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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Charlotte: A Few of My Favorite Things

Charlotte is a delightful place to live year-round, but this city really rocks during the spring. And, honestly, I feel like spring came super-early this year.

New York had snow last week. Charlotte had bright blue skies and perfect, sunny 70-degree days. I've been savoring the scent of the lilies I got from the lady who picked up my sewing machine.

Anyway, I've been collecting dining tips for a friend of a friend who's new to town, and that made me get a nostalgic for all the things I'll miss doing (and, um, eating) in the Queen City. My friend Elyse put together a great city guide on her blog a few months back, but I decided to make a little list of my own favorite spots and favorite memories -- in no particular order.
  1. Sandwiches from Laurel Market. Curried tuna salad, BLTs, turkey and avocado. And the sides. And the cake!
  2. Muller's Sandwich Shop on a sunny day, when Betty is your waitress and makes you feel like her favorite customer, insisting you taste her cucumber salad and bringing you extra banana pudding. 
  3. Asian sea bass at Upstream. It's been ages since I've had it, but I still remember it as one of the best things I've ever eaten--probably a knock-off of Nobu's black cod with miso, but it was new to me.
  4. Tony's in Gastonia for homemade ice cream and burgers. I just love local places that have been around forever. A perfect evening trip last summer in LA's convertible!
  5. Hiking Crowders Mountain.
  6. Discovering Boone and Blowing Rock. As a girl who grew up expecting it to take all day to drive to the mountains (would we ever get out of Georgia?), I still can't believe I can get there in under two hours.
  7. Owen's Bagels and their quirky list of uniquely titled sandwiches. I cannot remember what clever name they have for their tuna melt, but I crave it all the time.
  8. The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Seriously, our library ROCKS. Leigh Ann and I are its biggest fans. You can order books online, to be delivered to the location of your choice. And you can return books to any location. Blockbuster could have learned a thing or two from the PLCMC.
  9. Cardio Funk with Andre at Myers Park Presbyterian Church. I could kick myself for not discovering this class sooner. It is one of the most diverse and inspiring exercise experiences I can imagine--all shapes and sizes getting down to Andre's clever choreography. Exercise should always be this much fun.
  10. Amelie's Salted Caramel Brownies. A two-toned brown square of heaven.
  11. Foodie Field Trips with my friend Anne, from the Matthews Farmers' Market to the Bradford Store in Huntersville.
  12. Something Classic. Mid-day sandwich runs at the uptown location (how will I survive without the turkey avocado wrap with that secret sauce?). Picking up some comfort food at the mini-Teeter on my way home from work (sherry poached chicken with wild rice, I love you!). Spending $75 on picnic provisions (too many good dips to pair with the herbed pita crisps).
  13. Pops in the Park, Shakespeare on the Green, Verizon Amphitheater. Memories of watching Jimmy Buffet in the pouring rain one summer night.
  14. Tres leches cake, stuffed eggplant, patatas bravas and tortilla espanola at Sole. I am so sad this place closed but thankful I got in one last birthday dinner before it did. My friends always laughed at the way I'd make them go for tapas whenever I visited New York, Boston or D.C. I was so happy when I finally had a tapas restaurant in my own city.
  15. Restaurant Week at Sonoma or Aria. Pierre Bader knows how to do Restaurant Week--unlike some of the chintzy restaurant owners in this city. He puts his full menu on the three-course special. Pierre is also Lebanese, which makes him even cooler.
  16. The Manor Theatre and Park Road Terrace. Having grown up in a town without a movie theater, I still cannot believe I can get to one in less than five minutes, and I love it that the two theaters closest to me specialize in the artsy or subtitled flicks I like best.
  17. Shopping at Goodness Gracious, the gift shop at my church, staffed by volunteers with all profits dedicated to missions. I've found so many cute things there over the years, especially for baby showers. And I made some of my best friends working the register.
  18. Sitting outside at Nolen Kitchen or Selwyn Pub -- and the fact I can walk to either when the weather is nice. (Being able to walk somewhere is still such a novelty...flashbacks to Quincy when the only place Ranie and I could walk was the fro yo/ice cream counter at Movie Time.)  Bonus points when Reinaldo is playing live Brazilian music at Nolen.
  19. Eating a spinach chimichanga at La Paz in South End. It wasn't on the regular menu, but I had it once in 2004 as a lunch special. I typically have a rule against ordering the same thing in a restaurant, but this was an exception. They always made it for me when I asked. 
  20. Drills at tennis clinic on Saturday mornings with Pat and Sam. And, a special shout-out to my first tennis coach in Charlotte, Aaron. Thanks to all three of them for showing me that one's hand-eye coordination improves remarkably after age 15.
  21. Walking to church for an evening program and knowing I would see someone who wouldn't mind giving me a ride back home.
  22. Sitting on my porch on sunny days and working from home with the windows open.
  23. Trading leftovers with Leigh Ann. "I left some chicken pasta for you in the fridge on your floor," she'd ping me from her office seven floors below my cube. "It's in a blue bowl."
  24. The Common Market in Plaza-Midwood--tasty sandwiches and an amazing beer and wine selection.
  25. Grilling out, especially pork chops. Something tells me this will not be a frequent occurrence in my new digs.
  26. Finding bargains at the South End Exchange, a consignment shop for home furnishings.
  27. Bunny rancheros for brunch at Zada Jane's.
  28. The awesome selection and -- even better -- informed staff at Blackhawk Hardware. My favorite staffer is Sloan, who acted as if he cared as much about my paint colors as I did.
  29. The Wednesday food section of the Charlotte Observer. Pages of recipes...what a mid-week treat!
  30. Meeting Peggy for Thursday 6 a.m. spinning at the Y...and her endless patience with me when I bailed. 
  31. Buying my meat from Bucky at Reids -- and the fact he would give me a discount for singing a jingle. Never again will I find a butcher who took such a wholesome and well-intentioned interest in my love life!
  32. Discovering the delight that is Vietnamese food at Lang Vanh.
  33. The best caipirinhas and pao de queijo at Chima. I can't speak for the expensive beef buffet, but the bar sure does rock!
  34. Not having to travel for holidays like Thanksgiving because I'm blessed to live near so many family members -- and extended, extended family -- here in town. I'll put this one last but certainly not least, as it's likely what I will miss most of all.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring Break with "Miss" Lynn

