Say (mac and) cheese

Everyone loves mac and cheese. Well, everyone I know, anyway… It’s one of those time-tested, kid-friendly comfort foods that work for any occasion.

To celebrate the holy marriage of pasta and cheese, Return of the Mac part III took over Noblesville’s Federal Hill Commons on Saturday afternoon for several hours of feasting (the first two events took place earlier this year in Indianapolis and Bloomington). Entrance times were staggered at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., although the line already snaking down the block when I arrived around 1:45. Fortunately, things moved quickly along once they started letting folks in. A gal who was directing traffic and seemed to be in the know said 1,600 attendees were expected.

I’d brought my 9-year-old son along as my plus one, which was probably not the best idea in retrospect. He does like mac and cheese (mostly in the form of Velveeta shells), but didn’t seem to grasp the concept that this was a festival dedicated solely to the aforementioned food group. While waiting in line to get in, he kept asking me if there would be burgers, fries or ice cream. However, he did seem happy to take advantage of a photo op with the coveted “Golden Noodle” trophy.

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Once through the gate, we grabbed paper plates and forks, then it. Was. On. With more than two dozen participating restaurants vying for bragging rights, the amount of tasting to be done was somewhat intimidating. Booths lined up in one long row and the competition was fierce. Most of the vendors toward the entrance boasted longer lines — thinking we’d be smart, my kiddo and I hightailed it to the opposite end to work our way backwards. We also had the foresight to snag a pink lemonade Nicey Treat pop for my son from the cart’s strategically stationed perch on the far side.

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Mac and cheese entrants ranged from newer spots like Joella’s Hot Chicken (which I’d sampled and enjoyed at the Indianapolis Monthly Best Restaurants party a month or so ago), LouVino and Four Day Ray Brewing to beloved Hoosier haunts like MCL, Clancy’s and Arni’s. You simply approach any booth you want in any order you want and grab a little 2-oz. cup of what each has to offer. About two bites worth per sample. Recipes ranged from traditional classic to newfangled modern interpretations garnished with yummy add-ons.

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I’d purposely skipped lunch, and was glad I did. I managed to work my way through a half dozen or so samples in short shift. Note to event organizers — some sort of scoring card or passport-style brochure detailing who’s serving what would have been nice to help patrons plan their attack and keep track of what they’ve tasted. I saw quite a few folks walking by with their plates loaded up with 7, 8 or 9 samples. After a couple bites, everything started to blur together for me and I had a hard time remembering exactly what I ate and where it came from. I did NOT envy the judges for having to sample every single offering to select a winner. Great googly moogly.

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The DJed 80s music was fun (and right in my wheelhouse). The kiddo beelined straight for the giant inflatable human hamster balls. After 15 minutes or so, I reminded him that we needed to get back to the mac and cheese.

In spite of the staggered admission, the whole scene was very crowded. And, it being a hot day with temps pushing 90, my little man started whining after 30 minutes or so. The line for water and soft drinks was long, and while I would have very much enjoyed a cold Sun King beer, it wouldn’t have helped my son’s thirst situation. I wished there would have been more beverage stations and drink options on hand.

I didn’t end up being able to taste as many of the mac and cheese offerings as I would have liked, but after the fact, was excited to see that two I specifically remembered enjoying had snagged top honors — The Local Eatery’s Creole mac and cheese with blue cheese, cheddar and mozzarella topped with a couple of Cajun-spiced shrimp was the judges’ top pick, while new-kid-on-the-block LouVino won People’s Choice with a Louisville Hot Brown-inspired recipe with creamy Mornay sauce, smoked chicken, tomato relish and bacon (and as a bonus, handed out $5 coupon to visit the restaurant for brunch). District Tap’s buffalo chicken mac and cheese was on point as well…

The heat and the kiddo’s complaining got the best of us both 45 minutes in. I must mention a note on the parking situation. We’d parked in the Kroger lot across the street — as the event organizers had said we could do, but while walking back to our car, a guy driving by made a snide comment to me about taking a spot away from paying Kroger customers. I wasn’t sure how to respond nicely, so I didn’t. But I seethed about it halfway home.

I’m not sure a hot summer day provides the best conditions to load up on this kind of decadent fare. Then again, there’s never a bad time to eat mac and cheese IMO.

I will be shocked if Return of the Mac doesn’t return next year. For more information, head on over to returnofthemacfest.com.

Here’s my beef

Maybe I’m in a bit of a foul mood, but a few things have been bothering me that I’d like to get off my chest. It seems when I dine out, I repeatedly encounter several situations and circumstances that always serve to irk me like fingernails down a chalkboard or Paris Hilton’s voice. Therefore, if you dear readers don’t mind indulging me, I’d like to run down several of my biggest restaurant pet peeves:

• My No. 1 offender is geared toward breakfast/brunch eateries. Sorry to single you out, but there’s nothing I loathe like saying “why yes, kind server, I would indeed like cream with my coffee,” and then having a small dish of those scary little single-serving tubs of non-dairy product deposited on the table. It boggles my mind when this happens in borderline upscale restaurants that bill themselves as trendy gourmet, like the cafe that shall remain unnamed where hubby and I went for breakfast earlier this week.

These non-dairy packets should be outlawed in my opinion. They are not natural, they taste like crap, and I don’t trust anything resembling dairy that doesn’t require refrigeration. I’m sure they’re cost-effective and all that, blah, blah, blah. Seriously. I know it’s easier to plop down the non-dairy creamers, but would it kill ya to bring me a tiny pour of Half and Half, or even milk would be better? I guess I could be more specific when agreeing to the proffered “cream,” but I always get the feeling if I start making detailed requests right off the bat, I’ll immediately be pegged one of “those” customers.

