Don’t Cook in Your Bikini – a letter to my sons

Today, I was working on my cookbook. It’s a book I’ve been working on for my sons for the past 10 years. First, handwritten, and then entered into the computer and now organized and digitized, it’s almost finished. I’ve got a few more recipes to add, and a few pictures to throw into place, but I think it’s almost done.

If I can just get them to stop asking me to add more recipes…cover-image

But as I was reading and editing, I found this – the introduction to the cookbook (aptly named “Don’t Cook in Your Bikini, and Other Things I’ve Learned in the Kitchen”), a letter to my sons as they turn from boys to men.

I hope they listen.

Dear boys – 

Over the past 30+ years, I’ve spent hours in the kitchen. Probably days or weeks, if you add it all up.

And I’ve learned a lot from all that time sautéing, roasting, spicing, creating and burning… I mean, browning… the meals that y’all have mostly enjoyed. I’ve learned from my successes and I’ve learned from my mistakes.

Mostly, I’ve learned enough to keep you all from sending me on to “Worst Cooks in America.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned though, it’s  Don’t cook in your bikini.

Why not cook in a bikini?

Well, let’s just say “grease splatters.”

It’s all well and good to think that even though a summer storm has popped up outside, you can still grill burgers inside on your griddle. But, when you decide to keep your bikini on and only cover up with a holey sweater, then you’re not really thinking.

And I wasn’t.

Right up until the moment when some of the grease from the griddle jumped up and splattered burn marks all over my stomach.

Then I started thinking a lot of things, many of which ended with “%$#@!!!”

Not that there are that many people who actually WOULD cook in a bikini, but it occurred to me that if I was stupid enough to do it, then YOU might think it was a good idea too.

Apple. Tree. You get the idea.

It occurred to me, however, that cooking in a bikini was a lot like wearing a three-piece suit to garden in – it’s just not a good idea. For every particular job or activity you’ll do, you’ll  have “appropriate clothing.” And there’s a reason for that clothing. You don’t see chefs wearing bathing suits in the kitchen. You see them in long pants and comfortable shoes, and short-sleeved shirts.

Why?

To protect themselves from spills, or dragging their sleeves through the food, or, you know, catching on fire. Yes, honey, that’s a real thing. And you don’t normally see businessmen in jeans and a t-shirt. Why? Because the formality of their attire matches the air of importance they give to their products and services. It’s simple sales, really.

All that got me to thinking … there are a lot of things that I’ve learned in the kitchen that  apply to other parts of your life.

Little bits go a long way. When you’re seasoning something, the best thing to remember is to add a little at a time, and let it cook for a bit before adding more. Think about it – if you added pepper to something and throw in a full tablespoon of it, you run the risk of having whatever you’re cooking come out way too hot. But if you add a pinch or two at a time, you can get to just the right taste.

And that’s kind of like life too. When you’re adding things to your life, try not to add too much at once. Don’t decide you’re going to start a new job, start playing softball, start dating a new girlfriend and move all in the same month. Pick one, do it for a while and then add another until you feel like you can take on something else. Add too much at one time and you’ll be overwhelmed by it all.

You’re not always going to be able to do that though. Life has a way of looking at all of your well-laid plans and happy little dreams, and saying “HA! You are SO cute when you think things are going to go your way like that…” Sometimes life is going to throw a million things at you at once. The best thing you can do when that happens is to just sit down and eat a little at a time until you’ve cleaned your plate. Then you can take a step back, rest up and get ready for dessert.

Don’t be afraid to try something new or make something up, but be creative with a measure of caution. You really should never be afraid to try new things, seek out new people or combine things you love together. For every goofy idea, there is a great success, as much as there is an abysmal failure. You know, buffalo chicken quesadillas started out as a crazy idea, but it worked! Same with the Skyline Lasagna. You should never be afraid to mix things up – whether it’s with a recipe or in your life.

But, remember… just because you like two things, doesn’t necessary mean they go well together. You may like chicken and you may like bananas, but that doesn’t mean chicken and bananas should ever, under any circumstances, in any part of the world, and in any way, shape or form, be combined in one dish and put on a plate.

Similarly, beer and skiing; steak and strawberries; Chuck E. Cheese and a migraine; lima beans and …well…anything… probably not a good combination. Be careful, but always be brave and try new things.

Know when you can fudge a little. Sometimes in cooking, you have to measure carefully. Sometimes, you can wing it. You just have to know which time is which. For example, in barbecue and pizza, really, there’s not a lot of measuring. In those cases, a little of this, a little of that goes a long way. But when it comes to baking, if the recipe says “1 ½ teaspoons of baking soda” you’d better damn well be sure that you measure out exactly 1 ½ teaspoons of baking soda. I’m not kidding. Exactly.

The same is true in life. You may be able to be to skip sweeping under the coffee table every other day at home, but when it comes to work, you have to do the best and most thorough job you can as quickly as you can. You’ve got to know when it’s okay to wing it, and when it’s important to do your best. It makes a huge difference in how successful you’ll be in the long-run.

Be careful where you put your fingers.  You know, it’s important to know where your fingers are when you’re slicing something. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve told you all to curl up your fingers when you’re holding something to cut, and to be careful with knives and food processors. That applies to burning your fingers in the oven (note my hands some day) and putting stuff in hot grease too.

But it applies to other people’s business as well. You don’t need to go sticking your nose or fingers (or any other body part) into someone else’s business. If they want you to know about something, they’ll tell you. If they want you to get involved, they’ll ask you. If they want your help with something, they’ll let you know. I’m not saying, don’t ask if someone needs your help, but certainly don’t take on someone’s problems if they don’t want you there. Be loving and caring with people, and by all means, let them know you are there for them, but don’t stick your fingers in places they don’t belong.

Quit holding on to your recipes  Everyone has secret recipes and things that are theirs and theirs alone. But it doesn’t do anyone any good to hold on to them too tightly. Sharing your gifts with the world is the only clear way to get something back in return.

