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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dear You: Remember Me?

The envelope taunts me.

Sealed in the stationery of my high school, it is labeled with my name in the cheerfully decorative script of my 17-year-old self and marked “To be opened in 2010.” Inside is a letter, a time capsule of sorts, from my senior year creative writing class. The assignment: write a note for yourself to read in 16 years. I can’t imagine what I put inside. I’m not sure I want to find out.

The letter stayed inside a drawer at my mother’s home for years until I removed it over Christmas of 2009, placing it inside another drawer in my own home. I decided I would open it on my 34th birthday in early September. With the deadline set, I started feeling anxious, wondering if I’ve lived up to my own expectations.

It reminds me of a country song called “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley. The singer imagines sending a letter back in time to himself in high school, assuring his teenage incarnation that he will survive getting dumped by his girlfriend, almost failing algebra and being grounded on a Friday night. “Have no fear,” he sings, “these are nowhere near the best years of your life.”

Amen to that. Life has certainly gotten better since high school – at least for some of us. But I’m anxious about introducing the 1994 me to the 2010 me, afraid I might be disappointed in myself. Sixteen years ago, I was a classic high school overachiever – valedictorian of my class, most likely to succeed, with a long list of extracurricular achievements that got me into an elite college. I was and still am a perfectionist. So, I’m pretty sure the letter includes a checklist of things I dreamed of doing by my mid-30s: publishing a bestseller, hosting a national morning show, marrying a man who was smart, kind and handsome. But the loudest critical voice I hear has always been my own. Opening the envelope feels like hosting my own awards show, where a drum roll announces the winner is – well, not me.

Despite the disappointment, I certainly don’t consider myself a failure. I have a good job, speak two foreign languages, own a condo in a nice neighborhood, and live in a city I love. A strong network of friends makes me feel connected and supported, and I think I make a meaningful difference with my volunteer work. In the past year alone, I traveled to South America, the Middle East and Asia. After ages of good intentions, I am finally making progress with my writing: I was published in the local paper, started a blog and joined a club of fellow writers.

And yet, I drive a 10-year-old Honda, never went to graduate school, and still need to monitor the balance of my checking account. Then there is “the big one” – that I am about to turn 34, single and childless, with no sign either of those will be changing in the immediate future. Although I can count a bevy of blessings in my full life – and while I’m increasingly unsure that being a mom and a wife is my destiny – it’s weird to find life not turning out as you thought it would. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my life, just that it’s not exactly what I expected.

In some sense, I know everyone feels a little bit like I do. We find ourselves in the grocery store buying an economy pack of toilet paper and think, “Wait, is this it? This is me as a grown-up?” My globe-trotting adventures are eagerly followed by friends whose days are filled with sippy cups and potty training. “I’m a 35-year-old divorced, single mom with no prospects – not what I imagined either,” wrote one friend as I shared my anxiety about my approaching birthday. “Where’s the handsome and fun husband I’ve dreamed of since I was little?” she joked.

So, I suppose part of me has turned opening the letter into admitting defeat, that my passionate “I can do anything” mindset is a thing of the past, that I am now firmly in my mid-30s with less to show for myself – personally or professionally – than I might have dreamed as a teenager.

I think I’ll opt out of that interpretation.

Instead, the truth I choose is this: The girl who wrote that letter is not some stranger or some wicked enemy who wants to show me how I’ve failed. She’s me. She’s still here. She is – as hokey as it sounds – that same spunky spirit that spurred me on to achieve in high school, that same itch that makes me want to do more, be more today. She is the person who has spent the past 16 years following her dreams to some amazing adventures – in Alabama, in Brazil, in London, and in my own hometown.

Instead of worrying so much about what the letter shows I haven’t done, perhaps I should be more excited about what I still have left to do. Maybe opening the letter can mean inspiration, not confrontation.

Because it’s true I haven’t done everything I thought I would – at least not yet. I’ve been too busy doing things my teenage self never even imagined.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Barbecue Roasted Halibut

I have a new roomie! That is, for three weeks. Leigh Ann is living with me until she moves into her new digs. So, tonight we kicked off our sisterly bonding with a yummy, healthy meal (well, at least IMHO -- you can ask LA for her thoughts!).

And, to make it even better, we are watching our new favorite show, Bachelor Pad. This TV show is a clear demonstration of the virtues of having a roommate -- it is much more fun to watch with a giggle buddy.

Tonight's menu was barbecue roasted halibut, sauteed rainbow chard and quinoa.

