Some Like It Hot

Photo by Jan Gottweiss on Unsplash

I knew it would be a scorcher of a day even before my morning weather briefing from “Alexa.” Heading out the door with The Poodle just before seven a.m. was a certain clue;  a blast of moist, warm air greeted me before I had taken two steps.  A quick look at my weather app confirmed; temps were already in the eighties and would reach 98 today with a 104 heat index. I kept the walk brief, more for The Poodle than for me. 

For the most part we’ve had a manageable summer, weather-wise.  We’ve been fortunate that nothing too dramatic has occurred in our neck of the woods.  And though the dog days of summer doesn’t seem to be waning on this Hades-hot and muggy day I am not complaining.  In fact, through eyes burning with salty sweat– just from a walk around the block– I am almost energized. 

Bring on another dog day, and another one after that, I say as I head back down my driveway with a panting Poodle.  I’m sure at least one of my dear “seven” readers is scratching their head over my wishful thinking.  But here’s the thing…

I’m already thinking of bone-chilling cold winter and Uggs.  And while I love Uggs, I’d honestly prefer not to have to wear them

So yes…I’d venture to say that…..

Some like it hot. 

Which leads me to purposefully digress….altogether off-track…to last night.

Dinner at my sister’s house.

So….Sis and family returned a week ago from an excellent adventure in Bangkok Thailand.  My bro-in-law had to attend a work-related conference which naturally presented a lovely opportunity for the family.  While they all enjoyed their exciting and exotic adventure–which included, among many things, python petting and lemur love as well as a Thai cooking class, we kept the home fires burning–so to speak–providing their pooch, Nica with her own home -away-from-home doggie-vacation (playing with The Poodle aside, this also meant she enjoyed gourmet delights that aren’t the usual fare at her house.)

Sufficiently recovered from a particularly unpleasant jet-lag, Sis felt like showing off her newfound Thai cooking skills.  “Come on over when you’re done with your pool-time.  I’m cooking Thai tonight…libations at 5:30,” she texted.

My sis is a terrific cook and she is often more adventurous in her approach than me.  So, naturally we were all in.

Arriving just a tad late from the pool we were welcomed with ice-cold libations: beer for the hubby and gin and tonic for me.  Normally I don’t imbibe in anything other than wine but every once in a while –particularly on a hot day–my brother-in-law suggests I enjoy something different and I’m always happy to comply.

 

Some like it Hot…really HOT

On the chopping block in my sister’s kitchen there was colorful array of tiny dishes as well as a platter of tiny bright-red peppers that made my heart sing just looking at them.

“Wow…what a production,” I say as I survey the food prep. There was expertly chopped fresh cilantro in one bowl, and lime wedges in another. There were little bowls of sliced red onions, green onions, and fresh mint leaves. A large fresh ginger root was at the ready too.

“What’s in this bowl,” I asked, as I sipped on my gin and tonic.

“Kaffir Lime Leaves,” she replies. “And that…” pointing to what I had just picked up, “… is Lemon Grass,” she says.

“Really?! Wow… I have never used Lemon Grass in a recipe,” I say. She then tells me about making her own rice powder for the Chicken Larb dish.

“Wowza! You really went all out! This all had to have taken hours!”

“Not really,” smiles sis as she takes a moment to relax with her drink. “It just took a little time to find the right ingredients.” We’re fortunate to live in an area that makes that fairly easy. “Anyway,” she continues, “these recipes are all pretty easy. Here, take a look at this.” She hands me a book by Chef Kris Yenbamroong entitled, Night + Market.

I flip through it as sis continues with her meal prep. I’m amazed that the guy has had no formal culinary training and yet he opened a Thai restaurant in L.A. to rave reviews and has authored a cookbook.

“Hmm…there are some really interesting recipes in here. “And you’re right, they look fairly easy.” I also note, as I looked at the chef/author’s photo, that he is heavily tattooed. “He’s heavily inked in black and white,” I add.

“Yes…and it’s quite prevalent to see in Thailand too. So many people with beautiful and interesting tattoos.”

About an hour later with libations finished and a last minute scurry to complete the final touches, we all sat down for our Thai meal experience. For our first course, sis had prepared a soup with red chilies and shrimp that had us sweating bullets at the first slurp.

“Holy Hades…. this is spicy hot!” I said in surprise. In hindsight, I should have known since there was a plate of fresh hot red peppers in the kitchen.

“Oh no, is it too spicy?! I’m sorry!” sis said with anxious concern.

“Are you kidding? I love it! The hotter the better,” I said with unbridled zeal. “This is terrific!” And I really meant it.

For the main course she had prepared Chicken Larb, also delightfully spicy, and a thrill to the taste buds. For inquiring minds about Larb, which is essentially a meat salad, check out this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larb. We also enjoyed spring rolls (the only non-Thai item on the table) as well as citrus, spice-infused jasmine rice and a delightful papaya and mango salad.

Chicken Larb

So peeps, we ate ourselves silly that night and enjoyed every hot and spicy morsel of it. For a nano-second I think of purchasing the book. After all, I should spice it up a notch in my own kitchen and expand on my usual repertoire of Italian delights…

Hmm. On second thought, no…for the moment at least. There is fun to be had watching –and being a part of–my sis occasionally stepping outside of our Italian heritage. There’s always something to learn and merriment too, in my sister’s kitchen. Quite simply, it makes life all the more colorful and that’s a bliss I don’t want to miss.

