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.
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**
During what would have been Mardi Gras Break, we ended up taking a quick trip up to Utah with the Heathens. Which coincidently, we made it up to the snow just as Snowmageddon hit Louisiana. With G-Man in college, it’s rare that he gets a break that coincides with his siblings, so we wanted to do something as a family when we could. I’m not too familiar with Utah at all, nor do we have any experience with winter sports/activities, so we just kind of winged it. Here’s a rundown of what we did, where we ate, and what we learned.
I felt wayyyyy too intimidated to try and plan a ski outing on our first trip. We would need (I think) equipment, lessons, and as warm-blooded southerners to the core, I already had to spend the big bucks on cold-weather gear. Seriously, the heaviest coat I own is a fleece hoodie, so outfitting everyone with coats, boots, pants, etc. was a project. But seriously, skiing seems like something that you don’t just try on a whim, and we probably would have needed the “complete idiots guide” or something. When you have never even driven in snow, hurtling down a mountain and busting my uncoordinated ass didn’t feel like the best way to start the vacation.
However, we still had a blast in Park City. We started the day at Park City Peaks, where we went on a two hour snowmobile excursion. The ranch is located about a 20-25 minute drive from town, and their trails are amazing. We started by driving to a practice area to get the feel of the snowmobiles. G-Man drove one by himself, I drove one with Bear riding on back, and the husband drove the third with Bean. (We did let Bear and Bean drive a little in the practice area, but not on the trails or up the mountain). If you have never driven one, I will say it took a bit of strength to steer and keep on course, and we certainly felt some soreness the next day. We went through backwoods trails, up the mountain and back down again. Two hours was PLENTY of time, and felt longer, but everyone had a blast. We were careful to dress appropriately in multiple layers, waterproof boots and outerwear, gloves, and googles. They provided helmets and the guide was super-nice. I’d definitely do it again.
After a quick lunch, we then moved on to Woodward Park City to go snowtubing. This destination also has skiing, snowboarding, and such, but I just purchased a two hour pass for the tubing. Luckily, they have a conveyor belt type of escalator to help you get to the top of the hill, and also a smaller hill available for younger kids. We loved it, especially going down the hill together as we held onto each other’s tubes. I wish I had pictures, but I was more focused on keeping my gloves on and my hands warm.
While we wanted to eat dinner in Park City, and even had reservations, we were worn out after tubing and headed back to the hotel. However, if you are planning a trip, I highly recommend planning dining reservations in advance. Even with almost two weeks lead-time, most of my “first pick” dining options were booked up already, or only had super-late seating available. In fact, this was pretty much the case for most places we went on this trip.
SLC and Surrounding Areas
Beyond our snow adventures, we did some exploring around the SLC area. The kids loved K1 racing, which was basically indoor go-carts on steroids, and I enjoyed the Natural History Museum. We also checked out some record shops (Sound & Vison Vinyl was the favorite), yarn shops (Blazing Needles was awesome and welcoming), and the City Creek Center for shopping.
As for food, here’s a quick summary:
We dined at the Red Iguana, which has been featured on Food Network. We enjoyed it, and I will definitely go back. They had a menu full of authentic Mexican dishes, but also plenty of options that are more familiar for those who expect “Tex-Mex”, *cough, cough* like my kids. (In Louisiana, Tex-Mex dominates, so I loved experiencing new-to-me flavors and dishes). Again, get reservations in advance, because they stay packed.
We checked out the Strap Tank Brewery and Squatters Pub Brewery, both of which offered typical pub food. Both had plenty of options for our diverse group of eaters, like sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, steaks, etc.
The kids and I had a hearty breakfast at Black Bear Diner, which is a chain I was unfamiliar with. It had a large menu of typical diner fare, and is a good spot for families. I really liked the waffle.
For date night, the husband and I went to Cultivate Craft Kitchen, which we love. The menu is creative and seasonal, and we sampled the Toffee Brie, English Chips, Risotto, and great cocktails. Highly recommend, but probably not a good place for kids, hence the whole date night thing.
After loving Cultivate, we all went to its sister restaurant, Cliff Dining Pub the next night. This is more family friendly but still has an upscale atmosphere. Everyone really enjoyed this spot, and we will be back.
