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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dinner at Restaurant G

During our weekend trip to Blowing Rock, the owner of the condo provided a helpful list of restaurant suggestions. When I saw the Gideon Ridge Inn was recommended for dinner because of its "fabulous view," I knew it would be right up Mom's alley. Oh, my. We were all charmed upon arrival. It's a bit like a miniature Grove Park Inn, where the innkeeper knows your name and suggests you enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail on the terrace, complete with fleece blankets to block the chill.

It was about two weeks past the peak of the fall leaves, but there was still enough color to impress us Florida girls.
We even made a few new friends. This couple was from Charlotte, was staying in our condo complex, had visited our church, and her dad was from Monticello, Fla.!
As we moved into the dining room for dinner, Leigh Ann whispered, "Lynsley, did you check the prices when you made the reservation?"

"Um, no, why? Is it bad? What, are the entrees all in the $40s?" I whispered back.

"Yep, and the $50s. Fortunately for you and Mom, I am feeling generous tonight!"

It certainly is nice to have a successful sister who doesn't mind subsidizing her relatives! "We make a good team," I told her. "I pick 'em, you pay 'em!" She just laughed.
We settled into our table, with another lovely view of the mountains. It turned out there were two prices on the menu: a la carte entrees, which ranged from $34 to $45 and a prix fixe four-course option from $46 to $57 (depending on the selected entree). Naturally we went with the prix fixe, since Sister was treating!

We all started with the fall sweet corn and apple soup, which was absolutely scrumptious. I wanted to lick my bowl but had to settle for a few swipes of bread when no one was looking.
For the next course, Mom and Leigh Ann had the local baby greens with spicy walnuts, proscuitto, local goat cheese, heirloom apple and balsamic vinaigrette. I had the foie gras with Yukon potato, heirloom apple, balsamic syrup, micro salad and butternut pickles. It was divine. I marveled over how tasty it was with every bite.

Mom had the N.C. coast red grouper with spaghetti squash, brussels, fava beans, herb cream and basil salad. She loved it until she detected a flavor she didn't care for toward the end. I reminded her she does not particularly care for basil, but she assured us it was something else.
Leigh Ann had the Piedmontese (not sure what this means? I assume "from the Piedmont" or perhaps it is the name of a farm?) strip loin with smoked bacon and bleu cheese pudding, white bean and asparagus hash, and arugula salad. It was excellent. I proclaimed it a unique combination of "sweet, savory and smoky notes," and of course Leigh Ann and Mom just laughed at me. But it was!
I ordered the braised short ribs, at the recommendation of our waiter, Andrew, who told me they were slowly cooked for nine hours. They were served with lentil and truffle cake, roasted green tomato, pan-fried plantains and "natural jus." (I think they call that pot likker where I'm from?) 
It was very, very tasty, but short ribs are just a fancy word for pot roast. I enjoyed every bite, but if I had it to do again, I might order the duck breast (served with potato and parsnip rossti (another new word), braised local greens, red rosie salad (again, not sure what 'tis) and port demi. I could have saved my sister $10!

Dessert was a sampler of three petite portions of a white chocolate sweet potato pie, chocolate bread pudding (he called it "Oxtail" bread pudding -- apparently that is a name-brand chocolate? Must investigate), and an apple puff pastry. I didn't think Restaurant G could do anything else to win our hearts, but a dessert sampler was the finishing touch on an absolutely perfect meal. On their way out, our new friends made reservations to stay there next year during peak weekend. Would love to do the same! Sister better start saving up...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cheering the Pink Parade

It was one of those serendipitous moments that makes life special.

Driving back from my Saturday bagel run and paper read on this cool fall morning, the sidewalk along Queens Road West was a sea of various forms of pink. Pink tutus, pink sun visors, pink t-shirts, pink hair, scattered among walkers of all shapes and sizes. It was the annual Avon Breast Cancer Walk, which happens in various cities across the nation, including Charlotte.

"I wish I'd realized it was this weekend so I could have stood on the street and cheered," I thought. And then: "Why can't I?"

Rushing into my condo a few blocks from the route, I grabbed the purple wig, rainbow boa and pink Ray-Bans I'd worn to cheer my sister through last year's Chicago marathon. Pulling on my purple velour gloves, I staked out a spot on a hill at the intersection of Queens Road West and Selwyn.

"I love this pink!" I clapped and screamed as each group started through the crosswalk. "Thank you for walking! You guys look awesome!"

"Thank you for being out here! We love your purple!" they'd usually respond. Some stopped to take my picture, telling me they were from Maryland, D.C., Georgia, New York or just nearby Huntersville. They were about seven miles into their 26.2-mile route, with another 13 miles to walk tomorrow.

"You're walking for my mom!" I'd yell. "She's a survivor."

I must have said it two dozen or more times, and it surprised me how emotional I felt every time I uttered the words. It's been about fifteen years since Mom first had breast cancer, twelve since her second bout. But somehow seeing people doing breast cancer walks hits me deeper each October. Maybe it's because I've now had several booby-flattening exams of my own (most insurers let you start having mammograms when you're 10 years younger than your mom was when she was diagnosed). I hear of women my own age getting breast cancer, and I realize how young my mother (and my friends' mothers) were when they went through treatment.

