Saturday, October 30, 2010

Step One -- Of A Million -- Of Choosing A College

Fifteen-year-old Son is two years, 10 months away from beginning college, which means two things.  One, I’m certain that he needs to begin –- posthaste – buckling down in school, getting his name on college mailing lists, listing and ranking the college attributes he finds most appealing and appropriate to his skill sets, and then, one million other things.  Two, Son is equally certain that two years, 10 months is 34 months, which is a long, long time away, and oh by the way, he needs new guitar strings.  Can we go get some tomorrow?

Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy asks Scarecrow, “What would you do with a brain if you had one”?  Well, some 30 years ago, when I told my own parents I wanted to go to college, their reaction, although not verbatim, was along the same lines:  “What would you do with a degree if you had one?”

It was a different time.  Not everyone was expected to go to college.  And, colleges weren’t so discerning in their admissions decisions.  As a good-not-extraordinary student with good-not-outstanding grades and good-not-scorching SAT scores, I knew I'd have no problem getting into college.  My family just had to figure out how to swing it.  Even then, though, I wouldn’t be making a “choice.”   I’d attend the school that offered scholarship money – the University of South Carolina.

I got to go to a football game at my beloved alma mater this weekend.  And lucky me, Son agreed to go, too.  It was typical Gamecock football: tailgating of Thanksgiving proportions, unreasonably raucous fans, head-scratching calls, inexplicably sloppy play, skin-searing heat, unbridled fan faith, at least nine iterations of Sandstorm, and, despite being 17-point favorites, my beloved Gamecocks in their usual position behind the eight ball.  The only atypical part of the game was that we (the royal “we”) ended up pulling off a decisive victory over the underdog, orange-clad Tennessee Volunteers.  (Go Carolina, go Carolina!)

I enjoyed every minute of it.

Apparently, so did Son.  After the game, we continued tailgating with new, as well as tried and true, friends.  Finally, after feasting on far too much seared lamb, and baked ziti and sausage bread and spicy chilled shrimp, the two of us climbed into the Pilot to head for home.

It had been a long day, and I fully expected Son to be studying the inside of his eyelids before we hit the interstate.  But then, unexpectedly, he said, "This was fun.  And I don't know where I want to go to college, but I do know I want to go to a school with football."

OK.  On the list of one million things, perhaps not where I would've started, but OK.

Thirty-four months and nine-hundred, ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred, ninety-nine things to go.

Cheddar Chive Biscuits
I'd love to share the recipe for the Lamb in Pita we had this afternoon, but I don't have the recipe.  What I do have is a recipe for flavorful Cheddar Chive Biscuits -- which I should've taken to the tailgate!

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
6 tablespoons shortening, chilled and cut into cubes
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1/4 - 1/2 cup minced chives
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425.  Stir together dry ingredients.  Cut in shortening (using fork or pastry cutter), until mealy.  With a fork, stir in cheese and chives.  Quickly blend in 3/4 cup of buttermilk.  Dough should be soft and slightly sticy.  If not, stir in remaining 1/4 cup buttermilk.  Scrape dough onto well-floured board or counter.  Using floured hands, gently pat out dough, folding it over itself several times.  (Do not knead.)  Pat dough out to 3/4 inch thickness.  Cut out biscuits, placing on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake until very lightly golden -- about 10-12 minutes.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. And A Cone Of Safety.

Darling Daughter is attending an 80s-themed birthday party this weekend.

The 80s?  Say whaaaatttttt?  OMG.  I suddenly have an ice-cream-headache-like stab in my brain.  OH-EMM-GEE!  I'm flashing back to lazy Sunday afternoons in the 1970s, listening to Charleston’s WTMA (“The Mighty TMA”) radio playing the “Golden Oldies” – which, of course, meant sock-hop music from the 50s.  “At The Hop,” “Chantilly Lace” and “The Twist” come to mind.

See where I'm going?  The 80s are Darling Daughter’s “Golden Oldies!” 

I try not to swallow my own tongue.  Unflinchingly, DD serves up another cerebral popsicle, “What did they wear back then?” she asked.  (Wait for it, ‘cause it gets worse.) “Was it like in the movie Grease?”

Grease?  Really?  “Let’s Google it,” I delicately suggest.  So we checked out Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  And Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.  And then, Cyndi Lauper’s classic, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Everyone loves that song, right?  Everyone, of course, except, DD, who proclaimed, “She’s just plain weird.”

Whatever.  Here’s what I think:  Girls do wanna have fun.  But it’s not what some people think.

Last week, I got to have a GNO (Girls Night Out) with a few old friends, a few new friends and some friends I’d never met.