If I weren’t to share my recipes with you, either by writing them down for you, or cooking them for you, they’d all sit on a shelf and go to waste. But by sharing them, not only do they get a life of their own, but you give me something in return. Whether it’s “Oh, Mom, this is the bomb,” or “I loved your recipe for chicken bog, did you want my recipe for chocolate cola cake?” you get a little quid pro quo action going. When you give a little of yourself, you get a lot in return.

The things you make with love will always surpass the things you throw together Every time you cook, you should absolutely put your heart into it. And by that I mean, when you are creating something, care about the result, because someone is going to be eating that. Do you want to eat something that someone threw together without caring how it tasted, whether or not it was burnt, what kind of texture it had, whether or not the ingredients were rotten? Of course not. You want to eat something that shows someone took the time to do the best they could just for you.

Would you want something that showed someone took the time and effort to make something really great? Or would you want something that someone threw together without thinking about the end result? Put effort into what you do, care about the result – whether it’s in the kitchen or not – and your results will always be better.

Simple ingredients and simple cooking methods are sometimes the best – Eating at a French restaurant can be an amazing thing. Your Dad and I have always said French cooking is about taking out every ingredient you own and cooking them in every pot you own, cleaning all the pots and using them again to come up with an entrée the size of a walnut. It’s all very expensive and very complex and very beautiful and very tasty.

But none of it compares to a bowl of soup beans, or chicken bog, or a really good fried bologna sandwich. Not everything has to be about microgreens, or vodka-infused something or the other, or even about pan roasting something with black truffle oil and pink Himalayan salt. Sometimes, the good stuff is just about three or four ingredients put together and cooked up in the most simple of ways – strawberries and sugar with whipped cream; bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches; scrambled eggs with cheese. It’s the simple stuff that makes a difference.

And in that same vein, when you’re working, sometimes just having good quality products, without all the bells and whistles and razzle dazzle, is all you need. Got a Powerpoint slide show to do? Just do the presentation and make the information sing. Do you need slides that swoop on to the screen and blast the text from out of nowhere? Not really. Let your work stand on its own without trying to baffle people with bullshit. People know what bullshit looks like, regardless of how much glitter you sprinkle on it. Trust me.

I wish I had some beautiful, lyrical words to tell you about living a great life and making a success of yourself and being happy. I don’t. Because I really don’t know what the secrets are.

But I do know this. You only get one chance at life. Do what you want to do. Be who you want to be. Take the risks that will make you happy. It’s always better, in my mind, to look back with a smile at the end of your life and say “I can’t believe I actually did that” instead of looking back with regret and saying to yourself “I wish I had tried to do that.”

I love you both so much. You have made my life better just by being a part of it. Even when I was screaming and angry or crying and worried, you have been the biggest part of my heart and you always will be. I never knew that I could love someone so much that I would give up anything to make their life better. I know I haven’t been able to give you everything. I know I’ve made mistakes. But I also know that I tried to be the best mom I could be. And I know that no matter what, I will forever keep trying to be that and that I will always be here for you.

Probably will still be asking if you’ve brushed your teeth and done your laundry, but still… I’ll be here.  :-*

Copyright (c) Liz Carey 2017

Garden hose

It’s time to get the garden in, so naturally I made a beeline for my underwear drawer.

Gardener with Wooden Seedling TrayIt’s the same every year.

Well, okay, not every year.

There were those three or four years when the kids were younger and we lived on the river. A general disregard by my kids for anything that could be construed as a vegetable and the fact that floods don’t pay much attention to fencing, sort of made planting a garden a bad idea.

Not that we didn’t want to… we just didn’t have the time or money for that kind of failure.

This whole garden craze started when my dear husband and I were first married and moved into a house on a street in Cincinnati that easily could have been built in San Francisco. Clearly, the fact that our house was on land that could have been better described as vertical made it the perfect spot to build a raised bed garden.steep streets

Clearly.

With railroad ties and a truck full of dirt, we put in a little garden that held all the foods we would eat over the winter – tomatoes, corn, green peppers, eggplant and Brussels sprouts. And we put in a bed of herbs – basil, oregano, chives, peppermint and dill.

Let’s just say, I THOUGHT growing eggplant would be great, but I was wrong because once you grow them, you have to actually eat them. And I THOUGHT that two Brussels sprouts plants would produce enough buds to adequately feed two people, but I was wrong because it only produces enough Brussels sprouts to contemplate the correct spelling of “Brussels sprouts” on search engines when it becomes clear that bugs are eating more of them than you are.

And herbs? Here’s a tip – unless you really, really, really like the smell of dill, or the flavor of peppermint, don’t ever, EVER plant them directly into the ground because they will take over every available inch of ground they can find, from your garden well into the neighboring football field, if you let them. Even if you don’t let them, they will still do it and mock you for your feeble attempts to control them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the other hand, we had tomatoes and green peppers and corn!

I was so excited to go out and grab food that I had grown. I couldn’t wait to grab the tomatoes straight off the vine and plop a few ears of corn off the plants and into a big pot of boiling water.

But by the time I got around to it, they were gone.

I went outside and our harvest was no longer on the plants waiting for me to pick it. In fact, it was thumping along the back wall in a plastic bag, trailing two kids from our neighborhood who had come into our little backyard for a little vegetable buffet.

I suspect their mom sent them. Seriously, what kid steals vegetables?

Those little set backs didn’t stop us though. Most everywhere we went – from a row house in Newport, Ky., to a three-story mansion in the middle of Cincinnati, and here in our home in Anderson, SC – we planted a garden.

We were like the Johnny Appleseed of green vegetables and overgrown herb beds….

This past year, we had heirloom tomatoes, squash, green peppers, jalapeno peppers, carrots, radishes, basil, oregano, sage, parsley and even a few okra plants.

zukesOur tomatoes were great, as were the squash, but honestly, we just gave up on harvesting them after a while because we got tired of eating them. Do you have any idea how much an average zucchini plant produces? I would estimate it at about 728 bushels based on the number of plastic bags of zucchini I had in my freezer one year when I got the idea that if I harvested them and grated them, I could make something like zucchini bread with them later.

That was a teacher Christmas gift that went over well, I’m sure.