The more things change...

A really cool thing happened to me last Thursday night. I had posted my blog entry about moving to New York earlier that evening, and I'd gotten a stream of congratulatory comments. So, when my phone rang at 10:15 and I saw an 850 area code on the caller ID, I figured it must be someone good.

It was! "Miss" Lynn was calling to see if I wanted to join her for the Duke game on Friday. Of course I did! We both happen to live in Charlotte now. Watching my favorite team and catching up with one of my favorite moms? What could be better? Then I realized Friday was the first day of spring break for my old high school. Flashback to this:
Spring 1994. Panama City Beach.

Our parents insisted that "nice girls" didn't go on Spring Break without a chaperone. Enter Miss Lynn, one of the coolest moms from our class. Our friend Amanda was dating her son, Adam. Miss Lynn was the perfect chaperone -- responsible enough to keep us out of trouble but fun enough to make sure we all had a blast. In fact, I believe one of our favorite nights was the evening we stayed home and played cards with Miss Lynn. We introduced her to some of our new "friends."
I cannot tell you a thing about this young man, other than his name was Cliff. It's somewhat frightening I still remember that, isn't it? I'm certain my attraction to him was largely based on the fact he was a dead-ringer for Morris Suber. I'm certain his attraction to me was based on my bulky J. Crew barn jacket. Way to reel 'em in, Lyns!

Anyway, the eight of us had such a great week with Miss Lynn that we presented her with the perfect PCB memento: an airbrushed t-shirt with our names.
She promised she would wear it whenever she was ironing or washing her car.

