It’s the most mania producing time of the year

I’ve made rumblings about the fact that I am hosting not one but two (and potentially three if my aunt and uncle make it) families for the winter holidays this year (ok, it’s Christmas, we’re not really into Kwanzaa or anything).  I’m pretty sure I’ve already bored people to death talking about it so I needed a new way to bore people – hence my new themed blog:

http://puttingthemasbackinchristmas.wordpress.com/

If you like hearing middle class semi-white girls bitch about 1st world problems like meringue not setting properly or not being able to find the Merimekko print tablecloth in the correct size, please stop by for my usual dose of lamenting, sarcasm and feeble attempts at wit.  Don’t forget the rambling deprecation, as well.

I was born a rambling woman

Some people get to travel to interesting or fun cities/countries for work.   I am awesome enough to get to travel to…south Georgia.  Living in Atlanta can sometimes make me (almost) forget I live in the south.  Traveling about 250 miles south will quickly snap one back into the reality that, yes, there is a real south and yes, it is a different beast entirely.   I’d never thought I would say this, but visiting the unfamiliar expanse of mostly farmland and broken down shacks that dot the land make me really appreciate having a multitude of Starbucks within a five-mile radius.

Anyway, since this was not my first rodeo driving down practically to the FL-line, I have, for better or worse, become somewhat familiar with that particular stretch of mostly empty-freeway on Interstate 75.  And, having a particular interest in food, I couldn’t help but notice on previous trips the multitude of billboards promising farm-fresh produce, pecans, candies, meats and other foodstuffs on nearly every exit.  I’ve only ever stopped once before, at a small produce stand located next to a dollar store parking lot where I scored the unbelievable deal of 25 pounds of roma tomatoes for the bargain-basement price of $12.  Elated by my find I picked up a fresh flat of quart jars on my way home and canned half the box that very day.  (Those canned tomoatoes formed the basis of my husband’s tasty sauce made in honor of the commencement of football season to excellent result).

Anyway, feeling lucky from my previous find, this time, on the trip down, I scribbled notes of exits promising particular tantalizing goodies.  Peaches (the season’s last!), fresh sausages, pecans, etc., vowing on the way back to finally stop at each place.  A culinary tour of south Georgia, as it were.  Except it was the tour that wasn’t.  An unscheduled stop at a honey farm yielded the best find – local honey purchased, in cash, in the barren entry-way of a trailer where a kind and deaf elderly woman sat, alone, waiting for lost food-enthusiasts (foodie, if you must, but I wish you wouldn’t) to stumble her way.  (By way of further illustration, I was still in my court clothes, minus the jacket, when I stopped – I’m sure I made as little sense to her as she did to me).  The other highlight was Carroll’s Sausage and Meats (3! convenient locations in places you’ve never heard of and would not visit unless forced by circumstances) where I got more sausage than I know what to do with very cheaply (made with local pork, thankyouverymuch).  And what we’ve tried has been pretty good, as well (but, sadly, probably not worth the trip).

The rest of the “tour” was, sadly, unsatisfactory to downright disappointing.  Mostly tourist attractions disguised as Varhallas of fresh local produce.  Some sad little roadside stands, some outright Disneyland-like attractions parading as orchards.   I hit all the exits on my list and then, because I’m nothing if not a sucker for advertising, especially when food is involved, I continued to stop at each exit on my way home, thinking “maybe this time it’ll be worth it.”  It never was.  I purchased a large bag of pecans out of pity for the old man manning the both, after dismissing a large bag of Vidalia onions and past-their-prime peaches.  And a few tomatoes from another place, after dismissing their hard-as-rocks under-ripe (“tree” ripened my non-southern ass) peaches.  (Tomatoes were barely serviceable, by the way).

Overall, it was a let-down.  At least I was able to satisfy my curiosity.  And please don’t take my rant as a knock against South Georgia farmers, in general – this is a lament about the tourist traps parading as local farmstands that fail to deliver.  Maybe I need to veer further off the interstate.  Although I’m pretty sure that’s how most horror movies start – young female “big-city”* attorney, traveling alone, lured to the deranged redneck’s shack by the promise of seasonal fruit.   Probably directed by Eli Roth.

