Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Five Words To Thrill Any Mom's Heart.

Returning home from school yesterday, Darling Daughter uttered the five words sure to warm any mom’s heart:  It smells good in here.

I’ve heard the words before, but they never fail to give me a little thrill (or as my family used to say, “a pat on the popo.”)  To be honest, I’d be equally delighted to hear, “Hey Mom.  You know that advice you gave me?  Well, I talked to my friend today, and we worked it all out.  You were right.” 

“You were right,” however, isn’t part of the 13-year-old vernacular.  Come to think of it, “you were right” isn’t part of most adults’ vernacular.

“It smells good in here” is close enough.  (And for the record, any kid who walks in my kitchen and says those five words is absolutely entitled to use, without repercussion, the three words I detest, “What’s for dinner?”)

I’ve been cooking nearly all my life, including a culinary fiasco at age eight, which thanks to Mom’s intervention and Dad’s patience, did not result in a single trip to the ER.  It’s safe to say that a family-wide case of trichinosis could’ve turned me away from the kitchen for life.

Nowadays, cooking is just what I do – for comfort, for fun, for healing, for nourishment.  It always surprises me, then, when someone says they don’t cook.  How can that be?  You’ve got to eat, right?

Besides, cooking isn’t hard. 

That aroma that DD embraced yesterday afternoon?   It wafted from a dish with only three ingredients.  Heck, I’ll even spot you the salt and pepper.  That’s still only five ingredients, for crying out loud – boneless pork ribs, barbecue sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper.

Five ingredients, plus some steamed rice and a box of frozen peas -- voilĂ , a complete meal.  Not to mention a “Hey, it smells good in here.”

If I just keep working at it, "you were right" could be just around the corner.

Super Simple Boneless Pork Ribs

2-3 lbs. boneless (often called “countrystyle”) pork ribs
½ cup cider or white vinegar (don’t use the expensive stuff)
½ cup prepared barbecue sauce (any brand will do, I usually use “Bone Suckin’ Sauce,” because I like the label)
½ cup water
salt and pepper

Spray a lidded, nonstick skillet or saucepan with nonstick spray.  Generously season the ribs with salt and pepper.  Over medium high heat, lightly brown ribs (in batches, if necessary) on all sides.  Combine vinegar, barbecue sauce and water and pour over ribs in pan.  Reduce heat to low, put lid in place, and cook until done.  Check occasionally.  Should be fork-tender in about 1 ½ hours.  Serve with hot steamed rice or grits.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Season's Almost Over. Back to Laundry and Housekeeping and Cooking.

It still surprises me to say this, but baseball season is almost over -- and I'm sad.

I know.  For most fans, the season just began.  It’s so early in the Major League Baseball season that even the most hopeful fan can’t seriously ask, “How ‘bout those Cubbies?”

But I don’t follow MLB.  I follow HSB – high school baseball -- and only one week remains in the regular season.  One week.  Two games.  Fourteen innings.  Eighty-four outs.  To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it's over when it’s over.

When Son was little, he tried several sports.  Up in our attic is a box stuffed with little soccer and basketball “participant” trophies – the sort handed over to any eight-year-old whose parents are willing to stroke a check to the league and buy a pair of diminutive shinguards.

For Son, baseball’s the sport that stuck.  Seven years later, the trophies for those big-inflatable-balled sports share space with our Christmas decorations and a noisy family of bats (the winged kind).  The baseball trophies, on the other hand, including a pair of gargantuan Dilworth Little League championship trophies that nearly justified the construction of a trophy room Chez Wiles, still occupy the place of honor on Son’s bedroom shelves.

Those first few seasons nearly did me in.  Baseball devours a family evening or a weekend.  A game can last for-fricking-ever.  And with extra innings, for-fricking-ever and ever.  Amen.  Soccer and basketball, with their stopwatches and gameclocks and precisely-timed halves, snug right into a family calendar.  The Great American Pasttime contrarily laughs at the notion of “schedule.”  No time limit.  No neat little 10-minute periods.  No predictable Thursday practices.

