and stays sharp.  It cleans up super easy. The next best one is by Jaccard, costs over $100, and takes up a lot more space in your cabinets.  At about $65, this is a true investment for your kitchen that is space saving and makes quick work of whatever you need to slice or julienne.  It comes with a finger guard, which I never use because I’m crazy like that.  You can spend 15-20 minutes slicing a 5 pound bag of potatoes with that dull knife you’ve got or you can spend 5 minutes with the Benriner and have them all picture-perfectly the same size.  What’s it gonna be?
  1. A great smart phone. OK, so I know phones are like clothes and everyone has their style.  But all you flip phone and TracPhone hangers-on need to stop fighting it and get a state-of-the-art digital device with a real carrier so you, too, can be connected 24/7.  This is a great time we live in, with so many advances in every area of life that this average chick can’t keepiphone up. But thanks to my iPhone 5S, knowledge is at the end of my fingertips. I am on my fourth year and second version of iPhone and I hear people complain about every other phone type in the universe but the iPhone.  My phone does so much I don’t even know all the stuff it can do.  But it does everything I need it to do and does it quickly and simply.  It’s a solid investment.  Apple makes a great phone.  But whatever you get, just get connected.  Don’t miss this fascinating time in which we live.
  1. Ceramic knives. Another cook’s tool that you reservation-makers won’t need. There are lotsKyoceraSantoku of ceramic knives on the market, but Kyocera is the best for the money.  You do not need to spend more.  For about $60, you can have a great santoku that never needs sharpened, goes in the dishwasher, and can slice a tomato or a potato with the same ease.  I have a lot of knives at work in the kitchen, and use them all when teaching classes.  I recommend this knife to home cooks more than any other because it can handle any job you have with no sweat and no smashing.  It’s wicked sharp and stays that way.  Try one and you will never use another steel knife.  That’s a promise.
  1. The right bags for you. Now, this is probably more of a woman thing ScoutPocketRocketthan a man thing, but men need bags too – at least when they travel or have little kids. But I’m not talking strictly about suitcases here; think shopping totes and purses and cosmetic bags and diaper bags and, well, bags.  Bags for whatever.  My new favorite bags are from Scout Bags.  This DC-based company has got a pretty tight lock on what I want and need in a bag, and the prices are reasonable compared to all the really fancy handbags and totes in the universe.  Waterproof? Check. Durable? Check. Cleanable?  Check. Stylish? Check. The Pocket Rocket is my next investment because I like to keep things organized and I am tired of my 5 year old leather Nine West handbag (also a great $50 investment, by the way – that’s $10 a year).  I presently have The Nooner to keep my lunch and snacks cold and The Weekender to carry, well, everything a person needs for a couple few days.  I’m not willing to spend my shoe budget on bags, so this does it for me.  Whatever your thing, invest in the right bags for you that are good quality and durable so you don’t have to replace them often.
  1. Good, clean food. I absolutely believe that we are what we eat.  That’s an entire article unto itself, or perhaps 3 articles.  I have had some health problems that led to a lot of research in this last year or so, and what I have learned is a lot.  If I had to distill it down to easy-to-live-by guidance, I would say this:  eat whole, fresh or frozen organic foods at home and avoid anything highly processed.  A lot of problems with our health can be solved by losing the boxes, bags, and – to a lesser extent – cans from our lives.  When eating out, choose locally owned restaurants that focus on local ingredients.  The most important thing is that the food not be highly adulterated, modified, manipulated, or altered to withstand weed killer, mass
    processing, or to last longer.  We should eat it the way it comes, not fold, staple and mutilate it and then try to make it look like food again.  Pesticides and preservatives are chemicals – you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to imagine that those chemicals are harmful to our bodies.  Just be kind to you and eat the best quality food ingredients your budget can stand.  More expensive does not necessarily mean better, but in our marketplace right now it often does.  That’s just wrong.  But the more we purchase organic, clean foods, the more availability goes up and the price comes down.  Farmers and manufacturers are about the bottom line, so vote with your wallet and what you want will become more readily available with a little time.




I’m Writing Less, Doing More (Food Porn)

23 03 2014

I haven’t been doing much creative writing lately (unless you count recipe development) because I’ve been cooking.

Cooking at home, making quick dishes that use what I have on hand.

Cooking at work for members of the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club for various cooking classes and events.

I even cooked for friends recently, laying out a buffet of finger foods for their daughter’s Baby Shower – it was how I spent my “day off.”

Yesterday’s “No-Tomato Italian” cooking class menu was particularly tasty.  Italians love tomatoes, but they don’t eat them at every meal or every day – there is a whole country of good eating that we Americans often overlook in favor of pasta and tomatoes when thinking of Italy.  I think the best meals are the ones where the focus is on quality ingredients prepared in a minimalist fashion, which is exactly what yesterday’s class was all about.  The menu was Melon & Prosciutto Salad with Blood Orange & Shallot Vinaigrette, Lemon Oregano Roast Chicken with Parmesan Polenta and Balsamic Grilled Onions, and a delicious Orange Olive Oil Cake with jarred Peaches.  One of the students recently went to Italy and said that my recipes transported her back to that trip.  Frankly, that’s the most flattering thing anyone could say about my food.

