Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Southern Snow


Last year around this time, Miss Chef and I were with her family in Michigan, struggling through and playing in deep inches of soft, thick snow.


This year, we are at home, where we got considerably less.

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This snow“storm” was scheduled to arrive Tuesday afternoon, and the city began salting the roads on Monday.  Our sister office in Columbia, SC started getting sleet around 11:00 am Tuesday and were dismissed at 1:30; my office let us out at 2:00, to make sure everyone could make it home before the snow started falling.  We do have several people who live in rural parts of neighboring South Carolina, where an inch of snow/ice makes narrow gravel driveways nearly impassible.

In Charlotte, however, there was nothing yet falling, and I had a speedy drive home.  I changed, brought in some firewood and waited for the fun to begin.  By 4:30, I posted this picture to Facebook, with the caption, “That’s it; we’re officially snowed in.”

Snow 01


Rosie loves cold and snow, and she was very excited about the weather.  This was McKenna’s first snowfall, and while she found the falling flakes and Rosie’s antics rather interesting…


…she later determined that being outside in the stuff was not much fun.  (I brought her out on the leash, and once she was on the snow-covered ground, she eventually sat down with her tail wrapped around herself, waiting to go back inside.) 

Miss Chef and I got to spend our evening together on the couch, watching tv, enjoying the benefits of a wood fireplace, and eating snickerdoodles (like I said earlier, freeze some rolled cookie dough for a no-effort treat at any time).  We kept checking on the snow, as it changed from hard, dry dust to soft white flakes and back again.  Most of it accumulated after dusk, so I waited until this morning to go outside with my little ruler and see how we did.


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That’s about 3/4 of an inch, less than the one to two inches that were predicted.

Now, we had been hearing for days about this dangerous snowfall, and there were lots of jokes on the internet about ridiculous southerners who can’t handle a fraction of the weather that other parts of the country take as standard winter conditions.  I, too, used to laugh at my coworkers’ freaking out about an inch of snow—Charlotte does have snow-removal equipment, and is smart enough to get teams out before snow falls (unlike some other, more northerly places I’ve lived in…but that’s another story).

However, the fact that southern snow generally falls when the temperature teeters back and forth across the freezing point can make it more dangerous than what I grew up with in northeastern Ohio.  It wasn’t until the first early-morning drive into work several years ago that I learned that snowfall around the freezing point makes a heck of a lot more ice than snow at ten degrees.

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That’s our street this morning, covered in a thin layer of the dreaded “black ice.”  Frankly, I don’t think it matters what color you name it…but even our driveway and sidewalk, which had no traffic, developed a thin sheet of the stuff, from snow thawing on warmish concrete before re-freezing.  And everywhere we stepped last night, the pressure of our weight made more of it.  Some of us made more than others, going in and out to eat snow instead of peeing like they were supposed to.

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That’s our front sidewalk, after I’d swept off the light covering of snow so I could expose the ice underneath to the sun and a pinch or two of salt.  The snow itself was no problem, a beautiful dry powder that swept easily off our ice-free cars, but you can see it wanted to stick to the ice on the ground, so it could make more.

Naturally, area schools were let out early yesterday, and are closed today.  My office won’t open until noon (thus my chance to blog).  However, Miss Chef’s school continued with its 5:30 am classes this morning!  Luckily, she didn’t have any early classes today, though she did have to go in for a meeting at 9:00.  It sounded like the main roads were very clear, but Miss Chef found most of the back roads were solid ice, and even saw a car slide off the side.  Once she got to work, she found out her meeting was cancelled, but decided the drive back was too treacherous to be worth it.

But even as I write this, our street is half-melted down to wet asphalt, and by the time I leave in another hour, I expect to have no real problems getting to work.  Still, I challenge any northerner to come down and try an early-morning drive here before snorting in derision at southerners in snow.  There are some ice-driving skills you just don’t get, even in the Land of Big Snow.  Trust me.

