Is It Spring?

Normally, I’m a red wine kind of gal, but National Margarita Day and unseasonably warm, spring-like weather has me craving cocktails and mixed drinks. I had set out to make a margarita one evening, but ended up making my favorite mojito instead. They are relatively low calorie and low carb. Not too much sugar and I use fresh ingredients. I have a weak spot for a well made mojito.

Muddle 1/4 lime wedges and 8 to 10 mint leaves in a glass.

Add 1 to 2 teaspoons of mint infused simple syrup,

1 to 1 and 1/2 shots of white rum and

a few dashes of Angostura Bitters (optional).

Fill glass 3/4 full with ice.

Top off with seltzer; then shake or stir well.

I’ve been experimenting with vanilla vodka. I bought some vanilla beans a few months ago to make my own vanilla extract and still have plenty leftover. I’ve been hearing a lot about vanilla vodka lately and thought I’d make my own. It’s the same method I use to make vanilla extract, only it takes a lot less vanilla and time. After a week to ten days it was ready for drinks, but two weeks later it was even better.

I have a long list of drinks I want to make with my vanilla vodka. I’m unsure about a few of them. I tried it with lightly sweetened tea. Not good. I rarely drink soda, but I have found a few small, local soda makers that use better ingredients. I mixed a shot of vanilla vodka with half a bottle of Uncle Scott’s Natural Root Beer (made in Mooresville, NC). Tasted like a root beer float and took me back to my first job at an ice cream shop in Eastland Mall. I also tried it with some old fashioned ginger ale (Blenheim, made in South Carolina, and Boylan made in NJ). Hello cream soda. Mmmmm… But because it’s so sugary, this drink is dessert. It’s a treat I won’t indulge in frequently.

Linsey had a request last week. She wanted barbecue and that was just fine with me. I couldn’t make it to the farmers market for our usual Grateful Growers pork shoulder, so I tried it with free range, organic chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s instead. I cooked it slow and low in lime juice, a little pomegranate juice, basil infused rum, garlic, salt and pepper. Then when it was fully cooked, I turned the heat up to let most of the liquid reduce down. The meat gets browned and caramelized and chewy on the outside. But after I used two forks to shred it, I knew it was too dry. Pork has lots more fat, and that’s why it makes such good barbecue. So I added several tablespoons of the pastured bacon lard, which I always have on hand and let it cook, low and covered for another fifteen minutes. The chicken was moist and tender, the way barbecue ought to be. It had a subtly different flavor which we all enjoyed. It was a nice change and a good experiment. I served it with roasted potatoes and cauliflower and my favorite sweet and sour slaw with fennel, onion, red peppers and cabbage.

Spring and warm weather makes me want to slow down. We’re not even into spring quite yet, and already I’m looking forward to long summer vacation days with no schedule to keep. The kids were out of school for two days a couple weeks ago. We spent one lazy evening making pasta, from scratch. Haleigh was bored and sulking because she’s grounded and couldn’t go with her sister and her father to run a few errands. Being a parent sucks sometimes. Even though the punishment was deserved, my heart hurt for her. So I let her roll out the pasta. I’ll admit that I didn’t think she’d have much success with this temperamental machine, but she cranked it out. She had fun. She got the hang of it quickly and had every right to be proud of that. And I was free to prepare the other ingredients. We enjoyed each others company. Cooking, talking and laughing with her in the kitchen like that was exactly how I envisioned it. There will be lots more meals prepared this way now that the girls are growing up.

This weekend time changes and the clocks spring forward. We’ll have another hour of sunlight in the evenings. It takes some getting used to. We’ll probably spend a lot of that time outdoors on sunny days, and we’ll inevitably lose track of time. I welcome those days.

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Time Change, Halloween, Thrift Stores and More Seasonal Food

I’m in a sort of ‘zen’ mood this week. Last week was rough. I was ready to throw in the towel. But toward the end of the week I found my center. The chaos seems to be running in slow motion at the moment. Slow enough for me to handle. Slow enough for me to step back and see what’s really important.

The crape myrtle in my back yard is one of my favorite things. It’s my calendar. In the fall it looks like this. Green, yellow and red and pink all at once. Even though it’s leaves are dropping, the flowers are still hanging on. Normally, the time change bothers me. But this year, the early darkness seems calming. Evenings feel slightly less hectic. The rest of the world disappears. Only the center of my universe, my family, this house, is visible… at least until morning.

Halloween was fun, but lasted longer than usual. After a full night of trick-or-treating we decided to take the kids to see both sets of grandparents. We ate too much candy. We went to bed too late. We did not hand out boxes of raisins, apples or home made goodies as I wished we could.  Instead we gave out tattoos, lollipops and fruit snacks (organic, with no artificial colors or flavors – except for a few recycled handouts from other places). I also managed to find some decent, individually wrapped dark chocolate that was ethically produced. Expensive chocolate, unrecognized by most, that will probably be left in candy bowls and jars, until all the other favorites are long gone.

