What started as a food blog has morphed into more or less a personal journal. My marriage, my parenting, my life journey is as likely to appear now as my kitchen work... but there's more than one way to feed a family.
Since my kids are doing those dratted standardized tests at school this week, I've been aiming to give them heartier breakfasts these mornings to help them feel they've been properly armed for the day ahead.
Can I just take a moment for a Fiesta de Pity? I'm actually quite busy right now in my personal life and now's when I'd like to actually throw them a Pop Tart and be done with it.
But this morning I made them Birds in a Nest, which I can remember eating At Home from time to time. Not often. And, I have to say, my rebellion about going to "effort" for breakfast on a busy morning was a total waste. I made them on the griddle on my stovetop and the four of them fit perfectly. It was done in ten minutes and I could fuss with the girls' hair while they cooked. The eggs were cooking. Not the girls.
Now it seems fairly ridiculous to call this a recipe or to walk you through it... but in case this is a midwestern breakfast, I will do a bit of explaining for my friends in the east. I used the rim of an upturned glass to cut holes out of the center of each piece of bread. (It wasn't homemade bread this week. Cut me a break.) I put the pieces on the hot, buttered griddle and cracked an egg into each. I'm sure my mom used salt and pepper to season it, but my mouth was looking for seasoning salt this morning. My girls like "dippy" yolks, and I managed to get the heat right, so that they were only solid on the bottom when I flipped them. I didn't let them cook long on the other side and they were just right.
As soon as I started lifting the "nests" off, I had room on my griddle for the rounds of the bread removed from the centers. I buttered them and browned them a bit and they made nice crustless toasts to dip in the yolks.
Ten minutes! And I had a really good tantrum brewing, too!
Pardon my absence. I went away for the weekend for a scrapbooking retreat hosted by my friend Janelle. She does this twice a year for her scrapbooking friends. I'm not a scrapping goddess like most of the women who go, but truthfully, it's pretty much the only scrapbooking I'll do all year, so I can't imagine not going. It's great to spend a whole weekend being some version of creative without having to officiate squabbles between the siblings, butter anyone's toast or do emergency laundry.
My buddy Erika is in the picture with me and she was irritated that the picture was being taken since we barely groom for 48 hours. (Silly of her. She never takes a bad picture. We've vacationed on cruise ships before, where there are photographers stationed here and there on the formal nights. Those guys always take a few obligatory shots of her and her husband, Jason, before they say, "Uh, excuse me, sir, could you just step out of the shot, please." And then they snap away at just Erika, while she tosses her head and smiles gleamingly.)
In food news, I have the job of Room Mom for my daughter's 4th grade class. They are starting their last round of standardized testing this week. The school really drills it into the kids that proper rest and nutrition are essential for a good performance and I need to make phone calls to other parents for the purpose of rounding up healthful snacks for the teacher to distribute each morning before testing.
Many families in our town are living at poverty level and I feel all up in knots wondering who is appropriate to ask for a donation. I posted the question on Facebook: "Should I ask only folks for healthy ISTEP snacks who I know can and will say yes (which means mostly white and middle-class) or should I give lots of people a chance to contribute and worry that I'm asking too much of someone?" The people who responded wanted me to ask people of all demographics. That SEEMS like the right answer. However, it also SEEMS like it's right for the people who have more to give more. And it SEEMS wrong to ask people who have less to buy snacks for my children, you know? I liked the response of one of my high school friends, who said that when she finds herself in a similar situation, she remembers that she wouldn't want to be robbed of the privilege of speaking for herself, and that I should just go ahead and ask.
I just have to ask four people for four days worth of snacks. I guess I'll ask four people I don't know and hope for the best.
Tonight we had our second meal from the original Sunday dinner of roasted chicken, which always makes me feel so frugal and smart. The roasted chicken is a favorite at our house. In the roasting pan I lay a bed of celery and onions, which I also stuff in the cavity of the bird. I might sprinkle some salt and pepper or seasoned salt lightly over the top, which should be breast side up.
This method makes such a flavorful gravy and I always make plenty. I'll need some leftover for the second meal.
Now usually the second meal is chicken soup. I simmer the carcass of the chicken with whatever meat is left on the bone. At some point, the meat is all too willing to fall off the bone. And at some point soon after that, the carcass itself begins to fall apart, which is sort of a pain to sort through. (There's a scene which I like in The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeanette Walls. It's her story of growing up in desperate poverty and she makes a friend whose mother oftens lets her stay through mealtimes to ensure that she could sometimes go to bed with a full stomach. That mother tells Jeanette that she could stay for dinner if she would pick the chicken meat off the bone to help prepare the meal. "Do you know how to pick a chicken?" she asks. "Pick it CLEAN?" And she was shocked to see how expertly that hungry child found all the hidden morsels.) I put the stock in a cool place. The grease will rise as it rests and can be skimmed off.
