I told my family that if team Greece won its game against Costa Rica in the World Cup last week, I would make pastachio. While the Greek boys lost the game, once the word “pastachio” entered my teenage boy’s brain, the deal was sealed.
If you’ve never been lucky enough to eat this dish, you need to get yourself to a Greek restaurant or find yourself a nice YaYa to invite you over, pronto. It’s been called the Greek lasagna, but most Greeks scoff at that comparison; as if lasagna compares.
Here’s the blueprint: long, tubular pasta layered with a meat sauce simmered in tomato sauce and spices, topped with not one but two bechamel sauces — one thin and one thick — and not one but two layers of ground Romano cheese. Bake it until it comes together to form a version of heaven on Earth.
My sweet mama was not Greek, but she was clever, and she ingratiated herself into the hearts of the Greek ladies I grew up with and learned how to cook like they did. Greek ladies can be rather exacting when it comes to their cooking, and most would not welcome a “white” woman into the fold. My mom, however, was famous for breaking through such barriers. She learned to cook with the best of them.
She was also famous for transcribing her recipes in a kooky way. The most widely repeated example is her recipe for chicken crepes (yes, homemade crepes) that contain no chicken. Good luck pulling that one off, amateurs.
Her pastichio recipe isn’t missing any key ingredients (as far as I know), but it is light on descriptions and specific instructions. As in: “Prepare the thin sauce by melting the butter and adding the flour when it’s time.” Ok, over what kind of heat? Medium? High? And what exactly does “when it’s time” mean? And how does one know when the “thin” sauce is thickened enough to add the egg? It is a “thin” sauce, after all.
My mom taught me how to make pastichio, and while it’s a foolproof way to win friends and influence people, it’s also a lot of work. A lot. Really a lot. I don’t take on pastichio on a whim. But seeing Team Greece in the World Cup inspired me (and my #1 son pestered me). But mainly I was inspired. It had nothing to do with thisOr thisOr thisOr thisAnd it certainly had nothing to do with thisRight.
Back to the recipe.
For the food that my son, my pride & joy, asked me to make.
To start, I make the meat sauce. I brown grass-fed, antibiotic-free ground beef with a large chopped onion and 3 minced garlic cloves until the meat is cooked through and the onion is tender. Then I add tomato paste, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of ground cinnamon, along with 2 cups of water. Some pastichio purists do not add the cinnamon but prefer to sprinkle the very top of the dish with ground nutmeg. I do it the way my sweet mama taught me, though, and she used cinnamon. Let that simmer until the flavors are melded and the liquid is absorbed.
Next boil the pasta. Then make the sauces. The “thin” sauce, as my sweet mama called it, is butter, flour, milk and an egg. I will always remember watching her make the roux and her telling me that you know when the roux is done by the way it smells: nutty and browned. Whatever that smells like, I thought, but now I know. I just know. After the roux is sufficiently nutty & brown smelling, in goes the milk and you whisk like your life depends on it. No lumps! No scorching! Don’t even think about turning away or mixing yourself a cocktail. Whisk! Whisk!
Once the “thin” sauce has thickened (again, you’ll just know when it’s thick enough, even though it’s a thin sauce, she used to say), temper the egg and again whisk, whisk, whisk, then whisk some more. No curdling! No clumping!
When the “thin” sauce is done and the pasta has cooked, start assembling: cooked pasta in a buttered casserole dish, then top with the “thin” sauce. Top that with copious amounts of Romano cheese. When in doubt, add more cheese.
Then get back to the stove to make the “thick” sauce. Same ingredients as the “thin” sauce but different proportions. Ditto the Olympic whisking. I always wonder why every Greek lady I ever met had bat-wing arms, even with all that whisking. You’d think they’d have Michelle Obama arms, but they probably ate the finished product and didn’t pump iron. I’m in pretty good shape and pump iron regularly, yet this Olympic whisking wears me out. I seriously need a cocktail (maybe two) when it’s done.
So, once the “thick” sauce is done and you’ve had a cocktail (or two), it’s time to add the meat sauce to the pasta/”thin” sauce/cheese layer. Spread it on thick and pat it down lovingly. There is a lot of love in Greek food.
I was so tired from all the whisking, I forgot to take a photo of the meat layer lovingly patted into place, so imagine it in your mind. While you do that, I’m mixing another cocktail.
Meat sauce lovingly in place means it’s time for the “thick” sauce. But before you put it on top of the meat sauce, whisk in more cheese. Yes, more cheese. And yes, more whisking. Which means yes, more cocktails.
So, “thick” sauce is made even thicker with more cheese and is glopped on top of the meat layer.
(I’m pretty sure my sweet mama never glopped a single thing in her kitchen, but that’s how it goes down in mine.)
Once the “thick” sauce is in place, sprinkle the top with more cheese. Then add a little more. You can never have too much.
And here’s where I get in big trouble. Here’s where I risk having my Greek heritage revoked.
There. I confessed. The secret is out.