Of course, I failed to get any pictures.  As a marketing manager, I suck.  As a cook, instructor, merchandiser, writer, and General Manager I do a pretty good job.  Perhaps its all those other responsibilities that interfere with my being better at marketing and social media – I just have too much on my plate.  How can you worry about pictures when you are feeding, educating, and entertaining guests?  The person in front of me is always my focus, and I never seem to get back to all those potential guests and customers out there in cyberspace.  There’s just not enough time.

So perhaps this little picture book of a handful of the food I have created lately will encourage my local readers to stop into The Seasoned Gourmet to say hey, or to join the Cape Fear Food & Wine Club to take some classes with me and taste my food themselves or learn to make it.  If nothing else, it will serve to inform you all that I am not gone, just busy doing rather than writing.

If you’d like any of the recipes for the tasty food shown here, just ask and ye shall receive!

Happy eating!

 





The Chef, The Farmer, and You

7 01 2014

As I was driving to work today, I felt all warm inside despite the frigid temperature outside.  I love this time of year, when Wilmington is her most authentic self.  In these months of cold air and short daylight hours, my beloved city is a true Southern town.  The summer people are gone, the holidays are over, I have tied my last Christmas bow and counted the widgits in the store for the tax man who, like death, inevitably comes.  The cooking class schedule for the next season is set, my menus are prepared, my recipes are being slowly tested in my spare time, and I actually have spare time.  I can carefully write a blog post that is something other than a rant.  This is the life!

BeachIt’s slower here in the winter, more like a Southern town is supposed to be.  I can get to work in five minutes or less.  I can get over the drawbridge to Wrightsville Beach without slamming on my brakes, despite the construction.  I can make the right turn onto Keel Street in front of Redix without fear that someone will ignore the opposing stop signs and T-bone my car.  I can leave my car running while I dash into the post office to check my mail – no one will steal it today.  My mail will actually be in the box by 9:30 am, something that only happens this time of year.  I can go to the beach without fighting for or paying for parking.  I can take my dog to the beach, though perhaps not today (brrr).  It’s just so Southern here this time of year, slow like molasses pouring from a jug and comfortable like a favorite pair of flip flops.

As a devout foodie, I have another reason to love this time of year.  I can get a table for dinner at most any restaurant on any day of any week without reservations.  If your life looks anything like mine, it is a rare day when you can plan ahead enough to make reservations.  There are just too many variables in a typical day for me to plan dinner more than an hour or two in advance, so now that the best restaurants are not jammed with visitors and things are slower in general, I can dine out again.

There is one place that reservations are always required, and it might just be the hottest ticket in this chilly seaside town.  I am so excited to attend at least one or two of these events again this year and really wish I could go to each and every one of them.  But I would need a much better paying job for that!  I love being able to sample the on-the-fly creations of a variety of chefs from an assortment of restaurants around the coastal area.  I love the friendly competitive spirit that I have witnessed behind the scenes.  I so love that nearly all the ingredients used to create these meals is created, grown, or raised here in North Carolina.

What place am I talking about?  Fire on the Dock, of course!  This local arm of a statewide Competition Dining series has been firing up the coastal area for three years now, and I truly look forward to it every year.  I enjoy these events so much that I’m a teensy bit jealous that I didn’t think of it myself.  But if I had, I doubt I could have actually breathed life into quite as successfully as Jimmy Crippen has done.  I can only imagine how tired his arms got swimming up that stream of transforming his local cooking event in Blowing Rock into a series of events across North Carolina, culminating in a finale each year in, where else, the state capital of Raleigh.

BluewaterI am headed over to Bluewater, the hosts of these fantastic events, for the Media Day event for the kick off of Fire on the Dock 2014 this afternoon.  I will be tweeting the competitor’s names as they are announced, and I will update you tomorrow with a little who’s who post.  Stay tuned!

Get ready to experience great local food cooked by energetic local chefs in an Iron Chef-style competition where you are the judge.  If you are a foodie like me, you are guaranteed to have a blast.  It’s all about The Chef, The Farmer, and You!





Wilmington for Foodies: Groceries, Gadgets, and Gurus

27 01 2013

Now, I may be a bit biased in my views, but what I am about to share with you here are some of the best places to shop in Wilmington for foodies like me, plus a couple of folks you should know about who can keep you in the foodie loop.  That I happen to manage one of the stores I recommend may seem like a conflict of interest; since I am not being paid for my opinion, I don’t have any ethical qualms about it.  Chalk it up to confirmation that I love my job!  The opinions herein are strictly those of the author, and you know what they say about opinions.  Don’t take my word for it – visit these stores and judge for yourself.

