Super Bowl Food: Pigs in a Blanket

Hot dogs and crescent rolls.  What’s not to love?  I make these without the cheese because, you know, who needs all that fat?  Heh, heh — oh.  Dang!

Anyway, no matter how you make them, make a lot.  They’ll go fast!

Crescent Dogs from Pillsbury.com.

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Super Bowl Food: Cocktail Meatballs

It sounds like an odd combination, but meatballs simmered in grape jelly and chili sauce are delicious!  Low brow maybe, but ach! Who cares? It’s Super Bowl season!

Depending on how much time I have, I either make my own meatballs or buy a frozen bag.  Either way, this is really tasty party food and they’re ridiculously easy to make.  I always hope for leftovers because the longer the meatballs sit in the sauce, the better they taste.

Cocktail Meatballs

Ingredients:

  • 1  16 oz jar of grape jelly
  • 1  8 oz jar of chili sauce
  • 1 bag small frozen meatballs (40 – 50 count)

Instructions:

  1. Prepare meatballs according to package directions and drain on paper towels, if needed.
  2. While meatballs are cooking, pour grape jelly and chili sauce into a large pan over medium heat.  Stir occasionally until jelly is melted.
  3. Add meatballs to pan and stir until coated.
  4. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes.  The longer the meatballs simmer, the more flavorful they get.

If using a crockpot, put everything in the pot and cook on low 6-8 hours. You can also make your own favorite homemade meatballs if you prefer.  Here’s a recipe I just discovered from Stove Top Stuffing.  It’s nowhere near an authentic Italian meatball, but it’s great for this recipe and much cheaper than store bought.

Stove Top Stuffing Meatballs

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb. ground beef
  • 1 6 oz. pkg. Stove Top Stuffing (Chicken flavor)
  • 1-1/4 cups water
  • 2   eggs

Instructions:

  1. Heat oven to 400ºF.  Line two baking sheets with foil and spray with cooking spray.
  2. Mix ingredients until well blended and shape into 1-inch meatballs.
  3. Bake 16 to 18 minutes or until done.
Easy, pleasy, tasty, done!

One final note, skip the meatballs altogether and use those adorable little mini-wienies.

Lentils & Luck: Oh, What to Eat on New Year’s Day?

Happy New Year!  Happy New Decade!

Nonni's handwritten cookbook is filled with family recipes and pictures, but no lentils.

My grandmother always kicked off the new year with a huge vat of lentil soup.  “It brings good luck,” she’d say.  But I was out of luck because I didn’t like lentil soup, and had to make do (suffer with me a moment) with plates full of perfection in the form of her meatballs and brasciole.  Mmm, my mouth waters thinking of them now!

I still think of her lentil soup every New Year’s Day, and considered making it this year even though I’m still not a fan.  I looked through the cookbook she put together for her family, but alas!  No lentil soup!  Then I wondered what else people eat on New Year’s Day for luck, prosperity, good health, etc.  Here’s what I found:

In the Southern U.S., it’s a tradition to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for prosperity.  Nicole from Pinch My Salt, one of my favorite food blogs, shares her recipe for Smoky Spiced Black-Eyed Peas with Bacon.

It’s an Asian tradition to eat long noodles, a symbol of long life on New Year’s Day.  Just remember, you’re not supposed to break the noodle before eating it.  From Cooking with Alison, here’s a delicious recipe for Sesame Noodle Salad.

In Germany, Ireland, and parts of the U.S., folded greens symbolize money and eating cabbage is thought to bring good fortune and prosperity. At The Giant Cabbage, Cherie Stihler has collected more than 200 recipes.  That’s a lot of cabbage!

Greece and Turkey associate pomegranates with abundance and fertility. I associate them with delicious.  Just watching the opening photos on the California Pomegranates site made me hungry for the succulent little ruby red gems.

Throughout North America, Asia, and Europe, people eat fish to celebrate the new year.  Fish swim forward so they are associated with forward momentum, and since they swim in schools, they symbolize abundance and community.  Slow Roasted Salmon with Cabbage, Bacon, and Dill from SeriousEats.com covers a couple of the lucky New Year’s food groups and looks gorgeous!

Homer Simpson and a donutFinally, we have the Dutch, who believe the shape of a ring symbolizes coming full circle, and so on New Year’s Day they eat donuts.

What about you?  Do you have any New Year’s Day food traditions?  Want to go Dutch with me today?  Mmmm, donuts!

Butter makes Culver’s Burgers Better

For use in the Culver's article.
Image via Wikipedia

Yum!  A new Culver’s restaurant just opened in the neighborhood, and boy am I scared!

