Friday, December 31, 2010

Food Critic = My Dream Job

I’ve decided that it would be my absolute dream to review restaurants for a living.  I love to travel and I love to eat.  So, if someone could put those two things together for me, I’d have it made. 

And they wouldn’t have to all be fancy restaurants by any means.  I’ve loved watching “Man v. Food” and one of the things I love most about it is that he goes to family eateries, cheap joints mostly.  “Pig out spots”, I believe he calls them.  I wouldn’t necessarily have to go to “pig out spots” (and I’m definitely not up for the eating challenges).  But I wouldn’t be adverse to them either.  I would be “on a quest” for good food, no matter what or where.

I’m a foodie, but I’m not a sophisticated gourmet, necessarily.  (But I like that kind of food too!)  So I’d use regular language and have a regular palette. 

I think lots of people out there are looking for a regular someone to tell them what restaurants they should try.  This is why people ask friends for their suggestions more often than looking up restaurant reviews online or in the paper!  (Anecdotal evidence, yes.)  So now all I have to do is make about a billion friends and have someone pay me to “advertise” my suggestions to all those friends.  Easy enough, I’m sure.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

McDonald’s Coke

About 8 years ago, I first encountered the idea that McDonald’s Coke was singularly delicious at a church women’s Bible study in northern Kentucky.  Thank you, Rolling Hills Church of Christ.  You were a hot mess of a church, but I will be eternally grateful to you for this sweet morsel of information.

I don’t know what it is about McDonald’s Coke that sets it apart from other Coke.  (And yes, I’m using “Coke” as a reference to actual Coca-Cola Classic soda, not as a generic southern term for all soda.)  Somehow it tastes much better than other restaurant fountain Cokes.  And I don’t know why it took me so long to discover that fact for myself.  Though I’m not normally a huge fan of fountain pop.  Its very nature is much sweeter & syrupy than other soda.  And the ratio of ice to soda is way too high in favor of ice.  Which then just melts & waters the soda down to an unpleasant degree.

But McDonald’s Coke is different.  It’s delightful & bubbly.  Sometimes Coke is a bit too acidic, but McDonald’s has somehow mastered the combination of fizz and sweet to create the perfect beverage.  I think McDonald’s website says it best: “Your McDonald’s meal’s BFF.”  Too true.

Even better, the past few summers has brought us the $1 large Coke deal.  Savor the savings, people!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gift Mixes

How many layered jars of brownie & soup mixes do you currently have in your pantry or on your counter?  Why is it that we save those mixes “for a special occasion” rather than using them like the gifter intended, just to enjoy?!  Sometimes it’s because making what the mix is for is still a lot of work, even with the addition of the mix to help out.  Sometimes you still have to add a lot of ingredients that you may or may not already have on hand.  Sometimes it’s just that the jars are so pretty, all layered up, and you don’t want to ruin it by using it! 

Our church gives out a special “welcome bag” gift to new visitors each Sunday and a special one on Christmas Eve.  We are a part of the group that helps put those gifts together.  Usually it’s a food mix of some kind.  We’ve done layered brownie & cookie mixes in jars, dip mixes, beverage mixes, etc.  A lot of times we do a little something special for the Christmas Eve welcome bags since we have an abundance of visitors for those services especially.  One year for Christmas Eve we gave out apple crisp mixes that you could make in a mug, along with a church mug & an apple to make the mix. 

One of the reasons people like to give out gift mixes is that they’re meant to be an inexpensive but homemade, thoughtful gift.  However, sometimes with the cost of ingredients (like expensive M&M’s) and the jars and the tags, it can add up to be not so cheap. 

