Fast Food

Prepared and fast foods have given us the time and freedom to see cooking as an art form - a form of creative expression.
- Jeff Smith

My, how meals have changed around here. The closer I got to the end of my pregnancy, the less I cooked - and now, with an 8-week old....I'm just now beginning to find myself in the kitchen for reasons more than grabbing a bottle of water or the pint of ice cream.

The only thing that has changed more than the types of food we're consuming is how we're consuming it. Dinners for us used to be extended affairs, full of conversation and multiple courses...leisurely taken in and enjoyed. These days we're lucky if we both sit down to eat at the same time, and I can't even count the number of hot meals we've had lately. There is something internal that babies must possess that allows them to sleep deeply right until you are ready to sit down to a meal.

I've tried to limit the amount of takeout and work on preparing meals in advance, taking advantage of naptimes to throw something in the slow cooker or using a brief 15 minute period of peace to get everything chopped/sliced/peeled/set out on the counter in the order it will be needed...but even so, it usually takes me about an hour and a half to make the easiest of dishes - and the results haven't been photo friendly.

I'm hoping to eventually find my balance between the changing table and the dinner table...but until I do, we can look forward to more stir fry, pasta, and other one-dish wonders.


Thank You For Being a Friend

Because you don't live near a bakery doesn't mean you have to go without cheesecake.
- Hedy Lamarr

I have a confession: I love The Golden Girls. I still watch reruns in syndication, even though I've seen every episode numerous times. My husband makes fun of me, but it's just one of those things I can't quit.

Now that Bea Arthur has passed away, leaving only two members of that revered foursome, I'm inclined to curl up on the couch with a cheesecake and a marathon. Specifically, this cheesecake - the easiest, creamiest, most delicious cheesecake I've ever made. The filling is reminiscent of light chocolate mousse, and the crust of chocolate chip cookies is chewy and decadent.

Oddly enough, Bea Arthur hated cheesecake, even though her character on the show loved it. In a way, I guess that makes this tribute less touching - but since my love for her stems from the sharp sarcasm of Dorothy Zbornak, it's my way of honoring her.

Chocolate Chip Cheesecake
1 pkg. (16.5 oz.) NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® Refrigerated Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
2 pkgs. (8 oz. each) cream cheese, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
4 packets (1 oz. each) NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® CHOCO BAKE® Pre-Melted Unsweetened Chocolate Flavor
2 containers (8 oz. each) frozen whipped topping, thawed
1/2 cup NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels, melted

- Preheat oven to 375º F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan.

- Slice dough into 16 pieces. Cover bottom of prepared pan with pieces. Allow to soften for 5 to 10 minutes. Using fingertips, pat dough gently to cover bottom.

- Bake for 15 to 17 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool completely in pan on wire rack.

- Combine cream cheese, sugar and choco bake in a large mixing bowl until well blended. Add whipped topping; stir until just blended. Spoon over cookie crust; smooth top. Drizzle with melted chocolate. Cover; refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours or overnight. Remove sides of pan.


Brownie Points

If you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you. But you have no chocolate! I think of that again and again! My dear, how will you ever manage?
- Marquise de Sévigné

Before I got pregnant, I was never much of a sweets eater. My tendency to eat sugary snacks didn't extend much further than fruit, popsicles, the occasional milkshake. I rarely eat my own birthday cake, and at my wedding, the only cake that passed my lips was a result of the obligatory shot of my husband and I feeding it to each other.

However, dessert has been a routine for me since I've been pregnant, and my cravings for sweet things overcomes me at times. I've tried to keep it in check, but the desire for donuts, ice cream, cookies, cupcakes, and candy bars has become much stronger than my willpower. These days, the casual question "You know what sounds good?" is immediately followed by my announcement of whatever craving has popped up, combined with an impatient frustration that it's not right in front of me yet, why am I not eating it yet, where is it?

When I got hit with the need for brownies, mixed with a strong urge for a cupcake, I decided to take matters into my own hands and combine the two. I used a mini-muffin tin to make bite-sized brownie "cupcakes" - and they were amazing. I didn't put any frosting on them, in an effort to keep the sugar intake a bit lower, but these didn't need frosting anyway - they were rich and decadent, chewy and soft with just a bit of a crispy edge.