Groceries:

If you live here, I am sure you are aware that we have an abundance of grocery stores such as Food Lion, Lowes Foods, Harris Teeter, The Fresh Market, even Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s that both opened last year.  Personally, I need nothing from Trader Joe’s, though I do stop into Whole Foods once every month or so for some bulk goods that I don’t find elsewhere.  Also, their produce is reasonably priced and includes hard-to-find items.  Their cheese selection is possibly the best in town, though it is expensive.  I do most of my standard grocery shopping at Harris Teeter – canned goods, paper products, frozen items, etc.  But the best in local produce at this time of year when the Farmer’s Markets are not operating is at La Huerta, located at 830 S. Kerr Avenue.

LaHuerta1LaHuerta2 LaHuerta3Spanish for “The Garden,” this wonderful place is a haven for delicious, fresh produce.  Also to be found here are some great Mexican-style cheeses, dried chilis and spices, cookies, canned goods, dried beans, and cured meats.  Much of their product comes from North Carolina growers and purveyors, so in many cases you are buying a local product from a local retailer – the ultimate in shopping and eating local.  La Huerta doesn’t have everything – if you want watercress and endive, you are not likely to find them here.  It is, after all, a Hispanic market that caters to the Mexican and Latin-American population of the area.  But a visit here will not disappoint you, and will likely inspire a meal or two as you gaze at all the lovely ingredients.

Among the unexpected treats I found at La Huerta recently were a delicious Oaxacan rope-style cheese  that had the texture of part-skim mozzarella and some lovely side bacon from hogs raised right here in North Carolina.  The cheese was super delicious when I baked it up inside puff pastry pinwheels – it seemed to be more flavorful melted.  The bacon I baked on a sheet pan to render off much of the fat, then dipped the crispy slices in melted chocolate and served it with a red Bordeaux at a wine pairing class last week.  Mm mm mm.  I also found green tomatoes in the dead of winter y’all, and you know what I did with those.  You don’t?  Where you from, Shug?

SaigonMarket1 SaigonMarket2 SaigonMarket3

From La Huerta, you can head up Kerr Avenue toward Market Street and visit Saigon Market & Tatyana’s European Delights in Kerr Station Village.  Saigon Market, 4507 Franklin Ave., is practically a landmark in Wilmington; if you like to cook and you live here for any length of time, someone will send you there for something.  I confess to sending a good many people there when they are in search of obscure or  Asian ingredients.  I personally go there as much for the experience as anything else.  I love to look at all the products, read what I can of the labels that may or may not have an English translation on them, and decide what strange new product I am going to take home to sample.  I haven’t had the privilege of traveling to the Far East, so Saigon Market is as close as I have been to an Asian cultural experience.  Also, they often have delicacies like quail eggs that you can’t find elsewhere in town.  The other eggs, the ones without cartons or labels?  You should really ask about those.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  I love pork Lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls) but not the laborious process of making them, so I buy the frozen ones here.  If you need chopsticks, or rice bowls, or those functional little shovel-style soup spoons used in Asian restaurants, they have those too.  Fresh produce is limited to the most common ingredients used in Asian cooking, but it is top notch.  Mung bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, bok choy and much more is cleaned and bagged on the premises, refrigerated and ready for you to use.  Open seven days a week until 7pm, Saigon Market is a feast for your senses!

Walk around the corner from Saigon Market and enter a little corner of Eastern Europe right here in Wilmington.  Tatyana’s boasts an unimaginable assortment of items for such a small space – pickled veggies of all sorts, beverages, candies, cookies, sausages, just about anything you can think of from tatyanasthe old country.  Fresh foods and baked goods are also available. Monday through Saturday 10am to 7pm and Sunday 12-5pm, Tatyana’s is ready to serve you with delectable treats from Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, and beyond.  If you don’t live here, no worries!  Tatyana’s website has a virtual shopping cart – they will ship to your doorstep.

Using La Huerta as our starting point once again, you can head the other way on Kerr Avenue, between Wilshire and Wrightsville Avenues, where you will find Tienda Los Portales.  This supermercado has a bevy of Mexican foods and products.  If you need masa harina for your tamales, LosPortalesSupermercadoor just better prices on grocery items (like crema or tortillas) than you can find elsewhere, give this store a try.  Pick up some fresh-baked cookies and bread, or a piñata to fill with candy for the kids at your next party.  It’s a little bit of home for the Latin Americans in our community, and the rest of us “gringos” are welcome, too.