Recently I saw this gift mix & thought it would be simple & inexpensive as well:

Capture the yumminess of s’mores in a jar to be made at the recipient’s leisure!
In a Mason jar, layer in this order:
  • 1/3 cup graham crackers, crushed (on the bottom)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups of Holiday M & M’s
  • top is off with mini marshmallows
On the tag, it should read:
S’mores in a Jar
Combine ingredients of the jar with 1/2 cup of melted butter and 1 tsp. vanilla.
Press mixture into 9-inch square baking pan.
Place the marshmallows on top.
Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Cool completely.
Cut into bars and enjoy!
The jars, ingredients and decor were less than $5 each.
**Cari’s Note: Even easier, you can buy graham cracker crumbs already crushed for you!

This year we gave out gift mixes to friends, neighbors & co-workers.  A couple years ago we moved into our first house & I was overcome with Christmas cookie baking energy, so I took plates of Christmas cookies to several of our new neighbors.  Last year I was lacking that same energy, but several of our neighbors blessed us with small gifts of cookies, candy, etc.  This year I didn’t want to have to count on extra energy and we’re still on a pretty tight budget, so I decided to make beer bread mixes for everyone on our list.  The list is fairly long, but these mixes are pretty inexpensive to make, so it still stayed within budget.  And it didn’t take a lot of energy or time, so that was a bonus!

Beer Bread Mix
In a quart Ziploc bag, add ½ C sugar and 3 C self-rising flour.  Label bag “Beer Bread Mix”.  Put in pretty paper bag or leave plan & attach a Direction label.  (I used Christmas scrapbook paper & printed the directions on the backside.  Approximately 12 labels per sheet.  Then I used a holepunch and some brads to attach to the paper bag; you could easily attach to the Ziploc bag instead, though.)

Direction label:
1.  Add 12 oz beer / soda & mix well.                                           
2.  Spread into a greased loaf pan.                                               
3.  Brush 1 T melted butter over top, if desired.                                   
4.  Bake at 375 degrees for 50-55 min. 

**This bread is easy, inexpensive & delicious!! (Yes, you read that right.  I actually like beer bread okay since it’s more dense & moist than normal bread, with a mild sweet flavor.  Great for dipping in soups.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Gum: The Miracle Fix

Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve loved gum.  I like bubble gum, mint gum, fruity gum.  Who doesn’t remember Big League Chew or Fruit Stripes gum?  How about Hubba Bubba?  Or finding gum in the middle of a lollipop?  That was always preferable than the tootsie roll centers for me.

As an adult, I still like gum.  My young nephew’s favorite thing about me for awhile was the fact that I always had a plethora of gum choices for him to seek out in my purse. 

A few years back I discovered that chewing gum after a meal helped to curb my dessert cravings.  Mint is actually an appetite suppressant, afterall.  But usually I just “need” a little something sweet after a meal, so a stick of sugar-free gum is just the ticket! 

I used to chew Extra Cool Green Apple gum.  But then I discovered that after chewing it, my husband always told me I had bad breath.  Come to find out, he just didn’t like the smell of that gum, but until I linked the two, I was pretty concerned for awhile.

Recently a friend introduced me to the new Extra Dessert Delights gums.  My favorite is the key lime pie, which is surprisingly similar to actual key lime pie.  I’m not a huge fan of the mint chocolate chip since it has a fake chocolate taste to me – similar to the fake chocolate in candles & chapsticks – but others seemed to really like it.  I have yet to try the strawberry shortcake version but I’ve heard that’s good.
One of my favorite gum finds of all time is the Orbit pina colada.  For awhile Trident had a similar flavor too but I’ve had trouble locating that recently. 

Like many things, my husband doesn’t share my love of gum.  I have no idea why.  But I guess this, like cheese, is just one more thing I get to keep all to myself. 

Merry Christmas, friends!!  I hope you find tasty, delicious gum in your stocking.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weeknight Winter Weather Soup

I’ve written about my go-to foods before. One I left out is a treasure for winter-weather time.  It’s fast & delicious.  It’s easy to have on hand.  What could be better?!  For those of you out there that don’t like clams, you’re missing out.  I’ve never had fresh clams in the shell and sometimes clams can be a bit too chewy, but that’s usually from over-heating.  I like mine minced up good in a pasta sauce or soup.  And with the added benefit of corn and cream, you can’t go wrong.  If absolutely necessary, you could substitute a can of chicken for the clams.

