Open That Watermleon and Make Popsicles

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An open lap top.  A one word prompt from Word Press:  OPEN.   A thought:  am I open to blogging again? It’s been so long.  After all, here I am in my kitchen with two halves of a sliced open watermelon that have been fleshed out to make watermelon basil popsicles. And my open calendar/day planner is full of all the activities and projects and recipes that I was not able to get to during the school year.  I’ve got less than two months left now, how did that happen?

I muddle 1 cup of fresh basil leaves in hot water for my popsicles and muddle the word in my head: OPEN. Muddle the thought of going through that blogging door that was left OPEN.  A sign, perhaps?  Now I have to let the basil leaves cool completely before blending them with the 2 1/2 cups of cubed watermelon and 2 tbsp. of fresh lime juice. Then they will be ready to pour into the popsicle molds and popped into the freezer.

Lunch? Probably should. I open an avocado and while slicing  its green flesh into pieces, somehow slice open my thumb. Okay, that was an exaggeration for the purposes of this prompt.  But I did knick my skin with the knife.

I almost give myself a headache trying to open a bottle of Naked Green Machine 100% juice smoothie. “OPEN, DAMMIT!” Don’t know if it’s my pleading or my strength but the top does in fact, finally, open.  I drink the green juice, eat the green avocado on toast, and marvel at all of the other lovely shades of green: watermelon rind, fresh basil, palm fronds on the window valances, grape leaves on the dish towel.    The popsicle molds are in the dish drainer, open and waiting.  Let’s see what takes shape.

Watermelon Basil Popsicle recipe courtesy of savorylotus.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Up Summer

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Ahh summer is here at last! Aside from getting more sleep since I DON’T have to be up by 5:30 for the next two months (the first day of the 2015-2016 school year is August 10th but who’s counting?) here are some of the things that have helped me begin to recover:

Beach time with husband and friends and a couple of fruity, frozen alcoholic beverages from the beachside bar (in a handy, take-home cup! Reuse/recycling at its best!)

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Finally replacing the light bulb in my closet.

Getting rid of clothes to give away and re-organizing the ones that are staying.

Finding the right bathroom counter organizer at Walmart.

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Taking a trip to the nearby fruit and vegetable stand for some fresh blueberries, strawberries, homegrown tomatoes, and grapefruit.

Vacuuming and cleaning the living room blinds and cleaning the windows.

Washing my car and cleaning out all of the stuff that had accumulated on the floor boards and backseat.

Making a pitcher of this Grapefruit Mint Iced Tea courtesy of Cooking with a Wallflower. Then drinking a cold glass after washing my car in the Gulf Coast heat. (because no, I’m not going to get up at 5:30 just to be able to wash my car without sweating).

Eating homegrown tomatoes with a glass of vino verdhe rose on the covered back porch while watching the rain. A very delicious, very unusual and inexpensive wine by the way, which reminds me, I need to enter it in my wine journal. (see: Wine Journaling | alittleway.)

I’m finally starting to feel like a human being again.

Two Too Easy Dinners

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Since my last post, I’ve entered paperwork hell at school (otherwise known as the last quarter of the school year) endured – I mean -coordinated two field trips (i.e. MORE paperwork) one on which I got soaking wet in the rain, and, fortunately, had some days at the beach during Spring Break (so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.)

In general, I’m extra tired, stressed out and cranky. But, in case you are, too, I thought I’d share the meals that saved me this week (not including dinner at Mom and Dad’s and leftovers from Mom and Dad’s – thank you, Mom!) The first, easy beef and bean burritos, I got from Ree Drummond’s blog, The Pioneer Woman. She starts off by saying: “an important clarification: The Pioneer Woman Cooks is not meant to be an encyclopedia of innovative gourmet recipes. It is a reflection of what is going on in my kitchen day in and day out, whether that’s necessarily thrilling or not.”