• Second biggest pet peeve is servers who drop off your check before you’re done eating. I know you work on tips, and I can appreciate that if the place is packed with people waiting for seats, it behooves you to turn the tables as quickly as possible. But when the place is only half-full to begin with and your shift isn’t over for another two hours, there is no excuse for slapping down my bill when I’m not even halfway through my food. And softening the blow with a “no rush, just whenever you’re ready…” does not make it any better. You might as well say “Chew a little faster, grandma, and don’t let the door hit you on the ass.”

• For hubby’s sake, I must bring up the big O. That would be onions. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times he has specifically asked a server if a dish contains onions and is told no, only to have said dish arrive teeming with the things. Or, he clarifies that a certain item on the plate will not contain onions and then discovers that some other side dish or accompaniment contains them. (We were recently in a breakfast place that promised there would be no onions in his omelet, only to serve him country potatoes laced with ‘em.) God forbid, the server takes the onion-laden dish to the kitchen to remedy the problem, simply removes the slice or ring and then returns the already tainted plate as is. He will still smell them and taste them. For people with heavy-duty food allergies, this could be a very serious matter. While onions will not cause an anaphylactic reaction or any life-threatening condition for my husband, their mere presence will usually put a serious damper on the meal for the both of us.

In the nearly seven years we’ve been married, I must shamefully admit to trying to pull one over on him a time or two, and he’s busted me every time. No matter how finely the onions are grated, no matter how many other spices are competing in the recipe, no matter how clever I think I’ve been about disguising them. He ALWAYS knows. And once he’s been wronged, it takes a recovery period for me to regain his trust, during which time I will have to reassure him time and again that no, I haven’t put any onions into whatever I’m dishing up for dinner. Just tonight, in fact, he asked me if I’d put onions in something, even though it’s been several years since my last attempt to sneak some by. I’ve learned my lesson. I personally enjoy onions, but now I save them for meals I’m cooking solo or for other audiences.

• Servers who say “No problem.” Me: “Excuse me, this fork is dirty. Could I get another one, please?” Server: “Sure, no problem.” Um… hold the phone. Yes, Houston we DO have a problem! If there were no problem, I wouldn’t be asking you to replace it. Or… Me: “Thanks.” Server: “No problem.” The correct response is “You’re welcome.” Perhaps this is the nitpicky English major/grammar snob/editorial drill sergeant in me rearing its ugly head, but still. It bugs.

• Restaurants without web sites. In this day, age and economy, my dining-out dollars are somewhat precious. If I’m considering checking out a place I’ve never been before, I’d like to have a general idea of what I’ll be getting for my money. I don’t need a 360-degree interactive view of your dining room and a virtual meal experience. However, I would like to be able to check out your menu ahead of time. With prices, please. It doesn’t have to be anything super flashy, just take the time to make sure your online presence is up to date. If your Yelp or Urbanspoon listing links to a web address that’s a dead end or if the menu you’ve posted is ten years old, it makes me suspicious and you risk me going somewhere else.

• Suggested gratuity amounts at the bottom of the bill. You make think you’re conveniently making the math easier for the customer, but in fact, you’re being presumptuous as hell. Last time I checked, tips were still not compulsory. If my server is going to arrive at the table with a surly attitude and act like I’m doing him/her a favor, perhaps he/she should consider a new vocation. I must justify this remark by saying that I pride myself on being a respectful customer and a consistently good tipper, at least 20 percent for problem-free service, and often more like 25 or 30 in places I visit regularly. I assume diners with half a brain know how to calculate a decent tip for decent service. I could be wrong. If so, I will stand corrected by issuing a hearty apology.

Whew. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better now. I promise to lighten up on the bitching and make my next post much more chipper.

Lest restaurant owners and servers think I’m trying to pick on them, I’d love to turn the tables and hear some of YOUR biggest customer pet peeves about customers! (Feel free to post anonymously if necessary.)

Here's my beef

Maybe I’m in a bit of a foul mood, but a few things have been bothering me that I’d like to get off my chest. It seems when I dine out, I repeatedly encounter several situations and circumstances that always serve to irk me like fingernails down a chalkboard or Paris Hilton’s voice. Therefore, if you dear readers don’t mind indulging me, I’d like to run down several of my biggest restaurant pet peeves:

• My No. 1 offender is geared toward breakfast/brunch eateries. Sorry to single you out, but there’s nothing I loathe like saying “why yes, kind server, I would indeed like cream with my coffee,” and then having a small dish of those scary little single-serving tubs of non-dairy product deposited on the table. It boggles my mind when this happens in borderline upscale restaurants that bill themselves as trendy gourmet, like the cafe that shall remain unnamed where hubby and I went for breakfast earlier this week.

These non-dairy packets should be outlawed in my opinion. They are not natural, they taste like crap, and I don’t trust anything resembling dairy that doesn’t require refrigeration. I’m sure they’re cost-effective and all that, blah, blah, blah. Seriously. I know it’s easier to plop down the non-dairy creamers, but would it kill ya to bring me a tiny pour of Half and Half, or even milk would be better? I guess I could be more specific when agreeing to the proffered “cream,” but I always get the feeling if I start making detailed requests right off the bat, I’ll immediately be pegged one of “those” customers.

