Game-Changer Guacamole

Well, the Superbowl is coming.  I know this because the grocery store circulars are exhorting me to buy a platter of something called ‘Wyngz,’ and also potato chips.

While I’m not very likely to watch ‘the game,’ I just may buy some of these ‘wyngz’ and potato chips because, well, why not, we like to snack.

Whether you are a game-watcher or not, I have a recipe for guacamole that, thanks to one secret ingredient, will make you feel sad for all the other guacamoles you have ever eaten.

I wish I could take credit for thinking of adding the secret ingredient, but I can’t.  I would have never in a million years thought of combining these things, and this is Reason #1 why I never turn down an invitation to go to dinner at a friend’s house: you never know what kind of cooking secrets you may learn. (OK, actually Reason #1 may really be: Free Food & Wine, but still.)

I’m kind of a minimalist when it comes to guacamole: avocado, lime (or lemon juice, since I’m usually out of lime juice), salt and pepper.

I know that traditionally, guacamole also calls for minced onion and tomato (sometimes we get lazy and just add a glug of jarred salsa if we have it).  These are the things you can do if you want to be an over-achiever.

We had this secret-ingredient guacamole at a friend’s house, and it was so good we could not stop eating it.  You know how some guacamole is just…guacamole?  Something sort-of healthy to dip a tortilla chip into while you wait for the main course?  This is not that guacamole.


This guacamole is made with sour cream.

The sour cream, I’m supposing, does three different jobs here: 1) Adds an acidic, ‘tangy’ note similar to what the lime juice does; 2) Gives it a creamier, lighter texture; and 3) Stretches your budget, since avocados are decidedly more expensive than sour cream.

The following are things I am unsure about, however: 1) Does the sour cream keep the guacamole from oxidizing when you store it?  We have never had leftovers to find out.  2) Can you substitute Greek or plain yogurt?  Probably, but there is a reason they still sell sour cream at the stores, and that reason is because it is more delicious than Greek yogurt.

This is not so much a recipe as a general guideline.  Add more (or less) sour cream if it suits you; likewise with the lime juice, salt & pepper.

Game-Changer Guacamole
2 avocados, cut in half, pitted, and flesh scooped out
4 Tablespoons lime juice, or to taste
1 Tablespoon very finely minced white onion
1 clove garlic, finely minced
~1/2 to 2/3 cup sour cream, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl, mash together the avocado, lime juice, onion, and garlic together with a fork until combined.  Stir in sour cream, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Add more lime juice and/or sour cream if desired.  Serve with tortilla chips and a platter of Wyngz and yell, “Go Team!” to noone in particular.

What it Really Feels Like

You Learn to Layer

Last night I draped two layers of row covers over my arugula to (hopefully) keep them from biting the dust.  They all looked terrible after the first ‘Arctic Blast’; most of them were starting to perk up again & grow tender new leaves, but some of them had withered and died completely.

When I got back inside I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes; the tip of my nose hurt.

I dragged my space heater out of the closet and into the bathroom, plugged it in and cranked it up to 80.  I took a long, hot shower and when I got out the bathroom had heated up so much it felt like my own personal mini-sauna.  I stayed in there for a good bit of time, until I started to feel uncomfortably warm.  It was the most luxurious thing I’ve done in a while, and when I stepped out of the bathroom the comparative chill of the rest of the house was an invigorating relief.  I highly recommend it if you happen to have a space heater lying around.

A few days ago I was talking to one of my friends who lives in San Francisco.  She told me, “I’m wearing a t-shirt today.  When I was walking home I actually started to get a little sweaty.”

LOL indeed, California.

It’s not that I’m a complete wimp about cold weather.  I’ve spent winters in Iowa and Chicago and Austria, winters where a daily high of 30 degrees felt nearly balmy.  The difference is that there, you stop noticing the cold and start expecting it.  It becomes a minor background note and you learn to layer: first a long-sleeve thermal; then t-shirt, then sweater.  A scarf and, if it was in the single-digits, a sweatshirt or fleece over the sweater (preferably a sweatshirt, since a fleece + wool sweater interact unfortunately to create massive static).  Most importantly a hat, good gloves, and a heavy coat.

Oddly enough, I don’t remember ever wearing anything but jeans in the winter, and usually sneakers, which gave me better traction on the ice than boots.  I don’t remember my legs being cold, though I’m most certain that my feet were.