*I live in Atlanta but my office is a small law office located in the suburbs.  No matter, anywhere outside the perimeter I am considered one of those outsider “Atlanta” attorneys, stereotyped in ways I don’t fully understand except to know, in general, those folksy “small town” layers (many of whom make more than I do) find me suspicious.  My Japanese car tuned to the local NPR station I always manage to find must give me away.

Last note – I am, probably to the detriment of my mental health, hosting not only my family but also my in-laws for the winter holidays this year (ok, yes, Christmas, dammit).  I’ll be hosting 2 big dinners for a crowd of 11-13.  I have, of course, been pre-planning since we decided to take on this endeavor.   I am now starting to plan at earnest (sneer away at that, please).  It’s been suggested I blog the process, similar to my Thanksgiving-themed blog and I find this agreeable, finding blogging not only as an effective way to vent my crazy but also useful for organizing my thoughts.  But I’m stuck on a name.  Ideas?

It’s not you, it’s me

Despite my protestations this is not a “food blog” it seems I only post when I have a new recipe.  That’s probably because it’s only when I’m cooking do I think “hey, this is something someone else might possibly be interested in, if they were really bored and/or felt like experimenting in the kitchen.”  I wish I could take good photographs and make this a food blog but, truly, I have not the dedication for such an endeavor.  Anyway, it’s summer, zucchini is in abundance and these little pancakes take advantage of that fact.  I happened upon some gorgeous fresh basil at the store and tried to incorporate it into dinner last night as much as possible.  These pancakes were a result.  I served them with some wild caught shrimp I had (briefly) marinated in some lime juice, soy, garlic, ginger, basil, minced jalapeno mirin, sesame oil and a dash of olive oil, sauteed in coconut oil and served with sriracha mayo on the side for dipping, and a cucumber-tomato salad dressed with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and sea salt.   Dessert was fresh cantaloupe and strawberries with basil sugar syrup.   God I love summer produce.

As per usual, I don’t measure (nor do I write things down as I’m experimenting) so everything is to taste/what you have on hand.  These pancakes would lead themselves to pretty much any seasoning you desired – shallots, cumin, garlic, whatever.  Inf act it’s possible I threw some minced garlic in the mixture but I truly can’t remember.  Same for the yogurt sauce.  Fresh dill would work, as would maybe a lemon-chopped caper/cornichon-parsley-shallot combo (think yogurt remoulade).  Play.   Make what tastes good to you.

Note: I shred the zucchini using a box grater and then use a ricer to press as much liquid out as possible.  The shredded zucchini is then spread out on a double layer of paper towels to fully drain; roll the towels up, squeeze any remaining water out and then zucchini is ready for mixing.  You could also shred zucchini into a colander, salt and let drain over another bowl (or the sink).  Blot with paper towels.  You want the zucchini as dry as possible in order to prevent sogginess and to ensure the pancakes don’t fall apart.  Note – these cakes are pretty fragile since I go very light with the binding ingredients in order to maximize the zucchini flavor.  Use a good wide spatula and flip with a gentle touch.

Zucchini Pancakes

2 zucchini, shredded and drained thoroughly
1 egg, beaten
1 tbl mayonnaise
breadcrumbs
fresh basil, chopped
S&P
1-2 tbl coconut oil

Gently combine all ingredients except coconut oil.  You want the pancakes to be mostly zucchini, not filler, so add just enough breadcrumbs so the mixture will stick together.  Heat coconut oil to medium-high heat in a pan.  Using a 1-2 tbl portion scoop scoop zucchini mixture into pan, making sure to leave plenty of room around each cake.  Gently mash into pancake shape with spatula and cook until browned, about 2-4 minutes.  Flip and cook other side until browned.  Remove and serve with yogurt sauce dolloped on top.

Yogurt Sauce

Greek yogurt ~1/4 cup
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2-3 tbl cucumber, finely minced
red pepper flakes
Sriracha
1 tbl mayo (optional)
Splash of lemon juice
S&P

Mix all ingredients together and let sit to allow flavors to combine.  All ingredients are to taste so make sure to adjust as necessary prior to serving.