So, instead, we just left them there. The birds ate holes in the tomatoes. The squirrels ate the green peppers. Some other unknown entity ate the lettuce and carrots. After eating our fill, we left the rest for nature to consume. It was just too much work to worry with.

And then, there was the whole watering thing. Also, a lot like work.

We just not the type to water plants. I’m sure that our peace lilies, who have been with us for more than 16 years, tremble in fear every time we get the Christmas decorations out because they know that is the sign they’ll be coming inside, into the desert of our living room, until it gets warm outside. dead lilyOften, between December and February, I will walk by them and say to myself “Jeez, I really should water the plants,” but never actually do. It’s a wonder they haven’t gotten together and grown legs so they could strangle us in our sleep for forcing them through the torture of neglect.

When it came to the garden though, I wasn’t ever going to spend a fortune to end up with another failure. And what’s the point of spending a small fortune on a garden, if your desired result is to get something for almost nothing?

So, we came up with alternatives.

Need mulch? We use old clean cardboard boxes and newspapers.

Want an irrigation system? We poke holes in the bottoms of empty two-liter bottles and bury them in the ground near your most neediest plants to regulate a water supply that lasts for a few days.

Need plant supports? Well, … here’s where the underwear drawer comes in.

Our tomato plants are planted in front of an old trellis that I have had for more than 15 years. Tomato plants don’t generally take to being trained up a trellis and they’re pretty fragile, so tying them up can be problematic. Sometimes, even string can cut into the tender vines and leave you with nothing but a stem that’s beautiful on the bottom, but withered and bare on the top. The Solution? Old panty hose. They have just enough give in them to be supportive for the tomatoes while holding them in place.

tying-tomatoes-pantyhoseWhich means one of my first stops when setting out the garden is to rummage through my underwear drawer to find hose with runs and rips and tears in them. Since no pair seems to last for more than 378 seconds, happily, they aren’t hard to find.

I’ll be out buying plants and seeds this week. And I’ll be going through my underwear drawer.

But I’m pretty sure the kids next door won’t be stealing my tomatoes this year. They have a chicken coop.

Maybe we can trade veggies for eggs.

One more thing to store in old panty hose, I’m sure…

Copyright (c) Liz Carey 2015

Veggie Time

I’m sorry, I have to say it. I really dislike some vegetarians.

I don’t dislike the fact that they are vegetarians – heck, I think everyone has the right to decide what they want to eat. And honestly, if someone would rather eat spinach, cannellini beans and quinoa instead of bacon double cheeseburger, that’s none of my business.

No, the ones I have a problem with are the vegetarians who think that because THEY are vegetarians, you want to be one, or should be one too.

For instance, this afternoon, I picked up a soup cookbook at the library. I have to say I was really excited because a quick look at the back cover included a reference to “pho” one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes.

Beef Pho
Beef Pho

Pho is known for being one of the great Vietnamese street foods, and you won’t see an Anthony Bourdain Vietnam episode without some mention of it. It’s a soy sauce based broth on noodles called bahn pho, with herbs, spices and meat – usually either beef or chicken. It’s just amazing comfort food, give or take the “slurp slurp” noise that sometimes accompanies eating it.

So, I was really excited to get the recipe home and try it our, right? Of course right!

Imagine my surprise then when I open the book to the right page and there, in little words before the recipe, was a disclaimer saying while the original recipe was “redolent with beef” they had made theirs a vegetarian version.

WHAT?!?! I didn’t want a vegetarian version of a meat and noodles soup! I didn’t want faux pho, I want pro pho!

You want me to do what with it?
You want me to do what with it?

And then I realized all of the soups were vegetarian versions with little notes about how, if you gave it as a gift, the recipient could add their own meat later after you left.

Yeah, that’s TOTALLY going to make your friend happy to have to get a gift that makes you work…

It reminded me of a friend a few years ago who was getting married. A guest of one of the invited guests requested that not only did she want a vegetarian dish that the hostess hadn’t planned on providing, but that no meat be served at her table during the reception. I’m not making this up. I was stunned too.

Here’s the thing, if you don’t want to eat meat, that’s cool, just don’t expect me to forego meat with you or for your comfort.

There's plenty of vegetables on there for two...
There’s plenty of vegetables on there for two…

If someone wants to delude themselves into believing that tofu and mung beans taste better than ribs and brisket, that’s fine for them. But please don’t expect me to order a salad and cornbread at the Big Pig BBQ because I’m sitting at a table with vegetarian.

You know; if you can’t take the meat, stay out of the smokehouse.

Some vegetarians I know talk about the poor animals who are murdered for our carnivorous needs and it makes them sad or sick to even see them on a plate.

Or that the animals are poor sweet creatures slaughtered for our benefit.

Uhm, let’s take cows for instance. I’ve worked with cows. A) they stink. B) they poop in their food. And c) they are dumber than rocks.

Not that any of them does anything to deserve being hit in the head with a sledgehammer, cows-in-field2but still … they don’t all look like Bessie on the milk carton or the cute cows you see on Chick-Fil-A billboards. And none of them talk. Honest. They are big, dumb creatures that taste really good roasted over a charcoal pit.

A good steak, medium rare with a nice garlic butter? Awesome. Man, oh man, it doesn’t get any better. Add a baked potato and a good Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon. Heaven in dishware.

I don’t think anyone will ever say that about bean sprouts or edamame. I just can’t picture anyone getting worked up about a carrot raisin salad and a side of fried tofu covered in tomato sauce with a glass of sauvignon blanc.

There’s no point in arguing that one way of eating is better than another. It won’t make enough of a difference to a meat eater to give up sausage, and it won’t make a vegetarian choke down some bacon. People should be able to choose to eat what they want. But no one should assume that others should share in their eating habits, just because they happen to be around them and don’t like the smell of what they might order.

You think beef smells bad? Get a whiff of tamarind paste or falafel soaking once in a while.

Stinks worse than the damn cows, if you ask me.

But then again, if you’re a vegetarian sitting next to me, I’m not going to assume you will eat up a big bowl of beef stew just because I’m next to you either.

