Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Favorite Moments of 2009

It's that time of year again, when everyone makes lists and gets all kinda retrospective up in here. I'm no exception. I'm a freak for lists. I rarely go into Kroger without my grocery list, and I cross off each item as it goes in the basket. I have a list right here beside me - a spiral bound notebook full of them, actually - of things to do between now and January 10 (so far, so good on the accomplishments on that one). I am getting ready to write down a list of new goals for 2010. So it's only fitting that I take a few minutes and reflect on some of my favorite moments of 2009, which was quite possibly the biggest year yet of the 28 that I've spent here on earth.

In order of relative importance:

*The discovery of Merrick Inn, Almond Chicken. Yum.

*Having the most incredible hair artists in the world, the folks at Cha Cha's Salon in Lexington, do my hair whenever I needed it. They followed me from Florence to Lexington, and I pray that they eventually decide to follow me to Atlanta.

*DMB Concert Sneak-In, April 28.

*This moment right here - February 20.

No animals were harmed in the taking of this photograph.

*Tailgating at UNA's Homecoming, October 3. Allison, KiKi and I were "those girls" who came back and cheered everyone on in the parade. We actually got to enjoy tailgating on campus this year, and I got to spend time with some women who I love dearly. A happy day.

*UK Graduation, May 9. Getting hooded was pretty awesome.

*Events that took place after UK graduation, May 9.
I won't go into too many details, but any night that involves purses big enough to transport multiple wine bottles, a super smart husband who locks doors with shoelaces and hijacks your roommate's car to join the fun, an entire Michigan family thinking I don't know how to party but being proven wrong, and the random playing of cornhole with complete strangers for a few hours was, well, epic. Don't judge. If you'd just finished the toughest three years of your life, you'd party pretty hard, too.

*Panama City Beach, May 14-16. Annual beach trip with Casey.
It was the year of pineapple juice, discovering that there is a such thing as too many margaritas, and a visit from Santa Claus, searching for hidden treasure in the sand.

*Finding Dharmaville (aka Camp Erdmann), Oahu, sometime in June. We are nerds, and took our honeymoon in Hawaii partly (mostly?) because we wanted to see where LOST was filmed. Discovering Dharmaville was one of the highlights of both our lives. We were so excited, and we'd already spent the entire day exploring other LOST filming locations. I hearted Hawaii.

*Snorkeling with a manta ray. This was, by far, one of the coolest experiences of my life. While in Kona, Dave and I did snorkel/scuba excursion with the manta rays. They take you out on this boat at night, and give you wetsuits and flashlights. The flashlights attract plankton, which is what the mantas feed on. Dave got to scuba for the first time in years, and observe them from below. Check out the video that he took!

They really do get that close, even if you're snorkeling, like I was, from the surface. They had all of us snorkelers hanging onto foam noodles that had been joined together. Luckily, I know how to swim and knew that the mantas would not eat me. Some people didn't know how to swim, and clearly didn't get the memo about mantas having a sixth sense that makes it so they can get really, really close to you, but won't touch you. We were warned not to touch the mantas, too, because it could hurt them. Despite the fact that my fellow snorkelers were thoroughly freaking out about the closeness of the shark-like animals, kicking me in the head, and yelling for help thinking they were drowning, I had a blast. We both felt like this was the coolest thing we did (maybe even topping finding Dharmaville) in Hawaii. If you ever get the chance to swim with these beautiful sea creatures, do it. What a blessing it was to be part of their world for a few minutes!

*Becoming a triathlete - August 23. By far, the most empowering thing I've ever done. Triathlons are addictive. I hope to do one a year until I physically can't do them anymore. Many kudos to Anne for convincing me to sign up.

*My wedding, June 6.

I really was hesitant to even have a wedding in the first place, but I am so glad I did. It was one of the best nights of my life. Everyone cried, drank beer, and ate barbecue. I made everyone run a 5K the morning of the wedding. My friends mingled and meshed nicely. It was a great day.

*Defending my dissertation - September 11. It still doesn't seem real, yet I and multiple witnesses definitely heard my rockstar advisor say, "Congratulations, Dr. Daws." I was a little worried before the verdict....

...but luckily, I had people surrounding me who made me feel better!

Look what an awesome committee I had!

So there you have it. Some of the most stellar moments of my life, all that happened in 2009. I know it's been a rough year for a lot of people, and I certainly experienced my share of stress. All in all, though, I accomplished a lot, made new friends, kept my old ones, and feel like I'm ending this year on a good note. Thanks to all of you who've been part of the journey with me. I can't wait to see what 2010 has in store for us!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

LBDelicious Thanksgiving

I fully intended to take a whole bunch of pictures of what I made for Thanksgiving this year, or at least one picture of the "spread" that filled our little IKEA dinner table, or the mess that the kitchen turned into after Dave carved the turkey. Instead, I'll just share the recipes and maybe put some random pictures in for fun. How's that for an LBDelicious Thanksgiving special?


Thank goodness for Lindsey, who brought snackins and wine for pre-meal noshing. She prepared a delicious cheese ball (8 oz block of cream cheese, shredded cheddar, worcesteire sauce, rolled into a ball and then rolled in chopped pecans, a personal favorite here at Casa Dawmilam) as well as Knorr's spinach dip, served with Triscuits and Wheat Thins. We ate this while watching the American Kennel Club Dog Show.

Recipe: 11 pound turkey, bought frozen, defrosted on Wednesday by placing in a small cooler, placed in a bathtub, under the faucet with a small trickle of cold water running for 12 hours, then placed in the fridge overnight to allow for any last-minute thawing.

Preheat oven to 425. Remove turkey from packaging and remove insides. Make sure you get them all, or else you'll end up roasting a bag containing the turkey neck along with everything else, and when your husband carves the turkey and everyone's hanging out in the kitchen drooling over the meal, you'll get laughed at. I learned this the hard way this year.

Rinse the turkey under cold water (inside and out); pat dry with a paper towel. Place in your roasting pan, on a rack. Stuff the cavity with a sprinkle of salt, whole peppercorns, sage and thyme, a lemon, carrot, celery, whole head of garlic, and some onion. Truss the bird. Make a little sage butter (stick of butter, softened, mixed with sage) and place it between the skin and the breast meat. Unlike what Ina Garten said, make sure the butter is just soft, not melted, or it'll turn into a big ol' greasy mess when you try to place the mixture on the cold turkey. Learned this one the hard way too, this year. On the outside of the skin, rub with oil, salt, pepper, sage and thyme. In the bottom of the roasting pan, pour some chicken stock, white wine, and the leftover veggies that didn't get stuffed in the cavity of the bird. This will ensure a delicious gravy.

Roast for 25 minutes at 425, then lower heat to 350 and roast until the meat thermometer reads 155-157, about 2 hours. I overcooked mine slightly because I didn't check the temperature early enough. Start checking the temp at about 1 hour 45 minutes, or get yourself a really nice thermometer that can stay in the bird the whole time and beep when the temperature reaches the point you want.

After the turkey has cooked, pour the pan drippings into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. While it's coming to the boil, whisk together about 1/4 cup of flour with about 1/4 cup of milk. Whisk the milk/flour mixture into the sauce, a little at a time, until gravy reaches desired consistency. Try not to drink it all before the guests arrive.

(My recipe is adapted from one that Tyler Florence has.)

This is a day-before (or 2-days-before) dish, which makes it even more lovely. Take 1 bag of fresh cranberries. Rinse them, put them in a saucepan. Add about 1 cup sugar, 1 cinnamon stick, zest of 1 lemon, juice of a lemon, couple tablespoons of orange juice, about 1/3 cup water, and a splash of orange liquor. Simmer on medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently. Taste occasionally to correct seasoning/sweetness. Remove cinnamon stick before serving.

I am not the biggest fan of dressing, but everyone else loves it, and I hear it's just not Thanksgiving without it. I still don't think this recipe is the best (will probably have to consult with the grandmothers to find out what I'm doing wrong), but I followed Paula Deen's recipe here. It was alright.

There is division among my guests about how to cook green beans. Dean & Donna like them *really* cooked; Dave, Lindsey and I like them *barely* cooked. I solved this problem by purchasing about a pound of fresh green beans, and boiling them all together in salted water for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, I removed half of them to stop the cooking process, and allowed the remaining beans to cook for another 10 minutes. We topped both sets with butter, salt and pepper. Everyone was happy!