Edit: Just as I got to the word “derision” in that last paragraph, my supervisor called to say “Don’t bother coming in today.”  So now, I don’t know…maybe there is a call for derision.  Oh, well, we can always laugh at people emptying the store shelves of bread and milk, right?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Winter Market: A How-To

On yet another chilly winter’s morning, Miss Chef and I did our usual Saturday routine, rolling out of bed at the first glimmer of sunlight and bundling up for a trip to the farmers’ market.  We almost never go to the strictly-local market in Matthews anymore, mostly because it’s over 30 minutes’ drive and we’re too lazy to get up early enough to arrive in time for a full selection—the smaller market, with its smaller farms, tends to sell out of the most popular items.

But we are very very lucky in that Charlotte has three year-round farmers’ markets.  The state-subsidized Regional Farmers’ Market is a quick ten-minute drive from us, and while there are plenty of re-sellers offering out-of-season sweet corn, and bananas from halfway around the world, the local vendors are beginning to outnumber them.

Just a year or two ago, a January trip to this market would be almost like stepping into a library.  The barn-like sheds with their long overhead heating coils would overwhelm the number of people, and noises would simply dissolve in the empty space.  At one end would be a small crowd of shoppers, most speaking foreign languages, swarming over the Asian-owned stalls with their exotic long beans and bitter melon.  These are people with a deep-seated tradition of open-air markets, who don’t let a little cold weather force them into the local Buy Rite.  At the end sporting the “Got to be NC” banners however, there was generally plenty of room, and plenty of time to chat with local farmers.  There they stood, brave souls, freezing their fingers and toes and hoping to break even with a few sparse sales of cheese or kale or pastured pork.

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Today was a completely different story.  As I stood in line at the Gilchrest pastured meat booth, I had plenty of time to watch the crowd.  There were three people ahead of me, and two of them seemed to be stocking up for a month’s worth of hearty family fare.  It wasn’t until I was trying to determine the language being spoken by the couple behind me that it finally dawned on me what I was idly staring at—a crowd!

There, amidst all the local famers with their seasonal produce, was a substantial group of people milling about, standing in line and chatting with the people behind the tables.  Even better, there were several African-American families (this whole local-foods thing has been so dominated by affluent whites that it’s refreshing to see the pale homogeneity broken up a bit).  I turned around to gaze at the other end of the long shed, and was shocked to see that the crowds up there were actually thinner.  Amazing!  I was a little thrilled, if still a bit too sleepy to display the big grin I felt internally.

Miss Chef and I were on a schedule, so we didn’t have time to socialize much, but we were able to stock up on quite a bit.  I got chicken leg quarters for Sunday dinner, along with an awesome-looking winter salad blend, a few carrots and the most amazing sourdough bread I’ve tasted yet.  Miss Chef gathered ingredients for a vegetarian chili she’s been asked to make for a Slow Food dinner next weekend—squash, carrots, garlic chives (kind of a mix between green onion and leeks), sweet potatoes…and more, I’m sure.  We did take a moment to stop and pick up a couple of croissants (one chocolate, one blueberry) on our way out.

As we were driving on to our next destination, I found myself thinking about how normal this has become for us.  I do remember the first several times we were at that market, feeling a bit hesitant about stepping up to look at the offerings, self-conscious about bringing my own shopping bags, unsure about the prices.  Nowadays it’s all become a comfortable routine.  In thinking about the habits Miss Chef and I have developed over the past several years, I found myself coming up with a list of helpful tips for new market-goers.

I’m not sure how many readers I have left can really benefit from such a list, but I feel like writing it down, and this seems like the best place.

1. Make a list, but make it vague  In high summer and early fall, you can probably get most of what you want, but in the off seasons, local eaters will have to adjust their menus.  So rather than “spinach,” write down “greens.”  You might end up with kale or collards, but you should still be able to make something along the same lines.  When it comes to local meat, prices are pretty high, so consider different cuts than you’re used to.  I almost always get chicken leg quarters rather than breasts, because they’re a dollar a pound cheaper.  Even better, get a whole chicken and learn to break it down…or just roast it, and adjust your recipe to add the chicken at the end.  What’s important is to be flexible…and see #5 below.  That can help a lot.

2. Bring cash and shopping bags  This is less important than it used to be, but it’s still a good idea.  More and more vendors have those nifty little card readers they can pop into their smartphones to run your debit card, but wouldn’t it be a shame to miss the first blueberries of the season because they’re from a smaller farm without all the gadgetry?  Also, pretty much every vendor will have plastic bags, but it’s so much easier to carry one bigger bag with wide handles than a pack of smaller, thin ones that bite into your hands.  Remember, you don’t have a cart to plop the stuff in, and pork chops and tomatoes are heavy! 

