Tuesday, May 31, 2011

cooking outside the LKTC

As I mentioned, I'm spending a little less than a week at home in between jobs.  For a while, when I would come back to the Lake, there were a few neighborhood places I insisted we visit. Then two of my three favorites closed.  So we've done more in-house cooking/eating.  A beyond-familiar concept to many, maybe, but not always for us.  

But what better day to turn out a southern meal and have friends over than Memorial Day?  Mom and I woke up and decided we just had to have pulled pork, which, because pork takes 8 to 10 hours in a slow cooker, demanded an early morning covert trip to the grocery in baseball caps (hey, when the entire small town knows your dad as being one of the only male teachers at his school, you are often accosted at the grocery, whether you look like you just woke up or not). Standing in line for Starbucks while Mom paid for the pork, I ran in to our good family friend.  More accurately, our good family friend had to shake my shoulder to snap me out of my Blackberry coma to say hello.  Details.

Luckily their family had also been thinking of throwing a pork in the crock pot and having people over, so we joined forces.  Before we went off on yet another (non-grocery) shopping adventure, Mom and I tossed the giant pork in a spice rub, put the crock pot on low, and hoped it'd cook in time.  When we got back, the true adventure began.  (Note: more accurately, Mom did the pork handling and I observed, for I have an irrational fear of raw meat)

I decided to try and recreate a barbeque sauce originally published by the Pioneer Woman, but introduced to me by Allie at one of our weekly dinners.  When Allie made it, I merely looked on as she fought with the chile peppers in adobo sauce, and silently patted myself on the back for volunteering to make the (easy by comparison) mac and cheese and peach cobbler.  This time, I'd be the one doing everything from onion dicing to pepper fighting. And I had also promised to help mom try a new potato dish in lieu of the now-tired mac and cheese dish.  

We didn't exactly get off to a promising start.  See, Mom received this recipe one day in a Williams-Sonoma store.  Much like other W-S recipes, it looks simple enough.  Then you read it.  And even then it doesn't sound so challenging.  Until you get to the part where you bake potatoes, then refrigerate them overnight, then grate them, skin and all.  

Wait, you refrigerate them overnight?? I stopped Mom as she was ticking off the steps.  We both shared an "oh crap" look, and Mom made the executive decision that we were not the kind of women who hand grate refrigerated potatoes.  We were the kind of women who laughed at the kind of women who grate refrigerated potatoes....as we sliced open a bag of pre-grated "Simply Potatoes." 

And that's just what we did.  So after I got the barbeque sauce going, I poured 2 bags of simply potatoes in a dish along with an obscene quantity of white cheddar, shallots, sour cream, and the bacon we decided to add (really, what doesn't taste better with bacon?).  I'll spare you the description of what it feels like to mix that with your hands.  Instead, I'll just tell you that it turns out deliciously, although we recommend going lighter on the shallots and heavier on the cheese and bacon (we call this the southern-ized version).  I will also spare you the detailed description of the two of us trying to drain the boiling liquid from the crock pot with the pork still in it. I will just tell you it wasn't super graceful. 

And despite my issues peeling an onion (see proof below) and straining adobo sauce away from peppers, the Pioneer Woman's sauce turned out as smoky and rich as I hoped it would be the second time around. Even the cobbler turned out well even though I was making it basically from memory and letting an intrepid 7 year old do all the work.  

I'd call it a successful Memorial Day impromptu dinner party all around.  I'm no Pioneer Woman, but I do a pretty good job of following directions, and I'm getting better at improvising when life just needs a little more bacon.  

(peeling an onion pretty much always goes this poorly)

(getting all the sauce ingredients lined up and opened)

(this doesn't really do the sauce justice, but really you must try it)

(improvising in action)

(gratin pan purchased just for this occasion)

(the spread, minus cobbler)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

home sweet cornelius

(spending my birthday week(end) here)

I don't make it back home to Lake Norman nearly as often as I'd like, but my 25th birthday/a fluke week off between jobs/a long weekend were more than enough to convince me to jump in the car and make the trek through the Shenandoah to get home.  

The drive was going beautifully (which is the reward for leaving before noon on a holiday weekend) until I hit traffic about 12 miles away from our exit. When I stopped to fill up my car 2 hours from home, I was already struggling, so the delay so close to the Lake was pure torture.  Luckily my parents had a "mini shrimp boil" waiting for me, and I didn't manage to stay away much past that.  