The fish recipe was one from Cooking Light that I've had in my files forever. It calls for salmon, but since LA only likes wild-caught salmon, and they were out of that at Earth Fare, I had to adjust. Let me just note this halibut was $22 a pound, so it should have been good! Anyway, I think this is an awesome dish to make on a weeknight. I marinated it while I went for a jog and threw it all together fairly quickly when I got back.

Barbecue roasted salmon
1/4 cup pineapple juice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 (6-oz) salmon (I used halibut) fillets
2 tablespoons brown sugar
4 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Cooking spray
Lemon slices (optional)

1. Combine first three ingredients in zip-top plastic bag, seal and marinate in refrigerator one hour, turning occasionally.
2. Preheat oven to 400.
3. Remove fish from bag; discard marinade. Combine sugar and next five ingredients (sugar through cinnamon) in a bowl. Rub over fish; place in an 11 x 7 baking dish coated with cooking spray. Bake at 400 for 12 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Serve with lemon slices, if desired. Yield: Four servings.
The best thing about my new roommate is she helps me do the dishes!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Field Trip: Fish Camp

Continuing the Tar Heel 25 theme, this week I wanted to experience a "fish camp." I was pretty sure it would be little different than good ol' Country Boys at Lake Talquin -- a staple of childhood weekends at my grandmother's lake house. But I do love an off-the-beaten-path outing, and the paper had an inviting description:

Down-home fried-fish restaurants called fish camps used to dot river towns throughout the South. Get a taste of the tradition at Twin Tops Fish Camp in Belmont. Skip the seafood and go with a plateful of salt-and-pepper catfish. The crunchy crust is dusky with black pepper and covers sweet, white flesh underneath. Save some change to blow in the incredible candy store.

My friend Ty is a Mississippi native who gets a little homesick for catfish country, so we rounded up some friends and made it a Friday night field trip.

I loved it as soon as we got there -- despite the bright fluorescent lighting, it oozes character, with fishing paraphernalia mounted on the baby blue walls and a colorful menu dotted with advertisements for local businesses. Tiny Tim's Tree & Stump offers diners a bevvy of arboreal options, under the clever slogan "Give Us A Hoot, We'll Remove Your Root." Our enormous booth came complete with a gumball machine.

The wait staff couldn't have been any friendlier. "How are the scallops?" Alexis asked as we pondered the menu.

"Honey, I've never eaten one in my life," our waitress confessed. When I asked which was better, the catfish fillets or the whole bone-in fish, she swore by the latter and brought us a generous plate of both to sample. I agree the bone-in option is indeed more flavorful, but I'm not sure it outweighs the additional effort.

The salad bar was a pleasant surprise. We found both iceburg and mixed greens, a fantastic mix of fresh vegetables (including finely chopped broccoli -- more salad bars need to adopt this approach) generous chunks of freshly fried bacon, blue cheese and even -- surprisingly -- craisins! It was an unexpected delight.

The portions were enormous. Ty and Randy both got a full order of catfish fillets, and they each needed a go box for leftovers. 

Alexis had the salmon -- pretty sure the waitress had never seen anyone order that before either -- and Rebecca got the tiniest fried shrimp I'd ever seen.
Overall, it was tasty and a fun way to spend a Friday night. I was a little sad to see that cheese grits were not on the menu, but the french fries and hushpuppies were both delicious. I honestly may have eaten more hushpuppies than catfish.

The cash register is located inside the candy store, with a number of treats I hadn't seen since the 80s. Unfortunately, based on the amount of time and effort it took to remove the label from my Blow-Pop, I think some of the inventory might have been there since the 80s.

Snaps to my fun friends for being willing to get out of the city for the evening and try something different.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Field Trip: Bradford Store

My friend Anne is a loyal newspaper reader like I am, so we were both excited when the Observer published a list of The Tar Heel 25 in June. It's a compilation of "must-eat" experiences from across the state.

We made a day trip to Davidson on Saturday to eat lunch at the Soda Shop (another fun outing; I had the egg salad sandwich and a cherry limeade, and Anne had the chicken salad sandwich and a limeade). Then we took the back roads through Huntersville to the Bradford Store, #19 on the list.
Here's how they described it:
You know those fake country stores designed to pull in tourists? Bradford Store isn't one of them. It's the real thing, right down to the woodstove. Even more real: owner Kim Bradford's dedication to local products. Pull up a rocker, open a Mooresville-made Uncle Scott's Root Beer from the cooler and sit a spell to think about that.

