Thursday, January 19, 2012

Musings on a day trip- New places, old antique stores, too much cheese and the Mississippi River..

Ahh.. Kansas.
I lived in Kansas for 25 years. Having now left, I am beginning to understand how much I love it. I didn’t realize that I did. I always liked to make cracks about its politics and seemingly lack of culture. So, who would have thought that I would miss its rolling landscapes but I do. 

But also having lived there for a quarter of a century, there weren’t many day trips that were new. I’d enjoyed going into Kansas City or going to Abilene but I’d been there and done most of it. Now I’m some place new and I am in love with the fact that no matter what town we go to, it is brand new to me. 

One of our favorite things to do in Kansas was to just head out and drive. It was all new to Brian and I enjoyed showing off the state and seeing it through a newbie’s eyes. And now- I’m the newbie! A couple of weekends ago, we decided to just drive and see where we ended up. We ended up in St. Francisville. It is a charming little town with beautiful historic homes. There were antique stores and “antique” stores. We got suckered in by a couple of the “antique” stores- we should have known by the pink and cream and painting that they  weren’t going to be filled with grandma’s old kitchen utensils. Rather they were filled with jewelry, little bedside lamps for $70 and candles and lotions. Fortunately, we found real antique stores- the kind that aren’t pretty inside, make you sneeze in the first five minutes and have old 45’s mixed in with really old farm tools and headboards. 

Chicken Magnolia- yes.
We had lunch at Magnolia Café. It was a mixed experience. Brian and I split a cup of amazing gumbo. It was almost as good as Brian’s gumbo and this is saying a lot. He ordered the Chicken Magnolia sandwich. I got a Shrimp pizza. As soon as the plates were set down, I had order envy. (This is become an all too common occurrence since I met Brian. The man always seems to know what the best thing on the menu is going to be.) This was another case of serious order envy. 

Shrimp pizza- no

As with most things, it came down to a matter of ratios. The shrimp were quite delicious. The problem was the cheese. But, Heather, how can that be?? Cheese is one of God’s most amazing gifts. There are very few cheeses that I have met and not liked. And this was good ol’ mozzarella. What’s not to like?? Well, simply put- there was too much of it. Way too much. Probably twice as much as there should have been. And they didn’t cook it long enough to get the cheese a yummy golden brown in the middle. And the crust didn’t have much flavor. So, all in all, I was not a fan of the pizza. However, I will absolutely go back… and get the Chicken Magnolia and the gumbo. 

Spanish Moss
Live Oaks

After lunch, we drove around some more and saw some amazing Live Oak trees covered in Spanish moss. Romantic and creepy. Did you know that Spanish moss is actually fungus and you don't want to get it on your trees. But the tourists like it. Tourists- sheesh.

Bridge to New Roads, LA.
Then we went home via a brand new bridge over the Mississippi River. Brian had not been over the bridge yet and he wanted to see it. He (and most people down here) have a love affair with Mississippi River. They see a beauty in the constantly moving brownish-gray water that I haven’t found yet. Brian says it comes from growing up here and having so much of your life revolve around the river and its ever-changing personality. Their lives and livelihoods are dictated by how high the river is and how fast it’s moving. 

The river also dictates the geography down here. City borders and streets are rarely straight, which can really be confusing for a newbie. Especially someone from Kansas, where the 1 mile square grids of country roads make it nearly impossible to get lost. In Kansas, you orient yourself by the sun and it’s easier to find north. Down here you orient by the river and you don’t always know where you are or where you’re going. But there is almost always something new around the bend. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

We are not alone.

No, I’m not talking about aliens (though I was a HUGE  X-Files fan back in the day and I do believe the truth is out there). I’m talking about the numerous creatures that call South Louisiana (and sometimes our house) home. Specifically, lizards.

You can say how cute they are and how they are an integral part of the ecosystem. I don’t care. I don’t like them. Scratch that- I hate them- especially when they invade my territory. I will concede the outdoors to them. It is just another point for my argument against the outdoors and solidifies my long held belief that I am an indoor kinda gal.

Let me set the scene for you. I was doing laundry. I loaded up the washer. I started the water. Next, (and this replays in my mind in slow motion), I open the cupboard over the washer to get the soap. As I do, something falls- right in front of my face- into the washer. It happened so fast the object was a blur. As I was still naïve, I thought “Oh, what was that?” I looked up and didn’t see anything. I looked in the cupboard in front of me. Nope, nothing there. And then I looked into the washing machine to see if I could see what fell in. Nothing. So, I leaned a little bit forward and…….

