April 21, 2015

Frekadela, a.k.a. Frikedeller, a.k.a. Freakish Stella

bDSC_0027When people ask me about my cultural heritage, I usually say that I’m Scottish. When I was 16, I applied for a summer foreign exchange in Scotland, telling everyone that I planned to spend seven weeks researching the Given family roots. It wasn’t until I was on the plane, a desert girl hurdling towards the greenest place she’d ever seen, that I actually read the genealogy paper my aunt had written 20 years earlier. I spent the rest of the summer being shuttled between various research centers, too embarrassed to tell my host family what I had learned on the plane — that my last name was actually Irish.

If I had really wanted to research my family tree, I would have applied for a foreign exchange in Denmark. My mom’s grandparents were Danish. The Nelsons immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century and settled in Kansas, where my great-grandfather, Elmer, married my great-grandmother, Sylvia. Though she wasn’t Danish, Sylvia took to preparing her new family’s recipes. I’m sure she did her best, but by the time they got to me, family traditions seem to have gotten a bit confused.

IMG_3782Sylvia’s recipe cards are almost always missing some vital piece of information. Her neatly typed recipe for potato chip cookies fails to mention how long the cookies should bake. My mom once tried to take notes while Sylvia made the yeast-risen cornbread my dad had come to love. Somehow, the resulting recipe cards explain in detail how the baker should take care to “slap” the rising dough, but fail to mention how much flour is required.

By the time my mother was cooking for her own family, traditional Danish sweet and sour cabbage had become the go-to side dish to accompany roast turkey and stuffing. No one really thought about where that recipe came from, we just all knew that we liked it so much better than cranberry sauce. But by far our favorite Danish dish was Frekadela — or, as my dad liked to call it, Freakish Stella.

bDSC_0063Frekadela are Danish meatballs, and we made them during the holidays and pretty much any time we wanted to celebrate. I’ve since learned that the real name of the dish is frikadelle… or frikadeller if you’re using the plural, which you almost always are. But, it wasn’t just the name of the dish my family got wrong. Frikadeller are supposed to be made with pork and veal, but we always made ours with ground beef. Traditionally they’re shaped into flat ovals, but my family always fried them on three sides to make oblong triangles. And, frikadeller are meant to be served with a brown gravy made from pan drippings. But great-grandpa Nelson loved ketchup, and he convinced his grandkids that frekadela could not be consumed without being first smothered in plenty of the red stuff. “Grandpa was such a tease, I believed him,” my mom says now. “When people came over to the house, I used to tell them, ‘You have to put ketchup on it. That’s part of the tradition.’”

bDSC_0086But when I eat frekadela, it doesn’t take me back to the old country and my great-great-grandparents. Frekadela doesn’t remind me of great-grandpa Nelson, who died when I was two months old. It doesn’t even remind me of Sylvia, who cooked for us when we were young and taught me how to whip egg whites into beautiful high peaks.

Frekadela takes me back to growing up in the high desert, where sometimes the only entertainment on a Saturday night was watching my mom slowly spooning silky mounds of meat onto a hot skillet. It takes me back to the smell of the desert after it’s rained for the first time in half a year. If I close my eyes, I can see the desert night sky, I can feel the bumping of our old Chevy Suburban as it crossed over the ruts in our dirt road.

Frikadeller is recognized as the national dish of Denmark, but frekadela is the traditional dish of the Given family. A few years back, my mom started adding ground pork to the mix, which everyone agrees is an improvement. But frekadela will never be shaped into boring discs or slathered in traditional brown gravy. Frekadela is served with ketchup. That’s the way it’s always been. And that’s the way it always will be.

April 18, 2014

Flat Bella Visits Boston

In case you’re not familiar with Flat Stanely, the idea comes from a 1964 children’s book. In a nutshell, poor Stanley found himself flattened. But, then he discovered his flat shape allowed him to be mailed all over the world. Many schools have taken on the idea and have the kids mail Flat Stanley to friends and family who live far away. My niece Bella’s school has taken it one step further. The kids make flat versions of themselves to send out. Flat Bella was mailed from California to spend a little less than a week with me. Here’s what we did.


Dear Bella,

Whew! It’s been a busy week. Thanks so much for coming out and staying with me. I thought you might enjoy some pictures of our time together.


You arrived on Tuesday, and the first thing we had to do was make you a sweater! I know it’s probably warm in California by now, but spring hasn’t quite come to Boston yet. It’s a good thing you didn’t arrive a few weeks earlier. We would have needed to make you a jacket, a hat, a scarf, and some gloves.

I hope you like pink!

I work at a radio station called WBUR. My job is as a producer and reporter for sports radio show called Only A Game.

On Tuesday, my show interviewed a basketball player named Brittney Griner. Brittney was the top choice in the WNBA draft last year and she led her college team, Baylor University, to a championship in 2012. She’s a big deal.

She was in New York, so we were interviewing her over a special phone line between our studio in Boston and the NPR studio in New York. Because of the special phone line, interviews sound like both people are sitting in the same room. But, Brittney was a little late, stuck in traffic, so you kept our host, Bill Littlefield, company in the studio.




Once Brittney arrived, you and I moved into the control room. Our job was to listen for any mistakes, so they could be fixed. We use a microphone that speaks directly into Bill’s earphones, so that we can tell him what he should do. Sometimes he does everything just perfectly, so I don’t really have much to do. Those days I sometimes joke with him by yelling, “That was awful. Do it again!”


Of course, everyone who comes into the studio gets to get behind the microphone. You were so good! Have you done this before?




On Wednesday evenings, I go to class. I’m in a graduate program studying Gastronomy, which is just a fancy name for the study of food. It sounds like fun, but it’s really a whole lot of work. We arrived to class early, so I could get my laptop out and my notes open.




The best part of class is snack time! Our class runs from 6-9pm, so everyone is hungry. Each week, one or two of my classmates brings food for everyone to share. This time, Jane brought Armenian food!




We decided to have a little bit of everything. There was Armenian string cheese, cracker bread, eech (an Armenian salad with grains and herbs), and imam bayildi. Also, a two-bite brownie, which wasn’t Armenian at all.

You liked the bread and the string cheese. You weren’t so sure about the eech. But your favorite (other than the brownie!) was the imam bayildi. It’s made from eggplant and it’s name translates to “the priest wept!” It’s absolutely delicious.

On Thursday nights, I try to go to the gym with my friend, Erin. You decided to come with us!




You rode the stationary bike while Erin led me through a weights workout she had named, “The Bella Blast.” By the end, we were all sweaty and tired. Well, Erin and I were sweaty and tired. You still looked pretty good!




Friday was a busy day at work, so we didn’t have much energy left when we got home. We watched the movie, Frozen. I loved it!


Most of Saturday was spent doing homework, but we did make it out in time to meet Erin and some of my other girlfriends in downtown Boston. We knew it was going to be a long night, so we stopped at Starbucks first.