A few more essential links:

Fresh Bread and Amazing Desserts:  La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries

Hard-to-find cuts of meat, yummy fresh-prepared foods, and much more:  Pine Valley Market

Organics, Vegetarian, and Vegan Specialties:  Tidal Creek Co-Op

Gadgets:

I have to tell you about the store I manage – The Seasoned Gourmet, located at 1930 Eastwood Road.  We don’t carry fresh foods like these other fine establishments; rather, we carry the tools and shelf-stable ingredients you need to cook at home.  We have a large assortment of kitchen tools and gadgets – I’m going to go out on a limb and say perhaps the largest selection in Wilmington.  Cookware, cutlery, bamboo boards and accessories, and bakeware abound in our modest space.  Oils, vinegars, seasonings, and flavorings anchor one section of our space.  We do a brisk gift basket business, and I know they are the best looking gifts in town because I have shopped around.  We hand-tie all of our gorgeous bows, and we build the gifts to your specifications.  Shipping and delivery are no problem.

TSG (598x800)Coffee & wine are a big part of our business, too.  We have a coffee club that is free to join and has been around since our inception in 1994; members enjoy a free pound for every 10 pounds purchased, any coffee combination, any length of time.  We offer fine coffees from Carolina Coffee Company which is roasted right here in Wilmington.  We also have a hand-selected array of boutique and small production wine, about 150 different labels on any given day, ranging from $6.99 to $289 per bottle.

The Seasoned Gourmet boasts an ever-growing assortment of local and regional products, from the iconic Goodness Gracie Heavenly Toffee Cookies to all-natural cookies for your dog from My Porch Dawg.  Mama Lou’s, Off the Hook, Outta the Park, Pluto’s, Bone Doctor’s, and Mother Shuckers are but a few of the sauces on our shelves.  8th Wonder Seasoning, Carolina Candy Company, Salem Baking Company, Polka Dot Bake Shop, Heide’s Homemade Buttermints, Old School Mill, Shirley’s Peanut Brittle & More, Cat Daddy’s, The Peanut Roaster, and Old Log Cabin (Berry Towne Crafts) are but a few of the other local products on our shelves. 

The Cape Fear Food & Wine Club, which meets at The Seasoned Gourmet, offers cooking classes and wine pairing classes to members and their guests.  In addition to store staff, the Club hosts some of the best chefs in Wilmington who offer recipes and instruction culminating in chef-prepared meals.  It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the folks behind the stovesIMG_1342 (478x640) at your favorite restaurants!  The Club is a one-of-a-kind offering in Wilmington, teaching classes in  a kitchen equipped with residential equipment, just like at home.  From hands-on techniques classes (knife skills, soufflés) to demonstration classes with themed dinner menus, the club has something for everyone who enjoys cooking.

We like to say that we are “Wilmington’s Complete Culinary Experience,” and we want every visit to our store to reflect that sentiment.  We have wine and food open for sampling nearly every day, so be sure to ask if you see something you want to taste.  The Seasoned Gourmet takes phone orders for gift baskets and many of our products can be ordered through our website, which is still under construction.

The prices are more than reasonable at all of these places.  I may be a store manager, but I live on a budget like everyone else these days, hence the crappy tree house apartment I complain about often on this blog.  These are the places I shop because they have the best product for the price, and I am all about quality.  I want the best value possible for my hard-earned money.  These stores offer just that.

Gurus:

For the up-to-the-minute scoop on what’s going on in the Wilmington Food Scene, two indispensable resources come to mind. Port City Foodies (@portcityfoodies), a blog hosted by the Star-News and driven largely by a hard-working guy named Paul Stephen (@pauljstephen), definitely has its finger on the pulse of all things food in Wilmington.  Another reliable resource is Liz Biro (@lizbiro, @lizbirofoodtours). This lady knows everyone who’s anyone in food in the Port City and can hook you up with a tour to see the best of the best in action.

That’s it for my insider tips to the best foodie finds in Wilmington for now.  Get out there and Eat Wilmington!





Cookin’ with Gas

27 01 2013

Whew!  What a week!  I have been at the stove a lot this week, which is a good thing if you’ve come here in search of new recipes.  Below, I offer a few.  But you know how I am – I like to take these opportunities to regale you with my unsolicited opinion on all sorts of things.  If you just want the recipes, you know what to do – scroll away!

Some ingredients for our Mexi-Cali Winter Feast

Some ingredients for our Mexi-Cali Winter Feast

I had three cooking events at the store this week, with three completely different menus.  Tuesday, we did a little Mexi-Cali Winter Feast, which featured a hearty, low-fat Winter Icebox Salad for a first course.  Yesterday, I took some inspiration from Spain and France to create a menu I called “The New South,” using common Southern ingredients in some new and interesting ways.  Finally, last night we served as the first stop of a Progressive Dinner hosted by Liz Biro, who is a freelance writer, tour guide, and all around woman-to-know on the culinary scene here in Wilmington.  If you visit Wilmington, check out her Culinary Adventures and grab a tour – it’s a great way to get familiar with the who’s who of the food world in the Port City while eating (and drinking) your way around town.