If you’ve seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you know what I mean. My Greek relatives shake their head and cluck their tongues at my meatless ways.
It’s ok. Really. It is. I may not eat meat, but I make good cocktails.
Once the pastichio is assembled (whether meaty or meat-free), there’s one more step, and this is one I cannot abide. Another reason for having my heritage revoked I’m sure, but I just can’t do it. The final step is to spread melted butter over the top of the “thick” sauce and the last layer of cheese. Can’t do it. Even though I burned at least 3,000 calories just from the whisking, I can’t do it.
Thank you, Cee Lo Green, for the inspiration behind this blog title. Love me some Cee Lo.
We are back from the Big Apple. I’m still smiling at all the fun we had, and my body is aching from the killer workout I endured as penance for the stellar meals and heavy pours we found along the way. Of course with my foodie friend, the Fabulous Miss Y, we placed a bit of emphasis on finding good meals, and NYC did not disappoint. The crazy cold weather hindered my sightseeing a bit. I was well prepared for battle against the elements, with sweaters, long-sleeve shirts, wool coat, scarves, and a new hat and pair of gloves from my valentine, but alas the low, low, low windchill and gusts of frigid air prevailed. I became quite adept at seeing a few sights and then racing back to the hotel to warm up before setting out again. I also took advice from BA, a beloved member of my tribe and a life-long New Englander who suggested I stop often for hot toddies. Alternating between Starbucks and restorative glasses of wine helped keep me afloat.
A brief recap: we began our culinary tour with a stop at Ca Va, one of Todd English’s fine restaurants. We nabbed a small table by the windows and near the huge roaring fire, which was perfect for people-watching while we stated toasty warm. We lingered over champagne and a mezze plate before heading to see Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Yes, fellas, she is as gorgeous in person as she is on the big screen. The Broadway play was full of dysfunction and angst, with stellar acting from every cast member.
After the show we trekked over to a fantastic wine & cheese bar called Casellula, in Hell’s Kitchen. Because it was Valentine’s Day, the place was packed — all 10 tiny tables. While this place may be itty-bitty, the wine list and the cheese pairings are unbelievable. I’m so sad I was in a cheese coma and didn’t have the faculties to remember to take a picture of our cheese flight, but it looked a bit like this one
with a trio of Italian cheeses: a soft mild beauty paired with pine-nut brittle, a soft & funky offering alongside a mango jam, and a parmesan with roasted, herbed sundried tomatoes. With a half bottle of Chateneuf du Pape, we were happy girls. Until the half bottle ran dry, that is. We lingered for three hours in this charming little place, and most of the time was spent laughing over the descriptions of the cheese characteristics on the menu. A few highlights: “Triple-creamy, fluffy & luxurious.” “Wooly & dense.” “Bright, citrusy & pudgy.” “Earthy, chalky & a little musty.” Now there’s some truth in advertising. We reluctantly closed down Casellula and walked back to our hotel, full of yummy things and still laughing about the menu descriptions.
Next day we were up and out the door to get started on our next meal: breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, a charming eatery between our hotel and Central Park that seemed lifted straight out of France. From the individual ceramic pots of coffee served in handle-less mugs to the mixed green salad alongside our goat-cheese frittata to the scratch-made breads and chunky mixed-fruit jams, this place was flat-out amazing. Full and happy, we hit the streets and wandered around the city. My traveling companion left me to go to work (boo!) and I soldiered on alone in the shops in the Time Warner building and meandered through Central Park. The snow from superstorm Nemo remained, which was fun for this Texas girl to see, from a distance, of course.
We had time for a bit more shopping once Y finished up her work, and we hit UniQlo first. This Japanese-based company entered the U.S .in a big way, with a 90,000-square-foot store on Fifth Avenue that costs a reported $20 million a year in rent. Fun and vibrant, the store was worth a stop during our too-short stay. The colorful and super-cheap clothes were great, and we saw some beautiful people shopping right alongside us.
Finally, it was time for perhaps the most-anticipated part of our trip: dinner at Balthazar. I’ve heard Y speak reverently of this fabulous restaurant, and I’ve eaten a bowl of the bouillabaisse prepared from the Balthazar cookbook. It. Was. Incredible. Delicious wine, superb service, and out-of-this world bouillabaisse chock-full of cod, mussels, clams, potatoes, and a lobster tail. The photo just doesn’t do this dish justice. We savored every last drop of it, but still managed to save room for an incredible dessert: the banana tarte Tatin. The New York Times raved about this yummy creation: “In SoHo, Andy Gomez, the pastry chef at Balthazar, creates individual banana tarte Tatins by lining Teflon molds with burnt sugar, shingling medium-ripe banana slices across the bottom, and tucking a round of puff pastry on top. The oven heat intensifies the sweetness of the fruit in the dessert, which he serves with a cool banana sabayon.” Just when we thought our dining experience couldn’t get any better, we were treated to a short tour of the kitchen. As Y is known to say, “You never know what you might get if you just ask.” Well, we just asked our server how big the pot is that they use to cook the bouillabaisse, and she offered to show us. So cool.