Flying With Dean

In a large mixing bowl add about a pound of organic ground beef, half a pound of ground veal (perhaps some ground pork too, if on hand), two large eggs…a heaping quarter of a cup of freshly chopped Italian parsley….and, don’t forget three cloves of garlic, minced (it’s gotta be the real thing; No garlic salt for this woman…ever!). Throw in a cup of plain bread crumbs and another cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese followed by a teaspoon of salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Hmm….am I forgetting anything?

Mix it all well with a fork.

Take a moment to pour yourself a glass of wine (a hearty red is my choice) then pull up a playlist of music appropriate for the occasion…in this case, Italian music.

Hmm.  I’m thinking Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin this evening.

Ahh…yes!  Now the mood is set!

Take a sip of wine….

and begin.

Begin what?

The rolling of meatballs of course!

So, earlier in the day I tried–in vain I might add–to interest my son in a bonding cooking moment. His diet is …in a word…atrocious.

“Would you be open to making meatballs with me,” I asked, knowing that I would be appealing to his love of meat. “You’d be surprised at how empowering it is to make something wonderful in the kitchen…with your own hands. The outcome–and the experience–promises to be infinitely better than what comes out of a Chef Boyardee can.”  I say this with a certain nonchalance….as chilled as possible… hopeful that he would seize the moment.

Yep….you guessed it. A lot good it did me.  I may as well have been talking to a brick wall. At the end of the day whatever it is that I ask of my man-child boils down to ” I just don’t want to [do it].

Sigh.

I stewed over it for all of five minutes then erased it from the video streaming in my head.

Well I tried.

There seems no convincing this man-child of mine that taking a little time to prepare food with fresh ingredients is infinitely better than chemically processed frozen or canned crap.  For instance, my freezer usually is practically empty (a couple of bags of frozen veggies and salmon burgers and fillets…that’s about it.  Okay, full disclosure: there is, on occasion, ice-cream).  But, since my son returned on my doorstep it’s full of stuff I haven’t purchased in over twenty-five years.   He has filled it with Marie Callender pot pies, bags of ravioli, pizza bites, and horror of horrors….WHITE bread! Gag.

Anyhow, pish-posh to his maddening stubbornness.   So,  I’m going to make meatballs anyway.  And, for the record, let it be known that spaghetti and meatballs is not a true Italian dish.  It’s Italian-American. I rarely make meatballs but I was willing to step a little outside of being faithful to my northern Italian heritage to bond with my son.  Instead…Rocket-man and I were the only ones in the kitchen.

I swayed to the music as I rolled meatballs and dredged them in a bit of flour before adding them to a pan containing a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.

In minutes the lovely fragrance of garlic and olive oil permeated the house.

Rocket-man was amused, I’m sure, to hear me belting out Volare along with Dean Martin as we worked together in the kitchen (a rare moment, I might add).

“Volare, oh oh
E contare, oh oh oh oh
Nel blu, dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassu….”

Then I stumbled for the next line or two.  It mattered not if I didn’t know all the lyrics: I was flying with Dean and in my happy place.

The outcome of my efforts?

Veramente, buonissimo. Really yummy.

Later, my son actually joined us at the table.  Naturally he happily devoured the real deal — food NOT out of a can–though with scant appreciation for the effort.

Some day, it will be a memory that hopefully he holds dear.

Never give up I say.

Thank you “Dino” for seeing me through my meatball moment. 

 

Bagpipes and Sushi?

Sashimi. No can do raw!

Sashimi. No can do raw!

So here I am sitting in a Japanese restaurant.  Yes, there are discriminating palates in middle earth; it’s not all fried catfish, biscuits and grits here. Still, much of the food around these parts isn’t …well…good…nor necessarily good for you.  I suppose after living in cities that featured well-known chefs and a plethora of fabulous eateries I am extraordinarily picky.  And naturally, years of traveling overseas tends to expand the palate in a huge way.

Anyhow, this place just opened a few weeks ago and it’s two miles from the house. I’m with the GNO ladies (Girls Night Out). We meet every Monday for a happy-hour spirit (or two) and catch up on all the happenings in our lives. We talk about everything and nothing. It’s always a lovely hour—mostly we keep it to that—of camaraderie and laughter. Then we skedaddle home to get on with the rest of the evening.

This is the first time we are meeting at this place. One of the ladies wanted to try it out since her son just hired on as head chef. Naturally I wanted to support her…and the restaurant choice, but I’ll admit to being mighty apprehensive. For one, I’m not keen on sushi—or, more appropriately, sashimi: sliced raw fish which happens to be served as sushi, on a ball of seasoned sticky rice. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I have been mighty disappointed with most of the restaurants in our fair town. We don’t have a plethora to choose from.  We’ve got zero good Chinese restaurants, only two decent Mexican restaurants, and one good (but pricey) steak place (that would be Ruth Chris Steak House).  As for Italian? You can imagine I’m hyper-critical given my heritage though we can get a fairly good pizza (no home delivery though) not far from the house.

I do enjoy the refreshing taste of California Rolls

I do enjoy the refreshing taste of California Rolls

“I’m not really one for sushi…or raw anything,” I admitted earlier to my friend Emily as we drove over to the restaurant.  “I like my food thoroughly cooked. I do like California rolls though—they are made with crab meat, avocado and cucumbers and are delightfully refreshing. I’ll just have my usual… one glass of wine.”  Emily echoed my sentiment.