On the outside of Starbucks is a huge tea kettle, with “steam” coming out of the spout! This place wasn’t always a Starbucks. Back in 1873, the Oriental Tea Company built the tea kettle to advertise their business. They held a contest to see who could guess how much water would fit inside the kettle. More than 10,000 spectators came to watch as the kettle was filled and the water was measured. The kettle holds 227 gallons, 2 quarts, 1 pint, and 3 gills. Those who had guessed correctly each received 5 pounds of tea!




From Starbucks we walked down to Faneiul Hall. This place is even older the the tea kettle. It was built in 1742 and is sometimes called “the Cradle of Liberty.” Samuel Adams and James Otis gave some pretty famous speeches here back when Massachusetts was still a British colony. They thought the United States should be independent, and eventually that’s what happened.




There are lots of historic sites in downtown Boston. You can visit the cemetery where Mother Goose was buried, Paul Revere’s house, and the oldest commissioned warship in the world, the USS Constitution. All of these places are easy to find. All you have to do is follow the red line of bricks in the sidewalk called the Freedom Trail.




Faneiul Hall is still used for important meetings and political debates, but it’s also a marketplace with all sorts of fun and interesting things to buy. We decided that you needed a necklace to remember your time in Boston. This guy wrote your name in tiny little letters…on a piece of rice!



He also wrote “Boston 2014” on the back, so you’d always remember the trip. We picked out a pretty fish charm for your piece of rice. Be careful. It’s glass, so it can break!


After picking out your necklace, we headed into the North End for dinner. It’s the Italian section of town, and there are lots of good restaurants.




Along the way, you made a friend. Flat Stanley was visiting a woman who just happened to be coming out of a restaurant as we were walking by! She knew you two would be good friends, so she stopped us to say hello.




We also had to stop for a pretty view of the water at sunset. Look, Bella. Here you are at Boston Harbor! Back during revolutionary times, colonialists dumped 342 chests of tea in this harbor to protest British rule. I love tea, so I’ve always thought that was a little sad…




We were a little late for dinner, so we had to hurry. We had reservations at place called Nico. We had lobster ravioli, fried risotto, and tomatoes with mozzarella. Yum!



After dinner, we had to find dessert. Luckily, desert is easy to find in the North End. We went to Caffe Vittoria. It was getting late, so no espresso for you! Instead, you and I shared a steamed milk.

My friend, Tiffany, had a pastry called a Lobster Claw. It was huge! Both of you were pretty impressed!




We all agree that your visit has been great fun. I hope you enjoyed your time in Boston. Come back for another visit soon!



July 29, 2013

Do’s and Don’ts of An Amazing Alaska Adventure

I’ll admit upfront that this post is going to be mostly about the do’s of an Amazing Alaska Adventure. (And yes, I know that apostrophe is completely unnecessary and ungrammatical, but you try writing that phrase without it.)

As I was saying, we didn’t really find many don’ts on this trip. It was amazing. Beautiful. Breathtaking. And, likely, once in a lifetime. So, let’s start with the most important.



Really, I can’t say it much more simply than that. Get off the couch. Do whatever you have to do to earn a few extra dollars (stick to the legal stuff, please) and plan an amazing Alaskan adventure of your own.  You won’t be sorry.

You’ll get to see things like this:

The many colors of Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park.

The many colors of Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park.

And do things like this:

That's my daddy...on a glacier.  Yes, we all hiked on a glacier.  Try doing that in Massachusetts!

That’s my daddy…on a glacier. Yes, we all hiked on a glacier. Try doing that in Massachusetts!

And eat things like this:

Yes, you can still get bad seafood in Alaska...but not at 229 Parks near Denali. There, it's all incredible.

Yes, you can still get bad seafood in Alaska…but not at 229 Parks near Denali. There, it’s all incredible.


rent a house.

Hotels in Alaska can be expensive. They can be boring. They can be disappointing. We rented the Eagles Nest at the Canoe Lake Chalet in Palmer, Alaska.  It was perfect.

Beautiful views at our quiet getaway.  I only wish we'd had more time to spend there!

Beautiful views at our quiet getaway. I only wish we’d had more time to spend there!

We wanted a place that could fit the six of us (me and my guy, my sis and her family) and that had room to park my parents RV. We wanted a place where we could fix meals in a real kitchen, and eat together around a table or two. We wanted a place where we could sit outside.

We got all that…plus the great travel advice of the owner, Geri.

Speaking of which.


walk on a glacier.

Geri suggested that we drive east from Palmer to hike the Matanuska Glacier. My parents had spotted it on their way out to meet us in Anchorage, but my dad really wasn’t convinced it was worth paying $20 just to walk on some ice.

See…according to that link above, the Matanuska Glacier is the largest glacier in Alaska that can be reached by car. The glacier itself is on public land, but the only road leading up to the glacier is private. And the super-smart people who own and (barely) maintain that road know how to make a buck.

Let me tell you, that was the best $20 (per person, less for seniors and kids) we’ve ever spent!


Look at those smiles!

Look at those smiles!

Kids dig glaciers. Really. Tell a couple of kids from Southern California that they get to spend the afternoon walking around on ice and they’ll immediately stop complaining that their legs are sore from yesterday’s hike. Give them each a ski pole to help keep them from slipping…and, yes, you might want to grab one for yourself as well.

Mmm...glacier water.

Mmm…glacier water.

Glaciers provide their own hydration. No need to carry heavy bottled water! Just bring an empty bottle and fill it up. There’s nothing like drinking the water from a glacier…while walking on the very same glacier. (Just don’t try to drink it a few days later. It’s just not the same.)

Ahhh...yeah. We did not pay attention to this sign, but ignore it at your own risk.

Ahhh…yeah. We did not pay attention to this sign, but ignore it at your own risk.

Glacier = Adventure. Yes, you can pay a guide to take you in. But, just take it easy. Remember ice is more slippery on the way down, so don’t climb up anything you can’t slide down, if necessary. Remember that any stream you cross is likely to get bigger as the day goes on (the glacier is melting in those long Alaskan summer days). And remember not to go anywhere near overhangs, because the ice can give away at any moment.

No, I’m not a glacier climbing expert. These are just the little things we learned in one afternoon on the ice.


check out the breweries.

No, I’m not a beer expert either. In fact, I really kinda hate beer. But, Alaska has a lot of really cool breweries. We checked out as many as we could. They all had really nice (but different) vibes, awesome food, and wine for me to drink.

Yay for wine!

Yay for wine!

Where did we go?

Glacier Brewhouse

Lunch, Day 1.  Might as well get started right away!

Lunch, Day 1. Might as well get started right away!

This one’s in downtown Anchorage, and it’s definitely the most commercial of the breweries we visited. My dad was worried about finding parking, so we went into the garage at JC Penney’s a few blocks over.  Boy was that an adventure!