This is my FAVORITE, favorite favorite menu item. I heart sweet potatoes, and I especially heart sweet potato casserole. I made it as buttery and sweet as I could, on purpose. Again, I took a cue from Paula Deen and made this recipe. It was hard not to eat it all before Thanksgiving. Really. Hard for me to sleep on Wednesday night knowing this casserole was in my fridge, all alone, waiting on me to go to town on it. I thought I'd miss the marshmallows on this particular recipe, but the brown sugar/pecan crumbly top made up for it. I added cinnamon at the last minute to make the house smell even warmer. Her recipe was:

*start with about 3 large sweet potatoes, roasted (at 450 for 1 hour), cooled, removed from peel, and mashed in a large bowl
*melt one stick of butter
*add about half that stick of butter to the sweet potatoes, along with about 1/4 cup half and half or cream, 1 teaspoon vanilla (wow, did that make a difference), 1 cup of sugar, and 2 eggs
*prepare the topping: 1/4 cup flour, 1 cup brown sugar, some cinnamon, and about 1/2 cup chopped pecans, tossed together with the remaining melted butter
*place sweet potatoes in a baking dish, top with topping, bake for about 35 minutes at 350.


Lindsey also contributed our dessert. MMMM, it was yummy! I think this is the recipe she used, found here on I'm so glad she accidentally left it at our house, because I want another piece right now.

All in all, it was a great Thanksgiving. We had much to be thankful for this year. I really enjoyed taking a whole day to cook for people I love, especially since they seemed to enjoy the food. My best advice for those of you who are going to attempt a full-on Thanksgiving dinner at some point in your life is pretty much the same as it was last year: don't stress about it. Don't over complicate your mission, which is to make a meal for your family. If something goes wrong, it'll provide a funny story to tell for future generations, like that time Megan and I were helping Grandmother make Thanksgiving, and she was making meringue for a pie but forgot to put sugar in the egg whites (we still laugh about that, and my aversion to eggs in general). You don't have to spend a lot of money on ingredients (I probably spent about $100, just because my pantry was empty and I had to re-stock a lot of basics), and if you put some thought into it, everything is pretty much done before the guests arrive.

The day ended with everyone in a food coma, which I took as a huge compliment.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Another Variation of Turkey Sausage Pasta

You know, I'm getting used to being married, and living in one place. There's something comforting about having all my clothes in one closet, knowing where I'll spend every weekend, and not having a 360 mile divide between me and my sweetie. Don't get me wrong: I am still on the go. I have a pretty substantial commute (at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays), and I have been a weekend warrior since moving back to Kennesaw. I've been on quite a few short road trips, most without Dave. Grandmother told me I had better watch out or Dave might leave me, since I'm gone so much. I won't write here what my response was, because it was definitely smart-ass in nature, so I just kept it to myself and laughed. I'm still not sure that all the women in my family are aware that they (unknowingly?) raised a feminist who is independent to a fault. My husband is the absolute sweetest person in the world to me, and we have settled into a great relationship - but we are still individuals who like our space. Case in point: I'm here on the couch blogging with a cute little napping Chloe beside me, and Dave's having his weekly World of Warcraft time in the office.

But, one thing we do enjoy is eating dinner together every night. Anna Kudak would probably call it a "ritual" that a "happy couple does" and she'd be correct. It's our time to catch up on what happened during the day. Dinner never lasts very long, maybe 15 minutes? Still, we both look forward to sitting at our simple IKEA table and talking, even if it is just for a few minutes, and even if we're just eating Kraft macaroni and cheese (which was deeee-lish by the way, the other night, but we ate on the couch, which is our preferred mac-and-cheese eating situation). We work together to get drinks poured, forks out, napkins set, and food on the table. We turn the television on the jazz channel and turn Casa Dawmilam into Bistro le Dawmilam. If there are any moving pictures on the television, conversation ceases - and that defeats the purpose of eating dinner together. Why jazz? Because techno is reserved for driving, working out and playing Scrabble. I'm not kidding.

Usually, conversation isn't earth shattering. I hear about Dave's work in an office with 11 other men, which is usually about as uneventful as one would expect a day working with 11 other software professionals would be. He hears about my students, their speeches, and updates from my friends I may have heard from through the day. Chloe usually jumps up in a chair and watches us. Okay, true confession, Chloe *usually* jumps on the table and walks around, then sits in a chair beside us. We are horrible "cat parents" for allowing her such free reign in the house, and we harbor some guilt over it. Oh well. She's cute, and right now she's our cat-child, so if we can spoil her by letting her stand on the table while we eat, who cares.

There are some nights we have dinner and it really, really makes me happy, like tonight. I've had a hellacious week, for some reason. I haven't been at nightmare status, but I have lost sleep this week. Determined to make my day better, I kept the Fraggle Rock theme song in my head all day today.

I can't embed it, but you can/really should click here and listen to it.

Determined to save my worries for another day, I stayed focused on the positive things that happened today - and there were quite a few. Before I knew it, I was home making dinner, in my pj's, and enjoying a much deserved glass of wine, waiting on my husband to get home before digging into my newest creation. It was so tasty, and a variation of another recipe I've made quite a bit in the past - but this time, I think I nailed it. Taken from Good Things Catered and adjusted to what I had on hand, here is:

Hearty Fall Turkey Sausage Penne

about 1/2 box penne pasta (can use whole wheat, if you're healthier than me)
1/2 lb turkey sausage
about 1/2 white or yellow onion, diced
about the same amount of diced red, yellow and/or green pepper
couple cloves of minced garlic
equal parts of dried thyme, Italian seasoning and red chili flakes (about 1/2 teaspoon each maybe)
some chicken stock
some red wine
splash of balsamic vinaigrette
1 can tomatoes, diced (or whole, and diced yourself, like I did)
couple cups of fresh spinach, washed and rough chopped
parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt, cook the penne according to package directions, about 8-9 minutes until al dente.

In the meantime, brown the sausage (make it crumbly) in a large pan over medium heat, with some olive oil so the turkey doesn't stick to the pan (takes about 7-8 minutes). Remove turkey from pan when cooked, set aside. Immediately add diced onion, peppers, garlic, and spices, along with a good pinch of salt, to the pan; may need to add more oil if the pan is really dry. Sautee until onions are cooked through, about 8-9 minutes. Add some red wine to the pan to deglaze (I probably used about 1/3 cup), scrape up the brown bits from the bottom. While you've got the wine out and open, may as well pour yourself a glass to sip on while dinner's cooking. It's the A-50 way. Anyway: simmer that for a minute, add a splash (probably 2 Tablespoons) of balsamic vinegar, and maybe a cup of chicken stock. Add back in the turkey sausage, then add tomatoes with juices, salt again, and stir in the cooked pasta. Stir to combine, then add the spinach; it'll look like a lot, but I promise it will wilt down to almost nothing. Simmer over medium low heat until sauce thickens a little, the spinach wilts, and the pasta has absorbed some of the saucy goodness, about 10 minutes. Serve in big bowls topped with parmesan cheese.

I ate two big bowls of this pasta tonight, sitting across from my husband, and really have enjoyed the evening. I credit Fraggle Rock, partly. With all the stress of the week, it's so nice knowing I can come home to a cat and man who love me. I get to see great friends next week. I have a job that (hopefully) is making a difference in the lives of some students. And I'm an all around lucky gal. Happy happy joy joy. Let's go eat a turtle brownie and call it a night.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mac & Cheese Night

Team Dawmilam is probably going to have Kraft macaroni and cheese tonight for dinner, unless Dave has a better idea when he gets home (and I'd put money on the fact that he won't). It takes 8 minutes to prepare and about 5 to eat. I jazz it up by adding cracked black pepper and shredded cheddar. Trust me: it makes it amazing.

My journey with macaroni and cheese is long. It's one of my all time favorite foods. I used to be an exclusively Velveeta Shells & Cheese girl. My mom had to stockpile the stuff because it's all I would eat. (I plan on being a much meaner mother in the highly unlikely event that Team Dawmilam someday spawns a child.)

Momma Charlie makes a mean macaroni and cheese from scratch. I will get her recipe someday, and perhaps recreate it. Her mac and cheese is slightly different than any other I've eaten: the cheese sauce makes kind of like a thin coating over the starchy macaroni noodles, and it's very sticky. I'm 99% sure she also uses Velveeta in her recipe.

Karen and I discovered EasyMac while we lived in the dorms and our best option for food was anything that required adding water and heating in the microwave. The thought of that, and Bowl Appetit!, make me slightly nauseous today. But, for about 4 years, it was all we ate, along with Pop Tarts and an occasional sandwich from the student center.

After a short term hiatus from mac and cheese (instigated mostly due to the abnormal quantities of EasyMac I consumed in college), I discovered pure, simple, Kraft macaroni and cheese. Something about that orange, powdery "cheese" that forms a "sauce" when added with milk and butter makes me happy. It is the macaroni product of choice in my kitchen.

So, this blog is proof that not every night is LBDelicious, original food. Sometimes, we do resort to pre-packaged, over-processed, convenience foods, and we enjoy every bite.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ricotta, Spinach and Artichoke Stuffed Shells with Marinara

Since this got SO many hits of approval on Facebook, I have to share my recipe. Sorry, Jamie G - there is no video to accompany the recipe. But next time, I'll try to remember to set up the video camera and capture another LBDelicious how-to-moment.