As soon as we pulled up and saw the field of wildflowers out front, I knew I was going to like this place. I bought fresh goat cheese (regular and pepper-rolled), a big bag of yellow grits for $3, and three dozen garlic-cheese biscuits. I can't remember the name, but they sell them at the Yorkmount Farmers' Market, and they are to die for. I was jazzed! (Neil and Nate, I was so sad I didn't have these for our country lunch in time I will plan ahead.)

The other highlight of the day was buying the super-fun pink and orange bag you see in the picture. I got it in Davidson at a great little gift shop and can't wait to use it to bring my lunch to work. Just because you're not going back to school doesn't mean you don't need a back to school lunchbox!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sneak Preview: Eat, Pray, Love

There is a lot to be said for having low expectations. Which is more apt to delight you, an out-of-the way eatery you happen upon, or a blockbuster celebrity chef’s restaurant with a four-month wait for a reservation? Discovering something new – and unexpected – can be magical.

And that’s the challenge of the film Eat, Pray, Love. For some of us, the book was a life-changer, the best thing we read all summer, a new fixture on our list of favorite reads. We dog-eared favorite pages and underlined poignant passages as we savored each taste of Italy, meditated our way through India and found our heart’s desire in Indonesia. If you count yourself in this category, admit it would be hard for any movie to impress you – even a gorgeously filmed one, with Julia Roberts in luminescent glory, hot Javier Bardem with a sexy Brazilian accent, fabulous scenery and food so lovely you want to lick it off the screen.

I can’t imagine a more faithful adaptation of the story. On its own merits, it’s practically cinematic perfection – great lighting, cool close-ups, music that casts each moment’s mood. The screenplay is loyal to the book, with the right number of Roberts’ voice-overs of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best phrases. But on the page you can marvel at good writing. In a film, beautiful words wash away. And while I relished the discovery of Gilbert’s adventure on the page, here I knew exactly where we were headed. Instead of wondering what would happen next, I wondered who would play the sage Texan at the ashram, how the filmmakers would handle the house escapade in Bali, whether Julia’s impossibly plump top lip had been Botoxed.

Those who detested the book probably won’t find much to change their minds. The naysayers I know find Gilbert whiny and self-indulgent. Even I will admit the setup to the journey in the film felt a bit thin. But the proposition of the book is pretty clear: it’s about one woman’s mid-life search for meaning in three different countries. It's about being in your 30s with a life that appears so full – yet feels so empty – and taking a global adventure to change it. If that doesn't appeal to you, the book and movie probably won't either.

My best bet for fans of this movie: those who meant to read the book but never did. Perhaps seeing it on the screen will inspire them to read the real thing. And if you adored the book like I did? See it. You have to. Then go home, pull it off your bookshelf and remind yourself why you loved it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Corn salad

I have two goals with my cooking:

1. Waste less: Use what I have on hand. Don't buy special ingredients for one recipe. 2. Be more inventive and less reliant on recipes.

I accomplished both of those with my Friday lunch. Once again, I over-bought at the grocery store last weekend, so I found myself at the end of the week with a number of fresh items that needed to be used immediately.

This corn, tomato, red onion, haricort vert (tiny French green beans) and cilantro salad was the result. I cubed some remaining fresh mozzarella (left over from making bread salad on Sunday -- still savoring how fabulous that was!). Drizzled it with olive oil, squeezed a few fresh limes and sprinkled it with salt and pepper.

Shared it with my friend Dee. So nice to have something fresh, healthy and tasty! 

Friday, August 6, 2010

"Review" of Terra Restaurant

I had a fun adventure last night. A new neighborhood publication called Myers Park Life recently debuted in residents' mailboxes. It's a mix of ads and articles, and it turns out the area director is from Tallahassee and graduated from Lincoln High School a year after I graduated from Munroe.

He invited me to join him for dinner at Terra on Providence Road so I could write a review for the publication. My first chance for a restaurant review! I was in -- though I think this assignment is actually more in the spirit of what PR professionals like to call "advertorial."

We had a great time. The owner is delightful, the food was scrumptious, and everyone made us feel so welcome. I will definitely return! Entrees range from $20 to $32, with specials at market price. My article will be published in the magazine's September issue.

Fun food, comfortable environment, perfect location

Neighborhood bistro offers a piece of Paris on Providence Road

Offering quality food in a casual, “right next door” setting, Thierry Garconnet’s life has taken him from France and Italy to Charlotte. He opened his restaurant Terra about four years ago, the culmination of his experience working in every facet of the restaurant industry and the realization of his dream to create innovative dining in a comfortable atmosphere.

