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Growing up, occasionally my mom would buy a plastic tub of soft cheese spread as a treat. Once in a while it was a cheeseball or log, rolled in chopped almonds or pecans, but mostly it was just a clear plastic tub that I would dip crackers directly into. This method was rarely successful and I’d often leave a trail of cracker debris in the container and someone would yell at me. But I continued to do it anyway, too lazy to get a knife and a proper plate I suppose. There were a few flavors as I recall, cheddar certainly and maybe something called “Swiss almond” but my favorite was a pastel pink and orange swirled concoction known as “port wine cheese spread.” I didn’t even know what port wine was until many years later, but damn I loved that stuff. It seemed very adult and sophisticated to my young mind, like the Daiquiri Ice at Baskin Robbins.

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Retro old school appetizers, for the most part, are perfect. Rumaki, that delicious little bite of salty brown sugar glazed bacon wrapped around a bit of water chestnut and chicken liver? They were a requirement at my parents’ parties when I was a kid and I ate as many as I could steal. Green olives wrapped in a cheddar dough and baked until crispy? Delightful. How about meatballs or little Vienna sausages swimming in a sea of those ‘70’s classics, chili sauce and grape jelly? Sounds hideous, I know, but I’m also certain you were the one boxing out the crockpot, fishing around with a toothpick hoping to score that last delectable, caramelized piece. And then there’s baked Brie. Does anything epitomize the ‘80’s more than a golden pastry encased round of gooey cheese? I think not. I also don’t think it should stay stuck in the ’80’s. Holiday party season is here, let’s bring that baby back

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Winter is coming. Seems obvious and though I’m having a hard time truly accepting this fact, I came face-to-face with the inevitable. It snowed on Halloween. Oh joy. It was a light dusting in the morning followed by that particularly awful mix of cold slightly frozen rain, huge traffic delays and everyone generally acting like an idiot. At the end of my two hour commute home I saw a few determined trick-or-treaters on the streets. Good for you kids, good for you. I hope you took home loads of treats for simply braving that mess.

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Oh salads. You and I have a lukewarm relationship at best. Sure, back in the day at the Sizzler salad bar, you were my favorite. A giant chilled plate with a side of Texas Toast was all I – and most people I suspect – needed. A pile of crispy, cold iceberg drenched in blue cheese dressing, croutons and a few standard fixing’s really hit the spot with that bottomless barrel of iced tea. But I’ve grown up. I’ve moved on and I’ve become increasingly tired of uninspired and insipid salads with limp greens, boring toppings and heavy, flavorless dressings. So few salads are done well these days. Why is that? Does no one care anymore?

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With this Unprocessed October Challenge, I’ve been reading a lot of labels. I forget how much crap is in things. I don’t buy much processed food, or thought I didn’t, but I tend to forget about everyday purchases like tortillas or crackers. Just the other day I threw a pack each of corn and flour tortillas into my cart without much thought. They’re tortillas from a local company, not chicken nuggets so they’re fine, right? Maybe, maybe not.

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1hero.lrg.IMG_3863 The annual Unprocessed October challenge is two weeks in and I’m doing OK. How about you? I’ve slipped up a few times, usually not realizing it until I’m halfway through eating or drinking something but overall this one is certainly do-able. The Vegan-Before-6 challenge I decided to tack on isn’t going nearly as well. Processed foods are easier to avoid, for me at least, but this vegan challenge takes some planning and thought. Neither of which are a particularly strong character trait of mine early in the morning. The very first day, October 1, I ate a mini Snickers bar at work, which technically voided both challenges. Great. Day 2 I purposely drove out of my way to a particular café for lunch where I thought I’d find a vegan friendly option. Not so much so I decided on the fly that simply vegetarian was an ok substitute and had gouda on my rather plain, disappointing sandwich. Day 3 I absentmindedly buttered my morning toast, out of habit. Day 4 I did it again. Day 5 I made a beautiful stir fry packed with vegetables and tofu, then tossed in a healthy shot of fish sauce before I realized what I was doing.  Day 6 I threw all rules to the wind and thoroughly enjoyed 3 fat spoonfuls of pastry cream I’d made for a Boston Cream Pie. It was delicious. And that’s when I decided I would have to amend my challenge. I really have no problem avoiding meat but dairy is my downfall, and I accept that. To do this right, I need to concentrate and now is not time so I’m going to continue with Unprocessed October and make conscious choices in other matters, vegan-ish if I can swing it. No need to beat myself up about this.

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The backlash against pumpkin spice has been particularly fierce this season. Granted, everything seems to be pumpkin spiced in some way and it’s become quite obnoxious. I blame Starbuck’s. Their latte success has convinced every food manufacturer that they too can capitalize off this seasonal flavor regardless of it makes any sense. The list of absurd products is endless– Pumpkin Spice Doritos? Really? With minimal effort you can find pumpkin spiced margarine, M&M’s, sugar free gum, Pringles, frozen waffles, non-dairy creamer, cookies, pudding and even special Four Loko, that jacked up energy drink that makes people crazy. Take a trip to Trader Joe’s and there’s an entire pumpkin spice section (see!). It’s all a bit much.

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