Well, if you consider it a thrill to be able to make a quick, easy and tasty dinner after getting home late from a stressful day, check her out here:
Beef and Bean Burritos | The Pioneer Woman Cooks | Ree Drummond.

Number two is what like to call “Mrs. Fresh’s ALMOST Chicken and Biscuits.” Just add the following to your crockpot:

About 1 pound boneless chicken (salt and peppered)
1 can cream of chicken and mushroom soup
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bag of peeled baby carrots
1 jar of sliced mushrooms
A bunch of thyme

Cook on high 4-5 hours or low 6-7 hours

Heat some frozen biscuits in the oven and serve with the chicken.

ALMOST as good as Chef John’s!

No food pics, so I here's a picture of the clean part of my kitchen.

No food pics, so I here’s a picture of the clean part of my kitchen.

Stuck in the Middle

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I really want to love this book. The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks. I’ve already renewed it twice from the library and it’s now two days overdue again. So I’m faced with a decision. Do I drop it off at the library at one of those convenient, drive-through style metal drop off boxes and wait for the hectic spring semester to end before finding another book? Or do I make a choice to MAKE TIME to read it?

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As I sit here at the kitchen table and listen to the whir of a lawn mower across the street on this beautiful spring morning, I think of all the things I have to/want to do today:

Laundry. Look for new cushions for our patio chairs. Find a recipe for tartar sauce to have with our left over fish from our fish fry last night (because most of the cocktail sauce is now gone and I’m not going to the store just for cocktail sauce). Write a blog post about my husband’s super delicious fried fish. Find a crockpot recipe for tomorrow (it’s all about planning ahead right?) Watch an episode of Mad Men (the last season begins April 5, I have to catch up!!). Sit out on the patio and paint my nails a pretty spring time color. (My nails are currently polish-free and badly un-manicured and there’s a bottle of Essie “Fashion Playground” that’s been sitting on my bathroom counter for over a week.”) The only reading that makes the list is reading what my fellow bloggers have been up to.

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Why do I want to love this book? For starters, it’s an intriguing plot based on the true story of a woman named Carrie McGavock, whose planation home in Franklin, Tennessee became a Confederate field hospital during the Battle of Franklin. But I’m no Civil War buff and I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if I hadn’t actually visited Franklin and the very plantation where this all happened. I’d never even heard of the Battle of Franklin until our trip to Nashville last November when we took a little trip about 20 miles south to check out the town. We visited two historic homes there and I was captivated by the stories of these people who endured a major battle right in their own backyard. I couldn’t wait to read The Widow of the South.

It’s not that I’ve DISLIKED the book so far. It just hasn’t really GRABBED me. I think the back and forth changes of view point between Carrie and the soldiers out on the field has been a bit aggravating. And a bit dry, a bit too expository, a bit too Red Badge of Courage. HOWEVER, as I open to where I left my book mark one night before my eyelids closed (between pages 128 and 129) I’m reminded that it is getting better, now that the wounded are arriving at the house. As it reads on the back cover:

When a wounded soldier named Zachariah Cashwell arrives at her house, he awakens feelings she had thought long dead – and inspires a passion as powerful and unforgettable as he war that consumes a nation.

And yes, by page 128 Zachariah has arrived, and maybe this is where the fiction really meets history in this historical fiction novel. So maybe I should just hang in there. At the bottom of page 128 Zachariah is lying on the wooden floor of Carrie’s house with other wounded soldiers and this is how he describes her:

“She was dark haired and pale and she was dressed all in black. This was the lady they’d been making jokes about, wanting her to return, about how their important parts would react to her arrival. I thought then that I could not be dying, because her arrival felt like a punch in my chest, which I reckoned to be a sign of life. I saw her and felt grateful and heated and afraid, all together.”

That’s good stuff. Maybe I’ll hang in there, try to squeeze in some reading during my 27 minutes of lunch time at school.

What do you think? How many pages until it’s time to head to the book return drop box?

