Friday, November 22, 2013

House Proud

Be grateful for the home you have, knowing that at this moment, all you have is all you need.
~Sarah Ban Breathnach
I have always appreciated where I live and each place that I have called home. This month, however, my perspective on the true meaning of "home" was made even more clear due to the recent floods we had here in Austin. Friends of ours lost their home and 80 percent of their precious belongings due to flooding, but they still had their spirit. With spirit and a community of helpers rallying together they were able to sift through their many years of memories and start that long road to recovery. It will be a long journey but they will do it because the most precious items in their home was each other. As I was helping the family sort and wash and pack and move, I was reminded that a home is deeper then the bare walls and all the furnishings. Don't get me wrong, there is a story for every special item in your home, but if we have to choose between the material and the real, family wins every time. Helping this family during the same time I was scheduled to have my friend Amy come to my home to do an episode for her show House Proud really made me stop and think about my home and what I try to portray in it. I've always wanted a home that was stylish yet comfortable. A home where you walk in and don't feel stiff. Where yummy smells entice you to stay for a while. But if all of that was taken away overnight would I still have a home? Would I have the spirit and drive it takes to rebuild all that is lost? I'd like to think that I would. I realized that those same walls that bring us shelter are the same walls metaphorically speaking that my family and friends bring to me, shelter. As I prepped for the show to be filmed in my kitchen I had to "de clutter" many of my things to make room for the camera guy. It's now a week later and I have not brought those things back into my kitchen nor have I missed them. I guess in hindsight, I always knew that home is where the heart is but the love and joy and hope I have encountered these last few weeks has truly cemented it for me, I'm jus' sayin'.

I made three quick go-to recipes for this episode of House Proud. Each of these recipes can be whipped up with little fuss and no dent in the pocketbook, which in turn gives you more time to enjoy your guests. I like to start with an easy and affordable cocktail and sangria is the perfect choice. I put a seasonal spin on it with apple and cinnamon but feel free to mix it up. I bought a good fresh salsa and paired it with easy homemade tortilla chips. I also made a bacon appetizer because who doesn't like bacon!

Fall Sangria Cocktail
In a large pitcher place the following:
2 apples cored and diced
3 strips of candied ginger minced (pantry staple)
1/2 tsp. of ground cinnamon (spice pantry)
1/4 tsp. of ground cardamom (spice pantry)
1/2 bottle of Moscato wine (fridge staple)
1 bottle of hard apple cider
1 cup of apple juice
Juice of one half of a fresh meyer lemon
Stir all of the above and pour into glasses. Top with sparkling water and garnish with a cinnamon stick.
*Optional: rim each glass with lemon juice and cinnamon mixed with clear sanding sugar.

Fresh tortilla chips
1 bag of corn tortillas.
Oil for frying.
Cut each tortilla in fourths or strips.
Fry in 1/4 inch of oil.
Drain on paper toweling and sprinkle with Beer Salt. Serve with fresh salsa.

Sweet & Spicy Bacon Wraps
1 lb of bacon
1 bag of chili flavored dried mango strips (pantry staple)
Cut bacon in thirds. Cut mango strips to bite sizes.
Wrap bacon around each bite size mango strip.
Place bacon wraps on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake in a 350 degree pre-heated oven for approximately 15-20 minutes or until bacon is cooked and caramelized. Drain on paper toweling and serve.

Want to help the flood victims? They still need so much. Check out this link and see how you can help.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Remembering A Special Time

As the summer days come to a close and Fall sets in on the calendar, I am once again reminded of why this is my favorite time of year. My favorite color of orange displays its many hues from pumpkins to harvest moon sunsets. Comfort foods – soups, stews and roasts – find a place on my table. Sweet smells of cinnamon and spice greet guests as they enter our home. Though I live in a very warm climate, cool breezes occasionally find their way here to dance amongst the trees and eventually the leaves change color before falling to the ground. With all that said, Fall in Texas is more about football than the scenic backdrops of New England, so it helps on these warm Autumn days to think back to a very special trip I took with some dear friends to experience what a true New England Fall really is. Grab yourself a cup of tea or a Pumpkin Spiced Latte and join me as I share some of my favorite memories of that trip through photos.
Everywhere we looked were leaves of different colors.