One time in Austria I was chatting with my photography professor, an American ex-pat who married an Austrian, as he was suiting up on a January evening to drive home on his moped.  On went his sweater and his hat and his scarf; before pulling on his jacket he took out a wide belt/fanny-pack-looking thing with a large plastic buckle.  He put it on, covering the area just above the top of  his pants, clasped it in front, and pulled the straps tight.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said, “My wife’s family makes me wear it.  It’s supposed to keep my kidneys warm.”

“Your kidneys?”

He shrugged.  ”They have a thing about it.  It’s supposed to keep me from getting sick.”

“Does it work?” I asked.

He shrugged.  ”I don’t know, but at least it keeps the wind from blowing up the back of my shirt.”

Sending y’all thoughts of hot soup and thick wool socks and personal mini-saunas today.

Keep your kidneys warm, everybody.

Dear Future: Go Ahead and Don’t Hire Me for any HR Positions

One of the guys at work needed a character reference letter for Little League, so this is the letter I wrote:

To Whom it May Concern:

I am writing to recommend EmployeeName as an umpire for your baseball league. I think he would do a fine job because as far as I am aware of, he has never molested any small children. He did, however, make a joke about my vagina at the office Christmas party which I’d be willing to overlook had it been a funnier joke. To be fair, we had all been drinking that day since 9am, so who can really say how funny it may or may not have been?

EmployeeName would be a perfect fit for your youth baseball program because he is so into baseball that he even uses dip, just like all the professional baseball players who later got mouth cancer. I think it is important that our youth be exposed to such authentic role models because it is vital that they learn at an early age that, when using dip (aka ‘dipping’), one must always remember to spit and never swallow.

I really do hope you will give him strong consideration for this position, because I’m sure he could use the extra money and right now we can’t afford to give him a raise. I’m sure that he would put his earnings toward a worthy cause, like beer money or mouth cancer treatments.


I should not be in HR

Cajun Veggie Chili

In the spirit of, ‘We’ve been making a lot of soups!,’ let me share one with you.

This recipe comes from Parade magazine, via my great-aunt Suzy & Uncle Bert.  Now, say what you will about Parade magazine (that it is stupid and boring and full of fluff and does anyone ever actually read it?) but I have to admit that the recipes I’ve tried from it (lemon muffins, a flourless (or nearly flourless?) chocolate cake) have in fact turned out quite good.  And so now I have a third recipe from Parade magazine that has turned out quite good, proving that perhaps Parade magazine is not a complete waste of ink & paper after all.

Because Aunt Suzy & Uncle Bert spend part of the year in Maine, and the rest of the year in Maryland, it is a pretty fair bet that any recipe they make in Maine is going to be a winner.  While their kitchen shelves in Maryland fairly groan under the weight of decades of cookbooks, the ones in Maine are few: The Victory Garden Cookbook; Mystic Seaport’s Seafood Secrets; perhaps a Mark Bittman or New York Times tome; and a small collection of handwritten index cards, punched-through at the top and bound together with two metal rings.

These index cards are the real keepers; the tried-(and tried) and true.  Amongst them was a recipe for spaghetti pie from the Greensboro YWCA cafeteria from fifty (sixty?) years ago that is better than it sounds (unless you already think it sounds delicious, in which case you’re right), and for this veggie chili from Parade magazine.  From 1997.

For 17 years this recipe has been in rotation, and if that does not say “the test of time” to you, then I don’t know what does.  Since Uncle Bert e-mailed me the recipe a couple of months ago, we’ve made it 3 times, including once for company and once with ground turkey.  Each time I intend to freeze some for leftovers, yet each time we end up eating all of it before I have a chance to (though, yes, sometimes we do end up mixing it with rice & cheese & making burritos with it).

What first intrigued Andy & I about this chili was, when Uncle Bert served it to us, there were garbanzo beans in it.  We were a little skeptical at first because a) it looked like mostly vegetables, and b) most veggie chilis are pretty boring and taste the same as all other veggie chilis.  But this one wasn’t.  This one was really, really good.  Plus garbanzo beans!

I’m not sure, exactly, what makes it ‘Cajun’ (the bell peppers? the black-eyed peas?), but what matters is this: It’s good.  It’s easy.  It’s healthy (it even has spinach in it!).  And you probably have all the ingredients in your pantry already.  (And it’s from Parade magazine).

