Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rain, snow and daffodils

It's another dreary day in Bristol, with plenty of slow drizzle and dark skies. Because my husband walks our dog, he especially hates these rainy days. I am not a fan of being wet and cold, but I know they are necessary.

We went from this in February:

And this:

Then, of course, some more of this:

But the rain and snow finally gave way to this:

And this:

April showers are supposed to bring May flowers. So far, February's snow and rain have kicked off the show.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wine and lottery tickets for lunch

During my lunch break I got plenty accomplished.

I bought one of these:

Gotta feed the mind, right?

I bought two of these:

I mean, the jackpot for Mega Millions is over $312 million, folks. I normally only buy one lottery ticket, on the rare occasion that I play at all. I figured with that payoff, I would buy two. (Well, that and the fact that my husband is part of a group buy at his job, but was silent when I asked him if he planned to share his winnings.)

And I got three of these:

Many thanks to my friend, Mike Hilton at Vintage Collections in Bristol, Tenn., for making some suggestions. O.K., the truth is I got a bottle of Seagram's Seven and two bottles of wine. To cook with, if my mother-in-law is reading this...

Happy Friday, everyone!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Carolina-style pork with a twist

Pulled pork barbecue, with a heaping scoop of crunchy coleslaw, is a lifelong favorite. I can eat it on a soft, hamburger-style bun, or skip the bread altogether. But I definitely want some hot sauce, coleslaw and a splash of vinegar. I am a Carolina style fan and I shun saucy or sweet barbecue. I want vinegar and red pepper, and little else.

When I was a child, my family frequently visited Pardner’s Barbecue in Rocky Mount, N.C. It was a good stopover for dinner when we were traveling from Norfolk, Va., to Raleigh, N.C. to visit my maternal grandparents and extended family members. The restaurant featured Carolina-style pork barbecue, crisp coleslaw, corn sticks and Brunswick stew. My favorites were the pork and Brunswick stew, a thick blend of tomatoes, lima beans, corn and chicken. I loved the corn sticks, too. They were a special treat (versus cornbread) and required a special pan to bake.

Who knows how many times we ate dinner at that restaurant, but it was an unspoken promise that we were stopping there on our trips to Raleigh.

I made a hybrid sauce for a pork picnic that I recently fixed in the slow cooker. I used saucier ingredients to keep the meat moist, while trying to stay true to the Carolina style. It contained ketchup and sugar, along with hot sauce, vinegar and red pepper. The pork was moist and tender after about 8 hours of cooking in this glaze; it easily shredded with two forks and paired perfectly with coleslaw.

In a medium bowl, combine all the sauce ingredients: ketchup, vinegar, sugar, hot sauce, garlic, black pepper and red pepper.

Pour the mixture over the pork, which has been put in a 6-quart slow cooker.

Cook on low for 8 hours. This is a better method than cooking on high for four hours. The roast needs to cook slow and low. After 8 hours, remove the pork from the crock – use two spatulas because the meat will be falling apart tender.

Use two forks and shred the meat into small pieces. Try to stay focused; the savory smell is keenly distracting!

Pile the pork high on soft hamburger style buns. If you are making one for me, you must add coleslaw and extra hot sauce. Dig in!

My coleslaw was falling out all over the plate, just the way I like it!

Here’s the recipe:

Savory pulled pork

4 pound pork picnic
½ cup ketchup
½ cup vinegar
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 teaspoon hot sauce (Frank’s Red Hot)
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

Spray a 6-quart slow cooker with non-stick cooking spray; place the pork inside. Combine all the sauce ingredients and pour over the pork to cover completely. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Remove the pork from the slow cooker. Use two spatulas because the meat will be so tender it is falling apart. Shred the meat with two forks. Pile high on soft buns with a dollop of cole slaw and extra hot sauce and/or vinegar. This feeds a crowd; certainly enough for 10 sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

949 views for crab dip? Seriously exciting!

My blog is a work in progress and something that gives me pleasure, but I don't expect it to be a moneymaker or to burn up the Internet. After nearly 20 years as a writer and editor, I have turned my itch to write into an effort for myself, my family and my circle of friends. I can add recipes, photographs and random thoughts on my schedule.

In my newspaper career, I worked for publications large and small. I had to manage deadlines, concerns from readers and the mission of the paper. And I am used to what I have written being seen by thousands of people. But I was thrilled and surprised to see that one of the recipes I have posted on my food blog has been viewed more than 900 times! Aunt Peggy's Hot Crab Dip is a hit in real life and on the Internet, apparently!

Many thanks to the people who follow this blog and give me encouragement to keep writing and sharing. I truly appreciate your feedback; hearing from you is always welcome. Keep trying the recipes and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One tough orchid

This is a photo of what my phalaenopsis orchid should look like when it next blooms. I say “should” because it’s been nearly three years since I’ve seen it in all its glory; forgive me if my memory is rusty.