We entered the restaurant which was simple and sparse in decor, true to Japanese minimalism and found that most of the other GNO ladies had already just arrived.  We sat, joining in the conversation, listening to Tracey talk proudly about her son’s new job as head chef there.  After we had ordered our libations (it was a Chardonnay for me this evening) we all fell quiet as we studied the menu.

Most of the time at GNO I simply order a single glass of wine and nothing else. But given that we were trying a new place everyone wanted to order something. As we studied the extensive menu I realized that nothing was remotely familiar to me.  I felt relieved that most of the other ladies felt the same way.

“Hmm.  I cannot seem to find California rolls on the menu,” I whispered to Emily.  “Me either,” she replied.   She pointed to an item on the menu. “What do you suppose this is? She asked. “Gosh, I have no idea,” I said with a slightly worried expression. “Really, I think they need to provide translations to these menu items,” I said.

Just then the manager of the restaurant stopped at our table. He’s checking in, asking how we are enjoying are dining experience so far. He’s a young burly fellow (I believe he said his name was Chris).  He’s got red hair and a neatly maintained beard and mustache. He looks a bit out-of-place in a Japanese restaurant (but then again, I’m living in Alabama).   Normally the shy one, I chimed right up saying that it would be helpful if there were translations of the menu items. I also added that I preferred cooked seafood, not raw.

“Are you afraid of getting sick,” asked Chris.  “Oh no,” I said. “I just don’t like the consistency of raw food.

Okay folks. So, I lied. But only partially.

I absolutely do worry about the health implications of eating raw fish, (this coming from the gal that has…on many occasions, enjoyed raw chocolate chip cookie dough straight from the mixing bowl….but I digress).  Still, as far as I am concerned, eating raw seafood is an open invitation to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, not to mention the possibly acquiring some nasty parasite that can reside in fish.

“I can understand your apprehension but let me assure you all that we handle our seafood with strict adherence to safety standards, and we get it from a trusted and reputable source.”

He could see that I was not convinced.

“Have you tried raw seafood before?” he asked.

“I’m pretty sure I have not,” I say. Chris gives me a quizzical look.

“Oh, I lived in Okinawa as a child. I quite possibly could have eaten sushi then but my memory from all those years ago is sketchy. I just know that through the years since I have avoided raw seafood. I’m good with most cooked seafood though.”  I thought it best to leave out:  hell no… I am not eating eel.

“Well then now is the time to try something new. It’s part of what I love to do here…educating our customers, “ he said with a smile. “I’m going to bring you something to try, on the house.”

I tried to tell him no thank you—that I was blissfully content with my glass of Chardonnay.  But to no avail.  It didn’t help that the ladies were all were in agreement with Chris. In unison they sang out, as if we had all just bellied-up to the bar for a round of shots to the chant of “Go, Go, Go,” but instead it was, “try it, try it, try it!”

Within minutes Chris was back, placing in front of me a small white square plate adorned with one tiny scoop of sushi rice and a chunky strip of raw, pink salmon. “This is nigiri,” he said. “Let me know what you think.”

“Well, um…. It looks mighty pretty,” I offered as I turned the plate around for closer inspection. “I’ll try a bit of it. Would anyone else like to try some,” I asked with a hopeful look around the table.

“You have to eat the whole thing, yourself, in one bite…don’t cut it up” Chris said, adding: “It’s actually considered poor manners to do so.”

Aw man.  Seriously? I actually thought he was trying to pull one over me but apparently not.  I Googled it later.  It’s terribly egregious…. akin to cutting the chef in two!

With all eyes on me I took a tentative bite and, immediately noting the smoked flavor of the salmon, I popped the rest into my mouth. “It’s smoked salmon,” I said, barely hiding my relief. “Yes, this is tasty. I’ve had smoked salmon before but it isn’t like it is raw fish.”

Chris thought he had me now and wanted to guide me towards ordering a dish.

Nope. Nice try. “Thank you for the sample, but I still don’t want to eat raw seafood. But I will order this next time if you’d point it out on the menu for me.”

I then asked him if he’d been to Japan since he seemed to know his stuff.  “No, but it’s definitely on my list of places to go,” he said. “I’ve only been to England and Scotland.” He then proceeded to tell us all the story of getting stranded in a bar in Scotland during bad weather, with only one item: His bagpipes. bagpipe

“Wow, you play the bagpipes?,” I said in awe.  It’s not an easy instrument to play.  I actually like the sound of bagpipes and I love the ceremony about it.  Hmm….What an interesting mix…bagpipes and sushi.  I wanted to ask how a young piper came to be running a Japanese restaurant in “middle-earth” Alabama but decided to save it for another day.  Yes…imagine that….I will go back!

So folks, one parting Japanese etiquette tip-of-the-day: When toasting with a glass of wine, do not say “Chin-Chin” (to your health) as Italians do. The proper word is “Kanpai!” meaning to empty one’s glass. In Japan, chin-chin refers to a man’s penis.  You can thank me for that tip, as in Domo Arigato.

Learn something new everyday.

Bliss.

Put A Cork In It?

We’ve got sun today and what a welcomed sight.  I’ve lived in “middle earth” now for just over two and a half years and it seems we’ve had more days of cold and gloom this winter, than usual.  Last week there was freezing rain and even a dusting of snow.   Poodle and I went for very brief walks in those freezing temps, and yes….in the rain as well.   Poodle would look mighty dapper with his blue coat but that wouldn’t last long.  You see, silly as it seems, I do wish he’d agree to a hat. My four-legged love is just not very handsome with wet-head.