Little League practices and games might be scheduled for Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday one week and Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday the next.  Where little Mia Hamms and LeBron Jameses might have to show up 15-30 minutes before gametime, little Derek Jeters are expected 60 minutes prior.  In baseball parlance, by the way, 60 minutes early translates into 75 minutes early.  If you’re on time, you’re late.

It took me an entire season – maybe two – to learn to relax and enjoy the games.  One reason, of course, was flat-out fanny-clenching fear for my kid.  Fear that he would be “that kid” – the one out in left field picking daisies and turning cartwheels.  The one who swats at the ball and twirls into a 360.  Or, worse, the one who hits the ball, but runs to third base instead of first.  I'd worry that he was never going to hit the ball.  And then, worry that he'd never hit it again.

If for one second on those back-crippling bleachers, I stopped worrying for Son, I’d then have to chase away my own demons: I could be doing laundry right now.  I could be catching up on bills right now.  I could be changing the sheets right now.  I could be cooking dinner right now. Instead, I’m being held hostage by an imposing man named "Blue" who wears a mask and makes lots of angry hand gestures, and a team of elementary-school-aged, bat-wielding terrorists with tight-fitting pants.

What a long way I’ve come.  I now bask in baseball.  I’m there early, I stay late.  I’ve got hand-warmers for games in freezing temperatures and freezer packs for games in sweltering heat.  I know what it means to “turn two,” “strike out the side” and “protect the plate.”  I know that the laundry will get done, the bills will get paid and, sometime during the week, a dinner will get cooked.  I also know that, in the course of the season, Son and Darling Daughter will eat their weight in Chick Fil A nuggets.

Turns out there's a limit to how many Chick FIl A Original sandwiches (no butter, extra pickles) I can eat, however.  Instead, I try to keep some easy-to-prepare, easy-to-eat food in the fridge, like Bacon and Egg Salad, Lentil and Feta Salad, and Black Bean Corn Salad.  This week, I had  a hankering for Pimento Cheese.  Given my distrust for sandwiches in general and mayonnaise in specific, I have to make my own.  This version uses lemon juice and cayenne to cut the cloying tendency of mayonnaise.  It’s great on wheat bread, celery sticks, crackers, or my favorite – a spoon.

One week, two games, 14 innings, 84 outs, and one fresh bowl of homemade pimento cheese.  I think I’m going to be OK.

Best Ever Pimento Cheese Spread
Growing up in Charleston, pimento cheese (or, as some folks pronounced it, "minner" cheese) sandwiches were served at receptions of every sort -- all fancy, on white bread with the crusts cut off.  Most people, though, would use the store-bought variety, which is probably what turned me away from pimento cheese for so many years.  This version, though, is flavorful and zesty and fresh-tasting -- worthy of any reception table, crusts and all.

6 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (or more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
2 teaspoons grated onion (optional)
10 oz. extra sharp Cheddar cheese, freshly grated (do not use pre-grated)
4 oz. canned pimentos, chopped

In a medium sized mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except cheese and pimentos.  Gradually stir in cheese and pimentos until well combined and moistened.  Chill for an hour or two, and use as a dip for celery sticks or a spread on sandwiches or crackers.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Everyone Has An Opinion, And In Mine, Reunions Are Terrifying.

When I was pregnant (well after Bill Haley and His Comets flamed out, thank you very much, but well before the sun rose on Green Day, or practically any other band heard on Sirius 26), I found all kinds of ways to dodge The Question:

“What are you going to name the baby?”

Even now, when I hear someone else – even a total stranger – being asked The Question, I want to shriek, “Don’t answer!  It’s a trick!  You’re about to have your bubble burst, your dreams shattered!  You’re exposing your tender and most intimately-considered plans to a gut-sucking, albeit cape-less, emotional marauder of comic book proportions.” 

No, I don’t think I’m overstating.

We hear stories of newborns named, unexpectedly, after obstetricians, nurses, and, if you ascribe to urban myth, hospital food.  Surely you’ve heard of the tiny twins afflicted with the unfortunate monikers of “Orangello” and “Limongello,” ostensibly for the gelatin flavors the new mom most enjoyed post-delivery?  Truth be told, who could blame her?  After all the baby-naming babble and umbilical cord snipping and opinion-injection of every English-speaking person on the planet – and perhaps a few Aussies – it’s easy to lose track of your own opinion.