My meal was good, but Jerry's was better. You're going to have to read the Boston Globe to hear about that one!

My meal was good, but Jerry’s was better. Stay tuned to the Boston Globe to hear about that one!

The menu was big and the food was great, if a bit expensive, which is pretty standard for Alaska. There was wine on tap…which I always love. As long as I’m going to be paying a crazy markup for wine in a restaurant, I might as well not be paying for the pretty glass bottles as well.

As usual, Jerry got the stout…and I loved it!

He loved it to, but that’s not unusual. Let me restate the crazy bit.

I loved this beer. Like, I wished I hadn’t ordered the wine, so I could drink a whole glass.  That never happens.

Denali Brewing Co.

This one’s in Talkeetna, a crazy little tourist trap of a town on the way to Denali National Park.

This is the scene...everywhere you look.

This is the scene…everywhere you look.

When we arrived, we thought they were holding a street fair. It was difficult to find parking in the little dirt lot and the streets were filled with people. I asked the hostess at Denali Brewing Company’s restaurant, Twister Creek, and she told me that this was pretty normal for the summertime. Nothing happens here during the winter, apparently.

What a beautiful spot!

What a beautiful spot!

We found a seat on their outdoor patio, under the most beautiful streaky-clouded sky I’ve ever seen. The beer drinkers were happy with their beer. I was happy with my wine. (No Karen-approved beers here!)

But, really, for me, it was all about the food.

Whoa. Now that's a burger!

Whoa. Now that’s a burger!

I chose the “I can see Russia burger.” I’m a sucker for a good name.

It had two chili peppers next to the description, so I knew it was going to have a good kick.  In this case, the kick came from horseradish.

Basically, it’s a burger topped with coleslaw and Russian dressing spiked with horseradish on a sourdough bun. That combo is amazing.

The beef and the bun are where it’s at.  First, the beef. Alaska isn’t known for having great beef. It’s not surprising. I didn’t see one cow during my entire visit. So, Twister Creek takes what may well be less-than-fabulous beef and seasons it up really well. It’s bursting with flavor.

Then, the bun.  Alaska IS known for great sourdough. Just think…those miners had to make bread somehow, and live yeast wasn’t gonna be available in cute, little packet form. I could eat those sourdough buns by the dozen. (But then I wouldn’t fit in my airline seat and I’d never be able to come back.  Alaska is awesome in the summer, but I wouldn’t want to go there in the winter!)

49th State Brewing Co.

49th State is one of those super friendly places where you know you could hang out for hours and no one would ever get itchy for you to leave. There’s lots of cozy seating inside and big picnic benches outside. There’s an indoor fireplace for those cool evenings. And a big board of beers on tap over the bar.

Sadly, our bartender called that board the “Board of Broken Dreams” because it so often doesn’t actually reflect the beers on tap.  Our bartender was cool.

What a friendly smile!

What a friendly smile!

We didn’t eat, and I don’t drink beer. So, my sister Darla is going to have to do the bulk of the reviewing on this one.

Darla got the sampler. It came in a cool, Alaska shaped tray.

This is the tray after she was done, just so you can tell she did a thorough job!

This is the tray after she was done, just so you can tell she did a thorough job!

Now, you don’t get to choose the beers in your sampler. You get what they give you. I was not on top of things enough to keep track of which beers Darla sampled or even what order she sampled them in. But, here are her thoughts.

I think Darla's got a future in this reviewing business, don't you?

I think Darla’s got a future in this reviewing business, don’t you?

The coolest part of 49th State (at least for a no-beer girl like me!) is the bus.


If that bus looks familiar to you, you’ve probably read the book (or seen the movie) Into the Wild. I haven’t done either, so I’ll do my very best to sum up from what I learned on the internet.

Christopher McCandless gave up everything to live in the wilderness. He abandoned his legal name and started calling himself Alexander Supertramp, which should have been the first clue that this was all going to end tragically.

Chris/Alex hitchhiked to Alaska, where he headed off into the wild with completely inadequate supplies. Luckily, he stumbled upon an abandoned bus, which had been outfitted (by hunters, I believe) with a wood stove. He lived inside the bus until he died, approximately 119 days after leaving civilization.

Oh yeah, this looks like a comfy place to spend the summer!

Oh yeah, this looks like a comfy place to spend the summer!

According to a plaque on site, the bus we saw was from the movie. Recently, a hiker died trying to visit the original bus, and so it was deemed advisable to put the movie bus somewhere accessible.

Either that, or it just looks really cool to have a big green bus on your brewery’s t-shirt.  Believe me, I bought one.


take a boat ride.

Darla was the brains behind this part of the adventure. She wanted to see the glaciers and the wildlife in Prince William Sound. There are plenty of 150+ passenger cruise ships that do this, but we’re not really a cruise ship sort of family.

We haven't even left the harbor yet, and it's already breathtaking!

We haven’t even left the harbor yet, and it’s already breathtaking!

Darla found Epic Charters, a small company that does a whole lot of water taxi service for kayakers. Their boats are built to drive right up to the beach, so we were assured we could get out and walk around on some of the Sound’s most beautiful beaches (and we did!)  Without those cruise ship passengers in the way, we were assured of a clear view.

Surprise! It's another glacier!

Surprise! It’s another glacier!

The highlight of our day was definitely the Surprise glacier, set back in a bag clogged with chunks of ice. Our guide, Ben, drove the boat as close as was safely allowed and we spent the longest time in awe of the beauty in front of us. We listened as the glacier split apart and chunks fell into the ocean, and then we fished some of those smaller chunks back out again.

Pressure...the same force that makes glacier ice appear blue also turns it crystal clear.

Pressure…the same force that makes glacier ice appear blue also turns it crystal clear.


be afraid to try new things.

On our last night in Anchorage, we wanted to go to Yamaya, a sushi restaurant “Alaska Bob” had told Jerry about.  “Alaska Bob” used to work and live in Alaska, so he knows what he’s talking about.

He said that the restaurant wouldn’t look like much from the outside, and he was right.  From the front, I was pretty sure it was abandoned!

Does this look like the best sushi restaurant in Alaska to you?

Does this look like the best sushi restaurant in Alaska to you?

Inside, the restaurant is small and humble, with just three long, family-style tables. A sign on the wall warns parties of 3 or more to be patient. That’s because everything is cooked by the owner, and he looks to be about 75 years old.

Jerry and I were psyched. Darla was game. But her hubby and kids weren’t so sure they’d find anything on the menu that they liked. Joe settled on a stir fry, which looked pretty tasty. The kids were told that the’d be eating ramen. The were warned that it wouldn’t look a whole lot like the ramen they eat at home.

What they got looked like this:

To me, this is a beautiful bowl of noodle soup. To an 8 and 10 year old, it might as well have been made by aliens!

To me, this is a beautiful bowl of noodle soup. To an 8 and 10 year old, it might as well have been made by aliens!

