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.

 

 

The Eggs Benedict Experiment–Or How I Reminded Myself That Perspective When Cooking Makes a Difference

The husband is home this week, so I finally tackled a cooking challenge that I’ve been putting off for awhile: Eggs Benedict. This is hands-down his favorite brunch choice, but since the kids and I are not fans of poached eggs, he usually only gets it when we are out at a restaurant. When a bad storm forced us to cancel our lunch date, I thought, “Why the hell not give it a try?” and headed to the kitchen.

For the recipe, I just browsed Food Network for something that looked fairly straightforward and basic (standard toasted English muffin, Canadian bacon, poached egg, and the sauce). While I think some people are intimidated by Hollandaise sauce, I’ve made Béarnaise sauce before, which is basically Hollandaise with tarragon added, so I wasn’t too worried about that.

The poached egg, however? I think I was traumatized by the egg scene in the film Julie & Julia, and convinced myself the process would be complicated and fraught with missteps. Nevertheless, I reminded myself that I can cook, and cook well. After browsing other recipes, I did up the vinegar a little bit in the poaching liquid, and what do you know? Poaching eggs is a piece of cake if you chill the f@&k out and follow directions. The husband loved it.

So, what did I learn in this impromptu cooking adventure? I think sometimes we build up certain dishes or techniques in our minds as intimidating or too difficult. Just taking the time to experiment and practice privately can transform the way you see those challenges. Would I suggest trying a new technique while your judgemental in-laws watch and critique? Of course not. The pressure to preform takes the fun out of mastering something new (hence in my Thanksgiving posts, I say that holidays are NOT the time to try out a complicated new dish). But this little experiment reminded me that I don’t need to approach every meal as if it has to be flawless or agreeable to every picky palate. I have more fun learning and exploring than repeating the same catalogue of meals endlessly.

Also, at some point, picky eaters are gonna pick. If you don’t try new dishes because you know you are gonna hear griping, then you rob yourself and them of the opportunity to learn, grow, and expand culinary horizons. As any southern mama would say, “You get what you get, and don’t throw a fit.”

Actually, that’s the nicer way to put it. Pretty sure my mom would say, “Shut up and quit your bitching.” Just keeping it real.

Cookbook Review–“Come on Over” by Jeff Mauro

So, it’s no secret that I am a cookbook hoarder, so I figured I might as well start sharing my reviews so  you can make up your mind whether a potential purchase is worth the cabinet space.

This week, I picked up Come on Over by Food Network personality Jeff Mauro. Now, as part of a mini-disclaimer on this review, you should know I love watching the show “The Kitchen” every Saturday, so that definitely influenced my purchasing decision. I’ve made many of Jeff’s recipes from the program over the years, so I was especially interested in seeing this book. I’m going to break my review down based on the key components that I look for in a great cookbook. To start, just know the premise of the book is geared toward entertaining, or get-togethers as we say here in the south. The chapters fall into the category of occasion, rather than course.

The Real Disclaimer: Before you even read this review or purchase the book, you need to know that several of the recipes in this book are dishes that have already been featured on “The Kitchen” or “The Sandwich King.” Now, some have small tweaks since their Food Network debuts, but if you watch the shows and are expecting all new recipes, yes there are some, but a few are not.

Appearance/Layout: This book gets a “thumbs up” in this category. First, the images are well-shot, and nearly every recipe has a picture, which is a big plus for me. I’m not a fan of books that are all flat-print with a limited photo page insert of a few recipes in the middle. Additionally, the pictures are beautifully styled, but not in the so-over-the-top manner that plagues a lot of popular food bloggers nowadays. The images are appealing but not unrealistic. As for layout, it’s clear, concise, and makes sense. The chapters are divided into themes/occasions, and the page layouts are comfortable to read and navigate. You won’t have to flip back and forth a bunch.

Readability/Story/Context: I enjoyed reading this book, as Jeff is a seasoned storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor. So, rather than skipping over the recipe intros and anecdotes, I took the time to read them with pleasure. I enjoyed the family stories and history. The sprinkles of nostalgia help showcase a slice-of-life of an Italian-American family, but also how Jeff merges past, present, and various travel inspirations in his recipe development and food life.