Corny Clam Chowder

1 can cream-style corn
1 can cream of potato condensed soup
1 can minced or chopped clams, drained
1 ½ C half & half

In a medium saucepan, mix corn, soup and half & half.  Heat through.  Add clams and heat through. 

Garnish with bacon bits, if desired.  (We love it with Tastefully Simple’s Bacon Bacon sprinkled on top!)

Serve with corn muffins for a quick & delicious weeknight meal in under 10 minutes!! (Not counting the time it takes to make the corn muffins, of course.)

Note:  I did substitute 2% milk for the half & half recently and it was decent, but not nearly as good as the cream.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Food Callings

A few years back I knew no one that had what I like to call “food issues”.  Now I am related to 3 ½ vegetarians (yes, someone is just a half!), two gluten-free dieters, and I have two milk-free persons as well as some other fun stuff.  Not to mention my other friends who are eating “clean” and/or completely organic.  I like to call this “holistic”.  In fact, I have a friend that believes quite strongly in providing completely organic and whole foods for her kids.  Though this might have changed now, when I visited her last year and her kids were toddlers, neither of them had ever ingested anything that wasn’t organic or homegrown. 

Let’s start with the family vegetarians.  It all started when my sister-in-law read a novel that contained some material about the treatment of animals at a chicken farm, I believe.  This so captured her attention that she read up on this issue.  And she came to the conclusion that the best thing for her to do was to protest this inhumane treatment by becoming a vegetarian.  I respect this decision, as I do others who have made a similar resolution for the same, and different, reasons.  Though I have not personally been convicted of this myself yet.

So, onto the organic guru.  She is a wonder to me.  When I met her, she burned soup out of a can.  Now she cooks everything from scratch, and I do mean SCRATCH.  I think she’d plant her own wheat & grind it if she could.  She is definitely willing to spend money to get the best food for her family.  And she’s willing to spend time researching food.  She’s the one that told me that pickled or fermented foods are very good for you in moderation.  Important, in fact.  And that foods like corned beef are fermented.  But she didn’t want to buy already corned beef.  She wanted to buy organic, farm raised brisket at a local co-op and do the work of fermenting it herself.  Amazing!  Would never have occurred to me, I can assure you.

Food issues are becoming more & more common.  Some people are forced into making these life-altering changes.  But some people are called to it out of a conviction they have about their food & where it comes from.  (I recently read a book called "Everyday Justice" that gives a lot of insight into where our food comes from, what's in it, and how our food affects other countries.)  Most people who have food issues have to pay a higher price because of them.  So it intrigues me when someone is more than willing to pay this price. 

What price are you willing to pay?  Have you been convicted of any food “callings”?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Emotional Eating (or not)

It’s been pretty well documented that a lot of people are emotional eaters.  In fact, I just got an email devotion about that very topic today.  People try to fill the gap of sadness with food.  Or the gap of boredom, being lonely, etc.  And I probably fit into that more often than not, though I think I’m somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. 

But there are others who are emotional non-eaters.  Those, who because of some strong emotion, are simply not hungry.  The thought of food sounds repulsive and the taste is like ash in their mouths.

Normally I do not fall into this category.  Even when my mom passed away, this was not really the case for me.  My husband is the one that has a tendency toward this kind of reaction with emotions & food.  Often when he’s very stressed out (like having to drive a huge moving truck towing a car across several states), he will pass on meals until the stressful situation is over.

Again, this does not normally happen to me.  But it did recently.  I like to think I’m a fairly rational person, not given to such dramatic emotions at this point in my life.  Apparently that’s not as much the case as I’d hoped.

Anyway, it’s a weird, awful feeling and I hope I don’t experience it regularly from here on out.  And I’m sorry for those of you who do react this way on a continual basis.  I will never again joke about how I’d rather have that reaction than the opposite, making it seem like you’d want to somehow feel this way in order to lose weight!  It’s like constant butterflies, and not in a good way. 