I was worried the kids wouldn’t eat, but soon the chef’s wife stopped by our table. The waitress (her granddaughter) had told us that she had made the gyoza by hand, so we complimented her on a job very well done. She joked that those dumplings were the cause of the pains in her shoulder…and her back…and her hip. Soon, we were all laughing.

An even bigger miracle? The kids ate those noodles. They even agreed to take a before and after shot for me.



I think these kids have the same reviewer talents as their mom!


bother with Wonder Lake.

Let’s start with the good. I loved Denali National Park. The scenery is breathtaking. The wildlife is abundant. And the crowds are minimal. There’s only really one way in and one way out and that’s on a bus. It keeps the number of visitors inside the park to a reasonable number, and the bus driver is always willing to stop so you can take magnificent photos like this.

Don't you love how I just snuck that in there?

Don’t you love how I just snuck that in there?

Yep. We got engaged in Denali National Park. How could I not think it’s the most beautiful place on the planet?

But, here’s the thing. There’s a whole lot to SEE in Denali National Park, but there’s not much to DO. (Besides get engaged, if you’re super, super lucky.) Our plan had been to ride the bus all the way to Wonder Lake and then get out to hike around for an hour or two.

After 5 1/2 hours on the bus, we finally made it to Wonder Lake.



And immediately got back onto the bus because we were being attacked by more mosquitos than I’ve ever seen in my life! Our awesome bus driver, Ned, had everyone close up the windows. Then, as we were driving away and leaving the nasty bugs behind he said…

“Wonder Lake. Once you’ve gone, you wonder why you went.”

Did I mention Ned was awesome?

July 27, 2013

Feeling Poetic…

Note: I wrote this post on July 4, but I’m only getting around to publishing it today.

Today I drove up to Vermont to cover a softball game.  Not just any softball game.  This was a softball game between a group of poets and a group of writers.  I was promised literary trash talk.  I was promised spontaneous recitations of poetry.  I was promised a parade.

(Literally…I was promised a parade. Today is the 4th of July and there was supposed to be a parade.)

What did I get?  Well…15 minutes before gametime, this is what the field of play looked like.



Eventually, a couple dozen very enthusiastic softball players showed up.  The cheered (but not in rhyming pentameter) and did their best to imitate a softball game (despite the fact that many of them didn’t even know the rules.)  It was a fun time!  But, that parade?

That parade was yesterday.  Apparently they celebrate the 4th on the 3rd around here.

After 2 1/2 extremely high scoring innings, the softball game was called for rain.  The poets won.  And, after a stop at the Econo Lodge for a quick change into dry clothes, I found myself contemplating a very poetic though indeed.


Bourbon. I was contemplating Bourbon.

I found myself contemplating bourbon at a cool little restaurant/pub/gastropub/bbq joint in Waterbury, Vermont called the Prohibition Pig.  This wasn’t my first trip to the Pig.  We came here at the end of my cheese class field trip, and it was one of my favorite memories of that day…

I’m no poet, so with apologies to the bard, I offer you.

How do I love the Prohibition Pig? Let me count the ways…

I love that I can smell your wood smoke and wood smoked bacon from halfway down the block.

Can't you just smell it from here?

Can’t you just smell it from here?

I love that you have a crazy long wine list, and an even crazier long cocktail list. (If I drank beer, I’m sure I’d love your selection of brews as well.)

I love that your list of libations is so incredibly long, that you have to put your liquor bottles on library shelves and everyone once in a while a bartender has to slide over a ladder and climb up to get what he needs.

I totally failed to catch a photo, so I hope the Pig won't mind that I stole one of theirs!

I totally failed to catch a photo, so I hope the Pig won’t mind that I stole one of theirs!

I love that everything, from your alcohol to produce, is locally sourced when possible. There’s just something about eating food that hasn’t spent half its life on the back of a semi-truck!

I love that you have a very yummy list of appetizers and small plates.  Those are always a hit.



I love that the first time we came here, we had no idea what was good. So we told your waitress to bring us all of your best dishes…and she did.

I love that your “House Burger” comes with pimento cheese, fried green tomatos, and bacon.  Wowza!

And those are duck fat fries, folks. No joke.

And those are duck fat fries, folks. No joke.

I love that you’ve managed to make your decor cool and cozy at the same time.

I love that I can come here on a holiday, sit alone at the bar, and totally not feel like a dork.

I love that someone objected to your bathroom signs…


…so you covered them up and dared people to take a look.

These are awesome. And if you object, feel free to unfollow my blog.

These are awesome. And if you object, feel free to unfollow my blog.

In summation, I love the Prohibition Pig.

It’s a pretty good thing it’s 195 miles from my house, otherwise I might gain 195 pounds.

July 23, 2013

Multi-National Scampi…and One Creepy Crawlie

The check-out lady at the grocery store wasn’t pleased with my choices this evening.

First, she grabbed the Kit Kat bar I had snuck onto the pile. (Busted!)

“These are buy one, get two free,” she told me.

“I only want the one,” I said firmly.

“But they’re free.”

“Yes, but I’d eat them.”

She muttered something about putting the extra candy bars away somewhere, to give to someone else.  She clearly doesn’t understand my “issues” with chocolate.

She shook her head disapprovingly at my shrimp.  I rarely buy shrimp when it’s not on sale, and the look on her face made clear that I never should.

She scrunched her face up at the price of my mangos. They were 4 for $5. Not terrible for mangos around here, but bad enough to make her sigh.

But, it was the baby eggplant that really caused her brow to furrow.

“You would have been better off with the candy,” she told me as she looked at the price.

Well, maybe.  But then I wouldn’t have been able to make this!

Okay, it's not the prettiest food...but it is tasty!

Okay, it’s not the prettiest food…but it is tasty!

First…a little about inspiration.

I’ve long been a huge fan of Cooking Light’s recipe for Greek Style Scampi.  I generally have raw, frozen shrimp in my freezer, diced tomatoes in my pantry, and feta in my fridge.  So, it’s one of those meals I can throw together when I’ve forgotten to plan.

But, it pretty much needs to be served over pasta or with a nice hunk of crusty bread to soak up all the sauce. Not exactly waistline friendly, despite being a Cooking Light recipe.

Look at that adorable little baby eggplant.  Isn't he cute?

Look at that adorable little baby eggplant. Isn’t he cute?

I also am a huge fan of eggplant. I especially love eggplant when it’s been cooked so long that it melts and develops a silky, creamy texture that coats your palate.  The best example of this I know comes from a Boston restaurant called Lala Rokh. They used to bring us lunch at work every fourth Friday (that’s a very long story) and I’d try to be first in line, just so I could pile my plate with the stuff.  I was eating it for months before I even knew it was eggplant.  According to their website, the dish is called Kashk-e bademjan.  No…I don’t know how to pronounce that.

So, in honor of the dish’s international inspirations…I’m going to call it.