Recipes and Cookability: This book embodies great variety and broad appeal, even for picky eaters. I don’t feel as if any of the dishes were too complicated. If I had to rate it for cookability, I can safely say that an advanced beginner would have no problem with any of the recipes. From past experience, the Greek Lemon Chicken and Orzo Bake and General Tso’s Chicken Sandwiches are already staples in our house. I’m going to try his dry-brined turkey for “Friendsgiving” next weekend, which, if it works, would be a welcome change from my gallons-of-brine-ordeal that is my traditional Thanksgiving turkey. I also placed the Citrusy Honey-Tequila Shrimp on deck this week as well. I think that the words “tasty” and “accessible” dominate my opinion of the majority of these recipes, though the dessert/baking chapter was not my favorite.

The Verdict: If you don’t watch The Kitchen, this is a definite buy. If you already watch the show, it’s worth flipping through at your local bookstore to evaluate if you are going to be bothered with a few of recipes being repeats (even with the small tweaks). As a fan, it still was a good addition to my library, so final verdict is a “thumbs up” all around. Worth the time and dinero.

**Remember, my blog is not sponsored or monetized in any way. No link in my posts is an affiliate link, and these ideas are all my own. None of these companies know who I am, and all of this is crap I buy with my own dang money. I’m just not that cool, y’all**

Finished Knit–Baby Chalice Blanket

Pattern: Baby Chalice Blanket (available free on Ravelry)

Yarn: Loops & Threads Impeccable in the Forest colorway

Needles: US 10

Notes/Mods: This is an easy lace pattern, but you do need to realize that on two of the pattern rows, the stitch markers will change positions. I steam-blocked this to set the lace since the yarn is 100% acrylic. Probably my favorite baby blanket to date, and it the recipient loved it (they even passed it around at the shower). Overall, very happy with this project.

_______________________________________________________

My cousin is about to have her first baby, which of course, means baby knitting! I rarely knit for others anymore, but babies are always the exception. I got the shower invitation and went to work, finishing just under the wire. I also managed to burn through my binge-watching queue while I was at it, so I need to find a new show for my knitting time.

I really prefer Berroco Comfort yarn when knitting baby stuff, but my LYS was closed and I HAD to get started with that tight timeline. While Impeccable yarn would not have been my first choice, it blocked well, and it felt much better knitted up to me than the Snuggly Wuggly yarn (also a Loops & Threads yarn) I used on a previous baby blanket.

Whelp, now, it’s back to the UFO pile, because I need to stop starting projects until crap gets finished. I current have 4 projects on the needles, which is just too much. But, I confess, I have a severe case of “start-itis” going, so we shall see.

 

Tuesday Musings

Spring has sprung here in Louisiana, and while I am loving all of the flowers and returning color, my allergies are off of the charts this year. It’s a pollen wasteland, and my poor car looks like someone doused it in a vat of yellow powder. I’m still in phase 1 of my allergy shots, so I’m hoping next year will be better.

The bright side of the season is that we have been heating up the pool on the weekends, so we are getting plenty of fun exercise, which is especially important for the virtual school kids. I can’t even believe it’s been a year since they have been in a classroom. When we first went on lockdown last March, I thought the two-week window was sure to be enough. If you told me that, a year later, I would still have my kids home, I would never have believed it. I confess I’m worried about how this year will have impacted them both academically and socially, but I guess only time will tell. We made the best decisions we could when we had to choose.

Looking back over the past year, we experienced a lot. From the early days of cooking with limited resources and making masks for my friends and family, to household-only holidays and the pains of virtual school, it’s certainly been a wild ride. It’s so weird how you can get used to the unimaginable. Walking around the store last March, with everyone wearing masks and the empty shelves, felt like some kind of dystopian nightmare. Now, it’s just your average Tuesday. Even though we have a much more normalcy than we did in the early days, I still wonder how long it will be before we ever feel truly “normal.” I received my first shot of vaccine, which was a little morale boost. I told my friends I will never complain about the school carpool line again. (Yeah, we all know that’s a lie)

On to happier thoughts. Unfortunately, our winter garden took a beating in Snowmageddon, and we lost all of the broccoli, lettuces, and some of the cabbage. The carrots are ok, and the brussels sprouts are iffy. We already planted our tomatoes, jalapenos, and cucumbers, and relocated the herb garden to a better area in the yard. Since the yard was a construction zone last year, it was nice to go through our spring routines of planting the garden and freshening the flowerbeds. The best news, however, is that our irrigation systems emerged unscathed from the storm, other than a tiny part that our landscape guy replaced in about 30 seconds (for free, no less. I send him a lot of referrals). With so many burst pipes in the area, we could not believe we got so lucky on that deal.

Well, I think I’ve rambled on long enough. Can you tell I’m avoiding cleaning out my closet? Procrastination is my middle name.