At Carnton Plantation, November 2014.

At Carnton Plantation, November 2014.

Reduction SOS

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Thursday night I made my second attempt at a reduction sauce. The first attempt, several months ago, was a somewhat complicated red wine reduction, but it didn’t seem complicated enough to stop me from trying it out one night when we were having my parents over for dinner. Cut to: me snapping at my husband and mother when they offered help, almost getting into an argument with my husband in front of my parents, my mom throwing some cornstarch into the pan to try to thicken it up with no success. In the end, we drizzled the sauce on our grilled steaks and it didn’t ruin the meal, but it wasn’t the deliciousness that it was SUPPOSED to be. It was thin and barely had any taste at all. And definitely felt like a wasted effort.

Last week while surfing the internet, I came across a recipe for a “simple and easy” white wine reduction sauce from the Cooking Light website. Delicious on pork or tossed in pasta, they said. It sounded fast and fresh and easy – perfect for weeknight pork chops. All I had to do was sautee some chopped onion, add some white wine, chicken stock, white wine vinegar and chopped chives, bring to a boil and continue to cook until reduced “by almost half.” So simple – I just typed those steps from rote memory.

Before getting things going on the stove, however, I did a little googling on how to make a reduction. They said don’t worry too much about whether or not it reduces exactly to half or one half, or whatever the case may be. Just let it happen, they said. Or something like that. They also said the larger the surface area of the pan, the less time it will take to reduce. So I used a wide bottomed saute pan just like in the picture. The recipe recommended about five minutes for it to reduce but after five minutes, it was, you guessed it, NOT reduced. And watery. So I kept the pan on the burner and watched it very closely and carefully until suddenly it was mostly onion and chive with a little bit of thin watery reduction left. Into the garbage it went, and my husband pulled a bottle of barbecue sauce out of the fridge.

Ok fine, it’s not like I wasted a ton of time, energy or ingredients but what a disappointment! I wanted white wine sauce! And I had visions of future lovely white wine pasta dishes. A secret weapon I could whip out at a moment’s notice.

So my question is…should I even bother at a third attempt? Will that be the charm? Better yet, does anyone have any tips on how to make a reduction that actually reduces and isn’t a watery mess? Thanks!

Wine Journaling

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So glad this week is over! But…instead of relaxing with a glass (or two) of wine… I will be relaxing with my wine JOURNAL. It’s Lent, remember? No vino except on Saturdays and Sundays. Cheating? No, that’s survival. So in between making egg salad for dinner (no meat on Lenten Fridays) and pining for that Jacob’s Creek Pinot Grigio in the fridge, I will write a journal entry re-living our WONDERFUL dinner from LAST weekend at Upperline in New Orleans.

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The journal was given to me by my friend Karen, let’s see…back in 2009. What a great gift – she knows I like to write and I love wine! But for some reason, considering how much wine I drink, I haven’t recorded wines in the journal that often. Well…maybe that’s because in the moment you’re drinking, eating, laughing, talking – it can be kind of awkward to whip out your journal and write about it. But when a wine or an EXPERIENCE with a certain wine really sticks with me, I can write about it just like I’m writing in my diary or other journal. And it’s fun to go back and read my tasting comments and who I was with, where we were, what we were doing. I’ve got 12 wines in here, everything from the chianti I had in chianti Italy to a chianti/sangiovese blend from Macaroni Grill. And because I like to go to regional wineries, it’s fun to write about unusual wines that I can’t get just anywhere. Here are the wines that have made it into my journal so far:

Flat Creek Estate Super Texan 2008 (Marble Falls Texas)
Lasios Nero D’avola 2007 (Sicily)
Independent Producers Chardonnay 2008 (Columbia Valley, Washington)
Altos de la Hoya Jumilla 2007 (Spain)
Michael David Petite Petit 2007 (Lodi, California)
Golden Kaan Cabernet 2005 (Paarl, South Africa)
Le Grand Donjon Chardonnay 2007 (France)
Acrobat Pinot Gris 2009 (Willamette Valley)
Monteluce Primoro 2010 (Dahlonega, Georgia)
Montecalvi Chianti Classico 2010 (Chianti, Tuscany)
Crane Creek Vidal Blanc 2011 (North Georgia)
Col di Sasso Cabernet/Sangiovese 2013 (Montalcino, Tuscany)

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And tonight’s entry: Trimbach Gewurtzraminer 2010 from Alsace, which we had last Saturday at Upperline in New Orleans. A friend from New York and some friends from Minnesota were visiting and wow – what a fantastic dinner all around. I love Gewurtzraminer but don’t have it that often – probably because I don’t usually want to pay 42 dollars. My friends asked me to choose the wine from the wine list (of course!) and I knew it would be perfect. That Alsatian spice and fruit, so delicious with fish or seasoned meats can be the perfect compromise between red and white. My husband and my friend Nicol had the shrimp and grits (silky smooth) and I had the lamb shank with saffron risotto and, oh – the gewurtz brought out the flavor in both. To start? How about some spicy fried oysters in between sips of that spiced honey and lychee fruit. Can you say divine??? And afterwards, with honey-pecan bread pudding topped with toffee sauce? Smashing! Best dinner I’ve had in a while. I have to agree with the description on the Trimbach website which states, quite frankly: “It is in Alsace that this grape variety reaches the height of perfection”. Fortunately tonight I have a couple episodes of Mad Men recorded to go with my egg salad….

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Why is this “A Little Way?”

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Sometimes it takes a great effort just to do the little things. Especially after a long day at work. I THINK I’ve finally gotten a handle on how to be a good teacher, but still learning about being a wife! Inspired by “the little way” of St. Therese of Lisieux, who tried to “do little things with great love,” this is my Little Way.

But now I have to come up with something to cook for dinner before my husband gets home. And I really should put away this junk that’s been cluttering the kitchen table. But all I want to do is browse recipes and listen to the news about the Israeli PM’s speech today. While eating some chips. But I gave up chips for Lent. So even though today is one of those days I could eat goat cheese and crackers for dinner, I will slide a frozen lasagna into the oven. A little frozen lasagna heated up and served with great love. 🙂

Sometimes it takes a great effort to do the little things, but it’s the little things that keep us going and make life worth living. Isn’t it?

Do Try This at Home

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“Bread is the king of the table and all else is merely the court that surrounds the king.” – Louis Bromfield, American novelist (1896-1956)

“With a piece of bread in your hand you’ll find paradise under a pine tree.” – Russian Proverb

Wednesday I had the day off from school. And since it was ASH WEDNESDAY, I observed the Catholic rules of fasting. But since I had the time, I wanted to practice my cooking skills and try something new to go with our big meal of the day. I decided I was going to try my hand at baking bread.

I’d been browsing bread recipes after watching Lorraine Pascale make Crackle Top Bread on her BBC cooking show. Her bread looked delicious and she made the process of kneading and rising seem do-able and fun. You can watch the video clip here:BBC – Food – Recipes : Crackle top bread.

So I had the sachets of yeast in the pantry, all I needed was the perfect bread recipe. The Crackle Top Bread calls for rice flour and castor sugar, so it was out. Most of the so called “beginner breads” that I found online, such as sourdough and French bread weren’t very inspiring even though I do enjoy them; I wanted something with a little more pizzazz. A Williams-Sonoma recipe for “No-Knead” Rosemary Lemon Bread was enticing, but because there’s no kneading, the dough has to rise for 12-18 hours. I’ll take 10 minutes of kneading, thanks. Besides, as I found out, it’s the BEST part!