I bought the plant at Trader Joe’s in Newport News, Va. If you are a fan, you know that store sells delicious snacks, quirky party food, cheap wine and, on occasion, beautiful flowers. I was sucker for the elegant blooms. But orchids are temperamental and testy. They are slow to bloom. They want humidity, but not too much water. They want light, but not too much direct sunlight. The orchid bloomed for several months, the nothing. The leaves were green, but no shoots for future blooms.

I was very ill in the spring of 2008 and the orchid was nearly forgotten. In other words, my neglect nearly killed the thing. When my husband and I moved to Bristol later that year, I left the plant behind with my parents. They can grow virtually anything and I asked my dad to adopt the sickly orchid. As in: Please keep this plant, I nearly killed it and don’t know what to do with it now.

So he listened as well as you might imagine: He repotted it, brought it back to life, drove it across Virginia and delivered it to me in person months later. Within a couple of weeks I noticed a small shoot. The plant must have heard me talking about it, because the shoot quickly withered away. Dang.

So for the last two years or so, the plant has just sat in the kitchen, mocking me. It has shiny green leaves and is growing, but no sign of blooms. Then last month, I noticed a little bump under one of the leaves. Slowly it pushed its way higher. I was flabbergasted – it is a shoot, with four “bumps” on it. I gave it some orchid food and moved it to another window. The “bumps” are now clearly future blooms.

I figure it will still be a few weeks until the orchid blooms again and I am anxiously awaiting the flowers. I suppose some people would have given up on the plant long ago. After trying to give it away to my dad, then having him return it, I figured I was supposed to keep it after all.

I don’t know if they orchid is offering some life lesson. I have killed many plants and nursed many back from the brink. But I know that after nearly three years without a blossom, I want to see what this plant can do. Look for photos to come when the blossoms open.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Terrific tastes of Thailand

I am a huge fan of Thai food, despite the fact that the closest restaurant to my home in Bristol is in neighboring Kingsport, Tenn., about 25 miles away. I was spoiled years ago when my husband and I lived a mere six blocks from a delicious Thai restaurant, Rom Thai, on Granby Street in Norfolk, Va. We love the sour, sweet and salty combination that is a hallmark of Thai food – lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, vinegar, sugar and salty sauces made from soy and seafood.

For years, I have loved Tong’s Thai Restaurant on Salem Avenue in Roanoke, Va., near the Hotel Roanoke. Their mango and sticky rice is the perfect combination of warm, creamy rice with cool, sweet mango. Simple perfection. More recently I have frequented Chaba’s on Franklin Road when work commitments bring me to Roanoke.

I aim to slip by Chaba’s during my latest visit; they have terrific service, interesting vegetable and seafood dishes and they are expert in that fantastic sour, salty, sweet combination I crave. If you have never tried Thai food, I encourage you to dive in. The flavors are fantastic and many restaurants are family-run, offering you a chance to talk to the owners and chefs and learn more about this terrific cuisine.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Smoky, salty glory

Most days, in our household, breakfast is cold cereal and coffee or juice. But I truly love breakfast, especially when I have the time and inclination to get cooking. I recently fixed some country ham slices – in all their smoky, salty glory – along with biscuits, eggs, grits and red-eye gravy. It had been years since I’d made this breakfast. For all the reasons I love it, it is not health food or something you should eat regularly. But I have to admit that red-eye gravy (made from the ham, water and a bit of coffee) is one of my absolute favorites, especially when it is poured over creamy grits and sprinkled with black pepper.

My father was raised on a farm in North Carolina. Our family spent nearly every Easter and Thanksgiving of my growing up exploring the woods, raking leaves, gathering pecans and eating wonderful meals with my grandmother, aunts and their families. Salt-cured ham was a special offering on rare occasions. More often we ate scrapple, breaded in corn meal and fried, or blood sausage, a pork product that is formed in a casing and turns black when cooked. I know some people turn up their noses at both foods, but they are part of the fabric of the rural South; and two of my childhood favorites.

My youngest son could not remember me ever making salt-cured ham (I told you it has been years) and I wondered if the saltiness would turn him off. He loved the ham and biscuits and eggs. Less so on grits and red-eye gravy. I am a grit fanatic, as are my older son and daughter. I will keep trying with my youngest; it seems a crime for any southern child to refuse to eat grits.

Here’s how I cooked my ham and rendered the fat for red-eye gravy:

Heat a teaspoon of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the ham slices. You can purchase these in most grocery stores. Last week, regional food authority Fred Sauceman profiled a local provider in a segment on WJHL 11 Connects with Josh Smith. For this meal, I bought a small package from a local grocery store that included about 6 slices.

Cook over medium heat until the slices brown slightly; turn over.

After about 8-10 minutes of cooking (4-5 minutes per side), I added about ½ cup of water to the pan.

Cook for 2-3 minutes, then remove the ham from the skillet with a slotted spoon. To the skillet add ½ cup strong coffee and mix completely.

I add black pepper to my red-eye gravy, but no additional salt.

