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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thankful for Thanksgiving

The Halloween decorations came down, and the Christmas decorations went up. At least that’s what I discovered on recent trips to the local mall and big-box stores.

But what happened to Thanksgiving? What happened to the day we Americans once set aside to be thankful for the good things in our lives?

Each year Americans seem to begin the end-of-the-year holiday season a little earlier. It seems that life moves from the celebration of ghosts and goblins to the arrival of Santa Claus. Maybe it’s just me, but I miss Thanksgiving.

I’ve always enjoyed having one day to simply be with people I care about. As a child, we drove from the city to rural Middle Tennessee to spend the day at Grandma’s with a house full relatives. We ate. We talked. We played. We hiked. We laughed. We enjoyed good food and the warmth of Grandma’s old farmhouse. We were simply – thankful.

I drove down my street the morning after Halloween. Most houses still had pumpkins, hay bales, and scarecrows decorating their front porches. But further down the street I saw a neighbor had already installed a variety of Christmas yard decorations, lights, and ornaments. He stood on a ladder putting the finishing touches on a rooftop Santa and sleigh. I didn’t wave.

I turned on the radio and discovered the local oldies station would be playing Christmas and holiday music 24-7 for the next two months! Seriously? The leaves were still on the trees, flowers still bloomed in pots, and it was warm enough to ride with the car windows down. I wanted to scream! At this rate, I thought, I’ll be sick of Christmas before December arrives!

Last week I heard the term Black Thursday for the first time. Seriously? How greedy is that? Seems like retailers can’t wait even a day to separate consumers from their money.

And what about the people who must work on Black Thursday, who won’t get even one day of rest and time to be thankful before the holiday frenzy begins?

So this year, like last year, I’m staging a personal rebellion. We’re planning to celebrate Thanksgiving in a BIG way. Our house is decorated with pumpkins, turkeys, and lots of fall color. No decorated trees, no colored lights, no snowmen. Not yet.

I’ll spend time buying groceries, cleaning, setting out extra chairs, gathering serving pieces, and cooking. I’ll pull out recipes for Mom’s favorite cranberry salad, Sue’s sweet potatoes, Grandma’s pecan pie, and Dad’s favorite yeast rolls. Things may get a little hectic at times (Ever cooked a turkey with the giblet bag still inside?), but the effort will be SO worth it. For one day I’ll savor and enjoy a houseful of company. We’ll talk, laugh, and catch up with family members from other states.

But most of all, I’ll be thankful. Thankful for family and friends, thankful for little daily blessings, and thankful to live in a country where we enjoy so many freedoms.

Holiday shopping can wait. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Coffee Confessions

I have a confession to make.  I don’t like coffee.  I know, I know.  It is the nectar of the gods, the cure of all ills, and it smells like heaven itself.  Believe me I wish I liked coffee.  It is the culturally acceptable drink of adults.  I’d love to walk up to the barista and request something fancy like a Sumatra Dark Roast or Komodo Dragon Blend.  Instead I quietly creep up to the counter and ask for hot water and directions to the tea bags.  Or worse, a can of Dr. Pepper.

I have never developed a taste for coffee.  I want to drink it.  When my husband brews a cup of cappuccino I always ask for a sniff.  Its scent is so exquisite.  Rich and dark, it smells the way that chocolate tastes.  But every time I sample the lovely liquid, my tongue revolts, my jaws clench, and I have the urge to spit.  I just don’t like the taste.  Please, don’t hate me!  I’m already a coffee pariah.
And coffee houses are so much fun.  Deep comfy chairs for sipping and visiting.  Fun funky art that brightens the walls, and cozy nooks perfect for reading or writing the great American novel.  Who doesn’t love a good coffee house?  I can’t resist them.  Even on a recent road trip to Arkansas with my friend and coffee junkie, Jeanie Ransom, we had to stop at a coffee house or two.  We found a charming spot called Sweet Bay Coffee.  We wanted to stay all afternoon but we were already playing hooky from the conference and good girls that we are, we were afraid of “getting in trouble."  So we soaked up the atmosphere and vowed to spend an afternoon sipping and sniffing coffee closer to home.

Lucky for us there are several charming shops in the St. Charles area.  Jeanie works at Starbucks, which is a perennial favorite for coffee drinkers in the know.  She gives a class called coffee 101 where neophyte coffee drinkers can learn the difference between French roasts and Italian, or latte and cappuccino.  Starbucks even offers coffee tastings called a “cupping” where aficionados can learn to rate coffee on the basis of clarity, complexity, and balance or sweetness. 

I have a different way of rating coffee houses.  I look for charm, comfort and good food.  Three local independent coffee houses have made my list of delightful places to spend the afternoon.  The first is Crooked Tree Coffee at 559 First Capitol in Old St. Charles.  Housed in a 1800's storefront, the coffee shop has an original tin ceiling, a great choice of herbal teas, and really fabulous selection of wraps and sandwiches.  The mandarin orange chicken salad is guaranteed to make you smile.

I also love the St. Charles Coffee House at 3821 McClay Road.   It is housed in a modern building, but still has a comfy stay awhile vibe.  I have literally spent hours visiting with friends, solving the world's problems and not once have I been chased out.  So lovely to be able to sit and enjoy a cup of tea, sniff the coffee, and eat red velvet biscotti.

Back in old town St. Charles, coffee house addicts need to go to Picasso's at 101 North Main Street.  There is a perpetual art show covering the walls with works by local artists, great teas, coffees, and huge muffins!  Big chairs and quiet tables inside are perfect for writing, reading, and visiting.  When the weather is nice you can sit outside and spend a lovely hour people watching.