Saturday started bright and early for Y, with more work, while I psyched myself up for braving the cold — and I do mean cold — to visit the 9/11 Memorial. I walked most of the way from our Times Square hotel to the Financial District, and even at a brisk pace, it was freezing cold. There were lots of fun things to see along the way, including this, my favorite of all the window displays I saw. This one beats even the fancy-pants ones along Fifth Avenue.
David Beckham in his underwear was just the ticket on a cold New York day. The warm-up was brief, however, and I pried my eyes away from Beck to keep moving. The temperature hovered in the mid-20s but the 30-mph winds made it feel a lot colder. Once I got down among the tall buildings, that wind ripped through even more ruthlessly. As I’d mentioned, this Texas girl was freaked out about those low temps, and with good reason. Even with a wool coat atop 3 layers and a hat and scarf and gloves, it was miserably cold. I only hope I was as fashionable as this woman sporting a chicken hat. I’m still digesting the gravitas of the memorial itself, and will save the images for a later post in hopes that the words to describe the somber scene will come. For now, you must be content with the lady in the chicken hat.
I would have liked to have stayed at the memorial site a bit longer, but without the warmth of a chicken hat, I grabbed a cab and headed back uptown. I’d just about thawed out when we hit Times Square, so I hopped out and popped into a little grocer for a snack and a beverage, which I took back to my hotel and devoured from under the down comforter in the hotel.
Dinner that night was at Eataly, the super fun Italian marketplace/restaurant. Part gourmet market, part wine bar, part bakery, part restaurant, Eataly adds up to a lot of fun. We shared a stand-up table with two young Indian couples on a double-date and enjoyed a bottle of wine and house-made mozzarella. (Don’t ask me about the prosciutto; that was Y’s department.)
That’s my kind of table.
After exploring the market and checking out the nightly specials in the various sections of the restaurant, we settled on two items from the vegetarian section: a polenta topped with chick peas and sautéed swiss chard, and a spinach & ricotta canneloni. News flash: yum.
And because we were feeling decadent after that meal, we indulged in a little gelato. Coconut for me, mint-chocolate chip for Y. Emphasis on the yum.
More work for Y on Sunday, while I braved the wind and cold to stand in line for tickets to a show. My first choice, Nice Work if You Can Get It, was sold out, so I settled on Chicago. While I wasn’t familiar with any names on the cast list, the production did not disappoint. The singing was great, and the dancing was even better. And I was happy to be in a warm theater away from the winter weather.
We had time for one last outstanding dinner, this time at Ma Peche. The last stop on our culinary tour of NYC was a lot of fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the menu, which is rather sparse on the descriptions, but we dove right in and were blown away by the flavor combinations. While we’d heard much about the famous Momofuku restaurants created by chef David Chang, we weren’t sure what to make of the Ma Peche menu.
I really like that Ma Peche’s menu lists the sources for its meat and fish. While I’d rather claw my eyes out than eat a pork chop, I like that the restaurant cares enough to mention its sources and it leads me to believe that the people at Ma Pesche respect the animals they serve. If you’re going to eat them, I’d hope it’s with an attitude of respect. They did give their lives for your meal, after all.
Exiting soapbox now.
We started with the squash, which consisted of thick julienned slices of squash cooked tender-crisp with an interesting sauce that tasted neither limey nor of bitters, but rather a delicious amalgam of those two ingredients. The pepitas were toasted and pulverized to create a bread-crumb-like topping. Very interesting and very yummy.
Not sure where to go from there, we eyeballed a dish on the table next to us. From the distance across our tables, it looked a lot like fried mozzarella sticks, but we knew those didn’t exactly fit into the Ma Peche concept. The guys eating that dish were kind enough to introduce themselves–Rugby players from Newcastle visiting the States for a rugby tour–and tell us what it was.
Lo and behold, it was the carrots, which had caught my eye upon my first pass through the menu. Who knew that small, whole carrots spiced with curry and chiles then topped with fresh coconut and cilantro could be so delicious? We decided the masterminds behind the flavor combinations at Ma Peche must drink heavily, although our server claims that much research and testing goes into each dish. I like our theory best.
We capped this meal off with a piece of Crack Pie. I’d had this delicacy before, when friends and fellow foodies Jill & Keith either brought a piece back from the Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar or made one themselves. I can’t remember because I was on crack after one bite. Seriously. Supposedly there’s no actual crack in the pie, but it tastes so damn good it’s as addictive as the hard stuff.
Rumor has it that some guy visiting NYC bought a Crack Pie to take home to his family to try after he became addicted from one slice consumed in the city. He accidentally dropped his pie as he was checking out of his hotel, and proceeded to eat the splatted pie off the hotel lobby floor. Whether that story is true is irrelevant because the pie is that good. It’s that good. Although the idea of eating anything off any floor — much less the floor of a busy NYC hotel — gives this little germophobe the vapors, big time.
