Book Review: Finding Freedom by Erin French

I’ve been plowing through my to-be-read pile lately, and just finished this memoir by acclaimed chef Erin French. A few years ago, I heard about a restaurant in a tiny Maine town that not only opened for a few short months a year, but also booked up for the entire season within minutes of the of the phone lines opening (and has since going to a postcard lottery method that has tens of thousands of entries). I totally forgot about it until I checked out the new series, “The Lost Kitchen” on the Magnolia Network (via Discovery+).

The show itself is produced by Joanna and Chip Gains, and follows Erin and her crew as they create a nurturing space and stunning culinary experience, as well as the ingredients and purveyors she uses to do so. The show reminds me of the PBS hit “A Chef’s Life,” and is beautifully shot and produced. If you liked that show, “The Lost Kitchen” is definitely for you.

When this book came across my suggested reading, I jumped right in. Erin’s memoir weaves through the places and relationships that forged the foundation for the person and chef she became. Readers get immersed in her life in the kitchen, her love of food, and her ability to envision both the spaces and sensations she wants to create for others. However, those memories are intertwined with her tumultuous relationship with her father, an abusive and toxic marriage, and a battle with addiction and its consequences. Throughout it all, her descriptions draw readers in so much so that we can perfectly envision the landscape of her memories.

Overall, this is an incredibly well-written book that showcases the breadth of Erin’s creativity, and also serves as a satisfying triumph-over-adversity tale. If you love cooking, food, small towns, or creator origin stories, this book is worth a look. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and definitely recommend.

**Usual Disclaimer: My blog is not sponsored nor monetized. I’m not that cool, y’all. Any reviews you see are things I’ve purchased with my own money and reviews are just my personal opinion.**

Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner

I picked up my four exhibits from the State Fair today, and clearly I’m happy as a clam with the results. However, this year has been bittersweet. Compared to years past, I saw much lower participation in all of the categories, not to mention that the fair itself had a whole lot of open space due missing vendors/rides etc. I know it’s a sign of the current times, but I miss seeing the variety of talents from the exhibitors. Anyway, here’s a recap of the projects:

My Let’s Boogie sweater won first place in the miscellaneous knitted garment category.

My Swing Left socks won first place in knitted socks.

The Baa-ble Hat won first place in knitted beanies.


And my Fantastitch Shawl won both first place in shawls and Grand Champion!

If you’ve never looked into competitive exhibitions at your local fair, it’s definitely worth checking out. From canning and quilting to photography and woodworking, there are so many ways to participate. It’s a great way to learn more about your community, and get some inspiration, especially if you are a maker.

Now, I guess it’s time to start brainstorming for next year.

Current Knits and Future Plans

So, we survived the first nine weeks of school, but getting back into the routine was not without it’s challenges. I did not miss getting up earlier and spending nearly two hours of my day in the carpool line one bit. However, everyone is back to their respective routines and that’s given me some welcome knitting time. So, here’s a round-up of what’s on the needles, in the queue, and what I’m stalking.

First, I fell in love with the Slipstravaganza blanket from Stephen West, and immediately ordered the kit from his shop. I love that it’s knit in the round and the play on textures, and it’s going to be an awesome FO if I actually conquer this beast of a project. I’ve made it to the bubbles section, and I’m hoping to finish it by year’s end.

I still have a Vanilla is the New Black second sock languishing on the needles. Every time I’m determined to finish it, a new pattern or project lures me away. It WILL become mandated car knitting, so I can stop procrastinating.

As for future knitting, I am going to have to declare the coming months a stash-only, queue-clearing affair. As I was cleaning my closet out last night, I have no less than 8 projects with the yarn kitted up and ready to go, including The Shift cowl:

Sunset Highway sweater:

Sweig sweater:

Feel the Bern sweater:

the From Grandma with Love blanket:

and several more.

Some yarn has got to get used, because even after donating a ton during the closet cleanout, I still have sooo….much….yarn. Can’t buy more till I use up some is going to be the mantra.

As for stalking/inspiration, I recently added the Hinterland sweater:

The Spooky Hat:

and the Tegna top to my favorites on Ravelry:

As for holiday knitting, I don’t foresee gifting any knits this year. I already made hats for the neighbors, baby gifts for another neighbor, and a baby blanket for my cousin this year, so my knitting mojo has swung back into selfish territory. Now, if I can just stay out of the yarn shop…

 

Finished Knit Alert!

Just in time for the season, I finished this sweater:

Pattern: Let’s Boogie by Katie Franceschi

Yarn: Berroco Vintage DK in the Pumpkin, Banana, Cast Iron, and Mochi colorways.