 

Copyright (c) Liz Carey 2015

Tasting memories

Since Friday, I’ve been thinking about the premiere of Downton Abbey.

As Masterpiece Theater classic television goes, it is the best of high period drama. It is also one of my guilty indulgences.DOWNTONABBEY_SEASON5_TT_hires-scale-690x390

When I watch it, I sometimes think of what it would be like to be Elizabeth McGovern’s character and live out my days leisurely with servants to do all of the things I scream at my kids to do. I imagine dressing for a dinner that someone else cooks, on dishes I’ll never have to wash and going to sleep in a bed I’ll never have to make or wash the sheets of.

Of course, that’s all just a dream.

But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to bring a little English culture to our home. As a lifelong slight anglophile, I have admired English culture since I was first introduced to it through Camelot and Robin Hood.

When I was graduated from high school, my mother took me to England, Scotland and Wales. It was a dream come true. We traveled to London, where she took some classes while I walked through the streets of the town, looking at the sites. After going out on a date with one of the servers from the restaurant of our hotel, Mom and I traveled to Scotland, through the Dales and into the British and Welch countryside.

As we traveled, our plan was simple – eat the hotel’s continental breakfast (hard “toast”, one croissant, jam, butter and tea), then have high tea instead of lunch because it was cheaper. full-english-breakfast035Took a while to figure out that biscuits were crackers. When we were in bed and breakfasts, we’d eat their rather sumptuous breakfasts (which shocked the heck out of me because it was the first time anyone had ever served me baked beans and tomato slices along side bacon, eggs and toast), have high tea and then go for a light supper. That was a rasher of bacon was the meaty bit of a bacon slice and the streaky was the fatty bit.

And yes, it really is true that when you’re a stranger in a small town, walking into a pub will result in everyone stopping in the middle of their conversations and looking at you, which doesn’t even stop when you order what ever it is they are serving for supper.

Today, as I was waiting for the return of Downton Abbey’s fifth season, those memories came flooding back to me; Mom and I walking through churches built before America was even discovered, watching the changing of the guard, hitting Edinburgh and touring the castle just as 40,000 David Bowie fans stormed the city, many of whom serenaded us under our hotel window after the concert was over at 1 a.m.

I loved the castles. I loved the history. I loved the smell of the Scottish heather perfume that I bought there.

I hated the food though.

Steak and kidney pie? Bleck. Bubble and Squeak? Basically leftover potatoes and cabbage and Brussels sprouts with beef and gravy. Right. And let’s not even get started on Haggis, black pudding or jellied eel…Nigel-Slaters-classic-bub-006

Still, the memories of all those afternoons spent with my mom over tea and scones with clotted cream and jam made we want to relive some of my real memories before I embarked on my fantasy memories later tonight.

I decided to make Welsh rarebit, or Welsh rabbit, depending on how you decide you want to pronounce it.

The American version of Welsh rarebit is basically, a cheesy bechamel sauce on toast. But the English version is more of a cheese and beer paste that is spread on buttered toast and broiled for a late Sunday “what do make when the pantry is empty” supper.

Of course, I had to make my own version. Just a little here, and a substitution there, and next thing you know, Bob’s your uncle and all that.

First, I started with three slices of honey wheat bread, spread with butter and toasted lightly in the broiler. At the same time, I fried up about six slices of bacon. Once those were done, I put them both to the side and started on the cheese sauce.

Most British recipes call for dry mustard and stout. I don’t have either. I had Dijon and Thomas Creek’s Red Ale. So that’s what I used. Combining about a tablespoon of ale and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard in a small saucepan, I whisked them together until they were smooth. Then I added another two tablespoons of ale, a tablespoon of butter, about a teaspoon of Worcestershire, some paprika and a dash of red pepper. Then I heated those until the butter melted, stirring frequently.

Once the mixture came to a boil, I added half a cup of shredded Colby jack cheese, half a cup of shredded cheddar and about a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese and whisked them all together until the cheeses melted and the mixture was smooth. You’ll see that this turns into a nice sauce that just coats the fork or whisk that you are using.

To this, I added one egg yolk. I pierced the egg yolk with a fork and added to a warm, but not hot, cheese mixture. So that the egg yolk doesn’t scramble in the heated mix, I whisked it really quickly until it began to thicken. You’ll see that the mixture begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and starts to form more of a paste like consistency.

welsh-rarebitAt this point, I started to assemble the sandwich. I sliced a tomato into three slim slices and put them on a paper towel to dry out a bit. On a cookie sheet, I put each piece of toast and topped each piece with a tomato slice. I topped that with two pieces of bacon, cut in half. From there, I spooned the cheese mixture on top of the sandwich until it covered the bacon, tomato and bread. After sprinkling the completed sandwich with parsley, I put the cookie sheet into the broiler and broiled the sandwich until it was bubbling and browning a little.

In all, the sandwich took about 15 minutes to make. It was a great easy lunch to make for a grey and raining afternoon.

But more than that, it helped me reconnect with my Mom. And with my kids. Raymond-Briggs-The-SnowmanLittle Mason thought it was pretty good, but Max wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t tea at a little shop in the middle of Oxford, but it was my way of introducing them to the culture I love. Max is already reading the five-book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (yeah, that’s correct) and I’ve made them watch Raymond Briggs illustrated cartoons and Tin Tin since before it was cool to do that.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to take the to England or Ireland or Scotland, but for now I’m sure they’ll indulge their old Mom on a few of the finer points of English cooking… at least the palatable ones.

 

Copyright (c) Liz Carey 2015

Eight ways you know the holiday honeymoon is over

I’m pretty sure I am all Christmas’d out.

Seriously.

As I sit here on my couch on a rainy 60 degree Sunday, some of my friends are celebrating their fourth and fifth family holiday today. Heck, some of them have had more than eight holiday celebrations in the course of the last month.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas as much as the next person… christmaseveprobably more than some in fact. I love the secrets, the smells, the sights… even the sappy Christmas specials where the evil shopkeeper realizes there is more to the season than commercialism and peace returns to Happyville and little Timmy gets his dog back.