Did I really name my kid ‘Orangello’?  Do I even like ‘Orangello’?  Didn’t I hear about a school bully named ‘Orangello’?  Wait.  Am I hungry?  Are you going to eat that chicken?  Can we have Jello for dessert?  Maybe banana-strawberry flavored?

High school reunions, it seems, evoke a similar reaction.  Everyone has an opinion.  And the current universal opinion seems to be that I’m a smack-talking, lily-livered, Scotch-drinking, feather-shedding chicken butt.

I recently wrote about my ambivalence – fine, call the spade by its name, “terror” – regarding my upcoming 30th high school reunion.  I couldn’t believe how many people chirped up.   You have to go.  30th is the best ever.  Everyone’s counting on you.  You’ll regret it if you don’t.

Holy cow.  (Or, as my mom’s husband says, “sanctified bovine.”)

I’m going already.  But until then, I’m working my butt off.  Actually, that’s not accurate.  I know you can’t “work” your butt off.  Nor can you “talk” someone’s ear off.  And saddest of all, you can’t “laugh” your ass off. 

I’ve tried. If all it took was working, talking and laughing, I'd be the skinniest person around.  And my friends wouldn't have anything to hook their sunglasses onto.  But I’ve tugged on those “fat jeans.”  Trust me, everything's still there.

I’ve got a few months to go, though.  I just need to work out more.  And eat better. 

This Black Bean and Corn Salad is a good start.  Easy to make, lots of protein, lots of fiber and low in fat.  It’s really, really good served as  a salsa with Fritos Scoopers, too.  But for now, I’m passing on Fritos.  Jello, too.

Besides.  I heard that Orangello might make it to the reunion.

Black Bean and Corn Salad With Lime Dressing

1 can black beans, rinsed and drained well
1 can sweet corn, rinsed and drained well
½ cup finely chopped red onion
½ cup finely chopped red bell pepper
juice of two limes (about ¼ cup)
¼ cup canola oil
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1 avocado, peeled and sliced, or optionally, halved

Combine all ingredients except avocado.  Stir gently and refrigerate until well chilled.  Serve over avocado slices.

Friday, April 9, 2010

High School Daze: Reunions, Cocktail Sauce and Self-Doubt.

We’re the best, ain’t no maybe.
We’re the Class of 1980.

What was I thinking?

I was back in Charleston a few months ago and ran into a friend from high school.  Really nice guy.  Married.  After a couple of graciously-poured single malt Scotches, one thing led to another, and yep, you guessed it, I agreed to organize our 30th class reunion.  (That is what you guessed, right?)

What was I thinking?

It’s not so surprising that I agreed to spearhead the Fort Johnson High School Class of 1980 reunion.  I went to school with lots of exceptionally capable, energetic, well-organized folks, and many of them still live in Charleston.  They know local caterers and bartenders and DJs, and the truth is, if there’s one thing the Fort Johnson Trojans know how to do, it’s throw a party.  My friends have already unearthed people I thought we’d never track down.  You can bet my classmates will be the ones to pull this thing off.

What’s surprising is that I agreed to go at all.

High school is four years of the most fun you’ll ever have.  Forty-eight months of growth and experimentation and self-realization.  Forty-eight months of doubt and awkwardness and self-loathing.

I’d want to re-visit that why?

We graduated in 1980.  Flash forward 30 years.  You know that girl who hasn’t gained an ounce since graduation?  You hate her, right?  Well then, you’d love me.

Based on what I'm hearing from former classmates, I'm not alone.  Plainly, some of that doubt and awkwardness and self-loathing is still lodged in place.  I know.  It's not like I'm a candidate for The Biggest Loser.  Let's just say I no longer have to worry about the American Red Cross telling me I don’t weigh enough to donate blood.  My wrinkles resemble those on nearly any 47-year-old – not the crevasses I deserve after all those 6-hour days on the beach.  We'd never even heard of "sunscreen."  There was "suntan lotion" (for "deep, dark, tropical tans) and Johnson & Johnson baby oil (for sizzling, searing, blistering burns).  And my hair?  Well, it’s nothing that a bottle of Clairol Nice ‘n Easy can’t remedy.  OK.  That’s a lie.  Nothing my fabulous hair stylist can’t remedy.  (Love you, Crystal!)