Upon first glance, Crack Pie doesn’t look like all that, but there’s a reason the Milk Bar sells this baby for $44 per pie. It’s sorta like a pecan pie without the pecans, but the filling is more dense than gooey, and instead of a regular pie crust it has an oatmeal cookie crust. Purists insist on serving the pie cold and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I’m not one to mess with tradition.
The trusty folks at WebMD provide an exhaustive list of effects from crack, including:
- an increasing sense of energy and alertness
- an extremely elevated mood
- a feeling of supremacy
Now I’m starting to see the similarities. As soon as the Crack Pie was placed on our table by our server, both Y and I experienced increased energy and alertness. I’m almost certain our heart rates increased noticeably. After one bite, we felt the extremely elevated mood, as well as the feeling of supremacy over anyone at Ma Peche who was foolish enough not to order this little slice of wonder. I pity the fool who skips dessert at Ma Peche.
According to WebMD, some people also experience these feelings while on crack:
Ahhhh, yes. Now I really see the similarities. With each bite taken, we became irritable that the goodness was disappearing. We became paranoid, restless, and anxious about it disappearing, and before the euphoria even wore off, we wondered when we might score another piece of pie.
I think we’re going to need to plan another trip to NYC soon. Very soon.
I get a handy-dandy email in my inbox every day from Oprah’s magazine. I like her magazine and always find something useful, whether a book review or an article about a do-gooder in some random far-flung part of the world. Because Oprah is queen of the world and can cover whatever stories or topics she chooses, you never see ridiculous headlines or teasers on the cover of her magazine, like what we see on so many magazines. Sometimes I’m downright embarrassed by them while waiting in line at the grocery store: do we need to know that Hilary is cheating on Bill with a lesbian lover? Do you really want to guess which celeb’s backside is completely covered in cellulite but only partially covered by a yellow bikini? I’m never embarrassed by the cover of O Magazine.
So today’s email had Dr Oz’s tips on 10 things you can do to live to 100 — or beyond.
I’m all for healthy living, but I most definitely do not want to live to be 100 — or beyond. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. Perhaps living to 100 — or beyond — but never growing old, feeble, and/or dependent on others wouldn’t be too bad, but given my not one, but two bouts with cancer, coupled with my degenerating joints, I’m guessing that won’t be in the cards for me. If I live to be 100 — or beyond — but my knees won’t bend and I’m stuck in a wheelchair, or even worse in bed, relying on others to care for me, I’m going to be hopping mad. Not that I have a death wish, but I am realistic. The average age of women diagnosed with breast cancer is 61; I was 20 years ahead of the curve. While strides have been made in treatment, and while my personal recurrence rate was predicted to be low, I don’t know that I can rationally expect to live another 57 years — or beyond.
Maybe I’m taking Dr Oz too literally. Does he really think that by following his 10 tips, we can live to be 100? I dunno, but here are his suggestions.
1. Eat red foods. The examples he give are beets, which relax blood vessels, and red cabbage, which protects against cancer. I love, love, love beets, so perhaps my blood vessels are relaxed. However, I clearly did not eat enough red cabbage, as it most definitely did not protect me from cancer.
2. Drink a cup of black tea. It’s supposed to boost survival rates of those who suffer a heart attack by 28 percent. Ok, I admit that stats like these confuse me. Does this mean that black-tea drinkers who have a heart attack are 28 percent more likely to not die from the heart attack, or 28 percent les likely to have a heart attack in the first place? I’m confused, but I do drink a lot of iced tea, so hopefully I’m covered either way.
3. Dial one phone number from memory every day. Not using speed dial or your cell phone’s memory exercises the brain’s “chunking” ability. By grouping info into chunks, you can keep your brain active and alert. I think working a crossword puzzle does the same thing, but don’t quote me on that.
4. Use the first stall in a public restroom. Ok, I do this whenever I am stuck and must use a public restroom, although I avoid public restrooms at all cost. Being the good germophobe that I am, I already knew this trick. See, most people seek privacy in a public restroom, so they tend to use the farthest stalls. More use equals more bacteria, which freaks me out. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t shared this tip, though, as I predict a rush on my preferred first stall. Some days I wonder how I’m able to leave the house at all.
5. Take the stairs, two at a time. We all know that taking the stairs instead of the elevator is preferable for good health, but Dr Oz says take that a step further — literally — and take two stairs at a time. Easy for him to say, with his long legs. I’ll try it, even though my legs aren’t long, but I’ll probably have to use the handrail, which I’m pretty sure is covered in germs. Never mind.
6. Stretch after you shower. Stretching is good. Tight muscles and tendons are bad (says the girl who hates to stretch). Once your muscles are good and heated from the shower, it’s easier to stretch them, and stretching promotes good posture and helps decrease muscle soreness from taking the stairs two in one go.
7. Hold your breath. Dr Oz touts this as a mini workout for your lungs, and something that can be done anytime, anywhere. He recommends holding your breath for 10 seconds, then blowing it out through pursed lips, which activates all the little nooks & crannies in our lungs. I tend to hold my breath while using a public restroom, so as long as I blow it out through pursed lips, I guess I’m good.