I need to back up and give you some background. A week and a half earlier, we had been up in Kansas for Christmas. Brian and I were sitting in the living room talking to mom and somehow the subject of lizards came up. Now, my mom knows me and she knows how I feel about lizards. She’s been to Florida with me and seen me put many a band leader to shame with my high kicking running through the gauntlet of lizards that sun themselves on Florida’s sidewalks. But Brian still really didn’t grasp this fear.
The scene of that fateful day.
Mind you, this fear of lizards is not irrational. It’s totally rational and started when I was 2. We were living in Hawaii (yeah, yeah- tell me how great it is when you finish reading this). When I would go to sleep at night, geckos (not the cute insurance commercial version) would come into my room and crawl on the ceilings and chirp. Even at 2 I realized how wrong this was and would not go to sleep until my parents got rid of them. This fear is very real and completely justified. 

My mom and I were relaying this story to Brian when he said “Boy, I’m really glad I didn’t tell you about the lizard I found in our shower in Ottawa.” The room fell silent as all attention turned to me. “WHAT?” I couldn’t really say more than that, as I started reliving every shower I took in that apartment. I can only imagine what I would have looked like running down the streets of Ottawa naked and screaming had I found a lizard in our shower. Brian tried to reassure me that the lizards in Louisiana did not want to come into our house and there wouldn’t be very many. “They don’t want to be in our house. Their food is outside. They eat mosquitos.” He also tried to reassure me that they wouldn’t come out until it got warmer in March or April. So I had a few months to prepare myself to deal with the image of my wonderful cats batting one of those evil and disgusting lizards around our living room.

So, now you have a little better idea of the weeks (and years) of lizard-fearing that had gone on in my life before I decided to do some laundry. 

(Back to the laundry room )I leaned over and looked in the washing machine and saw a white tail and two little feet. That was it. I ran screaming from the laundry, through the office, through the kitchen, through the dining room and into the living room where Brian was sitting. He didn’t realize what the noise was at first. It was so high pitched he said it didn’t sound human. It was me. I told him there was a lizard in the washing machine. He got a little smile on his face and chuckled. But only for a second until he realized ( I made him realize) this was not a joking matter. He sat there for  a minute and wanted to know what happened. I quickly told him. And he still just sat there. “Go get him! The water is running in the washer! Get him! GET HIM!” 

He went and got him. He had died quite a while ago- probably before we moved in. The motion of the washing machine and our opening the cabinet door had slowly moved him to the edge until that fateful day. 

If Brian had not been there, I can assure you that I would have closed that laundry door and started stocking up on quarters for the Laundromat. Because I would have never gone in that room again. 

The next couple of days had me opening cabinets and jumping back.  I opened the shower curtain and jumped back. I told myself this was silly. They are small and probably more afraid of me then I am of them. They eat mosquitos (which I’ve heard are as big as lizards down here). I am going to have to find a way to deal with this come Spring. I’m thinking of duct taping all the doors and windows.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Brian's Shrimp and crispy polenta in cream sauce- You'll thank me later.

Brian and I love to cook together. It’s one of our favorite things to do. Sometimes I’m the executive chef and he is my sous chef and vice versa. This recipe is all Brian. And I think it is my favorite thing we’ve made so far. 

We do try to cook healthy and have made more things out of our Weight Watcher’s cook books than any other. Having said that, this is not a WW recipe. Brian was inspired by a Shrimp and Grits recipe from “Uglesich’s Restaurant Cookbook” ( Uglesich’s was  an amazing restaurant in New Orleans). I say inspired because Brian is not a grits fan (gasp!). So instead of grits we used polenta. 

I cannot say enough how much we enjoyed this dish. The first time we made it, it was just the two of us. It was so good I felt like I needed to go grab some people off the street and let them try it. It was too good not to share. I snapped out of that overly generous mood and just had a second helping. The second time we made it, we shared it with our friends Toby and Andrea. Again, it was amazing. But it was also then that I realized that Brian had been seriously holding back on the seasoning so as not to offend my Midwestern palate (awww. He’s so sweet.) But the second time, I was out numbered 3-1 by South Louisiana natives. It was spicier.  It didn’t help that it was accompanied by green beans that were also spicy. I drank water and adjusted. It was still so good!