You have to wonder to what extent hair salons, weight loss programs, clothing boutiques and, let’s be honest, cosmetic surgeons, rely on class reunions.  Sure, they only come around every five to 10 years, but when they do, hoo boy.  New Year’s resolutions pale in comparison.  I don’t just want to lose weight.  I want to be adorably slim, totally ripped, fabulously dressed, sophisticatedly coiffed, and, of course, ridiculously happy with my station in life.  And natch, tan.

So yeah.  I’ll be there.  But I’m not eating anything until August 7, 2010.  Well, except chai tea lattes.  And maybe sangria.

So I hope my classmates arrange to have fabulous food at the reunion.  And since we'll be in the Lowcountry, I bet some of it will require cocktail sauce.

It’ll be a bit too early for oysters, but shrimp?  Definitely.  And where there’s shrimp, there’s cocktail sauce.  And with luck, a 1980 Fort Johnson Trojan who’s a few pounds – and a few hair shades – lighter.

Cocktail Sauce (for Seafood)
There are plenty of bottled cocktail sauces out there, but I don’t know anyone who buys them.  There’s no reason to buy someone else’s cocktail sauce when you can make your own with three simple ingredients.

1 12-ounce bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons (or more, to taste) refrigerated prepared horseradish

Combine all ingredients.  Chill and serve with fresh poached local shrimp.  Or oysters.  Or even saltine crackers.  Yum.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Time Is Right For Bacon and Egg Salad Sandwiches.

We are not a sandwich family.

While there’s no denying the convenience of eating right out of one’s hand (all hail the Earl of Sandwich), and while I do love me some Subway (ham and swiss on wheat with lettuce, banana peppers, black olives, pickles and mustard), I don’t know that I’ve ever  -- ever, ever, ever, -- set out to make a sandwich just for myself.  In fact, as I look over the 100+ recipes in Feminine Wiles, there’s only one sandwich recipe – for tuna salad (which is very, very good, but I'd just as soon eat with a fork).

The kids, I suspect, feel the same way about sandwiches.  Yes, I pack their lunches every day, but unless I insist on variety, it’s always the same:  peanut butter.  Not peanut butter and jelly (the classic).  Not peanut butter and banana (a Southern treat).  Not peanut butter and honey (my brother’s childhood favorite).  Not peanut butter and bacon (although knowing their fondness for bacon, that one’s a mystery). 

Just peanut butter.

However, knowing Son and Darling Daughter as I do, I’m betting many of those peanut butter sandwiches, lovingly made before they board the bus at 7:30 a.m., never make it past anyone’s lips.  At least not Son’s and Darling Daughter’s.  I know they’re not sandwich-eaters.  Likewise, I know what else is tucked in those lunch bags.  Fruit.  Oreos.  Pringles.  The occasional snack bag of M&Ms.  I’m just saying.

On Easter, though, I can’t help but think of sandwiches.  Egg salad sandwiches.  Which, as noted, go against everything I believe in. 
My mom’s husband insists that, if pimento cheese sandwiches and egg salad sandwiches (on white bread) were not served at your wedding reception, you are not, in fact, really married.  And before you even ask, yes -- both were on my wedding buffet 25 years ago.  Look, I’m not saying it’s guaranteed.  But it couldn’t hurt.

Still, I don’t like cold hard-boiled eggs – and have a particular suspicion for those that are garishly colored and retrieved during a “hunt.”  I can't abide the texture of boiled egg whites – there’s something decidedly “un-foodlike” about them.  I don’t trust mayonnaise, and in most cases, distrust people who do.  And didn't I mention?  I’m not a sandwich kind of girl.

But it’s Easter.  So I’m eating egg salad.  Carefully.

My own recipe -- very little mayonnaise, a little zip of whole grain mustard or horseradish, very finely chopped whites, fresh dill while I've got it, and just to mix it up -- bacon -- because as everybody knows, bacon makes everything better.  (Bacon Bloody Mary, anyone?)

And yes, if I ever re-married, you can bet there would be egg salad sandwiches.  Or, at least, egg salad on crackers.