3. Go early  The definition of “early” depends on the market, and sometimes the time of year.  In the summer, if you don’t get to the Matthews market before 9:00, you might as well stay home.  If you don’t get there by 8:00, you will probably have a hard time finding the blackberries that just came into season, or the freshly-butchered chickens that Sammy brings occasionally.  On the other hand, the bigger Regional Market is usually fully stocked until 11:00 or 12:00—although after 10:00 the crowds can be frustrating.  Plan to get to your market within the first hour of opening, until you become more familiar with the crowds.


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4. Be patient  This isn’t a grocery store, and it’s not really made for convenience.  Every individual item you buy will involve a face-to-face interaction, often with the person who planted, grew, harvested and transported it.  Many customers will want to take the time to say hello, ask about the business or family, and swap recipe ideas.  Also, many folks like you will want to stop in front of a stand to see what’s on offer, what the prices are, or how these carrots compare to the ones two doors down.  So don’t expect to go zipping down the aisles; you will have to sidestep and wait for kids to get out of your way.  Slow down, look around and enjoy being part of the human family.


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5. Talk to the vendors  This was, for me, the most difficult step to take, but is by far the most rewarding.  Frankly, if you’re not taking advantage of the grower’s presence, you might as well go back to the “Locally Grown” section of your grocery store.  Yes, there’s the stereotype of the taciturn farmer who’d rather be shoveling cow manure onto his fields than chatting up an Eddie Bauer-clad suburbanite, but those are generally not the folks who sell at these markets.  Trust me, you will be pleasantly surprised at how eager the vendors are to talk to you about the lettuce on the table.  This is, after all, what they do!  If you’re shy, try a few ice-breaker questions—where the farm is, when the food was harvested, what breed/species of animal or plant you’re holding.  Even better, ask a question about how to prepare it—can you eat it raw, how would you cook it, is it good in a salad, can you freeze it?  I’ve been surprised more than once by the eagerness with which a farmer has told me of a simple, delicious way they’ve discovered to whip up a meal.  After all, they probably have kids too, along with a business to run; you really could learn something from them.

This will eventually pay off, because one day a farmer just might throw a couple of extra potatoes or pound of sausage in your bag and wave it away…or they’ll get into the habit of rounding your bill down to the nearest dollar.  I once got a pint of fresh figs handed to me, simply because they were a little overripe, but the farmer knew Miss Chef had a thing for them.  Also, I guarantee the day will come when you ask, “Are you going to have strawberries next week?” and they will say, “Not many, but do you want me to hold some for you?”  Score!  For once, you won’t have to get there at 7:30 to be sure you have what you need for dessert at your dinner party.


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6. Be flexible in your diet  This is kind of a re-hash of #1, but I think it is part of what keeps farmers’ markets from being America’s primary way to get food.  If you are eating locally and seasonally, you should not be buying strawberries in February or kale in July.  Going to the farmers’ market regularly—or visiting the market’s website if they have one—will help you learn what’s available in your area.  You will still find yourself needing items that you just can’t get locally, but if you plan your meals around your groceries, instead of the other way around, you can still make choices to maximize the quality of your food. For example, even if you have to buy oranges from a thousand miles away, be aware that citrus fruits are a winter crop.  You can spare yourself a lot of bland disappointment if you eat other fruits in summer, and wait until November before breaking out that recipe for orange-flavored pound cake.

That’s it!  Hopefully someone out there will find this helpful.  I am thinking of re-posting it in a few months, when farmers’ markets around the country start to rev up for the first big growing season, so if you think of something I might want to add please let me know in the comments.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Better Than Christmas

A few weeks ago, Miss Chef informed me that we had been invited to a party being held by a chef friend.  We were supposed to wear all black, bring something to drink and a homemade gift for an exchange.

Since we had several weeks—and since it was while I was still very much under the weather—I didn’t think too much about what kind of gifts we could make.  One of the caveats was “no food,” kind of a no-brainer when most of the invitees are involved in the food service industry in some way or other.  So that ruled out the easy things—our canned jam & applesauce, Miss Chef’s beers & cider.