8. Do the reverse warrior. Dr Oz does a lot of yoga, and if he says the reverse warrior is the most important pose, I believe him. Click here to see how to do it. This pose strengthens the legs, increases flexibility in the spine, and stretches the hips, inner thighs, and groin. Get to it, y’all.
9. Chew your food 20 times. Grandma said it first, but Dr Oz tells us why: not only does it slow us down and helps us avoid eating like a pack of wild animals, it can decrease our risk of diabetes. Horking down food too fast leads to overeating, which can lead to obesity, which can lead to diabetes. Dr Oz says if you don’t want to count out how many times you chew, get into the habit of putting your fork down in between bites.
10. Cut your cravings in half. Instead of trying to deny your cravings, Dr Oz recommends giving in to them, but only by half. So instead of gobbling down a bag of potato chips, eat half the bag. Instead of devouring the carton of ice cream, just eat half of it. Actually, the example he gave was a cookie. One cookie. Which he wants you to break in half. So I’m guessing he would counsel me to go ahead and pour myself a glass of champagne, but to only drink half of it. Yet another reason to not live to be 100 — or beyond. I want the whole glass!
Our little piggie Piper turned one on Sunday, and we went a bit hog-wild celebrating her first birthday.
My favorite girl is quite the party planner, and this shindig was top-notch. She started planning the menu a week or so in advance and it underwent several revisions before she settled on grilled fruit kebabs, BBQ chicken sandwiches, twice-baked potatoes, Ramen-almond salad, and carrot cake.
Now, if you’re inclined to leave any comments pertaining to bacon bits or pulled pork, resist the urge or I’ll set the birthday pig on you, and let me assure you that she has no mercy when it comes to porky jokesters. She’s vicious when it comes to that.
Party preparations started early and lasted all weekend. The first order of business was to make a party wreath for the front door. We are fortunate to have an artist at the ready, and he created the focal point of the wreath. He’s also the creative genius behind the logo that graces the front page of this little blog.
Next came the gathering and placing of various pig-related decor:
And the custom-made bow for the birthday girl. Amazing how cute it turned out considering it was made from a $1.50 bow from the grocery store, a flower clip from the clearance aisle at Hobby Lobby, and a candle sticker from the scrapbooking aisle.
Making the party favor goodie bags kept my little social butterfly busy for awhile, and she was quite pleased with the results. She decorated the cookies herself with a pig snout and pig-shaped sprinkles delivered across state lines from Pennsylvania to Texas by our uber-thoughtful friend, Debbie.
Birthday gifts for our little piggie included all of her favorites: cucumbers, wasabi peas (yes, she likes it spicy!), and strawberries. Part of her birthday feast was a chunk of watermelon, which she thoroughly enjoyed and hastily demolished.
Two thumbs up for the twice-baked potatoes, which disappeared before I had a chance to snap a photo. My favorite girl has always had a huge love affair with potatoes, so it was no surprise to find them on the menu.
And then came the highlight of the evening: the birthday cake! We scooped out a little of the cake batter and added extra carrots to bake a special (and portion-controlled) cake for the birthday pig. Miss Piggie needed a little help blowing out the candle; we were afraid she’d eat the whole thing, flame and all!
Our glorious vacation is over. Sigh. Many thanks to our wonderful hosts for such a wonderful time. It was a fabulous 17 days. Best weather ever, which meant tons of good times on the beach, laughing, reading, sunning, and sipping–the things from which memories are made. This year’s trip was made even more memorable by the addition of one important item from home: my dear friend and medical sherpa Amy! She and her boys spent some time with us on our beloved Salisbury Beach and she now knows exactly why we love it so much.
A quick blast of photos as I tackle my gigantic to-do list, with promises to come back with a real photoglut soon. The clock is ticking and my list is long–gotta get ‘er done before my knee surgery on Wednesday. Among the gigantic pile of mail awaiting my return was the letter from my health insurance describing the procedure as “Lateral retinacular release open and arthroscopy, knee surgical, with meniscectomy (medial and lateral, including meniscal shaving) including debridement/shaving of articular cartilage (chondroplasty), same or separate compartment.” Blech. Ouch. Yuk. What part of that sounds fun? None of it. But alas, I will get through the lateral release, scoping, shaving, and debriding in hopes of rocking that bionic knee for years to come.
Meanwhile, I’ll think about this:
Until next year, Salisbury!
This is one of those posts that I feel needs a disclaimer right up front, because I already know I won’t be able to convey the fun we had, the experiences we gained, and the relationships we forged. The disclaimer should be something along the lines of the ubiquitous drug companies’ list of side effects for the various prescription drugs that populate print and TV advertising. Perhaps something along these lines: This post is intended to document the immense fun and incredible experience of a few days spent in northern Louisiana with an amazing family. This post should not be read while enduring a dismally empty social calendar or a puny vacation fund. This post may cause severe envy among readers who were not invited. Consult a psychotherapist if the side effects persist for more than four hours after reading, or proceed to the nearest emergency room if you find yourself entertaining thoughts of showing up in Bastrop, LA, unannounced.