• Second biggest pet peeve is servers who drop off your check before you’re done eating. I know you work on tips, and I can appreciate that if the place is packed with people waiting for seats, it behooves you to turn the tables as quickly as possible. But when the place is only half-full to begin with and your shift isn’t over for another two hours, there is no excuse for slapping down my bill when I’m not even halfway through my food. And softening the blow with a “no rush, just whenever you’re ready…” does not make it any better. You might as well say “Chew a little faster, grandma, and don’t let the door hit you on the ass.”

• For hubby’s sake, I must bring up the big O. That would be onions. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times he has specifically asked a server if a dish contains onions and is told no, only to have said dish arrive teeming with the things. Or, he clarifies that a certain item on the plate will not contain onions and then discovers that some other side dish or accompaniment contains them. (We were recently in a breakfast place that promised there would be no onions in his omelet, only to serve him country potatoes laced with ‘em.) God forbid, the server takes the onion-laden dish to the kitchen to remedy the problem, simply removes the slice or ring and then returns the already tainted plate as is. He will still smell them and taste them. For people with heavy-duty food allergies, this could be a very serious matter. While onions will not cause an anaphylactic reaction or any life-threatening condition for my husband, their mere presence will usually put a serious damper on the meal for the both of us.

In the nearly seven years we’ve been married, I must shamefully admit to trying to pull one over on him a time or two, and he’s busted me every time. No matter how finely the onions are grated, no matter how many other spices are competing in the recipe, no matter how clever I think I’ve been about disguising them. He ALWAYS knows. And once he’s been wronged, it takes a recovery period for me to regain his trust, during which time I will have to reassure him time and again that no, I haven’t put any onions into whatever I’m dishing up for dinner. Just tonight, in fact, he asked me if I’d put onions in something, even though it’s been several years since my last attempt to sneak some by. I’ve learned my lesson. I personally enjoy onions, but now I save them for meals I’m cooking solo or for other audiences.

• Servers who say “No problem.” Me: “Excuse me, this fork is dirty. Could I get another one, please?” Server: “Sure, no problem.” Um… hold the phone. Yes, Houston we DO have a problem! If there were no problem, I wouldn’t be asking you to replace it. Or… Me: “Thanks.” Server: “No problem.” The correct response is “You’re welcome.” Perhaps this is the nitpicky English major/grammar snob/editorial drill sergeant in me rearing its ugly head, but still. It bugs.

• Restaurants without web sites. In this day, age and economy, my dining-out dollars are somewhat precious. If I’m considering checking out a place I’ve never been before, I’d like to have a general idea of what I’ll be getting for my money. I don’t need a 360-degree interactive view of your dining room and a virtual meal experience. However, I would like to be able to check out your menu ahead of time. With prices, please. It doesn’t have to be anything super flashy, just take the time to make sure your online presence is up to date. If your Yelp or Urbanspoon listing links to a web address that’s a dead end or if the menu you’ve posted is ten years old, it makes me suspicious and you risk me going somewhere else.

• Suggested gratuity amounts at the bottom of the bill. You make think you’re conveniently making the math easier for the customer, but in fact, you’re being presumptuous as hell. Last time I checked, tips were still not compulsory. If my server is going to arrive at the table with a surly attitude and act like I’m doing him/her a favor, perhaps he/she should consider a new vocation. I must justify this remark by saying that I pride myself on being a respectful customer and a consistently good tipper, at least 20 percent for problem-free service, and often more like 25 or 30 in places I visit regularly. I assume diners with half a brain know how to calculate a decent tip for decent service. I could be wrong. If so, I will stand corrected by issuing a hearty apology.

Whew. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better now. I promise to lighten up on the bitching and make my next post much more chipper.

Lest restaurant owners and servers think I’m trying to pick on them, I’d love to turn the tables and hear some of YOUR biggest customer pet peeves about customers! (Feel free to post anonymously if necessary.)

Garden variety

Nothing says summer like a just-picked vine-ripened tomato still warm from the sun, sliced, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with a little coarse salt and dressed up with a few leaves of fresh basil. To my palate, this simple pleasure tastes like sunshine on a plate.

Yesterday, I got my tomato plants into the garden and am crossing my fingers that they “take.” Each year around my birthday in March, I start getting antsy to get my hands dirty and get some seeds going. By the time the last frost date rolls around, my starts have usually gotten so big, they’re taking suicide leaps off the windowsill.

windowsill tomatoes

This year’s batch is a little leggy, but I think once they get outside for some fresh air, sun and rain, they’ll be just fine. My garden tomatoes have been hit or miss the past few years. The first year I planted them, they were GORGEOUS. Seriously, they were so pretty, my neighbor said they could have been used in a magazine layout. And they tasted great. The next year? The few late bloomers I was able to harvest didn’t have much flavor, I’m sad to say. Not sure what makes such a big difference in them year to year when I use the same starting methods and the same garden patch.

For my 2011 crop, I’ve got beefsteaks, cherry tomatoes and something called German tomatoes. One of my dad’s friends in Richmond got me hooked on those last year – he’d come across them somewhere and cultivated them in his own garden because they are a low-acid variation. They’re kind of strange to look at (they’re actually kind of ugly, truth be told), slightly bigger than Romas and almost square in shape. The first one I sliced into almost resembled salami inside, and I thought “Hm. Okaaaaaay…” My expectations weren’t high, and then I took a bite. For as weird as they look, these little gems pack a mighty punch of juicy summer tomato flavor. My dad and I went back several times for more, and I kept some of the seeds to try for myself this year. So far, so good. Can’t wait to see how they get along in my own backyard.