This morning, like every other, we started on our customary walk down the hill.  My knees have not decided to cooperate in the cold and I confess to struggling in pain as I go and am tempted to turn back.  It’s cold at 32 degrees but the forecast promises to warm up to 50.  Keep going missy; you’ve got to move!  Despite the sun this morning my mind wandered to the land of fun-in-the-sun and swaying palm trees…Southern California.

“How I would love to be walking on the beach right about now” I say out aloud to Poodle (even if it meant limping as I am doing now).   His ears perk up as if in understanding as to what I had just said. Some days I’d swear that he is just as blue as I am and for the same reason: missing the beach, perfect weather and South Bay friends. I’m almost certain too that Poodle misses his play-dates with other poodles and his weekly crazy, all-out runs with other dogs at the dog park that was just up the street from our townhouse.

I’ve got music from Spotify flowing into my head as I walk. I’m listening to the Mood Booster playlist. It’s a particularly fitting name for a playlist and it’s one of my favorites for the gym.   A song that makes me think of coconuts and island breezes takes me back to a scuba diving adventure in Dominica, an island in the Caribbean.  Inexplicably I remember a night dive where we happened upon an octopus. It was thoroughly unexpected and even more unexpected was the fact that I found it. Yes. Moi. Imagine that! And with less than 50 dives under my weight belt!  At one point I’m sure I forgot to breathe!

These are mighty intelligent creatures

These are mighty intelligent creatures!

Night diving is not my thing. Rocket-man however loves it. And, even though this “octopus dive” was wonderfully memorable, I decided this— my fifth night dive experience— would definitely be my last. In pitch-black dark, ignorance is not bliss! I suck way too much air and shake in my wetsuit in a near-paralyzing fear. I’d much rather be bathed in the light of day when I’m underwater! Anyhow, for a good ten minutes we were absolutely mesmerized by the magnificent display of colors and textures presented to us by the octopus as it tried to get away from the prying eyes of its foreign “invaders.” Mind you, we didn’t attempt to touch her or anything of the sort; we just wanted to follow the timid, tentacled creature and capture her chameleon nature as she wardrobe-changed through a dizzying, spectacular array of colors…from turquoise to pink, to bright orange and brindle browns to marbled greys. In retrospect, this was the perfect end to my night-diving adventures. As dazzling and dramatic as our octopus dive was,  henceforth, I’d prefer to stick to broad daylight diving, thank you very much.

So imagine my thought process when this past holiday season Rocket-man and I had the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve with our neighbors (OK…I’m a bit tardy recounting our Christmas Eve. It’s apparent that I’ve been lazy at this whole blog writing thing!). Anyhow, Mrs. T. is half-Italian and when she extended the invite several weeks before the holiday she cautioned that she prepares the traditional Italian Christmas Eve meal.

“You mean fish, right? I asked.

Yes. Fish. But not just any fish. Lots of different kinds of seafood to include the main attraction, octopus.

That hole in the middle....yep...It's the butt! It's where the ink gets expelled!

That hole in the middle….yep…It’s the butt!  The hole acts as a tubular funnel;  It’s where sepia (ink) gets expelled as a defensive weapon and, when water is forced through, propels the octopus who can travel with great speed through the water.

“Oh my!  Octopus,” I say with a hard-to-hide cringe. For a moment I’m thoroughly horrified at myself that I couldn’t contain my reaction.  Fortunately, Mrs. T. understood!

“It’s OK…I know!” she said.  “I’m the only one who will eat it. My dad and mom always have octopus on the Christmas Eve menu but my kids and husband won’t touch it. Don’t worry though, we’ll also have salmon, shrimp and fried calamari.”

“Well,” I said, relieved that I had not offended my new friend.  ”Thank you so much for the invite and… you know…you won’t have to eat octopus alone this year…I’m game to give it another try, though I cannot promise I’ll finish what is on my plate!”  I went on to tell her that I had eaten octopus many years before as a child and suffered kicks under the table–and worse, the evil eye– from my mother who made me eat it as we were guests for dinner at her friends’ house. I remember it tasted like a moldy rubber hose (not that I have ever actually eaten a moldy rubber hose mind you…) but, you get my drift. It was definitely a gag-worthy meal and I never forgot it.

Mrs. T. texts me a photo of the octopus that she plans on preparing.  My stomach does a flip.  Oh God.  I agreed to eat that?!   I had to put a name to the beast (I habit I’ve learned to do thanks to my beautiful sis!).  I call Mrs. T. to tell her what’s on my mind.  “Your octopus must have a name; it’s Octavius the Octopus!

Then, a day before our dinner I happened to come across an article in the December issue of Bon Appétit magazine. It featured an octopus recipe.  One of the sidebar notes was that chefs swear by placing a wine cork in the cooking liquid.  Many chefs freely admit that they don’t quite understand how placing a cork in the pot as the octopus cooks makes for a tender (not rubbery) octopus.  In fact, one well-known Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, uses one wine cork for every two pounds of octopus.  It could be the cork has some kind of natural tenderizing enzymes?  There seems to be little understanding on the subject.  Even a 2009 article in the Miami New Times addressed this oddity.    How strange!  I thought. I wonder if it matters if the cork comes from a bottle of red or white wine?  Intrigued, I immediately picked up the phone and called Mrs. T.

“Hey lady. Coincidentally enough, the current issue of Bon Appétit magazine has a couple of octopus recipes in it. Did you know that you’re supposed to place a wine cork in the pot along with the octopus?

“Oh yes,” said Mrs. T. My dad always does that. He doesn’t know how it tenderizes the octopus but he swears by it.”  Wow. Who would have thought there was a culinary purpose for wine corks!