Yeah, I know, I’m a bit sentimental, but life can’t be all sarcasm, moonshine and zombies now, can it?

So, after countless batches of Christmas candy, a seemingly endless stream of holiday engagements and a month-long marathon of shopping or making gifts, I think I’m done for a while.

How can I tell? The signs are all around us… Here’s the top 8 ways to tell you’re done with Christmas.

  1. smoking-credit-cardYour credit card is no longer smoldering and your mailbox is busting at the seams with with bills.
  2. The desire for rich foods like turkey with all the fixings, crown roast of pork and prime rib has been replaced by an urgent need for salad, soup and sandwiches or a plain baked potato.
  3. No one in the house wants to eat any of the goodies you’ve painstakingly made over the past month. Christmas cookies and peanut butter fudge go uneaten, while jelly beans and Doritos disappear by the handful.christmas-tree-dry-211x300
  4. The sight of Christmas trees and the not-so-green-anymore greenery around the house brings less feelings of nostalgia and holiday spirit and more thoughts of kindling and the growing concern over how long into Spring you’ll still be sweeping up pine needles.
  5. The pangs of guilt over things you didn’t get accomplished – including not knitting your grand niece and nephew matching glove and hat sets because you ran out of time and not mailing out handmade Christmas cards because you forgot they were in your glove compartment – have dissipated and been replaced by nagging thoughts of “I should probably still try to do that sometime before Valentine’s Day.”
  6. ragincajungatorsYou’d rather watch “Ragin’ Cajun Redneck Gators” on Syfy than suffer through yet another showing of “Elf,” “Shrek the Halls,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” or “A Christmas Story.”
  7. The long list of holiday engagements has been replaced by long afternoon naps and curling up with a good book for hours on end.
  8. As temperatures here in South Carolina reach up into the 50s, planning holidayspring_vegetable_garden_guide_when_to_plant travel schedules is replaced with an urgent desire to plant a garden.

So, let’s take a few minutes and say goodbye to 2014’s holiday season. It’s been one to put in the record books… well, the keepsake books anyway, if indeed we keep any of those. And remember, there’s just 363 shopping days left to find the perfect gifts for Christmas 2015.

Copyright Liz Carey (c) 2014

Dear women’s magazines, I give up

Okay, women’s magazines, you win.

can't I give up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to stop reading you, I’m just not going to succumb to your particular brand of torture anymore.

I’ve read women’s magazines since I was a little girl. I drooled over recipes and wondered what it would be like, as a teenager, to have the freedom to make “Pan-seared Duck with orange confit and a bed of microgreens.”

I’ll admit it, I’ve been a foodie since I was knee high to a Kitchen Aid, but now… I just don’t think I can take this anymore.

You’ve all just gone over the top.

Like any good foodie mom, I read your “How to make a gourmet dinner for your family in less than 30 minutes” and I want to be able to do that.

Making a dinner for my family that would please the palate of Gordon Ramsey in half an hour using only 15 simple ingredients? So doable, I thought.

Gone are the days of salmon patties with buttered egg noodles and corn. Tomorrow, it’s Korean beef lettuce wraps with soba noodles and edamame. I can do this!, I thought.

But now, you’re just being silly. Now, you’re putting in your magazines things no kid who isn’t starving or on a forced diet would eat.

It’s just that, recently, reality has hit me.

I don’t care what your cooks do in your kitchen, no matter how hard I try, there’s no way I’m making a three course dinner for four in less than an hour. I know, I know, you’ve got all those timing things outlined in your directions, but honestly, how you do all that chopping when you’ve got to help with homework and clean the house is beyond me.

And another thing, do you think you could start printing recipes that use ingredients I might actually have in my kitchen?

One recently included mashed parsnips.mashed-parsnips

Parsnips?

Really?

Who the hell buys parnsips on a regular basis?

I’d like to make gourmet meals, really I would.

But I think if I were to serve pomegranate, watercress and roasted macadamia nut salad my guys would look at me like I had stepped off of the pages of Bourgious Kitchen and straight into the world of la-la land.

And as much as I’d like to make a panko and peanut crusted chicken breast with orzo and a side of pan roasted broccolini, I’ve only got stove top stuffing mix, a can of cream of mushroom soup and some french-style green beans in my pantry.

I can’t go out spending $40 on one dish that my family will say “Eh. It was okay” to, when I’ve got another 13 dishes to make and only $300 to spend, over the next two weeks – and that includes money for pizza night!

A quick look at some of my cookbooks proves my point. In the Betty Crocker Family Dinners in a Hurry cookbook, circa 1969 (yes, I’m well aware that some of my cookbooks are just as old as I am – almost), there’s a recipe for Broiled Round Steak with Mustard Butter and Herbed Tomatoes that lists 8 ingredients for the main and side combined – and that’s INCLUDING the round steak! – that takes less than 20 minutes to make and serves 6.

In Southern Living’s May 2014 edition, the recipe for Flank Steak and Cucumber Salad lists 16 ingredients, including Asian chili paste (“such as Huy Fong” it says) and English cucumbers (in my head, I swear I was thinking “I say, are you a regular cucumber, or do you come from across the pond, dear chap?”).

Sixteen ingredients. For a salad. That takes nearly an hour to prepare. And serves 4.

Are you kidding me?

When the boys were younger, I was an industrious chef.

witches fingersI’d make Halloween dinners that looked like witches’ fingers with ghostly shaped mashed potatoes. I made weekday dinners of tuna melts that looked like little boats with American cheese slice sails. I made decorated cupcakes for school birthday parties.

(Just a note – when you make cupcakes in ice cream cones decorated to look like.. well, ice cream cones… uhm, there’s no way you can ever get over the look in your kids’ school friends’ faces when they realize it’s not, in reality, ice cream.)

But today, … uhm… not so much.

Tonight when I went into the kitchen, I had no idea what I was making until I found a freezer bag of the poultry variety, a box of long grain and wild rice mix, some potato chips, shredded cheese and a can of mushroom soup.

Thank God, for cream of mushroom soup.