No such thing as free chocolate

Can we all just admit I’m a little nutty/obsessive/controlling and move on?  I say this by way of preface the following announcement and explanation and in anticipation of eye rolling and shaking of heads.

I like to endlessly obsess carefully plan events that will not happen for quite some time.  If you ever had the misfortune to glimpse my Thanksgiving themed blog you probably recognized that.  This time, it’s Christmas.  Which, if you don’t have a calendar in front of you, is oh about nine months away.  Like, a really long time.  But J and I are celebrating by the joining of families in the picturesque North Georgia Mountains.  And I am hosting.  Hence my careful yet arguably premature planning (I may or may not have a legal pad filled with menu and food ideas already and I may or may not be slowly stocking up on Champagne one bottle at a time – super cheap at Costco).

A happy coincidence of my planning led me to discover Godiva Chocolate’s reward card program (don’t ask how, I don’t rightfully know). I also learned that a benefit of membership is a free piece of chocolate…every month.  How awesome is that?  The only catch is you have to actually go to their store or boutique.  And while I am loath to shop in person, it’s nice to know that on the very rare occasion I have the misfortune of finding myself at a mall* *shudder* I can lessen the pain by hitting Godiva for a free piece o’chocolate.

*I find my current mall hatred a pretty funny turn of events, considering how many mindless hours I spent just hanging out in malls during my yet-to-be-misguided youth.  Maybe I reached my lifetime mall quota or something. But seriously, I get anxious when just thinking about having to dart into a mall for some random errand.  Why I chose to live in an open-air mall I’ll never know.  Thank god for the internets and virtual commerce!

I’m not pregnant!

Not that anyone was accusing suggesting I was (sure, I’ve gained a few pounds here and there but nothing that awful.  I think).  But, given the torrent of pregnancy/pregnancy progession/birthing announcements lately (mostly delivered via facebook) I feel the need to put that out there.  It’s an epidemic lately, it seem so many freaking people are knocked up.  Is this just some life cycle shit?  But with the rash of announcements lately, (not that I’m not thrilled for everyone, I certainly am) I felt left out and wanted to make my own announcement, affirming my status as an empty womber (by choice!)

Also, here’s a recipe for spinach pesto, apropos of absolutely nothing (don’t read anything into the fact that spinach is high in folic acid.  In my quarterly trip to Costco, a dizzying experience in consumer excess if there ever was one, I purchased a overgrown container of spinach, given my husband’s affinity for green monster smoothies.  I used the pesto for pizza topping (I’m not a fan of red tomato sauce for homemade pies, NO IDEA why).

I’m not giving exact amounts because everything was to taste (and I didn’t measure anything).  I trust your intelligence to figure it out.

Spinach (3? 4? cups? something like that)

Basil leaves (3? 4?)

pine nuts (ok, this one I got – 4 ounce container. I also got these pine nuts FOR FREE from Publix because they rang up incorrectly – I seldom watch prices but since it rang up $2 higher than marked (life is generally too short to quibble over anything less than $5 but I made an exception, only because I had consciously noted the price for purposes of comparision)

Parm, lots (1/2 cup? 1 cup?  just keep throwing it in there)

Garlic, crushed (3-4-5 cloves? sure)

Squeeze of lemon juice

Whirl all that stuff in a food processor.  It’ll be vibrantly green and only a little disgusting looking.  Slowly pour in olive oil while the food processor is running til you get the consistency you want.  Taste.  I found the spinach made initially for weak flavored pesto so I kept tinkering.  I added some red pepper flakes and salt and pepper.  Still not quite there.  Since I was out of anchovy paste (which was my first inclination) I drizzled in just a tad of fish sauce (made from anchovies) which gave me that savory umami taste I was after.  Walnuts would work for pine nuts if you can’t finagle free ones.  I’m not sure what a good vegetarian sub would be for anchovy paste or fish sauce.  What vegetarian condiment provides that rich savory taste?   Soy sauce or vegetarian Worcestershire? (reg Worcestershire is made with, you guessed it, anchovies).

Anyway, you could certainly toss this over pasta, I guess, or use to to spread over pizza dough topped with mozzarella di buffalo (also a random Costco buy, not too bad, relatively tender texture and not too rubbery).