Cajun Veggie Chili Recipe
adapted from Parade magazine, via Uncle Bert
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/2 Tablespoons chili powder (I know this sounds like a lot, but it’s not)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes (can substituted diced tomatoes if that’s all you have on hand)
2 teaspoons dried thyme
3 14-oz. cans beans (we like to use 1 garbanzo; 1 black; and one kidney or pinto–the original recipe says to use 2 cans black-eyed peas; Uncle Bert says to use whatever’s in the pantry)
1 cup corn kernels (we use frozen)
1 large bunch spinach, chopped (we use a 12 to 16-oz. bag of frozen chopped spinach)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
rice, yogurt/sour cream, scallions/chives and shredded cheddar (if desired), for serving

In a large pot, heat oil over medium-low heat.  Add onion & bell peppers and saute until beginning to soften.  Add the garlic, chili powder & cumin, and cook for 2 minutes.
Add tomatoes & thyme.  Cook over medium heat ~10 minutes.  Add beans & corn and cook another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  If using fresh spinach: Remove pot from heat & stir in spinach.  If using frozen spinach: Add spinach to pot & stir; cook until heated through.
Add lemon juice and salt & pepper to taste.
Serve over rice & garnish with yogurt (or sour cream),  scallions (or chives), and shredded cheddar cheese, if desired.

Shit My Guy Says: The Chicken Edition

[While eating a rotisserie chicken for dinner]

My Guy: If you weren’t here, I would eat this entire chicken by myself.

Me: Oh my god, no you wouldn’t.

My Guy: Yes I would, and then I wouldn’t have to deal with the leftovers.

Me:  That’s terrible.  I’m so sad for you.

My Guy:  I wouldn’t be sad.  I would be King Chicken.

Do the Timewarp

In case you ever wondered where all of the clothing & haircuts from the 80’s went, they’re at Sam’s Club.  Bring your camera.

Not Another Soup

Well, it’s that time of year again: The time of the first frost, and then the first killing frost; the time of begrudgingly switching the thermostat over to ‘heat;’ the time of turning the bed into blanket-topia; the time of eating all of the Halloween candy before Halloween (and the time, obviously, of being a month behind on blog posts, and hey! Why don’t you check back at Christmas for the sausage stuffing recipe I was going to tell you about but didn’t); the time when my feet get cold and don’t fully warm up again until April (or until I wedge them in the crook of Andy’s legs while he’s sleeping, which he loves).

It’s the time of year when the first thing I do before getting out of bed each morning is put on a pair of wool socks; the time when I add another item to the list of things my dream home will have: heated floors.

This is probably my least favorite time of year: the sun is at a hurtful angle and the random scattering of bright, warm days seem to be just a taunting reminder of what we’re losing.  The seed catalogs have yet to arrive and so the most hopeful thing to look forward to is the winter solstice, that nadir of winter light.

Andy and I celebrated the first frost by harvesting all of the basil and tomatoes and making margherita pizza. We washed it down with full glasses of cheap red wine.

Around the time of the first frost we both got terrible colds; first Andy, and then me.  Around that time I started making lots of soup.  Soup for lunch!  Soup for dinner!  Soup mixed with rice & cheese & scrambled eggs & rolled into a tortilla for breakfast!

There was a lima bean soup, a barley & black-eyed pea soup, veggie chili, black bean soup, turkey sausage chili, and (twice!) a cauliflower daal thickened with split yellow peas and spiked with ginger and turmeric and cayenne.

One Sunday in the midst of the soup-capades, Andy asked what I was planning to make for dinner.  ”Well,” I said, “I was thinking about some kind of potato soup.”

And then the man who could eat some form of potato for every meal, forever, let out a pitiful, defeated groan.  ”Oh my god,” he said, “not another soup.”

Then there was some discussion about whether or not we were 80 (we were not) and living in a nursing home (didn’t think so), and then I did have to admit that maybe I had been overdoing it a little on the soups.  Not that they weren’t delicious, but. A little solid food doesn’t hurt to remind you, every now and then, that you are an adult human with teeth.

Inwardly I have been bemoaning the fall for what it brings: the end of sun-on-skin, the end of delicious, fresh things to eat.  But while I was holding a grudge against the season, shellfish arrived back on the menu, again on sale at the seafood counter nestled in beds of chipped ice.

First we had blue mussels, steamed simply in a large pot with a few glugs of white wine.  We served them with a side of rigatoni slicked in marinara sauce, fat and toothsome.  We ate the mussels with gusto, pulling them apart with our hands, slurping juice from the shells.