If I'm making soup, I start by bringing the stock to a simmer again. My secret ingredient is the leftover gravy, which I whisk in at some early point. There's lots of flavor, and the thickener in the gravy gives the soup a bit of body that I find favorable. I toss in whatever veggies I desire (and have on hand) - always diced onion, carrots and celery... sometimes corn or peas. I also fling in a handful of rice and cook til tender. Nothing is better in January, particularly with fresh bread. Can you believe this almost makes me miss winter?
Anyway, after all that, it wasn't even soup that I made tonight. I thought my Little Leaguers needed a slightly heartier meal than soup to hold body and soul together through their evening activities, so I went with chicken and dumplings instead. It's my mom's recipe and I have an inkling that it was something she ate at home as a girl.
Mom's Chicken and Dumplings
Cook one whole chicken or parts so that you can have 7-8 c. of flavorful broth. (Mom's note: "I added 3-4 bouillion cubes after the broth was cooled and skimmed")
For dumplings: 2 c. flour, 4 t. baking powder, 1/2 t. salt, 1 T shortening, 1 c. milk.
Sift dry ingredients. Cut in shortening. Use fork to mix in milk. Drop dough by spoonful into boiling broth. Reduce to simmering. Cook 15 minutes in a tightly covered stock pot. Should feed 4-6 easily.
For me, this is what home tastes like. In fact, I was so busy liking it I forgot to take a picture of the finished product.
I'm re-reading a book this week which I originally read years ago, Miriam's Kitchen. It's a memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich, a basically non-observant Jew, inspired by her kosher mother-in-law to experiment with keeping her own kosher kitchen for one year.
Growing up in, and remaining in, the rural Anabaptist community as I have, my understanding of Jewish traditions is limited, to put it generously. Reading this book informs me that not only can the strictly observant Jew not eat meat and milk in the same meal, her food cannot be prepared in, served in, eaten off any of the same dishes. The author tells us that one of her grandmothers had SIX sets of dishes: meat, milk and neutral dishes for everyday, and meat, milk and neutral dishes for special days. One must not use the same sponge to clean up after milk as to clean up after meat. Once you've used the oven to prepare a meat dish, it is a meat oven. It must be specially cleansed to become neutral again and fit to bake your cake made with milk. Can you imagine?
Here's a quote from the book which spoke to me:
"I wondered what to teach my children. I wanted to build a floor under my children, something strong and solid.
"Then I remembered and unwrapped a bundle of family tales, many located in or near the kitchen. In these I found wisdom and innovation and the fading rituals and habits of an assimilating clan. I had been carrying that bundle all my life.
"What made me value my inheritance as treasure, not burden? The luck that has placed me, as an adult, in range of Miriam's kitchen. My mother-in-law Miriam, born in a small village in Jewish Poland, survived the Holocaust. A keeper of rituals and recipes, and of stories, she cooks to recreate a lost world, and to prove that unimaginable loss is not the end of everything. She is motivated by duty to ancestors and descendants, by memory and obligation and an impossible wish to make the world whole."
To me, the logistics of keeping a kosher kitchen seem foreign. But the reasons for thinking the effort is worth it do not.
My final review from our recent trip down south is for the riverside eatery, Dockside. Located on that charming River Street, it was the first of several riverside restaurants we happened upon. Since we still needed to scope out the rest of the street, we thought we'd just take note of its menu and choose between the dozen or so cafes after we'd seen the sum total.
Dockside had the lunch menu that ultimately drew us back. It had lots of sandwiches and seafood and even if one sat inside one could still enjoy the warm spring day, with the four sets of louvered doors wide open in the sunshine.
All I want to talk about is this dish:
When the server took our order, I said I'd start with an appetizer - shrimp and grits. A slow grin came over her face and she told me I wouldn't be sorry. Now that is what you want to hear when you place an order.
Oh, it was So Good.
The texture of the grits reminded me of fried mush. It was cut into a square and the outside had a crispy coating. Several good-sized shrimp topped it and a ham gravy was poured over all. That ham gravy made the whole thing. Now, I've never even heard of ham gravy, but you had better believe I will attempt to recreate it at home. I've already purchased my ham soup base with which to experiment.
I'll let you know how it goes.