Ricotta, Spinach and Artichoke Stuffed Shells with Marinara

First, bring a large pot of water to a boil. When it has reached boiling, generously salt the water (couple handfuls) Add about 14 jumbo shells, and cook for about 8-9 minutes, until almost al dente (it's okay if they're not completely cooked through; they will continue to cook in the oven).

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and prepare the filling, which is:

1 15 oz container of ricotta cheese (low fat is fine)
about a handful of grated parmesan cheese
about 2 handfuls of shredded mozzarella cheese
salt, pepper & Italian seasoning to taste
1 egg
almost a can of quartered artichoke hearts, drained of brine, rinsed, squeezed out of any moisture, and chopped into bits
1 10-oz package of frozen spinach, defrosted (microwave for 3 minutes on high) and squeezed of any moisture

Combine the above ingredients in a medium-sized bowl; my tool of choice for this is a fork. I find that mixing the ricotta first with seasonings, parmesan and egg, then the artichokes and spinach works perfectly.

By this point the shells should be about done. Drain, and allow to cool to the point that you can handle them. Prepare a baking dish by coating with cooking spray and pouring about 1/2 - 3/4 cup jarred tomato sauce (Barilla tomato & basil is my personal preference) on the bottom of the pan. Stuff each shell with about 2 small spoonfuls of the mixture. Position shell-side down in the prepared pan. When the pan is full or you run out of filling, top the shells with the remaining jar of sauce (use a spoon for even sauce distribution). Then top with another couple of handfuls of shredded mozzarella and a generous shower of parmesan. Cover with foil, bake for 40 minutes. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hot Chocolate

As I am writing this, I'm savoring a simply delicious, steaming mug of hot chocolate, topped with marshmallows, vanilla whipped cream, and cinnamon. I rarely drink hot chocolate, but every time I do, I think about one particular childhood memory.

Having hot chocolate was a rare treat in the Daws house growing up. I primarily remember drinking Swiss Miss instant hot cocoa on snow days. Do you know how many snow days we had in north Alabama during my school years, 1986-1999? About 5. But, one of those times it legitimately snowed (6 inches!), school was cancelled, and all was well with the world. Heath and I bundled up in winter coats and warm hats, and headed outdoors to play. I soon learned that snow is particularly fun when you live on a small farm with a lot of hills and your dad is a fearless redneck.

You probably think I'm going to tell you we went sledding. Wrong! We didn't have a sled, and the garbage can lids just weren't cutting it. But, we did have a 4-wheeler, some rope, and a plastic swimming pool leftover from the summer.

You see where this is going. And I promise I am not making this up.

Dad tied the plastic swimming pool to the back of the 4-wheeler with the rope, instructed Heath and I to get in, and it was all over after that. Riding in the swimming pool tethered to the 4-wheeler he drove (which I'm sure was totally safe), we bounced up and down some pretty big hills, faster than we ever should have been going. It was so. much. fun. I remember our little noses and hands felt like they were going to fall off, they were so cold, but we could've stayed out there being pulled around on the 4-wheeler for hours.

When we finally were forced to go back inside, mom (being the good mother she was/is) had a steaming cup of Swiss Miss hot cocoa topped with marshmallows ready for us to drink to warm us up. Heath and I plopped in front of the tv and watched some Price is Right, drank our hot chocolate, and talked about what an awesome day we were having. I think we were even allowed to bring the cat inside, which was an extra special treat for us.

And that's why, whenever I drink hot chocolate, I think about the snow day we had that resulted in being pulled around in our redneck snowmobile. Today's hot chocolate is filled with a little less adventure (lesson planning, and trying to figure out what to do to get us out of the house today), but is completely stellar in its own little way. It's divine. Dave said it was the best hot chocolate he's ever had. And he doesn't throw such compliments around loosely! Make this, instead of Swiss Miss or heated up Nesquick, next time you get the craving to drink a candy bar.

LBDelicious Hot Chocolate

First: prepare some whipped cream. That involves pouring some heavy cream in a bowl, and whipping it with a hand mixer until it's, well, whipped cream. Stir in some vanilla extract towards the end for a nice touch.

Next: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, warm up 2 cups of milk, 1 cup of half & half, and about 1/3 cup sugar, until the sugar starts to dissolve. Stir in 2 tablespoons cocoa powder and 1 teaspoon instant espresso. Whisk gently to combine the cocoa and milk, and then add about 2 ounces of dark chocolate chips and half of a Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate bar, cut into shreds. Whisk to combine, and allow to come to barely a simmer. Turn off the heat, whisk in a splash of vanilla extract, and pour into coffee mugs. Top first with a layer of marshmallows, next with the whipped cream, and then dash the top with cinnamon.

We ended up eating ours with spoons, just to mix in the right consistency of melty marshmallows and whipped cream. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thai Sweet Potato Soup

I started to blog about this particular soup recipe a whole month ago when I made it for the first time. But, I spaced, and failed, so now I will try to remember exactly what I did that made this particular fall soup so yum-tastic, since I mentioned it on @MissCritta's facebook page yesterday.

Reasons you should make a sweet potato soup: sweet potatoes are, from what I hear, nutritious. In many ways. And they're tasty. And orange. Which, if you're Rose, will be a reason NOT to make the soup, as she has a severe and undying hatred for orange. But if you're an Auburn fan, would count as a huge reason to make the soup.

Thai Sweet Potato Soup

First: prepare a sweet potato. My favorite method is to roast several at once in the oven (400 degrees for about an hour, depending on the oven and size of the potato) as they are simple to prepare, ready to eat, and keep well in the fridge for a day or two. Plus the flavors really develop well with the roasting method. If you don't have an hour to wait, though, I guess you could just peel the potato (a large one or two small ones), dice it, and boil it until fork tender; drain, and mash. But really, you should just roast the thing.

Second: In your favorite soup/stock pot, heat about 1/2 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. While that's warming up, dice a white onion (Vidalia if available) and mince some garlic. Add to the heated pot, saute until cooked through with salt and some red pepper flakes. After they've cooked, add in about a tablespoon of tomato paste, some ground/grated ginger, and cinnamon. I probably put some other spices in there, but can't remember if it was (a) cumin, (b) garam masala (I know it's Indian, not Thai, but I do crazy things in the kitchen), (c) cayenne pepper, or (d) chili powder. So, get creative at that point if you feel like it.

After incorporating the other spices and tomato paste, deglaze the pan with about 1/4-1/2 cup white wine (vodka works too). Simmer until liquid is reduced by half; add a can of coconut milk (low fat is fine, but I'm on a full-fat kick lately, and it's soooo goooood), some milk or half & half, chicken stock and the potato. Use your own judgment on how much liquid you want; depends on the day, the potato, and your cooking style/personal taste. Simmer until just heated and the potato is incorporated as well as you can get it, then pour the whole mixture into your food processor or blender and puree. You can also use an immersion blender, but I'm terrified of them, so I don't use mine anymore.

Return to medium heat, correct seasonings (add more salt/pepper/chicken stock/milk/half and half if you want it thinned out) and simmer about 20 minutes. Enjoy!

Dave and I adored this soup. I think it's darn tasty and perfect for fall nights.

In other news, non-food-related, I defended my dissertation last Friday (hooray) and am trying to figure out life post-school. It's odd, but enjoyable.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Iron Girls

Yesterday, I successfully finished the Aflac Iron Girl Triathlon in Columbia, Maryland. As many of you know, I trained to raise money and awareness for young adults living with cancer through the Ulman Cancer Fund's Team FIGHT. 70 outstanding women of all ages, shapes and sizes participated in the tri yesterday, and we rocked! There was nothing quite like hearing "GO TEAM FIGHT!" every five minutes out on the course! I am lucky to have had such an incredible first triathlon experience, and also fortunate to have been able to meet several new friends along the way. Thanks to all of you who helped me raise funds this year, and those of you who offered kind words of support and encouragement as I went through training! I feel like it's all I've talked about this year, but I'm going to indulge and talk about it once more.

Our (I was with Anne Willis, one of my best friends) day started at 4:15 a.m. After a quick breakfast, donning of our uniforms, final run-through of our "do not forget" checklist and a quick dance around the room to Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," (yes, we were delirious) we were ready to go. Meg (incredible lady with an inspiring story; check out her blog here!) picked us up at 5 a.m. to head to the course. After setting up our transition areas, I had about 2 hours of standing around getting nervous, playing around, and updating Facebook and Twitter to keep my mind occupied.

By the time I lined up with my group to jump in the lake, I was so anxious, I thought I might pass out. Those kind of nerves generally don't strike me unless I'm in front of my graduate committee, and yesterday, I just couldn't shake them. All I could do was get in the water, and swim. So that's what I did. After hearing the countdown "3, 2, 1, AFLAC!" I started my freestyle and made up my mind to just enjoy the day.