Multi-National Scampi

1 baby eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch dice
1/2 lb. raw shrimp
1 T olive oil
1 large shallot, finely minced
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into small dice
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 can diced tomatoes (I love the fire roasted ones)
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
water — I don’t know how much
pepper, parsley, basil — whatever you’ve got on hand
1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled with the tails removed
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (though, in retrospect, goat cheese would have been sooo much better)
1/2 lemon

Put the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with salt.  Let sit for 30+ minutes, to draw the bitterness out. Rinse with water when through.

In an oven safe skillet, heat oil over medium high heat.  Add eggplant and shallots.  After 5 minutes, add bell pepper.  Cook until all are soften and slightly browned.

Add garlic.  Cook 30 seconds.

Add tomatoes (with liquid) and tomato paste.  Use the kind that comes in a tube, if you can get it.  Otherwise you’re going to find yourself throwing away a lot of tomato paste!

So cute!  I love this stuff!

So cute! I love this stuff!

Reduce heat and simmer until the eggplant can be smashed with the back of a spoon. You’ll have to keep adding water to keep the mixture loose. This would also be a good time to pre-heat your broiler.

Season to taste with salt (not too much!), pepper, parsley, basil, etc.  Use whatever floats your boat.

Once the eggplant has turned silky (maybe 20 minutes?) add the shrimp.  Stir to incorporate.  Top with cheese.

Place under the broiler for 3-5 minutes–until the cheese has started to melt and the shrimp have turned pink.

Serve with a lemon wedge.

Serves two.

Voila! It totally would have been better with goat cheese.

Voila! It totally would have been better with goat cheese.

That’s about it. Except…oh…did I promise you creepy crawlies?

When I got my groceries home, I discovered I had a stowaway in my bag of grapes. A black widow spider! I managed to get him off my precious red globes (which promptly went into the trash) and into a tiny tupperware. Wanna see?

(I’m going to try to make the picture really tiny. If you’re prone to losing you appetite at the sight of spiders, please don’t click for the full-sized version.)

You've been warned.

You’ve been warned.

May 21, 2013

Two for You…

When you grow up in a family of four kids, it pays to be the second-oldest sibling. If nothing else, there’s the fact that the oldest sibling always plays the “Bank” in Monopoly.

One day I might even figure out what you're supposed to do with those hotels...

One day I might even figure out what you’re supposed to do with those hotels…

My older brother used to beat us by a lot.  Like…a whole lot.  We’d be struggling to pay rent on Baltic Ave while he was counting up a huge stack of golden bills.  To get us to keep playing he offered “handicap” the game by giving us more bills at the beginning than he took for himself. While handing out hundreds he turned to me and said, “Two for you, and one for me.”  Then he said the same thing to my sister and to my younger brother.  Of course, there were three of us and only one of him…so he was actually taking 50% more than he was giving to the rest of us.

We caught onto that one pretty quickly, so then he handed us all $100s while giving himself $500s.  Tricky, tricky.

(I hate to admit it, but I’m pretty sure I pulled the same tricks on my little sister and brother as soon as I got the chance!)

As an adult, I’ve found a much better use of that system.

A few weeks ago, my best friend gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.  I love her like a sister and introduced her to her hubby, so of course I think little Madeleine is the most gorgeous thing ever!

I take that back...the whole family is gorgeous!

I take that back…the whole family is gorgeous!

You might remember some of Tina’s friends and I threw her a cupcake baby shower a while back. But, once the little cupcake arrived, I wanted to do a little something more.  So, time again for two for you…one for me!

First up…chicken pot pies.  I’d never made a chicken pot pie until Tina’s baby shower.  Then I made a couple dozen tiny ones…

So cute!  But sooooo much work.

So cute! But sooooo much work.

Luckily, making regular sized chicken pot pies are much easier than teeny tiny ones! I used the same recipe as I had used for the baby shower.

Before long, I had two beautiful pies…

Note to self:  Let the filling cool before putting it in the crust.  Otherwise the crust melts in the most annoying ways!

Note to self: Let the filling cool before putting it in the crust. Otherwise the crust melts in the most annoying ways!

But, I also had this:



Just enough filling to fill a “me” sized dish, and lots of leftover dough that could be rolled out and reformed.

Who knew pot pies could be so pretty?

Who knew pot pies could be so pretty?

But, the fun didn’t stop there. I had learned on the internet about breakfast burritos that could be frozen and reheated in the oven. I’d also read that food that can be eaten “single handed” was really good for new moms. So, I made up a batch of Make Ahead Breakfast Burritos.

I added hot sauce to the eggs, because Tina's from Texas.  She can handle a little heat!

I added hot sauce to the eggs, because Tina’s from Texas. She can handle a little heat!

The burritos were super easy and they re-heat nicely. They really are yummy any time of day.  I had one for dinner while writing this post!

I suppose you could wrap them in plastic wrap, to encourage microwave re-heating. But microwave re-heating would turn the tortilla chewy and make the eggy rubbery. Don’t do it! They’re oh so lovely if you just stick one in a toaster oven and walk away until the tortilla gets toasty and you can smell the loveliness.

(By the way, the recipe is great, but…the math is off. If you add 1/2 cup of cooked eggs to each burrito, as is recommended, you’ll only need a dozen tortillas. The recipe suggests they need to be used in a month, so a dozen is probably as many as you should do at once.)

Finally…it was time for recipe that I didn’t steal from the internet.  Years ago, I wanted to make some stuffed bell peppers…but I didn’t have any of the required ingredients.  I did have a bunch of other stuff. Hence…

Super Yum!

Super Yum!

Stick with me. This one might sound weird, but it’s fantastic. It has gobs of veggies and is super healthy despite the cheese and sausage.  Trust me…

Karen’s “Mediterranean” Stuffed Bell Peppers

1 package Italian turkey sausage, removed from casings
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed.
1 package baby bella mushrooms, sliced
1 zucchini, diced
1 package cous cous (whatever flavor you like!), prepared
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 oz feta, crumbled
4 red bell peppers, halved lengthwise
grated cheddar cheese, for topping
1 small can tomato sauce

Brown up the sausage and onions. Add garlic, mushrooms, zucchini. Saute until vegetables are soft. Add cous cous, vinegar and thyme. Remove from heat. Add feta.

Spoon mixture into bell peppers, which have been propped up in small baking dishes. I look for peppers that are relatively square and halve them lengthwise. They’re easier to fill (and eat!) that way.

Top with cheese. Pour some of the tomato sauce into the bottom of each of the baking dishes. Cover and freeze.

Don’t forget to label with re-heating instructions.

Do they really need to be told to "Remove the plastic lid" before baking?  Yes...because they're brand-new parents and they're not getting any sleep!

Do they really need to be told to “Remove the plastic lid” before baking? Yes…because they’re brand-new parents and they’re not getting any sleep!

I delivered the food a week and a day after Madeleine was born. If I had been smarter, I would have asked her mom how much room she had in her freezer first!