Make no mistake, the covered bridges are exactly how Norman Rockwell described them.
I found myself mesmerized by this street. I wanted to live in one of these houses just so I could see this every day when I left home. 
Yes! God is a great painter.
Sleepy little towns beckoned us to their shopfronts with these sweet displays of comfort.
I just love that the decorations look just as beautiful as the jewelry in display inside.
Makes me want to go back to Sunday service.
We passed so many "honor" pumpkin stands. If only I could have put them in my suitcase.
You can't buy these at Michaels.
We drove up to a "pick your own" apple orchard. Unfortunately they were closed. So we drove up a little farther to a fruit stand that had plenty of fresh apples and apple cider doughnuts.
We took so many pictures of leaves and every one of them unique.
Julie and I hanging out on one of our Fall Hikes – yes, that is what we called them. We pulled over on the side of roads and just took off with our cameras. What a glorious feeling to not be rushed in this gorgeous country.
I'm so in my Happy Place!
It's not hard to figure out how painters get their inspiration.
Fresh crisp apples anyone?
How about a pumpkin?
One thing I noticed all over New England is that people had pumpkins or jack o'lanterns sitting on their wrap-around porches or stone hedges. Don't you love that you can see the lines still on this one.
Karen made each of us a little hand-stitched owl on the plane. We decided to take pics of our owls in each town like the Travelocity gnome.
Karen, Julie and I shared a moment in time that will forever be imprinted on my heart and soul. I am so happy that we had the opportunity to take this trip and these girls made it so special. Now if I can only persuade my husband to move me back every year from October to November, I would be the happiest girl in the world... I'm jus' sayin'!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Is It Milk & Cookie Time?

September is here which means it's back to school and back to regular routines in this and so many other homes across America. Summer is fun with it's lazy days and schedules, however, Fall is and always will be the season I hold dear to my heart. This is the time that we start penciling in the lacrosse games, orchestra concerts, confirmation and all the other events we can squeeze into one school year. We are also dusting off the crockpot and getting back to planning dinners and baking comfort foods when time allows.

All of this planning and scheduling makes me think back to when I was a kid and the only thing I could think about after school was running home for a snack. I was fortunate that my Mom was a piano teacher so she worked from home. We had to be really quiet when we came in from school in case she was in the middle of a lesson, but we could always forage a snack for ourselves from the pantry. I was not involved in after-school sports or activities like my daughter is today. I had my snack while doing homework and if I got done quickly enough I might have time for 30 minutes of cartoons or get a life lesson in from watching the ABC after school specials. After that, I pretty much played outside till the dinner bell rang. I sometimes wish it was still as simple as I remember it, but the kids today seem to have so much more to keep them busy and because of that we tend to start looking for shortcuts where we can find them. I work part time from home which means on some days I have time to create snacks and dinners that are more labor intensive. But like many busy moms I sometimes have those days where I'm just happy when my kid grabs a protein bar and a bottle of water on her way to practice.

For the most part I always try to be an advocate for baking from scratch, however, I am also a realist and know that there is not always time to go that route. Today is one of those days. I wanted to have a snack for my daughter and her friends when they came home so I grabbed the box of cake mix that I keep in the pantry for emergencies and baked up some super quick double fudge cookies. They are quick and easy and at the end of a busy day for both of us, I'm just happy to see the smile it gives her and not whether or not I get the Betty Crocker Mom of the Year Award. However, if I used Betty Crocker Cake Mix, does that count?  I'm jus' sayin'!

Cake Mix Cookies 

1 box of your favorite flavored cake mix (I used Betty Crocker Chocolate Fudge)
1/2 Cup of Vegetable Oil
2 Eggs
1/2 Cup of Dark Chocolate Chips (you can omit these if you are using a different cake flavor)

Mix all of the above. Scoop onto parchment lined cookie sheets. Bake at 350º for 9 minutes. Let cool and enjoy! Yep, that easy.  Feel free to experiment with different cake flavors and add-in's. I would love to hear about your favorites.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mr. White & Heisenberg

Dear Walt,
I felt such extreme sympathy when I heard that you had been dealt the card of cancer, I mean it's not like you have not had hard times in your past with selling out to your partners before their company made billions. Then you had to spend all those years teaching high school which we all know is a thankless job. I actually did not blame you for wanting to make money to take care of your family, what with the new baby and all those bills stacking up.