“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” – M.F.K. Fischer

So I turned to my trusty Better Homes and Gardens cookbook and found it: Pepper-Cheese Bread! As in bread with the flavor of cracked pepper and parmesan cheese. YES! Prep time 40 minutes, rise time 1 and 1/2 hours, bake time 35 minutes – YES! And YES, it is as good as it sounds and no, you don’t need a hardcover BHG cookbook, the exact recipe is also available on their website: Pepper-Cheese Bread. However, the cookbook has a few handy tips, which I will share with you.

On the first rise, keep the bread away from drafts by letting it rise
on the top rack of a cool oven and place a bowl of warm water beneath it.

To knead, fold dough over and push down with the heel of your hand.
Turn, fold and push down again, Repeat process until smooth and elastic.

Punch down the dough (once) by pushing your fist down into its center.
Next, use your fingers to pull edges of the dough to the center.

My personal tip is: don’t worry if it seems like your bread hasn’t doubled in size. Mind did NOT look like it had risen enough. But I just went by the timing in the directions; I didn’t test the dough by pressing down with two fingers, etc. And my bread turned out PERFECTLY! Beautiful and delicious.

I love my bird S&P shakers, but my bread is more beautiful!

I love my bird S&P shakers, but my bread is more beautiful!

Beginner’s luck? Maybe. But I feel like maybe perfect bread is related to the elasticity of the dough, so I also recommend that you make sure you beat the flour and yeast mixture on HIGH speed for the recommended time and make sure you knead the dough for ten minutes. The ONLY thing I might do differently next time is add more parmesan cheese. The bread had a very delicate pepper flavor (which is good) but I did expect it to be more cheesy.

“A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.” – Omar Khayyam

If you’ve never baked bread before, I hope you’ll try it. Or try it again if yours didn’t turn out great the first time. There’s something so satisfying about rolling the plump, yeasty dough in your hands and shaping that soft, pillowy bundle. And then the excitement when you pull that gorgeous brown loaf out of the oven and realize that you did it! You baked bread – the symbol of hearth and home and nourishment for thousands of years. It just feels good.

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” – Ecclesiastes 9:7

“Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds.” – Matthew 14:19

"Peasants breaking bread". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Peasants breaking bread”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dreaming of Chianti

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I always have some trouble figuring out what to give up for Lent. Give up wine and beer TOTALLY for forty days? Come on. Or junk food or television? REALLY?? So, in addition to trying to DO more during Lent, this year I’m going to just try to be more mindful about denying myself. Not having a snack just to snack. Not having seconds. Not drinking wine during the week, maybe. But we do have a day trip to New Orleans planned next week and we will be going to Upperline for dinner and I WILL be having wine that night.

I do love wine. Visiting the Montecalvi winery and tasting the chianti with the winemaker was another of my wonderful Italian experiences in Tuscany.

So, as if you need another reason to plan a trip to Italy, here is a video clip shared by Rebecca from Tuscan Wine Tours. It features the delightful Jaqueline Bolli, owner and operator, and her too-cute dog whose name I can’t remember. Rebecca Wine: Favorite Wineries: Montecalvi in Greve in Chianti.

We had the opportunity on our all-girl Tuscany Trip in 2013 to taste several of Jaqui’s chiantis as we sat around her outdoor table overlooking the vineyards. (also had a fantastic Italian cooking lesson at our villa which you can read about here:COOKING LESSONS IN TUSCANY “Cucina Giuseppina” | alittleway.)

I bought a bottle of the 2010 Montecalvi Chianti Classico which did survive in my suitcase on the trip home. It cost about 15 euro: a very light, earthy wine, smooth but very “undemanding” as Jaqui called it.

The wine is long gone, I shared it at dinner with my parents soon after I came home. I’m not much into saving wine, mainly because most wine, in fact, does NOT age well. ( a fact explained very well here by Bottlenecker Wine: Eternal In Our Minds, Not On Our Shelves | Bottlenecker.)

So on this first day of Lent, I’m not sure when my next glass of wine will be, and I know I’ll probably never taste Montecalvi Chianti Classico again. But I will always have Montecalvi.