So, overall, the trip was a fun break for us, and I can see giving skiing a try next time. I think the area is fairly easy to navigate, though be prepared to walk forrrr—-evvvvv—errrrr in the new airport. That was a workout! For this Louisiana girl, the liquor laws are a head-scratcher, but everyone we met was soooo nice. If you have any must-see/do/eat suggestions for next time, please leave a comment. We only hit up what I threw together in a quick google search, so I’d love to know what to add, especially in warmer weather seasons. I highly recommend getting dining reservations in advance, as well as attraction tickets (the Natural History museum is on limited entry, so you have to buy tickets in advance).
Now, it’s back to virtual learning, spring cleaning, and knowing that just when we get settled in, Daylight Savings Time will be here to mess it all up again. Send margaritas, stat!
**Just a reminder–This post is not sponsored, and any included links are NOT affiliate links. My blog is not monetized, and these are places I went and spent my own money.**
Oh man, it’s been a week, a no-good-very-bad week. While we all knew Thanksgiving would be different this year, I never saw this one coming. The Hubs caught the ‘Rona and was diagnosed this weekend. Cue an immediate two week (maybe longer) quarantine for our family, and the challenge of keeping him strictly isolated from the rest of the house in hopes of preventing it from spreading to me and the kids. (‘Rona+asthma=no bueno). So much sanitizing…so much hand washing…it’s a process. He is feeling pretty crappy, and we are missing him, but I know it could definitely be worse. The rest of us seem symptom-free so far, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we just might get lucky.
So our scaled-down Thanksgiving will now be even more so. I worked with the Heathens to edit the menu we had planned, though admittedly, it could still feed a very large crowd. If Thanksgiving feels lonely and less-than-special this year, they at least get to have their favorites stay on the menu. I already bought the 24-pound turkey, and I’m not giving up my Honey-Baked Ham, so the leftover game needs to be especially strong this year.
Since my last leftovers post, we have incorporated a few more recipes into the mix and I have other ideas to try.
I took this idea for Thanksgiving Tamales and ran with it. I did them with dressing, turkey, cheese, and spiced-up leftover cranberry sauce with sautéed jalapenos. And to make life easy, I steamed them in the Instant Pot. There are plenty of tutorials for cooking tamales both traditionally and in the Instant Pot.
I make Turkey a la King using this recipe. But instead of the cornmeal waffles, I take leftover dressing and add an egg or two to really help bind it together, then cook it in the waffle maker until golden brown. This is fabulous.
One thing I surprisingly never thought of is a classic Kentucky Hot Brown. Most of the ingredients are things I already have on hand from my Thanksgiving prep. I’ve also seen a ton of recipes for Hot Brown casseroles if you want to go rogue.
While we usually do the paninis I talked about in my last Thanksgiving leftovers post, I saw Jeff Mauro do this chimichanga of awesomeness on The Kitchen this weekend. Same principle as the paninis, just deep fried into pure joy. I will say that the size of the tortilla he used is not commonly found at the average Louisiana grocery chain, so I’m hoping to be off quarantine by then to pick some up from a local market.
I forgot to link my recipe for Cajun 15 Bean Soup in the Instant Pot last time. I always leave a good bit of ham on the bone before I toss it in the freezer. It’s a great rainy day meal.
I mentioned switching out turkey for chicken in recipes last time, but here are some specific ideas: Classic King Ranch, King Ranch Mac and Cheese, Fajita Chowder, turkey tacos, Thai turkey wraps, and a classic chicken noodle soup made with turkey, pictured above. For ham, consider classic ham biscuits, omelets/ scrambles, you can easily add chopped ham to this hash brown casserole to make it a main dish, and to a simple pasta alfredo with peas.
So there are some leftover ideas. I’ll probably be posting a lot to Instagram this Thanksgiving week since I’m still cooking, but not hosting a 20-30 person holiday. So, if you have questions, comment here or there. Quarantined is more fun with commiseration.
Finally, if you are a frontline worker, I want to personally say thank you. I can’t imagine how difficult this year has been for you, and it’s probably going to get worse based on the indications. I want you to know that you are what I am most thankful for this year.
So, I mentioned on the blog yesterday that I was going to start posting some recipes and ideas just in case they may help people navigate the ways quarantine is limiting our abilities and pantrys. Chicken Alfredo Pizza was something I made frequently when the boys were young. It’s fast, easy, cheap, customizable, and can stretch two smaller chicken breasts to feed a family of 5. This week, I made two versions: one with caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes added, and one with just the chicken, garlic, sauce, and cheese for the picky peeps. Before I list the recipe, here are some ideas to customize it or hack it if the grocery store is still a wasteland:
You can use any cooked chicken or turkey, or even brown up ground chicken and crumble it. When all the meat was gone this week at Kroger, there was a whole wall of smoked turkey legs. In a pinch, you can remove the meat from those and use it.