I found it admirable when you started to form a relationship with Jessie and I thought perhaps you two would form a bond that would be positive for you both. But then you had to put on that dang black hat and become "Heisenberg". You had to start taking lives (I know, some may have been justified) and take too many trips to the border. Finally, the lies to your family became almost unbearable.
I think I can officially say that you have become a diva in the world of all things crystal blue. I hate to admit it, but my sympathy has now disintegrated like the face of Gus. You have, however, continued to amaze me with your clever turns at throwing the DEA off and for that I will continue to sit on the edge of my couch with anticipation.

Mr. White, I may not have sympathy for you anymore, but I certainly have enjoyed this ride and I have to admit I will be very sad when this season comes to an end. I would like to thank you for introducing me to your family and for allowing me to fixate in a world of dark cartel that I normally would be giving up for some underrated reality show on TLC. I'm not sure how season 6 will close but for tonight, I will eat breakfast for dinner and raise a glass of Crystal Blue Sensation to you and your family as I watch with anticipation to see if you bury the black hat for good, I'm jus' sayin'.

Tonight's dinner in honor of Season 6

Crystal Blue Sensation
2 oz Tapatio 110 Proof Blanco
3/4 oz Blue Curacao
3/4 oz diluted agave nectar

Shake ingredients over ice and strain into sugar-rimmed martini glass. Top with Jarritos Grapefruit soda.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Butternut Fries. Yes, I Went There.

Each and every one of the 12 years since we moved here to Austin my husband and I have attempted to grow a garden. We have had some years that lettuce or peppers or tomatoes grew in abundance. We have had others that were epic failures. In fact you could probably say that we have had more losses then wins when it comes to fresh, homegrown produce. One ideal I have held firm to is that I will not let those losses give me an excuse to give up. I am still learning about this Texas soil, the timing of the seasons, and what varieties of plants to grow (and not grow) and I have a dream that our garden will someday be a fairly reliable food source for our daily meals. Until then, I will rejoice quietly when something grows and say a prayer back into the earth when something dies before hopping on over to my local farmer's market for backup.

This summer I attempted to grow butternut squash. I say attempt, as my expectations were not high. However, when I saw the first little flower set and and start to grow into a squash - I'm not going to lie - I was downright giddy inside. But because of my garden karma and squash history, I refused to allow myself to get too excited. Each day I waited for that little butternut to break off, die in the heat or get eaten by outdoor varmints (including my dogs!). But that little squash just kept on holding firm and growing on that vine. Finally, the day came when he was the perfect pale color of ripe. I took pride while gently taking him from his cradled nest of hedging in that bed. So much anticipation over whether I would even have this moment, that I never gave much thought as to how I would prepare it.

Roasted? Mashed? Braised? So many choices! Being that this was my first butternut squash I wanted to celebrate in its glory by making it the star that it was. I decided oven fries would bring out the sweetness and showcase the beauty of its orange flesh. Oven fries? Yes, why not? We seem to take every other root vegetable and starch out there and turn them into fries so why not a squash?

I peeled and julienned 1 butternut squash (they come in all sizes so you can improvise with this recipe.)
I tossed them in a bowl with 1 tsp. of coconut oil.
I laid them in a single layer on a parchment lined cookie sheet and sprinkled them with truffle salt (you could sprinkle with sea salt or really any seasoning of your choice.)
I placed them in a preheated 350º oven for approximately 25 minutes (depending on how many fries you have) until brown and crispy. (You may want to turn pan in oven half way through cooking)
I then proceeded to eat the whole bowl. Yes I went there. With a smile on my face down to the very last fry. I'm jus' sayin'!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Up On The Roof

"When this old world starts a getting me down, 
and people are just too much for me to face. 
I'll climb way up to the top of the stairs 
and all my cares just drift right into space."
~James Taylor

No matter who we are, there are days that even the most cheerful and upbeat of us get overwhelmed by what life throws our way. Most days, it's the trivial and meaningless that seem to hit us when we are vulnerable. But it's the days that bring heartbreaking news from family and friends that really hit home and personally, leave me completely without words. It's days like this that make me want to simply roll up into a ball and scream "WHY?" through my tears.

 For me, June and July have been a string of those days, one after the other, but instead of listing the deaths, life-threatening diagnoses and ongoing political issues, I'm going to go "up to the roof". Or in my case, instead of the roof, I'm going into the kitchen. Please don't misunderstand – cooking and baking does not take the place of a family member or change a piece of bad news. For me, it's a therapeutic outlet. Sometimes it's just a matter of re-directing my thoughts into a recipe. Or preparing a special treat for the person that is hurting, where the food becomes a catalyst for compassion and empathy when I have no words. I have handled stress and sadness in this manner my whole life. When you think about it, it's actually the way many things are handled. Why do you think we have the term "stress eating"? This year, in changing my eating habits, I have learned that it's ok to bake and cook when I'm upset, so long as I don't drown my sorrows in a whole cheesecake.