Throw that together with sauteed onions, pimentos and frozen peas, and viola! Casserole surprise!

Still took an hour though. And that’s not counting the time spent pondering what the hell am I supposed to make tonight.

But it was affordable. I would say I probably spent $7-$10 on the whole meal, and that’s including the meat substance – whatever it was.

And they ate it! They actually ate it and said “Not bad, Mom.”

Running to the store to buy the ingredients of the aforementioned flank steak and I would have easily gone through $40, and that’s not including Huy Fong (whatever the hell that is, and depending entirely on whether my small town Southern grocery store would have actually had anything remotely resembling it).mom in store

It’s just too much.

If I’m honest, I just don’t have the time for that crap. Heck, I don’t even know where I would find pomegranates in my hometown.

I’m all about good cooking and living with nice things, but enough is enough. I’m not ever going to host a party where my friends are going to turn up their noses at my cornbread salad, or homemade guacamole. I like all your stuff, but, damn, it’s just too over the top anymore. Can’t you just print normal recipes?

I want my family to be happy, but not at the cost of spending beyond my means. And I’m not alone. Making a gourmet dinner for my family at the cost of their college funds? Not likely.

You all go ahead and make your spinach infused fish fillets with cous cous and sauteed Italian eggplant.

I’ll be the one making fried chicken in my cast-iron skillet and smiling when my kids actually eat it.

Course, that does cut down on the money I save in eating leftovers though…

 

Copyright (c) Liz Carey 2014

Cooking discovery nights

We’ve reached the moment during the week that I hate the most.

I hate cooking discoveries... really.
I hate cooking discoveries… really.

It’s the cooking discovery moment.

It happens every week, so I should be better prepared for it… maybe even plan for it or something, but I never do and I just assume that each one will be the last one and we won’t fight like this.

Me and my kitchen that is.

I hate my kitchen during cooking discovery moments too.

Right now, it is 6:13 p.m., on Thursday, June 12. It is the first night I’ve had the chance to cook a real home-cooked meal for my family this week… I don’t know that burrito night on Monday counts, since all I did was sauté up some chicken with a packet of seasonings and slice veggies or open cans of stuff. Okay, so it’s a lame home-cooked dinner, but I’ll still take it.

Anyway… every two weeks, I write up a list of what we will eat for the next fourteen days, noting on the schedule any after school/after work activities that might interfere with a normal cooking and eating pattern. For instance, Monday – I had to run to the grocery store and do shopping since we didn’t get a chance to do it this weekend, and then Tuesday, I had to cover the primary election for the Associated Press, and then Wednesday was Working Woman’s Wednesday, which meant margaritas with my BFF and schmoozing.

So Monday was burritos; Tuesday was Hubbie cooking hot dogs and French fries; Wednesday was salmon and noodles.

this or cooking fish... you chose...
this or cooking fish… you chose…

Like I’m going to hurry home to slave in a kitchen to make fish instead of drinking margaritas, right?

But now it’s Thursday. And it’s supposed to be Pepper Steak night.

My steak is defrosting in the microwave and I’m sautéing up some onions and garlic, and my rice is on the boil, and I’m looking for my green pepper, and…of course, there’s no green pepper.

Which is weird because I know I bought a green pepper. In fact, I know I bought two on Saturday when I was making brats, but I only sliced up one because no one ever eats the green pepper and onion stuff I make to go with my brats except me. I know there should be one left.

It’s not like anyone in this house is going to open up the fridge and say to themselves “Hmmmm, you know what I’d really like right now? Some green pepper… with ranch! That’s a good snack!”

Yes, peanut butter and cheezits is a real thing...
Yes, peanut butter and cheezits is a real thing…

No, these are guys who are more likely to say “What can I snack on that does not require an inordinate amount of work to get out and/or put away?… We’ve got fruit loops, but that would require a bowl, finding a spoon and the act of pouring some milk. Jeez, I might as well cook… there’s tortilla chips and salsa, but that would also require a bowl and getting the tortilla chips off the top of the fridge… there’s peanut butter, crackers in a sealed box, cocoa powder, a half-opened box of Cheezits and a microwavable pizza roll snack box … Okay, peanut butter on Cheezits it is!”

SO…I’m half way through making pepper steak, and I discover we have no green pepper. This is cooking discovery time. I’ve discovered I have no green pepper and will have to discover what to make in its place.

Invariably, this happens at least once every other week. I go to the store as soon as I get off work, grab a few mad dash items and come home to start supper only to find that I am missing the one key ingredient that makes the dish whole.

And because I’m too lazy, or tired, or busy to run back to the store, I have two choices – make something else, or get someone else to do it for me.

Hubbie was exhausted from being in the heat all day so there’s no way I’m making him get up. For a few moments, I actually consider giving my 14-year-old son the keys to my Jeep. Then I remember what it was like when we were practice driving, and realized I was too tired to have my face all over the evening news if he drives through a gas station pump or the new sliding doors of the grocery store.

And just as inevitably, while I’m standing here pondering what the heck to do, someone asks – “What are we having for dinner?” To which, the response is, as always, “I have no idea.”

While I stir the rice and pour myself a glass of wine to calm my nerves, I look through the kitchen cabinet… canned carrots, canned chili, canned pineapple, canned mushrooms, some canned clams, a half-empty package of Arborio rice and four different kinds of cereal, none of them with marshmallows in them.

Not only was dinner going to be difficult, but also the lack of marshmallow cereal meant no dessert. Bummer.

Stir fried beef
Stir fried beef

I decided to improvise and make a stir-fried beef with the mushrooms and pineapple, throwing in some oyster sauce and sesame oil from the refrigerator for good measure.

I had just enough time to pop some frozen egg rolls into the oven and finish the rice while the beef was cooking down its sauce. It was going to be a good dinner after all.

It just doesn’t look right. It looks bland. I think that’s why the Chinese put so many vegetables in their stir-fries, to make them look better. Otherwise, it’s just a pile of drab sitting on a pile of white on your table.

When Hubbie comes in to talk to me and grab a beer, I make one last look for a few more veggies to pop into the dish – just to brighten things up – like a carrot or some thing green.

