Cucumber Drama

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There was a day in my summer when our cucumbers looked like this:

Three containers bursting with life.  Hundreds of yellow blossoms heralding the arrival of bitty baby cukes.

I was full of hope and anticipation for the day when my counter would be covered with cucumbers.  I would spend days making my tasty bread and butter pickles.  I couldn’t wait!

Then one morning, I woke up to find the leaves slightly brown.  The next morning, they were very brown and slightly shriveled.  By the next day, all hope was lost.  No, I didn’t take a pic.  The condition of my once lustrous garden was too sad to chronicle for all eternity.  I owe them that.

What did I do?  What didn’t I do?  Who knows.  I had a whole post planned in my mind for the day when I picked those cucumbers.  Not to mention all the pints of pickles I had planned to make.

Thank goodness we have a new farmer’s market here in town.  I was able to purchase about 22 chubby little picklin’ cukes.  That wasn’t my original plan, but it worked.  The day was saved.  The pickles were made.  More on that in my next post.

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The Ultimate Rice Storage Container

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Remember the 25 lb bag of rice my Mom-in-Law gave me last Spring?  Wow, is it ever tasty!  I’m enjoying it more than ever now because it is finally safely stored deep in our largest cupboard.  It took me about three months to find the perfect storage solution.  This is essential when you live in Coastal GA (aka…The Land of Bugs the Size of Squirrels).  The J-man and I do not want to attract any bugs.  We are traumatized enough by the one or two that occasionally slip in (what secret passageway have they discovered?).

One day, soon after receiving our large gift of rice, my friend Kelli and I were ordering lunch at a local deli.  I noticed that they had empty dill pickle buckets for sale!  Two dollars seemed a bit pricey for a five gallon bucket.  Maybe that’s because we always had plenty available when I was growing up.  Dad has an uncanny knack for finding them along the side of the road, but since he now lives too far away to give me one, I bought the bucket.

I had high hopes for that bucket, but the dang pickle smell would not come out.  No amount of bleach or sun would budge the smell out of there.  I gave up.  I filled it with potting soil and planted some basil seeds (they seem to adore the smell of dill pickles).

But what about the rice???  For the time being I had it somewhat secure in a square plastic storage box, some ziplock bags and a few quart jars.  I didn’t trust the bags, and I had other plans for the box.  The hunt for the ultimate rice storage container was still on.

About a month later, while wandering through the local hardware store, I found the perfect solution to my rice storage dilemma.  1/2 gallon mason jars!  I didn’t know such a wondrous invention existed on this planet.  I brought home a box of six for under 12 dollars.  Five of them are currently keeping the rice safe while the sixth waits to be filled with some yet-to-be-purchased bulk good.

It’s delicious rice, folks.  So far, we’ve eaten about a 1.5 quart jars worth.  I always use a rice cooker (another gift from my Mom-in-Law) which makes the whole process so easy!  And the J-man tells me that it tastes just like his Mom’s.

So next time you find yourself in the local Asian Grocery Store (or China Store, as my dear old Chinese friend Meilin would say), look for the huge bag of jasmine rice with two red elephants emblazoned on the front.  You won’t regret the purchase!

Have you ever received a huge gift that you weren’t quite prepared for but learned to love???

The Best Beach in N.C.

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About a month ago, a dear friend of mine from back in my NC teaching days invited me up to her Topsail Island beach house.  She and another friend were planning to enjoy a few days of relaxation on the beach.  Having visited her beach house a few times before, I knew that there would be lots of wine punch, delicious food and lazy hours lounging in the sand.  How could I turn the invitation down?

Well, since I’m no longer a single woman, I had to run it by the J-man.  He was quick to give me his full blessing (I knew he would) on one condition…that I leave plenty of food in the house.  Easy.  I even made him a batch of his favorite cookies.  So when the date of the trip rolled around, I hopped in my tiny car and drove the six hours north to Topsail.  Day one greeted us with high winds and rain, but we didn’t let that dampen our spirits.  As old friends, who haven’t seen each other in ages, often do, we stayed up till 3am chit-chatting.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nest

Day two was cloudy, windy and rainy.  By evening, we took advantage of a brief window of calm to walk on the beach.  How cool would it have been to see a Loggerhead sea turtle?  I knew it wasn’t likely, but a nature loving girl can dream, can’t she?

Thankfully the weather cleared up on day three.  The sun wasn’t shining, but we were finally able to claim a spot on the beach!  Since the waves were too rough for body boarding, I spent most of the morning collecting sea glass in my empty root beer bottle.  Ok, it wasn’t really sea glass.  They were actually small smooth stones…but I was calling them sea glass.  I felt like a kid.  It was therapeutic.  ‘Nuff said.