We had quite a spread for breakfast: scrambled eggs, red-eye gravy, biscuits, grits and the country ham.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yummy extras to freeze or share

Recently I made turkey manicotti with spinach and had enough of the filling to make two casseroles – one to keep and one to give away. The ease of having a no-fuss dinner made me want to do it again. This dish made me recall a similar dish I made each time I was pregnant with my three children; with each pregnancy I made several casseroles ahead and froze them. Later, when I was home from the hospital, I was grateful to have several easy food options on hand.

Don’t cook pasta that is going into a casserole, especially if you intend to freeze it. Add enough sauce or other liquid to immerse the pasta and it will turn out just fine. Pre-cooking it will cause the pasta to be overcooked.

Chicken Alfredo with Broccoli

2 cups fresh broccoli
½ pound boneless chicken (I used 5 or 6 tenderloins)
4 ounce can sliced mushrooms, drained
16 ounce jar prepared Alfredo sauce
2 cups macaroni noodles
1 cup water, divided
1 teaspoon dried parsley
Salt and pepper
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Place the broccoli in a microwave safe bowl, add about ¼ cup water, cover and microwave on high for 2-3 minutes. Drain liquid. In a medium skillet, heat 2 teaspoons oil, then brown the chicken pieces on all sides.

Cook the chicken for about 5-7 minutes, then remove from skillet and allow meat to rest.

Shred the chicken into bite sized pieces.

In a large bowl, combine the chicken and broccoli.

Add the sliced mushrooms, Alfredo sauce and ¾ cup water.

Add the dry macaroni noodles, parsley, salt and pepper and blend completely.

Pour the mixture into two casserole dishes that have been sprayed with non-stick spray. Top with shredded mozzarella.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30-45 minutes, until casseroles are bubbly and slightly browned on top. This dish would be great for a crowd. Or consider giving one of the casseroles away, or freezing one for later. Dish will keep for three months frozen; to prepare, thaw in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours before baking.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ranch meatloaf

My husband and youngest son love meatloaf. It’s a comforting and filling dish that has broad appeal. But sometimes, frankly, it gets boring. My mother had a basic recipe -- ground chuck, breadcrumbs, egg and spices – that she covered with ketchup (sound familiar?). I have experimented with adding pizza sauce to the recipe, both in the meat and on top. With a sprinkle of cheese on top, you’ve got pizza meatloaf. But recently my son wasn’t in the mood for that version. We scanned the fridge for items that would blend together and came up with this recipe.

Ranch meatloaf

1 pound ground chuck
1 egg
3 slices bread, toasted and broken into pea-sized pieces
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon dried parsley
3 tablespoons prepared Ranch dressing (We used fat-free Hidden Valley brand)

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Shape the mixture into a loaf and place in a casserole dish. Cover with foil.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes or until cooked through.

I served this meatloaf with standard comfort food sides: homemade mashed potatoes and green beans.

Some people use a true loaf pan to make meatloaf, but I don’t like how the meat sits in the rendered grease. I use a 9x13 glass dish, or a casserole dish that is large enough to let the grease escape. Using leaner meat is a good option to reduce fat from this dish. And adding the fat-free Ranch dressing gave good flavor without added fat.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Southwest pork stew

I’ve come to love various types of diced tomatoes that are mixed with additional seasonings, like chilies or chipotle peppers. The harmonious pairing gives additional flavor to finished dishes, including soups, stews and casseroles. I developed this recipe to use diced tomatoes with chilies, along with budget saving items like root vegetables and pork chops. Pork is a natural in the slow cooker; it stays moist and becomes tender from the long, slow cooking.

I added some prepared barbecue sauce because my husband loves it. It yields additional smoky sweetness to the dish. And combined with red wine, the dish has a tremendous depth of flavor with very little work.

Southwest pork stew

4-5 country style pork ribs (1.5 pounds)
5 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut in 1-inch pieces
4-5 carrots, scraped and cut in 1-inch pieces
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes with chilies
½ cup red wine
½ cup prepared barbecue sauce (your favorite)
½ cup salsa
14 ounce can corn, drained
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons oil
½ teaspoon oregano (dried)
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

Place the cut vegetables in a 6 quart slow cooker that has been coated with non-stick cooking spray.

Season the chops with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet and then brown the chops on all sides.

Place the browned chops on top of the potatoes and carrots and then pour over the diced tomatoes with chilies.

Remove any excess oil from the skillet, retaining about 1 teaspoon. To the skillet add ½ cup wine and ½ cup barbecue sauce.

Blend over low heat, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Pour the sauce over the chops and vegetables, then sprinkle the oregano and crushed red pepper on top.

Cover and cook on low for 7-8 hours. Remove the pork from the crock and let cool slightly.

Remove the meat from the bones, returning the shredded meat to the crock.

About a half hour before serving, I stirred in the salsa and corn. I love the fresher taste by adding them at the end.

My stew seemed a bit too soupy, so I blended 2 teaspoons of cornstarch with a cup of water (to make a slurry), then mixed it into the stew. It tightened up the recipe and gave it a shiny finish. This recipe was fantastic – a definite favorite of my husband’s. It made nearly 6 quarts of stew (and all was eaten within two days!)