Oh, and make sure whatever you do, serve with a nice glass of wine to cut the richness because, hey! I’m not pregnant!  Hooray!

How I finally managed not to set off my smoke alarm while searing (but the kitchen smelled like fish regardless)

My house, while a lot of things (devalued, for one, comes to mind) is actually fairly decently built, once we had the builders iron out a few wrinkles.  (Of course, as soon as I post this, our roof will probably cave in – please knock on wood for me now).  However, one thing that boggles my mind to this day is why my stove has a large stainless steel vent fan that leads to…nowhere.  That’s right, my exhaust fan sucks up smoke from the stove and circulates it around the ceiling of my kitchen and living room.  Which, as I’m sure you can guess, totally awesome.  I’m not a bad cook, I don’t burn things.  But searing at high temps sometimes leads to smoking.  Which sucks when there’s no decent ventilation and we have to open the windows in the middle of winter (although the cats seem to enjoy it, city cats that they are.  They do get lots of fresh air when we’re in North Georgia, however, least you think they’re being overly sheltered.  We kick them out onto the screen porch where they sniff the outdoor air and chase lizards, almost like they were real cats and not the pampered bratty butterballs they are.  But I digress).

So, you see, sometimes my cooking becomes a problem.  I’ve managed to alleviate it partially by cooking with clarified butter at high temps.  It definitely helps cut down on the smoking when cooking on the stovetop at high temps because clarified butter, minus the milk solids, has a higher smoking point than regular butter or olive oil (apparently, olive oil isn’t really meant for sautéing).  Last night while driving home from N. Georgia with the radio turned up really obnoxiously loud to drown out feline protests at being so tortured as enduring 1.5 hours in their crates, I was contemplated what I need at the store and what to do for dinner, since we were coming off a meatball and spaghetti fest (which was awesome) lovingly prepared by my husband.  We eat a lot of salads during the week (green salads, chopped salads, grain based salads, all sorts of salads) and I started by thinking about salmon, seared and finished off in the oven on a plate of spinach.  I was at the store and picked up some unethical asparagus (I’ve mentioned my weakness for non-local asparagus before but cut me some slack, it’s almost March!) that was on sale and plenty of spinach (I got J hooked on green monsters).

At home I found a fennel bulb that needed to be used, ¼ of a red bell pepper, a bit of red onion and a crate of Clementines patiently waiting to be useful.  I chopped the asparagus into pieces and blanched it quickly.  I sliced the fennel and sautéed it in clarified butter and then seared the salmon in the same pan.  I thinly sliced the red onion and bell pepper and section the Clementines (J kept snatching Clementine sections from my work area.  Whenever I buy a box of Clementines, he never eats them; I presumed he didn’t like them.  Turns out he doesn’t like peeling them and while my husband is not a lazy person, I found this odd.  It also reminded my of my long suffering mother, complaining no one ate the fruit she bought unless she peeled/chopped/prepared it).   Once the salmon had gotten a nice crust, I put the pan with the fennel and fish into a 450 degree oven to finish cooking (make sure to use an oven safe pan!).

I piled out plates with washed spinach (I always wash the “pre-washed” bagged spinach, I won’t go into detail why but you should too) and artfully arranged the Clementine slices, onion, blanched asparagus and bell pepper.  I sprinkled a few chopped fennel leaves on as well and then topped it with the roasted fennel bulb and salmon.  I made my standard vinaigrette based on David Lebovitz’s technique (I used 1 tablespoon vinegar to 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tsp. Dijion mustard – I like the Maille he mentioned in the article; probably a little more than a tsp of shallots (I just eyeball it) and plenty of sea salt and pepper.  I also juice a Clementine section into the dressing and added a touch of honey for balance).  Poured the dressing over the salad and et voila – salmon salad.  I know, I know, nothing special and certainly nothing that someone else couldn’t have (and already has) come up with but tasty nonetheless.  The bell pepper was unnecessary and probably threw the balance off a little bit but since I needed to use it up oh well.  But, all in all, it was one of my favorite salads recently (and we eat a LOT of salads) so I figured I’d throw it out there so you can make your own variations.