So while I was doing all of this cooking, I was thinking about the merits of cooking on a gas stove.  I am often asked about the performance of the two cooktops in our store – one gas, one magnetic induction – and how they compare with electric, which is what seems to be in most of the homes in Wilmington, especially the newer ones.  Those of you who are suffering through cooking with an electric stove know that there is really no comparison – it’s like apples and oranges.  I can say this only because I, too, suffered with an electric cooktop for most of my adult life.  Once you know your stove’s response time, you can cook anything you want on an electric stove, but it ain’t always easy.  The responsiveness of a gas stove is what most cooks with an electric stove long for the most.  You turn down the flame, and the heat diminishes pretty quickly.  You turn it up, it gets hot quickly.  With an electric stove, there is time to take a potty break while you await the temperature changes.  Preheating the pan for your morning eggs takes 5 minutes.  “I’m sorry I’m late, Boss; I was waiting on my stove.”  Really, who has that kind of time?

My crappy little tree house apartment has a gas stove.  It is half the size of the electric stove in my beloved and much-missed home that I sold last year, but it performs twice as well.  Aside from the abundance of windows, it may be the best feature of this dump.  The windows, as it turns out, are as much curse as they are blessing.  It is light, bright, and just a bit too airy in here.  Airy, as in breezy, as in much like not having windows at all.  I have had to shrink wrap my windows to keep the wind from blowing through, which reduced my electric bill from $129 to $29 per month (no kidding).  I wish I could say that this was the price you pay for living in a charming historic home like my friend Roberta’s house, but I cannot.  This place is a little rickety building behind another house; there is nothing charming or historic about it.  The lack of landscaping combined with a canopy of trees means that not much is growing around here but weeds; this means that the building (I can’t bring myself to call it a house) is sitting on the equivalent of a sand dune that is eroding like crazy.  I am certain that there are termites hard at work eating the guts of this place and fear that any day it may fall down; I am hoping that Buddy and I are not home when it happens.  Every time I step into the much-too-heavy-for-this-house-of-cards claw foot tub to take a shower, I hear the floor creak and wonder if I will land, naked, in the middle of my downstairs neighbor’s kitchen.  If the fall didn’t kill me, the embarrassment would.  The good news is that it’s just him and I back here, so no one else would hear us screaming – me from humiliation, him from sheer horror at the sight of me.  I could probably wrap myself in the shower curtain before anyone else showed up.  But I digress.

So we can all agree that gas is preferred over electric as a cooking medium.  But have you tried magnetic induction?  It has been popular in Europe for quite some time, or so I am told by the appliance gurus at Atlantic Appliance. It has only become all the rage in my corner of the universe in the last few years.  I really like cooking on induction.  If it is possible for you to imagine, I find it even more responsive than gas to temperature changes.  It also does everything faster, rather like convection ovens do when baking.  The concept is that the magnets react to the pan that is placed on the “burner” and, through some sort of technology that is beyond my understanding, heats only the pan where it is in contact with the reactive surface of the cooktop.  This means that aluminum does not work on this cooktop, though cast iron, stainless steel, copper, and any other cookware that attracts magnets works just fine.  My experience has been that pans that have reactive metal layers all the way up the sides of the pan work best; those with magnetically reactive disc bottoms and aluminum sides just don’t perform as well on this cooktop; the heat doesn’t transfer up the sides of the pan.  Copper, or pans with a copper layer in them, really do the best job on induction.  I don’t understand the science of it all, but that’s what I have seen through my own cooking experience.  You can’t flambé on induction without the aid of a match, but otherwise it is a highly functional and responsive cooking medium.  So as long as you have access to matches when making Cherries Jubilee, I think induction is a really great choice.  If you don’t have natural gas where you live, it is a lot more economical to put an induction stove in your kitchen then to install a propane tank for a gas stove.  There are more attributes of cooking with gas and induction that I could discuss here, but I’ve had enough, haven’t you?  Anymore of it would be white noise.  Stop in for a demo and I’ll chat you up about it then.

Back to the food.  Among the other dishes I made this week, there seemed to be a fruit tart theme going on.  I made two different fruit tarts:  a rustic tart with fresh pineapple and mangoes, and another using a tart pan and jarred peaches and pears.  In both cases, I glazed the tarts with apricot preserves.  Almost every recipe I have found for this sort of tart calls for apricot preserves as a glaze.  Why apricot, I wonder?  I have some peach preserves in the store – I’m sure that would be equally good.  I understand why you would maybe not want to use blackberry preserves on a pineapple-mango tart, but it would be great with any kind of berry tart.  The preserves serve as a simple glaze to keep the tart moist and to aid in browning to a golden color.  Armed with that knowledge, use any preserves you would like to glaze your tart.

I think I’ve said all I have to say at the moment.  It’s my day off and I am going to spend it being a slug, watching a week’s worth of shows from my DVR.  Right now, “Must Love Dogs” is on…almost makes me want to sign onto one of those dating websites and roll the dice.  Or maybe not.