In addition to tomatoes, I have a ledge at the back of my driveway that has turned into a pretty kick-ass perennial herb garden. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, and then some. One of my favorite things to do in season is to stroll out there, specially devoted herb scissors in hand, and cut a veritable bouquet of sprigs to use in my cooking. Not to brag, but I make a mean mixed-herb pesto.

the ledge o' herbs

Here’s what I’ve learned about herb gardening – oregano, parsley and chives grow like crazy without much attention. I love fresh dill and cilantro, but they’re really not worth the effort it takes to garner a small useable amount. Still trying to figure out what it is that keeps eating little holes in my basil.

So, plants are in. Now we wait. Bring on the Caprese.

Morel of the story

My dad, a native Hoosier from Vincennes, and my brother, born and raised in Richmond, are avid outdoorsmen. This time of year, this can only mean one thing. Mushrooms.

Around the second or third week in April when the weather alternates between rain and 70-degree sunny days, they start getting the itch. All it takes is one rumor of sightings to make their eyes light up in anticipation. The next thing you know, they’re spending every spare second tromping through the woods in hot pursuit of these fickle beauties.

Indiana wild mushrooms are only available for a very short window each spring, a few weeks between late April and mid-May, depending on the weather. That’s what makes them so coveted; you have to wait all year to enjoy them. By the time they finally arrive, you’ve whetted your appetite for 11 months. Of course they’re going to taste good!

Each mushroom aficionado has his or her own sacred hunting territory, and good luck getting any hint as to the location of these favored secret spots. Some folks are even lucky enough to find the elusive little fungi boldly popping up in their own back yards, although I think those stories are nothing more than urban legend.

My dad likes to tell a tale about taking me along on a mushroom hunting expedition when I was about four years old. After an hours-long romp through the woods turned up nothing, I was tired and whiny. As dad slung me up into his arms and turned to carry me back to the car, he glimpsed a mushroom. Then another. And another. Jackpot. Forced to choose between an exhausted little girl bucking to go home and a veritable grove of mushroom bounty right in front of him, ripe for the picking. I’m sure he had tears in his eyes as he reluctantly toted me out of there.

If you like mushrooms, you NEED to taste an Indiana morel. Fresh, their flavor isn’t like any kind you find in the grocery store; it’s wilder, gamier and meatier. It’s a shroom you can really sink your teeth into, not like those bland little white button deals or those overhyped exotic varieties. I enjoy those as well, but I find you really have to season the heck out of them to give them any sort of personality.

And speaking of the supermarket, don’t you dare spend $20 or $30 a pound for the pathetic measly dried morels you find there. Befriend a mushroom hunter and start sucking up pronto. Lots of people have a mushroom source, just ask around and you might be surprised to find out that your unassuming office mate is actually a mushroom superman in disguise. These folks are more popular than crack dealers this time of year; bribes might be in order if you hope to find yourself on the receiving end of a batch of mushrooms.

Besides the pretty, spongy, yellow morels — the most prized of the bunch — you can also eat a kind of mushrooms my dad calls spikes (I’ve also heard these referred to as “peckerheads,” which I find much funnier). Make sure you’re getting your mushrooms from a trusted source so you know you’re eating the safe variety. Don’t go picking any old toadstool you find in your yard and tossing it into a deep fryer. You do NOT want to mess around here — nearly everything but morels and spikes is poisonous and can cause serious and potentially fatal health consequences if ingested.

When you can get your hands on the right mushrooms, however, it’s culinary bliss. Just as everyone has a spot for hunting, everyone has a favorite method when it comes to preparation. Morels are usually best battered and fried, although I’ve also seen them simply sautéed and sometimes making appearances in sauces at upscale restaurants. I prefer them fried. I’m an Indiana girl, after all…

Many people rely on a simple egg/flour dip before tossing the shrooms in a frying pan, but my dad swears by a seasoning mix called Drake’s. That’s what I used last night when I tried my hand at frying them for the first time. My dad and brother are the resident experts when it comes to fixing mushrooms at our house, so I’ve always just enjoyed up to this point without ever having to do anything to earn the honor. My dad came over for Easter weekend and brought with him a big batch of spikes that he left to me to take care of. Around suppertime, I got out all my frying accoutrement, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As the vegetable oil heated up on my trusty old Chambers gas cooktop, I measured out the Drake’s and mixed it in a solution of half water and half beer (Thr3e Wise Men Snow Bunny Blonde, to be exact). I set aside a small stack of mushrooms for my test batch. A quick dip in the batter and then into the oil they went. I made the rookie mistake of trying to fry too many mushrooms at once and my first effort fused into a big doughy mass that I had to flip over like a giant pancake. Still, I was able to break them up once I took them out of the pan without affecting the taste. Grease splattered everywhere. When it was all said and done, the stovetop looked like a war zone and I was covered head to toe with a thin film of oil that still hasn’t come out even after a thorough hair washing.

Tentatively, I took a first bite. Greasy, salty, meaty goodness! Hallelujah – I am my father’s daughter! Mushrooms are deliciously addictive straight up and outrageously good in an omelet, but I piled a stack of the crunchy little morsels onto a piece of Miracle Whip-slathered bread for a heavenly sandwich. And, I was thrilled when my stepson and son tied into the platter like they hadn’t seen food all day. (I guess they hadn’t really, stuffing themselves instead on the contents of their Easter baskets.)

my little mushroom eaters

Feeling much more confident, I fried up the remaining mushrooms and took them down to our neighbors, where they were equally well received and eaten on sandwiches with mustard (note to self — must try). My husband refused to even taste a single mushroom. He did, however, clean up the massive mess I’d made of the kitchen while I was down the street visiting. Thanks for having my back, babe.

France can keep its snobby truffles. I’ll take my Indiana morels any day.