Do you want to know the best thing about delivering food to a new family?

Getting to see the new baby!

Getting to see the new baby!

Madeleine had a pretty tough day, which means her mom and dad’s was even tougher. So, one of those pot pies went directly into their oven. Success!

March 25, 2013

Cupcake Shower for Tina’s Little Cupcake

My very good friends Tina and Chris are having a baby!

This isn’t news to me…and it certainly isn’t news to Tina and Chris. But, it might be news to you, so I thought I’d start there.

Tina’s not really a “shower” kind of girl.  She didn’t want one for her wedding, and she wasn’t sure she wanted one to celebrate her little one, either.  So, a few months ago, some friends and I started planning a shower that included all of Tina’s favorite things:

There was tulle, made into pompoms.


That brown tulle was tricky, but eventually Wendy got the hang of it!

Tina also loves tutus, so Wendy made a cupcake stand trimmed with a poufy pink skirt!

Oh...my...god.  So cute I could die!

Oh…my…god. So cute I could die!

I took inspiration from some designs I found online to photoshop a mighty spiffy invite, if I do say so myself.

Ahhh...Tina's little cupcake.  Are you catching on to our theme yet?

Ahhh…Tina’s little cupcake. Are you catching on to our theme yet?

Using some spiffy paper and felt from the craft store, we cut out very, very big cupcakes…and very, small cupcakes.

Yep, this is what really awesome people do with their Friday nights!

Yep, this is what really awesome people do with their Friday nights!

Once we had the theme going, we decided to really embrace it. Do you know how many foods you can make in cupcake pans? Before long we had found recipes for cupcake meatloaf and cupcake lasagna.  We even found a site that teaches you to make cupcakes that look like hamburgers! (But thankfully nobody seems to be making hamburgers that look like cupcakes.)

We had to narrow it down, so we decided to go with all of Tina’s favorite foods.

Whew!  That's a lot of cupcake shaped foods!

Whew! That’s a lot of cupcake shaped foods!

Tina’s Menu
Mini Chicken Pot Pies
Baby Mack and Cheese
Brie Cups with Honey and Pecans
Caesar Salad in Parmesan Cups
Veggies and Onion Dip
Berries in Chocolate Cups
Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Frosting
Butterscotch Pecan Ice Cream

I had never before made a pot pie…let alone 42 little tiny individual pot pies in a muffin tin!  I had also never made mac and cheese that didn’t come from a box.  (I know, I know.)  And those parmesan cups?  Those were quite the adventure, as none of the online tutorials seemed exactly right.  But, luckily, I had the internet to guide me every step of the way…

The big day was bright, sunny and beautiful (and snowy, despite the calendar which clearly says it’s spring.)  We hung one of the big cupcakes on the front door, so people would know they had the right house.

Yep...this is the right place!

Yep…this is the right place!

We ran around Wendy’s, putting little touches everywhere. In addition to the pompoms hung across every arch, window, and fireplace, we also filled the place with little cupcake touches.

Cupcake flowers...

Cupcake flowers…

And cupcake presents!

And cupcake presents!

Tina made lots of little squeals of joy when she saw the place, which made us all so proud and happy with what we had done.

Out of the way, folks.  The baby is hungry!

Out of the way, folks. The baby is hungry!

But, before we could let her dig in…we needed a photo.

The guest of honor and her four co-hosts: Nicole, Wendy, Aji, and me.

The guest of honor and her four co-hosts: Nicole, Wendy, Aji, and me.

I was particularly proud of the cupcake chicken pot pies. I tested them twice to get the method down, and each attempt was noticeably better than the last. Have you ever seen anything so adorable?

Seriously, these little babies rock!

Seriously, these little babies rock!

Before long, the rest of the guests arrived, and a good time was had by all…

What a fun crowd!  And color coordinated, too!

What a fun crowd! And color coordinated, too!

As usually happens with these sorts of things, we had a few other new mamas and mamas-to-be in attendance. I had a little photographic fun by lining up the bellies.

Between the pregnant ladies and the runners training for the marathon, we knew we need to make lots of food!

Between the pregnant ladies and the runners training for the marathon, we knew we need to make lots of food!

We did the party “Open House” style, which means that people came and went on their own schedule. We didn’t really have a place big enough to do the everybody-sit-around-to-play-games-and-open-gifts thing, and Tina was dreading that portion of the day, anyway.

We promised no games, but we didn’t say anything about activities. So, we set up a little table by the door for folks to leave their wishes for the baby. Also, I asked Tina and Chris to take some headshots of each other, with a variety of “funny” faces. They did not disappoint.



How cool are those?

We cut the photos into horizontal strips and then armed the guests with glue sticks and card stock to assemble their vision of the baby. At the bottom of the card, we added a place where guest could leave little wishes.  I bought a simple scrapbook at the craft store so we could assemble them all for the baby to look at later.  It was a big hit!

Some assembled creations were cuter than others.  I've tried to spare you the really scary ones!

Some assembled creations were cuter than others. I’ve tried to spare you the really scary ones!

We all agreed that everything turned out even better than we had hoped. All the food was as delicious as it was cute (and as cute as it was delicious!) A fantastic group of women showed up from far and wide to shower Tina with love..and advice..and the most ridiculously adorable clothing the world has ever seen.

My only regret is that I never managed to get a photo of just me and the happy mama-to-be. That’s okay, though. I did find some time to enjoy something truly important.

Finally. A cupcake made from...cupcake.

Finally. A cupcake made from…cupcake.

February 26, 2013

Cantastic Creations!

So, the two readers who have been paying attention might remember that I recently attended a City Chicks (soon to be Homemade Modern) class for the Boston Globe.

I visited the first class for work, but I had a lot of fun. So, I decided to go back just for me.  Heather Schmidt has put together a great list of classes, and I picked Canning 101: Winter Soups and Stocks.  Like a lot of Heather’s classes, she brought in an expert.  In this case, Ken Cmar did the heavy lifting.  As you can tell, Heather was as awestruck and amazed by the finished product as the rest of us.

If we could can Heather's enthusiasm, the world would be a better place.

If we could can Heather’s enthusiasm, the world would be a better place.

(Incidentally, Ken is enough of a badass to make his own Asian fish sauce. Yes, he caught, fermented, and processed his own fish to make the super-tart, ultra-salty, majorly-tasty Asian condiment. You don’t mess with a man who makes his own fish sauce.)

Ken has apparently been canning for…forever.  Like, a really, really long time.  He has a lot of wisdom to impart.  First, he told us everything we’d need for a economical, efficient pressure canning system.  I immediately went out and purchased everything on the list.  Wanna see?

Whew!  That's a lot of stuff!

Whew! That’s a lot of stuff!