Needles: US 4 and US 5

Notes and Mods: This is a cute pattern, but I ended up really disliking the neckline. Despite aggressive blocking, it tends to roll downward. If I were to make it again, I’d probably modify the cast-on and neckline. Otherwise, I really love the sweater.

As for mods, I converted this to short sleeves, considering that it’s still hot as Satan’s back porch here in Louisiana. To do so, I completed the under-bust chart for the sleeves, then knit 10 rows in white, and 5 rows 2×2 rib. I also left of the pink detailing on the ghosts’ cheeks, because I thought it would look weird with this color palette. Overall, thumbs up on this project.

Back to School! Oh Happy Day!

I can’t believe this day is finally here. The day the younger Heathens finally go back to school, like in-person, not-in-my-house school. They haven’t been in a classroom with their peers since March 13th, 2020. That’s a long ass time. A loooooooonnnnnngggg ass time.

As much as I have moaned and groaned about how freaking of a hot mess this year was, I am self-aware enough to know that I will look back and be grateful for this time. We spent more time together as a family in the past year than ever, and were able to take unique opportunities that we never would have been able to had we been tethered to classrooms/offices. I avoided the dreaded carpool lines, enjoyed mostly unstructured days, and didn’t have to roll out of bed until after seven everyday. On the flipside, that’s a whole lot of togetherness. Like, a lot.

So, Bean is headed to 4th grade while Bear is, *gulp*, a SENIOR. How in the hell did that happen? My sweet little freckle-faced baby had his last first day today. It still feels surreal, but then again, the last sixteen months have felt strange and unsettled.

Well, if you will excuse me, I have a few glorious hours to myself. I’ll try to keep the happy dancing to a minimum.

 

Why Do I Do This to Myself?

Ya know, it was inevitable. It really, really was. And like most crap I mess up, it was totally preventable.

You see, Bean goes back to school soon for in-person learning. She hasn’t been on campus since March 13th of 2020 (which coincidently was also a Friday…omen much?). She has not needed to wear a school uniform in a looonnng time, and added to this fact, she’s grown like a weed. Which means, she needs all new shirts, skirts, pants, leggings, sweaters, belts…the whole enchilada.

This is not news. This did not come as a surprise. I have been well-aware that this situation needed resolution.

So what did my ass do? Procrastinate to a level worthy of a lazy Olympics’ gold medal. I put off shopping, ran away to Alaska, and generally was like, “meh, I’ll tackle that tomorrow.” Well, I finally decided that those “tomorrows” needed to end and set myself to surfing the Target and JCPenney websites this morning.

And boy did I learn the hard way why you don’t wait until less than two weeks before school starts to handle your business.  What wasn’t out of stock became out of stock before I could even check out. JCPenney even gave me the panic warning by telling me how many sold in the past hour, as seen above (those bastards). I felt like it was frantic digital race and I was losing. How in the hell is there a school uniform shortage in August?

After a few hours, many websites, and a slew of profanity, I managed to cobble together what she needs. I promised myself that I will not do this again next year, though we all know the likelihood of that.

Luckily, I ordered her school supplies through the school itself, so I am spared the five-store scavenger hunt for the very specific folder colors and many packs of index cards that will probably be returned to us unopened at the end of the year.

So, at least there’s that.

 

Adventures in Alaska

So, reality started to set in a few weeks ago. We are all about to go back to school and work soon. G-Man heads back to college, the remaining Heathens will finally return to in-person school, and the husband goes back to a travel-heavy work schedule. We will no longer have flexible schedules and routines will return with a vengeance. We decided we wanted one last trip before summer ends, but one that was far different from anything we’ve done before. I called my handy-dandy travel agent, and we were soon on our way to an Alaskan cruise.

I have never been on a cruise, or had any desire to do one. But, she convinced me that this really was the best option for a last minute trip to Alaska, and the Royal Caribbean ship  would only operate 40% capacity for safety (and with serious restrictions in the ports). She wasn’t kidding. The staff to guest ratio was 2:1. Y’all, I was skeptical but this ended up being the best vacation we’ve ever experienced. The weather was glorious (a rarity according to local residents), the food was amazing, and the excursions blew our minds.

Our ports included Sitka, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, and Ketchikan. Due to Covid, we could only exit the ship for excursions that were limited strictly to passengers (because Bean is only 9 and can’t be vaccinated yet. Vaccinated passengers could explore freely). This limited our excursion options, but we still had plenty to choose from.

We explored Sitka, went whale watching in Icy Strait Point, took a helicopter to the Mendenhall Glacier, and fished for salmon in Ketchikan. Each adventure felt like a living postcard, and we learned so much from our guides. We certainly accomplished our goals of new experiences and making the most of every moment of our trip. Normally, the husband and I are ready to get home at the end of a vacation, but we were genuinely sad that this trip had to end. We barely scratched surface, and are already planning on what we would like to experience next time.