I wish I could go into detail about the course, but honestly, it was a blur. I swam, biked, and ran. Really hard. My goal was go finish, and to do my best, and I did both of those. At some point during the 17 mile bike, I realized that I was more focused than I'd ever been in my life. It was a great feeling!

(I'm smiling with my eyes.)

I concentrated not on winning or going fast, but on just riding the bike, conserving energy, and enjoying the course. I also realized that nothing was really hurting and I had energy, two really nice side effects of this approach. To top it off, I finished faster than I dreamed I would. The swim took 25 minutes, which was exactly what I expected. But, biking 17 miles took 1 hour 15 minutes (I'm super slow on the bike and expected to take at least an hour and a half), and I did the 3.4 mile run with a 9 minute mile pace, which is my average running pace for road races and training. Considering that when I started the run, I thought my legs were going to fall off, and I was insanely tired, and I felt like I was crawling instead of running, I was in disbelief when I looked down at my watch at the first mile marker and saw "8:51." This made me insanely happy, not to mention I felt like a total badass. :)

Now, usually when I am going through a hard workout, what pushes me to keep going is thinking about all the people in the world, particularly people in my own life, who are not healthy enough or able to do what I do. My mantra on Saturday was, "remember, you're doing this because you can." It's a simple thought, but it's so true, and powerful. Yesterday was no exception to that. I ran with a green "Waeger Will Win" bracelet in honor of Dan Waeger, who recently lost his battle with lung cancer but used his life to better the lives of others. I carried the Team FIGHT and Ulman Fund logos on my jersey, which means I ran with the spirit of the 70,000 young adults each year who are diagnosed with cancer. I thought about all the cancer survivors in my family, and I thought about how motivated I am to keep exercising, eating well, and taking care of myself in hopes of preventing serious illness and disease in my own life.

Call me selfish, but at that point, my thoughts turned to me. During the run, what kept me going when I wanted to quit was thinking about just how far I personally have come in my one year of training - not just in terms of physical ability, but also in psychological well being. Don't get me wrong: I freaking loved knowing that I was able to succeed at a serious, hard-core endurance athletic event. But, most importantly, I finally realized this year that being in the best shape of my life, and being my happiest, does not equal being the smallest pants size or lightest weight I've ever been. I learned, without even knowing I'd learned it, how to mentally prepare for a challenge I wanted to overcome. How thinking positively and believing I could do it, meant that I could. Focusing on what I was doing, just because I could, caused me to find every last ounce of energy I had and sprint as fast as I could on the home stretch and finish my first triathlon in 2:16:03.

(look at me go! woo hoo)

Now, if you're sitting there thinking, "that's great, LBD, but I could never do anything like that," you probably won't be able to until you change your mind. But once you change your mind, I bet you'd be surprised just exactly what you could do. I certainly didn't get here overnight. I have never been particularly athletic. I never played sports in high school, and refused to participate in intramural sports in college. I couldn't even really swim until last September, nor did I own a bike until December. In fact, 4 years ago (when Anne and I started working out together in Auburn), I couldn't run a mile without stopping. My mom (thankfully) started a get-healthy routine when I was a teenager, and she and I were avid walkers. I continued to walk at Auburn, and then one day, on one of our many walks around campus, Loren made me run for 15 minutes straight, just to prove that I could do it. Despite thinking I was going to die running up the hill at the amphitheater on campus, she was right. Rosalie took advantage of our twice-a-week gym time to encourage me to sign up for a 5K with her back in 2006 (just 3 years ago!), so I have her to thank for my catching the running bug. Lindsey then convinced me to sign up for a 10K last May, and running while studying for my qualifying exams saved me from losing my mind. Then, last summer on one of the many road trips I took, Anne, a 12-year Ewing's Sarcoma survivor (and 3 time Iron Girl), told me to sign up for a tri when I just mentioned I'd thought about it. When I got back to school last August, Liz held me accountable for twice-weekly pool visits, and I was well prepared thanks to our routine swims, even though we pretty much had to force ourselves in the water sometimes. As you can see, I'm living proof that one person doing something very small, such as turning a walk around campus into a run, or pushing someone to register for a road race "for the cute t-shirt!" or agreeing to meet a friend at the pool or at the corner for a bike ride (Alyssa...) is all it takes to change a life. Hopefully, my story, or Meg's story, or Dan's story, or Anne's story, will motivate you to take on your own challenge. If you ever need help finding a race, or getting started, let me know. I want to pay it forward, and help as many people as possible start leading a healthier lifestyle that involves better eating and workout habits. My life has been much better since I began paying attention to what I eat and how I work out, and I can almost guarantee that yours will get better, too.

As I sit here this morning, nearly 24 hours after finishing, I'm really sore. I'm tired. But inspired. I feel like a new person. I feel like something changed in me during the race, that helped me center and re-focus on my life. I've been hanging on to a lot of negativity, bitterness and anger, poisonous feelings from some rough patches and bad times in my life from a few years ago. And on my run, I experienced a moment in which I just let go of all of it, and I instantly felt better. I finally embraced my life, and realized I shouldn't worry about the bad anymore, and instead just focus on all the good that I've been blessed with. I then thought about just how very lucky I am to have a husband who loves me for who I am and has supported me through bad times, long drives, bad moods, intense workout training, dissertations, classes, weddings, and stress, and how happy I am knowing that we get to go through this life together. And, not surprisingly, I heard this song in my head:

Cheesy as it might sound, we all have a light that can shine through us, made brighter with love: for another person, for nature, for yourself, for God, for whatever. This triathlon changed my life. It made me a better person. And I can't wait for my next one: Iron Girl Atlanta 2010. Who's in?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't Hurt Yourself Bananas Foster

I keep dark rum in my house for 2 reasons: Wes Cooksey, and bananas foster.

Last night, I decided that my World of Warcraft playing husband and I needed dessert. See how happy it made him? I'm such a good wife.

Now, you probably know that if you order bananas foster in a restaurant, you do so partly for the flashy presentation that involves lighting the dish on fire to burn off the rum in the sauce. In my house, though, we call such a move a "fire hazard," and given recent kitchen injuries (including the time I almost cut off the tip of my finger with a CAN OF CHICKPEAS), I tend to play it safe and stay away from anything that might physically harm me in the cooking process. Flipping omelettes? Not a problem. The worst that can happen is a big mess on the stove or floor. Broiling? Sure. Use your oven mitts and don't let your pita chips burn. Chopping vegetables with super-sharp Henckles knives? As long as I am not in a bad mood (apparently, I get aggressive and sloppy when I'm angry). Playing with fire and alcohol? That's a big no-no.

So, based on a Paula Deen recipe, I have come up with my own version of bananas foster that can be whipped up in a jiffy, usually at any given moment since I always have the ingredients on hand, and the shortcut technique I invented really can't hurt you at all. Not a rum drinker? I'm not either. I actually hate it. But, it's just not bananas foster without the rum, so go out and get yourself a small bottle to keep in the pantry for this one dish. Or incase Wes Cooksey happens to come over and wants to play Rock Band.

Don't Hurt Yourself Bananas Foster

1 banana
2-3 tablespoons butter
about 1/4-1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 splash vanilla extract
1/4 cup dark rum

In a small, nonstick saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. While that's melting, prepare the banana: slice into thin pieces, or (what I usually do) cut it in half, then slice it lengthwise, making 4 sections. Add brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to the butter, stir to combine and make a thick, gooey sauce. Add the bananas, and toss to coat. Immediately pour in the rum (stand back! don't let it splatter on the gas) and stir to create a thinner sauce. Cook for 5 minutes, until the alcohol has burned off, and the bananas have soaked up some of the sauce. Remove from heat, serve over vanilla ice cream or with whipped cream.

There is nothing quite like tasty, warm rum sauce over vanilla ice cream. I'm a sucker for ice cream in general, but especially if certain things are paired with it, like warm cake or warm sauce. It melts together and is simply divine.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Spinach, Walnut & Basil Pesto with Balsamic-Citrus Grilled Chicken

Okay, readers, I know the title sounds fancy-schmancy, but I promise that this recipe is super simple and cheap. Late last week, I decided I should be really conscious of what I was eating in preparation for my big triathlon coming up this weekend. My strategy for the next 6 days? I plan to rather pretentiously carb- and protein-load all week, as well as stay away from alcohol. Not that I drink that much anyway, but I somehow figured out that I feel and perform way better when I don't drink anything at all, ever. Who'd have thought it? So, don't expect any yummy cocktail recipes, like this one that I invented the other day when I realized I have 2 whole liters of peach schnapps in my pantry (how in the world that happened, I have no idea):

Georgia Peach Sweet Tea Cocktail
1 part Firefly sweet tea vodka
1/2 part peach schnapps
ice cold water

Fill a small rocks glass with ice, add ingredients, stir, go sit on your back porch, light a citronella candle and enjoy.