One woman proudly told me it was her fifth year walking the event, and she likes Charlotte's route the best. "Did you hear how much Charlotte raised?" she yelled over her shoulder. "$3.2 million!"

"That's awesome!" I hollered back. "I knew my mom would be proud of me if I got out here and cheered."

"You tell her we're walking for her. And we're walking so you don't have to."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Corn and Roasted Red Pepper Chowder

I have started a "soup swap" with a few colleagues at work. We are taking turns making soups and bringing them in to share. We're just getting started, so we'll see if it lasts, but hopefully we'll get in at least one good round.

Abby got us started last week with a spicy Thai soup that had a coconut broth, lemongrass and shrimp. This week I decided to make Corn and Roasted Red Pepper Chowder from Foster's Market in Durham.
Here are my containers stacked in the fridge, and if you look closely, you can see my secret ingredient. The recipe calls for sauteeing onion, leeks and celery in butter.

However, since I had bacon fat remaining from my mac 'n' cheese, I decided to use that instead. It may look a little grody when it cools and sits on top, but it is delicioso. (I had a bowl and a half on Sunday night after I made it.)

The cookbook notes you can make all sorts of tweaks and substitutions to this -- add shrimp or crab, use another kind of peppers, etc. I may try it again with sweet potatoes.

Mid-week Update: Everyone who has eaten this soup has asked for the recipe. It's a hit!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mac 'n' Cheese for Drew

My friend Meghan and her boyfriend Drew visited Charlotte this weekend. Drew surprised Meghan by getting us tickets to see Chelsea Handler for a girls' night out. So, I wanted to make something extra yummy for him.

I gave Drew four choices over e-mail: (a) Mac 'n' Cheese (b) Creamed Corn (c) Roasted Sweet Potato Salad (d) Banana Pudding. He was QUITE excited about option A. When I asked if it would be okay if I made a variation on the classic recipe, one which would include roasted garlic, bacon and shallots, he was even more excited.

This recipe was called the "Best Mac 'n' Cheese Ever" when it won a Good Morning America contest judged by Emeril in 2008. I clipped it from the local paper, which published it because the winner was Charlotte's Laura Macek.

You can click through and read the full recipe for yourself. I roasted the garlic in the morning to save time. Then I fried the bacon (I used almost the whole pound instead of just the half-pound the recipe calls need to skimp on bacon!).
The bacon gets mixed with breadcrumbs, 1/2 cup of Parmesan and butter to make the topping. Next I sauteed shallots in a little bacon fat, added butter and made a white sauce to which I added the roasted garlic paste.

I decided to use macaroni noodles instead of the cavatappi the recipe called for, in order to make it little more like real mac 'n' cheese.
I mixed shredded Gruyere and extra-sharp cheddar into the white sauce and blended it all, tossed in the pasta and sprinkled on the topping. Then I forgot to take a picture of the finished product...until I brought the leftovers home.
There wasn't much left! It was a hit, and a great complement to the kick-ass ribs that Meghan and Drew's friend Larry spent all Saturday afternoon smoking. Meghan and I had a great time at the show, and I told Drew he has moved into top position on my list of favorite boyfriends. If anyone else's boyfriend would like to buy me tickets to a show to win me over, I'm open!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Roasted Squash Salad with Vidalia-Honey Vinaigrette

Tonight's supper club was supper yumminess! I made a roasted squash salad with goat cheese, pomegranate seeds, craisins, green apple and praline pecans (imported from the Winn Dixie in the big Q).

Dressing was a Vidalia-Honey Vinaigrette from Southern Living (from the kitchen of Christy Jordan at that I highly recommend (though it was a bit of a pain to make -- but homemade salad dressing is infinitely better than bottled).

(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup chopped Vidalia onion
3/4 cup vegetable oil, divided
1/4 cup cider vinegar, divided
1/4 cup honey
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

1. Saute onion in 1 Tbsp. hot oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, stirring often, 8 minutes or until caramel colored. Add 2 Tbsp. vinegar, stirring to loosen particles from bottom of skillet. Remove from heat; cool 5 minutes.

2. Process onion mixture, honey, next 3 ingredients, and remaining oil and vinegar in a blender 30 seconds or until blended. Cover and chill 3 to 24 hours.
Amy's main course was great: seared scallops in a citrus rosemary sauce. A perfect blend of savory and sweet notes, with a simple side of simple long grain and wild rice. Amy noted it's key to have all the prep  work completed before the lightning round of actual cooking stards.
Anne made pumpkin bread pudding for dessert -- yummy and a dish that could make a tasty brunch on a day when you want something sweet. Snaps to Anne for the iPhone photos, since I forgot my camera.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Grits 'n' Goat Cheese

One of the best parts about being single is mixing up extremely random things to eat when I do not feel like going to the grocery store.