"So when I come home feeling tired and beat, 
I'll go up where the air is fresh and sweet. 
I'll get far away from the hustling crowd 
and all the rat-race noise down in the street."

I'll find solace and strength in mixing, cutting and prepping food up on my roof in my kitchen. I'm jus' sayin'!

Here's an old cookie bar recipe. It's an old stand-by and surprisingly, a post-biopsy request from one of my dear friends. I'd like to believe that even just for a moment, when she bit into one of these sweet bars, a smile came across her face and she was taken away from her stress (even for just that one moment).

7 Layer Bars (adapted from this recipe)

I substituted Toffee bits for the butterscotch bits. I did not add nuts (as the receiver does not care for nuts). I also added 1/2 cup of white chocolate chips to this batch. That's the beauty of this recipe - it's flexible so you can mix and match to your heart's desire.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler

It's a bit of a surprise to me, as well as to half my Texas and Louisiana food friends, that in the 12 years I have lived here in Austin, I have yet to experience a good old-fashioned Crawfish Boil.  I've heard all about them from friends that have resided in Cajun Country.  I've eaten my fair share crawfish creole, etouffee, and I'm no stranger to the sweet little meat from their tails, but with all that said, I've still never experienced a true boil.  All that changed a few weeks ago when we followed up on an invitation from our neighbor to come over for their annual  Crawfish Boil and birthday party for their sweet little girl Effie. Of course, being the food lover I am, I asked for advise from my experienced "boil" friends before I went so that I would not look completely dumbfounded once I had one of those mudbugs in my hand. I was given a list of advise - everything from don't rub your eyes to eat cucumbers to cool the heat from the boil.  I was told not to wear chapstick as I needed to experience the full effect. I'm not going to lie, I was a bit scared. I'm all for a bit of spicy flavor but having my lips burnt off? Not really my thing.  So with all of that advise to go along with our ice-bucket of Abita and limoncello, we walked to our neighbors to join the festivities.

It was typical fare when we walked in – a long table out back lined with a plastic cloth and several people just standing around a massive pile of crawfish, sausage, corn, garlic, new potatoes, onions and mushrooms poured right down the middle of the table. Off in the corner of the yard was a boiling pot burning away with a fresh batch. There's a big cooler not far from the fire that hosts 30lbs of lively crawfish on ice. The kids were curious with these little mudbugs and the adults are just intent to get straight to the meat. Because this was a friendly community affair I had no trouble being the "newbie". I walked right up to the table and plenty of well-tuned experts were on hand to show me what I needed to do. Throughout the evening I must have returned to that table at least 3 times for extended rounds of snacking – those things are so addicting! I could not seem to get enough.  I had the lovely opportunity to hear stories from others about how they had been doing these boils since they were kids. Some were straight from Louisiana and some from Houston all having grown up with this amazing tradition.

As with many traditions, the Crawfish Boil comes with its own twists and variations. I found out that many boils are strictly crawfish, potatoes, corn, and sausage. Depending on how someone grew up or what region a person was raised dictated the "extras" that get thrown into the boil.  For this day, we had heads of garlic, lemons and mushrooms added in. That was super yummy. I have also heard that some like to throw in artichokes and oranges.  From the stories I had been told, I was expecting my lips to burn off from the cayenne in the boil spice, but I think my neighbor was on to me and wanted me to enjoy it as it was not nearly as spicy as I had expected. I did have one ear of corn that was pretty spicy so I opted to stay away from most of the other sides and just use my time wisely with the meat. Did I suck the heads? You betcha. Was I impressed with it?  Not really,  it seemed kind of overrated.  I did, however, drink a couple Abita's and they seemed to pair perfectly with those little mud bugs.

I mentioned above that part of the experience and fun of a Boil is the community aspect of it. It's hard NOT to meet and talk to the people standing around this table full of "finger food" and I met some pretty cool people. Aubrey and her husband Joe came with their mom and kids. Aubrey was a crawfish pro – she has been doing crawfish boils her whole life. In fact, her first date with Joe was at a boil( at least I think that is what he told me) . She was quick to show me the tricks to snapping off the heads, sucking the meat out, and separating the meat from the tail.  She did it so quick I had to take a video of her.  Her husband Joe was busy teaching science to all the little ones about "how you can tell if the crawfish is a male or female".  Seem strange? Not really as he had all those kids fascinated.  When it came time for me to leave, the kids were still playing with the few remaining live ones and naming them as pets.