The road to Jacqui's home and winery

The road to Jacqui’s home and winery

Overlooking the chianti vineyards with Tuscany in my glass.

Overlooking the chianti vineyards with Tuscany in my glass.

COOKING LESSONS IN TUSCANY “Cucina Giuseppina”

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You know you want to go to Italy. If you’ve already been, you know you want to go back. And if you’ve been to Italy but didn’t go to Tuscany, then you definitely NEED to go back, because you missed out. Go ahead and book that villa or that cottage from VRBO for 2016 and spend the year saving up. Or travel THIS year and when you get back home, start saving up to pay down the credit card debt. Just do it. Picture yourself in a storybook village like this one:

Monterchi, Tuscany

Monterchi, Tuscany

Make it happen. It will be worth it. And while you’re there, schedule a cooking class with Giuseppina COOKING LESSONS IN TUSCANY "Cucina Giuseppina" Corso Cucina Toscana catering Tuscany

In June of 2013 I stayed for seven LOVELY days in an 18th century villa in Monterchi, Tuscany, with 9 other women. We arranged for a cooking class with Giuseppina and it was one of the best nights of the trip. She and her two assistants made the two hour drive from their village and arrived with all of the ingredients and supplies we would need: fresh herbs, vegetables, poultry and eggs from Giuseppina’s farm, bottles of oils, a pasta machine, a bottle of wine, and Giuseppina’s salt box, which I’m guessing she takes everywhere so she can grab and throw pinches of salt on whatever she pleases.

We gathered in the villa’s kitchen with its big wooden table in the middle of the room. Glasses of wine were poured and Giuseppina told us we would be preparing pollo di Donna (named after her mother in law) fresh pasta with white beans and tiramisu. She gave each of us a red “cucina con giuseppina” apron which was ours to keep. We tied on our aprons and prepared to immerse ourselves in some authentic Italian cooking.

Who needs a cooking lesson the MOST?  This one!

Who needs a cooking lesson the MOST? This one!

A few of the girls took notes on the ingredients and techniques, but the notes didn’t prove all THAT helpful as their handwriting became more sparse as more wine was consumed. I didn’t bother with any note taking, I just wanted to LIVE it: chopping and stirring, flouring and sipping and rolling pasta as I breathed in the heated scent of herbs, garlic and oil from the pan while catching glimpses of the ancient dusk silhouetting the trees outside a kitchen window in Tuscany.

Giuseppina told us that in traditional Italian cooking, sage is used to season two legged animals, garlic and rosemary for animals with four legs. The pollo di donna was sauted in a cast iron pot with lots of chopped fresh sage, carrots, zucchini and onion. I had been hoping to learn at least one skill that I could bring home to impress my husband-to-be, and I got my wish: I learned that when it comes to mincing and chopping, a cook’s best friend is a crescent shaped mezzaluna. Roll it back and forth over your veggies and herbs, and in a flash they’re all chopped and minced! And it’s kind of fun, too!

Making the hand made pasta involved lots of flour, lots of space to make a flour volcano in which to add the egg and roll the dough into sheets, lots of patience to crank the pasta through the pasta machine, but it was the freshest, most delicious pasta I’ve ever put in my mouth. Giuseppina’s two assistants set the table in the villa’s formal dining room, and while we enjoyed the fruits of our cooking lesson, they cleaned up the kitchen. The whole experience was worth every cent!

Karen and Em  rolling pasta dough through the pasta machine.

Karen and Em rolling pasta dough through the pasta machine.

Back home, one of the first things I did was add a mezzaluna to my wedding gift registry. “A what?” My fiancé said. Then, “well, if it makes you want to cook more…”

Actually, it does. And when I put on my red Cucina Guiseppina apron at home in my own kitchen, I feel inspired all over again, ready to take on any new recipe I dare!

Our beautiful Tuscan kitchen!

Our beautiful Tuscan kitchen!