So, here it is Brian’s shrimp and crispy polenta. Enjoy! And when you make it- invite me over!

Brian’s Shrimp and Crispy Polenta in cream sauce (serves 4)

1 tube of polenta (usually found in the produce or dairy section of your grocery store)
1 T. of Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning (we use this a lot. You can find it in most grocery stores).
1T. of Worcestershire sauce
Ground black pepper
1 pint of heavy cream
1 lb of medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and butterflied
Canola Oil
2 eggs
Fine plain bread crumbs (Brian adds a little seasoning- salt, pepper, Tony Chachere’s)
1  Green onion, diced

Pour oil in to a frying pan- you’ll need about ½ inch of oil in the pan. Place over medium high heat. 

Crack eggs into a bowl and beat until scrambled. Pour bread crumbs into 9x9 pan. Slice the polenta into 12- ¼ inch slices. Dip in the eggs and then lightly coat them in the bread crumbs. 

Place coated polenta into the frying pan and cook until golden brown. When done, remove the polenta and let them drain on a cookie rack or paper towel.  At this point, I put the crispy polenta in a toaster oven or 200 degree oven to keep them nice and toasty. 

In a cast iron skillet slowly bring the heavy cream, Tony’s, Worcestershire Sauce, and Black Pepper to a nice medium high heat (you do not want a boil as this will scald the cream and affect the flavor!).  Add your shrimp and cook until done (done is a figurative term when cooking Seafood…you don’t want rubber, then again, no one likes a raw shrimp, except for my cats).  Once the shrimp are done, reduce to a low simmer.  

Place the crispy polenta on a plate and cover with the sauce and shrimp. Sprinkle green onion on top.  Serve with a salad and/or green beans (or veggie of your choosing.)
Sit down and enjoy a restaurant quality meal in the comfort of your own home!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I loved our house... before I found Pinterest

We moved to South Louisiana a little more than two months ago. We were pretty quick to  unpack the boxes and get all of our stuff in their new places. As an Army brat, I was trained to unpack quickly. 3 days and the boxes were gone. For the most part, everything is where it should be. The house was exactly what we wanted it to be. It was the perfect size- not too small, not too big.  It has hardwood floors throughout, areal fire place and built in bookshelves. The kitchen is not great but definitely workable. It was our new home and I loved it. Then Pinterest entered my life. 

It started innocently enough with a text from a friend. She said that “every time I go on Pinterest I see things for weddings and think of you.” I never heard of Pinterest but if it had wedding stuff, I’m in! I waited a couple of days and then I started to see mentions of Pinterest on Facebook. It was starting to show up in all of my friends posts. I had to find out what it was. So, I sat down, googled it and found it. Here it was- the latest and greatest on the Interweb. And I needed an invitation. Great! So, like an unpopular little third grader, I asked Pinterest- “Please, can I come to your party?” And I waited. A whole week went by before I was accepted by my new friend Pinterest. 

The doors opened and there it was- everything I was interested in- clothes, interior decorating, food, photography! This was awesome! I was going to get the inside scoop on what all the cool kids were wearing, thinking, doing, and eating. And then it really sucked me in. Minutes turned into hours. Hours tuned into more hours. And what was becoming painfully clear to me was that I live in a pit and have done nothing to turn our little house into something that was Pinterest worthy.

I had not found a pallet, painted it white, affixed it to a wall, put cute little hooks on which to hang cute little rain coats of children that I don’t have. I have not bought a single mason jar, let alone add some chalkboard paint and write “flour”, “sugar” on them and turn my kitchen into a country shabby chic culinary center. I have not made chair cushions out of fabric remnants that I have picked up at a second hand store. I have not created an organization center out of old boxes, fabric and ribbon. I have not made a rug by tying cut up towels through the holes of one of those grippy grid things that you put on the back of a rug. Oh my God. What have I done? Or, more importantly, not done? 

A do-it yourself suitcase chair. Really? I want one.
On Pinterest I have found no less than 10 different ways that I HAVE to decorate and accessorize our office which currently consists of a computer table, file boxes, several crates of offices supplies and artifacts from old jobs. We have come up with a very sensible and sound plan to slowly purchase the desk and office furniture we like at Office Depot. I also had plans to buy a rug and maybe (with our awesome landlord’s approval) paint the walls. But now, thanks to Pinterest, I know that our plan is completely wrong. We need to go antiquing and find an old door. Then we need to strip it, sand it, stain it, affix it to some legs. Then I need to make the afore mentioned organization center. And I need to hang a crystal chandelier (that seems to be the thing to do in unexpected places. I’m thinking we need one in the bathroom as well.). And then I see the next Pin and realize that the office I just saw was completely wrong and I need to go modern. Or country. Or Urban. Or Steam Punk. (What the hell is that, anyway?)