Baby steps

It appears, much to my chagrin, that I am raising a picky eater.

As a self-professed gourmet cook, I’ve always harbored visions of raising appreciative little diners who would boast great palates from an early age and happily slurp up whatever I put down on the plate in front of them. I pledged I would never be one of those moms who make two separate dinners a night – one for the grown-ups and one for the kids. Then I had a baby and realized that, as with every other facet of life after you have a child, I am no longer the one calling the shots.

I read an article in (the sadly, now defunct) Gourmet magazine awhile back about the dumbing down of children’s cuisine and how it’s up to the parents not to always cop-out with a Happy Meal. The writer referenced a young boy who loved Chinese food and got upset when, assuming he was finished, a waitress once took his plate away before he could enjoy his duck tongues or some such delicacy. Like most two-year-olds, I’m afraid mine seems destined for a life of mac and cheese.

My two eldest nieces in Ireland are championship eaters, the kind I hope my own child will one day become. When they came to visit us about two months after my son was born (ages 5 and 7 at the time, if memory holds), they scarfed down mussels marinara at the Broad Ripple Brew Pub, and Bazbeaux pizza topped with shrimp and snow peas. During a more recent visit in Ireland, I noted that they partook of a cheese platter with the same gusto as the adults did, preferring the pungent blue to the milder Brie. I’m telling ya, these girls know good food. I pity the poor guys who are going to come calling in about ten years – they’d better pick their dinner date destinations carefully if they hope to impress.

This side of the pond, we are stuck in something of a culinary rut. Every day, I find myself preparing the same menus for Michael with only the slightest variations. Breakfast – Dora the Explorer yogurt (and ONLY the pink Dora yogurt will do), milk and perhaps a few bites of a muffin or a pancake. For lunch, he eats fruit, crackers or pretzels, and maybe some peanut butter. Snacks consist of animal crackers, a Nutri-grain bar or Gummi-bearish juice treats. Dinner is whatever I can get down his little gullet. Veggies and dip, pizza, French fries, a cheese stick, toast, maybe a scrambled egg if he’s feeling really edgy. Surely, Michael’s getting as bored with these meals as I am. I suppose he figures if it isn’t broken, then why taste it?

I don’t pretend to understand what goes on with a toddler’s taste buds during these formative years. How can Michael love kalamata olives, for God’s sake, but soundly refuse to put even a sliver of roast chicken in his mouth? Are we raising a vegetarian? The only meat he will deign to ingest is the occasional tiniest bit of crispy bacon. Cheeseburgers? Nope. Chicken nuggets? Uh uh. He even turned down peppermint stick ice cream the other night — what kid DOES that?

Even more mind-boggling, how can the little guy be sooooo into something one week, and then completely shun it the next? I really thought we were onto something with the pasta. Over the holidays, both he and his stepbrother made short work of my homemade angel hair pasta pomodoro like nobody’s business, but last week when I dished up a serving of fettuccine alfredo? No dice. Not even a taste. Just a sniff of the nose and a resoundingly whiny “No, mommy, I don’t WIKE that!”

I know I’m probably expecting too much too soon. After all, I seem to recall my own Cocoa Krispies breakfast habit that lasted well into junior high, and I didn’t really start digging fresh vegetables until college. Heck, I still sometimes eat a sleeve of Pop Tarts with a spoonful or two of peanut butter and call it dinner.

And things have improved some since the dark stretch last year that I refer to as the Ritz-cracker-and-Cheerio period. My son is perfectly healthy. He eats fruit like a champ. He gets enough protein and plenty of whole grains. He only receives fast food once in a great while. I’ll just have to persevere, giving him tastes of entrees, sides and sauces from my plate before resorting to the old standbys. With luck, one day a sense of dining diversity will catch on. He has recently started requesting “sparkling water with orange juice and a slice of lemon, please,” so maybe there’s still hope for him yet.

Cooking by the book

In my book, you can never have too many cookbooks. My collection spans three shelves of a bookcase positioned in the corner of my dining area, where the books, booklets, pamphlets and clippings can inspire culinary prowess through their mere presence.

my cookbook corner

I can’t remember when I really started collecting cookbooks, or if I ever did. They seem to simply appear over the years, sometimes as gifts, sometimes through personal purchase, sometimes via former books of my mom’s that I’ve borrowed from my dad’s kitchen and conveniently forgotten to give back. I look over them fondly, and often. To me, browsing through a cookbook holds every bit the same satisfaction as reading a great novel. I spend hours poring over them, drooling over delicious-sounding dishes that I dream of whipping up in my own kitchen. Some I make, some are destined to remain wistful imaginings.

Here are a few of the standout culinary tomes in my collection:

“The French Laundry Cookbook” by Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the balls to actually attempt any of the insanely nitpicky recipes in here, but with its attention to detail and absolutely gorgeous photography, the book itself is a work of art worthy of any coffee table.

Darina Allen’s “Ballymaloe Cookery School Cookbook.” Ballymaloe is a renowned Irish culinary school, and this book is the definitive collection of recipes covered in classes there. The instructions are detailed and geared toward a student audience, making them easy to follow and offering description in great detail. My Irish in-laws have also gifted me with Darina’s “Traditional Cooking” and her daughter-in-law Rachel Allen’s “Bake” as well – welcome additions to my section on Irish cuisine.

“Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.” Well, it was new back in 1968 when my mom bought it. For ages, this book has been one of my go-to resources for general cooking instruction. It’s definitely old-school, but many of the recipes have held up well over the years. And the big trend toward retro comfort food is only helping its cause. I use it primarily for classic cookies; the peanut butter recipe is my fave. I also own the updated 1996 version, but refer to them both equally.