Oh what a night.  But again, not what some people might think.  There's a belief, I think, that when women get together, all we talk about is our husbands, or the secret reason we're single, or the crushes we had on other girls in high school, or the craziest place we’d ever “done it,” or the time ...  C'mon!  Really? 

Let me let you in a on a little secret.  When a bunch of girls/women get together, it’s not because we’re auditioning for “Your Mom’s Gone Wild,” or because we’re telling the real story behind the divorce or because we’re looking for lapdances, lingerie or a magnum of Pinot Noir.  OK.  Just kidding about the Pinot.  Everyone knows that a little wine – or sangria or margaritas – never hurt anybody.  Truly, when a bunch of us get together, we mostly just want to laugh.  We want to share stories and feel safe and laugh.  Nothing tawdry about it.

Nevertheless, at Kathy’s last weekend, we agreed that we were all in the “cone of safety.”   On the Bob & Sheri Show here in Charlotte, the virtual "cone of safety" is invoked anytime the hosts or their guests wants to say something without fear of repercussion or judgment.   In other words, when we lowered the "cone," we all knew that what happened at Kathy’s, stayed at Kathy’s.

In that nest of safety, well-feathered by Pinot – or whatever dark red liquid was in those bottomless glasses – we told plenty of stories.  Laughed and laughed and laughed.  But as it turns out, there was no real need for a “cone of safety.”  Nothing shocking or horrifying or mildly embarrassing was revealed.  We just had fun.  We laughed -- and giggled and guffawed.  We swore to do it again.  We even exchanged a few recipes.

Kinda.  On her kitchen table spread, Kathy had a fabulous chilled shrimp dish – saucy, spicy and bursting with flavors.  I couldn’t wait to try it at home.  Within days, I mixed up a batch.  Loved it.  Even bragged about it on Facebook.  But as it turns out, I kinda missed an ingredient.  OK, two.

So I guess what I’m writing about today is “Not Kathy’s Spicy Chilled Shrimp.”

But who knows?  I got the recipe while in the cone of safety.  Maybe some things – like a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil and a sliced onion – get to stay there.  Along with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.  Without judgment or repercussions.

Not Kathy’s Spicy Chilled Shrimp

2 pounds shrimp, poached with ½ lemon, 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 bay leaf until barely done, drained

1 cup ketchup
5 ½ ounce jar of Zataraine’s Creole Mustard
5 ½ ounce jar of Zataraine’s Prepared Horseradish
juice of half a lemon

Drain shrimp, discarding lemon and bay leaf.  Combine with remaining ingredients in a resealable plastic bag.  Chill overnight.  Serve with crackers or over salad.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Frig, Frick, Love, Hate and Zucchini Bread.

When I was a kid, two words were off-limits.

It's not what you think.  Of course, all "curse" words were forbidden -- including words that pretended to be curse words, including "dang," "frig," "frick," "H-E-double-toothpicks," and anything that rhymed with "duck."  Curse-word substitutes weren't the only forbidden words.  We kids weren't allowed to say, "yeah."  Mom insisted we say either "yes," or "yes ma'am."  Or really, just "yes ma'am."  "Shut up" was also out of the question, which forced me to invent all kinds of stories where the evil queen declared, "Shut up the dungeon, men!"  If I was able to work a beaver "dam" into the story, all the better.

Today, though, the two words I'm referring to are "hate" and "love."

Sure, I was allowed -- expected -- to tell my parents and relatives I loved them.  I could also love God.  And my black cat, Smokey Joe, who, being born on Friday the 13th, surely warranted some extra affection.   I think what Mom was trying to head off was the tendency of young girls to "love" absolutely anything.  Or really, absolutely "everything."

You know.  "I love the smell of Hawaiian Tropic."   "I love blue eyeshadow."   "I love the black light section at Spencer's."  "I love that 18-year-old boy with the white Camaro."  But I digress.

And "hate"?  Well, I was allowed to say I hated ... nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.  I wasn't supposed to "hate" anything. Mom warned against overstatement.  How could the word "love" apply equally to your feelings for your parents and your feelings for the new Almay, no-sharpener-required, midnight blue eyeliner?  Did my feelings for the buffet pizza at Pizza Inn really equal my feelings for Hitler, Satan and world hunger?

Besides, Mom reasoned, what if your feelings change?  Do you really want to paint yourself into a corner of "love"?  Or, for that matter, "hate"?

Although I've never called my kids down for over-using "love" and "hate," I can't help but cringe when 15-year-old Son claims to "hate" stickshift cars.  Or when 13-year-old Darling Daughter declares her "love" for watermelon-flavored, Jolly Rancher gummies.  The word that really gets me, though -- the word that makes the skin crawl right off my body is "like," as in, "I need, like, three 5-subject notebooks."  Fine.  So you're saying you don't actually need three, 5-subject notebooks, but something "like" them?  Don't get me started.