Garconnet constantly uses the word “fun” to describe what he and chef Gil McKnight aim to do with their menu. Listening to the two of them talk about their culinary creations is like listening to two little boys who still love to play with their food. Although the dishes are heavily French-inspired, McKnight relishes the freedom of not being restricted to any one cuisine. His own Southern roots blend with Garconnet’s French background in an appetizer of frog legs breaded and fried, topped with a Buffalo wing-inspired sauce and finished with a blue cheese mousse. Another first course is a pure homage to France: escargots sauteed with garlic and shallots, flavored with a hint of Pernod and served in a puff pastry.

“We like to take a little bit of everything and make it our own,” McKnight explains. In the competitive Charlotte restaurant scene, “you only get one chance to impress someone. You’ve got to be on the top of your game, use quality products, or you’re not going to survive.”

Most of the menu changes seasonally, but McKnight loves the creative challenge of his daily specials, driven by what’s fresh and available. One recent evening featured an amberjack fillet pan-seared and topped Oscar-style, with fresh crab meat, white asparagus and a tarragon hollandaise sauce. That night’s risotto was made with mushroom and chives, covered with a panko-encrusted duck breast, a truffle cream sauce and a Parmesan crisp. He loves ultra-seasonal ingredients with limited availability, like soft-shell crab, ivory salmon, wild salmon and sablefish.

For those who favor simpler fare, the iron skillet beef tenderloin with frittes is a popular and ever-present option, though diners might find a beurre rouge sauce one night and a bearnaise sauce another. Veal ravioli or scallopini, a duck duo and herb-crusted lamb chops round out the summer menu, which will transition to fall flavors in mid-September. Both McKnight and Garconnet understand the importance of offering vegetarian options, including a daily vegetable plate that celebrates the colors, textures and varied flavors of the season.

All of the pastries are made in house, “from the crust to the coulis.” McKnight works with his saute chef and pantry chef to brainstorm new creations, beautifully presented and perfectly sized. That might mean a lemon-lime pot de creme topped with mango coulis or a dark chocolate mousse with pastry cream and candied walnuts.

The wait staff plays a key part in creating the comfortable atmosphere; servers Scott Allen and Mark Heaton are friendly but professional, knowledgeable about wine and familiar with the menu. Heaton loves introducing customers to something new, like an Italian nero d’avola he says most diners mistake for a pinot noir.

Garconnet’s career in Charlotte started in the late 80s when a friend opened a French restaurant called Cafe des Artistes in what is now the Gateway area uptown. He admits it can be a challenge to run a small, local restaurant in a town dominated by super-sized chains and steakhouses. But he’s found a niche in a neighborhood where he can appeal to everyone from Manor Theatre moviegoers to executives on expense accounts. And he loves the familiarity of Myers Park, where regulars stop in while passing by to ask what’s for dinner. To him, it’s a bit of the flavor you get in a Paris bistro: the intimacy of knowing your customers, remembering their favorite dishes, building friendships over food.
“This neighborhood is alive,” says Garconnet. “It has a good palate.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ski school

Somehow, despite the fact I grew up in Florida, with a family lake house a mere 20 minutes away, I never learned how to water ski. I got it into my head at an early age that I was completely uncoordinated. I was basically too afraid to try anything athletic because I would be so bad at it.

So, here's proof you can in fact teach an almost 34-year-old dog a new trick!

My friend Steve from Memphis knew I wanted to learn how to ski...he patiently pulled me FORTY-THREE TIMES at his house on Pickwick Lake five or six years ago. I finally got up briefly on Sunday, just before it was time to head home.

Leigh Ann and I both wanted to give it another go, so Steve very generously offered to help us learn -- and to make it especially convenient, he sent his plane over to pick us up!

He'd instructed us to practice our stance "knees bent, arms straight," so we took advantage of the flight time to get our moves down. (Leigh Ann played flight attendant with wine service -- ater all it was Friday afternoon!)

Saturday morning, we hit the lake, with Steve's son Logan, Logan's girlfriend Casey, and colleague of Steve's who also wanted to learn.
Steve couldn't have been any more patient with us. He spent all day Saturday burning gas and coaching a bunch of newbies.

I made it out of the water and even managed to cross the wake! Even though snow skiing and water skiing are quite different, I think my trip to Whistler a few years ago helped because I felt like I had pretty good control once I got up. Steve said I had graduated from Ski School 101 by the end of the weekend. My next goal is to get back across the wake -- this apparently requires more skill. To do: find patient friends with a boat in Charlotte.
Captain Darren got us back to Charlotte safely. Not sure I would call myself a skier yet, but I'm getting there!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pizza...or something like it

I was so inspired by the fig, arugula, blue cheese and proscuitto pizza I had at Vivace recently, I wanted to imitate it. Not one of my better creations, but this is the nice thing about being single -- no one is around to complain or raise eyebrows when you serve up some random concotion for a weeknight supper.