Who says it has to be chicken? Our store still had plenty of frozen shrimp in stock. Just sauté some until just under done, because they will finish cooking on the pizza.
Pizza dough: Making your own is easier than you think, and as long as you have flour and yeast on hand, you can do it. Alternatively, buy the tubes from the refrigerator case, which is what I did up until the Heathens were no longer tazmanian devils 24/7. My Kroger also sells fresh balls of pizza dough in baggies, which is in the deli section where they store the pre-made soups, salads, and take-home entrees.
While this recipe calls for the caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes, you could add bacon bits, sliced peppers, red pepper flakes for spice, toasted bread crumbs for texture, spinach to sneak in some veggies, or finish with a drizzle of balsamic glaze.
Just remember, until life settles down and our grocery stores can catch up, not every meal is going to be a Pinterest moment, nor is every recipe going to be a favorite of everyone in your household. I will say, though, that I think both experienced and less-confident cooks are going to come out on the other side of this having learned something new about the ways we shop and eat.
**Note–I doubled this recipe to make two the two pizzas seen above**
Start the onions first: Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat and add the onions and a small sprinkle of salt, stirring well. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally until they reach your desired level of caramelization.
While the onions cook, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a sheet pan or pizza pan with non-stick spray.
Dust your counter and a rolling pin with flour and roll out your pizza dough to fit your pan, then transfer it to the pan. Bake the pizza dough for 11 minutes, then remove from oven.
Spread the Alfredo sauce evenly over the pizza dough, starting with 1/4 cup at first and adding more as needed. The amount of sauce you will need will depend on the size of your pizza and your preferences. You want a nice even layer of sauce, but try not to drown it.
Distribute the chicken, onions, garlic, and sundried tomatoes over the pizza. Top with mozzarella and parmesan and return it to the oven.
Bake an additional 7-10 minutes until the cheese is melted and starts to brown a little in spots.
Let pizza rest about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.
Ok, I think we can all agree that food media and culture as a whole has changed in the past 20 years. We now have easy access to blogs, recipes, information, and research. Meanwhile, Michael Pollan and other researched-based advocates opened our eyes to the less-than-desirable aspects of processed foods and ingredients. We get to be seasoned foodies without ever having attended culinary school.
But the reality is that many people do not have the luxury to be selective about ingredients and methods, pandemic or not. They may live in food deserts with no access to fresh products (what would you do if the only store you could reach was Dollar General?), they may have inadequate funds, limited equipment, and lack the basics we take for granted, like reliable internet access for help.
When I first got married, I had recently birthed the Demon-Baby. My husband worked endless hours of overtime to keep us afloat, and I stretched our meager budget as far as it would go. And you know how I did that? Lots of processed products, canned products, protein stretching, and shortcuts. No shame in my game.
Those meals represented my efforts to provide us some semblance of “homecooked” meals, even if it was just a medley of frozen and canned ingredients hastily tossed together. Even before we got married, our college garage apartment produced many memorable bargain meals that we still recall with fondness: Bisquick cinnamon rolls and casseroles, sautéed chicken with Rice-a-Roni pasta, cheese omelets, and that time my husband and one of his best friends learned that splattering hot oil next to boiling liquid was a very, very, very bad idea.
As we all face uncertain weeks ahead, I thought I would dust off some of those meals and ideas. They are not really recipes per se, but ideas based on how I stretched our budget, made the most of processed foods, fresh food, and managed not to kill any of us.
Easy and Cheap Chicken Pot Pie: Stir together 2 cups cooked chicken (I often only used one chicken breast), 1 can cream of celery soup, 1 cup milk or half-and-half, 1 tsp. seasoned salt, 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1 can drained peas, and 1 can drained corn. Using a box of refrigerated pie curst, line the bottom of pie plate with 1 roll of the crust. Pour in chicken mixture, top with the other roll of crust, crimping edges. Cut a hole or two in the top to vent. Bake at 400 F 35-40 minutes until top begins to brown. Rest 5-10 minutes before serving. (Or use any combo of canned veg you have).