Coffee houses are a gift to our community.  The provide a gathering spot for friends, a venue for musicians and artists, and of course a serious cup of coffee for those with sophisticated taste buds.  As  for me, I will be forever a coffee wannabe.  But at least the coffee crowd lets me hang out at their wonderful stores.  Thank you coffee shop owners of the world.  You make me happy!

And readers - please let me know about your favorite coffee shop.  I'm always looking for a new adventure.

 Check out these great coffee shops on line:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pimento Cheese, Please

It's happened again. Another traditionally Southern concoction has made it to the big time as a trendy in-vogue food.

In recent years, foodies throughout the country discovered and exclaimed over Southern specialities like chicken and waffles, and shrimp with grits. Now those in the know are singing the praises of pimento cheese.

Bon Appetit magazine listed pimento cheese as one of 2011's food trends. Food Network star and Southern cook Paula Deen is circulating a recipe for Hot & Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip. Its ingredients include Vidalia onion, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and hot pepper sauce. Country Living magazine this summer printed a recipe for pimento cheese deviled eggs.

Pimento cheese has been discussed on NPR radio and various food blogs. And in our American culture that loves all things fried, it's even been fried and served on a sandwich! A recent cookbook release included a recipe for Pimiento Cheese Soup. And the subject of a recent master's thesis was, yes, pimento cheese. Pimento cheese also receives a bit of national exposure each year during The Master's Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Pimento cheese sandwiches are a popular choice during the week of the tournament.

Who knew this simple staple from my southern childhood would one day become such a taste sensation?

Pimientos are heart-shaped red peppers that measure about four inches long. They're sweeter than red bell peppers and were once an expensive imported delicacy.

Pimento cheese began appearing in the U.S. about 100 years ago, filling tiny sandwiches enjoyed at ladies' tea parties. Southern farmers began growing the peppers, which made them more affordable, and then J.L. Kraft introduced processed cheese to consumers. Soon pimento cheese sandwiches were a staple lunch item of textile workers in the Carolinas. The popularity of pimento cheese as an affordable sandwich filling soon spread throughout the South.

In 1933, Moody Dunbar, Inc., a family business operating out of Johnson City, Tennessee, began canning and distributing pimientos in the United States. Today the company is the large produced of pimientos and proudly uses only American-grown peppers. Several generations of my family have used Moody Dunbar, Inc., pimientos packed in small glass jars.

Growing up, the two choices for sandwiches with the elementary-school lunchbox crowd were peanut butter and jelly or pimento cheese. Both were sered on white bread, with or without the crusts (depending on whether Mom took the time to cut them off that day). These sandwich ingredients were nutritious and filling -- and a lot more economical than lunch meats or tuna salad. At least that's what our moms said, and they made our lunches.

The pimento cheese on my sandwiches came from a small container labeled, "Mrs. Grissom's Salads." Mrs. Grissom and her husband owned a company in my hometown (Nashville, Tennessee) that made sandwich spreads -- convenience foods, if you will. Now in her 90s, Mrs. Grissom still heads the company.

Our refrigerator always held a container of Mrs. G's pimento cheese. And if unexpected guests dropped by for dinner, Mom filled celery sticks with pimento cheese for a quick and tasty appetizer.

One day I was visiting my grandma when lunchtime rolled around. She offered me a sandwich -- peasut butter and sugar sprinkles or pimento cheese. I picked pimento cheese, but wasn't prepared for what hit my taste buds.

Mrs. Grissom's pimento cheese has "substance." The consistency is not too thick, but not thin and runny either. I bit into Grandma's crustless sandwich -- and stopped. This wasn't Mrs. G's pimento cheese! It was smooth and creamy and the pimentos weren't tiny precision-cut pieces. These pimentos looked like pieces of, well, peppers. I didn't like peppers of any color,a nd at that time I didn't realize pimentos are a type of pepper.

I didn't want to hurt Grandma's feelings, but this stuff wasn't what I thought I was getting. Its rich creaminess made me feel full in a hurry. I said nothing and choked down the sandwich with a glass of milk.

A few years passed. Grandma came to live with us, and with her came enough recipes to fill a cookbook -- all in her head. One day I came home from school to find Grandma in the kitchen with a mixing bowl, a cheese grater, and an old wooden spoon. She mixed these red things into some grated cheese, and then added whole milk and some seasoning.

"Taste this for me," she said.

I got a spoon and dipped out a bite. Hmmm, delicious! The consistency was rich and creamy with a twangy flavor my childish taste buds couldn't identify. Funny, but this was much better than I remembered. I developed a taste for both store-bought and homemade pimento cheese that day!

Many traditional pimento cheese recipes call for just a few ingredients -- grated sharp cheese, mayonnaise or whole milk, chopped pimentos, and seasonings. Other recipes suggest variations and add-in ingredients including green chilies, pickled jalapenos, Monterey Jack cheese, smoked cheddar, crumbled bacon, garlic, and dill pickles. Pimento cheese also can be found these days as a topper for hot dogs and hamburgers.

Whipping up a batch of pimento cheese can be as easy as turning on a food processor, but I prefer to make mine the old fashioned way like Grandma did -- grating the cheese on a metal grater and stirring together the ingredients with a spatula. The consistency is thick and chunky, but oh-so delicious! My daughter enjoys it as a dip with Fritos Scoops, and it's also good on Ritz crackers. Here's our favorite recipe:

Pimento Cheese
1 cup real mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Juice from 1/4 lemon
8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
8 ounces Colby-Jack Cheese, grated
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimientos, drained
Dash seasoning salt
Dash pepper

In a medium mixing bowl and using a spatula, combine the first five ingredients until well mixed. Add the cheeses and pimientos, gently combining until thoroughly mixed. Add seasoning salt and pepper to taste. Keep refrigerated. Enjoy!