Ok, I feel better now.
The more I think about it, the expanse of this experience cannot be contained in one simple posting, so there will need to be multiple installments. This, the first installment, is gonna cover the trip itself and the corn. Oh, the corn.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not a fan of car travel and try to avoid it at all costs. That said, I would get in the car right now — not even 24 hours after returning home — and make the trip again. That’s how great this trip was. My favorite girl and my best boy and I packed up the car and headed out of Houston Tuesday morning, not knowing what lay ahead in the 400 miles between our house and our destination. Little did we know that we were in for the experience of a lifetime.
The first time my dear friend Amy invited me to her family home in Bastrop, LA, the timing didn’t work out; never again will I allow another event to stand in the way of going to Mama’s house.
Mama and Papa and the infamous Sanders sisters — Gina, Holly, and Wendy — rolled out the red carpet and put on the dog for us. First stop when we arrived at Mama’s house was a tour of Papa’s garden. I’d heard about this little slice of heaven and was beyond happy to see it with my own eyes. My iPhone photos do not do it justice. The first thing we saw upon entering Papa’s garden was asparagus, and I’m kicking myself for having missed its harvest.
I will be back in the spring for the asparagus. Mark my words, Papa!
Next is the cabbage. The plants are huge, and the ruffly leaves are pretty enough to be part of an elaborate floral arrangement. The heads, however, belong on a plate, sliced and simmered to perfection.
Our little piggie would lose her mind if she saw this watermelon, growing fat and ripe in the sun.
The corn was the star of the show, and one of the main reasons we drove to Mama’s.
We were going to get to help put up corn.
For the uninitiated, “putting up corn” refers to the process of picking, washing, blanching, de-kerneling, and freezing the delectable veggie. We’ve been on the receiving end of some of Mama’s corn, lovingly transported from Louisiana to Houston and carefully guarded and doled out upon special occasions.
This is good stuff, people.
There’s a reason Mama’s corn is referred to as “liquid gold.”
Here’s how it works: Papa picks the corn early, early in the morning once he’s deemed it ready. He can tell when it’s ready by looking at it on the stalk and by experience.
Know how many ears of corn each stalk produces?
Go on, guess.
Think about how tall and wide each stalk of corn is, and guess how many ears are waiting to be picked.
Yep, just two ears per stalk.
(I guessed 6. Silly city-slicker).
So the fresh-picked corn is piled up, ready to be shucked.
Before long, the shucking is done…
After the shucked corn is toted inside, it’s got to be meticulously washed. First the sink is scoured, then each and every ear is scrubbed and de-silked under hot water. While this step is the most laborious part, you know this germophobe loved it.
The container of water to the left of the cutter serves an important purpose: we dunk the shaved ears into the water, then run them back through the cutter in the opposite direction, to collect every drop of the milk.
We processed 192 ears, which translates into 17 quart-sized bags of liquid gold.
If Mama and Amy weren’t looking, I might have been tempted to kiss that corn good-night.
Once the corn was put to bed, we loaded up the discarded cobs onto the 4-wheeler’s trailer. By the time they’ve been de-kerneled and milked for every drop of goodness, they look like a foam roller used for painting a wall.
Usually Papa takes the used cobs into the woods and leaves them for the local wildlife. This time, however, the cobs went to Papa’s friend’s house to feed his wild hogs. My favorite girl wasted no time wrangling an invitation to go see these hogs for herself.
Stay tuned for a full report on our day of skeet-shooting.
I’ve always loved that saying. Don’t know why, exactly, but I suppose it has to do with the directness of the statement, the idea that one can utter 5 words to clearly convey a depth of experience on the matter at hand. The first time I ever heard it was in the movie Mommie Dearest…shudder. More recently, Payton’s 6th grade speech & theater teacher, Ms Pointer, used that saying at parents’ open house at the middle school. The first-time middle-school parents, trying to navigate the newness and independence thrust upon us and our little darlings, showed up at school with our kids’ schedules in hand and followed their class schedule for an intro to middle school by each teacher. From one end of the school to the other, upstairs, downstairs, down the hallway and back we traipsed, just as our kiddos do every school day. I tried to picture my 6th grader going from class to class in this giant building that houses some 1,100 kids, and was frankly, a little overwhelmed.