One thing the kids agree that they hate is zucchini.  They "hate" it.  Hate, hate, hate it.

I want to ask, do you really want to paint yourself in that corner?  Do you really want to take such a strong stand against a vegetable?  And a bland one, at that? How do you even know that you hate zucchini?  Really?  Do you like that bread you're eating right now?  Ha!  It's zucchini bread!

Don't you just hate that?

Zucchini Bread
This wonderful recipe comes from my friend Cathy.  She adds a cup of chopped pecans -- which I think makes the bread even more special -- but which I've left out because of nut allergies.  Makes two moist, delicious loaves.

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 medium eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups grated zucchini

Preheat oven to 350.  In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.  Set aside.  In another mixing bowl, beat eggs until foamy  Gradually stir in sugar, blending well.  Stir in oil and vanilla.  Gradually stir in dry ingredients until well-incorporated (batter will be stiff).  Fold in zucchini.  Divide batter between two greased loaf pans.  Bake until golden (about one hour).  Remove from oven, let cool about 15 minutes before turning from pans, and allowing to cool completely on baking rack.  Freezes well.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Clean Room? Now That Would Be Magic.

Although Son and Darling Daughter, at ages 15 and 13, have long outgrown the Harry Potter books (sigh), they both believe our house to be magical. Or criminally-infested. Or both.

I know this because each of them routinely – perhaps, weekly -- instigates the following claim.

I don’t know where it is. I looked everywhere. It just disappeared."

Note: The magically vanishing object is not relevant here. It could be an ordinary piece of clothing, an algebra book, a water bottle, a housekey, or an item borrowed – almost always from me.

It just disappeared.

Right. Without benefit of a silk tophat, a blond, leggy assistant, or an 11” holly wand with a phoenix feather core (remember, the kids are the ones who've outgrown Harry Potter, not me), those magical words then propel us down a magically-scripted path – one from which we cannot veer.

Me: “What? Are you sure? Have you checked your backpack? Do you want me to help? Maybe it’s at school. Did you check?” Then, the deadly and inevitable, “Maybe if you cleaned up your room …”

Well. This is, indeed, a predictable script. Cue the criminal element. My child, “No, Mom! Stop! It’s gone! GONE! I think it was stolen!

Stolen? Someone stole your unlabeled USB key? Your field trip permission slip? Your 35-pound backpack crammed with Nature Valley Oat ‘n’ Honey granola bar wrappers and the test you didn't want me to see? Your scraped and cloudy water bottle with the 3” peeled-off residue of a Nantahala River sticker? My new black suede boots with the stacked heels? (Actually someone might want to steal those. They're darling.)

Right.  Allow me to repeat: Maybe if you cleaned your room.

Who know what treasures would be unearthed if you cleaned your room -- if you just picked it up -- a little. Who knows what's lurking under the laundry pile or in the crusted-over closet? The book you're looking for may very well be keeping company with the baseball hat, empty chips bag and hoodie crammed under the desk. At the very least, if you cleaned up your room, I’d have time to fix something for dinner. Although truth be told, this roasted chicken dish comes together in a snap.

We’re big fans of my
Slow Cooker Chicken With Artichokes, and one recent evening, I craved the same flavors, but had less than an hour to pull it all together. This fit the bill perfectly. Quick and flavorful.  Like magic.

Still waiting, though, on the clean room.

Roasted Chicken with Israeli Couscous and Artichokes

6-8 dark chicken pieces
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 lemon, zested and juiced
½ cup parsley, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups boiling water
1 ½ cups uncooked Israeli (pearled) couscous
1 package frozen artichoke hearts
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon oregano

With a large butcher’s knife, cut together garlic, lemon zest, parsley and teaspoon of kosher salt, until pasty. Combine in a large, resealable plastic bag with lemon juice, oil and cut-up chicken. Massage until chicken is coated with mixture and allow to marinate for 20-30 minutes.

Heat a large, ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Brown marinated chicken, well, on all sides.

While chicken is browning, preheat oven to 350. Combine boiling water and couscous and let stand 10-15 minutes.

When chicken is browned, remove from skillet, and stir in couscous mixture, artichoke hearts, kosher salt and oregano. Bring to a boil, scraping up flavorful bits from the bottom of the skillet. Remove from heat. Place browned chicken on top, and put entire skillet in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, or until chicken is done and couscous cooked through. (Add additional water as needed, so couscous cooks completely.)