P.S. I found Savannah absolutely charming. If you go, please go in April. I've never seen such azaleas!
We spent eight hours in Savannah about ten years ago. All I remember about it, besides Mercer House (of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame), was River Street. It was originally just a bunch of warehouses butting up against the river, waiting for freighters to come into port. Now it is shops and restaurants on a beautiful old cobblestone street.
I listen to a certain podcast and the Louisiana natives who host it were sent some pralines by listeners. They were clear to explain that most people mispronounce the word as pray-leans. In fact, as any southerner knows, it is prah-leans. How embarrassing, I thought. I've mispronounced it all my life! (You know, the three times in my life I've used the word.) We walked into the River Street Sweet Shop and the fellow making the candy offered us free samples of, get this, pray-leans.
"Pray-leans?" I asked. "I was told that true southerners pronounce it prah-leans."
"Southerners? No!" he scoffed. "Maybe in New Orleans."
Made from butter, sugar, heavy cream and local Georgia pecans, they are sooo good.
My daughter, Sophia, is a bonafide Foodie. She spends her money on cookbooks, asks to try new recipes and watches Food Network in her spare time. The first Food Network personality to hook her was Ms. Paula Deen, expert southern cook, lover of butter, and a Georgia native.
Her restaurant, The Lady and Sons, is on Congress St. in downtown Savannah, and we told Soph we'd give it a try. Now, friends, the word-of-mouth isn't good. I'd heard that the food was prepared without much care and that it was overpriced. But we wanted to give Miss Paula a fair shake so we checked out her website to see what hoops we'd have to jump through to get a table.
It turns out that they don't take traditional reservations. Instead, they open their hostess podium at 9:30 AM and arrange reservations for that day only. The Chupps rolled in at five past ten and were hoping for a lunch seating. Well, the line stretched to the end of the block. Mike drove around town with the kids while I waited in line. It moved quickly, but by the time I got to the hostess station, the earliest a party of five could be seated was at 8:30 PM.
When we got to the restaurant that night we had to wait in another line to check in. The hostess directed us to the Paula Deen Store next door, where she would collect us when our table was ready. It was full of the trappings one would expect at such a place: Paula Deen cookbooks and utensils, Paula Deen brand condiments and pre-packaged food, also t-shirts and aprons with sassy sayings for middle-aged, chubby home cooks to wear. We were seated on time, if not a bit early. We took an elevator to the second floor and walked past a fairly modest buffet to our table. The buffet was nearly $18 for an adult and it looked to be the cheapest thing on the menu, so that's what we all got.
We were each given a garlic biscuit and a hoe-cake to whet our appetite. I really liked the hoe-cake, eaten with syrup as suggested by our server. The buffet included fried chicken, ribs, pineapple dressing, sweet potato casserole, yams, collard greens, mashed potatoes, lima beans and green beans. There was a salad bar, but no dessert bar. Our server proudly told us that dessert came with the buffet and she brought out a tray of the choices: peach cobbler, banana puddin' and a butter cake. Between the five of us, we got to sample all three. Meh. They were OK. And the portions were small.
I was glad for the chance to try collard greens, since I never had. The mashed potatoes were good. I bet they had cream cheese in them. Everyone agreed that my fried chicken is better. But absolutely no one at our table at $18 worth of food. We weren't even tempted to eat $18 worth, because it was exactly the same meal as the truck stop in South Carolina. The one named "Restaurant." Now I'm not saying that Paula's not a good cook. Maybe she is and maybe she isn't. But I AM saying that it bums me out that that since everyone believes she's a great cook, she has let herself off the hook. Instead of making sure people get great food that keep them coming back, she makes sure you have to go through the gift shop to get seated. That is cheek, ladies and gentlemen.
I guess no one would call this review scathing or anything, but I feel a little sad posting it. I really wanted it to be better. I thought the Deen family would care more. And since they don't, it feels like I can't be friends with them.
Besides, shouldn't it have been WORTH this enthusiasm?
From the brochure on local restaurants we found The Crab Shack on nearby Tybee Island. Twenty years ago, it was the site of only a boat hoist and a bar where local fishermen came to drink and lie. Today it is equal parts tourist trap (Alligator Pond! "Gift Shack!" Feed the alligators Alligator Treats available for purchase in the Gift Shack!) and low country casual eatery.
Regardless of how successful it's gotten in the last two decades, I love that the owners didn't decide to look for greener, posher grasses. When we turned off the main highway to go to our destination, we were turning toward a couple of single-wide trailers backed up to the marshland. The real estate improved only slightly in the half mile between the highway and The Crab Shack.