Brownie Bites

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, melted
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup HERSHEY'S Cocoa
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

- Heat oven to 350°F. Grease muffin tin (or preferred pan).

- Stir together butter, sugar and vanilla in bowl. Add eggs; beat well with spoon. Stir together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt; gradually add to egg mixture, beating until well blended. Stir in nuts, if desired. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan.

- Bake until brownies begin to pull away from sides of pan and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. (Cooking times will vary depending on size pan used) Cool completely in pan on wire rack.


An Apple a Day

Did perpetual happiness in the Garden of Eden maybe get so boring that eating the apple was justified?
- Chuck Palahniuk

I found this recipe for an apple cheese crisp, and even though it was listed as a dessert recipe, I decided to make it for breakfast instead. The verdict? Eh. It would be better if it were baked (this recipe called for microwave preparation, which I didn't realize at the time) but I don't know that I liked it enough to try it again differently. I will say the flavors were good, and the apples were tender. The topping wasn't nearly crunchy enough, but the filling was creamy and sweet. At any rate, it wasn't a bad way to spend a drab Saturday morning.

Apple Cheese Crisp

6 cups sliced peeled apples
1/3 cup sugar
2 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt

4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. milk

3/4 cup quick-cooking oats
2/3 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
5 tbsp. butter

- In a 2 qt. microwave-safe dish, toss the first six ingredients. Microwave uncovered for 8 minutes, stirring once halfway through.
- In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar, then add egg, flour & milk, mix well and spread evenly over apples.
- In another bowl, combine oats, flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Add butter and mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over filling and microwave, uncovered, for 6 minutes or until apples are tender.


Such a Goober

No man in the world has more courage than the man who can stop after eating one peanut.
- Channing Pollock

When I was little, we'd take annual family vacations to the beach - usually Southern Florida, where my dad had family. This meant long drives through desolate highways in Georgia, past numerous produce stands with hand-painted signs hawking fresh peaches, ripe tomatoes, and hot boiled peanuts.

My dad got me hooked on boiled peanuts at a very early age. They are an aquired taste, and from what I've learned, you either love them or hate them. Loving peanuts is not even a requirement, as they taste more like salty beans. Peanut boils date back to the early 19th century, when they were done as a social gathering. They were also known then as "goober peas", as it was typically the unsold and surplus peanuts that were used for boiling.

A few weeks ago, I was craving peanuts (these pregnancy cravings know no bounds) and so my husband went to the store to grab a bag. He came home with a sheepish look on his face, and timidly held out a bag of unsalted peanuts with the apology that it was the only thing the store had in stock. While my reaction at the time was a bit dramatic (think tears and a weak attempt to reassure him it was fiiiiiine, I can SO totally eat these - followed by a vehement refusal to do so once I tried one), I decided to stop staring at them in our pantry and do something with them.

I soaked the peanuts overnight in a Dutch oven, then drained and rinsed them the following morning. I then added fresh water to the pan (enough to cover them), 1/2 cup of salt and a tablespoon or so of Cajun seasoning, and brought them to a boil. Once they began boiling, I reduced the heat to medium low and let them simmer for about 6 hours. We ended up with tender peanuts, salty and spicy - the perfect solution to a near disaster.


Kiss My Grits

True grits, more grits, fish, grits, and collards. Life is good where grits are swallered.
- Roy Blount, Jr.

As someone who grew up in the South, eating Southern food and learning to cook from a very Southern grandmother, I am very familiar with grits and am accustomed to having them served many different ways. When I began sharing meals on a regular basis with my husband, it alarmed me that he had rarely eaten grits - and more so, didn't enjoy them at all. I can certainly relate to that, as grits can be incredibly dull and bland. However, given the proper care and attention, they can certainly add to and enhance a meal.

Three years after that conversation, shrimp & grits is one of my husband's favorite meals. I guess it's the combination of crispy bacon, cheesy grits and spicy shrimp - a medley far too good to resist. The key is cooking the bacon until extra crisp, then sauteeing mushrooms, shrimp and garlic in the pan drippings, along with cajun seasoning and a dash of tobasco. Grits swirled with butter and shredded white cheddar serve as the creamy foundation to plump shrimp, tender mushrooms, and smoky bacon pieces. I usually finish this dish with chopped green onions but didn't have any on hand this time around. Nonetheless, this is a simple and comforting meal that shows grits as much more than an accompaniment to a traditional Southern breakfast.