Last night, I made a pot of yellow Daniel Boone grits with plenty of butter and salt. I drizzled a pint of grape tomatoes and a sweet onion with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and roasted them until the tomatoes were soft and the onions got caramelized. I put the vegetables over the grits and sprinkled it all with goat cheese.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

"It's Kinda Like a Breakfast Corndog"

I had low hopes that I would eat anything memorable while chaperoning a middle school youth retreat. After a Friday night dinner at Burger King in Shelby en route to our camp in the mountains, I thought the weekend would be a real waste of calories.

Oh, my. Enter Sunday morning's breakfast. "CAMPERS, WE'VE GOT A REAL TREAT FOR YOU THIS MORNING!" announced the director over the PA as we lined up outside the camp dining hall. "What we've got is -- well -- you take some blueberry pancake batter, and you wrap it around a sausage. So, it's kinda like a breakfast corndog."

Given my documented affinity for sweet and salty combinations, I was SOLD! I couldn't wait to try it -- especially once I got up in line and saw they were serving it with a vat of strawberry syrup. "Think of blueberry pancakes with strawberries on top," the cafeteria lady assured me.

Just in case you doubt me...

It was yummy!

The other highlight of the weekend was the insightful comments I gleaned from leading a retreat session on dating. This proved to be a bit problematic, as I was not quite the expert I first imagined. I mean, dating? I know dating! But then I remembered when middle schoolers "date," it doesn't really have much to do with going on actual dates.

Anyway, one of the things we discussed was how Hollywood portrays love/relationships and how that compares to what we are called to do as Christians. One highlight was a young man's list of the must-haves in his future wife:

  1. Not a fast talker.
  2. Not a gimme-gimme girl.
  3. She should be a good cook.
But I think my favorite quote of the weekend was one of the answers to why the Cinderella story is not realistic: 
"I mean, everybody knows that's just silly," one sixth-grade girl said. "Boys are lazy. They would never go to all that trouble to give you your shoe back."

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

I adore gnocchi. The first time a friend ever tried making it, it was a disaster. So, I suspected it might be one of those things that was best left to restaurant kitchens.

But when the October issue of Bon Appetit arrived with a recipe for Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter -- from the kitchen of Lidia Bastianich -- I was determined to try it.

Oh, my. Good idea or bad idea? I am still not sure. Though it certainly does look gorgeous bubbling there in the pan, doesn't it?

But let's add up the damage: FOUR HOURS of cooking. Yes, I made a pot of chicken vegetable soup too while I waited through various cooking and chilling times. But seriously, I started at 4:40 p.m. and ate around 9. Thank heavens I went to Duke and have plenty of free time on my hands during football season!

The other downside: this recipe was a clear violation of my friend Anne's rule not to make anything that makes you buy something you do not typically need or keep on hand. (Said rule applies not so much to perishables as things like truffle oil or fish sauce or -- in this case -- nutmeg -- that will linger in your pantry for months, possibly years.) I further violated this rule by purchasing a special piece of kitchen equipment, a potato ricer. Even worse, I had to go to three stores before I found the ricer, finally purchasing one at my trusty neighborhood Blackhawk Hardware. Worse still, this potato ricer cost me $14.

And the worst of the worst is that it broke! No kidding. Notice bent handle below.

Anyway, I will not walk you through the exact recipe, as you can easily read it for yourself, but here are my key takeaways. You begin by boiling a potato and roasting a butternut squash. Then you puree the squash and rice the potato.
After the ricer meltdown, I ended up running the potato through the shred blade on my Cuisinart, and it worked fine. I am trotting right back up to Blackhawk tomorrow to return that ricer!
I pureed the roasted squash in my Cuisinart, removed the extra liquid by cooking it for a few more minutes, and made a dough with the potato, squash, flour, an egg, Parmesan and nutmeg. Was not sure if 1 1/2 tsp. of fresh grated nutmeg was really equal to 1 1/2 tsp. of dried nutmeg, but I think it tasted OK in the end (though nutmeg is not one of my favorite flavors).
Mixing the dough was a pretty messy proposition. You divide the dough into eight parts and roll each one out. This was when it kind of got fun -- and also when my sister showed up, as I had invited her for dinner. She helped me cut and shape gnocchi, but once she found out dinner would not be until much later, she elected to eat elsewhere. I didn't blame her.
The gnocchi have to chill for at least an hour, so I worked on my soup for a while and cleaned up my extremely messy kitchen. By now, I was in the home stretch. Soup made and kitchen tidied up, I boiled the chilled gnocchi for 15 minutes. It actually looked like it was working! I was worried the gnocchi would just turn to mush being boiled that long, but I guess it puffs up the flour and activates the egg.
The gnocchi came out of the boiling water and back onto parchment paper to cool while I melted butter and chopped fresh sage.
I tossed them in the butter and sage until they got a little bit brown and were coated with butter. And then...a mere four hours after this odyssey started...I dug in!
It was absolutely delicious. Almost as delicious as the butternut squash ravioli with sage at Aria in uptown Charlotte. And that is what I belive I will be having the next time I get this craving!