Not because it’s bad, but because it’s gooooood.

Culver’s is a mix between fast food, family restaurant, and custard stand.  It looks homey from the outside, so the order counter and menu board at the front were a surprise when we walked in. There’s a lot of variety (pot roast, salads, fried chicken, sandwiches) but they’re famous for the Butter Burger, so Hon got a triple, and I got a double.

Can I say it again?  Yum!  They were delicious little greasy patties of joy!  If you’re looking for healthy, this isn’t it.  They’re called Butter Burgers because the buns, not the burgers, are buttered and grilled.  Sure that adds fat, but it also adds a lots of flavor.  The burgers themselves are quite thin and they’re seared, giving them caramelized crispy edges.  They reminded me of old-fashioned diner burgers, or more specifically, for those old enough to remember, the burgers my grandmother used to buy me at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s.  And oh, yum!  Mayo is a standard topping, so if you’re not a fan (I’m not), they’re happy to make it the way you like, and there are lots of topping options, like mushrooms, onions, greens, etc.

Fries were good, too; not greasy and much better than the puny salt chews at most fast food joints.  Culver’s fries are crinkle cut … more diner memories! Everything was cooked to order and came out fresh.

The crowning touch is the custard.  Yum 3. It’s rich, creamy, and loaded with flavor.  Each Culver’s features a Flavor of the Day, which is posted on their website. Or, if you’re an addict, which I suspect I may be, you can get the monthly calendar emailed.  This month’s choices include Caramel Chocolate Pecan, Andes Mint Avalanche, and Egg Nog Brickle.  If straight custard isn’t exciting enough, you can get a Concrete Mixer, frozen custard with candy or fruit add-ins.  I picked vanilla custard with Oreo.  Standard combo, but the flavor was great, and even the small one (they call it short), was more than I could finish.  Hon got strawberry custard with strawberries.  He said it was very strawberry-ish.  Go figure.  He finished it in about two minutes flat, so I guess he liked it.

Decor-wise, Culver’s is nothing special.  It’s clean and bright, and slightly less plastic than, say McDonald’s. There are attempts to make it homey with a carpeted floor, fun food quotes on the walls, and big screen TV  (making dinner conversation among family members completely unnecessary).  Despite the TV, it’s not an especially noisy restaurant, which is a big plus.

The staff is very friendly and accommodating.  The wait staff delivers the food, but I felt bad for them as they carried full trays through the dining room in search of the right table.  They looked like new kids in a school cafeteria nervously trying to find a welcoming place to sit.  Those who weren’t carrying trays were checking on customers.  Our server was nice enough to take our custard order so we didn’t have to stand in line again.  That was good service and we really appreciated it.

Overall, it was a good experience, and I’m definitely going back again.  I’d like to try some other things on their menu, but those burgers might tempt me too much.  Culver’s isn’t the place to go if you’re trying to be good to your heart, but it’s oh so good for the soul.

The Peoria location at 8271 W. Ludlow Drive is open daily 10 am to 11 pm. (623) 242-8826.  To find out the Flavor of the Day or for more info, check in at www.culvers.com or you can find them on Twitter and Facebook.

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Sharing the Love with Oreo Truffles, et al.

Sharing the Love with Oreo Truffles

Oreo Truffles
Oreo Truffles, bite-size bits of love

Maybe I should title this post, “Aweigh with Words,” because often when I’m deep into a writing project that isn’t going my way, my mind wanders to Oreo Truffles, and I start daydreaming about treats. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a treatelier. I just made that word up, it’s a combination baker, chocolatier and candy-maker. I love making desserts. The simple ones that don’t challenge my brain or monopolize my time too much time. I think of them as after-school snack kind of treats: double fudge brownies, peanut butter cookies, chocolate mint bars, the aforementioned Oreo Truffles.

Fancy, complicated desserts scare me. First, I don’t have a lot of time to make them. Second, my kitchen is a minimalist’s dream. I don’t have any (space for) special equipment, so I reserve my all time favorites: Crème Brûlée and Apple Tart Tatin (notice that I love them so much I am compelled to capitalize them) to restaurant visits.

Love of cooking is a genetic trait. I got it from my mother, she got it from her mother and so on. I believe the roots of it trace back to an early Cenozoic era, when an Italian mama got up early one Sunday morning and started making her meatballs and sauce. We’ve passed the tradition on through the generations, and what we’ve learned is that cooking is love. It’s a wonderful, heart-warming, belly-filling way to show someone you care.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, at lot, for me anyway. When my mind becomes too jumbled with thoughts and words, and I can step into the kitchen and get lost in the zen of cooking. It’s meditative and it works to clear my head. Afterward, I go back to my studio and get back to work … plate of cookies in hand.