Until next time, try out these recipes.  The icebox salad will hold up for a week in the fridge, making it a great salad to tote along to work for lunches along with a bowl of the White Bean & Ham Stew.  You might want to chop the cabbage a little finer than I did so you don’t need a knife to eat it.  I’m just sayin’.

I am glad to be back at the stoves cookin’ with gas…it’s been a while!

IMG_1581Crunchy Winter Icebox Salad

3 cups fat-free Plain Greek Yogurt

½ cup Skim Milk

1 small clove Garlic, minced or pressed

1 teaspoon Cayenne Pepper

½ cup Chives, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons Cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon Mint, chopped

4 tablespoons fresh Lime Juice

1 tablespoon Sea Salt

½ teaspoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper

1 Hass avocado, thinly sliced

8 cups Green Cabbage, finely shredded (about a two-pound head)

8 Radishes, halved then thinly sliced

2 cups peeled Jicama, julienned

3 Scallions, thinly sliced

1 cup Celery, thinly sliced

4 ounces Cotija Cheese, crumbled

¼ cup Pepitas (pumpkin seeds, roasted and salted)

13” x 9” Glass or Ceramic Baking Dish

In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt, milk, garlic, cayenne pepper, chives, cilantro, mint, and 3 tablespoons of lime juice.  Add the salt and pepper; set aside.

In a small bowl or dish, toss the avocado with the lime juice

In the baking dish, spread the cabbage in an even layer.  Top with layers of radishes, jicama, scallions, celery, and avocado, then sprinkle with the cheese.  Spread the dressing over the top evenly, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.  Just before serving, sprinkle with pepitas, if desired.

Serves 8-10

IMG_1598White Bean & Ham Stew

This gorgeous winter stew, called “Garbure” in southwestern France, is inspired by a recipe from the French master Chef Jacques Pépin, who says that it is traditional to add some red wine to the last few spoonfuls of broth and sip it right from the bowl.

4 meaty Ham Hocks, about 3.5 lbs

½ lb dried Cannellini Beans, picked over and rinsed

3 quarts Water

2 medium Red Skinned Potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

1 large Leek, white and pale green parts only, cut into 1 inch pieces

1 large Celery Rib, cut into ½ inch pieces

1 large Parsnip, cut into ½ inch pieces

½ pound Savoy Cabbage, cut into 2 inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Eight ¼ inch thick slices of Peasant Bread, lightly toasted

2 cups shredded Gruyere or Comte Cheese

In a large pot, combine the ham hocks, cannellini beans, and water and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour.  Add the potatoes, leek, celery, parsnip, cabbage, and ½ teaspoon of salt.  Cover the stew and simmer over low heat for 1 hour more, stirring occasionally.

Transfer the ham hocks to a plate.  Simmer the stew uncovered over moderate heat until thickened and the beasn and vegetables are very tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the skin and bones from the ham hocks and discard them.  Chop the meat into bite-size pieces and add to the stew.  Season the stew with pepper.

Preheat the broiler.  Ladle the stew into oven-proof crocks or ramekins and place the ramekins on a baking sheet.  Top eachIMG_1603 ramekin with the bread and spread the cheese on top.  Broil on the top rack, 4 inches from the heat, until the cheese is lightly browned, about 3 minutes.  Serve right away.

Serves 8.

Note:  If, like Chef Jacques, you would like to enjoy the last of the broth in your bowl with some red wine, try a few tablespoons of Beaujolais or pinot noir.

Easy Peachy Pear Tart

This is the perfect dessert for the winter – made from luscious jarred fruit, you can toss it together in 30 minutes whenever company calls.

1 sheet of Prepared Pie Dough

½ quart Pear Halves, sliced

½ quart Peach Halves, sliced

¼ cup Apricot Preserves, heated in the microwave, for brushing the tartIMG_1602

For the Streusel Topping:

½ cup Brown Sugar, packed, plus 2 tablespoons

½ cup salted Pecans or Walnuts, chopped

4 tablespoons Unsalted Butter, melted

Arrange the prepared pie dough in a tart pan or spring form pan with a removable bottom.  “Dock” or pierce the dough all over with the tines of a fork.  If desired, weight the pie crust down with pie weights or dried beans to prevent bubbles.  Place in preheated 400oF oven and bake until lightly browned, about 8-10 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, drain and slice the fruit about ¼” thick.  Toss the streusel ingredients together in a bowl until well combined; set aside.

Arrange the sliced fruit decoratively in a single layer, overlapping, in the baked tart shell.  Brush the fruit and exposed crust with the apricot preserve.  Top with streusel topping and return to oven to bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.