Under $5 Corn Chowder: Stir together 1-1/2 cups milk or half-and-half with one can of cream-style corn into a saucepan over low heat. (The regular size can of corn, not the 7-oz baby size). Add 4 slices chopped ham from the deli (or 1/2 cup chopped diced and browned smoked sausage, or some cooked bacon), 1 can of sliced or diced potatoes, drained, 1 can whole kernel corn, drained, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat about 10-15 minutes, and stir in 1 cup grated cheddar until melted. Serve with bread or rolls if you can.
Chicken Squares: Combine 6-oz of room temperature cream cheese with 6-oz of room temperature margarine, 4 TBS milk, 2 chopped green onions and add 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. black pepper. Add 3 cups shredded cooked chicken, mixing well. Separate two tubes of crescent roll dough into eight squares (which is two of triangles still together for each). Press the perforated seam of each square together firmly to create a solid square of dough. Place a spoonful of the chicken mixture into the center of each square. Bring the dough corners to the center, pinching all the edges to seal. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
Pantry Spicy Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: For the soup, combine 3 cups Spicy V-8 juice, 1 can condensed tomato soup, 1 can condensed cheddar cheese soup, and 1 tsp. dried basil in a saucepan. Heat on medium, whisking occasionally until hot and combined. For the sandwiches: Combine one can of condensed nacho cheese soup with 1-1/2 cups fiesta blend shredded cheese. Spread a couple of TBS of cheese mix between two slices of bread, and brush outside of sandwiches with melted margarine or butter. Cook the sandwiches grilled cheese-style until golden. Slice on the diagonal and serve with the soup. *If you can get your hands on a baguette or sausage buns, make mini sandwiches for optimal dipping, which makes picky eaters happier. They like to dip stuff*
My Spaghetti Casserole was a staple and continues to be a go-to. I would serve it with frozen or canned green beans that I seasoned with what I had on hand. You can make garlic bread using the ends of a bread loaf or sandwish bread you need to use up. Brush bread with a couple of TBS of butter mixed with a 1/4 tsp. garlic powder and 1/2 tsp. dried parsley. Toast in the oven.
Chicken Fajita Chowder relies on mostly pantry-ready ingredients and you can reduce the chicken to stretch it further (the beans add plenty of protein). If you don’t have chips, cornbread is a good side, or even crackers.
You don’t get any more affordable than Salmon Croquettes. We would serve this with boxed mac and cheese and canned peas.
When I Was in a Bind: I often would throw together a couple of diced, cooked chicken breasts with sautéed diced onion and minced garlic, add a can of cream of celery soup, 2 TBS. lemon juice, 1 TBS Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 cup of milk, 1 tsp. seasoned salt and one 1 tsp. paprika. If I had any dried parsley or thyme, I added some. I’d simmer it for a bit and serve over wedges of cornbread.
Top Some Potatoes: Potatoes are affordable, and last if you store them properly. If you can bake potatoes, you can top them endlessly, like with shredded chicken or beef, BBQ sauce, and cheese (maybe chopped onion or even slaw for the adults). How about cooked chicken, broccoli, and cheese sauce (maybe with some bacon bits)? Cook frozen breaded chicken strips, dice them, toss with ranch dressing, top potatoes, and drizzle with hot sauce (and sprinkle of blue cheese if you can find it). Try potato tacos, with all the usual ground beef and taco fixings on top. Potatoes are the ultimate affordable canvas to stretch protein.
Bisquick and other pre-made mixes are often very cheap, and versatile for pantry cooking, especially if you are short on time. I’ve made many a casserole from on-hand cans and a mix.
Combo meals that combine proteins with starches and/or veggies allow you to stretch ingredients further. Think pot pies, Shephards Pie, casseroles, breakfast scrambles, hashes, stews, soups, etc. Eggs are the often least expensive per-serving protein there is.
Nearly anything can be transformed into hand pies/meat pies. If you need to clean out the fridge of leftovers, use refrigerated pie dough or frozen bread dough to create a “sweep the kitchen” hand pie night. Use leftover protein, starches, and vegetables, and convince your kids it’s like personal pizza night, but better. Same goes for grilled sandwiches/panini.