I digress. Back to my pesto, which I made in response to Dave's request for "something light." I tried making pesto, which is a vibrant green mixture that goes really well with pasta, from scratch earlier this summer, and forgot to add garlic. This made me angry, and sad, when I sat there wondering why it was so bland. I re-tried it this week, especially since my basil plant has not yet kicked the bucket and I wanted to make good use of its tasty, leafy greens. I felt the need to use up my remaining bag of spinach, something I have fully enjoyed as a pantry/fridge staple this summer. Also, I always have walnuts in my freezer, so this was a real cinch to whip up in no time.

Spinach and Walnut Pesto
In your food processor, combine the following:
about 1/2 to 3/4 bag fresh spinach, washed and patted dry (or run through the salad spinner)
zest of one lemon
juice of half a lemon
1 clove garlic
lots of salt & pepper
handful of basil leaves
about 1/3 cup of walnuts, toasted

until it resembles a somewhat homogenous mixture. Then, drizzle in about 1/4 - 1/2 cup of really good quality extra virgin olive oil. Refrigerate until ready to serve. I prefer it over vermicelli, angel hair, or spaghetti. Note: save some of your starchy pasta water while mixing the pesto with the pasta; if the pesto/pasta is too sticky, you can thin it out with hot pasta water or (what I did) butter. Lots of it.

Balsamic-Citrus Grilled Chicken
Prepare a marinade (combine together and pour in a dish or plastic zip-loc bag) out of the following ingredients:
about 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
about 1/4 cup oil (I use EVOO; can use whatever you like really)
juice of the other half of your lemon, and maybe some zest if you feel like it
2 tablespoons honey
salt & pepper
fresh chopped basil and rosemary leaves (use dried Italian seasoning if you don't have fresh herbs)

Add 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts to the marinade; allow to chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes and up to several hours. Remove from marinade, grill until cooked through, about 12 minutes.

I think I made a balsamic chicken once based on a recipe of Giada's (surprise, surprise), but the grilled version was so very tasty. I served the chicken breasts over the pasta that had been tossed with the pesto. When you toss hot pasta with pesto, it cooks the mixture just enough to take the harsh, raw-ness out of the pesto. We devoured it, and I even enjoyed my leftovers cold the next day.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce, Cherry Tomatoes & Peas

I had no idea what to make for dinner tonight. I was leaning towards pasta, but didn't want fettucini alfredo (too heavy), and didn't want just plan olive oil/sauteed onion sauce. I kind of walked in circles around the kitchen for a while, and then it hit me.

I have made this Rachael Ray vodka cream pasta for a long time; it was one of Rose's favorites, and is also something I enjoy, especially when I want some super fast and yummy pasta. But, after perusing my copy of The Silver Spoon, which is an Italian Bible of recipes (and includes directions on how to prepare things I may not ever be brave enough to eat, like tongue), I found another, better, tastier (albeit more fattening) way to make vodka cream pasta. It involves no crushed tomatoes, as Rachael's does, but instead uses tomato paste.

Here's a little improvement that I created tonight on the Silver Spoon vodka sauce: I added peas, fresh sliced cherry tomatoes (straight from Christy's garden, yummmmmtastic), and lots more butter. To quote Ina, how bad could that be? The answer: not bad at all.

penne pasta
salt & pepper
dried Italian seasoning
1/2 white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup vodka
1/2 cup chicken stock
heavy cream (maybe 3/4 cup?)
frozen peas
cherry tomatoes, sliced (optional)
fresh parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil; salt generously, and add penne. Cook until al dente, about 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat about 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a pan over medium-high heat. Sautee onion, garlic, salt & pepper, and Italian seasonings until onions are cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste, start to work/melt into the onion. Add vodka, combine well. Cook until liquid reduces by half, about 5 minutes. Add chicken stock, salt & pepper again to taste. Simmer gently, reducing heat. Add cream, stir. Add pats of butter to your heart's content, slowly stirring or whisking in each time. As soon as you're ready to add the pasta to the sauce (which is, at my house, as soon as it's done) throw in the frozen peas and tomatoes. Stir, simmer for about 3 minutes so that the pasta absorbs some of the sauce. Plate up, top with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Enjoy.

Friday, July 31, 2009

This Morning's Thoughts

1. Spin class is not happening today. Nor is swimming or running. I ran 6.75 yesterday; I'm not beating myself up too much over a rest day today. Realizing that I have no clue how to train for much of anything, and am probably doing everything wrong. When I read advice columns about "what I should be doing" in preparation for various races, I am usually doing not what's suggested. Let's hope I can still walk when I'm 80.

2. Definitely a 2-cup-of-coffee morning.

3. Where's Chloe the cat? Can't find her.

4. Watched Real Housewives of Atlanta last night for the first time. I thoroughly enjoyed the fight between Sheree' and her party planner; was that staged or genuine? Also enjoyed the occasional glimpses of interstate and skyline that looked familiar, like, "oh! Look! It's Northside Drive, where I always get confused getting back on 75 North!" or "this was obviously not filmed M-F from 6:30-9:30 am or 3:00-6:30 p.m.; cars seem to be moving." Where exactly do they live? I heard Buford?

5. Started a new blog designed to help educators of and other people interested in mass communication and gender/communication, inspired by my friend Jennie and her relationships blog, and my friend Anna and her relationships blog. I'm not sharing the address yet. I'm in the test phases, and not sure I like what I'm posting. As soon as I get the hang of it, and some insightful postings, I'll share. It's going to take a lot more energy than this one, as I hope to include, like, citations and theory and such. But, it could be helpful for a lot of people, including myself as I wade through really tough media/pop culture issues. Kind of a way to get academic research "out there" and share with people who don't really know much about academic research.

6. Eventually, the networks are going to run out of metropolitan areas to film/stage shows like Real Housewives, CSI, and Grey's Anatomy. Watch out, friends who live in remote, rural areas: "Real Housewives of Cairo Holler." "CSI: Opelika," and "Decatur General ER" are coming to a television near you. I feel it.

7. Less than two months till I defend my dissertation. 34 days till football season. 23 days till the triathlon. 12 days till I start my new job as an assistant professor.

8. 34 days till football season. :)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Coolest Thing I've Ever Seen at a Concert

I saw this on Feministing, and it inspired today's random story from last April.

Rose and I went to the Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood concert at Rupp, as you may recall from an earlier post in which I berated the people next to me for asking me to sit during Carrie's set. I'm not the biggest Keith Urban fan in the world, but I fell in love with him shortly after he opened his set.

He sang a couple opening songs. And he looked over to his right, and read out loud from a really bright orange sign, "Let Her Play Your Guitar." He stood there a second, and said, "ok. Come on up!" The crowd went wild.

A few seconds later, there appeared on stage a young girl who looked like she was maybe 14 or 15, who had braces and long, bushy dark hair that almost covered her face, wearing jeans and a Janis Joplin t-shirt. She walked on stage looking a little shy and uncomfortable, and in the back of my mind I was thinking, I hope she doesn't screw up and embarrass herself. She said her name was Leslie and she was from Hazard, Kentucky.

This is what happened next:

Keith Urban - Raise the Barn

Girl rocked it out!! The quality of this video doesn't do her playing justice. As soon as they got her plugged in, she started wailing on her guitar. I hope to God she makes it as a world-famous musician someday. Keith was obviously impressed, and his band members stood around looking stunned by her musical ability. I could've listened to her play all night.

And that's the coolest thing I've ever, ever seen at a concert.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Three Food Items I Don't Buy

1. Breadcrumbs. Exception: panko, or Japanese breadcrumbs. Rationale: I never use a whole container before they "expire." It's much more cost-effective in my kitchen, right now, to just make breadcrumbs as needed. Procedure: Toast up a slice or two from the whole wheat loaf you have in the pantry that you use for sandwiches, and throw it in the food processor. Season to taste: salt, pepper, Italian dried herbs, parmesan, you get the picture.