I arrived early before our Christmas Eve meal was to take place.  Mrs. T. had texted early in the day that she would be cutting up Octavius around 4:30’ish if I wanted to come by early to observe.  “Absolutely!”   I did not want to miss the opportunity and was certainly curious how Mrs.. T. would go about preparing the octopus.  I can tell you, it was interesting and definitely very entertaining. We shared lots of laughs over the entire process.  It wasn’t the prettiest process to be sure; Octavius was an ugly, slimy gray blob surrounded by ice as he lay in the sink waiting to be chopped up.  A hefty pour of a wonderfully buttery Chardonnay helped me endure the scene as I watched Mrs. T. expertly cut the long tentacles into one-inch pieces.

Octavius the Octopus moments before he gets chopped up.

Octavius the Octopus moments before he gets chopped up.

 

“You have to leave this part out,” Mrs. T. said as she pointed to a hole under the mantel of the octopus. This is the octopus’s butt.  “Ewwwwww,” I said nearly dissolving in giggles much like a 6-year-old, “disgusting!”  Mrs. T. laughed in agreement. Boy was I glad she had a good sense of humor over my every cringe!   Now that Octavius was reduced to a colander full of pieces, she placed them in one of her cheery, red Le Creuset pots.  She added roughly chopped onions, a small amount of water, chopped fresh Italian parsley grown in a pot on her kitchen’s windowsill, and a bay leaf.  The final touch before letting Octavius bubble along for an hour?  The wine cork.

This is a one-cork meal!

This is a one-cork meal!

 

What began as an ugly blob of grey tentacles turned into a beautifully red and deep purple-hued dish.  I have to admit that it was nothing like the rubber hose of my childhood.  It was quite delicious!  Really.  And yes, I did finish the serving on my plate.  But, I know what you’re thinking: Did I go back for seconds?

No.

It was the fried calamari and grilled salmon that captured my taste buds the most that night.  Along with the dish that I brought to share: my terrific Tiramisu.

Popping into the New Year

I’m not sure I like how this year has started and I’ve got absolutely no one to blame but myself.  It started with New Years Eve.  Don’t get me wrong.  We thoroughly enjoyed an outing at our neighbors. They are terrific people and we truly had a blast, fireworks and all.   The hostess, Mrs. T., is half-Italian as well,  and though she hails from down south and I from the north, I knew we’d hit it off. Mrs. T. was born on a kitchen table (really) in a small town just outside of Bari, Italy, all the way down the Italian boot, literally at the top of its heel. So perhaps you can extrapolate just from that one bit of information that there was plenty of great food at her party. Suffice it to say that I rolled into bed at 2 a.m. New Years day with my belly rumbling mighty uncomfortably from eating too many pot-stickers, egg rolls, jalapeño poppers (yes…the very ones that I prepared), and an ample bowl of spaghetti and meatballs at midnight, just after toasting with prosecco and hugs and kisses all around. I’ll give myself credit that I was good about the sweets (I didn’t eat any) and pretty darned good about the alcohol; just two short-pour glasses of wine and one glass of prosecco-laced Limoncello, the latter of which I enjoyed immensely.

I’d like to think I am out of the woods with respect to overeating but unfortunately football season is not quite over (though to Rocket-man it may as well be since the Steelers lost a critical game last week).  The Super Bowl cannot get here soon enough!  Of course, we are on the heels of Valentines Day.  Then there’s Easter.  Oh for the love of God…..don’t get me started!

Anyhow…..I had to attend a football game party just the other day. Much as I loathe the game (and you know I do), I honestly do want to be sociable. It’s just that there will be so much food and alcohol and since I’m not into the game…and all the other folks fervently are into the game there’s really not much to do except, well….eat and drink. Socializing means something different to a bunch of football folks glued to a big-screen TV watching football; most of them simply cannot talk about anything other than football.  Moreover, they often cannot talk and watch the game at the same time (it’s more like yelling and watching the game at the same time.)  I did attempt conversation with one woman.  She was quiet nice but after three words it was all about football scores and statistics.  I want to talk about books, movies, life in general…even the price of tea in China, not football.  I know….I’m an alien-being from another planet to these football folks….and I’m proud of it!

So folks, this may be the year that I embark on a new journey: total knee replacement for both knees. To that end I must get myself into better shape before the surgery. I know that I cannot face this surgery with a lot of extra pounds. I would be almost no different from refusing to quit smoking before–and after— getting a pacemaker.  The knee doctor that I consulted with in Northern Virginia last month said I was in great shape both in terms of heart health and weight.  “You should see some of the people who come in here; you have nothing to worry about,” he said.  Still, he was forthright in emphasizing that weight management would be more important than ever after total knee replacement.

So, I’ve got to get better control of what I am putting into my body, but more importantly….how much.  I’m pretty good at eating healthy food, it’s quantity that I have the problem with.  It’s not going to be easy. That’s the conundrum; like any “addict,” it’s better to remove oneself from situations that will make one fall off the wagon. At the same time a person doesn’t want to ostracize themselves from social gatherings either.   I love food. Really. I LOVE Food. I’m half-Italian so it’s impossible to not love food. Some eat to live….Italians live to eat (and it’s not grass juices, kale and quinoa diets either).  However, with an aging metabolism (and being female to boot) it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep extra pounds off. I honestly try not to beat myself up too much about it. Even elite female athletes struggle with weight gain and changing body composition after menopause. Still, with all that is stacked against me, including wonky knees, I am determined.  I only need to lose a good 10 pounds. That’s seems entirely manageable, right?  Right.