Oh, well.  Just something new I experienced recently in the realm of food that I thought I’d share all my greatest fans out there.  

What kind of emotional eater are you?    

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Anniversary Dinner Suggestions?

Early next month is our 12th anniversary and we have started discussing our restaurant options for that annual date.  Last year we discovered a new favorite of ours, Shucks, on our anniversary.  We often enjoy finding great new places, but we have some favorites that we don’t have the opportunity to get back to much, especially with our new tightened budget these days.  (I’d still love a great reason to go back to Bonefish Grill.  Maybe this is it.) So we’re both supposed to take some time to research some options and then come back together to discuss. 

So, my helpful readers, I am asking for your suggestions.  Where, in the Omaha metro area, would you suggest we spend our wad for our anniversary?  (Note: it’s not necessarily a large wad!)  We’ve discussed going to a new sushi place, but as I’ve tried several places and always still prefer Hiro, I’m not sure I want to waste money on a new sushi place when I know I could have amazing sushi there.  And though we often prefer seafood, we’re open to other options too.  (Mahogany steakhouse is probably out of our price range, FYI.  Though it’s definitely on my bucket list!)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Family Christmas Food Traditions

My family didn’t have too many food Christmas traditions growing up.  My mom liked to experiment & rarely made the same thing each Christmas like some families.  I know a lot of families that basically have the same food at Christmas that they make at Thanksgiving.  Ours wasn’t quite like that.  But later on my family started a tradition of having lots of fun appetizers on Christmas Eve.  Shrimp, pizza rolls, dips, etc.  When I got married, my husband’s family took over the Christmas Eve family timeslot, but now my extended Smith clan has started coming over to my house the last few years on Christmas night and enjoying the appetizers.  I don't think that's happening this year with Christmas being on a weekend & all, but I'm sure we'll get back to it eventually.

A couple years ago, right before my mom passed away, we had hamballs for our family’s Christmas dinner.  I believe we had them last year as well.  And a few of us discussed having them again this year.  I think it’s becoming a tradition.  Not everyone would probably love the hamball thing, but our family has always enjoyed them. 

Growing up it seemed that my mom’s family get-togethers always consisted of lots of soup offerings.  I was definitely a picky eater when I was younger.  And the soups were hardly ever my faves.  Chili wasn’t something I really liked.  But I usually liked clam chowder and potato soup.  So every year, for quite a few years, I’d go for the oyster soup that was offered.  Because it looked fine, much like a potato soup.  And I always WANTED to like it because of that.  But then the spoonful of broth would hit my lips and I would remember all over again how disgusting it really was.  Oh, those soup dinners were hard!  Eventually the soup offerings changed, and sometimes my fears of the soups were alleviated with roast beef or something altogether different anyway.  Hallelujah.

My mom’s family is of Swedish decent.  So, in addition to the sketchy soup offerings, we also had Swedish meatballs or sausage.  And always, always my grandma’s ostkaka.  It’s a firm Swedish custard, similar in consistency to a ricotta cheesecake and sometimes served with a warm grape sauce.  But since I don’t do jelly & the grape sauce always seemed a LOT like jelly, I had mine plain.  Which was just fine.  It was sweet anyway.  My grandma hasn’t been able to make this time-consuming delicacy in many years (one of the ingredients is rare & isn't being imported to the US due to mad cow disease, I guess) and I don’t think there’s anyone left that knows the recipes.  Which is a tragedy.  I know not all of the family transplants (aka in-laws) came to love this dish, but us originals won’t forget it. 

My sister-in-law, Amy, joined our family many moons ago.  And one tradition she brought over from her side was having a birthday cake for Jesus after the big Christmas feast.  It’s something that she grew up with and holds a lot of meaning for her and now that there are several kids, I think it’s a great way to point back to the true meaning of Christmas, even with food.