Ask yourself if what a recipe calls for is TRULY necessary. It may call for three cups of shredded chicken, but you could probably fake it with two. Out of fresh ginger? You could probably scrape by with a fraction of that amount of ginger powder. Will it be just like the recipe? No, obviously, but it could help you try and hit closer to the flavor profile than nothing at all. I frequently substitute fresh herbs with dried (decreasing the amount by half). Some skipping and substitutions can get you by, but remember, don’t be that butthole who goes onto a website and gives terrible recipe reviews after you do so. While being a pantry MacGyver can keep your family well-fed, it’s not fair to compare a hacked recipe to what the writer intended.
The good-looking chicken breasts in the refridgerated case are going to be the most expensive. For now, I’d go for the frozen bags (which are often smaller and less-than-neatly cut), or if you have the time, grab the cheap cuts like legs or leg quarters and cook and shred the meat for later.
When in doubt, trust dishes like Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya, Stewed Chicken and Rice, Beef Tips, Meatloaf, etc. They are classics for a reason.
So, these are just some basics from the early days extreme budget eating that I hope inspire anyone struggling under quarantine frustration or scarcity. If you have questions about this post or how to stretch what you have, leave a comment, or if you prefer to ask a question privately, drop me an email (check my profile for the address).
It’s the last week of school, and needless to say, it’s crazy busy around here. However, I took some time today to cook one of the Heathen’s favorite dishes: Chicken & Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups. This super-easy meal gets a fast flavor cheat by using ranch dressing mix to season the chicken and spinach filling. I prepped it in the morning so all I had to do was pop it in the oven, and serve it up with a side salad and some garlic bread. And wine. Lots of wine. Did I mention it’s kinda crazy around here right now?
I cook for 6 people every day, three of which are hungry guys, so I tend to make a lot of food. You can easily half this.
Don’t forget to add salt to your pasta water. Salting the pasta water separates the good pasta cooks from the not-so-good pasta cooks.
To make the noodles easy to work with, lay out some foil or parchment paper on the counter and spray with non-stick spray. After you drain the noodles, lay them out in a single layer on the foil to prevent sticking.
Cook a few extra lasagna noodles. Inevitably, some will tear during the cooking process, so it’s good to have backups.
Grab a rotisserie chicken to cut the prep time if you want. I cooked a big batch of chicken in my Instant Pot and used the rest to make chicken salad.
Variation ideas: Add roasted red peppers or sundried tomatoes to the chicken mixture. Top with jarred alfredo sauce instead of the tomato sauce. Substitute chopped cooked shrimp or turkey for the chicken. Garnish with a little chopped basil or parsley.
We had our family reunion last weekend, which is always such a fun and blessed time. We cooked, we laughed, we ate, we played games, and mostly, we continued the tradition of togetherness that my grandmother and her siblings created for us. It’s easy to get lost in the stress of the day-to-day, but when you come together with about 80 of your nearest and dearest, it’s a good reminder about remembering what’s important.
Anyway, I made a few dishes to contribute to the weekend, and this salad was a big hit. It’s a crisp, cool dish that is the perfect antidote to the hot summer days. It’s also an ideal contribution for potlucks. If you need a refreshing salad that is sure to help beat the heat, this is it!
***Insert meaningful and insightful intro here…or not***
Before my mom passed away, she amassed quite the cookbook collection, many of which she inherited from her mother, or were gifts from the dozens of cousins, aunts, etc. that make up my huge, southern, zany extended family. And that’s where this post and the new series on my blog begins…
I remember spending hours flipping through those books, and not really understanding all of the history they contained, or what they represented to my mother. I would sit at her small, marble-topped kitchen table, turning the wrinkled, dog-eared pages while she miraculously bent our tiny, galley kitchen to her culinary will. Often, she’d pause mid-dinner prep to wash my cornsilk-like hair in the sink, setting a towel on the edge to cradle my neck before sending me off to a proper bath.
I always knew when she was feeling particularly down or frustrated, because that’s when she would fry chicken. After I had kids, she confessed that cooking our traditional fried chicken dinner (with rice, gravy, peas, and biscuits…preferably with mayhaw jelly), was a mental and emotional escape. She found that cooking that meal was the closest connection she could find to her own childhood memories, as well as a unique therapy when tackling the more difficult of life’s challenges.
When we moved to California, Mom was alone in a new place with no family and support system, which looking back, must have been incredibly lonely for her. Sometimes, her loneliness seemed like an invisible raincloud that blanketed our home, and she retreated to the kitchen like it was the only connection to her family and sense of home she could find. I also remember that, during these low periods, she pulled out the same few cookbooks from her collection, which were published works from the assorted regional chapters of Louisiana’s Junior League, churches, or other community cookbooks.