Of course, before we knew it, we had less than a week to figure out and create our gifts.  Fortunately, we were wasting spending some of that time watching a rehab show on HGTV.  One of the small touches the host showed the homeowners how to do was simple glass etching using stencils and a brush-on cream.  A few days later, Miss Chef took the initiative of visiting our local hobby store to get supplies, and we spent a pleasant evening playing with them while Big Bang Theory was on.

For me, she had bought a carafe, which I etched with a butterfly and a sort of border around the neck.



The butterfly was a bit imperfect, due to the difficulties of bending a flat stencil onto a curved surface.  However, just beneath it, you can see the better done little extra I put on.  I couldn’t resist, since the flat bottom of the carafe was so invitingly easy to work with.


Cute, huh?  This is such a simple, easy project.  Just tape the stencil on (in some cases, this is the hardest part), carefully brush the cream over it, wait a minute or two, then remove the stencil and rinse off with cold water.  The cream is an acid, so we were careful to work with gloves on, but to tell the truth, I don’t think it’s strong enough to cause instant burns or anything.

Miss Chef etched a set of four glass tumblers with dragonflies, but I don’t seem to have any pictures of those.  At any rate, she texted me the afternoon of the party to say the hostess was requesting our arrival an hour early to help finish up the food.  This seems to be a trend when we’re invited to chefs’ parties, but it’s also a nice indication of the esteem they have for Miss Chef and her skills.

We stepped right into the kitchen when we arrived, and I was in love.  Most of the chef’s homes we’ve been in have kitchens not much bigger than ours.  It’s always been amusing to me how they can make such great food in such mundane surroundings.  Kris and her husband Nathan, however, have spent a great deal of time and money rehabbing their 1940s-era home.  It was a bit crowded for me to get a full shot of the kitchen, but the entire back wall drew me right it.  It’s a floor-to ceiling open pantry, very much like the one in the old farmhouse I grew up in.


Ours was painted white, but this wood was reclaimed from an old tobacco farm that the couple just happened to be driving by when it was being torn down.  Who has adventures like that??

As you can see, Kris removes most of her supplies from the original packaging and stores them in glass jars.  What a fascinating study of colors and textures.





Before I had much time for photos though, we were both given tasks to complete.  Miss Chef was working on a beef stew, basil pesto, and just generally manning the stove.  I stuffed mushrooms, formed pea cakes and wrapped bratwurst chunks in puff pastry.  Two more helpers arrived about 30 minutes later, and soon it was organized chaos.  (Kris is the one in the middle, with the sheer top.)



Of course, you know I had to get some photos of the food…this “apple” is actually a cheese ball with bay-leaf foliage and a cinnamon-stick stem.

Better Than Christmas (1)


This board had two kinds of hummus, with marinated NC shrimp in the back.  All the food was sourced from local farms; in fact one of farmers was in attendance.  Nice.

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On the right are the pea cakes I worked on, with crême fraiche on top,

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Sushi rolls.  Kris’ background is in catering, can you tell?

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And the desserts!  That’s the most realistic bûche de noël I’ve ever met.  Both cakes were red velvet, and delicious, of course.

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After everyone had a chance to sample the offerings, we all gathered in the living room for the gift exchange, Dirty Santa style. 

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For the uninitiated, to play Dirty Santa everyone draws a number and takes turns choosing gifts from the pile, starting with number 1.  The “dirty” part is that instead of picking a wrapped gift from the pile, you can use your turn to steal a gift from someone else; they in turn can either steal or choose a new gift.  (There are other names for this game, and many variations—one rule I liked limited the number of times any particular gift could be stolen.)

There was a lot of good-natured theft; Miss Chef had two different gifts stolen from her and our etched glassware was also passed around a bit.  I was surprised that, with all the talented artistry on display, people were so enamored of our easy 5-minute craft.  We received many compliments, so I was glad Miss Chef took the initiative on that one!

After a sneaky assist from Miss Chef, I managed to steal back her third gift near the end of the evening—a heavy brocaded tablecloth made by the farmer who was there.  It’s a deep blue that should look great with our bright yellow walls.  We also got a set of three switchplate covers with wine-themed photos.