The modest surroundings appeared to deter no one. We fought our way through the crowds to the hostess station ("Hostess Shack!")and were told that our party could be seated in 45 minutes. There was plenty to do during our wait. We watched the gators snooze for awhile and toured the Gift Shack. We also we able to go out over the beach on a raised pier to check out the sand crabs all over the shore and even spied a couple of rays in the shallow waters of the Savannah River.
It all caused our wait to go quickly. We were seated outside at a table made of plywood, with an 18-inch hole cut into the center so that we could toss our shells into the trashcan beneath. The plywood tables, plus the plank floors, the light fixtures made of bushel baskets and the heavy population of CATS prowling the property (including the outdoor dining room) made me feel like the would-be mistress of some legal hero in a Grisham novel. We've stolen away to this dive because it's in the next town over and no one will recognize... Oh! Excuse me! I lost my head for a moment.
Sophia and I ordered the shrimp boil, with some crab added to mine. Michael ordered the scallops. Brooks is allergic to shellfish and thinks death is sure if he comes within 12 feet of a lobster claw. We roll our eyes and ask for more clarified butter. He got a barbequed chicken sandwich with the sauce on the side, having decided that he doesn't like barbeque sauce. Ava got the kids' pizza. *sigh* I hate kids' menus.
Brooks' plan for a chicken sandwich sans spicy went adrift, however, when he mistook a bottle of cocktail sauce on the table for ketchup. After the initial moment of alarm, he recovered and enjoyed the combination of flavors. Mike liked his scallops well enough, but he thinks there can be no such thing as a poorly prepared scallop... they are such a rare treat for him.
Sophia and I both enjoyed our shrimp, time-consuming entree though they are. The challenge is to get them peeled and consumed before they get cold and less appetizing. Michael, having finished his dinner two sweet teas prior, helped Soph peel the last five or six shrimp so that she could concentrate her efforts on mastication. Now, is there another way to eat shrimp boil? Because it seems all the Old Bay is actually all over the shell, which then gets peeled off and tossed into the plywood abyss. Did we do something wrong? Is there a way to get the seasoning into our actual mouths?
This meal was a success, not just as a meal, but as our evening's entertainment. I am loving Savannah! More to come.
It's Day Four of the Chupp Family Southern Tour. The first three days included hellos and goodbyes with long-lost friends, eggs to color and hunt, and an Easter service at a genuine Southern Baptist church, where the phrases "God's wheel" and "He's alahve" were heard. Now, I'm sorry to report that those phrases were heard from a velvet seat in the narthex, between sips of a coke chivalrously purchased for me by the head usher, because I got the 12-hour flu (and got it hard) in the middle of Sunday School.
I'm certain I will post more about the culinary aspects of those first few days, but Days One through Three were also completely tech-free, so I couldn't blog about them immediately. Today, we kissed our friends goodbye squarely on the jaw and headed for our second destination: Savannah, GA. I insisted that we not use an interstate between the towns, making it a four-hour drive instead of a three, but it was well worth it. We had a lovely trip full of wisteria, Spanish moss, plantations, tumble-down shacks, precious country churches and one puzzling school board election sign for Timbo Williams, who chose a behorned cartoon devil as his campaign mascot. Whabba wha?
To add to our day of local color, our goal was to have lunch at a place unlike any eatery at home. Since we were going through only small towns, our choice was made for us using some complicated math formula involving the unappealing look of a few places, the approximate distance to the next town and our escalating hunger. The role of the skeptical and unappreciative teenager was played to his fullest by Brooks, who thought that any place of business with a name like "Restaurant" would surely not have the intelligence or creativity to be trusted with food stuffs.
Michael, on the other hand, counted the number of pick-up trucks in the parking lot and thought that they were a sure indicator of lots of meat and few vegetables. That sounded good to him. The assumption by our waitress (who called me "hon") was that we would all have the buffet, and, sure enough, it was loaded with fried chicken, fried pork chops, sausage with potatoes and the like. One regular walked in and joked with the owner that he was ready to start working on his heart attack, as he picked up his plate for his first go-through at the buffet line. There was the obligatory salad bar and for dessert, peach cobbler and banana pudding. We washed it all down with sweet tea.
I thought this was going to be a short post, but I guess it hasn't been. The writing was all the more tedious as it was done at 1:00 AM under the covers in the hotel room, with Michael taking his half of the bed from the middle, and our son talking in his sleep across the room... something like "Mwaaahma hama MY HANDS!"