2. Salad Dressing. Exception: Ken's Blue Cheese, if Dean & Donna are coming for dinner, as it's Dean's favorite (D&D are Dave's parents/my parents-in-law) (and they're cool). Rationale: seriously, you still buy salad dressing? When you have tasty extra virgin olive oil and multiple vinegars, mustards, and seasoning agents in your pantry? Homemade salad dressings are so, so so so much tastier than store-bought, and they're more fun, too, because you can make them yourselves. And, they have no preservatives, which equals healthier. And, you are in complete control of the flavor, and amount of fat. Procedure: dressings usually involve a fat (think: oil, mayonnaise, bacon grease) and an acid (such as vinegar: balsamic, red wine, white wine, champagne, vanilla fig balsamic, rice wine; mustard: dijon, grainy dijon, plain ol' yeller mustard; or citrus: orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice, grapefruit juice). Two additional must-have ingredients in ALL of my dressings: salt and pepper. Now, even within the pepper category, you have plenty of options: black pepper, cayenne, chili powder, Chinese five spice, paprika, wasabi, ginger, horseradish.... Next, because I have a sweet tooth, I generally prefer some sort of sweetener in my dressings. This takes the form of: plain sugar, honey, simple syrup, or a jam/jelly (raspberry, blackberry, plum, orange, strawberry). Top it off with any other fresh or dried herb to fit the meal or salad. Whisk together in small amounts, tasting as you go to get the flavor profile just right. And voila. Kitchen brilliance and creativity. Tell me people aren't impressed the next time you serve a salad with your "homemade wasabi vinaigrette" or dip that sandwich wrap in a "homemade Italian lemon and basil vinaigrette."

3. Soups. Exception: Campbell's cream of chicken/mushroom, ONLY for chicken, tuna, or hashbrown casseroles. Rationale: once you start making your own soups, you won't go back to canned soup again. Homemade soups are (a) easy, (b) cost-effective, and (c) simply divine. I hear there are tasty canned soup options these days, but I can't bring myself to try them. Just looking at them in the grocery store kind of makes me cringe a little, and feel bad for people who don't make their own soups. Procedure: think of your favorite soup. Look for a recipe for it, or just ask me; I probably have a recipe to share. Follow the recipe exactly, and enjoy the meal. Soups follow an easy procedure: sautee some sort of aromatic in oil/butter (like onion, celery, carrot, leeks), create some flavor with salt, pepper and dried herbs, add other proteins (chicken, beef, tofu) and vegetables as necessary (potatoes, tomatoes, zuccini, beans), create a soup in which to simmer the vegetables/meats (chicken broth, vegetable broth, beef broth, milk/cream, water, splash or two of wine or vinegar), top with something (tortillas, crackers, sour cream, avocado, grated onion, melty cheese) and eat.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tastes Like Hawaii

Of all the tasty dishes we ate out "on the island," my favorite one was an acai bowl.

Well, ok. My favorite non-artery-clogging one was the acai bowl. My real favorite was the pound of buttery peel & eat shrimp washed down with a pineapple coconut smoothie we had at Giovanni's Shrimp Truck. Josh Holloway wasn't lying: they were worth the drive to a remote area on the north shore.

I digress. Acai berry is like the new blueberry from what I've heard. We got addicted to the acai bowl at the little coffee shop next to our hotel in Oahu. It was so tasty and cold; basically frozen acai blended with apple juice, served with a sliced banana, honey, and granola in a cute little wooden bowl. It was a smoothie in a bowl. And it was so refreshing on those hot, humid mornings. It also reminds me of the little Italian couple who was always in the coffee shop when we were, drinking cappuccinos and eating pastries for breakfast. How Italian! I wanted to be their friend, but I was shy. I did end up taking their picture at the U.S.S. Arizona memorial, as, ironically, they were there at the same time we were.

Anyway. Acai berries. They have antioxidants or something. They're dark purple. They're tasty. And you can buy them in juice or frozen form in your local grocery store. I've found the juice at Kroger, the frozen stuff I have to get at Harry's, which has an extensive section of organic frozen fruit. I've found that these ingredients:

along with some honey (not pictured) thrown in a blender makes a substantial, absolutely delicious smoothie. I just slurped one down. Yummmmm.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Anniversary Dinner

So many signs led me to conclude that Chicken Tetrazzini should be our anniversary meal.

First, there was this clip that we saw on The Soup a while back. If you are a regular watcher, then you know that's not the only time "chicken tetrazzini" has come up this year.

Then, there was all this chatter this week on my Facebook wall, via sorority sister Critta, about her husband calling Giada DeLaurentiis "Godda Delaurious," and his claiming to have made her chicken tetrazzini recipe for dinner, when instead it was something store-bought. Hilarious. And ironic, since I make Giada's chicken tet recipe for special occasions, like anniversaries.

Then, there was an email I sent to Dave asking if he preferred steak or chicken tet for anniversary dinner. He immediately requested chicken tetrazzini. The first time I made it, I think he fell in love with me all over again. I'm not sure if it's the peas, the mushrooms, or the creamy sauce that did him in. Whatever it was, it worked, and I love the dish too.

Right before the wedding, I purchased a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne. I fully intended for us to drink it on the Sunday afternoon/night following our wedding, as a little "yay we're married!" treat to ourselves, and a way to relax at home before flying off on our honeymoon. I splurged for the good stuff (as opposed to the $4 Brut I generally purchase when I need to get champagne) because it was what was served at the infamous Bubble-Q we attended in Miami two years ago, where I met all my favorite Food Network stars. We haven't had any since! I thought it would be special. I'd be hailed as a great wife, on day 2 of the marriage even! However, on the day after our wedding, I was (a) still really full from the impromptu brunch we had at Marlowe's Tavern with some of our favorite wedding guests (where I believe Loren made me eat scrambled eggs, something I just don't do, but was glad I did that time because they were quite tasty and Lord knows I needed some protein), (b) still slightly hungover from the night before, (c) enjoying spending time with Anne at our pool until she had to fly away, (d) busy packing for 10 days in Hawaii (e) busy washing clothes, including my wedding dress that got beer spilled all over it, which was awesome - both the funny story resulting from the beer spillage and the fact that I could just throw my wedding dress in the washing machine, and (f) more tired than I'd ever been in my life. I sent Dave out for Firehouse Subs for dinner. I had lost my voice from talking so much over the weekend. And I just laid on the couch for a few hours, staring at the tv. When I lay still on the couch for more than 2 hours, and I'm not watching a movie, it's a good indication that I'm either sick, or completely worn out. Given the circumstances, we figured the champagne would wait until we got back. I figured there was no better excuse to drink it than the four-year anniversary of our first date.

What was our first date, you ask? Dave picked me up at Christy's house (then in Peachtree City). We went to Fernbank's martini's and IMAX event, that still is held each Friday night during the summers. Dave learned that the best way to my heart was to give me a snack, a good drink, and a natural history museum. And a good dinner. We went to Dante's, a Buckhead landmark that I highly recommend to anyone who hasn't been there yet. If I had the chance to pick a last meal, it'd be eaten at Dante's. They're that good. Plan on at least 2 hours of gorging. I'd never had fondue before, but it was divine, especially at Dante's. Melting Pot what? I won't go anymore. It's not Dante's.

So, tonight, four years later, we ate chicken tet out on *our* back porch, watching Chloe chase leaves, drinking tasty champagne, and talking about what we thought life would be like in 4 years. Neither of us could really foresee much of anything different. Just more of Team Dawmilam being awesome.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Loaded Potato Soup

I just did something sublimely soothing. I pulled out my Le Creuset dutch oven (I smile whenever I pull it down from the cabinet, and sometimes talk to it), and cooked with leeks for the first time. I've never had leeks, that I'm aware of; only seen them used on Food Network. I've heard tv chefs fawn over them, and have always wanted to try them out. Thank goodness I did, as they made my dinner, well, LBDelicious.

The soothing part of the night came from first rinsing them, cleaning them of any remaining sediment still in the layers of mellow, oniony goodness of the vegetable. Came second from using my super sharp chef's knife to slice them into thin half-moons. Came third from seeing a pat of butter and olive oil sizzling away in the aforementioned pot. And came fourth from eating big spoonfuls (right out of the simmering pot! I love cooking for this very reason) a potato soup that I finally got right.

It's the third time in my life I've tried to make potato soup. The first time was an epic fail. It was basically mashed potatoes (sorry, Rose; you lived through that one). The second time, it turned into gravy soup. Dave loved it; my arteries did not. This time, I didn't use bacon grease (although that's part of why Dave loved the gravy soup) and I didn't use any thickening agent. I Deee-lish. Here's the recipe.

about 1/2 tablespoon butter
about 1/2 tablespoon EVOO
4 leeks, sliced thinly up to the green part
about 2 -3 cups of leftover mashed potatoes
1/2 cup white wine
about 2 cups chicken broth
splash of 2% milk
salt & pepper, plenty of it

In a large stockpot/soup pot, heat butter and oil over medium high heat. Add leeks, salt & pepper. Sautee until cooked, about 7-8 minutes. Deglaze pan by pouring in wine, scraping up any browned bits that have collected on the bottom. Add chicken stock and leftover potatoes; salt & pepper again. Stir together. Add milk if you want a thinner consistency. Puree in food processor or blender to combine leeks with potatoes. Simmer about 15 minutes. Top with bacon, cheese, scallions, sour cream - whatever you want - to make it "loaded."

