Monday, November 22, 2010

Bacon Bloody Marys? We Have To -- It's Tradition.

A few days ago, Darling Daughter opined, “Thanksgiving is my favorite.”

“It’s not the turkey so much,” she continued, “It’s all the other stuff.  You know. The oyster roast at Grandpa’s and the orange juice at MaMama’s. The Christmas music you make us listen to.  All those decorations in Grandpa’s yard, and all those ice cream sandwiches in MaMama’s freezer.  And you know we’ll go to the Pig* at least three times.  And maybe even Bi-Lo.  Ooooooh.  And Krispy Kreme.”

Every family has traditions.  These, I guess, are ours.  Nothing extraordinary.  Nothing to do with turkeys or stuffing or football or Plymouth Rock.  Just us.  Just tradition.

We've all got 'em.  For me, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Black Friday shopping with my sister, where our first doorbuster is predictably Starbucks. 

It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without my Gingered Orange Cranberry Sauce.  My dad’s way-too-perfect holiday display.  My mom’s kind-beyond-reality bathroom scales.  And at some point, Bacon Bloody Marys.

At this time of year, traditions dictate what we eat, what we wear, where we go, what we do.

Traditions can change, of course.  When I was in college, nachos and bloody marys at my Dad’s were an essential part of Christmas morning. Nowadays, my own kids awaken to the aroma of Sausage Bread – although tradition seemingly mandates that they each eat only a few crumbs.  A number of years back, we were also subjected to the “one-gift-at-a-time” unwrapping tradition, which I’m here to tell you, does not, in fact, make a child pause and appreciate what others are receiving, but instead, makes him or her count the very days to his or her next birthday.

And although traditions can change, I’m old enough to know that you can’t force the change.  Surely mine isn’t the only family that’s tried – unsuccessfully -- to enforce the “Let’s all write down what we’re thankful for” bit? 

We don’t choose tradition.  It chooses us.  Which is why, it would seem, Bi-Lo is part of DD’s tradition.

A huge part of my own holiday tradition is cooking.  I began baking breads (banana, pumpkin, zucchini) a few weeks back.  Spiced pecans and Crispix mix and chocolate toffee crackers will soon be spilling out of the pantry.

And since overnight company is also part of the Chez Wiles holiday tradition, I’ll also be making this comforting, familiar Cheese Grits and Sausage casserole, to serve with biscuits and scrambled eggs.

Of course, if tradition holds true, one of the kids will say they’d rather have Frosted Flakes.

Behold – the birth of yet another tradition.

* Piggly Wiggly, a Lowcountry grocery store chain. and America's first true self-service grocery store.

Cheese Grits and Sausage
I make this breakfast side dish during the holidays and when we have company, because it's easily assembled the night before. 

4 cups water
1 cup quick (not instant) grits
3 cups (12 ounces) grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided
1/4 cup milk
2 T butter
2 t Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

2 eggs, beaten
1 lb. breakfast sausage, cooked and crumbled (I prefer Neese's)

Bring water to a boil in large saucepan. Add grits, bring to a boil and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and add 2 cups grated cheese, milk, butter, Worcestershire, eggs and Tabasco. Spoon half the mixture into a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Top with crumbled sausage. Spoon remaining grits over sausage. Sprinkle with remaining cheese.  Cover with aluminum foil and chill overnight (or at least 8 hours).

In the morning, remove from refrigerator and allow to stand 30 minutes, before baking, covered at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 10 minutes, or until molten hot all the way through.

Good with scrambled eggs and biscuits.  Or instead of Frosted Flakes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Love To Write. And Cook. And Write.

Son was incredulous right from the start.

When I began writing Feminine Wiles – and at that point, it was more of a daily addiction than a habit – Son asked, without a hint of sarcasm, “Do you get money for this?”

Fair enough. I was a newly divorced, stay-at-home mom. Extra cash would’ve had encountered no speed bumps traversing our welcome mat. I think, though, what Son was asking was, “Why write when you have no teachers, no deadlines and no nosy parent incessantly asking, ‘Is your paper done? Is your paper done?’”

Fair enough. Still, Feminine Wiles served a purpose for me. Any PSYCH-101 student would correctly recognize that writing was an outlet. I was struggling to identify myself and re-define my family. Just as important, writing a blog was a sneaky way to let my family know that I was, indeed, OK. True, I just wasn’t so good about speaking to them. Still, I was “writing” to them.

Look. I love my family. Nevertheless, I’ve never been one to share my inner-psyche workings. And navigating the divorce sucked away every random bit of my MC-squared. It took everything I could muster to take care of Son and Darling Daughter and me. I had no energy left to bear the kindness of strangers – much less that of family. Feminine Wiles was a way to assure my family that I was, indeed, “OK.”