Various volumes by Rachael Ray, Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten. Love them or hate them, those Food Network bitches do turn out some good food. Ina’s “Barefoot Contessa Family Style” and “Barefoot Contessa at Home” are the ones I use most often because her cooking style is probably most similar to my own, although I have memorized the lemon spaghetti recipe from Giada’s “Everyday Italian” and adopted it as my own.

“A Homemade Life” by Molly Wizenberg. This isn’t really a cookbook per se, it’s more a food-themed memoir with recipes interspersed, but what recipes they are! I’ve made several of the mostly vegetarian offerings, all with great results. Next up – pickled grapes. Molly also writes a column for Bon Appetit magazine, and maintains a blog called “Orangette.”

I pull out other books at random, when I need something specific, or if I’m bored and just looking for something new to make for dinner.

What’s your favorite cookbook and why? There’s always room on my shelf for something new…

Home sweet home

Have spent the past few days reacclimating to the old homestead, and fighting off a pesky cold/flu bug that’s infiltrated my sinuses. Funny that we’ve been on the go in Europe for three weeks, out and about in cold rainy weather, navigating transatlantic flights, and when do I get sick? Only after I get back to the comfort and safety of my own home. Hmph.

I’m delighted to be back in my own kitchen and working again with my own knives, utensils and pots/pans; stocking groceries in my own roomy stainless steel fridge; and sitting down to eat at my own massive dining table. Needing a culinary break from continental fare, the first few meals I made this week were as decidedly anti-French/Italian/German as I could think up — chicken curry with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, Asian crusted tilapia with Thai peanut noodles (thanks for the recipe, Gillian!), and fluffy chocolate chip buttermilk pancakes. We did break down and order a quattro formaggio from Bazbeaux one night when I didn’t feel up to cooking, but American pizza is really nothing like true Italian pizza anyway.

Yesterday was the granddaddy of all American meals, the most comfortable of all comfort foods — Thanksgiving dinner. My family was sort of scattered to the winds this year and since my closest unit members and I are still recovering from our trip (did I mention I’ve been up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day this week?), we decided to play it very low key. Fortunately, our lovely friends/neighbors down the street invited us over. I was all prepared to cook a turkey breast with some scaled-down fixings at home, but feeling as under the weather as I do, was secretly thrilled not to for once.

Thanksgiving is always a bittersweet holiday for me, resurrecting memories of all the years I spent alongside my mom in the kitchen as she prepared a huge spread of her tried-and-true classics. Always the same stuffing recipe, always the scalloped corn casserole, always the cranberry ice that made my teeth ache. I was living in Los Angeles the last Thanksgiving my mom was alive, and it was the first year I didn’t make it home for the holiday. After a very nice dinner at my Uncle Dave’s house in Camarillo just northwest of L.A., I remember stealing a few moments to myself in a darkened bedroom to cry, somehow knowing that the unquestionable family tradition I’d enjoyed for 31 years was changing and would never be the same again.

And it hasn’t. The year my mom died, we went out to eat for Thanksgiving for the first time ever. It felt like a sacrilege, but the thought of even attempting to recreate her traditions in her kitchen without her there was more than I could bear. I don’t remember much about our dinner that year, other than the food seemed bland and tasteless and there was a gaping hole at the table where my mom should have been.

That was eight years ago. Time does heal wounds, but never eliminates them entirely. I’ll always think of my mom on Thanksgiving day, bustling around the kitchen like a fearless conductor of her own culinary symphony. I have cooked my own Thanksgiving dinners since then. One year, the “fresh” turkey I’d purchased the night before turned out to be completely frozen solid in the middle when I went to put it in the oven. Certain side dishes have met with varying degrees of success. I’ve learned some valuable trial-and-error lessons along the way. I know some people get totally flustered about the idea of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but at this point, preparing the big meal doesn’t freak me out. I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to turkey day, so I usually try to serve a combination of old favorites and maybe one or two new recipes thrown in to keep things fresh.

This year, though, Ron and Janet saved me the trouble, bless them. Their spread was a fabulous collection of all the best stuff — perfectly roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with yummy melty marshmallows on top, green bean casserole (which I always vow needs to be made much more often than just once a year), and a savory wild rice with mushrooms. As Janet so accurately summed up, Thanksgiving is all about the starches. True dat! I contributed a stuffing I made with apples, onions, celery, sage and rosemary (hubby already said he wasn’t going to eat any, so I made it to please myself!); and a bowl of vanilla orange cranberry sauce. All in all, it was a delicious and satisfying dinner shared with good friends. What more could a person ask for? I was truly thankful.

By the way, best use of Thanksgiving leftovers in my book? White meat turkey sandwich on white bread with Miracle Whip, a layer of stuffing and some cranberry sauce. Followed up by a piece of pumpkin pie doused with Cool Whip. Yeah, baby. Now you’re talking.

My thoughts are already turning ahead to the holidays. So many recipes, so little time. I’m already mentally running through lists of cookies I want to make, roasts I can put in the crockpot on the cold nights ahead, my mom’s brandy slush recipe, and a slew of seasonal side dishes. Every year, I have big plans to invite friends over for dinners, a cookie swap, maybe a brunch, and before I know it, Christmas has come and gone. I vow this year not to get so wrapped up in the shopping and stresses of the holiday season that I forget to just relax and spend some time with the people I care about. Spontaneous stolen moments are way better than no moments at all.