We ate this tonight with a piece of crusty French bread and some leftover ham, onion & asparagus frittata that I made earlier in the week. Yes, I usually have things like frittatas just laying around the house. Welcome to my life.

Next up: what to make for anniversary dinner? Our 4-year-dating anniversary is next week, and I always craft a special meal for the occasion. It will probably involve a really expensive cut of meat, and probably some sort of complicated cooking technique. And will definitely involve the bottle of Moet champagne I've been hanging on to for the occasion.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Grilled Pork Chops with Rosemary & Garlic

God bless my mother (who I know is reading this), but growing up, I hated pork chop night. She always pan-fried bone-in chops, and there's nothing wrong with that. I just didn't know pork could be thick, tender, and juicy until I decided to cook it one day myself. (Note: I should admit, in my mother's defense, that I refused to try anything that wasn't Kraft macaroni and cheese, or ground beef tacos in Old El Paso shells with Velveeta on top. Come to think of it, I rarely ate anything that didn't have some form of Velveeta cheese in it or on it, and I only drank SunDrop. My today self shudders at the thought. It's ok. I was quite a picky eater, and it's not necessarily her fault that I didn't like her pork chops. I didn't like anything back then. And I'm very grateful that she placated my horrible palate and always made me macaroni and cheese, no matter what we were having for dinner. When I have children, I'm not going to be that nice. The kids can eat what I make, make something themselves, or starve.) I think my first yummy pork adventure was when I attempted something out of a Rachael Ray cookbook, in which I simply seared the pork chops, threw them in the oven to finish cooking, and made a mustard sauce (similar to the one I made with caramelized onions) out of the pan drippings. It was simply divine. Pork chops are generally inexpensive, they freeze well so you can catch them on sale and stock up, and if you cut the fat off the side, it's a fairly lean cut of meat; a great carnivorous diversion from the usual chicken or beef.

I can't tell you how much Dave and I enjoy grilled pork chops. If done right, they are flavorful and juicy, just as the ones we made last night. What I invented last night sounded like something Giada would make.

Grilled Pork Chops with Rosemary & Garlic

4 pork chops (I used boneless; Kroger was out of bone-in, but whatever you've got will work)
couple sprigs of fresh rosemary (thank you, Christy, for that lovely rosemary plant that I by some miracle haven't killed yet)
one clove of garlic
salt & pepper
extra virgin olive oil

Preheat grill. Prepare a rub for the pork by chopping together the garlic, rosemary, and salt. Mince it into a paste with a sharp knife, or grind together with a mortar and pestle. Set aside. Rub pork chops with oil, pepper generously, then massage the rub into the meat. Grill until cooked through (use a meat thermometer: make sure it registers 170 degrees). Set aside and cover with tin foil, allow to rest for 5 minutes so the juices redistribute and the pork stays juicy.

We devoured these with homemade mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus.

And I know this is random, but if I had all the money in the world, the first thing I'd do is hire someone to go out and buy me all the clothes that Giada wears. I'm sure it helps to have a husband who works for Anthropologie. But still. I love her clothes. All of them.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cheeseburger with Caramelized Onions, Bacon, and White Wine Dijon Pan Sauce

I just made the most ah-mazing cheeseburger. I would have taken a picture for you, but I ate it too fast. And I'm lazy.

First, you must make:

Caramelized Onions
1 white onion (preferably Vidalia), sliced very thinly
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon butter
salt & pepper & sugar

Heat a pan (preferably stainless steel; nonstick just doesn't work for caramelizing onions, based on my experience) with the oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add onions after pan is hot; quickly add salt, pepper and a dash of sugar. Stir frequently and cook until the onions are a dark golden brown, anywhere from 25-45 minutes. There will be lots of brown bits on the bottom. This is ok. Leave them, and make the pan sauce, as follows:

White Wine Dijon Pan Sauce
Start out with the brown bits leftover from the caramelized onions. If a few of the onion bits are still there, all the better. Immediately after removing the caramelized onions, pour about 1/2 cup of white wine into the pan, and scrape up the brown bits. Toss in 1 tablespoon honey, 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, and 1 tablespoon heavy cream. Simmer slowly until sauce has reduced by about half. Serve at room temperature on top of grilled burger, or marinate the burger in the sauce before grilling.

To assemble the burger:
Start out with a pound of ground beef. Take a cue from Ina Garten and, before making patties, add salt, pepper, about a tablespoon of mustard, and couple tablespoons of olive oil to the meat. Grill the patties like that, or marinate them in the pan sauce above (this was delicious).

Grill burgers on direct high heat for 8-12 minutes. The last minute of grilling, throw the buns on the grill to warm them, and put cheese on the burgers. What kind of cheese? All I had tonight was Kraft American 2% singles. I ate a tiny corner of one of the pieces by itself, and it tasted like chemicals. Yuck. So, if you have something gourmet and sliced, by all means go for it. I think a nice, sharp cheddar would be fantastic on these burgers.

Top with ketchup, mustard, caramelized onions, and bacon. Drizzle the cooked burger with the remaining pan sauce.

Trust me: it's amazing.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Homemade Iced Coffee

Caffeine. Coffee, especially. I'm sure I could live without it, but why in God's name would I want to? Despite my love of the java, I must admit: when I first heard about "iced coffee," I turned up my nose in disgust. But then several years ago, on a really hot, summer day, in desperate need of caffeine and not thrilled about a hot beverage, I tried a Starbucks iced coffee with vanilla syrup and cream. I was hooked. Love at first taste. Iced coffee is chuggable, in a way no other beverage is for me (save for water). And, it gets expensive, especially when you have a coffee habit like I do.

So I can't tell you how excited I was when I finally figured out that homemade iced coffee is (a) way, way cheaper than coffee shop coffee, (b) something that can be kept in my fridge at all times for instant access/caffeine fix, and (c) more fun than store-bought coffee because of the many customizable, also homemade, sweeteners I add. I've mentioned the phrase "homemade iced coffee" in regular conversation over the past week, and every time I do, I get asked for the recipe. So here you go.

I should note first, that @bobzuercher used to come into the office raving about the massive amounts of homemade iced coffee he drank, made with his French press. Having purchased and used a French press, I agree that it is a marvelous tool that results in a simply divine cup of coffee. It also requires a little more cleaning/maintenance than my Melitta Mill & Brew, and despite what a lot of you think, I am lazy. I save the French press method only for when I feel like I have extra time. The Mill & Brew works perfectly well for this coffee, as will whatever coffee maker you prefer.

Plain Iced Coffee
regular brewed coffee (make it strong, readers!)

Brew a pot of coffee. Let it come to room temperature. Put it in a pitcher/sealed container in the fridge, allow to cool. When you're ready, fill a big glass of ice and pour the coffee. Top with half & half (did you know they have fat free half & half now? I can't taste a difference in mixed drinks). Stir and chug.

Like your coffee sweet? I certainly do. I'm from Alabama. We are born with a genetic code that predisposes us to prefer sweet, and lots of it. Try this vanilla simple syrup as an add-in:

Vanilla Simple Syrup
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan over medium heat, dissolve sugar in water, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and immediately stir in the vanilla extract. Allow to cool to room temperature, then add to your coffee; this concoction will keep in the fridge in an air-tight container for at least a week.

Don't like vanilla? Try hazelnut (instead of vanilla extract, add Frangelico or other hazelnut liquor), amaretto (yep, you guessed it, no vanilla/add amaretto liquor), or any other liquor or flavoring you prefer.

Enjoy being wide awake all summer long!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

But at Least I Got this Cute Purse

Anyone who's been around me since this time last year has seen one of my two favorite purses: the purple or teal big-ass bag that I carry everywhere. It really doesn't bother me that they're so big that I can't ever find anything. My cell phone rings and rings, I dig for it, can't find it until it's too late (or I realize it was in my pocket the whole time... a la Shemanski/Olive Graduation Party 2009). Need an ink pen? There's one in there. Good luck finding it. Where's my wallet? Probably buried under the notepad, four tubes of lipgloss, and eyeglass case. Laptop? Check. Fits perfectly.

I bought the bags for $20 each at Target last summer. My only regret was that I didn't also get a yellow one. Well, look what I found yesterday before I got really frustrated with strange elasticky tops!

A Cheap, Cute, Yellow Bag at Target.

I can't wait to use it. The pockets will certainly help with the organization issue of version 1.0.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

An Open Letter to the Fashion Industry

Dear Fashion Industry,

Please stop putting elastic in random, unflattering places in tops and dresses. Letting the clothing hang at a natural waistline has worked really well for a long time. If I want something cinched, I'll put a belt on it. I'm sure the elastic-at-the-bottom-of-the-tank top gives (the probably malnourished, definitely skinnier and taller than most normal human beings) models at your runway shows much needed definition to an otherwise scrawny, scary looking, and just plain unattractive, unnatural and unwomanly frame. But, this look just doesn't translate to anyone who has any sort of figure other than that. On behalf of everyone who doesn't look like a model, I implore you: stop with the random elastic.