We stayed out there until an afternoon storm rolled through.  That storm had perfect timing because it was time for a lunch of leftovers back at the house!  After lunch, we went shrimp shopping at a local fish market.  A little before sunset, we headed back to the beach with our chairs and frozen concoctions.

In the pic above I’m holding a mole crab.  They live in the sand under the surf.  When the waves roll back, little bubbles form in the sand from where they dig themselves under.  The poor thing was scared stiff.  At first, so was I.  When I dropped the little guy into the surf, he furiously dug himself into the safety of the sand.  One of my friends dug up twenty mole crabs in one scoop.

The clouds were gorgeous.  All red and fiery.  There was even a double rainbow.  No, I didn’t shed any tears.

These guys were much more daring than this landlubber.

After sun set, we headed back to the house to prepare our feast.  The ladies boiled these Old Bay seasoned NC shrimp to perfection.  I let my native North Carolinian friends tackle the meal prep.  Where I was raised, the nearest fresh shrimp is at least four hours away.  I copied down their method so I can try my hand at fresh shrimp boiling here in coastal GA.

They also sautéed up these scallops.  Amazing.

And here is the dish that knocked my flip-flops off.  It was soooo simple.  So fresh.  So easy.  It’s just a veggie bake.  No, not just a veggie bake.  It is the veggie bake of all veggie bakes.  I plan to pass along this recipe one day soon.  It is an excellent way to use up the bountiful produce I’m sure many of you have from your gardens right about now.

My love for this veggie bake cracks me up because it reminds me of my Dad.  As a kid (and even now on occasion), he would come home from hunting camp raving about some dish or meal that one of his buddies had whipped up over the weekend.  He’d rave to my Mom about how amazing it tasted and all the preparation his buddy went through.  My Mom, an awesome cook in her own right, would just look at him with this expression on her face that said, “Hello.  I cook stellar meals every night of our lives, and you’ve never gotten this excited over them.”  There sure is something special about those meals you eat after a long day of fun in the outdoors.

You may have noticed how I haven’t given you any tips on where to wine and dine or stay or shop on Topsail Island, NC.  My recommendation for a good time on Topsail is simple…gather a few good friends or family and rent a house.  Be sure to hit a nearby grocery store on your way to the island.  And a farm stand.  Don’t forget fresh seafood from one of the shops!  Then hit the beach, stay in your swimsuit all day, fill up on snacks during the day, chill at the house and cook up some simple but delicious vacation food.  Enjoy.  Oh yeah…that is my idea of relaxation and fun. 

Homeboy & Chick-n-Strips

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Hi guys.  Keeping this one short.  The J-man had a busy work week so I’m all about chillaxing with my best bud.  Our agenda for today is relatively calm.  We’re heading to town for lunch.  In order to completely relax, the J-man needs his weekly Chick-fil-A fix.  I’ll tag along for support.  My going has nothing to do with Chick-n-Strips and Chick-fil-A Sauce.  Absolutely nothing.

After lunch, we plan to see Captain America at the movie theater.  Plugged In Online gave it 4 out 5 stars for family friendliness.  Which is high praise coming from them!  Have you seen it yet?

Since it is Saturday and almost August (aka…the month of my birth!), I have decided to celebrate by attaching my second favorite song of Summer 2011.  I am a fan of the country rock sound, especially in the heat of summer.  True fact.

Enjoy!

PS: In case you were wondering, I don’t have a brother, let alone a wayward one, but love the lyrics nevertheless…life is short.  Oh, and Jake Owen’s Barefoot Blue Jean Night is my top favorite song of the Summer 2011.  The video, however, is much too racy for this G-rated blog.

Got Vanilla Extract?

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Yesterday was an extra special day here on the planet earth.  At least it was for me.  My beautiful baby niece hit the 9-month mark and is very close to walking on her own.  Yay!  Not only that, but my first batch of homemade vanilla extract hit the 4-month mark.  I should have baked a cake.

This homemade vanilla extract experiment of mine is hands down one of the coolest, not to mention, easiest projects that I currently have brewing (or should I say extracting?) here in our tiny townhouse.  This is seriously easy people.  After the initial prep, just tuck it away in a dark space and wait until it’s ready.  4-6 months to be exact.  I’m going for 6!

I started this batch of vanilla extract on March 27th, 2011.  I’m thinking it may be time to get another one going.  Isn’t it precious?  Aww.

You may be wondering how I came up with such an awesome idea.  Well, I’m proud to say that I didn’t.  Laura at Heavenly Homemakers deserves all the credit.  Heavenly Homemakers was one of the first blogs I discovered last summer (that’s right, I didn’t know much about the blogosphere until then…where was I?).  I’ve been a huge fan ever since, and many of her recipes, ideas and kitchen tips have found their way into my kitchen routine.  Thanks Laura!