I'm sure the t-shirt would have been a big hit at the NCAA tournament, but we pulled out some blue t-shirts instead and watched Duke beat Hampton. Unfortunately, the game wasn't much of a contest. That just meant we had plenty of time to catch up and reminisce.
There is nothing better than time with old friends, especially when you're embarking on something new. It's a long way from Panama City to New York City, but I'll be taking with me a lesson from my favorite chaperone: you can indeed stay out of trouble and still have a blast!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hello to All That

New York, they say, is for the very wealthy or the very young. I am neither. By the time I seriously considered moving there in my late 20s, most of my girlfriends were on their way out of New York, off to grad school in Boston, law firms in Atlanta, husbands in Dallas. For too long, I convinced myself that door had closed.

Besides, I reasoned, I was too old to live in the kind of tiny apartment I could afford in Manhattan. What would I do with all my stuff? My Cuisinart, my books, my grandmother’s rug? Moving into my condo seven years ago, I reveled in being reunited with the beloved belongings I’d stored as I lived briefly in Brazil, then with my mom, then with my sister. I filled the bookshelves in my condo with my treasured books, categorizing them by genre. I lined up my black boots in the closet. Unpacking all my stuff felt good. It felt familiar. I was home.

I’m not sure when that began to change. Maybe when I realized I should seize the opportunity of being single. Maybe when I did a six-week stint in London and loved every minute of being on my own in a big city. Maybe when I realized the biggest thing keeping me from moving was dealing with all that stuff.

When I bought my condo in 2006, I got a five-year adjustable rate mortgage. Five years seemed like an eternity. I was 29. By June of 2011, surely I’d be married or ready to move into a real house, wouldn’t I?

And yet, here I am. I have zero interest in schlepping my stuff to live anywhere else in Charlotte. I love my condo—even though there’s no way I could sell it in this market. Meanwhile, I’ve watched certain friends’ lives evolve. They’ve finished graduate school, fallen in love, gotten married, had babies. And here I am, living in the same place, working for the same company, going to the same parties. Something had to change. Had I really missed the window on a big-city adventure?

Too many of my ideas about why you’d only move to New York in your 20s come from one of my favorite pieces of writing, Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” It’s about arriving in New York when she was young and na├»ve. And it’s about leaving years later, jaded and pessimistic, having realized “it’s distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.” I’ve read the essay a dozen times in the past 15 years, and I’ve come to realize it’s not just about New York. It’s about the way we all get older, lose our innocence, change our priorities.

“I was very young in New York,” she writes, “and at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.”

I may not be that young anymore. But I’m not that old either. And I’m fortunate enough to have a job at a global company that facilitates flexible work arrangements. Half my colleagues are in California; my manager works on a different floor than I do. We spend our days dialing into conference calls and sending emails. Couldn’t I do that from another location?

Yes, it turns out, I can. My manager was supportive and agreed I could work from an office in New York. Then came the hard part: renting my condo and finding a place I could afford to live in the city. Both happened surprisingly quickly. I found a friend who wanted to rent my place fully furnished; I think she’s as happy to get it as I am for her to live in it. While I chased leads on Craig’s List, my friends Neil and Nate found me a room to rent with a friend of theirs in the West Village. Hooray!

As all this unfolded, it’s been a little bit like finding my way by flashlight. Even in the dark, little signs kept popping up to tell me I was on the right path. Moving to New York has reminded me of those trust falls we used to do at summer camp. And yet, as I’ve jumped, God’s been right there to catch me. Helping me rent my condo, finding me a place to live, giving me the courage leap into something unknown. Being 34 years old and abandoning your own condo to rent a room—a tiny room—may seem like a sad step backward to some people. To me, it feels like following my spirit and letting my light shine. It feels like making the most of this time and place in my life. It feels like choosing to live in a world of trust and abundance, not fear and scarcity.

The grass in New York won’t be greener. In fact, on some cold, grey, lonely days, it will probably seem awfully brown. But you can’t stay too long at the fair if you never even let yourself go in the gate.