A really terrible headache woke me up before 6 this morning, which I found as a very inauspicious start to my birthday.  Mom made me eggs, toast, and breakfast potatoes and we decided that shopping was obviously the best cure for the headache.  After a few advil and a few hours at South Park, I was feeling slightly more human and slightly less like I had consumed several bottles of wine the night prior.  

Birthday shopping was very successful--the woman ringing us up at Madewell accidentally gave me 50% off of everything, I got something sparkly to celebrate my new job/commemorate 25/replace my wishbone necklace, and maybe best of all, I grabbed a few things from the Nordstrom kids' department.  Nothing to make 25 feel a little less old than squeezing into the same green trench as the 8 year old in the dressing room next to you.

Even though I'm a little put off by turning 25, I've felt no shortage of love, both here at home and from friends flung all over the globe.  Thanks to all my lovely friends and family for the birthday messages, cards, calls, etc.  

Anyways, I'll be back in the LKTC after a week of cookouts, boat time, shopping, and sleeping in.  When I don an apron again, I'll be year older, and, we can only hope, a little wiser in the kitchen...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

woman, i'm italian

I feel so much lighter right now than I have in days (which is belied by my stationary status on the couch right now, and how much I've eaten lately [more on that momentarily]).  I think I mentioned there was some job stress going on?  Yeah, that giant albatross finally got lifted from around my neck.  

The really short and sweet version of the story is, I had another opportunity come along, but it would mean looking the metaphorical status quo in the face and saying "see ya," then looking my literal bosses in the face and saying the same. So after some deliberation, I decided to take the offer, and that alone was a feat (decisions are not my forte, so much so that my best friend once gave me a hilarious "pro/con" note pad for a birthday). But what was really keeping me up at night was breaking the news to my bosses, who I very much like and respect.  

This whole situation was infinitely complicated by the slow-moving nature of bureaucracy.  I knew the new gig wanted me to start June 6, but I didn't get an official offer in writing until today, and I had already planned to take next week off.  If you're looking at the calendar, you're realizing this means this Friday would become my last day. I wanted to give fair warning, but was scared to do so without an offer in writing.  Receiving the offer on paper today was only partial relief. Telling the bosses would be the only way to get full relief. 

Anyways, today I went out for a galvanizing burger lunch with a few coworkers.  When we got back, I took advantage of the post-burger courage and broke the news.  (What, you didn't know burgers give you guts?) I was surprised at how gracious everyone was, and I nearly cried with relief at their reactions.  You'd think I'd would be out having a celebratory drink right now, but I'm just too drained.  

Which is why I'm glad that my friends are such great cooks, because it means dinner is one less thing I stress over. For Glee night last night, Leana had me over, and I served as the intrepid sous chef. I wielded the giant chef's knife (dangerously, I'm sure) and chopped anything thrown on my cutting board.  At one point, Leana disappeared into the living room to glean leaves from her basil plant, and when she came back, she said "so, do you know how to cut basil, you just ro..." and which point I reminded her "woman, I'm Italian! Of course I know how to cut basil." (Note, it was actually Allie who first taught me how to cut basil, but I now do so like I was, in fact, born knowing how, thank you very much).

So by the time Glee came on, we sat down to a plate of sourdough bread, bowls of fresh polenta and sausage, and a surprisingly good bottle of wine.  If you've never had fresh polenta, I highly suggest you call up Leana and insist she make it for you.  Her number is... Ok, kidding.  But seriously, google that business.  It's delicious.  And I totally concur with Leana's declaration that the zing of the spicy sausage and tomatoes was complemented perfectly by the sweetness of the white corn polenta.  Then we had peanut butter cookies for dessert, because I baked an obscene quantity of them on Monday at the height of my stress fest. Glorious all around. 

And while I had an embarrassingly collegiate dinner of ramen tonight, as I mentioned, I'm headed home very soon, and I always eat well at home.  Since I don't get home often, I've already prepared my parents with my restaurant requests.  It is my birthday week(end) after all! 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

leana's low-rent pasta

So, I think I mentioned that the LKTC hasn't gotten much love lately.  I haven't been ignoring it just so I can eat out all the time (although that's certainly happening more often that it should...).  I've also had some good friends (who are great cooks) make me some amazing meals.