So where was I? Ah yes…. back to food!

You wanted that jalapeño popper recipe, right? You’ve been clamoring for it in fact. (well…OK….in my head you are!). So let’s start the new year off with something other than black-eyed peas! Trust me, these poppers are O-M-G delicious and they aren’t the breaded and fried variety.  These poppers are wrapped in bacon!  Come on….who doesn’t like bacon?!  This recipe is pretty darn easy to put together although a bit time-consuming due to seeding those peppers.  And full disclosure: I happened upon this recipe from The Pioneer Woman Cookbook by Ree Drummond.  I have not seen her popular Food Network show; I don’t watch any cooking shows because I know what it would do to me!  You can peruse Ree Drummond’s award-winning website ( The Pioneer Woman)  but for me It’s enough to read through her cookbooks; they are extremely entertaining! She’s brilliant and funny. I loved reading her book Black Heels to Tractor Wheels. It’s quite the love story, chronicling her meeting and marrying her cowboy love “Marlboro Man.” Rumor has it that it’s going to be made into a movie. Anyhow, this recipe is my new favorite appetizer. No, it’s not Italian and it’s not even the healthiest of appetizers but I did make a couple healthier substitutions and it was still heavenly delicious.  So thank you Mrs. Drummond….these poppers are pure bliss and they’ve got me popping into the new year.  Let’s just make sure I don’t pop any seams as the year progresses!  That’s the plan anyway!

 

BBQ Poppers

Ingredients:

18 fresh jalapeños
One 8-ounce package cream cheese (I used reduced fat cream cheese)
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 green onion, sliced
18 slices thin bacon, cut into halves (I used 30% lower in sodium bacon)
Bottled barbecue sauce
Toothpicks
Rubber gloves (or plastic bags) for working with jalapeños

 

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.

 

Before handling those jalapeños, wear rubber gloves! Trust me on this!  Accidentally getting just a whisper of a jalapeño seed anywhere near your eyes or nose is like that pepper spray incident I suffered through some months back…only much worse).

1. Cut the jalapeños in half lengthwise. Try to keep the stems intact as they make the presentation all the more lovely.

See those seeds? HOT, HOT, HOT!

See those seeds? HOT, HOT, HOT!

2. With a spoon, scrape out the seeds and light-colored membranes. Keep in mind that some like it hot…some not. The heat from this lovely pepper comes from the seeds and membranes. So if a little heat is what you’re after, leave a couple of seeds.

3. In a bowl, combine the cream cheese, cheddar cheese, and chopped green onion. Mix the ingredients together gently.

4. Stuff each hollowed jalapeño half with the cheese mixture.

5. Wrap bacon slices around each half, covering as much of the surface as you can.  Do not stretch the bacon too tightly around the jalapeño since the bacon will contract as it cooks.

Who doesn't like something wrapped in bacon!

Who doesn’t like something wrapped in bacon!

6. Brush the surface of the bacon with your favorite barbecue sauce. You can also use Chutney or apricot jelly…or, my idea, Raspberry Chipotle sauce.

7. Secure the jalapeños with toothpicks and pop them in the oven for one hour, or until the bacon is sizzling.

8. Serve hot or even at room temperature. Ree Drummond wasn’t wrong when she said “Watch them disappear within seconds.” She also added, “I’ve seriously caught guests stuffing these into their purses. Sometimes I have to call law enforcement.”

Naturally, experiment with different variations.  Per Ree Drummond: For a simpler version, omit the cheddar and green onion from the cream cheese. You can use Monterey Jack cheese instead of cheddar. Also, cut sliced peaches or pineapple into small bits and press them into the cream cheese before wrapping the jalapeños in bacon.

 

Buon Appetito and Happy New Year!

Thankful

I was going to write about the stupidity of what’s going on in Missouri but then I thought I’d like not to spend this Thanksgiving day on the negativity in the world; there’s plenty of it to go around so I’ll save it for another day!

So today, as everyday, I’m thankful for many things, too many to count! That’s something to be thankful for in itself! Still, to mention a few: I’m in reasonably good health. I’ve got a lovely roof over my head, food on the table and a husband that adores me, quirks and all. I’m blessed with beautiful friends, near and far, and a Poodle that warms every fiber of my being (only not so much so when he vomits on the carpet). I’m surrounded by the love of family and friends, even on the other side of the ocean. I feel truly blessed. And, this year I got to see my California Biker Chicks and Breakfast Buddy Ed too! I met some nice folks while in Arizona and enjoyed the beauty of the desert despite all the heartache. Yes, I am feeling extremely blessed, although it doesn’t come without a measure of sadness: I’ve lost loved ones this year, our troops are still battling evil forces for freedom and there is just so much suffering around the world. Sigh.

And, today I’m thankful that I did not let the gloominess of the weather, nor cranky knees, prevent me from spending time outdoors getting a little pre-holiday meal physical activity. Mind you, I had to drag The Poodle out of the comfort of his bed because I wasn’t about to let him be lazy either! Before I am admonished for making my four-legged love brave the cold let me state that I did bundle him up. The Poodle has two handsome coats for just cold occasions. Today I chose the blue one. He sat patiently while I got it on him, yawning a couple of times as if to say, “Aw, man. Here we go again; she’s putting that ridiculous coat on me.”