Ms Pointer, one of the more beloved teachers at FCMS, is direct and has high expectations–my kind of girl. She reassured all the nervous parents in the room that she would turn our babies from shuffling, eyes-downcast pre-teens to confident public speakers who present themselves proficiently and engagingly. My boy isn’t the most, uh, talkative, and I did worry a bit about his choice of speech & theater as his elective (“it beats band, orchestra, and choir” was his rationale). But Ms Pointer assured each parent in the room that night that she could work her magic and coax even the most reluctant kid out of his/her shell. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she said. And she was right. Not only did my guy deliver his speeches with elan, he also learned to sew — with fabric, needle, and thread — a tiny costume for an action figure. He needed a Barbie or Ken doll, but seeing as his sister isn’t exactly the Barbie type, and his mama didn’t want to trek over to Target that day, we scrounged around in the discarded playthings box and found a Troy Bolton doll from High School Musical. My kid transformed the doll from teen basketball star to an ancient Chinese warlord in full battle gear, happily and with no needle pricks, thanks to Ms Pointer.
But I digress.
I remember well Ms Pointer uttering that saying, and I thought of her yesterday as my favorite girl and I headed out for the rodeo. It’s a big event in these parts, and she had eagerly anticipated our visit. This year is the 80th annual Houston Rodeo & Livestock Show. For 80 years, my fair city has been putting on this event, and it’s quite the spectacle. For 19 days every spring, hordes of people come to the rodeo — attendance tops 100,000 on weekends. No doubt the rodeo has evolved over the years, and it now encompasses not just ropin’ and bull ridin’ and carny entertainment, but big-name performers, a world-class BBQ championship, horse shows, wine tastings, sheepdog trials, and all kinds of fun. The muttin bustin’ has quickly become a crowd favorite.
There’s plenty of swagger at the rodeo, from the giant belt-buckles on the guys to the sundresses & cowboy boots a la Taylor Swift on the girls to the 10-gallon hats on the seasoned ranchers. I especially liked the sign on this bull ride; the Sissy Boy part made me laugh.
Our first year at the rodeo looked like this:
Let me state for the record that I am not an amusement-park kind of girl. I don’t enjoy the rides, the crowds, the footsore grumps who are tired of waiting in line. It’s not my scene. I’m also a little teeny bit scared of heights. And jerky motions. And flunky ride-operators who hold my life in their hands as they operate thousands of pounds of machinery that may or may not have been properly inspected. There’s even a website devoted to chronicling accidents on carnival rides, after all. Yikes.
But hey, my girl wanted to ride some rides, and she wanted me to do it with her. I’ve already faced the scariest thing I can imagine — a cancer diagnosis — so surely I could handle the Sky Flyer. Which happens to be the tallest swing ride in North America. Oh goody. Here we are in our swing, ready to soar over the rodeo crowd. I’m terrified. Seriously. My girl is in disbelief that her otherwise-fearless mama is actually riding this ride.
Aerial view as we began our ascent into the sky. Up high. Very, very high. Looking down at lots of pavement and people and pointy things that would not cushion a fall.
But we survived, with a complete absence of screaming and a minimal amount of cussing by me. My girl was very proud of me for doing something she knows is way, way, way outside my comfort zone. As we exited the Sky Flyer, a girl in her early teens asked me, “Is it scary? How high do you think it goes? Does it last long?” She must have recognized a fellow reluctant rider. I wish we’d stuck around to see if she was convinced by my answers enough to hop on.
But no, we had to hustle on over to the G Force.
My girl had heard about this ride or remembered it from last year or something. I can’t recall because I stopped breathing when I saw it and was focused on remaining upright as I saw people hurtling through the sky on this G Force of death.
It swings in great arcs that cover a huge swath of landscape over the midway, traveling fast enough to elicit the unit of force equal to the force exerted by gravity. The force to which a body is subjected when it is accelerated by a crazy carnival ride. Which may or may not have been properly inspected. I’m thinking you’d have to be cuckoo to ride this thing. And lo and behold, there’s the cuckoo house right across from the G Force.
Well, guess who rode the G Force? Yep, that’s right–it was me. The gal who really doesn’t like rides. At all. Of any kind. The gal who is perfectly happy to hold purses, hats, cell phones, drinks–whatever, as long as I don’t have to go on a ride. The control-freak gal who hates putting her fate in someone else’s hands. Uh huh, I rode the G Force. All for my favorite girl. It was scary, ok terrifying really, and people were screaming. Some people were actually smiling. My girl reached over to hold my hand, and told me it’s ok to scream but please don’t cry. I did neither, although one time I extolled the ride operator to make it stop. For the love of all things sacred and holy, make it stop.
She pronounced it heavenly, and only scowled at me a little when I encouraged her to throw half of it away. We won’t mention the giant stomach ache she ended up with after consuming half of that bad boy. We skipped the Cowboy Kettle Corn, but I do like the Texas-sized bag on the right.
Sweet Cheeks is well-known for its fried desserts on a stick. The fried Snickers bar made headlines when it debuted, and this year’s addition to the lineup is Fried Fruity Pebbles. Apparently they coat the cereal in melted marshmallows, form it into a rectangle, add a stick, dunk it in batter, and fry it.
As the recent article in the Houston Chronicle says about the Sweet Cheeks booth, “it’s not a health-food store.”
Plenty of people lined up for the non-health-food-store wares.