In addition to the brilliant new tradition of Sunday girls dinners that Allie, Leana, Alicia and I started, Leana and I have initiated "Glee Tuesdays."  (Yes, I watch Glee...I mean, there's far worse on tv than that)  It's pretty fantastic--we watch Glee and mock certain characters, Leana makes dinner, and I do the dishes. Note to future roommates/husband: I will always always always do dishes in exchange for a meal.  

One of our first Glee nights was experimental--Leana needed to test out a steak- recipe.  Being from the south and far from vegetarian, I will never turn down a steak, even an experimental one (but it was a great success). The following week, Leana made white wine pasta with pancetta and asparagus, an adventure modeled after an amazing red wine pasta Allie has made us before.  She jokingly refers to it as "low-rent," but there was nothing cheap about the taste.  Last week Leana made fried rice, and in what is also becoming a tradition, I left for the third week in a row with leftovers for my lunch the next day. 

Last Tuesday, a coworker also made dinner for a few of us from the team. I went home painfully stuffed, but, I could totally get behind two-dinner Tuesdays.   My clothes may not fit any longer, but by God, I'll be well fed.  

Despite reveling in being cooked for, I need to get back in the habit of cooking for myself.  I'm a little embarrassed to admit I haven't set foot in a grocery store since, oh, Easter.  I'll get right on that...after I get back from North Carolina in a couple weeks.  

ps-I promise to do more justice to my friends' culinary skills in the future.  Like when I've fully recovered from my 25th birthday party. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

a three-utensil meal

(happy wedding to my childhood buddy, cousin matt!) 

Hey friends (or should I say "hey friends who are still reading after a lengthy hiatus from updating this captivating blog"...).  So, I could try and convince you that I've been distracted because last week was full of unpleasant things like needles and flying, but, we all know I'm just a big lazy pants.  I'm working on it (she says from her perch on the couch).  

But really, life has been more hectic than usual.  There are some work things going on that I can't talk about just yet, so, stay tuned for that.  But there was also the minor little event that took place last weekend to keep me away from the computer.

My cousin got hitched down in Atlanta, and the whole clan converged on the DoubleTree Friday afternoon to kick off the festivities.  It was an exhausting whirlwind, although I'm not sure why...it's not like a)I did anything other than eat copiously and wear pretty dresses, or b)I was the one who got married.  I blame it on the flight-related mini-panics, and a particularly grating MARTA ride back to the airport on Sunday.  Any time I overhear a conversation that starts with "yeah, me and my cell mate" when I'm stuck in a tiny train car underground, I get a little squirmy.  But all panic aside, I think we all had a great time, and while it's so very weird to see my childhood buddy stand up at the altar and say "I do," I'm very happy for he and his wife (um, we're 25, we are too young for these words, right?).    

Anyways, there's something a tiny bit glamorous about throwing half a dozen cocktail dresses and a pair of platform heels in a carry-on and jumping on a flight, but there is nothing at all glamorous about returning home to "real life."  And by "real life" I mean not being able to use your bathroom because the management arbitrarily decides to re-plaster and re-paint it.  Or finding a container coated in rotten cilantro in the fridge (I really never miss having a dishwasher until situations like that arise).  Upside? I've been meaning to streamline my tupperware collection, and I subsequently felt little guilt just popping the cilantro afflicted piece straight into the garbage. 

Also decidedly unglamorous? My return to the LKTC.  I guess it can't be designated as glamorous or otherwise, because it hasn't really even happened. Monday I joined some friends in exploiting the $1 hotdogs and peanuts at the Nats game (just don't ask us how much the tickets or beers cost us...sore subject).  Tuesday I had two separate friends cook for me (yep, about as sweet as it sounds, more on that in a future post).  And yesterday following an extended happy hour, the poor camel's back (aka my little stomach) succumbed to the final straw of poor diet.  