What Christmas food traditions does your family have?  Soup?  Turkey?  Lutefisk?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas Cookies

Christmas.  That word carries so much meaning.  Some feel warm & fuzzy at the thought.  Others are left cold with disappointment.  But most of us have enjoyed our fair share of special delights found only at this time of year.  My mom was never really into the sugar cookie decorating thing, so that doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me.  Sugar cookies without the frosting are almost pointless in my world anyway.  Most recipes for them take a lot of time and effort, with hours of chilling in the fridge before you can roll out the dough and cut it into fun shapes.  My sister has just such a recipe that she loves.  I’ll pass.  (Though I might still be tempted to eat them if they’re slathered with enough icing!)  I go for the fudge, the dipped pretzels & Oreos, and the homemade caramels. 

One of our family’s favorite Christmas confections is the green cornflake Christmas wreath cookie.  Made similar to a rice krispie treat, but with cornflakes, a dash of green food coloring in the melted marshmallows and some redhots splashed on for berries, they’re simply delicious and fun.  Some people actually try to shape them into wreaths, but I think a good clump is just perfect.

My aunt Jeanie makes the best cornflake cookies but her fudge is probably my first place pick.  It’s super simple to make too.  She adds nuts, which cuts the sweet just perfectly.
 Aunt Jeanie’s Fudge
3 C semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 ½ tsp vanilla
Chopped walnuts, optional
Dash of salt, optional

Melt chocolate chips & milk in microwave, stirring occasionally.  Add salt (optional).  Add walnuts (optional).  Add vanilla.  Mix well.  Spread into 9x9 pan.  Cool & cut.

What’s your favorite Christmas cookie / treat?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Must Have: Kitchen Shears

As I was snipping into some bacon recently to make my Machine Shed Baked Potato Soup, I was in awe of my kitchen shears for perhaps the millionth time.  In the past, I’ve struggled with dicing up bacon.  If it’s not cold enough (some people suggest putting it in the freezer for a bit prior to cutting to help), it will simply tear apart, rather than make a nice slice.  SO frustrating!  I’ve had ooey, gooey bits of bacon fat string out, even when I use my good knife.  But with the kitchen shears, not only did I not have the stringy problem, I also didn’t have to plan ahead to put my bacon in the freezer first.  I could simply take it from fridge, cut it into the size I needed in two quick snips, and go.  With a smile on my face, I might add. 

I also love, love, love to use kitchen shears while making my monkey bread.  I use canned biscuits for my monkey bread, and I snip each biscuit in half with my kitchen shears in a matter of milliseconds.  No cutting board needed.

Same with pepperoni or Canadian bacon for pasta salads, adding to mac & cheese, etc.  I know you can buy mini pepperonis for such dishes now, but if I already have the regular size version for my Friday pizza nights, it’s much more economical to use that size & snip it up rather than spend more money simply for a smaller version.  And I can cut several slices of pepperoni at the same time with my kitchen shears. 

I know some people who even forego the traditional pizza cutter in preference for using kitchen shears to cut up their pizza.  And kitchen shears do great work to snip up just about anything into child-size bites for little fingers & mouths.

You can spend big bucks on nice kitchen shears.  But the ones I got with my cheap knife block when we got married 12 years ago work just great.  So do the second pair I got for about $5 at Walmart a couple years ago when I was fed up that my other ones were always dirty when I needed them.  (We do dishes as little as possible, though it seems that’s becoming more & more frequent the less we eat out these days.)  They are Farberware brand & even have a little plastic guard for the ends that snaps into place easily.  (Pictured shears are similar to mine.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

I Don’t Do: Spicy Hot

I’ve mentioned our newfound love of “Man v. Food” on the Travel Channel.  We finished with season 1 episodes on Netflix Instant and have moved on to season 2.  And several of the episodes have focused on eating challenges with extremely spicy food.  This has prompted me to let you all know that I don’t do spicy hot food.  Sure, I love a good medium salsa and can do a jalapeno every now & then, though I’d prefer the seeds were removed for good measure since that’s where the real heat comes from.  But when it comes to the kind of spice that can remove your stomach lining from your body, I’m out.  Way out. 