Jogging today on a perfect spring morning, I looked at the blooming trees and savored every block of my lovely neighborhood. It will still be here when I’m ready to come back. In the meantime, I’m preparing to travel lightly. How many books or pairs of black boots does a girl need? I feel like I’ve decided to choose between stuff and adventure.

And I choose adventure.

* * *

My heartfelt thanks go to Leigh Ann and Neil for their enthusiastic encouragement of this leap and their help with the logistics. I am convinced God plants angels along our path when we need them. In this move, both of you have been my most faithful cheerleaders. I hope I can someday return the favor. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Killer" Ham Biscuits

At a recent meeting of my book club, despite our best intentions, most of us had not been able to finish (or, um, even start) our book: The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg.

However, our hostess Brittney laid out a fabulous spread, including spinach dip, baked brie with apples and cranberry chutney, crackers, fruits and veggies. The highlight for me was her ham biscuits, which she assured me were incredibly easy. I didn't have my trusty camera, so Peggy snapped this picture for me with her iPhone:
I plan on adding this recipe to my party repertoire, and I've given it a new name in honor of the evening. Brittney provided the recipe and her notes below:

"Killer" Ham Biscuits
1 package of frozen Sister Schubert’s rolls (round aluminum pan)
1/3 lb. of Smithfield country ham thinly sliced or chopped (I think any ham will work, the country ham makes them a little more salty/sweet)
3/4 stick of butter, melted
1/4 c brown sugar

Remove entire roll pack in one piece from the aluminum pan. Cut in half horizontally. Return bottom half of rolls to pan. Mix melted butter and brown sugar in small bowl. Brush mixture on bottom half of rolls. Place ham on top. Place top half of rolls on top of ham carefully lining up the top and bottom as they were before so rolls will cut properly. With both sides together in the pan carefully cut individual rolls along existing lines.

Return pan to bad and freeze for up to 1 month or if ready to use, thaw and heat according to package directions. They are really good to make ahead of time and freeze.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pimiento Mac and Cheese

Talk about a winning combination of Southern deliciousness! What could be better than this? Mac and cheese AND pimiento cheese? Hold me back!
The cool, rainy weather we've had recently left me craving comfort food. Then came this: the cover recipe from the March Issue of Bon Appetit, which called it "hands down, the best mac and cheese we've ever made." The layout was complete with an essay about pimiento cheese's rise from low-rent Southern sandwich spread to big city burger topper.

"Best" mac and cheese? Those are fighting words! I had to take this one for a test drive.

Ingredients
1 7- to 8-ounce red bell pepper, seeded, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, halved, divided
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
3/4 cup drained mild Peppadew peppers in brine, 1 tablespoon brine reserved
1/4 teaspoon ground ancho chiles (I left this out)
1 1/4 cups (packed) coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup (packed) coarsely grated whole-milk mozzarella
8 ounces medium shell pasta or gemelli
First of all: peppadew peppers? Who ever heard of such? But there they were in my local Harris Teeter, right there with the pickles and banana peppers. Peppadew pepers are NOT in any recipe I've ever seen for pimiento cheese. (Hmm, maybe this is my chance to create my own pimiento cheese spread with peppadews--they were delicious! I'm going to try using the leftover peppers on a tuna melt. Owen's Deli on South Boulevard introduced me to the delight of banana peppers on a tuna melt...I think this will be similar.)

Anyway, back to the recipe. Bring 1/2 cup water, bell pepper and 1 1/2 garlic cloves to boil in a small saucepan. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until pepper is soft, about 15 minutes. Transfer bell pepper mixture to processor.
Add Peppadews and 1 tablespon brine, 2 tablespoons butter, ground chiles and 1/2 garlic cove; then add cheddar and 1/4 cup Parmesan. Blend until sauce is smooth; season to taste with salt and pepper.
Toast panko in skillet over medium-high heat until golden, stirring often, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to bowl; cool to lukewarm. Rub 1 tablespoon butter into crumbs to coat. Mix in 1/4 cup Parmesan.