Every now and again, I’d get a bit of recognition– a kind comment on my blog, a mention in the newspaper, some new subscribers. And again, Son have to ask, “Are you getting paid for this now?”

Nope. Still not. I’ve worked through the divorce. I’ve re-defined my family. I’m back to talking to my family (although not as often as I should). Turns out I just like to write. And I’m not alone.

Yesterday was “I Love To Write” Day. No kidding.  And hoo boy, I do love to write. I love to write emails on behalf of clients. I love to write text messages to my kids. I love to write Feminine Wiles. I even like writing recipes. The second edition of Feminine Wiles: The Cookbook is sufficient evidence of that. Still, I’m always somewhat inhibited at the start.

Take this recipe for Herbed Cream Cheese. I’ve made it for years. Loved it for years. Shared it for years. But even now, as I key it in, I wonder: Is it clear? Does it sound overwhelming? Is it sufficiently descriptive?  Is it easy to follow?

And I hear Son asking, “Do you get paid for this?”

I guess, in a way, the answer is, “Absolutely.”

Just not in dollars.

Herbed Cream Cheese (Mock Boursin)

I make quarts of this every holiday season, because it keeps so well and is always so welcomed. One year, I even packed it in crocks and gave it out as gifts with small serving knives and baguettes. I don’t know that a holiday gift has ever been so well-received! 

1 lb. cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 lb. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon each dried basil, marjoram, dillweed and thyme
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper and ground cayenne pepper
2 large cloves of garlic, minced or grated

Beat together all ingredients until well combined. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving with sliced bread or crackers. (Keeps well – a week or longer!)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Tip For Parents Everywhere: Don't Spank. Spray.

Parenthood ain't for sissies.

So far as I can tell, from the very nanosecond your newborn gulps that first lungful of air (did he get enough?  is he supposed to cry like that?), every millimeter of your brain is consumed -- completely devoured -- by parenting. Which begs the question: if we weren't parents, would all that gray matter accomplish something more significant and everlasting? Curing devastating diseases? Solving world peace? Keeping Lindsay Lohan sober?

Actually, that Lohan thing falls into the parenting category, which is just one example of a parent's non-stop, humbling rollercoaster of worrying, second-guessing and self-loathing. Just when you figure out how to get rid of the insidious pacifier, you're gobsmacked by potty training, which is further complicated by cloth versus disposable. After conquering grocery store tantrums, you face a never-ending ticker tape of childhood illnesses. When you finally navigate your offspring through the challenges of tantrums, cliques and wildly inappropriate language, you're frantic to think they're falling behind in the college application process. And that's all before kindergarten.

And getting kids to simply behave? Please. Even if you're carnival-man-strong or yoga-man-flexible, you can't simply bend them to your will. I've tried. Moreover, in today's parentally-correct environment, you can't beat the tar out of them either.

C'mon. You know I'm kidding, right?

Still, as the kids get older, what options do you have?

Timeouts don't work with teens. And sending them to their rooms? They wish. Some parents say to me, "Just wait 'til they can drive! Then you can take away the keys." Thanks, but for now, I'm just okey dokey that my kids can't drive. You should be, as well.

Sure. Confiscating the phone works on occasion. Or the laptop. But other times, you need something more attention-getting. More powerful. More, um, unexpected.

Something like the spray bottle.

C'mon. You know I'm not kidding, right?

The spray bottle works. Sure, it can't be 100% on major issues like drinking and driving, or academic failings. But burping at the table? Spritz. Teasing your sibling? Squirt away. Bad manners? Shouldn't take more than a couple of pulls of the trigger.

It works with Josie-the-rescue-dog. It works with the Lionel-the-pugilistic-cat. It works with the teenagers. The spray bottle just works.

Note that, even though it would surely improve my accuracy, I chose not to use a water gun. That would be wrong. But a bottle -- with plain old water in it. C'mon.

In truth, I think I'm starting a trend. Before you know it, you'll watch a teaser spot on The Today Show, extolling the virtues and unexpected effectiveness of a single, affordable parenting technique -- to be revealed in the 9 o'clock hour. And at 9-O-5, there will be me. With my spray bottle.

Until then, though, in the absence of a spray bottle, I'll flex my culinary muscles to get my way.

This Creamy Broccoli Soup -- which is easy to make, hugely satisfying, very green, and has nary a meatball or shred of ham does the trick.  I can't get enough of it.  The kids clearly can.  But it'll have to do.  Until, of course, I find my spray bottle under somebody's bed.