When she wanted to try something new, those were the books she looked to for a familiar foundation. Unlike a nationally published cookbook full of glossy photographs of culinary perfection, Mom was more inclined to try a new recipe that she knew came from the communities of her home state (as well as what came from her mother’s and aunts’ generation), and I think these books helped ease the homesickness that seemed to be her constant companion during those years. Other than the familiar recipes and techniques of her up-bringing, any recipe experiments began with a foray into those collections for research she felt she could trust. Looking back, I see that they were more like dictionaries and encyclopedias for a generation that wouldn’t see accessible internet or even unlimited long-distance calls for many years to come
By the time I was in middle school, I knew that the chocolate pie recipe I liked was in The Revel, the Christmas cookie recipe was in Cotton Country, and if I could not remember which recipes she had tried, I could always see her handwritten code in the margins to clue me in (a “check-plus-plus” meant she really liked it). I didn’t realize until we moved home, and I had spent more time with my extended family, that the various Louisiana Junior League and community cookbooks from that era were staples in every kitchen. Growing up in southern California, I did not realize how much community cookbooks were such an ingrained part of our Louisiana culture.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Mom’s cookbook collection, so when I stumbled across a copy of Cotton Country at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and ran to the register like I was Indiana Jones avoiding that whole boulder issue. What is amazing about the iconic cookbooks of the various chapters of the Louisiana Junior League (published in the 60’s and 70’s) and local churches, is that they continue to be staples in many of our homes, which is why I was able to find this one. For example, Cotton Country was published in 1972 by the Junior League of Monroe, with a first printing of 10,000 copies. Since that time, the book has gone through 21 additional printings, with some topping 60,000 copies per printing, and the most recent being 5,000 in 2016. The book I purchased is identical to the original publication, with the only upgrade being a hardback binding that replaced the annoying comb binding. The book has no photographs, hundreds of recipes, lots of original artwork, and demonstrates just how much a labor of love these books were for their creators. I remarked to my husband about how much work these books were for local communities, because they were complied long before we had computers and software to streamline the process. From the meticulous index to the sheer volume of recipes, I imagine this book, and those like it, was a momentous undertaking and a great source of pride for the women who created it.
As I flip through the recipes, they seem like a microcosm of a by-gone era, both good and bad. I see how much they focused on entertaining (some have notes “will feed 25 for appetizers, or 12 for entrees”), which is something I think we all could use a little more of (entertaining, that is). I feel like the more digitally connected we get, the less meaningfully connected we become to our friends and neighbors, and that a little real togetherness could do us all some good. These books also often give the ambiguous language of seasoned cooks (“just add to your taste”), which definitely reminds me of the women in my family, and why growing the confidence in cooking through experience is important in familial development.
However, along with all the feel-good nostalgia, I also know that these books also reflect the imbalances of race, gender, and socioeconomic classes that were just as much a part of those decades as beautiful Crab Mornay in elegant silver chafing dishes. In fact, each recipe in my recent purchase features the contributors’ names not as their own, but as a subset of their husbands. For example, rather than see “Mrs. Ann Smith,” you see “Mrs. John Smith,” a tradition that luckily seems to have faded slowly as modern South catches up. If anyone ever tried to call me “Mrs. Bayou-Husband,” I’d probably snort my cocktail right out of my nose. I well know that as charming as many of these books are, and the nostalgia they trigger, we could uncover an entire underlying narrative of racial and class dynamics that deserves acknowledgement, and that I could never do the justice that it deserves.
So, let’s circle back around to what this post is really about. A couple of months ago, I lost my father suddenly, and without warning. I’m trying to process the year-after-year grief sandwich life keeps serving me, losing my grandmother, mother, and father in such a short, successive time. After Mom died, that grief was like acid, eating away at me and it’s pretty much been a self-pity party ever since. This was a trauma I did, and do not, handle well. Except for those times when I kick myself in reminder that I am so blessed, it’s ridiculous. I wallow, but I also kick my own ass nearly everyday because perspective is the first step to a more graceful approach to the grief sandwich digestion project.