Today, we hope to venture out to get our Christmas tree while my adorable stepson is here to help decorate. Perhaps we’ll even follow up our tree-decorating efforts with some cookies and homemade hot chocolate… ah. I know many people loathe the long, cold winter, but I look at it as an opportunity to cuddle up with the ones you love and enjoy a bunch of heart- and tummy-warming dishes that don’t taste nearly as good any other time of year.

To that end… my nose is running again. I think it’s time for a cup of tea and my favorite afghan. Don’t forget to count your blessings.

The cupcake controversy

Sometimes, a cupcake is not just a cupcake.

Just Cookies, a 20-year-old local bakery nestled within the cavernous City Market in downtown Indianapolis, is coming under serious fire this week. Apparently, a gay student group at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) wanted to order cupcakes with a rainbow motif to serve at a National Coming Out Day event planned for Oct. 7. One of the owners of the bakery refused to fill the order citing moral objections to homosexuality, saying that it was a family-run business and he didn’t feel filling the order set a good example for his impressionable young daughters. (Um, I’d just like to mention that gay people have families, too, last time I checked…)

Now, if someone came in to Just Cookies and ordered several dozen rainbow-festooned cupcakes for their daughter’s birthday party or a Girl Scout convention, I’m going out on a limb and guessing the owner would have filled the order with no questions asked. So some rainbows are ok, but some aren’t, allegedly.

This situation has ignited a firestorm of both support and opposition within the local community. The mayor’s office is currently investigating to determine whether civil rights have been violated, and the bakery is in danger of losing its lease at the city-owned and managed public market. The Indianapolis Star’s online comments section is lit up like a Christmas tree with people arguing for and against the owner’s decision. A local radio station threw its own “Gay Cupcake Party” as a show of support for the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Is this making a mountain out of a cupcake? I think not. This whole issue got me really worked up, so I decided to sit down and really spend some time thinking about why it matters so much. (For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am a straight, married mom, by the way.)

There are several issues at stake here. By some accounts, it looks like Just Cookies is attempting to backpedal; there are rumblings that the owners are now saying that the bakery simply doesn’t do special orders. The business’ web site clearly states that it DOES accept special orders, but doesn’t place any qualifications on its policy. Does it only take on special orders within a certain quantity limit? Is there a last-minute order stipulation? We just don’t know. There could be a valid argument that the small bakery was just not able to physically or logistically accommodate the order, had the owner not already publicly stated that he’d refused it on moral grounds. Sorry, buddy. Kinda shot yourself in the foot, there.

Just Cookies is a privately owned business, but it operates within the confines of a public facility (is this anything like a homeowners’ association? I’m just asking.). Therefore, do the owners have the right to refuse service to anyone at their own discretion, or are they subject to a larger set of rules and regulations laid down by the powers that manage City Market as a whole?

The most important and obvious question to be answered is of course:  has a case of discrimination occurred? It’s not like a gay customer came up to the counter to order a cup of coffee and was turned away simply for being gay, but does placing a special order fall under the same considerations? What would have happened if the student group was comprised of African Americans, Catholics, Muslims or women? What if a customer comes in drunk, belligerent and wanting a chocolate cupcake – is denying service justifiable then?

It could also be argued that by allowing the gay student group to place its order with Just Cookies, the bakery should be expected to fulfill orders for other groups the owners might deem morally objectionable as well. A more extreme hypothetical example – let’s say a White Supremacist group comes in and wants to place an order for cookies decorated with burning crosses. Many business owners would have a moral problem with this and refuse the order.

Certainly, rainbow cupcakes are a far cry from Swastika-shaped brownies, but is the message the same? If we’re asking the owners of the business to overlook their own personal values and prejudices, it goes to reason that they should be made to honor service for ALL customers, no matter how inflammatory or outrageous the request. If you want to stand up and argue that all people and all groups should be treated equally, take a minute and think about whether you’re REALLY prepared to practice what you preach. The very flipside of demanding service for a gay rights group is agreeing to respect the views of those that disagree. This is the reality, for better or worse, of our lovely Constitutional right to freedom of speech, and it’s a slippery slope at best.

I’m reminded of a great monologue Michael Douglas makes in the movie “The American President” that touches on this same idea:

“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

Some people are arguing that a homosexual lifestyle is a choice. I really don’t see how that is a point in favor of Just Cookies. So what if I choose to wear a pair of red shoes and the owner doesn’t like them. Can he refuse my special order because of it? Of course not.

The support both for and against Just Cookies has been vocal, passionate and plenty heated. The owner’s decision has gained him some new customers who probably otherwise would never have patronized the bakery, but I daresay, the consequences have lost him a greater amount of business than they’ve garnered.

Here are my thoughts. If I were the owner of Just Cookies, I would have fulfilled the gay student group’s order without a second thought. I have no issue with homosexuality, and hope to raise my son with the values of peaceable tolerance and respect. If you’re gay, you’re not hurting anyone, and you’re not trying to force your lifestyle upon anyone who disagrees with you, you’re ok in my book. In fact, that’s pretty much my view for all people in general. I’m a live and let live type. That said, I will not support or sell a product to anyone or any group who insists on promoting a climate of hate, violence, exclusion and senseless killing. That’s what makes the difference for me personally. No one is going to tell me who those groups are or aren’t, or whether my views are right or wrong. It’s something I will decide for myself, thank you very much, but I can’t see how a collection of gay students promoting inclusion and acceptance would fall into the latter category. There is a world of difference between frosting some rainbow cupcakes and making 9/11 cookies depicting planes flying into the World Trade Center.