Here’s a list:

  • One extra large pressure canner. (Go big or go home!)
  • Plenty of jars and, eventually, lids. (The jars are reusable, the lids are not.)
  • A jar lifter. (I went deluxe, because I really didn’t want this item to fail.)
  • An extra pressure canner rack. (Not required, but useful for double stacking jars in that great big canner.)
  • A bubble lifter. (I could have made due with a plastic knife, but I had a gift certificate.)
  • A lid rack.  (Yes, you could use that magnet thing, but it really isn’t worth the drama.)
  • A funnel. (I wish I had gone for stainless steel. It just seems cleaner.)
  • A super-enormous stock pot. (For sterilizing everything!)
  • Canning Books. (Knowledge does not come for free.)

Sadly, the books I ordered were less-than-useful. The first turned out to be a print-out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website.  Don’t pay for what you can access for free!

The second seems to have lots of fantastic recipes for jams, fruits, and other sweet treats.  I want to can soup.  How many soup recipes does this book contain?  Zero.  Yes, zero.

The third book was the most useful.  It cost almost nothing at my local evil box store.  It’s the Ball’s Blue Book.  It’s awesome.  At least at the beginning, don’t bother with anything else.

But…back to class.  Heather’s not known for her overly serious classes, but for a while…this one turned deadly.

Look at those faces.  Those faces do not mess around.

Look at those faces. Those faces do not mess around.

Okay, so it comes down to this. There’s a super-serious toxin. It’s called botulism. It loves dark, oxygen-weak environments.

Do you know what’s dark and oxygen-weak?

Someday, when I become a canning expert, I will make this.

Someday, when I become a canning expert, I will make this.

Canned foods, baby. Canned foods are kept in the dark, and processing removes most of the oxygen.

So, Ken had some rules for us newbie canners.

  1. Only can approved, tested recipes.  You don’t want to die!
  2. Don’t can dairy or anything that’s high in fat.
  3. Don’t can pasta or rice.  It will turn to goop.  Only can ingredients that can be cooked to hell.
  4. Use kosher or sea salt. Never use iodized.  Iodized salt will cause your liquids to cloud.
  5. Put a date on your finished cans, so you know when they should be consumed. (Within a year, in case you were wondering.)

There is only one problem with the above rules.  We left class without a single recipe.  No print-outs.  No book recommendations.  Ken merely told us to “follow recipes” and that there were many “available on the internet.”

Here’s the problem with the internet.  So very many recipes are posted by random internet chicks.  Do I know who these women are?  Are they experts?  Are they willing to take responsibility for my health?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the most official official-source, only offers the following recommendations for canning soups and stews.

I used a screen shot, so that you know I'm not screwing with you.

I used a screen shot, so that you know I’m not screwing with you.

Let’s sum up.  Basically, this just says you can can whatever soup you want…as long as it doesn’t include pasta, rice, milk, cream, or other thickening agents (for the record, that includes flour and cornstarch!)  Dried herbs are hunky-dorey, though they tend to get more intense over time.  I read elsewhere that sage is a bad idea, because it turns bitter.  I’m sure there are some other random no-nos.

The more I looked around, the more I was concerned.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells me that I shouldn’t add thickeners to my soups and stews, but there are plenty of random internet chicks who add flour or cornstarch.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells me I should never, ever can butters or breads, but just google “canned butter recipe” or “canned bread recipe” and you’ll come up with a bazillion options.

Ken said that it was okay to experiment with “seasonings,” but what does that mean?  I know I can’t substitute fresh lemon juice for canned lemon juice in water bath recipes (the acidity level in the former is not consistent.)  But, can I substitute broth for water? (I think I can.)  Or, wine for water? (We did that in class…so does that mean it’s okay?)

So, I came up with Karen’s Rules of Canned Soups and Stews.  Are you ready?

Karen’s Rules of Canned Soups and Stews

  1. Don’t screw with ratios.  Don’t use more veggies, more meat, more fat, or less liquid than the recipe requires.
  2. Don’t use any ingredient that doesn’t appear in an approved pressure canner recipe.  (If I can’t find an approve recipe that uses garlic, I need to omit garlic when making my soup.  Luckily, I found plenty of soup recipes that included garlic!)
  3. Use dried herbs, not fresh.  Keep in mind that their flavor will get more intense over time.  (Avoid sage…it turns bitter.)
  4. Check instructions for individual ingredients.  For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that potatoes should be boiled for 10 minutes before canning.  If you make soup that includes potatoes, boil them for at least 10 minutes before canning.)
  5. Do not add any thickeners.  This includes dusting meat with flour before browning.  Skip the flour, and be patient during the browning process.
  6. Good food is good food.  Don’t compromise technique, ingredients, or know-how for the sake of convenience.  (Lots of canning recipes call for garlic salt, which I think tastes weird.  They also skip important steps like browning meat before boiling.  You know better.  Don’t be lazy.)

So, those are MY starting rules.  Who am I?  I’m some random chick on the internet.  Only follow my suggestions if they seem logical and smart to you.

Keep in mind, this is my best friend, Tina. She canned peaches without following a recipe, using fresh squeezed lemon juice.  Much of the class was spent convincing Tina to throw away her precious peaches, for the sake of the little one growing in her belly.

Ahhh...that's my Tina!

Ahhh…that’s my Tina!

I have even less experience than Tina does with canning. Keep this in mind when following my rules.

February 12, 2013

I got the Karlie!

For the past few months, I’ve been growing my hair long, long, long.  The idea was to grow it long enough to chop it off for charity.  This process requires many decisions:  Which charity? What haircut do I want? And what hypo-allergenic conditioner will I use to help my hair stay strong?  My quest for a good, rich, moisturizing, itch-free conditioner came up empty, which made the chopping all-the-more vital.

I put together a board on Pinterest where I collected some ideas.  A theme emerged.  I wanted above the shoulders.  I wanted something resembling a bob.  And I wanted bangs.

Enter…the Karlie.

Let's face it.  I'm not a super-famous-model like Karlie Kloss.  This haircut should be called "the Karen."

Let’s face it. I’m not a super-famous-model like Karlie Kloss. This haircut should be called “the Karen.”

The New York Times style section declared the Karlie the “it” haircut of the year…a mere 16 days into 2013.  I’ve never been a person to wear the “it” outfit.  I’ve never managed to read the “it” book…at least not until after everyone else has.  But, the “it” haircut?  Seemed like a good idea to me!

For a person who often goes six months without a haircut, I’m a little bit haircut obsessed.  That profile pic in the top right corner?  I took that on one of my haircut “outings.”  See…when I get my hair cut, I generally tend to plan a night out on the town to show it off.  That’s how much I enjoy getting my hair cut.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a LOT of haircuts…


I’ve had super-long hair with bangs, a crazy short bob, and even an ill-fated attempt to get Julie Bowen’s hair from the early 2000’s TV show, Ed.  (Here’s a hint, when chopping many inches of your hair with nothing but a blurry printed out screen shot to show the hairdresser, be sure to go to a hairdresser who speaks English.)