And then the reality sets in.  I’m not going to do any of that stuff. Why? Because I’m a consumer. I am not a do-it-yourself kind of girl. We’ll end up with an outstanding office that is filled with fabulous furniture and cute bulletin boards and a rug that really pulls the room together.  And we’ll buy it all. We’ll save up and we’ll buy it. It’s easier. And quicker- if I was actually making all this stuff, we wouldn’t ever get the office we want. I just don’t have the time to make all that stuff. I’ve got recipes and shoes to look at on Pinterest.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Why does the ring mean so much?

We did things a little backwards when it came to our engagement.   Brian was already in South Louisiana working at his awesome new job. I was still in Kansas wrapping things up. It was during a conversation with my mom when I realized what our dream of a Spring wedding meant. We needed to look at dresses- now. We needed to book the church, reception venue, flowers, photographer- NOW! So 20 minutes later, after consulting the church’s calendar, I called Brian and said “How does this day sound?” It was that easy. We picked the date we would become husband and wife.  And within the next week, my mom and I planned a wedding. I must say- it was pretty impressive. But one thing was missing- we weren’t “officially” engaged. 

A couple of weeks later, Brian surprised me and flew up to Kansas and proposed. Just the two of us. He got down on bended knee and made it official. I love him. He loves me. We are going to spend the rest of our lives together.  He hadn’t had time to get the ring. But it didn’t matter to me. But it mattered to others.

When we did the obligatory relationship status change on Facebook, it started. “What does the ring look like?” “Show us the bling.” “Where’s the ring?” To me it did not matter. I knew why there wasn’t a ring. Our timeline was truncated. He wanted to do it right and get the right ring. And bless his little financially responsible heart- he wanted to pay for it outright. He wanted the ring to be his to give, not Visa or MasterCard’s. That is just another reason why I love him. He’s smart. 

But that didn’t stop the questions from friends and family. They meant well. They wanted to see the ring. They wanted me to have everything they thought I deserved. But the questions started to get a little old. And they started to wear on Brian. The lack of a ring became such a “Thing.”  I knew a ring was coming. There was no doubt.  But I would be lying to say that all the well-meaning inquiries weren’t making me a bit anxious. 

After a trip to Kansas for Christmas, which included several “where is the ring already,” we were home in Louisiana for New Year’s Eve. We’d had an early NYE celebration with friends and we were back at home in our pajamas, sitting on the couch, trying to stay awake and watching Anderson Cooper. 11:59! Yay- almost time for bed! Then it happened. He got down on one knee and asked me to marry him- again. And this time there was a ring. And it was gorgeous. 

It feels a little foreign on my finger. But I do love it and I smile a little every time I look at it. It feels important.  But why? He doesn’t wear one and no one doubts my love and commitment for him. But somehow I think people doubted his love and commitment for me. Putting a ring on my finger didn’t change the fact that we are getting married but somehow it took a ring for people to believe it.  Forget the fact that I had already ordered the dress, we’d met with the Priest, and I’d made my bridesmaids buy dresses that I’m just sure they’ll be able to wear again (seriously, they’re cute!) 

My ring.
Why does the ring mean so much? I guess people need to see physical proof of that most important commitment. But it’s not like the tradition of giving an engagement ring has been around forever.  In fact it didn’t really become widespread in the US until the 30’s and 40’s when, surprise surprise, a diamond company looking to increase sales began to advertise the importance of the diamond engagement ring and how if he really loves you, he’ll put a big rock on your finger. 

I didn’t need a ring to know that Brian really loves me and that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with him.  But the ring sure is pretty and I’m keeping it. Because it means so much.

There's citrus in my yard!

Grapefruits from our yard.

I enjoy a good orange from time to time but citrus has never been my favorite fruit. But its funny how excited I get about grapefruit and satsumas now that I can see them growing from our kitchen window.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Best. Cupcakes. Ever. (That I've made)

Sooo, I'm sitting in front of the computer one afternoon, thinking about all the work I should be doing (and I did a little) when I decided what I really wanted to do was bake some cupcakes. I looked in the fridge and we had some champagne leftover from my awesome going away/engagement party and some strawberries. I was off and running. I knew what I wanted to make- Champagne Strawberry cupcakes with white chocolate buttercream. I  found a couple of recipes from two of my favorite and, made some alterations and VOILA- the best cupcakes I’ve ever made. 