I think one of the most difficult parts of losing both parents is that I also feel like I lost a connection to my grandparents, because my parents helped keep their histories alive through their own stories and memories (though I was truly blessed to have my grandmother on Dad’s side live to see all of her great-grandchildren born and to be here for me into my mid-30’s). My mom regaled me of stories of her mom, including that she was a master sewer though my mom could not sew a stitch. I’m scared that I’ll lose those pieces in the telling of the stories to my own kids, and that they lost their own maternal grandparents at such a young age, when I had most of mine into my late teens to 30’s. I had the village. My kids’ village has shrunk in ways they will never know how to miss, but it also encourages me to embrace what’s still here.
I decided that one way to try and prevent an even deeper dive into the unhealthy grief sandwich starts with these cookbooks that defined so much of both my mom’s life, but also all the people in my crazy, zany, lovable family. Both Mom and Dad carried emotional weights from their own upbringings, and I want to learn from what worked and what didn’t. As a crafter, cook, and general maker, of course my approach starts with “PROJECT!!!”
I’m starting a new segment on the blog called “Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday” in which I will make a recipe from an old Junior League, church, or otherwise community cookbook close to me. You will see an unvarnished attempt at the recipe of the week, even if it fails epically, as well as my notes on how to translate the vague portions and directions into coherent words for an actually repeatable recipe.
So, if you actually managed to read this, you get a gold star! Stay tuned for culinary adventures and plenty of mishaps. And maybe, by the end of this little or big experiment, grief won’t be quite such a four-letter word. No promises there, but I promise a good cocktail along the way.
So, a couple months ago, I joined Weight Watchers to try and get my health pendulum to swing into a more positive direction. I had previously just been calorie counting in My Fitness Pal, but I was getting concerned that I was so focused on the calorie content of foods, I was missing the fundamentals of nutrition and turning to too many processed foods. I decided to give the new Freestyle program a try, and it’s slowly been changing the way I approach most meals (dinner still has to be a compromise for the husband and Heathens). What made me try it? Here is what is making it worth it for me…for now:
I used to just grab a ZonePerfect protein bar for breakfast. It only has 210 calories, so that’s good, right? Um, nope. WW rates this bar at a whopping 8 points, which is over 1/3 of the 23 points I’m supposed to eat a day. Not to mention, I’m starving by 10 and sugar-crashing. However, most fruits have 0 points, as do eggs, which means I could eat a larger portion of something that is better for me, and not a processed, added-sugar cocktail.
Lunch was typically a Lean Cuisine. Convenient, and low-calories, right? Um, no again. The Chicken Alfredo meal clocks in at 8 points (man, that protein bar is really looking evil now). The portion is tiny, and I’m starving by 2. However, I can now craft one of my wraps below, piling on chicken and spinach, and come away with a 3 point meal with fruit or veggies to fill in any cracks.
Dinner, like I said, is a compromise. I try to make a couple of healthier meals, and air-fry extra veggies for me on the less than ideal meals. However, just running the meal through WW to see points helps me adjust my portion back into sane levels.
Overall, I was skeptical that WW had any value for me, because the food equation seemed straightforward. However, I fell into the trap of a calories-in-versus-calories-out approach to fitness. Now, I am more thoughtful about the underlying value of what my food choices have, and I can say that I can feel the difference. While I still have some processed ingredients, it’s way better than it was.
So, there’s the explanation as to why you will occasionally see me share a few meal ideas for WW peeps. Now, onto my 3 SP lunch this week. Just remember not to overfill if you want to be able to actually wrap them:
2 TBS Hidden Valley Greek Yogurt Ranch Dressing, divided)
Fresh baby spinach leaves (as much as you want)
Cooked boneless, skinless chicken breast, shredded (as much as you want to try and fit in there)
1 ounce fat free feta cheese
1 tsp. real bacon bits
Place wrap on a plate and spread with 1 TBS of the ranch dressing. Add spinach and top with cooked chicken. Top chicken with the remaining ranch, then sprinkle with feta and bacon bits, wrap burrito style, and enjoy!
Additionally, I also make a BBQ variation that comes in at only 2 SP! Same concept, just swap the ranch for Stubbs BBQ sauce and the feta for fat free cheddar:
P.S. I cook chicken breasts in the Instant Pot on Sundays, shred them, and store them in the fridge, so I have the chicken ready on-hand.
**Disclaimer as usual. Weight Watchers doesn’t know me, my blog is not monetized or sponsored, and nobody gives me free crap or anything like that. Oprah is cool, but she doesn’t know me either. I just want to pass along stuff I like someone might like too**