Hubbie goes outside and grabs summer squash from the garden, but just as quickly he forbids me from putting it in the stir fry saying squash doesn’t GO with stir fry…

It’s discovery night, I’m thinking to myself…. Let’s discover if you’re wrong… But no, he’s right. Squash doesn’t sound like it would go all that well with oyster sauce.

Instead, I turn back to the refrigerator. The carrots have seen better days. The radishes don’t look all that edible, and no one wants limp celery in anything.

Then, as I close the vegetable bins and moved aside the tortillas and cheese,something peaks out at me from the bottom refrigerator shelf and I know I could just scream. I’ve just found exactly what I needed to add.

A green pepper.

Stupid cooking discovery moments…

 

Copyright (c) Liz Carey 2014

Soup beans and cornbread

 

Last Sunday was soup beans and cornbread night in our house.

Great Northern beans almost the way Dad made them... just need a little ketchup now...
Great Northern beans almost the way Dad made them… just need a little ketchup now…

It was 60s out in May in the South, so it was soup weather. And what good is soup without cornbread, right?

There was a time when I wasn’t exactly proud of telling anyone that we regularly ate soup beans.

I mean it is a reminder of my family’s poor upbringing. It’s rural Kentucky food. It’s mountain food. It’s not the food that anyone is going to put on the menu at a fine dining restaurant, but everyone has seen on the menu at Cracker Barrel.

Mine are nothing like what you get at Cracker Barrel… tonight it was pintos and salt pork with peppercorns. Throw it all in the pot with an onion and let it cook for hours and you’ve got a huge bowl of flavorful protein. Yum.

Sometimes, we have navy beans or great northern beans with left over ham. That’s my special favorite because it reminds me of my Mom’s house.

Sometimes, we have 15-bean soup, which comes with its own ham flavored seasoning pack, so you don’t have to add, you know, … meat. It’s the soup equivalent of Coors Lite – a little bit of flavor without any substance of any kind.

When I was a kid, it seemed like every time we went to my grandmother’s house to visit, we had soup beans and cornbread.

pintos-and-cornbread

I hated it.

In fact, I dreaded it.

The smell is unique and has a smoky sweetness with a sort of bacony aroma.

And every time I smelled it, I groaned.

But, it made sense. My grandparents weren’t rich, and soup beans were the best choice for them when the house went from two to six. Cheap and easy to make, it was a way to extend a meal to feed a crowd, no matter how many showed up.

But I hated it. It wasn’t bad. I mean, it’s tasty, but I wanted pizza or hamburgers, or fried chicken even. For a spoiled doctor’s daughter, soup beans were NOT the dinner one looked forward to.

Of course, my mom loved it. It was her mother’s cooking, after all. She loved going back to the comfort of her childhood.

I grew up hours away from my grandmother in Central Kentucky, but still my mom made Kentucky favorites. Summers were spent eating cottage cheese and tomatoes fresh out of the garden with a little dollop of mayonnaise on top. We had corn pudding for Thanksgiving dinner. Derby time always meant Derby pie.

And soup beans were a rarity, but a still on the menu

I couldn’t stand them. I just let my mom eat them.

It was like when our family went to Florida. Everywhere we stopped to eat, someone was handing us grits. The further south we got the more plates of grits piled up on the table. Actually, they all ringed my mother’s plate, as we all passed them to her and let her eat them. It’s honestly a miracle that woman didn’t blow up like a hot air balloon that summer.

It was like when our family went to Florida. Everywhere we stopped to eat, someone was handing us grits. The further south we got the more plates of grits piled up on the table. Actually, they all ringed my mother’s plate, as we all passed them to her and let her eat them. It’s honestly a miracle that woman didn’t blow up like a hot air balloon that summer.

At the time, I was starting to cook. I was 11 or so, and I discovered that I really enjoyed cooking, especially cooking for others. I made quiche because I thought it was cool. I made barbequed hot dogs on noodles when my mom went back to school. My aunt taught me to make pies using gooseberries that had been in the freezer since the day I was born. I learned how to make Mom’s chicken and dumplings and beef stew.

Of course I also wanted to expand my knowledge. I devoured cookbooks like some people do peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches. I learned about French cooking and the specialties of New England, and the differences between Northern Italian and Southern Italian cuisine.

I all but turned up my nose at the Kentucky food I had grown up on.

One day, I was reading a cookbook and found a recipe for Senate bean soup. I was thrilled. If it had the word “Senate” in it, it had to be special didn’t it?

look familiar? yeah... you'll find recipes for Senate bean soup in Bon Appetit, but soup beans and cornbread? Not so much...
look familiar? yeah… you’ll find recipes for Senate bean soup in Bon Appetit, but soup beans and cornbread? Not so much…

This was going to be my culinary adventure into Northern cooking, I thought. Why, they even had cans of it by some famous chef in the grocery store! It had to be excellent when made from scratch, right?

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the ingredients… beans, ham, water. It was fricking navy bean soup! Only with a few potatoes added.

Yep... sorry folks, polenta is Italian grits. Seriously. You can do this at home...
Yep… sorry folks, polenta is Italian grits. Seriously. You can do this at home…

Disgruntled at being tricked, I decided to only cook recipes from Europe from then on. I learned how to make shrimp scampi, paella and pate. By the time I had worked my way up to Italian polenta, I was a dutiful Europhile foodie … right up until I realized that polenta was basically fried grits.

All of the food I had hated during my childhood was loved by others. They just had different names!

Now in fact, a bowl of soup beans and cornbread is probably one of the most ordered side dishes in the South, right up there with macaroni and cheese, sausage gravy and biscuits and rice and gravy.

I’m telling you – don’t turn your nose up on rice and gravy until you try it…

But it wasn’t until after I graduated from college that soup beans and cornbread became my go-to comfort food.

Always on Sunday afternoons, when it was cool and rainy out, soup beans became this way for me to be home, without actually going home. It became the way to connect with my past, and rethink my future.