A couple of weeks later we made a poor-man’s paella: rice and onion, tomatoes & home-grown saffron, with mussels of course and more white wine, and several cloves of garlic.

Then in December there will be the moped club’s holiday oyster roast; we will make a fire in someone’s backyard, lay a piece of sheet metal over top, drop armloads of oysters onto it, and smother them with a wet towel that steams and sizzles where it touches metal.

Then we will stand around a tall table, waiting turns for an oyster knife, or, if you are me, waiting while one of the guys shucks them for us, watching as he works with a quiet, steady rhythm.

We will eat with our hands, dipping the oysters first into communal pots of melted butter, and then tabasco.  It will be cold and dark, and by the end of the night the melted butter will have congealed in its bowl; the sleeves of saltines will be sticky and damp, lost under shells and balled-up paper towels.

Last year someone brought a jug of maple-flavored whiskey; people drank out of mason jars and Andy fell asleep on the couch.  When I found him there were two dogs and a cat asleep on top of him.

Last year one of the girls punched another girl in the face.  There was some cursing and yelling and probably crying, and I think someone may have thrown a glass, and it was then I decided it was time to go home.

Andy was in a sorry state.  I had to take his boots off for him, or maybe he slept in them because I couldn’t get them off.  The next morning he was never–he swore–drinking maple whiskey again.  Nothing good seemed to come of it, for anybody, although the girls seemed to have forgotten about the fight by morning and were friends again.

This is the time of year when shellfish are the season’s small consolation: briny and unctious, with slight metallic undertones.  Small morsels that are worth the work & wait, and the time spent with friends standing over bowls of melted butter, getting hot sauce on your hands.

Lazy Man’s Paella
2 lbs blue mussels, rinsed & de-bearded, dead or broken ones discarded
1 onion, diced
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups rice, cooked according to package directions
3-4 tomatoes, the ripest you can find, diced
4-5 strands saffron
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2/3 cup dry white wine
~1/2 cup marinara sauce, if you have it
~1 Tablespoon butter
crushed red pepper, if desired
Salt & Pepper to taste

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the diced onion and cook, stirring, until softened.  Add the diced tomatoes, garlic, & saffron.  Cook until the tomatoes are soft and have released their juices.  Add the marinara sauce and white wine and stir.  Add the mussels and cover the pot with a lid.  Cook, stirring every few minutes, until all the mussel shells have opened.
Fold in the rice, adding a knob of butter and a dash of red pepper flakes if desired.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, and don’t get drunk and punch anybody in the face.

How You Look At It

Years from now, I may decide that the finest moment in my professional career was the day I told the sales guy he needed to make the other guy stop pooping in the ladies’ bathroom.

On the bright side, it worked (no more surprise floaters!)

The downside is the fact that this was a conversation that needed having.

But It Was Worth It

Let’s talk about drunk food for a minute, shall we?

Drunk food is a carb- and fat-bombed greasy mess; the kind of food you eat with your hands or out of a paper wrapper, usually deep-fried and smothered in cheese.  Drunk food is the kind of food you eat with gusto and without guilt because, after all, you are drunk.  Pizza is good drunk-food; salad is not.  French fries are a good drunk food, and cheese fries are an even better drunk food, and the best cheese fries in the world are at Linda’s in Chapel Hill.

Of course there are other places to go for drunk food in Chapel Hill.  There is Time Out, which reminds me of a gross version of K&W Cafeteria if K&W were open 24 hours a day, had a more limited selection, and was filled with about 1000 loud drunk people.  The one time I remember going to Time Out they were out of most everything and we had to resort to eating the dregs of the fried okra, which had been sitting on the hot bar so long that they had turned into dried-up, mean husks of themselves.

At Time Out we also saw a boy sitting at a table by himself and throwing up into his lap*.  This boy was decidedly NOT having good drunk-food times and my friend Jennifer, who is a better person than I, helped stand him up and walked him to the bathroom to clean up in spite of the fact that he was covered in vomit and weaving dangerously and had to lean his whole body against the wall for several minutes to keep from falling over.  (Obviously, Jennifer is the kind of person you want to have as your friend because if she will do that for a complete stranger, what wouldn’t she do for you?)

(Also? Pretty sure one of my friends told me that a homeless man once attempted to stab her with plastic cutlery at Time Out).