This is love that I’m feeling

And it sure as hell isn’t Valentine’s Day related.  It’s actually nut related*.

I discovered a new peanut butter that has finally convinced me it’s ok if I don’t make my own – Peanut Butter & Co. The cinnamon raisin is awesome.  Here’s a list of certified delicious pairings, in no particular order:

1. toast

2. oatmeal

3. bananas

4. oatmeal with bananas

5. a spoon

6. anything ever you can think of

This stuff is awesome and there are other awesome looking varieties I’m looking forward to try, like the Dark Chocolate Dreams.   It’s trans-fat, HFCS and preservative free, plus I’ve found it at WF and Publix (in the “health-food” section, not the usual peanut butter section, for some unfathomable reason).

no more homemade for me, dammit!

*I apologize after a prolonged absence I devoted a post to peanut butter.  There are lots of things I’d like to share but I’ve been hard pressed to find the time lately.  Like, for instance, the fact that  Spring Awakening is coming to Atlanta at the Fox and there was recently an offer of two tickets for $60 for certain dates, I think the code word was “Love” or something equally obnoxious.  Or the fact that one of my favorite food blogs recently posted a recipe for “ghetto” duck confit (SWOON) and a pasta recipe using the confit (SWOON SWOON).  Or that these short ribs were perfection and you should try them now.   Ok, I guess aside from the musical, most of what I have to say is food related.  No surprise, as I’m fairly one-dimensional.  I’ll have interesting non-food obsessed food posts soon, promise (but if you could see you, you would know my fingers are crossed behind my back).

Through the looking glass

Recently, I was introduced (via my brother – I give credit where credit’s due) to My Life Is Average (or MLIA for those already in the know – I’m always behind on these things).  It’s like a less tragic version of FML.  I’ve learned all sorts of things from MLIA is already but here is my recent favorite:

Today I heard that there was such a thing as backwards google, called elgoog. I also found out that if you elgoog ‘elgoog’ it takes you back to google. Once again, google shocks me with it’s intelligence.

And, because I’m a geek, I tried it.  And it’s totally true.  And that totally tickles me.  (Hey, it’s the little things in life, right?)

The weather outside is frightful

That’s the truth.  Unfortunately, Atlanta gets the nasty bitterly cold rainy winter weather, not the fun snowy-pond freezes over weather. But you can pretend with Atlanta’s manufactured skating rinks (let’s just not mention Atlantic Station’s faux snow, please).  Now the Centenntial outdoor rink has been around for awhile, although I find it to be overcrowded and melty/full of puddles.  I recently learned the St. Regis hotel in Buckhead also offers outdoor skating, and, here’s the best part – you can make reservations!   It’s a little on the pricey side but that just means you probably won’t get bratty teenagers bowling you over (let’s just forget the fact I probably was one of those bratty teenagers at one point).

Oh, I’m almost over my holiday angst.  It’s helped I’m not quite so terribly buried at work anymore.  Also, Santaland Diaries was a hoot (there’s my Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle/Grandma vocab again) – do check it out.

How to make friends with Santa

Start by caramelizing  some thinly sliced Vidalia (or “sweet yellow” onion) in just enough butter and enough salt to get the onions to sweat and lose their water.  Then move onto the polenta with goat cheese*, using 1/2 water and 1/2 milk (I halved the recipe for 2).   Also try some hashed Brussels sprouts (just thinly slice the sprouts after cutting out the core/stem), sautéed in, wait for it…bacon fat.   Yes, bacon fat.  (I usually filter through a paper towel when I’m saving it).   Unless you’re a vegetarian, and then I suppose butter.  And if you’re vegan, olive oil.  But, if you have no dietary restrictions, trust me on the bacon fat.  It’s delicious.  (Although, if I had my druthers, it would be duck fat).

Then, pan-sear a dry-aged rib eye and finish cooking (preferably to rare) in a very low-temp oven.  Sugaring helps get a great crust.  Serve it all together and finish with a nice bottle of red.  Our current $10 favorite is Toasted Head Merlot.   And that, my friends, is how you guarantee Santa will be in your corner this year ; )

* The next morning, heat up any left-over polenta in a skillet.  Serve with an over easy egg on top.  Trust me on this one.

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