Preheat oven to 400. Cook pasta in pot of booiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite. Drain; return to pot. Stir sauce and mozzarella into pasta. Season with salt and pepper. (I snuck a taste at this point and knew we were in for something dee-li-cious!) 
 Spoon pasta into dish. Sprinkle with crumb topping.
Bake pasta until topping is crisp and sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes.

Makes 6 servings. Warning: you may want seconds! My friend Katie at work enjoyed some of my leftovers and rushed right out to buy the ingredients and make this for her husband. Extra points: it's vegetarian.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fun With Brussels Sprouts

Of all the flavors you hated as a kid and appreciate as an adult, Brussels sprouts have got to win the prize.
I suspect this is because most of us grew up eating them boiled. Once I discovered you could roast them, they became one of my favorite winter veggies. I love them roasted with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar...just pour a little of both over the quartered sprouts in a roasting pan, toss and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Roast at 400 until crispy brown. Turn them once or twice as they cook so they brown evenly.
I was also inspired to make a Brussels sprouts "salad" after my recent dinner at The Publican in Chicago. They served shaved Brussels sprouts mixed with lemon and mint over burrata cheese. (There might have been some other yummy stuff in there, but I lost the menu.)
Anyway, I decided to recreate it--or at least a poor cousin. So, I shredded some sprouts with the slicer blade in my Cuisinart. (May try grating them next time.)

I tossed the sprouts with some homemade garlic vinaigrette I had on hand. (2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1 clove fresh garlic, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper and 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil.)

Tasty!

This reminds me of the fact my sister discovered a similar "salad" when she studied in Chile. Her host family grated cabbage and simply tossed it with lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Lord knows we can all use an extra, easy veggie to add to the ol' rotation!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fish with Tomato, Pepper and Caper Sauce

This week I tried a fish recipe from the March issue of Bon Appetit. I loved it and think it will become a weeknight staple. I simply tossed some arugula with vinaigrette for a side when Leigh Ann and I ate it, but I had the leftovers two nights later and made some roasted potatoes to go along with it. A great combination!

This is from Cabana in West Palm Beach. I don't think they put the restaurant recipes on the Bon Appetit website, so here you go. I halved it and still ended up with about four servings. The only trick to this is you need to start early so you can marinate the fish.

Mahi-Mahi with Tomato, Pepper and Caper Sauce

16 garlic cloves, divided
1/2 cup plus 1/4 cup olive oil
6 8-ounce mahi-mahi or black cod fillets
1 large white onion, halved, thinly sliced
1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 large green bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 large yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup sliced large pimiento-stuffed green olives
4 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups crushed tomatoes with puree
1 1/2 tablespoons drained capers from jar.

Puree 10 garlic cloves in mini processor; transfer to glass baking dish. Add 1/2 cup oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper to garlic; whisk marinate to blend. Add fish to marinade, cover, and chill two hours, turning fish occasionally. (I just did this in a plastic bag instead of a dish. I actually forgot to mix up the marinade and just threw it all in the bag and tossed it around for a minute.)
Chop 6 garlic cloves. Heat 1/4 cup oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic, onion, and next 7 ingredients. Cook until vegetables are soft, stirring often, about 15 minutes.

Add wine; stir 1 minute. Add tomatoes with puree and capers; simmer 2 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper. (I just bought diced canned tomatoes, but I had a can of tomato sauce on hand, so I poured in a little bit of that to help it thicken, which I think was the point of the tomato puree. Have you ever noticed how many types of canned tomatoes there are? Honestly, it's simply overwhelming!)

Heat large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add fish to skillet with marinade still clinging. Cook until golden and just opaque in center, about 5 minutes per side.
Discard bay leaves from sauce. Divide sauce among plates. Top with fish. Serves 6.
I forgot the capers and left out the bay leaves, and it was still very tasty. Healthy and full of flavor!