Note- The frosting recipe makes  a lot. A LOT. For those of you that view a cupcake as merely a frosting delivery device, it may be fine. For me, however, I could have easily cut the recipe in half and still had some left over. The recipe below is the full amount. You’ve been warned.
Enjoy! Let me know what you think!

Champagne Strawberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Buttercream

1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup champagne/sparkling white wine
1/3 cup +2T strawberry puree (1 cup of whole strawberries and whiz them in a food processor or immersion blender)
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a muffin pan with paper liners.
In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, champagne, strawberry puree, sugar, vanilla, and oil. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture. Mix until fairly smooth. Fill cupcake liners with 1/4 cup of batter (cups should be just under 2/3 of the way full). Bake for 18-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to cooling rack and cool completely.

White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting

1 bag (12 oz) White Chocolate Chips
1/2 cup whipping cream
3 sticks (1 and 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, softenend
1 block (8oz) cream cheese
5 cups confectioners sugar, more as needed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a small bowl, microwave the whipping cream for 1 minute until steaming but not boiling.  Pour chocolate chips into hot cream and stir until smooth.  Set aside to cool completely.  In a large bowl, combine butter and cream cheese and mix until smooth.  Add cooled white chocolate and beat until just combined.  Add confectioners sugar, salt and vanilla extract.  Beat at medium-high speed until light and fluffy.  If frosting is not "stiff" enough to pipe or frost with, add more confectioners sugar, a 1/2 cup at a time until desired consistency is met.  However, the same result can be met by refrigerating frosting for a short time.  Scoop into a piping bag and frost cooled cupcakes as desired.

Garnish.  Store in the refrigerator until 30 minutes prior to serving. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What's Next?

Love has brought me- a Lawrence, Kansas girl- here to South Louisiana. Fifteen months ago I would have never thought it- love or Louisiana- a possibility. And yet here I sit in a warm and cozy 1920’s house wondering what’s next.

One big “next” is this little thing called a wedding. Brian and I are getting married in the spring. It is going to be a small, classic yet relaxed wedding for friends and family. What I failed to realized was that planning a small wedding is as involved as planning a big wedding.  We’ve got most of the biggies taken care of- dress, tux, bridesmaid dresses, priest, flowers, cake, reception, and photographer. Still need to find a DJ (help!).

But now it’s the little things that are starting to stress me out- and it’s always the little things that stress me out. How are we getting to the church? To the reception? When are we going to decorate for the reception? What if nobody comes? What if everybody comes? Should I get someone to do my makeup? I don’t usually wear a lot of makeup, so I want to make sure I look like myself. But I want to look good in the pictures. After all we’re paying a lot for them. But I don’t want to be” Sadie the Painted Lady”. AHHHHHH! These are the things I’m thinking about when we’re sitting on the couch and Brian says “What are you thinking about?” and I say “Nothing.” He wouldn’t get it. I love him but he just wouldn’t get it.

So we’ve got that going on. And then there is everything that goes along with moving to a new city – finding your favorite grocery store, figuring out the best walking location, who is the best veterinarian, etc. etc.  And, of course, there is the “next” that is figuring out what I want to do with my new life in the South.

I am a writer. Up until this point I’ve always had a “regular” job. None of them had “writer” in the position title but somehow I always finagled my way into doing whatever writing needed to be done. I love it. I love/hate the process and I really love when I’m finished.

I am in the enviable position of having the freedom to decide what I want to make of my life down here.  But total freedom can be scary. The options:

1.       Get a “regular” job which would give me the opportunity to meet new people and a steady income.
2.       Strike out on my own and become a freelance writer.
3.       Anything else I want to do.

So, what am I going to do? I’ll keep you posted. It changes from day to day. For instance, today I sat down and began a list of organizations I would like to do some writing for. And when I was done with that, I decided it was a good idea to make some Champagne Strawberry Cupcakes with a White Chocolate Buttercream.

Oh yeah- I’m also a baker. I love it. I find it relaxing. I won’t be as relaxed in five weeks at my wedding dress fitting but oh well. 

Stay tuned for what’s next.