After 12 years of living so close to Louisiana, I am happy to report that I finally "let the good times roll" and could kick myself for not doing this sooner... I'm jus' sayin'!

Curious about Boils for next year? Check out the Do512 site. Then mark it on your calendar for next year as the Crawfish season is a short one (April and May).

Where do you get Crawfish if you want to have your own boil?
Fiesta ~ Quality Seafood

James, the chef and pretty awesome neighbor, standing by his boil pot.
For boil instructions, simply search the internet as there are plenty. Or you can use my neighbor James' condensed version.

In a 36 quart pot
1/2 full water
1 1/2 bags Pro Boil spice mixture
12 lemon halves
1 1/2 sweet onion
Bring to boil
Wait 10 minutes
Then Add
6 corn cob halves
6 small red potatoes
1/2 package of mushrooms
7 sausage links (sliced)
Bring back to boil
15 min until cooked
Then Add
2 sticks of butter
Bring to boil
Cook 13 minutes
Dump on table (plastic table cloths or newspapers work best for this mess). As soon as it's cool to the touch, dig in and get 'em while they're hot!

Hot and Steamy
I'm digging in

Prepare to get messy

Mom and Daughter know how it's done.

Mom, can I have one for a pet?
Fresh Batch Steaming Hot! 
My neighbor having some mud bug fun with her husband.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Up & Down - That's Just What We Did

Back in early May I had the opportunity through the AFBA to join some fellow bloggers in taking the "Up & Down" coffee/beer tour at Casa Brasil and South Austin Brewery. Though my good friend Mad Betty told me I would love it, I did not comprehend the intense experience I would have. I won't give away too much of the tour (because you should all take it) but I will tell you that if you think you know what makes a great cup of coffee, this tour may just change your opinion. My mind was blown (and sore) from the vast amount of information that was given. I walked in thinking I drank good coffee and that I understood the process. I walked out feeling like I have been disrespecting the bean all these years.  Now I know better! So with a few new coffee tools, tons of knowledge and some fresh beans, I'm ready to brew a fresh cup, respectfully, of course.  I'm jus' sayin'!

A Shared Experience
On this particular outing I brought a girlfriend who is still fairly new to this city (via Las Vegas) and has a hunger to explore all things Austin. Not sure if it was all the caffeine or the tasty brews afterward but I was able to convince her to write about her experience on this day to include here. Please give a warm Southern welcome to Sonia as she shares her experience. Hey - maybe this is just the push she needs to start writing a blog of her own and join the AFBA!

Sonia H.

Up & Down Tour - By Sonia H.
Today was special. A lucky few had the opportunity to learn about every day treats that we enjoy - coffee and beer. So simple, yet so complex. Today, a veil lifted - allowing me to see and understand more clearly, something I felt I already knew well enough, to enjoy. I was delightfully wrong. Amazing how quickly a shift in perspective can rock your world.

The day began with Casa Brasil Coffees opening their home to the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance and invited guests, to meet their family and see the love and care infused within their coffee.

I will never approach another cup of coffee the same. After delving into what I feel is the soul of a coffee bean, following it through from inception to a fresh brew, my mind is blown. Subtle and not so subtle differences based on region, roasting, brewing technique, human intention.... the layers of science and artful mastery at Casa Brasil is one to experience.

Lunch provided by the J. Mueller crew was quite the treat, as well as much needed sustenance, after countless tastings of coffee....feeling the caffeine dance through our veins was entertaining, to say the least.

Ending the tour with a visit to the South Austin Brewing Company was the cherry on top! Scrumptious Belgian Ale made locally was a sweet surprise. Journeying through the beer-making process was enlightening and hearing how the Brewery believes and applies the reduce, reuse, recycle method in various ways as a part of their business, was refreshing.

I gained so much knowledge yet what I value most, is my incredible experience shared among the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance with the folks of Casa Brasil and South Austin Brewing Company on this beautiful Austin day.

The way I brew now.
Beautiful Bags waiting for Beans.

Yes they also provide a delicious lunch, before heading over to the Beer.

Jordan Weeks
Oh did I mention we got to taste all of these too?