Important note: who caught the biggest fish? (cough, cough…..ME!)

My neighbor and well-traveled adopted maternal figure, Mama P, told me this was the best vacation she ever took, and I now know why. From breath-taking views to rich culture and history, we soaked up pure enjoyment each and every day. I will say that this particular trip/cruise probably isn’t an ideal choice for younger children, despite the ship amenities (unless you want to put them in the kids’ program). Bean is a seasoned traveler, and is used to fishing, camping, and outdoor activities. She understands that every moment of a trip isn’t going to be Disneyworld/kid-centric, so she knows to go along with the get-along, as Granny would say. During our downtime, we still had plenty to do on the ship, like bingo, trivia, shows, and cards, so everyone remained entertained.

So, overall fantastic trip all around. Unfortunately, the airline cancelled our return flights, and we got stuck in Seattle, but that’s a post for another day.

Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday: “Tamale and Chili Pie”

I’m deep into my summer cooking rut. So, to break out of it, I’m dusting off the Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday inspiration. I wanted something quick and easy, so I turned to my collection of old-school Junior League Louisiana cookbooks.

If you are familiar with community/church/Junior League cookbooks from the 50’s through the 80’s, you know that measurements were questionable, the contributors assumed brand-names would last forever, and that they expected you possess an intuitive knowledge of whatever the hell they were talking about with their minimal instructions. So, with that disclaimer, let’s dive into the experiment of the Tamale and Chili Pie.

This recipe was submitted by Mrs. Alan Thigpen (Catherine Lagrange) in the Pirate’s Pantry Cookbook, which was published by the Junior League of Lake Charles in 1976. This book, along with The Revel and Cotton Country, are staples in our house. Yes, they are dated, but they are also amazing.

Now, here’s how it went. First, ingredients:

Check. Obviously, the brands have changed, but I think I got pretty close. I misread the size of the casserole, so I probably set myself up for failure in terms of the intended tamale-to-chili ratio.  However, I think my alterations and notes may land this one as a win for a fast family meal or for hangry teens. Here’s what I did:

First, I bought the 28oz can of tamales, hoping to stretch the recipe for the five of us. Despite being slightly alarmed by the reality of canned tamales (do you seeee that????), I recovered and realized that, after cutting them up, I really needed two of the 28oz cans to cover the bottom of my 9×13 casserole. My cutting hack was a failure, and I think the original chili to tamale ratio was not optimal al all. So, moral of the story? If you want to make a 9×13 casserole, just get 2 28-oz cans of tamales to line the bottom of it.

I made the “chili” as directed, using canned chili beans, ground beef, and a packet of chili seasoning. My other deviation from the recipe was to sauté the onion with the beef, as these clowns need their onions cooked into submission.

Finally, I spread the chili on the tamales, added a wee bit (your discretion) more Fritos than the recipe called for, and sprinkled cotija cheese on top in addition to the cheddar. Baked as directed.

The verdict? I hacked this recipe a bit for our tastes, but dang if it’s not an easy, cheap, teenage guy friendly dish. It’s a Frito pie on steroids. I think the original had a much heavier chili-to-tamale ratio situation, but by adding more (really inexpensive) canned tamales, you can stretch that fresh ground beef to feed a ton. However, if you like chili, double that part for the 9×13 casserole. I paired this with a southwest chopped salad, but grilled corn would also be awesome with it.

No, this is not gourmet food, nor is it something I would serve to company. But you know what it is? Meaty, cheesy, crunchy, spicy food that was quick, easy, and satisfying for kid/teen tastes. Perfect for a movie night, horrid Tuesday, or a pantry-pull situation. Now, I’m going to go back to dreaming of cooler weather and Halloween season.

Roasted Tomato-Lime Salsa (For Canning) the Attack of The Garden Tomatoes

Ohhhhh y’all. After I came back from vacation, I found myself staring down about 30 pounds of tomatoes that were ready right-freaking-then. Thus ensued days and days of canning.

Though I also made vats of marinara and vodka sauce base, the majority of that week’s harvest went toward Bear’s favorite recipe: Roasted Tomato-Lime Salsa. This recipe comes from one of my top four canning resources, Foolproof Preserving from America’s Test Kitchen. I love this book for clarity of instruction, and the “whys” of the steps. And, in general, any ATK recipe has thorough research behind it.