Gone Bananas

The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.

- M. F. K. Fisher

I buy bananas for the sole purpose of making banana bread. We usually both eat one banana out of a bunch, and then they sit on the counter waiting for their time. I think banana bread is just a way for the banana to extend its usefulness to society, and I respect that.

This recipe is adapted from The Joy of Cooking - the best part is the addition of peanut butter. I love peanut butter and banana sandwiches, so it seemed a natural fit to me. It creates a very tender cake, with a hint of salty peanut taste to counteract the sweetness.

Peanut Butter Banana Bread

2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon-sugar blend
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 egg
1 cup brown sugar
3-4 ripe bananas
1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter
5 tbsp. vegetable oil

- Preheat oven to 375. In a large bowl, combine the first 6 ingredients.

- In a separate bowl, combine the last 5 ingredients, ensuring bananas are mashed well.

- Add wet mixture to dry mixture and mix well, until just moistened. Pour into greased muffin cups or loaf pan (I use mini loaf pans) and bake until a toothpick inserted into the bread comes out clean, about 18-22 minutes (this will depend on whether you're using muffin tin or loaf pan).

* On another note, I'm heading to Mississippi today to attend a funeral - and while it's a sad occasion, I have a touch of guilty excitement at seeing my grandmother and enjoying some true Southern cooking.


Queso Ra, Sera

The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.

~G.K. Chesterton

It has taken me many years to come to grips with the following fact: I am not laid back.

I am particular about things that don't matter, I worry about circumstances that will never come to pass, I get worked up easily. Luckily, I found in my husband a man that finds this endearing instead of infuriating. When he witnesses me making a conscious effort to let things slide, and failing miserably, he rolls his eyes knowingly.

Preparing to welcome a child into our lives is proving to be a test for me. I'm constantly thinking about the future, wondering about how things will be, all the while knowing that I have zero control. Fortunately, I have the kitchen - my haven when I get overwhelmed and need to relax. When I'm experimenting with a new ingredient, trying a new recipe, or creating one of my favorite dishes, I'm serene...I disregard the stress and welcome the calm.

I found this recipe for chile con queso from Culinary Adventures of a New Housewife and had to try it. Queso is one of my favorite snacks, and after spending a sunny day nervously watching my husband perch atop a ladder to clean our gutters, I needed comfort. The result is a lighter version of queso, tangy from lime and beer, with a kick of spice thanks to chili powder. We settled in to watch the Super Bowl, and as I curled up under my favorite quilt with this snack in hand, I let go.

Chile con Queso

2 tsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup light colored beer
1 1/2 cups milk, divided
3 tbsp cornstarch
1 3/4 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
1 10 oz can Rotel (drained)
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp salt
1 tsp chili powder
cayenne pepper to taste
1/4 cup scallions
2 tbsp fresh cilantro

- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion & garlic, and saute until beginning to soften and brown. Add beer and cook until reduced slightly, about 1 minute. Add 1 cup milk and bring to a simmer.

- Whisk the remaining 1/2 cup milk and cornstarch in a small bowl. Add to the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until bubbling and thick, about 1-2 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add cheese and cook, stirring until melted. Add tomatoes, lime juice, salt, chili powder and cayenne (if using). Serve warm, garnished with cilantro & scallions.


Food Fight

Food Throwers: Begun usually by estranged couples, once this victual flinging starts, everyone will do it...

- J.P. Donleavy

Fighting in relationships is normal.* Conflict will occur; things will be said that are hurtful and painful. In the heat of a passionate argument, it’s hard to step back and detach ourselves from the situation long enough to think about what we’re saying before the words come out. Once words have been released, they can’t be taken back. Only once we’ve calmed down and relaxed can we understand the true impact of our words.

When it comes time to say we’re sorry, how do we determine where to start? In most situations, both parties will alternately feel regret and defiance that they were right – leading to the awkward moments before one person steps up to begin to make amends.