At that happy hour, I mixed wine and cheese/chili coated nachos.  I don't even like nachos!  I'm just a real sucker for bad bar food once I've had about .3 glasses of wine.  Needless to say, the aforementioned stomach had just about had enough of my abysmal eating lately.  With the exception of two-dinner Tuesday, I've really been putting my body through the wringer.  It hasn't been all hotdogs and nachos, but, I've been far from consistent when it comes to eating meals at all, not to mention healthy ones.  I spent most of last night convinced I was dying, or at the very least that dying would be preferable to the pain my stomach was experiencing.  

So especially when I found out my happy hour plans tonight fell through, I was relieved to come home and eat something healthy-ish.  (By the way, if I add peas to it, I generally believe that tips the scales in the healthy direction...my standards could probably use some tweaking).  Then I realized that meant I had to cook something healthy.  Blast.  I did an admirable job of procrastinating (amazing what you can find on hulu) before I peeled myself off the couch and headed for the LKTC. 

Maybe I'm just out of practice, but I had a very hateful dinner-making experience.  First of all, I hadn't defrosted anything of the protein variety, so that was a real downer.  Then I managed to overcook said hastily defrosted protein because I have an exaggerated fear of food poisoning.  While I was letting disaster happen in the oven, I got a little overambitious and decided to make quinoa with peas and corn.  Have you ever cooked with quinoa?  If so, I'm going to need some advice on how to wash that crap.  Because I failed in a laughable fashion. There was quinoa all over me, the sink, and several different measuring devices.  But seriously, it's TEE TINY, so you can't just put it in a colander like you would with most things that need rinsing.  I mean, it all came out fine, but I'm convinced there has to be a better method than inadvertently giving myself a quinoa bath every time I want to cook it.  

But by God, despite the disasters, I had a three-utensil meal.  This is something I take such pathetic pride in because most of the things I cook for myself usually fit in one bowl and can be eaten with one utensil (fork or spoon, all depends on my mood).  Shockingly, this rarely leads to a super-satisfying meal.  But I've been so exhausted lately that I'm hoping throwing some protein at the situation will help.  Enter pork (overcooked, but a protein nonetheless), and a fork and knife.  

Monday, May 9, 2011


(can you tell I love peas?)

I'm currently being knocked flat by a sudden allergy to all of DC, it seems.  After acclimating to the extreme pollen situation in North Carolina, I considered myself evolutionarily superior when I didn't experience any related symptoms thus far this spring in DC.  

And then I started walking to and from work every day.  And then I went to Gold Cup on Saturday and spent all day outside.  

(No, really, I did.  I even actually watched the races)

So now I feel like I drank a giant cup of pollen with my breakfast of dust.  And I guess my body isn't used to experiencing allergies, because I feel like I'm actually coming down with something (headache, exhaustion, loss of appetite).  But don't worry, I popped some motrin, claratin, and took my temperature with the handy thermometer my mom put in my stocking the Christmas after I came down with a vicious case of bronchitis and refused to see a doctor initially. (No fever, score). 

The very very last thing I wanted to do was cook dinner.  But my incredibly guilty conscience was nagging me. If you aren't going to sit here and actually, seriously focus on your GRE book, you could at LEAST cook real food for dinner. And that chicken you defrosted isn't going to stay good forever.  And you already paid for it.  And some protein some time within a week is generally a wise idea. And..

Fine, fine, FINE, conscience.  You win.  

So I shuddered through slicing up the chicken (seriously, touching raw meat is an issue), and threw some of Trader Joe's garlic naan in the oven.  Just so the garlic wouldn't feel bad about being the only overwhelming scent in the meal, I generously coated my chicken with the spice mix I first used for Moroccan spiced shrimp.  Just to make things really...fragrant...I tossed the peas in olive oil and curry powder.  Hey, you have to take advantage of living alone and being single while you can, right? 

I've always been guilty of giving in to laziness or exhaustion and skipping over legit dinner-prep in favor of something easy but empty (i.e. a box of Kraft mac n cheese or take out), and while I was better during Lent, I fell back in to my old habits after Easter.  So I'm happy that even as I was half-asleep on the couch daydreaming of ordering in, I managed to get up and cook something well-rounded and not repulsive (unless you consider garlic, Moroccan spices, and curry powder repulsive, and then we just can't be friends). Progress!