I simply don’t understand the appeal of food that can actually do you harm.  I don’t think the flavor can be good enough to get past the heat-induced CRYING that comes with.  I do not want to eat something that when the residue is wiped onto a napkin that is then wiped onto my face by accident, IT WILL BURN MY SKIN.  (Yes, that happened to him one time on the show.)  And I never want to consume something that makes me feel “like I swallowed a porcupine”.  (He referenced this phrase twice during heat challenges.  Gross.  And ow.)

I know there are whole cultures of people that enjoy truly spicy food.  I am glad to not be a part of that culture.  I’m from the culture of cream of mushroom soup, people. 

So know this:  when I go to a Thai restaurant, I will order a #2 on a scale of 10.  At my favorite Indian restaurant, I order the very mild chicken korma, that comes creamy & delicious with no spicy heat present.  When ordering Mexican, I will enjoy the chicken enchilada, topped with a mild sauce & creamy cheese.  I do not add hot sauce to anything except my chicken pot pie recipe, and only then do I add about 3 DROPS to the whole pan of creamy sauce. 

If you want spicy hot heat, you better find somewhere else to eat.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Allure of Miniature

I have a theory that almost everything is better / cuter in miniature version.  I think this is why we love babies and puppies.  And why I’m intrigued by the Mini Cooper and Smart Cars.  But in the area of food, I think this is noted best.  I definitely prefer baby carrots over the original size.  I love me some cheesecake bites, mini quiche, brownie bites, little smokies, baklava cups, etc.  I could go on & on.  I’m not sure what the allure is, other than the fact that you can make all these things in a smaller size and thus, sample more things.  I’m a big fan of my Pampered Chef mini muffin pan with which I make many mini treats like bite-size lemon tartlets.  And the mini tart shaper that I use for making those plus mini ham puffs and brownie bites.  And the small cookie scoop that is the perfect size for measuring out the right amount of dough for brownie bites or filling for the mini ham puffs.  (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Pampered Chef has these three items linked – if you click on one, it will lead you to another, which leads you to another.)  These aren’t essentials for the average cook.  But if you’re excited about making things in miniature like me, you might want to invest in such things.

 Tuxedo Brownie Cups 

1 pkg (19-21 oz) fudge brownie mix (plus ingredients to make cake-like brownies)
2 squares (1 oz each) white chocolate for baking (opt)
2 T milk (opt)
8 oz cream cheese, softened
¼ C powdered sugar
1 C Cool Whip
Sliced fresh strawberries, nuts, chocolate chips or other berries for topping

Spray mini-muffin pan with cooking spray or use mini muffin paper/foil liners.  Prepare brownie mix according to package directions for cake-like brownies.  Using small cookie scoop, place 1 level scoop of batter in each cup, filling cups 2/3 full.  Bake 14 min at 325 degrees or until edges are set.  Do not overbake.  Remove pan to cooling rack.  Immediately press tops of brownies with mini tart shaper to make indentations.  Cool in pan 15 min.  Loosen edges and gently remove brownies from pan.  Cool completely.  Wash pan & repeat with remaining batter.  (Optional: microwave white chocolate & milk (uncovered) on high for 1 minute; stir until smooth.)  In a large mixing bowl, combine softened cream cheese and powdered sugar; mix well.  (Optional: Stir white chocolate mix into cream cheese mix until smooth.  You can leave this out if you aren’t a big white chocolate flavor fan & it will still be delicious.)  Fold in Cool Whip.  Pipe cream cheese mixture into cooled brownie cups.  (I use Pampered Chef’s Easy Accent Decorator, but any cake decorating products will work.)  Arrange desired toppings on top of brownie cups.  Place in airtight container & refrigerate 1-3 hours before serving.  Makes 4 dozen.

Tips: You can make the brownie cups ahead of time, up to a day prior.  But the cream cheese filling becomes too firm when refrigerated & can’t be piped with a decorator if you make it ahead.