It’s the smell, I think. Its earthiness and richness grounds me. I can put them on the stove; take a nap and fall asleep dreaming of my old Kentucky home.

In our house, we eat soup beans differently – the way my dad did.

Traditionally, with soup beans, you eat them with raw onions broken up in the bowl and cornbread on the side. Since my husband can’t stand soup, he crumbles the cornbread right into the soup beans to make some sort of stew like substance.

My dad, however, ate them differently. You take the soup beans; you add ketchup and a forkful of sweet pickle relish. Why? I have no idea. Then again, my Dad perfected the fried bologna sandwich and was the first person to ever make yellow tomato ketchup.

I’m not sure that says anything about Dad, but I do know that’s the only way I will eat soup beans, regardless of the weird looks I get from waitresses in virtually ever restaurant I’ve ever eaten it in.

I know there are regional favorites that I’m sure some people identify with like I do bean soup. Maybe Mainers are like that when they eat New England clam chowder, or a lobster roll. Maybe Southwesternites are all happy when they eat Tex Mex. Maybe even Chicago-ites wax nostalgic when they eat a slice of pizza.

But none of them know what it’s like to eat a bowl of soup beans and be taken back to their grandmother’s house – with its heat vent in the middle of the hall, the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee in the air, and millions of memories lingering in the walls, the rooms and the furniture.

This past weekend, I made the guys French toast, bacon and grits. My kids rolled their eyes at the lumpy white mush. I’m hoping one day, they’ll look at a bowl of grits and think of their old Mom. Or at least take me on vacation and load me up with all their unwanted bowls of grits.

And maybe, one day, they’ll make a pot of soup beans and cornbread and smile.

As long as they eat it with ketchup and relish, I’m okay with that.

(c) Copyright Liz Carey 2014

 

Our lifelong science experiment

I don’t know how our home turned into an ongoing science experiment.

Science ExperimentsAnd not in that “Oh, look Mom, the leftovers from three weeks ago are moving” kind of way, but more in that “Gee, I wonder what happens if you put fire crackers in a four-month old pumpkin” kind of way.

It seems like there’s always something weird going on in our house… an experiment on how long it takes Peeps to get really good and stale, the deconstruction of one of those Fushigi balls to see if it could lead to a renewable energy source, whether or not you can boil a shark’s jaw to firm it up like it looks like they do in Jaws…

Maybe it’s because I live with men.

I mean, I can understand the firecracker thing. It was New Year’s Eve and we were running out of things to blow up (which is also, technically, an entertainment source in our house) and so the guys looked around and saw a pumpkin. Now, I should probably explain that it had been there since September and was supposed to have been used in a praline pumpkin cheesecake, but somehow that didn’t happen and it ended up just sitting outside for three months.

This in and of itself isn’t really all that unusual for our house either. We have a pretty substantial garden off of our porch that we fill with vegetables every year, but by around August I get kind of tired of picking everything and it gets hot, so the vegetables just sort of sit out there… Helps reduce the amount of planting you have to do the next year, though, I’ll tell you that.

Anyway, so the pumpkin was sitting there and someone noticed it had a soft spot in it and said “Oh, hey… I wonder what would happen if we put a firecracker in there?” which they proceeded to do.

Anyway, so the pumpkin was sitting there and someone noticed it had a soft spot in it and said “Oh, hey… I wonder what would happen if we put a firecracker in there?” which they proceeded to do.

What happens? The little soft spot in the pumpkin turns into a little hole, that’s what happens. And then, since you can’t ever just do an experiment once, and you have to test your results, the little hole turns into a bigger hole, and a little bit bigger hole, until eventually someone gets the bright idea of putting four or five fire crackers in there, since it now has room, and the whole top of the pumpkin blows off.

Which, of course, is when we discovered that smoke bombs inserted into a pumpkin with the top blown off look really cool cause the smoke comes up and sort of pours over the sides like bubbling wispy ooze. Who wouldn’t love to figure that out?

The Pumpkin Fire Cracker Experiment, of course, led to the Great Fourth of July Fire Crackers in the Soda Bottle experiment, where the idea was to see what would happen if you put water-proof fire crackers in a almost empty 20-ounce plastic Mountain Dew bottle, put the cap back on and let the fire crackers explode. Result? With a muted snap-thud, the bottle jumps almost up to the ceiling of your porch causing outbursts of testosterone-fueled giggles and screams of “Dude, wait! Let me do it!” until someone doesn’t put the top back on all the way and sulfur-infused, firecracker debris-laden Mountain Dew leftovers spill all over someone.

Really.

I guess some of that experimenting comes from me. I tend to be a little “creative” in the kitchen, and probably tend to wonder “what if” a little more than some … okay, a lot more. And some of it they get from their Dad, who is always interested in trying to figure out ways to blow things up or set things on fire or make them work faster or rework them to get them to work for him when other things don’t. As a matter of fact, Max, my youngest son, is outside right now trying to figure out how to make fire with two rocks since I took the lighter away from him. Maybe it’s inherited.

So, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that this year, we had tie-dyed Easter eggs. We hard-boiled them just like everyone else does, but then we cracked the shells and left them in the dye for about a million hours (okay, 30 minutes) until the dye had seeped into the white of the eggs.

IMG_20140420_164144And then we peeled them and turned them into deviled eggs. You know, when you think about it, why should the color only be on the eggs when the shells are on? I’m sure it would make egg salad pretty non-appetizing but for deviled eggs, It really did look cool. Of course, it all started with the question, “I wonder what would happen if… ”

Despite the minimal risk of danger and the frequent messes, I kind of like the idea of our never-ending experiments. It’s not just about science, but about exploration and questioning and never being satisfied with the status quo. It’s about continuing to learn every day for the rest of our lives. It’s about expanding one’s boundaries and pushing the envelope – even if the envelope is a pumpkin. And I like that my sons are learning that.

As long as they’re not questioning me.

When he saw the tie-dyed deviled eggs at Easter dinner, Max asked if I was trying to poison him so I could steal his Peeps. I told him I wasn’t.

They were still technically part of the Peep staleness experiment… duh.

 

© Liz Carey 2014

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