I own and operate my own small-scale catering business, and if I were asked, say, to prepare a dinner for a gang that hunts, skins and spit-roasts puppies, I would refuse. No one is going to convince me to do it, legal rights be damned. If this makes me a hypocrite, then so be it. I’ve already been accused of being a “simple-minded fool” in response to one of the online comments I left on the Star’s web site regarding this story. Maybe I am naive to believe that people can and should be kinder to and more accepting of each other instead of just putting up more barriers and creating even greater division in a world where too much dissonance exists already. Maybe writing this blog isn’t going to make one bit of difference in the grander scheme of things. I don’t care. The biggest changes in the world often start with one person saying what’s on his or her mind.

I can see how the owner of Just Cookies would feel justified in making the decision he did. Is he within his legal rights to refuse the order? Probably. Do I agree with his decision? Absolutely not. I think it’s extremely unfortunate and disheartening that the owner feels the way he does to the point of alienating the gay community, particularly when an alarming number of gay teens have committed suicide within the past week due to bullying and a lack of much-needed support.

I plan to vote with my feet, and my wallet, by never buying anything from Just Cookies again. Just my two cents. Is there a pot of gold to be had at the end of this rainbow? Guess we’ll all just have to wait and see.

Recent culinary exploits and obsessions

A few foodie items I’ve recently been jazzed about:

My French Fontignac 5-quart casserole dish.

Last year, I just HAD to have a Le Creuset something or other. (I think I was probably inspired by seeing Amy Adams make a beef bourguignon in one in the movie “Julie & Julia.”) I settled for spending some of my Christmas money on a lovely blue Fontignac vessel I found at Bed, Bath and Beyond instead. This was a pricy piece of cookware – even on sale, it was still $80 – but I had visions of using it to make gorgeous stews and braises through the winter.

Long story short, this beautiful pot sat on a shelf in my basement until about three weeks ago. For starters, I was intimidated about using it. Secondly, I wasn’t quite sure how to use it. It wasn’t until I was in Ireland this summer and used a similar pot owned by one of my sisters-in-law to make curry that I got over my fear.

So a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, dusted off my Fontignac and broke it in. I finally found out what I’ve been missing all this time. The inaugural dish? Braised country-style pork ribs with a bourguignon-ish sauce of red wine, beef stock, tomato paste and rosemary. The beauty of this pot, I quickly realized, was being able to sear the ribs in it, then simply dump in the sauce ingredients, put the lid on and throw it in the oven for a couple hours. The heavy cast-iron construction means this is a pot I’m likely to have forever. Oh, and the meal was fantastic.

Since then, I’ve used this versatile cooking vessel to boil water for pasta, to make a delicious risotto, and yes, to prepare a beef stew. Looking back now, I don’t know what I was so scared of. HUGE bonus, it’s super-easy to clean. No matter how messy it looks, whatever’s left in there scrubs right out. I LOVE this pot. And it’s so pretty, I just leave it out on my stovetop on display when not in use.

Fontignac casserole dish

Cherry pie filling and preserves.

I’m in a big cherry phase at the moment. Given the choice between strawberries, raspberries and cherries, I’ll take cherries any day. This preference is approaching something of a fever pitch lately.

It all started about five weeks ago during a freelance assignment that required me to stay in some bed-and-breakfasts in Southern Indiana. (I know, I know… it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it!) For one of the breakfasts, we were served buttermilk pancakes with freshly made cherry preserves from one of the nearby Amish farms. The preserves were presented simply in a little white ramekin, and they looked like edible red jewels. Absolutely gorgeous.

When I volunteered to make a dessert for the monthly teacher lunch at my son’s preschool last week, I came across a recipe I made some years ago for cherry cheesecake brownies. Decision made. This is a yummy and fairly easy dish to make – you make a brownie mix according to the directions on the box, then top it with a simple cheesecake batter and bake for another 20 minutes to so. When it’s cool, you cut it into squares and top it with spoonfuls of cherry pie filling. According to the thank you note I received, it was a big hit.

I also had intentions of making a strawberry shortcake for dinner at a friend’s house the other night, but the strawberries I bought were sadly disappointing. Cherry pie filling to the rescue! I bought a can and we spooned it over slices of pound cake and topped it with a dollop of Cool Whip.

Which brings me to…

Cake.

I’ve come across two new cake recipes lately that I’ve been whipping up like crazy. The first is a lemon yogurt cake I came across in Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life.” (She specifically says in the book that she thinks recipes are made to be shared, and I heartily agree.)

The recipe uses ingredients you’re likely to already have on hand, with maybe the exception of plain whole-milk yogurt (which you can buy by the single-serving container at the supermarket for less than a dollar). I’ve made it several times within the past few weeks – it works well with the lemon glaze as directed in the book, or with a spoonful of fresh fruit sauce (or cherry preserves!) Plus, you don’t have to use lemons – they are easily be swapped out for oranges or even limes would be good. The recipe makes one 9-inch round pan full, not too much and not too little, and the cake itself is bright, lemony and luscious. I made it for a book swap I hosted last weekend, and several guests took leftover slices home for breakfast.

glazed lemon yogurt cake

The second new cake discovery is the pound cake I made for the strawberry-turned-cherry shortcake. I found it on Allrecipes.com, one of my go-to sites for cooking inspiration, and it contains the surprising ingredient of whipping cream. Whereas the lemon cake is light and fruity, this one is dense and rich, but still plenty moist. With the cherry pie filling and whipped cream topping, it made a pretty and delicious dessert. In fact, I made another one to take to my cousin’s house today and serve it the exact same way. I’m also planning to try this recipe again with some chocolate chips thrown in the mix. Because, after all, everything’s better with chocolate chips…

Sweet dreams!