I’m also thankful that I was able to complete five miles of a walk-jog (mostly walk), which I now call a “Turtle Trot.” For years I ran miles and miles on Thanksgiving day. I’d be up earlier than usual to get the run done before preparing the turkey and all the fixin’s. Rocket-man had already gone out the door on his run. He had new shoes to try out and he was one happy guy. For a nano second I could feel the green-eyed monster creeping up out of the darkness. I cannot run with him….this is how “WE” started some 17 years ago. Sigh.

NO. I cannot let that happen; not today!

Letting go of rituals is really difficult. I’m not ready to give up today’s ritual either. I may not be able to run anymore but I’m re-adjusting expectations on a lot of things…and my physical activity is one of them. Gone are the days of intense training. Still, I’m going to keep doing something physical….as I have for so many years of Thanksgiving mornings.

My “Turtle” Trot, gloomy weather and all, was really lovely; even The Poodle was happy to be outdoors in spite of his attire. Now that I’ve shaved away a few calories it’s on to haul out boxes of Christmas decorations as well as prepare a dish for our thanksgiving meal. We’ve been invited to the neighbors, so this year I’m not in the kitchen for hours. I tell my lovely neighbor thank you for the invite and that it feels very strange not to be cooking. She says that after the year I have had I deserve time out of the kitchen. How wonderful is that? I’m so lucky to have such a great neighbor.

So here is the dish that I’m preparing to bring, right out of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m going to share it with you. It’s simple and it’s awesomely delicious.  Let me know what you think!

Happy Thanksgiving, and may the blessings of today be yours everyday.

Sweet Potato Gratin

Sweet Potato Gratin

Danielle’s Sweet Potato Gratin

6 – medium sweet potatoes (make sure you use the orange-fleshed variety as opposed to the paler variety)
5 – tablespoons fresh, coarsely chopped sage (you can also use fresh Thyme, or both)
6 – cloves garlic, crushed
2 – teaspoons coarse sea salt
1/2 – teaspoons or to taste, ground black pepper
1 – cup heavy cream

 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Wash the sweet potatoes. Do not peel them.  Cut them into 1/4-inch disks using a mandoline (or use a sharp knife). Note: Be careful if you’re using a mandoline. That’s how I nearly lost two fingers last year around this time!

1. In a bowl mix together the sweet potatoes, sage, garlic, salt and pepper.
2. Arrange the slices of sweet potato in a deep, medium-size ovenproof dish by taking tight packs of them and standing them up next to one another.  They should fit together quite tightly so you get parallel lines of sweet potato slices (skins showing) along the length or width of the baking dish.  Throw any remaining bits of sage or garlic from the bowl over the potatoes.
3. Cover the dish with foil, place in the oven, and roast for 45 minutes.
4. Remove the foil, and pour the cream evenly over the potatoes.  Roast uncovered, for another 25 minutes.  The cream should have thickened by now.

Stick a sharp knife in different places in the dish to make sure the potatoes are cooked.  They should be totally soft.  Serve immediately, garnished with additional sage, or leave them to cool down.  In any case, bringing the potatoes to the table in the baking dish, after scraping the outside clean, will make a lovely presentation.

Buon Appetito!

Serves: 6

Evil Green Kitchen Machine

Evil Green Kitchen Machine

Evil Green Kitchen Machine

Before I continue with the rest of this post, let me state that my lovely and talented sis is not at fault for the events that follow. No way, truly.  There. Stated.

My sister raved some weeks ago about a sweet potato recipe in a new cookbook she had recently purchased.  She continued to rave about a handful of other recipes she, along with her Master Mincer husband would prepare from this cookbook.  She’d describe, in mouth-watering detail for example, the heavenly sweet potato Au gratin dish with fresh sage, six gloves of garlic, and cream.  Oh, Yum…..

After a couple of weeks of listening to her cooking (and eating) pleasures I’d had enough.  “Basta (enough),” I said to myself one morning.  I’m going to deal with this situation head on.

I went straight to the computer and pulled up Amazon.com

In two clicks, I had purchased the cookbook and less than 48-hours later I was salivating over the photos at my kitchen table.

Ottolenghi (http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/) by Yotam Ottolenghi and his partner in life and in business, Sami Tamimi, is a beautiful cookbook full of interesting, unique and healthy recipes. Just on the photo alone I decided to include the sweet potato recipe in my Christmas dinner meal.  I breathed a sigh of relief to see that it was easy to prepare as well.

I called to tell my sis that I’d purchased the cookbook.  “I am excited to try some of these recipes” I say adding that I’ll be making the sweet potato dish for Christmas.

“Oh, you’re going to just love it,” is her enthusiastic reply.  She also says that I will need a mandoline slicer to cut the potatoes just right.  “I didn’t have one so I got an inexpensive one at Target,” she says.  Hmm.  I don’t have one either.  Not to worry, I’ll head over to the store this weekend and get one.

Later in the week I happened to drag Rocket-man out for some Christmas shopping.  We stopped into Williams-Sonoma (yes…there is one store in Huntsville!).

“Let’s check out the mandoline slicers,” I say remembering that I was intent on serving the sweet potato recipe for Christmas.  I saw several mandoline slicers on the shelf (one was $120, another $99).  Yikes!   I didn’t realize these were so expensive. Luckily, we found one for $49.  I walked out of Williams-Sonoma with my new purchase…along with a tin of Christmas dark chocolate peppermint-bark, eager to get home and try both.

I had zucchini in the fridge, along with fresh Italian parsley so I decided to make my farfalla pasta and zucchini recipe.  A breeze to put together with good olive oil, fresh chopped garlic, fresh italian parsley, some red pepper flakes to add zing, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese to top it off.