Another question you may have is why would I invest my time, energy and money into this experiment?  Simple.  I did the math.  The supplies cost me approximately $27.  The jars and lids from my storage closet were free, the cheap vodka from the PX was about $10 and the top quality vanilla beans from Olive Nation were about $17.

Now, let’s see, Penzeys Spices (the best of the best in my opinion) sells 16 ounces of single strength vanilla extract for $33.65 (double strength goes for $49.45).  Since there are 64 fluid ounces in 2 quarts, I’d have to spend $134.60 at Penzeys for the same amount.

That is a savings of $107.60 if I make my own.  Granted, I haven’t looked into the price of the small amber bottles I’ll need for storing the finished product, so I’m not sure what the final savings will be just yet.

Will mine be as good as Penzeys or any other top quality brand?  Will it be single or double strength?  Laura from Heavenly Homemakers claims that it makes her baked goods taste super great.  I don’t know for sure, but she’s usually right on the money regarding her recipes.  Only time will tell.  I’ll keep you posted.

What a change 4 months bring about in baby nieces and homemade vanilla extract.  I’m so proud of all this progress.

What do you think?  Are you ready to make some for yourself?

Enjoy your day my friends!

Sara B

Chocolate Pecan Toffee Cookies (the J-man’s Fav)

In my not-always-so-humble opinion, these are the best cookies ever.  And the always-truly-humble J-man agrees 100%.

The J-man will be on his own for a few days this week because I’m off to the beach.  I’m meeting up with two of my dearest friends from NC.  I don’t like leaving him here without a tasty treat or two to fall back on when missing me overwhelms him.  Ok, ok…I’m sure he’ll manage perfectly fine without me.  These cookies are actually a thank you/I love you gift for being the greatest guy ever for letting me go gallivanting off to the beach while he goes to work.

A few days ago I asked him to name the number one baked good that I make.  Chocolate Pecan Toffee Cookies were his answer.  They are always his answer.  Thank goodness they’re fun and easy to make…and super tasty. This recipe makes about 4 dozen (depending on how big or small you like your cookies).  I’ll definitely be bringing a heaping plate of extras to the beach.

My Method:  I like to get all the prep work out-of-the-way before I start mixing up the dough.  First, preheat the oven to 325 degrees; then line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and gather the following ingredients:

unsalted butter, white sugar, brown sugar, 2 large eggs & vanilla extract.

baking soda, baking powder, old-fashioned oats, all-purpose flour, salt & cinnamon

pecans, chocolate baking chips (this time I used semi-sweet but I've used milk chocolate before) and toffee bits (regular work but I always go with chocolate covered)

Next, finely chop the pecans (or chunky chop the pecans…it’s up to you and yours).  I am a huge fan of my little chopper machine, but a food processor would work too.

These particular pecans are South Carolina grown.  A few months ago, I bought 2 bags at a little store located off of I-95 while traveling back down to Georgia.  I store them in my freezer and use them as needed.   I guess you could use some other nut in this recipe.  Like walnuts…but I don’t because they make my tongue feel itchy.  Weird, but true.

Spread the chopped pecans out on a baking sheet.  I toast pecans in our toaster oven using my Pampered Chef stoneware pan.  It’s a perfect fit at 7″ x 9.5″.  I’ve toasted nuts in the big oven before, but the toaster oven is much quicker.

Here they are ready to be…

Burnt!!!  Not cool.  Totally my fault.  And I was planning to admonish you all to watch them closely.  Don’t get distracted or they will burn!  I got distracted.  Ugghh…it’s painful to waste such a pricey ingredient.  Ah well.

Second attempt = properly toasted pecans.  Yay.

Use your food chopping machine of choice to finely chop up the old-fashioned oats.  It will end up looking like hearty flour.

Whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, oats and salt in a medium bowl.  I always whisk (no sifter here yet) the dry ingredients together because I am not a fan of biting into pockets of baking soda.  Bleh.

Final prep step!  Measure out 4 ounces of toffee bits.  Add the toasted pecans and the entire bag (if it’s 12 ounces, that is) of chocolate chips to the toffee bowl.

Congrats!  The prep work is finally done.  Time to get mixing.  Cream the butter and both sugars with an electic mixer (by hand would work if you’re old school or if you haven’t asked for one last Christmas, birthday or wedding shower…thanks again Mom & Dad!).

Toss in the 2 eggs and vanilla extract.  Beat them in until it’s all a nice and fluffy mess.

This is beautiful!  I love, love, love this stage in the cookie making process.  Plus, it tastes delicious (not that I’m advocating eating raw eggs…definitely not…it’s not a good idea…even though I do it).

Add the flour mix to the buttery/sugary mix.  Beat until it is just blended.