But, the last time I had a bob and bangs at the same time?

I was five.

I was five.

I guess I figured 35 years was long enough, because last week I gathered my inspiration and my courage, and met my friend, Erin, at the hairdresser’s.

Erin agreed to come along to “document” the occasion. Didn’t she do a great job?

I love the look on my face in the middle pic. There's nothing like having a moment of panic when half the hair is already gone!

I love the look on my face in the middle pic. There’s nothing like having a moment of panic when half the hair is already gone!

Did my hair turn out like Karlie’s? Well…not really. For one, I have way too much hair. For another, I didn’t get enough “texture” — a.k.a. layers. For three, I don’t have a personal stylist following me around making sure my hair is perfectly messy.

But, I’m really happy with the finished result.  My hair is bouncy and fun.  Best of all?  Those bangs camouflage my 40-year-old forehead wrinkle.  Yay!

Now, for the big question.  What happened to all that hair?

No, I didn't color my hair.  The ends are just lightened from all that running I did a couple of summers ago!

No, I didn’t color my hair. The ends are just lightened from all that running I did a couple of summers ago!

When I announced my intention to donate my hair, a friend clued me into controversy surrounding Locks of Love, the charity most known for accepting hair donations. Yet another New York Times article filled in the details.

Turns out that everyone thinks Locks of Love makes wigs for kids with cancer.  They don’t (and they don’t claim to.)  Most of their wigs go to kids with alopecia, which causes complete hair loss with no cause or cure.

Now, I don’t want to knock kids with alopecia.  It sounds awful.  But, alopecia has never claimed a member of my family.  Cancer has.

For hair donations for chemotherapy patients, there seem to be two options.  Wigs for Kids collects hair to make, as you might expect, wigs…for kids.  Pantene also has a hair donation program.  They collect donations to make wigs for adults in cancer treatment.

Because Wigs for Kids wants to provide a long hair wig to any kid who prefers long hair, they require 12 inches for a minimum donation.  Pantene will accept anything over 8.

I had 10 inches…at best.

I sent an email to Erin.  I explained my dilemma.  Growing enough hair to donate to Wigs for Kids would require a few more months at least.  I had that aforementioned conditioner problem…and a serious case of hair boredom.  Plus, having just turned 40 I was ready–really, really ready– for a change.

Here’s the actual question I asked…

Want to help me justify giving to Pantene?  I really want to get the “it” haircut of 2013 before it’s “out!”

Wow. What a vain question. Luckily, Erin had a well-reasoned and not-at-all vain response.

EVERYONE wants to donate to kids. If you think of any charity that people really love it has kids involved. Can you imagine just turning 40 with not a lick of hair on your head and no money to buy a wig? I think women’s self esteem is deeply attached to the way they look and their hair is one of the biggest components of that. I would do Pantene in a minute.

I have smart friends. Pantene gets my hair, and I get a beautiful new haircut.  Win-win!

February 4, 2013

I have the bestest friends!

If you happen to follow the lovely Erin’s blog, you’ll know that she and some of my other fabulous friends threw me a surprise party last weekend.  I knew something was up, because Erin told me to save the date and “ask no questions!”

I’m a rule follower, so I did my best.  Plus, I really love surprises!  When I was a kid, I used to ask Santa for a surprise.  Seriously.  It must have driven my parents crazy.

As surprises go, this was a great one.  Erin and Tina arranged for us to have a private cooking class at Ole, a great Mexican restaurant in Cambridge.  They decorated the place up, complete with a Happy Birthday banner with my pictures on it and really cool succulents planted in food cans. Wanna see?

For much better pics, visit Erin's blog.  It's hard to take good photos of your own surprise birthday party!

For much better pics, visit Erin’s blog. It’s hard to take good photos of your own surprise birthday party!

The main event of the afternoon was a cooking class with Ole chef and co-owner Erwin Ramos. Luckily, Chef Ramos’ mentor, Master Chef George Karousos, just happened to be in town. So, we got the honor of learning from both of them.

But first, we needed some margaritas…

I'm pretty sure Chef Ramos is pointing at me to say that the birthday girl gets the first margarita.  There was a lot of that going on...

I’m pretty sure Chef Ramos is pointing at me to say that the birthday girl gets the first margarita. There was a lot of that going on…

b2013-01-26 12.28.22

My favorite part of this picture? Chef Karousos not-so-patiently waiting for his turn to talk about food!

b2013-01-26 12.28.55

Yes, that would be two margaritas. The regular one was waiting for me when we arrived, and we learned to make the hibiscus one. Fantastic!

Chef Ramos is originally from the Philippines, but Mexican food is his passion. Chef Karousos is, as his name implies, from Greece. Maybe it was their charming accents, or maybe it was those margaritas, but I found their food wisdom to be invaluable. Luckily, Tina had made us all little notebooks, and I started scribbling in mine right away.

Food is art. Food is music. All you need to know is good combinations. –E.R.

First is the colors, we see food first. Second is smell, we smell food second. God gave you the nose to make the taste. –G.K.

Master Chef George Karousos.

Master Chef George Karousos.

Don’t make it complicated. Take a simple recipe and do it right. –E.R.

Lard is coming back with a roar. –E.R.

Quality food is expensive. What’s more important, a luxury car or you? –G.K.

Enjoy the tradition, but embrace the technology. –E.R.

Chef Erwin Ramos making amazing guacamole.

Chef Erwin Ramos making amazing guacamole.

If you go to the supermarket, never even look at the specials. –G.K.

Before you run around looking for an unusual ingredient, google it and look for a substitute. –E.R.

Today we have stores in the mall, they pay $10,000 in rent to sell vitamins. Helloooooo. If you eat fresh food, you get the vitamins. –G.K.

Me and "my" chefs!

Me and “my” chefs!

Of course, not everyone was busy scribbling in notebooks. What do you think might have been going on here?

Priceless.  Just...priceless.

Priceless. Just…priceless.

Even though we were all completely full, Erin and Tina wouldn’t let my day end without cupcakes and candles to blow out.

This photo was taken milliseconds before Tina had to save my hair from bursting into flames.  Eeek!

This photo was taken milliseconds before Tina had to save my hair from bursting into flames. Eeek!

And, at the end, Chefs Ramos and Karousos signed a chef’s hat for me. Maybe I’ll wear it the next time you come over for dinner?

Why didn't anyone tell me I was wearing my chef's hat sideways? This is why I should stick to writing!

Why didn’t anyone tell me I was wearing my chef’s hat sideways? This is why I should stick to writing!

The girls packed up my things, including a few awesome plants for my big windowsill and that totally cool Happy Birthday banner.

Oh yeah, that's me dressed up as an 80s chick.  Pretty hot, eh?

Oh yeah, that’s me dressed up as an 80s chick. Pretty hot, eh?

And with that, the official 40th birthday celebrations have ended.  I feel loved, fed, honored, and ready to take on this damm decade.  Muah!