Some quick notes before I share the recipe:

  • If you need a basic knowledge of canning, the ATK book, and the Ball Blue Book are excellent guides. The Ball Blue Book is where I started, and I think it’s a staple resource that belongs in every kitchen. If you are a canning newbie, get your mitts on one. Also, America’s Test Kitchen’s site is a treasure trove if you need tested techniques on pretty much anything.
  • This recipe calls for commercially bottled lime juice. Don’t clutch your foodie pearls, there’s a reason for that. Fresh limes can vary wildly in their pH, while bottled juice remains consistent. The pH is what keeps the food safe, so unless you want to become a human science experiment, follow the recipe.
  • Speaking of which, FOLLOW THE DANG RECIPE. Canning recipes are literally science-based, tested procedures that safely preserve food. This isn’t the time for “a little of this…some of that…”
  • This recipe can be doubled. Just broil the veggies in batches, and simmer it a little longer, like 20-25 minutes.
  • Remember that all broilers and stovetop burners vary astronomically in output. This is the time you need to be a wee bit more observant, rather than trusting a recipe time range. Never leave a broiler unattended, unless you are hell-bent on meeting your local firemen.

Roasted Tomato-Lime Salsa (Canning)

Servings 4 half-pints

Ingredients
  

  • 2-1/2 pounds Roma tomatoes cored and halved
  • 1 onion sliced into 1/2 thick rounds
  • 5 jalapenos stemmed and halved lengthwise
  • 6 cloves garlic peeled
  • 1/3 cup bottled lime juice
  • 2-1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tsp ground cumin

Instructions
 

  • Get your canning set-up arranged with jars sterilized and simmering in your water bath canner, lids hanging out in warm water, and all your gear together.
  • Cover a sheet pan with foil and place tomatoes and onions, cut side down on it. Broil the veggies until the tomatoes are well charred (anywhere from 10-15 minutes). Remove the pan from the oven and offload the veggies into a bowl. Add the jalapenos, cut side down, and garlic to the empty sheet pan and broil until jalapenos are also charred, 8-10 minutes.
  • Transfer the jalapenos, garlic, half of the tomatoes, and half of the onions to food processor and pulse until it's a thick puree. Transfer to Dutch oven. Transfer remaining broiled tomatoes and onions to the food processor and pulse into ½-inch pieces, 2 or 3 pulses; add to Dutch oven.
  • Stir in lime juice, salt, sugar, cilantro, and cumin. Boil over medium-high heat, stirring often, until salsa has thickened slightly, probably 8-15 minutes depending on your stovetop.
  • Ladle the hot salsa into the hot jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Use a wooden skewer or popsicle stick to remove air bubbles. Wipe rims clean, top jars with warm lids, screw on bands until fingertip tight, and return jars to canner.
  • Bring water in canner back to a boil. Process jars for 15 minutes for up to 1,000 feet, 20 minutes for 1,001 to 3,000 feet, 25 minutes for 3,001 to 6,000 feet, or 30 minutes for 6,001 to 8,000 feet. Remove jars to a cooling rack and let sit undisturbed for at least 8 hours. Check seals and store. If any failed to seal (hey it happens to even the most experienced canner), grab some chips and have a movie party. Don't forget to label them, and you can decide yourself if sharing is caring. According to Bear, that would be hard no.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Changes, Summer Travels, and Catching My Breath

Whelp, we limped across the virtual schooling finish line, not with a bang but a whimper. No rocking out to Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out for Summer” in the carpool line as is our tradition, but rather a heavy sigh that this chapter is hopefully, maybe, possibly, better-be-or-my-liver-can’t-handle-it closed. My two youngest kids have not been in the classroom since March 13th of 2020, and while they made virtual school work and received excellent grades, I think we can all agree that no one wants to experience a repeat of this academic year. It’s weird to think that a few years from now, some doctoral candidate will publish a study on just how this pandemic turned a generation of learning on its head.

Now that 80 percent of our household is vaccinated, life is returning damn-near normal. After school concluded, I called my friend who is also a travel agent and had her throw together a quick, impromptu vacation for us. We ended up in Jamaica! This was our first family trip outside of the states, and it was both fun and educational. I learned so much along the way, while also realizing how much I need to learn.

We swam with dolphins and went snorkeling, tubing, and deep sea fishing. After all of the missed milestone celebrations last year, this trip was a blessing and the perfect summer vacation for the family.  The voyage back to Louisiana had its hiccups, but after the past year, well, perspective has become something we strive to maintain.

While we still have a lot more summer to go, it’s difficult not to think ahead of how much our days will change when the Heathens are back in the classroom this fall. We will be back to carpool lines, school lunches, routines, and socializing, but I’m not naïve enough to believe that we will all make the transition seamlessly. I’m mentally preparing myself for how tired they will be resuming full schedules and being more active. Also, Bean’s virtual learning only took up about 4 hours of the day, so she is used to large sections of free time between lessons. Will they be ostracized from their old friends and peers after being home for the year? We shall see, I suppose.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here canning and counting down the days.

PSA–pssssst. The Halloween décor is hitting the shelves at places like At Home. If you know, you know.