Creamy Broccoli Soup with Garlic Croutons
6 cups chicken stock
2 medium baking potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cups chopped broccoli
16 baby carrots, chopped
2-3 cups broccoli flowerettes
1 cup cream
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
kosher salt

3-4 slices homestyle white bread, diced in 1/2-inch cubes
3-4 tablespoons butter
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
kosher salt

In a large soup pot, bring chicken stock to a boil.  Stir in potatoes, chopped broccoli and carrots, reduce heat to low and simmer until vegetables are very, very tender - about 45 minutes.  Use an immersion blender to smooth soup until consistent and creamy.  Stir in broccoli flowerettes and cream and simmer an additional 6-8 minutes, or until broccoli is just done.   Season with cayenne, salt and pepper.  Garnish with croutons.

For croutons

Heat butter over medium high heat in large, nonstick skillet.  Toss in bread cubes and whole garlic cloves.  Sautee, stirring regularly, until well browned.  Remove garlic cloves and season well with salt and pepper.  Drain on paper towels until needed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What I'm Good At: Oysters, Sangria and Lots of Work.

We’re in the thick of autumn here in Charlotte. The temperature is dropping, the foliage is lit up like church windows on a Sunday morning, the air is tantalizingly smoky-crisp, the leaves rustle and crunch as Son walks Josie-the-Rescue-Dog, and Thanksgiving is a few weeks away. 

My only thought, though, is that it’s practically Christmas, and I’ve got boxloads of stuff to get down from the attic. The baseboards need to be wiped down. The foyer light needs to be cleaned. And I don’t think I can survive another holiday with the mustard/burgundy wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom.

Clearly, I’m not stopping to smell the roses. Or the pumpkins, the apple cider, or roast turkey, either.

It’s not that I want to rush the season, but to top it all off, Darling Daughter is urging me to have a holiday party. “It’s a lot, a lot, A LOT of work,” I remind her. “I know,” she responded, “but that’s what you’re good at.”

That’s what I’m good at.

When I was married, we had an oyster roast every year on the Friday evening that school let out for the holidays. Although common where I grew up (most Charlestonians have their own knives and gloves, which they’re expected to bring – along with a six-pack – when invited), here in Charlotte, oyster roasts are, let’s say, unconventional. Perhaps, even, bohemian. 

When invitations went out that first year, we had to answer all manner of questions. “No, it’s not like a standing rib roast.” “No, the oysters aren’t fried.” “No, ‘casual attire’ really does mean jeans and sweatshirts.” “ No. We said ‘dress warmly’ because we’ll actually be outside.” “No, you’ll have to learn to shuck your own.” And finally, “Yes, you’ll love them.”

My Charleston family – from whom we were borrowing the essential accoutrements like oyster knives, gloves, steamers and shucking tables – was equally puzzled. “Your friends don’t have their own knives? What kind of family do they come from?” “You don’t know anyone with a shucking table? They’re not hard to make, you know.” And, “Your friends have never been to an oyster roast? Bless their hearts.”

Truly, though, an oyster roast is one of the easiest parties ever. It has to be casual, because there's mud, and oyster juice, and bits of shell. There’s beer, there’s wine, and Chez Wiles, there’s sangria. There’s cocktail sauce and melted butter. My Dad, and now that he’s old enough, Son, tend to the oysters, which involves hauling the bushels up from Charleston, pressure-washing them in the driveway and steaming them in what we fondly call “The Bigass Pot.”

For non-oyster-eaters, we have chili. And saltine crackers. When the oysters are gone, the party’s over. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. (Oooh. We'll want some lemon wedges, too.)

I guess when I told DD that throwing an oyster roast requires a lot, a lot, A LOT of work, it’s mostly because I make it so. And I guess, after taking a year off, I’ll make it so again this year.

It is, after all, what I’m good at. 

If I’m going to get around to those baseboards and lights, though, I need to start cooking quicker meals. Something like this Shrimp in Cream Sauce over Lemon Rice. Honest. It could hardly be easier. 

If only I could say the same about stripping that ugly wallpaper.

Shrimp in Cream Sauce over Lemon Rice

1 cup rice 
1 14-oz. can chicken broth 
1 lemon, zested and juiced 
1 large handful of finely chopped parsley

 1 tablespoon butter 
1 large clove garlic, finely minced or grated 
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled, cleaned and de-veined 
1 lemon, zested and juiced 
1 cup heavy cream 
several shakes of Tabasco sauce

In medium saucepan, combine rice, chicken broth, and juice and zest of one lemon. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and cook, lidded, for 13 minutes. Fluff with a fork, to separate grains. Meanwhile, melt butter over medium high heat in a large skillet. Stir in shrimp, garlic, and juice and zest of one lemon, constantly stirring and sautéing until shrimp is pink and barely cooked through. Pour in cream and cook an additional 1-2 minutes. Season generously with Tabasco sauce. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve hot over cooked Lemon Rice.