In this category, I’ll be sharing some recipes that I, as the world’s first treatelier, think you might enjoy. They’ll be fast and easy, like some of my best friends, and they won’t require special equipment. At the most, you’ll need a food processor, but even that is easy to work around.

Please feel free to add your own recipes, or if you try one of mine, let me know what you think. I’ll start this ball rolling, with a ball of a different sort:

Oreo Truffles
These treats are also called cookie balls, but I giggle too much when I say that, so I just call them Oreo Truffles. Sounds more elegant.

  • 1 lb. Oreo cookies (standard 3 sleeve size)
  • 8 oz. cream cheese (softened)
  • 2 tubs Baker’s Dipping chocolate (7 ounce each)

Crush the cookies in a food processor until there are no large chunks. You can also crush them in a resealable bag using a rolling pin, meat tenderizer or the back of a frying pan.

Add softened cream cheese and mix until ingredients comes together and there are no lumps of cream cheese.

Roll the mixture into 1″ balls and place on cookie sheet covered in wax paper. Refrigerate until firm, about an hour.

Follow directions on package to melt chocolate. Dip truffles in chocolate and place on wax paper-covered baking sheet.* Refrigerate until firm.

Cover truffles and store in fridge for up to two weeks. (But they’ll be gone LONG before that!)

*If you’ve never dipped truffles before, the first time can be a little tricky. It’s easiest when truffles are well chilled, so take out only a few at a time to dip. Have two forks on hand. Use one fork to dip the truffle into the chocolate. If needed, use the other fork to roll truffle and help lift it out. Allow extra chocolate to run off, or wipe bottom on the edge of container. Place on wax paper. Good luck, it’s not hard, it just takes a little practice and it is SO worth it!

VARIATIONS: Nutter Butter cookies are also delicious in this recipe. Add a drop or two of mint extract to the Oreos for Mint Oreo Truffles. For the coating, you can use white, dark or milk chocolate. Most markets now carry almond bark and dark chocolate bark. You can also gourmet it up, by drizzling chocolate across the tops once they have been dipped. If you add any crushed toppings, be sure to add them immediately after dipping otherwise they won’t stick.

Chocolate Pretzel Bites
Chocolate Pretzel Bites are cute, colorful and oh, Mmm, yum!Sweet and salty are a great combination, and these little buggers bring it home fast! They’re cute, quick, and so stinking good it’s hard to keep them on hand!

Preheat oven to 170 degrees.

  • 24 unwrapped Hershey’s Kisses
  • 24 waffle-type square pretzels
  • 24 M&M’s

Line a cookie sheet with foil or parchment paper and lay pretzels in a single layer on lined cookie sheet.

Top each pretzel with a Kiss.

Bake for 4-6 minutes or until the chocolate feel soft when touched with a wooden spoon (or your finger, if you’re me).

Remove from oven and press an M&M into the center of each Kiss. (This adheres all the layers)

Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then put in refrigerator to set for about 20 to 30 minutes. Once they are set, shove as many in your mouth as you can because once everyone else tastes them, there will be none left.

Notes:

You can make more or less than 24 at a time. I found trays of 24 to be the most manageable. Make a lot, though. They go fast.

To make in microwave: Make 6 pretzels at a time. Microwave for 45 seconds and test by pressing an M&M into the center. If it’s not melted, microwave 15 seconds at a time and test each time.

VARIATIONS:

  • Top the Kiss with Reeses Pieces, which are the perfect colors for fall and Thanksgiving.
  • Use your favorite nut in place of the M&M.
  • Use different flavor Kisses or even the striped Hugs, but be careful because the some fillings melt faster.
  • You can adapt this for the holidays by using Red & Green M&Ms or Pastel.

Gut Bombs and Glitz, Life at Elvis Presley’s Graceland

Graceland's kitchen. Home of the Gut Bomb.
Graceland's kitchen. Home of the Gut Bomb.

Question: What do you get when you combine a bunch of bananas, a jar of peanut butter, a pound of bacon, and a big, soft loaf of white bread?

Answer: You get an Elvis Presley Gut Bomb, and that’s what I kept thinking about when I stood in Elvis’ kitchen during a tour of Graceland.

Sure, he’s the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and, yes, he had a tremendous impact on our music and pop culture, and it is true that all these years after his death, thousands upon thousands of loyal fans still make the pilgrimage to his Memphis home. I don’t disagree with any of that, but as I stood in his kitchen, looking at the dark wood cabinets, the linoleum countertops and the stained glass overhead lamps, I thought of Elvis in his pajamas, frying up a Gut Bomb for himself and whoever happened to be hanging out with him.