Imagine a situation where in an argument, we hurl food instead of insults. How much more willing would we be to stop and think first? It’s easy to toss degrading comments…but how easy would it be to toss food in someone’s face?

Food fights, just like verbal arguments, end in a messy pile. They require cleanup afterwards – be it physical or emotional. It’s necessary to pick up the pieces…throwing away the things that aren’t salvageable and accepting the notion that our energies and contents have been emptied and wasted.

Apologizing can happen over a meal more enjoyably than without. Food allows us to bond over what we enjoy, while bringing a sort of solace to an unpleasant and uncomfortable situation. It broadens our senses and our abilities to relax and react more favorably. Next time you find yourself in the wrong, mend the fences with a meal.

*This is not inspiration from a fight, oddly enough...despite my hormones, I'm surprisingly mellow these days.

(Photo courtsey of www.gigglepoetry.com)


National Popcorn Day

Of course life is bizarre, the more bizarre it gets, the more interesting it is. The only way to approach it is to make yourself some popcorn and enjoy the show.

- Unknown
Today is National Popcorn Day. For me, that requires celebration. Popcorn is by far my favorite snack - I could eat it daily and never tire of it. Over the years, I've tried every variety I can get my hands on - and I have finally narrowed my favorites down to the following:

Pop Secret Homestyle is my pick for a basic microwave variety - it has the flavor of real butter, not that fake orange stuff most brands have. It's lightly salted, and each bag pops perfectly, without burned pieces or extra kernels at the bottom.

When I'm in the mood for something sweet, I go for Moose Head Kettle Corn - slightly sweet, slightly salty, airy and crunchy - this stuff is addictive.

White cheddar popcorn is probably my favorite flavor - I buy Cousin Willie's microwave variety, and Smartfood air-popped for road trips and on the go snacking. My husband complains they both smell like feet, but it doesn't deter me one bit.

When I want to make popcorn the "real" way, popped on the stove, I use the Whirley Pop that my sister-in-law bought me for Christmas a few years ago, combined with Orville Redenbacher's Popping & Topping Oil.

It's no wonder popcorn gets its own National Day.


Comfortably Numb

Food is the most primitive form of comfort.
- Sheilah Graham

Rainy days require a special sort of planning and essentials to make it through. For me, it takes an amount of willpower and strength (and repeated “You are going to make us late, GET UP”-type comments) before I can even put one foot on the floor. The temptation to pull the covers over my head, sleep til noon, then spend a day on the couch with my grandmother’s quilt, watching crappy tv and eating equally crappy foods (think: potato soup followed by chips and queso followed by cupcakes followed by French fries) is far too strong.

But let’s say you do get out of bed. That leads to the shower that isn’t long enough, the tea that isn’t strong enough, and the clothes that aren’t comfy enough. Figuring out what to wear on a rainy blah day is tough. The pants can’t be too long or they’ll stay damp all day. The shoes have to be safe so you don’t slip and fall (and trust me on this, I don’t own any of said shoes). When all you want to do is curl up in a ball, comfort is key.

Comfort is also key when it comes to rainy day cuisine. I have found, after years of living in Nashville, the most exceptional collection of comfort foods that are best suited to gloomy days…be it due to weather, breakups, mood swings, or any combination of the three.

First we have Amerigo's, and the smoked chicken ravioli. It’s served with a cream sauce that has the perfect balance of depth and lightness, with tomatoes and scallions, accompanied by a flash fried artichoke.

Along that same vein, I urge that Demos' Steak & Spaghetti House is next on the list. They have two stuffed potatoes, one with seafood in a Newburg Sauce and diced tomatoes, onions, peppers, and mushrooms, and one with blackened chicken and a spicy Cajun cream sauce. Both are served with soup or salad, and are just the right amount.

On the days where it’s rainy, yet warm, I prefer a Fried Green Tomato BLT from
Jackson’s. They have a covered patio, perfect for protection from the rain and people watching. A glass of fruit tea or wine, and I forget whatever foul mood I’m in. Another great rainy day sandwich is found at The Yellow Porch, an intimate setting with exceptional food. I have never been there where I ordered anything other than the White Cheddar and Tomato Panini.