Notice how a little flour is still stuck to the side of the bowl.  It feels and looks like you should beat it a little more.  Don’t.  Seriously.  Take a deep breath, scrape the paddle, remove the bowl from the mixer and go grab your favorite wooden spoon.  Stretching your dominant arm wouldn’t hurt either.  You’re about to give it a workout.

Pour the bowl of chocolate chips, toffee and pecans into the big bowl of flour/sugar/buttery goodness.  Start stirring.

Stir it all together and viola, you are done making the dough!

Now, I made this dough yesterday morning with the plan to bake the cookies this morning.  Which I did.  I’ve done this sort of thing quite a few times in the past.

I’ll admit that the dough is much easier to work with right after you mix it up (I use an ice cream scooper to make cookie dough balls when the dough is soft) but sometimes I don’t have that kind of time.  Like yesterday morning.

So, after wrapping the dough in wax paper, I popped it into a plastic bag and left it in the refrigerator for the night.

This morning, I pulled the hard lump of dough out of the fridge.  I placed it on a cutting board and sliced and diced it into cookie dough squares.

I like to cut all of the cookie dough squares at one time.  I keep them on a small pan until I need them.  Popping your pan of dough squares in the fridge would be a good idea since raw eggs are involved.  However, I don’t always remember to do that…but you should.

Place the dough squares on the prepared cookie sheet.  Don’t mess with them.  They’ll flatten out on their own, so be sure to give them enough room to grow.

Now, here’s where it gets a tiny bit tricky due to the differences in everyone’s oven temperature and cookie crunch preferences.  I say, set the timer for 10 minutes.  After the buzzer goes off, check the cookies and set the timer for another 2-3-4 minutes.  Yes, you could just set the timer for 12-13 minutes, but these can over-cook in half a minute.  Been there.  I always end up glad I checked them after 10 minutes.

The cookies are done when they are a nice light brown around the edges and still a little soft in the middle.  Let them sit on the cookie sheet for at least 5 minutes to cool down and firm up.  Then move them over to a wire rack to cool completely.

We enjoy eating them fresh from the oven.  Granted, who on earth wouldn’t???

Enjoy!!!

PS…These may not be ideal for folks wearing braces or dentures due to the presence of toffee bits.  Just sayin’ 😉

 

 

Chocolate Pecan Toffee Cookies

(Adapted many moons ago from Giada De Laurentis of the Food Network)

Preheat Oven to 325 degrees

Yield: about 4 dozen (depending on how big or small you make them)

Ingredients

1/2 cup old-fashioned oats

2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup unsalted butter (room temperature)

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (1/2 tsp if its double strength)

4 ounces toffee bits (plain or chocolate covered)

A heaping 1/2 cup of pecans, finely chopped and toasted

12 ounces of semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips

Directions

1) Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.  Chop the pecans in a food processor or chopper.  Spread them out on a baking sheet and lightly toast them in the oven or toaster oven.  Chop the oats in a food processor or chopper.  Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and oats in a medium-sized bowl.

2)  Beat the butter and sugars in an electric mixer bowl.  Beat in the eggs and vanilla until fluffy.  Slowly add the flour mixture.  Continue to beat with the electric mixer.  Stir in, by hand, the toffee, pecans and chocolate chips.

3) Drop your desired sized dough ball onto the cookie sheet.  Leave at least an inch between each cookie.  Bake from 12-13 minutes.  Be careful not to over-bake these cookies.  When they are done, take them out of the oven but leave them on the baking sheet about 5 minutes.  Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cook completely.

4) Enjoy.  These cookies store well in an airtight container on the counter top or wrapped tightly in the freezer.

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The Best Louis L’Amour Quote

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Up to a point a man’s life is shaped by environment, heredity, and movements and changes in the world about him; then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes it to be.  Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune, or the quirks of fate.  Everyone has it within his power to say, this I am today, that I shall be tomorrow.  The wish, however, must be implemented by deeds. 

Louis L’Amour, The Walking Drum

I was a young teen when I first read The Walking Drum.  I remember jotting that quote down in my journal.  No, Louis L’Amour books were not (and probably still are not) the preferred choice of literature for the average teen girl, but I wasn’t the average teen girl.  Deep down, despite the fact that I was rather shy, chubby and petrified of my own shadow, I had a thirst for adventure.  I wanted to see the world, climb rugged mountain peaks and meet new people.  This quote gave me hope, during those timid years, that change was possible.

Last week, while reading the book again, I was reminded of the many positive changes that have occurred since then.  I had to smile because there is no way that I could ever claim they were all my doing.  The good Lord has put so many amazing life changing opportunities in my path.  And He gave me the power and the strength to take those opportunities and say, “This I am today, that I shall be tomorrow.”  And He hasn’t stopped yet.  Thank you Lord!