Visiting Graceland didn’t put Elvis Presley up on a pedestal for me. It took him down from one, and made him accessible in a very endearing way. It wasn’t just the Gut Bomb that did it, either. The house itself, did, and the property around it.

Continue reading “Gut Bombs and Glitz, Life at Elvis Presley’s Graceland”

Mississippi’s Hometown Boys: Elvis & Faulkner at home

Mississippi's Native Sons: William Faulkner & Elvis Presley
Native Sons: William Faulkner & Elvis Presley

The Pelvis & The Pen
On our way to Memphis, Tennessee, there were two important stops we wanted to make. Both were in Mississippi, and both paid homage to two of America’s greatest icons. The first was Tupelo, to visit Elvis Presley’s birthplace. The second, Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.

ANY_CHARACTER_HERE

When you first consider Elvis and Faulkner together, they seem like an unlikely duo. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n Roll, the Hillbilly Cat, Elvis the Pelvis. Faulkner was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, two Pulitzers, and two National Book Awards. Even though the disparities might seem as wide as the Mississippi River, these two Southern boys did share some similarities.

First, they were born within miles of each other in small north Mississippi towns. Elvis in Tupelo, Faulkner in New Albany. Second, from those small-town beginnings, they both grew to worldwide fame. It could even be said that they had more influence in their respective fields than any other artists of the 20th century. Yet, for all of their money, talent, and fame, their love of the South kept them deeply rooted there throughout their lives. They traveled the world, but home to both of them, was always the South. As someone who has moved from state to state a few times, I was looking forward to seeing the homes where those strong roots took hold.

Continue reading “Mississippi’s Hometown Boys: Elvis & Faulkner at home”

Bonaparte Breads: Ooo La La

If only there weren’t a trillion calories in a croissant and two trillion calories in pain chocolate, I would visit Bonaparte every day. Bonaparte is very nearly the perfect cafe (perfection would require wi-fi and more computer friendly tables). But I’ll take the near perfection that they offer over most other Fells Point coffee houses.

The coffee is brought to the table for you and served in a French cup and saucer with hot steamed milk instead of cream — very nice touch. They also bring you whatever tasties you’ve ordered at the counter. In addition to perfect croissants, Bonaparte offers sandwiches, breads, soups and a daily quiche. I’m so enamored of the croissants and pain chocolate that I haven’t gotten around to ordering anything else.

Service is generally a positive, although there is one server (possibly the manager?) who can be a grouch, but I figure she’s probably been there since 3 a.m. baking those perfect croissants, so she’s earned her grouchiness (just keep it away from me, please). The other servers are friendly and attentive, but sometimes have a hard time keeping up with the crowd at the counter and serving the coffee table-side. It’s not an aggravation though because Bonaparte is not a rush-in and rush-out kind of place. It’s a slow-down and enjoy kind of place.

The atmosphere is lovely, very French, nicely decorated (aside from the plastic folding chairs stacked up near the front doors), classical music piped in, and a view of Fell’s Point and the harbor. It’s such a relaxing environment that even the cell-phone junkies seem to understand that they should put away the appendage for a few minutes once they’ve entered Bonaparte’s front doors. That alone would make Bonaparte a favorite spot, but since it’s got so much more going for it, the unspoken no-cell law is just a bonus.

Bonaparte Breads is located at 903 South Ann Street (Fells Point) Baltimore, MD 21231. They are open daily, 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. 410.342.3000.

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What’s French for “Dang, That’s a Big Steak?”

Hon and I went to Brasserie Tatin for a celebration dinner. (I finished the first draft of my first novel.) I had been wanting to try it since moving to Baltimore more than a year ago, and I’m so glad we finally checked it out.

It was a very quiet night … maybe three or four other tables were occupied.  It was also a very cold night, so walking in and seeing a fireplace at the far end of the dining room was warming and welcoming.  The decor is fairly low key … modern, elegant, but not stuffy.  It was a comfortable environment, although on a busier night, I can imagine that it feels overcrowded as the tables are close together.

The service was very good, friendly and knowledgeable. I got the sense that even if it had been a busier night, our server would have been just as attentive.

Now for the food.  For starters, I got the French Onion Soup or Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée.  It was perfect, and if it hadn’t been such a classy joint, Hon and I probably would have licked the bowl.  Hon got the soup du jour, which was a cream of parsnip soup.  Sounded positively awful to me, but he loved it.  Said it was a very rich, full flavor.