The girls were so darn cute. Especially our sweet little Dorothy. I’ll always remember Haleigh the year she dressed as Raggedy Ann, Linsey the year she was Dora the Explorer and now London as Dorothy, with her white stockinged legs and little feet shuffling in a sparkly ruby red blur from porch to porch.

This is the most delicious chicken salad I’ve made yet. I used seasonal ingredients: crisp fresh apples and dried cranberries. And I added a little curry powder. Hey, don’t knock the curry. I found it in this recipe from allrecipes, where it got rave reviews. I thought it sounded interesting. Why not try it? All I have to say is this: curry powder is now a staple ingredient in my chicken salad. Just a tiny bit – 1/2 tsp or so.

This was the best fish I’ve eaten in while. My picture doesn’t do it justice. (I’ll explain it in a minute.) My parents went on a fishing trip recently and came back with a nice sized catch, which they skinned, gutted and filleted themselves in freezing cold weather. And I am so lucky (and thankful) that they shared. Flounder is very delicate, apparently. Too delicate for a clumsy home cook like me. I ended up with a few fairly large chunks and a lot of bits and pieces. But it was a delicious mess – seasoned with salt, pepper, a little garlic and chopped fresh rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme. Every single one of the kids devoured it and begged for more. I reluctantly doled out the remaining “flakes” I thought I might have for lunch the next day, in second and third helpings. How can I say no when they plead for something so good for them?

This oven “fried” coconut and almond crusted flounder turned out much better. Sounds fancy, but I really just substituted regular flour with a mix of coconut flour and almond flour. You could also just use toasted coconut and ground almonds (food processor). Cook it in the oven at 475 deg. for about 8 to 10 minutes. I turned the broiler on at the last minute to get the tops nice and golden brown. The kids love this one too. You get the fried fish taste, without so much oil and again if you are looking for a gluten free alternative to fried fish, here ya’ go. (Also works for chicken, though you’d have to cook it longer. Here’s a recipe for Eating Well’s Almond Crusted Chicken Fingers.) I cut the fish into smaller, more manageable pieces and it turned out a great.  I made enough to freeze for another night.

Here’s another delicious mess of a meal. I found a recipe for carnitas on smittenkitchen.com. I didn’t have any orange juice or lime. I considered running out to get some, but knowing apples and pork go well together, I used some spiced apple cider and lemons that I had in the fridge instead. I also added about a teaspoon of some orange zest I have stored in the freezer. (I keep a stock of lemon, lime and orange zest in the freezer. Before peeling or juicing citrus I wash and grate the peel and store it in the freezer. It’s frugal and I love how this zest can brighten up a dish. I use it all the time.) The recipe is so great by the way, even though I burned it (because I stepped away from the kitchen). All the liquid evaporated out more quickly than I expected and it stuck HARD to the cast iron skillet, which – by the way – you should avoid cooking acidic foods in. I had hoped the lemon juice wouldn’t be too much. Between the burning and the damage from the acidic lemon juice, the “season” on the bottom of my cast iron dutch oven is gone. About a quarter of the pork had to be scraped into the garbage. The carnitas were yummy with the queso fresco and cauliflower I bought at the farmers market. I topped mine with avocado, yogurt, red onion, green onions, cilantro and a few drops of sriracha (hot chilli sauce). Mmm-mmm-mmm…

I had planned to split the pork into two meals. Luckily enough pork remained, even after I burned it. The following night I served the leftover pork with sauerkraut and smashed red potatoes and cauliflower (also leftover from the night before). If you are watching carbs, you should consider mixing potatoes with cauliflower (or even substituting completely). My family didn’t even notice it the first time I mixed our mashed potatoes half and half with cauliflower. Now that they know they like it, I don’t bother trying to disguise it. If you have a picky eater, you might want to try it that way. I don’t bother peeling my potatoes either.

This was last weeks “macaroni and cheese”. To my kids, anything with a white, cheesy sauce is macaroni and cheese. And they’ve grown to expect a few veggies mixed in. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually a little spoiled by our macaroni and cheese. The plain stuff just might not be good enough anymore.

The one above has a little bit of ground pork, arugula, peppers, onions, garlic, chives and thyme. The one below from last night’s dinner has a slightly less cheesy, garlic, butter and sage cream sauce. I threw in a few chopped kalamata olives and anchovies to add richness to the sauce. (A few anchovies added to a dish won’t make it taste fishy. It’s like adding any other salty meat, like a little bacon or sausage, to a meal. A little bit goes a long way.) There’s also some Italian sausage, onions, peppers, fresh parsley and chives in there somewhere.

I’ve mentioned that I love shopping at thrift stores. But did I mention it’s a great place to find cool cheap props! I’ve been finding some of the cutest dishes, place mats and other table decorations and kitchen stuff. I’m going to try to take some family photos soon and I’m thinking this is where I’ll find some interesting props.

I love these Italian and French glass canisters that I’ve been collecting from thrift stores. I found the set of four vintage French jars with garden vegetables on them and paid only $0.99 cents a piece. I found a set of three online for $30.00. The cheapest set was $13.00. I got a set of four for $3.96. Woo hoo!