When in Lebanon, I went a little nutty in the Cedar Reserve and bought a number of preserved fruits and jellies. One was a fig jam with sesame seeds. I spread that on some of the frozen Lebanese bread I bought at Cedarland grocery last week (when my cool friend Whitney made the tastiest lamb meatballs in a tahini sauce over basmati rice -- my contribution was yogurt (lebaneh) and a bottle of Lebanese wine).

This was the pizza before it went in the is really amazing how fabulous arugula is on pizza, and you can put it on either before or after you bake it, whatever floats your boat.

(No proscuitto on hand. Sadness.)

It was OK, and I ate it, but if I made it again, I would cook it at a lower temperature -- 400 made the pita too crispy. (Yes, I should have known this would be the case with thin bread that was already cooked. Whatever.) Another key ingredient missing from Vivace -- in addition to the proscuitto -- was the limoncello mojito I had at the restaurant. Perhaps THAT was why I enjoyed my pizza so much!

When Ants Attack

You may recall a few weeks ago I posted about the ant invasion underway in my kitchen. I was eager to resolve it with a natural remedy -- no chemicals or scary insecticides.

So much for that.

My sister and I joke that her nickname is "Eweodda." This is pronounced "You Oughta." As in "You oughta get Harold to get started on your bathroom while I'm out of town and you can stay at my house." "You oughta put that tax refund in your Roth IRA." "You oughta ask Mark to come over and fix your faucet while you have that banana pudding you could feed him."
Naturally, Eweodda had an ant remedy. I resisted at first, determined not to resort to scary insect killers. My ant problem seemed to be getting better slowly but surely. Nevertheless, in typical Eweodda fashion, she dropped off her box of Terro and knew I would eventually come around.
I put out the bait and returned a few hours later. I could have watched the ants all night. The aspect I found most fascinating was the "follow the herd" instinct. One of the Terro blobs was absolutely surrounded by ants, so I put drops on a few more pieces of cardboard. The ants just kept going to the same crowded spots. I know this is documented ant behavior, but I couldn't help thinking of "Who Moved My Cheese." It's a hokey comparison, but it's just like the way we as humans continue to follow the established path to scarcity even when there are more abundant options out there -- if only we'd venture off the traveled road.

The ants were gone within 24 hours. Terro rocks. Eweodda knows best!

Grilling with Rachel Ray and Bobby Flay

Tonight I had dinner with my friends Rachel and Bobby. You know you have to really love two people to miss watching the Bachelorette finale because you'd rather catch up with them! I only wanted to see whether Allie picked Roberto or Chris anyway (who else was surprised? And yay, that cranky Reality Steve was wrong for a change!).

We divided and conquered on dinner, and Rachel made a spinach artichoke dip from her Bethany "Real Housewives" cookbook. She said it had spinach, artichokes, ricotta and cream cheese -- it was really tasty and apparently had a high veggie-to-fat ratio, so I don't think it's as calorie-laden as most of those recipes.

I got some super-thick enormous pork chops and rubbed them with my FAVORITE spice mix. Go to and search for "Pork Chop Willie's Grilling Rub." You can thank me later. Bobby grilled them to perfection -- be sure to get bone-in chops with some fat on them so they cook up nice and moist. I put on the rub before I go to work so it has a good eight hours to develop the flavor.

The side was also an Epicurious recipe, Quinoa and Black Bean Salad (pronounced keen-wah -- it's a South American grain that is high in protein; it's so nutrient-rich it's considered a super food). I left out the corn in the salad because we meant to roast some fresh corn...but we got too sidetracked with our wine and grilling, so we just nuked some frozen corn 'cause we were hungry by then.

For dessert, we toasted a bakery angel food cake (this was all inspired by Mark Bittman's recent article on unconventional grilling in the NYT -- too lazy to go back outside with the grill, so we just used the broiler). We brushed peach halves with Malibu Rum (I think Frangelico or Amaretto would also be yummy) and broiled them until they were brown and bubbly. Then we topped the warm peaches with some mock ice cream from a recipe in last week's Charlotte Observer. The theme was ice creams you can make without a churn. I have a churn but was curious anyway. You melt a scant 2/3 cups white chocolate chips in a can of sweetened condensed milk, then stir in 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a teaspoon of vanilla. Then you whip two cups of whipping cream and fold it into the mix. Freeze eight hours or until firm. Yummers!