Now, I haven't exactly progressed to eating at my dinner table just yet (the ottoman works just fine, thanks.  and eating at my table alone seems sad), but at least we're past the days of eating mac n cheese directly out of a saucepan (yeah, that happened...it was called college...don't judge).  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

a dinner-time miracle

(this was staged--kudos if you can figure out why)

Lately, I feel like I'm not doing much well. I'm slacking on GRE study planning, compelling myself to go to work each day knowing I have nothing to do is getting more difficult, and I have been totally neglecting the LKTC.  Just a garden variety post-Lent rut, it seems.      

So tonight when I didn't finish with a post-work thing until 7, and didn't get home until nearly 8, the siren-song of the restaurants in Courthouse were hard to resist.  I don't know how Thai at Corner manages to get the wind to blow the scent of drunken noodle in my direction every time I walk past, but it is a highly effective "marketing" ploy. 

But I decided that the LKTC was feeling a little lonely, and settled on eating at home, even though I hadn't defrosted anything pre-emptively.  Trying to shake myself clear out of that rut and all.  And to not go broke.  Minor considerations, really.

When I got home, in what is becoming a tradition, I stood in front of the fridge dumbly looking at the collection of PBR and various types of cheese (cheese?? I don't even EAT cheese! why do I have so much cheese??), and wondered what in the world I would eat for dinner.  I was suddenly regretting passing up Thai. 

I resorted to the freezer.  Maybe I could eat the leftover ice cream from Saturday's peach cobbler?  And then, under a few frozen bananas (you know, some day they'll make great smoothies or banana bread...), I spotted the evidence of some forward thinking that must have struck me back when this adventure first got started. 

In a stroke of (dare I say) genius, I froze quart-sized baggies of homemade pasta sauce with ground turkey, and I froze them flat to make defrosting a quick little trick.  I didn't start making pasta sauce myself until around the time I moved to DC, and I have no idea why I waited so long (and especially why I didn't take advantage of the super high-quality ingredients when I lived in Italy).  I pretty much cringe at the sight, scent, and taste of bottled sauces now.  

Anyways, I grabbed one of these brilliant little single serving size baggies of sauce, and tried to figure out how to extricate the deliciousness. I realized it was frozen flat, but somehow not frozen to the bag itself, so it'd peel right out of there.  Hence the super-surgical scissor attack on the bag, and the giant flat sheet of sauce snapped in half in the pan in the photos above.  

The whole thing felt a bit like cheating, so I exploited the ONE grocery-bought basil plant I've managed to keep alive (the ratio is not great, in case that wasn't already obvious), and sprinkled some fresh basil on the top.  Somehow that made me feel like less of a sham.  

And now I'm going to get to that leftover ice cream.  

Monday, May 2, 2011

sometimes i write about cooking. this is not one of those times.

This morning at approximately 4:30 am, my little heart came the closest it probably ever has to ceasing to beat.  

I woke up to a half dozen "turn on the news" messages.  Not one of them said why.  My heart pounded mightily as the first thought that consumed me was I need to look out my window, something has happened to DC.  Even more chest-constricting was my second thought.  Something has happened in Charlotte. 

It being 4:30 am, I was a little disoriented, and it took me a few seconds to collect myself and make my way to CNN's mobile site. 

By now, all of you reading this know what all those messages were about.  The most prominent face of terrorism (and the war on it) had taken its last breath staring into the eyes of (and down the barrels of the guns of) some of the military's most elite special forces.  {I wonder what was going through his head, through theirs.  I wonder who we will look to now for the unilateral representation of evil. I wonder if we will ever know just how much Pakistan knew and covered up.}

Reading the headlines on my phone, my first reaction in the pre-dawn hours was palpable relief.  Not that this person had died, necessarily, but that my initial fears were ironically off base.  

I immediately checked facebook and twitter, curious about the social media reaction. I realized I missed a patriotism-soaked night-time rally in front of the White House.  I read some hysterical tweets.  I noticed a stark contrast between those who were purely thrilled at the news and those who pointed out the religious hypocrisy of celebrating death.  

I honestly did not have a gut reaction, other than "oh, oh wow."  I imagine this has a bit to do with the initial fear I felt when I didn't know why I needed to watch the news. I imagine it also had something to do with where I was in life when September 11 happened.  