Remove from oven, cool, and unmold from pan.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Top with a dollop of fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Serves 8





7 is the new 6, Writing with Abandon, and Baked French Toast

4 11 2012

Hello My Dear Readers!  I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I wrote a blog post.  I guess I feel obligated to toss you a recipe when I write to you, since this whole mess started as a cooking & dining review blog, and there has not been a lot of cooking going on up in the wee tree house apartment of late.  I have had other fish to fry (pun intended), hence my long silence.  Maybe you’ve enjoyed my relative silence.  Well, too bad – it’s over!

Squirrel Alert!

Squirrel Alert!

Last night I discovered there was a time change afoot for the hour of midnight.  I had been waiting for it all through October because I swear that’s when we usually do it.  Who gets to make decisions like when we switch from Daylight Savings Time back to Standard Time?  I want that job.  Think of the fun I could have!  Anyhow, I guess that means that 7:00am is the new 6:00am effective immediately.  The dog did not get the email and got me up at the old 6:00am.  Ugh.

While I was away not doing much cooking, I was indeed writing, just not for my blog.  I was developing background, places, characters, and other such input needed to craft my novel.  I have joined a crazy little writing phenomenon called the National Novel Writers Month, or NaNoWriMo for short.  Having already been fairly well indoctrinated into this long-standing group of nutty writing fanatics, I can tell you that we lovingly call this exercise ‘NaNo’ and those who participate ‘WriMos.’  I know, right?

What NaNoWriMo is all about is networking and providing support and encouragement to fellow writers while you all try to crank out a stunning 50,000 unedited words toward your latest novel project in the month of November.  It is totally an honor-based program in which you write and everyone else takes your word for it.  There is a feature on their website in which you can scramble a copy of your novel and upload it for official word-count verification at the end of the month, but that’s not required (and some paranoid types don’t want to send their manuscript anywhere for fear some great conspiracy exists to steal their idea – whatever).  If you get to 50K, you are considered a ‘winner.’  The point is to provide motivation to just get on with it and write, write, write thereby putting a substantial dent in your project in a short period of time.  Writers suffer from procrastination like the rest of us, and this undertaking is designed to get you over the hump and well on your way to completion of your project.  It’s like a 30 day crash diet for the overly verbose – shed those words in 30 days.  Hah – that’s pretty good.  I might have to use that again.  In case you are wondering, yes, some of the participants are actually published authors, including Sara Gruen (“Water for Elephants” et al) and many talented others.  So it’s not just for wannabes like me.

We have a somewhat active local group of WriMos here in the Wilmington area who get together to support one another in this endeavor at preparatory sessions, ‘write-ins’ and other such caffeine-laden events.  I have attended a preparatory event and the kick-off meeting.  I will attend at least one of the write-ins, though I really do my best writing in my pajamas in the living room in a noise-controlled, interruption-free environment.  But being accountable to a group of people to get this thing done is my motivation for joining them, so I will hold my own feet to the fire by showing up and networking.  I have picked up a few tips already, so it’s all good.

As I was sitting in the kick-off session a couple days ago during which questions were being asked by us newbies and answered by the more experienced, a young lady asked a question that brought out the worst of my snobby ego.  She proceeded to give some background about her story structure (there did not seem to be a firm plot yet, and this was the day to start writing) and was asking about how to decide whether she should write in first-person or third-person.  She said one of her dilemmas about first-person was that she wanted the protagonist, who moves to a new town, to initially keep some secrets from her new friends that she didn’t want to keep from the readers (she didn’t put it quite so eloquently, but that was the core question).  She didn’t know how to do that if her story was told in first person.  My bitchy ego was saying, “What? Let me replay that to make sure I heard her correctly…say what?”  I listened a bit more, and it became clear to me that she was indeed confusing the first-person narrative with dialogue.  My snobby ego was having a field day with this question in my head, saying things like, “What is she, like, 12 years old?”  After I listened to a couple people struggle to answer her and fail, I couldn’t resist speaking up.  Either they were just being nice, or they didn’t understand what she was asking because it was such an elementary writing question.  So I said, “I assume you will share your character’s thoughts in the novel and not just her spoken words.  If so, then I think you can tell your audience the secrets she is keeping through writing her thoughts.”  Lawd, I am such a bitch sometimes.  But really, isn’t this story-telling 101?  I mean, maybe she is tee-totally wasting her time here and should go play beer pong with the rest of her college buddies.  There is another college girl in the group who has been writing like this since she was a teenager and she totally gets it, so it’s not a question of youth.  At least I know her book, should she complete one, will not be competing with mine for readership.  Hah.

So if you don’t hear from me, that’s what I’m doing.  Writing my novel and trying not to be bitchy.  And working.  ‘Tis the season in retail, so I am a gift-basket-making, present-wrapping, bow-making, product-reordering, merry-(bleeping)-christmas-to-you-too-saying shopkeeper.  I really do love the pretty-making part of this time of year (I love wrapping and making gift baskets and bows), it’s all the paperwork and sense of urgency that piss me off.