I took the mandoline out of its packaging, read through the instructions, then cleaned and rinsed it thoroughly.  Pretty straight forward instructions and safety instructions… in bold letters.  ALWAYS USE THE HAND GUARD.

Yeah, yeah.  Duh….of course! I think to myself.

It’s already dark outside and Rocket-man has finally pulled himself away from work at his computer.  He pours me a glass of red wine and starts talking about his day as I wash and dry the zucchini in preparation for slicing.

“So, I see you’re going to try out your new kitchen toy,” says Rocket-man.  “Yes, indeed,” I say….and here goes.

I put half a zucchini onto the slicer and place the hand guard on top of the zucchini to hold it in place.  I pull back and forth on the slicer handle several times and voilà…there drops several perfectly thin slices of zucchini.

“Wow! This is nice,” I say.  “Look how wonderfully thin these slices are?”  I start to continue the process.

Folks, I am not sure what happened next. 

All I know is that in the blink of an eye there was blood everywhere!  I had sliced two fingers on my left hand.  “OUCH,” I yelled….followed by a flood of expletives, along with plenty of  “Oh-my-God-Oh-my-God-Oh-my-God’s” mixed in for good measure.

By the time Rocket-man got to me, I’m at the sink, hopping up and down and writhing this way and that in a fear and pain-driven dance, flooding the wounds with cold water in an attempt to stop the bleeding.  I couldn’t stop cursing at myself either and, looking back, I was ever so thankful that Rocket-man didn’t point out the obvious at that moment: Didn’t you use the hand guard?  Honestly, I thought I had;  I must have literally blinked, removing it for a nano-second and that was all it took.

The cuts to both fingers were mighty deep and the bleeding would not stop with any amount of pressure, cold water, or elevation.  After a good ten minutes it was clear that we had to seek help.

Now, there is an urgent care facility just five minutes away from our house.  It is meant to provide medical treatment service for non-threatening medical issues (colds, flu, and hopefully, mandolin-sliced fingers!).  The locals here call urgent care centers “Doc-in-a-Box.”  This of course does nothing to reassure me that I’ll receive an acceptable level of care but the wait time is supposed to be much more desirable than the hospital emergency room, possibly waiting six hours to be seen by a doctor.

It is pouring rain outside as we hop in the car and make the short trip to the urgent care center.  My fingers are wrapped in a towel, already blood-soaked again after a third towel-changing attempt to stop the bleeding.  We walk into the urgent care facility and are thrilled to see that the waiting area is empty…yes…empty!   We learn there are only two other people in the treatment center receiving care.  I step up to the reception window, and raising my injured hand, say that I’ve cut two fingers in a kitchen incident and I cannot stop the bleeding.

The receptionist says (and I quote): “Oh.  I will see if the doctor is comfortable seeing you.”

I’ll confess folks….I was not very nice.  In my defense, I am standing there bleeding and I don’t know if I’ve sliced the tips off completely because I was too chicken to look.  All I know was that it hurt like hell and there was A LOT OF BLOOD.

“Excuse me?” I all but yell.  You need to see if the doctor is COMFORTABLE with my problem?  What kind of doctor is he?   Rocket-man steps up to the plate, so to speak.  He pulls me back from the reception window ever so gently as says maybe I should be nicer.  “Let’s not piss anyone off especially since you will probably get a shot of some sort, don’t you think?

OK…another confession.  I was ready to smack my husband!  After all, He was not the one standing there bleeding like nobody’s business and wondering if he had sliced off two of his fingers.  I am supposed to be nice, AND feel that I am in good hands (too funny…I’m cracking myself up here) when someone suggests THE doctor might not be comfortable?

Nod your heads in agreement with me folks…pretty please.

A physician assistant that looked like he was still in high school ushered us to a treatment room and began asking the standard questions.  Within minutes the “Doc-in-a-Box” doctor was introducing himself to us and inspecting my wounds.  He seemed competent enough and he wasn’t 90 years old which is what I was expecting after reports from area locals.  He could see that I was just a tad this side of edgy and attempted to bring levity into the situation by cracking jokes.  Rocket-man was happy and even talked football.  ME? Not amused.  Anyhow, the doctor said he’d be able to fix me right up allowing me to relax just a little.

Turns out I didn’t need sutures.  He literally super-glued by wounded fingers after determining that the tips were still mostly intact!   He wrapped my fingers in plenty of gauze and tape and an hour later I was home.  I wanted to take something for the pain but Rocket-man cautioned against it saying ibuprofen would interfere with coagulation and maybe I needed to give the wounds a chance to really clot.  Still mighty cranky I shot back, “You’re a PhD. physicist not an M.D.”  He took my crankiness in stride and set my glass of wine in front of me.  OK….maybe you’re rightthis time, I whisper.

How can I make Tortellini with bandaged fingers?

How can I make Tortellini with bandaged fingers?

The evil green machine of course was still on the counter.  Undeterred by the traumatic events of the evening, Rocket-man cleaned up the machine and continued the process of slicing the zucchini without further incident.

Show-off.

It was indeed challenging trying to get the dinner put together with one hand.  My hand was throbbing and my pride bruised but the silver lining in all this?

I didn’t have to do the dishes! Thank you Rocket-man.

Tomorrow comes the real challenge.  Will I be able to make homemade tortellini for my daughter who’ll visit “middle earth” for the first time with two bandaged fingers?