And if you continue to put elastic in random places in clothing, would you please just save those items for overpriced boutiques and runway shows? For the love of God, don't send your leftovers to TJ Maxx and don't let the clothing buyers for Old Navy and Target get the crazy idea that just because you say it's in style, that it is. You are ruining my ability to find decent and affordable clothing.

Making it work,

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Mario Lopez Story

Ah, the things you find out via Twitter. @Bobzuercher, a dear friend/colleague, made me aware that @MarioLopezExtra was going to be at the Fayette Mall today in Lexington. I had to resist the urge to jump in Cindy Rae and make the drive back up I-75 to see him. I'll explain why in a moment.

But now, I will pause for a moment for those of you who already know my Mario Lopez story to laugh. If you were to write a collection of short essays summarizing my life, this one would definitely have to go in there. It's classic. My friends still laugh at/with me about it. Bob was unaware of the story, and it's too good to write down and not share with the world. So. Here goes the story in its entirety, for the first time in printed (sort of?) word.

The Mario Lopez Story

It was December, 2001. I was a junior in college, on my way to visit a friend in Columbus, Ohio, that I visited just about every Christmas break since we'd met in 1998. (For the record: I no longer visit this person, which is another story for another day.) I was already distracted for two reasons: (a) I was really, really excited to see the person who'd meet me at the airport, and (b) I was reading, for the first time, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. I was enthralled. It's a brilliant book, and it kept my mind occupied during the flight (this is also back before I got motion sickness while reading on a plane or in a car).

My flight that day took me from Nashville to Cincinnati, and from Cincy to Columbus. I made it to Cincy just fine, and boarded my connecting flight, which was on a very, very small jet and a very, very short flight. I had seat 1B - and it wasn't first class! The plane filled up, and right before we were supposed to take off, a very good looking Latino man stepped on board, looking a little frazzled. I remember what he was wearing: dark purple Nike windsuit pants, and a gray UCLA sweatshirt. He had jet black hair and was gorgeous. I looked up from my book, noticed him, and noticed the fact that seat 1A was the only empty seat on the plane. He sat down, and smiled. All I saw were dimples and big, white teeth.

Now, the first thing that popped into my head was, "oh, I bet he's a football player since he has on a UCLA sweatshirt, and he's so big, tall and muscular. Too bad I don't keep up with college football; I'd probably know who he is. I bet I can get him to tell me who he is."

The conversation that followed went *exactly* like this:
LB: Hi!
ML: Hi there. **big smile with dimples again**
LB: Where are you from?
ML: **still smiling** I'm from LA, and where are you from?
LB: Alabama.
ML: **raises an eyebrow** Ohhh.

Still totally unaware that I'm SITTING BY MARIO FREAKING LOPEZ, I feel stupid. I think, "Gosh. I should KNOW who this person his; he's probably like a Heisman winner or something, what an idiot. Why didn't I spend more time memorizing sports trivia in scholars' bowl? Darn." (this is also before I was ADPi president, and subsequently, learned to curse without feeling guilty.)

Being the people observer that I am, I noticed stares. In our direction. At me, especially. That kind of stare that says, "why aren't you talking to him? And fawning over this person?" I'm still oblivious, and go back to Postman. Ten minutes after takeoff, the flight attendant came over, and asked for his autograph. Mario graciously provided his signature on the back of a boarding pass, and was very polite.

Now, I think, I really should know who this guy is. I try again.

LB: **smiles my best, sweetest smile, which is actually quite awkward at this point** Now, I KNOW that I've seen you somewhere before. I just can't place who you are.
ML: **smiles, in disbelief** Well, I've done some acting. And I'm co-hosting this show called "The Other Half" with Danny Bonaduce.
LB: (having never watched "The Other Half," thinks he's a wannabe.) Oh, ok. Well it's nice to meet you.
ML: **smiles and goes right back to reading his US Weekly**

We sit in silence the rest of the flight. He smells really, really good. His arm is touching mine the entire time. He handed me peanuts with a smile. I'm still oblivious.

The flight lands, and Mario bolts off before anyone has a chance to notice him. For some reason, I got stuck waiting on everyone else to disembark, and I was the very last person off the plane. As I left, the flight attendant started this conversation:

FA: Oh my gosh, how did it feel to sit next to someone so famous??
LB: *puzzled* what are you talking about? I had no idea who that guy was. Who was he?
(all the FA's stare in disbelief, start shaking their heads) FA: Um, that was Mario Lopez.
LB: **blank stare**
FA: You know. AC Slater, from Saved by the Bell?

At this point, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I stared out into the jetway, feeling like a complete and total moron. I SAT BY MARIO LOPEZ?! And DIDN'T KNOW IT WAS HIM?! I wanted to run, fast, to catch up with him, tell him I loved him, and his work, and what was Mark-Paul Gosselar really like? And what'd you think about Elizabeth Berkeley in Striptease? And did you ever hook up with Tiffani-Amber Theissen in real life? But no. These, and other relevant, important questions, would have to wait for another lifetime. I missed my chance.

Words cannot express the level of stupidity I felt at this moment. Nor can I offer any explanation for how I never figured out that I was sitting next to a favorite childhood star. But I can tell you this: I promised myself that someday, somehow, I would run into Mario Lopez again. And I would explain myself. And apologize for not knowing who he was. I believe he'd remember me. And probably accept my apology. And then ask me out for a drink or two, and we'd become friends.

Apparently, I'm going to have to check his travel schedule and make that happen this summer.

The End.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I have no idea what to make for dinner tonight. I had a restaurant-quality prosciutto, cheese & pesto sandwich on onion focaccia at Lindsey's for lunch. I'm re-creating one of my favorite sandwiches of all time for Christy tomorrow: roasted vegetable and goat cheese on toasty white bread. Puck's on Peachtree used to serve it, until they took it off the menu, so I can't claim that one on my own. I made an all-time favorite last night: fettucini with alfredo sauce (homemade, of course; it's SO easy), peas, and grilled chicken. There is a list of things I *can* make on my fridge for tonight, but nothing's popping out as sounding stellar, for some reason.

Interestingly, this dilemma is a reminder of just how blessed I am. Mom mentioned how happy she was for me that I was able to purchase pretty much whatever I wanted at the grocery store without having to worry about it. She's right. It's a pretty amazing thing, especially considering that I come from a long line of hard-working people who scrimped, saved, and could still barely afford to put any sort of food on the table. I did a lot of research on the people of Limestone County, Alabama in the 1930s, and it turns out that my grandaddy's stories about "eating gravy and biscuits for breakfast, and then biscuits and gravy for dinner" weren't exaggerations. Did you know that in the south, during the Great Depression, some children resorted to eating dirt? Alabama soil is rich in iron. It contained more minerals than they were getting in any other meals, which consisted primarily of water and flour. See Barker's unpublished master's thesis stored at the RBD Library in Auburn for more on that matter. It'll probably bring you to tears, or at least make you shake your head in disbelief that we're really only two generations removed from those living conditions.

Granted, everyone in the family is in pretty good shape now, but I have heard lots of stories from my grandparents and parents about growing up poor, and I have a handful of my own to share. For some reason though, when I was little, it never occurred to me that we maybe didn't have as much money as other people that we knew; there were always pop-tarts in the cabinet for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, Sun-Drops in the fridge, and something good for dinner, so I had no reason to question the financial status of my parents (my today self is cringing thinking about the eating habits of my 20-year-ago self, but that's another and more complicated issue). However, I remember my mom and dad talking about how in the early years of their marriage, they brought a calculator to the grocery store, adding the prices of things that went in the cart as they went along, to make sure they could afford groceries for that week. Somehow, we always had plenty to eat, and as I recall, we ate better than a lot of other people I know. Turns out, there are a lot of amazing dishes you can whip up when you and all your generous neighbors have gardens, and when you have a resourceful mom-chef. That resourcefulness has come in handy living on a graduate student stipend. And, as I learned this week when planning a budget with my husband, your past experiences with money can be pretty powerful. Let's just say we have vastly different perspectives on money that balance each other out - not necessarily different spending habits, but different ways of interpreting the meaning of money, what we spend it on, and how we save it.

Anyway. Just my thought for today, and I'm not sure it makes any difference to any of you out there. I give you these ramblings to say that, I really can't complain about not being able to decide what to make for dinner tonight. It's a blessing that I have multiple options for dinner. I forget that sometimes. I feel like we start to take our blessings for granted if we don't write them down or share them with others occasionally. So there you go. Simple as it is, my hope today is that all of you out there are able to also make whatever you want for dinner. And if you know someone who isn't as blessed, maybe make a little extra and invite them over to eat with you, or send them a plate to eat later, like Grandmother used to do (and still does) whenever she cooks for us.