My husband wants nothing more on a rainy day than to go to
Noshville and have Matzah ball soup. Regardless of the time of day, I’m hard pressed to steer from the French toast when we go there. It’s perfectly cooked and exactly what I search for in comfort food…warmth, texture, and above all else, filling.

On days where I don't want to get out of the house, I rely on beef stroganoff to get me through...this is one of my all-time favorite dishes and there's nothing better than tender beef and creamy tangy sauce to soothe what ails me.

Beef Stroganoff

Beef filets, cut into cubes
Fresh sliced mushrooms (optional)
Butter or margarine
½ small onion, finely chopped
1 cup of beef broth, or 1 beef bullion cube
1 16 oz container Sour Cream
Rice or egg noodles for serving

Salt & pepper to taste

Heat 2 tbsps. Butter or margarine in medium saucepan until melted but not brown. Add onion and sauté until tender and transparent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, mushrooms, and cubed steak, and cook until mushrooms are tender and beef is browned throughout (about 5-7 minutes). Remove onion, garlic, and beef from the pan, reserving the liquid.

Add a tbsp of flour at a time to the liquid, until mixture becomes thick. Slowly add hot beef broth, a bit at a time, until fully absorbed. Once it has become slightly thick and creamy, add a dash or two of Worcestershire to the pan.

Return the cooked beef and onions to the pan, stirring into the sauce, until fully mixed. Add the sour cream and serve over cooked rice or egg noodles. Top with green onions if desired.


Resolutions & Revelations

There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.
- Mark Twain

This is the time of year when diets are all the rage…when everywhere I go, everywhere I turn, I listen to friends, family, old coworkers, and strangers discussing their resolution to eat better. If I took the time to write it all down, only to go back to those same people 2 months from now, the number of people who fell off the diet wagon would surely be astonishing.

I’m not a believer in diets…nor am I a believer in resolutions. Maybe it’s because I know I can’t stick to them, and I refuse to believe in something that for me simply doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s because I’m too stubborn to deny myself the foods I want when I want them. Maybe it’s because so far, I’ve been fairly blessed in my ability to simply cut back, as opposed to cutting off. Chances are it’s a combination of the three. Regardless, I don’t do it.

It dawns on me every so often that I’ve taken things above and beyond…that I’ve eaten lunch out every day in a week, that I haven’t been to the grocery store in two weeks to buy fresh produce, that my dinner last night consisted of cashews and wine. When that happens, I turn it back a notch. I get a grip, put things in perspective, and slow down. It seems like an unhealthy cycle, but I appease myself by saying that it’s no crash diet, no harsh criticism, and no worries.
As I get older, I realize it won’t always be this easy. My metabolism is slowing, and the pounds will get more stubborn with age. I balance that with the knowledge that as I get older, I’ll get smarter. I’ll take notice of the increasing frequency of heartburn and sour bellies that I induce on myself by eating poorly….I’ll speak to myself with a voice louder and more insistent than the one I use now.

The fact that I'm rapidly gaining weight due to this ever-growing baby makes the food fight within me all the more frustrating. Every bit of food that passes my lips is met with guilt - less so when I'm following a nutrient-rich regimen for the benefit of the baby, more so when I'm indulging the new sweet tooth I've acquired since I became pregnant. It's easy to worry about how I'll take the weight off, and easy to get upset with myself for putting on too much weight as a result of poor willpower.

But for the time being, I’ll enjoy it. And if that means sitting down to this cheesecake inspired by one of my favorite desserts, Nutty Buddy ice cream cones, so be it.

Nutty Buddy Cheesecake Pie

12 sugar cones, crushed
1 stick butter, softened
1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
1 package Cool Whip
¼ cup sugar
½ cup chopped peanus
½ cup melted chocolate

- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Combine crushed sugar cones and butter until just moistened and fully mixed. Spread mixture in bottom of greased springform pan and bake 5-7 minutes, or until crust is browned.
- Meanwhile, beat cream cheese, Cool Whip, and sugar in medium bowl until light and fluffy.
- Once crust has completely cooled, spread cream cheese mixture on top of crust. Drizzle with melted chocolate and chopped peanuts and freeze until firm (25 minutes).