Seeing the animals is always a highlight at the rodeo. The local FFA kids work really hard to raise and show their animals, and hope for a big payoff. The rodeo has resulted in some $238 million in scholarships, research, and youth programs.
This longhorn looked like he had something to add to the topic. Perhaps it’s that some 2,000 students attend more than 100 different Texas universities on livestock show scholarships, enjoying $30 million in school funds.
As of yesterday, 67 piglets had been born at the rodeo.
That’s a lot of little squealers.
Yes, those are the mama pig’s hooves you see, and yes, they are indeed bigger than her babies. Mama pig weighs 600 lbs, so her hooves have to be able to support her heft. Those piglets are a week old, and their mama’s hooves could crush them. Miss Piggy is the proud mother of 5, all of whom were ready for their next meal.
Why some of the mama pigs were in the clear enclosures with the scary-looking bars near their faces and some were in more friendly fenced enclosures I don’t know. Perhaps the scary-looking pens were for feeding and the fenced ones were for piggie playtime? The fenced ones allowed the piglets to run and play, and Macy and I loved watching them cavort like puppies.
Piglets galore! This mama pig snoozed while her little ones entertained each other. So did Jasmine, as her 5 piglets, named The Wrecking Crew, delighted the crowd with their piggie antics.
Seeing the piglets was the perfect ending to our rodeo fun. After gazing upon their little pink faces, there was only one thing left to do: go to the pig races!
To be continued….
I’m not feeling very bloggy today, probably because I’m feeling just plain awful from the naughty sinus fairy who’s been visiting me the last few nights. Instead of leaving little trinkets under my pillow, this fairy jacks up my sinus tissue so it’s swollen and painful, and she blows a bunch of hot air into my forehead and eye sockets so I feel lots of pressure there. To add insult to injury, she also concocts some thick, nasty gunk to drip down the back of my throat, and for a little bonus, she saps all my energy, too.
I hate her.
Instead of waxing poetic about any number of topics, as is my habit in this space most days, I’m going to give you my recipe for shrimp & grits. I made it Saturday night, and it was scrumptious. If you’re not from the South and not familiar with grits, I’m so sorry, honey-child. It’s high time you made yourself familiar with grits. Because I’m feeling nice, despite that bitchy sinus fairy, I’ll throw in my new favorite dessert recipe, too, with thanks to Debbie C for introducing me to this little bit of yumminess.
Shrimp & Grits:
- 1 1/2 pound shrimp (at least 26-30 count), peeled & deveined and preferably from the warm waters of the Gulf coast
- juice of 1 lemon
- Tabasco sauce
- 1 1/3 teaspoons salt
- 1 1/2 cups grits, preferably stone-ground and not quick or instant
- 1 bunch green onions, white parts finely chopped and green parts diced (keep them separate)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 Tablespoons flour
- 1 cup chicken or veggie stock
- 2 T unsalted butter
- 1 cup cheddar cheese, diced or grated
Combine shrimp, lemon juice, and several big shakes of Tabasco. Let sit while you prepare the grits.
Make the grits in a large, heavy pot. Bring 6 cups water to a boil, along with a teaspoon of salt. Whisk in the grits a little at a time, being careful to watch that they don’t bubble up and boil over. After all the grits are in, lower the heat to a simmer and cook 30-40 minutes, stirring often, until they’re tender. If you have to use quick or instant grits, follow the package directions but plan to add an extra pat of butter to make them taste creamier.
While the grits cook, make the gravy: heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and add the white parts of the green onion. Saute until soft, about 3 minutes, then add the green parts. Sprinkle the flour over, stir, and cook for about 5 minutes until the flour browns a little but don’t let it burn. Stir in the stock and 1/3 t. salt. Whisk until smooth and slightly thick. Add shrimp and saute until shrimp turn pink, about 5 minutes. Don’t cook too long, though, or they will get tough.
Add a splash of Tabasco to the cooked grits, along with the butter and cheese. Stir well so cheese melts. Serve a pile of grits on a plate, top with shrimp & gravy. At this point the room will go quiet except for the sounds of “mmmmmmm” coming from your guests.
Dessert: not sure what the name of this is, but it’s similar to trifle, except that the cake is soaked in liquor instead of pudding (quite the trade-off, in my mind). It’s so easy, yet so good.
Here are your ingredients:
- an angel food cake, cut into bite-sized pieces
- Chambord (raspberry-flavored liqueur)
- a pint of whipping cream
- a few tablespoons powdered sugar
- assorted berries (I used a pound of halved strawberries, 2 pints of blackberries, and a pint of raspberries)
Sprinkle the Chambord over the cake bits. Don’t be shy; dousing is ok. Rumor was that the pastry chef was quite liberal with the booze last time around and everything turned out fine. Toss to coat.
Whip the cream with a mixer, adding a tablespoon of powdered sugar at a time, until still peaks form and it is sweet enough for ya.
Layer the cake bits, berries, and whipped cream in a large bowl (a clear, footed trifle bowl is pretty but not required). Dig in.