But, anyhow, today I awoke an hour early (thanks to Buddy), though not really, with a desire for a sweet breakfast treat.  I am rarely about the sweet in the morning; that usually hits me in the evening.  But I need protein for fuel, so I decided to make some really eggy, custardy French toast with real maple syrup and butter to address both issues.  This is really easy and really good if you care to give it a whirl.  Nothing super special about it, it’s just a different method of preparing French toast that will remind you a bit of bread pudding.  As I am suffering from a touch of lactose intolerance these days, I am using coconut milk but you can use regular old milk of whatever variety you have in the fridge.  Oh, and you bake this in the oven, so it’s also a great time saver for a maniac writer like me who doesn’t want to waste precious writing time at the stove.

Pick a good loaf of crusty bread, slice it thick, and let the soak time and the oven work their magic.  You experienced cooks will recognize how easily this can be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled to feed any crowd.  Just get a bigger pan out of the pantry.

Get a fork!

Baked French Toast for Two (or one seriously distracted would-be author who will reheat it tomorrow)

4 thick-cut slices of Crusty Bread (I used toasted sunflower honey bread that I get at Harris Teeter)

3 large Eggs

¼ cup Milk (cow, goat, soy, coconut, whatever)

1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract (or any flavor you like, perhaps almond?)

Sprinkle of Sea Salt

Parchment Paper, if you hate messy cleanups like me and want this to look good on the plate (as opposed to prying it out of the pan all helter skelter)

Line a baking dish with the parchment paper.  I used a loaf pan for the quantity as written.  If you quadruple the batch it should fit nicely in a 13” x 9” baking dish or pan.  You could even arrange it in a non-stick oven-proof skillet if desired…but I digress.

Arrange the bread slices laying artfully in the pan, overlapping by half.  Trim the bread to fit the pan if desired, shoving the end bits into the nooks and crannies.  In a small mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and milk together until well combined and frothy.  Whisk in the vanilla. Pour egg mixture over the bread slices and let soak for a good while until all the egg mixture is absorbed into the bread (it will happen, just be patient – unless you’ve tried to substitute soft sandwich bread, then it ain’t never gonna happen).  Sprinkle with coarse sea salt (this really makes the sweetness of your topping pop out and say “good morning.”)

(Crazed Cook’s Note:  If you are a perfectionist like me, you can dirty just one more dish by placing the bread in a single layer in the shallow dish and soaking in the custard to ensure even distribution.  Then carefully transfer the bread to the baking dish and pour any remaining custard over, continuing the soak until it is all absorbed.  If you have used plain old white or wheat sandwich bread you have reached the point where you regret it as the bread will fall apart into mush when you try to transfer it.  I’m just sayin’ – go for the thick, crusty bread for this recipe.  If you are not that worried about it or are in a hurry, just arrange in the baking dish and pour the custard over, letting the tops of the bread slices go without the big soak – it will still be good.  Multi-textural.  Is that like multi-cultural? I’m not sure.)

Preheat the oven to 375oF and bake the French toast until nicely browned on top, about 30 minutes in my mini tree house apartment gas stove that is old as dirt.  In a spiffy new convection oven, I would bet on about 18-20 minutes.  In my electric oven in my previous house I would have done 400 degrees.  So follow your gut – you want crusty golden top and soft center but no runny egg stuff.

Remove from oven and rest for 5 minutes.  Two serving options:  Slide your spatula in between the bread shingles and serve them intact in sets of two; or cut as you would a coffee cake and serve in squares.

I like mine with ample butter and real maple syrup, but a nice warm fruit compote or heated raspberry preserves would be excellent as well.

Enjoy!





“Real World” Pasta – My First Video

7 10 2012

I have been trying to get all the pieces and parts of posting a video in place for a while and have finally succeeded.  I hope you don’t get nauseated from the camera jumping around a bit, but kneading pasta with one hand while holding the camera with the other is, well, challenging.  Overall, I think it’s a solid first effort.

My video camera is my iPhone.  My editing software is Windows Live Movie Maker.  My studio is my tiny kitchen in my tiny “tree house” apartment, where there isn’t really counter space sufficient for rolling out pasta.  Somehow, with these crudest of tools, I managed to get it done.

I love me some Big & Rich – they are a riot.  They are also very generous with their time and put their money where their mouth is when it comes to what they believe.  I can respect that.  So I had to use their song “Real World” for this video because they talk about how things sometimes don’t work out how you want (which could have happened with the pasta, but luckily didn’t), and they mention being “a little bit messed up and broke,” and that is such a good description of me I thought it apropos of everything.  And so it is.

Now, if I can successfully upload a video that you, my dear readers, can actually watch – well, that will spell success.   Let me know what you think.  Remember that encouragement can lead to more of the same, so do what you must.

Lawd, I hope this works out.








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