*I tell this story not as a cautionary tale that says “Don’t get drunk,” but a tale more along the lines of, “Don’t get that drunk.”

Drunk food can also be had at Cosmic Cantina, which serves up a good burrito, drunk or sober.  I’ve eaten plenty of their burritos over the years (most of them from the Durham location which, in my mind, seems better than the one in Chapel Hill), most of them while sober.  The only memorable moments I’ve had at Cosmic were the one time when I yelled at a girl who was letting all the cold air in (it was winter) by propping the door open, and the other time when my friends and I smoked some really bad* weed and then spent the next hour (two??) at Cosmic trying not to freak out.  I ordered a Chimichanga which I was only able to eat 2 bites of because I physically COULD NOT move my arms and so spent the rest of the evening feeling like the chimichanga was sliding off my lap (were we sitting on a couch??) and becoming increasingly more anxious that my plate was sliding off my lap, because if it fell off my lap I wouldn’t be able to pick it up, and then I would just be sitting there staring at a chimichanga on the floor and then EVERYONE WOULD KNOW that we were stoned and IT WOULD ALL BE OVER.

Also?  I couldn’t feel my legs.   The night went from bad to worse, however, when one of us spotted a police car parked outside the restaurant, and one of us (who I will not name as to not be incriminating but you know who you are, FRIEND) locked herself into the ladies bathroom for 45 minutes.  To this day, I have no idea what happened to that chimichanga, or how I managed to walk home without being able to feel my legs.**

*And I don’t mean ‘bad’ as in ‘good,’ I mean ‘bad’ as in: we gave the rest of it away to some hard-core potheads and even they didn’t want to smoke it more than once.

**I tell this story not as a cautionary tale  to say, “Don’t do drugs,” but maybe a tale more along the lines of, “Know your drug dealer.”

And then there is Linda’s, whose cheese fries are the crown jewel of UNC drunk food, the standard against which all other drunk food is measured, judged, and found wanting.

Joe Kwon (of the Avett Brothers) loves Linda’s cheese fries, which are so renowned they’ve earned themselves a spot on the UNC Bucket List.

Because these are not mere cheese fries as in fries+cheese=food.  No.  These are fries+cheese+bacon+scallions+peppercorn ranch dressing=AMAZINGNESS.

Let me put it this way: I lost a bet to my friend Ashley, and now I owe her Linda’s cheese fries.  Here are your cheese fries, Ashley: I did you a favor and ate them all.  You’re welcome. (Also? Maybe just go ahead and order me a bridesmaid’s dress one size UP).

You don’t have to be drunk to enjoy these cheese fries, and now you don’t even have to be in Chapel Hill because I got the inside scoop on how to make them.  My friend Daneen’s husband, it turns out, used to work in the kitchen at Linda’s and when I found this out the morning after their wedding I spent the next 20 minutes demanding that he give me ALL the details (which I’m sure was exactly what he wanted to talk about at a post-wedding brunch).  The downside is that now I have an image of him in my head crushing up (imaginary) strips of bacon with his bare hands, and it makes me feel rather uncomfortable on behalf of the bacon.  But it was worth it.

We indulged ourselves and made these for dinner one night because we’re adults, after all, and there are so few indulgences left to adults except perhaps chocolate cake and going to bed at 9 p.m. on a weeknight.

Linda’s Cheese Fries
1 bag (24 oz.) frozen crinkle-cut fries (can also substitute tater-tots)
1 8-oz. bag shredded cheddar-jack cheese
Parmesan peppercorn ranch dressing [I am having some debate amongst my friends whether this is Ken's Parmesan Peppercorn or Ken's Peppercorn Ranch, or another brand's Parmesan-Peppercorn-Ranch.  When I made it at home I used Ken's Peppercorn Ranch because it was on sale]
6 slices bacon, cooked, cooled and chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped (can substitute chives)

Spread fries evenly onto 2 baking sheets and bake according to package directions.

Divide half of the cooked fries onto 2 plates (1/4 of the fries on each plate).  Sprinkle each with some of the cheese (no exact measurements here, just what seems right to you).  Sprinkle each with 1/4 of the chopped bacon and drizzle with some of the dressing (or reserve the dressing and have it on the side).  Add another layer of fries, cheese, bacon, and dressing and top with the chopped onions.  If needed, slide the plates into the oven and turn on the broiler for a minute or two to melt the cheese.  Serve immediately, with additional dressing on the side and plenty of napkins.