No one can deny the sheer horror of September 11, and of the many other prior attacks. But I was, in a way, sheltered from that. I knew no one who lived or worked in New York City or DC, no one who was on those ill-fated flights.  I lived in a small-ish town which was far from a target of terrorism. I felt profound sadness that day, but I felt very far away from it all. 

Surrounded by similarly stunned Salem sisters, I watched the events unfold on the tv in my high school's rec room after the head of our school gently broke the news to us at an emergency assembly during our daily break, confirming the rumor that one student spouted as she rushed into third period biology. It was surreal, so hard to grasp.  

So nearly ten years later, I find myself with an equally hard-to-define emotion. I am neither toasting to his demise nor questioning its legality/morality. I do hope that any person who has suffered in one form or another at the hand bin Laden finds some closure in this, and that we can all say a few prayers (to whomever we believe to be "up there") that this is another step towards some semblance of peace.     

Sunday, May 1, 2011

happy state of denial

(sunrise cheese grating)

(amazing bbq sauce)

(they only look harmless...)

(I could dig in to this with a big spoon.  I restrained myself)

(bubbling hot, topped with vanilla ice cream-heaven)

I don't think I mentioned that I registered for the GRE a few weeks ago.  Probably because I'm avoiding it.  As we've discussed, I excel in employing creative methods to avoid things I really would rather not do.  

I kept telling myself I would officially start studying in May.  Well, hello there May, I'm not ready for you.  

You'd think that after my workload shift, I'd have hammered out a study plan with some of my free time in the office.  But that would mean I wasn't existing in a happy state of denial regarding looming ego-crushing standardized testing.

So naturally I sat down this weekend to work out a strategy, right?

What, do you think I bought the dinner in those photos at Harris Teeter?      

Instead of cracking the spine on the GRE book that's been on my table since early April, I went to a royal wedding party in my old prom dress (and a recently acquired tiara), lost some of my sanity to the DMV the next morning, recreated one of my favorite Venice house dinners last night, and spent 3+ hours exploiting the unlimited brunch at Masa 14 this morning. 

Even though the royal wedding party kept me up late (I must say, wearing my senior prom dress the second time around was far more fun than the first, which could have something to do with NOT having the stomach flu this time), I was up at 6  yesterday morning.  My internal alarm clock is insane (and the flights that take off over my apartment starting at 6 don't help).  

So I prepped the mac and cheese ingredients for last night's dinner.  What, you don't grate cheese at 6am? After some cheese grating and bread crumb making, Sophie and I embarked on the DMV adventure. 

After we got lost trying to find 395, we finally found the DMV.  Along with the 8,947 other Virginians who also needed the fine services of the DMV on what is being called the nicest day of spring.  Two and a half hours later, we left with "VOID" hole-punched through our soon-to-expire NC licenses and at least half as much mental stability as we had when we first arrived. {New VA licenses arrive in a week...fingers crossed for a good photo}

Luckily Allie and I were hosting this week's Sunday dinner (on Saturday), so I had mac n cheese and peach cobbler to distract me from the DMV trauma.  Allie made bbq sauce and handled the chicken (touching raw meat still freaks me out a bit, and our dinners tend to be a collaboration).  Andy and Leana took turns bartending, mixing up strong batches of Arnold Palmers made with firefly vodka.  We soaked it up with a line up of cornbread, mac n cheese, bbq chicken, and peach cobbler with ice cream.  

Not that I had a huge brunch ahead of me the next day or anything... 

Except that I did.  Sophie's birthday is today, so we made reservations to try the brunch at Masa 14.  They offer an unlimited brunch, meaning you can order any item on the brunch menu, in any quantity, including drinks like mimosas, lemonade lager, and bacon bloody marys. Sophie and I devised a two-prong attack strategy, much like our Georgia Brown's adventure.

At Masa 14, the small plates come to the tables as they're ready, so we had a nearly constant barrage of little brunch dishes.  Everything was amazing, but I hit a bit of a wall shortly after we started the lunch round.  I don't think the bottomless mimosa thing helped my cause, not that I'm complaining.  No one is allowed to complain when bottomless mimosas are involved.

Maybe 3 hours after the birthday brunch kicked off, we reluctantly rolled out of our comfy booth and dispersed for an afternoon of general lethargy brought on by borderline gluttony.  It was glorious.

Thank goodness I had to squeeze in to my old prom dress before today.