Happy Easter, folks!

Bacon and Egg Salad Sandwiches

6 eggs
3-4 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon (or more) whole grain Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced (optional)
3 strips bacon, fried until very crisp and chopped fine
fresh ground black pepper (lots)

Cook eggs.  Put eggs in pot and cover with cold water.  Bring to a boil.  Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for five minutes.  Then, turn off heat, put lid on pot, and let rest for five additional minutes.  Drain and fill pan with cool water.  When eggs are somewhat cool, remove from pan and peel.  Cut peeled eggs in half and remove yolks to a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Finely chop egg whites.  Set aside.  Using a fork, mash the egg yolks, gradually stirring in mayonnaise, one tablespoon at a time.  Consistency should be very smooth.  Stir in salt, pepper, dill and bacon.  Finally, stir in egg whites.  Serve, chilled on toasted wheat bread or crackers, garnishing with additional dill and bacon, if desired.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Today Is All About Me. Or Really, Smoked Salmon Hash

I’m not pregnant.

I know.  No one’s stopping the presses.  I’m 47 and unmarried.  Hoop,  Dee.  Do.  Still, I am reminded of my fetus-free status every time I grocery shop, because I’m always drawn to those temptingly empty front-of-the-lot parking spots, only to be warded off by signs reading:  Reserved For Expectant Mothers.

Right.  Look I’ve got nothing against expectant moms.  Been there.  Done that.  Got the rear-end-revealing hospital gown to prove it.  Even then, though, I found it silly to save a space for a capable, healthy prego, no matter how much weight she'd gained or how tired she was.  Why not give it to the truly needy mom – the one who hasn't slept more than two consecutive hours in the past 28 weeks, who's toting an infant, a car seat, a diaper bag, and in most cases, an extra 20 pounds, an older toddler and a nasty case of post-natal hemorrhoids?

So you can imagine the guilty thrill I felt today upon visiting our new neighborhood grocery store, Bloom.  As usual, I was lured to an invitingly vacant space at the front of the lot.  But not as usual, there was a sign at the head of the space reading:  20 Minute Parking for Quick Shoppers.

That, my friends, is me to a “t.”  I scarcely touched the brakes before flipping the old Honda Pilot into the space.  Shop quickly and get primo parking?  Clearly, this is an all-about-me kind of day.

Well.  Kind of.

Earlier today, Darling Daughter headed off to spend a beach weekend with friends.  However, despite near constant nagging and reminders and pecking on my part, she managed to leave her Easter dress behind.  As she explained, “I would’ve spent more time packing, but you didn’t have the laundry done.” 

See?  It all comes down to me.

Then, at lunch today, Son grilled a couple of burgers and said, “I didn’t ask whether you wanted one, because I didn’t want to tempt you.” 

Other moms might have their feelings hurt, but not me.  As Son subsequently said, he was only thinking of me.

Right.  I’ll tell you what would really make this an all-about-me day:  If Josie-the-rescue-dog ceased dining on “tootsie rolls” from the cat litter box.  Nasty.  Just thinking about her “snacking habits” makes it so no one wants to be around her.  However, if her habits changed so she was dining on her own "ahem" and I didn’t have to spend so much time donning plastic bags as gloves, hunched over in the backyard, all the better.

Whatever.  I’m already plotting revenge.  Because if indeed, today is going to be all about me, then dinner will be one of my very favorites, Smoked Salmon Hash.

(Sigh.  All-about-me day is over.  Son unpredictably pronounced the hash to be “very good.”  But I still got the last smile.  Son had no idea he was eating a recipe that includes capers, which he hates.  Ha!  Back to me.)

Smoked Salmon Hash
Serves two

20-ounce package of refrigerated hashbrowns with onions, prepared according to package directions

4 ounces sliced smoked salmon, cut in thin strips
1 tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons horseradish
2 tablespoons capers
3 tablespoons sour cream (plus additional for garnish)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons minced fresh chives, divided

In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients except hashbrowns, reserving 2 tablespoons of chives for garnish.  Stir salmon mixture into freshly prepared hashbrowns in large skillet.  Heat through.  Serve, garnishing with chives and additional sour cream.