On to the entrees: I was looking forward to the veal scallopini that is (still) listed on their online menu.  I was disappointed to see it wasn’t on the regular menu. Instead, I went with a standby favorite, the New York Strip steak.  When the server brought it out I almost started laughing. I know that some people believe size matters, but this steak was enough to feed three people.  It was served on top of mashed potatoes and squash with bernaise on the side. I was a little concerned that the steak might be tough or not cooked well enough because of the size, but every bite of it (including the bites that lasted for two more meals!) was delicious and perfectly done.  Even when I think back on it now, I laugh because it looked like an entire side of beef on my plate!

Hon got the Seared Diver Scallops, which were also Amazon-sized. Again, there was a concern about them being too tough or chewy, as larger scallops can be, but these were fresh, tender and delicious.  They were seasoned just right and the sweet succulence of the scallops really came through with the flavor of the buerre blanc sauce.

After such a wonderful meal, I was very excited about dessert.  We selected the seasonal sorbets, which, pardon the pun, left me cold. The tastes were either too strong, too sweet or too strange for me.  We also got the restaurant’s namesake, and the reason for my wanting to check this place out … the tarte tatin, which, after creme brulee, is my favorite dessert.

I almost don’t want to say it, but I was disappointed in it.  It had a bit of a leftover taste to it..  The pastry wasn’t flaky and light the way it should be.  It was more dense, cakelike and soggy. The caramelization had gone a touch too far and seemed overly sweet and crystallized.

You definitely pay for the experience of dining at Brasserie Tatin, it is expensive, but we were celebrating and Hon was splurging on me, so we dug in and enjoyed it!

I don’t want to end this review on a bad note, because overall it was a very good experience.  I’d even be willing to try it again, but next time we’ll finish off with the creme brulee.

Brasserie Tatin is located at 105 W 39th St., Baltimore, MD 21210. They are open Sunday and Monday, 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.; Tuesday to Thursday, 5:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m. They serve Sunday brunch from 11:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. 443.278.9110. www.brasserietatin.com

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Beautiful Burgers in Baltimore

Five Guys Burgers & Fries

Just after moving to Baltimore I told my Hon I had a craving for a great burger.  He told me to leave everything to him. He was taking me to Five Guys Burgers & Fries in Canton and he assured me I’d have the best burger blast I’ve ever had. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but I went with it.

When he told me Five Guys was a chain, of sorts, my trust faltered even further, but I kept my mouth shut and my mind open.

Then I opened my mouth. I had to!  The burger that was put before me was without question, beautiful! It was big, beefy, sloppy and loaded with my favorite toppings. And it was the best burger I have ever had!  It was fresh, perfectly cooked, and D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S! 

I chose the regular hamburger, which I learned was actually two hamburgers on one bun. Daintier appetites can go for a “Little,” which is one burger. Heartier apps can opt for bacon, cheese or both. For toppings, I went with the basics: onion, pickle, ketchup.  Hon got his burger loaded with the big 5 … grilled onions, tomato, mushrooms, relish, lettuce. 

All toppings are free and plentiful, and also include mayo, raw onion, mustard, jalapenos, green peppers, A-1 Sauce, BBQ, or hot sauce.

We shared a (ha ha) small order of fries, which were enough to comfortably feed four.  Fries were amazing, too, and even though it was such a big order, we managed to eat them all and didn’t  finish until we sucked every last bit of salt off our greasy fingers.

Before our burgers were cooked and bagged up, we feasted on a handful of serve yourself peanuts. That was unexpected and fun and it’s a daily amenity at Five Guys. They get bonus points, too, for serving Coke products, instead of Pepsi.

Five Guys is not fancy.  You place your order at the counter and they call your number when it’s done.  Whether you eat in or take out, your order is served up in a brown paper bag with a fistful of napkins. The music is always obnoxiously loud and the counter guy is usually grumpy, but who cares!  These are fantastic burgers and I’d gladly suffer more abuse for a lesser burger. Don’t expect conversation because aside from the loud music, once dinner is served everyone will be too intimately involved with their burgers to be distracted with any conversation beyond, “Mmmm,” “Oh my God,” and “Can you pass the ketchup?”  

I’ve been back to the Five Guys in Canton and their various locations many times and it has always been an excellent, extraordinarily filling meal at a budget price.  If you’re feeling hungry enough, add a hot dog to your order.  They’re super, too!

The Canton location at 3600 Boston Street, Baltimore, is open daily 11 am to 10 pm. 410-522-1580. For other locations, and more info, check in at www.fiveguys.com.

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