Now, you may be curious about the title of this post, which was also the official name of what turns out to be the 14th annual occurrence of this party.  It’s a bit of a long story, involving a zero day on the Appalachian Trail and a game of checkers played with skittles, but the idea is that we are mourning the end of Christmas, but also seeing out the holiday season with a party that’s even…Better Than Christmas.

And frankly, considering I spent my Christmas on the couch with a box of Kleenex and cold medicine, I can say it truly was.  Score one for 2014!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Back End of 2013

I don’t care much for New Year’s observations.  The parties don’t interest me, the resolutions leave me cold.  The flip of a number that we humans have assigned rather arbitrarily to the passage of time seems too unimportant to orient my life around.  If I want to make a resolution, I’ll make it when I need to.  If I want to have a party, it will be for something more inspiring than moving from a 3 to a 4.

This year, however, 2014 seems to offer a clean break and a new opportunity for happiness.

Not that 2013 was a total waste of a year.  I did have a fantastic reunion with my college friends over the summer, and of course there was the addition of  McKenna, who has brought a lot of fun and energy into our little family.

On the other hand 2013 got off to a bad start.  We weren’t even halfway through the first month when we got a phone call that Miss Chef’s mother was in the hospital.  Miss Chef left for Alabama, and for the next three months, our lives were totally upended by the aftermath of her mother’s death.  Our finances were hobbled, Miss Chef was away from home for long stretches of time, and we were both stressed about the ongoing difficulties of a complicated estate that, a year later, still remains unfinished.

And there were other, more insidious effects.  I remember the first or second day after following Miss Chef to her hometown during that awful week, she and her brother and I stopped in at a fast-food restaurant to grab lunch.  “It’s ok,” I told myself, thinking about what an unwise food choice we were making.  “We can certainly make an exception in times like these.”

Alas, it was not an exception.  After a week or two of “catching as catch can,” and two months of maintaining the household without Miss Chef, I found I’d slid quickly into bad habits.  No gym.  Comforting myself with salt, sugar and fat.  Too many take-out meals, too few walks with Rosie, too much time at home by myself.

Miss Chef returned for Spring quarter in March, but after yet another round of administrative changes and layoffs at the school, it became apparent that my French classes would no longer be offered.  At my day job, the new project I was invited to work on settled into a tedious, production-style data entry job that also separated me from the other people in my office.  And constantly divided between our life and the ones she was managing in Alabama, Miss Chef fell into the same bad habits as I.  We were no longer inspiring each other to do better, but validating our poor choices.

As the months passed and the heat of summer drove me indoors, my increasing girth and guilt, the loss of a job, the lack of social or outside activity, all contributed to a drop in my energy level and interest in life beyond the couch.  Even my blogging became more of a responsibility and less of a fun hobby.  I hoped that, as usual, the cool weather and clear skies of fall would help turn things around.  But the unusually overcast, gloomy weather failed to draw me outdoors.  I managed to prep the garden, but the weeks passed without much change. 

Soon, I felt overwhelmed by circumstance.  Our Thanksgiving plumbing debacle was the introduction to what turned out to be a lousy holiday season.  I was worried about money, which wasn’t helped by my car needing another expensive repair.  Miss Chef, facing her first Christmas without her mother, found herself uninspired for the usual round of decorating, shopping and wrapping. To finish things off in style, I was hit with a terrible cold that felled me on Christmas Eve and has yet to depart.  As the world finally said farewell to the old year, I found myself at home on the couch while Miss Chef worked a catering gig--and I was just fine with that.

Ho ho ho, happy bleedin’ new year.  Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out, 2013.

⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚ ⌚

Back in the early days of last year, I asked Miss Chef how long she would be so focused on life in Alabama, as opposed to our life together.  “At least a year,” she told me.  It sounded fair; her family needed her and it was a difficult adjustment for them.  Most of all, though, I was glad to have an end date, no matter if it was a bit distant.

So here we are, face-to-face with that end date.  Truth be told, Miss Chef has already withdrawn a bit from her family’s day-to-day affairs, but it still feels like we are about to cross into a new era.  When a year has passed after such a life-altering event, it’s time for things to change, right?  Time to look forward, shrug the past off our shoulders, and decide that we can make a brighter future for ourselves. 

It won’t be easy, and I won’t make promises even to myself (I really don’t want to head back to the crowded gym at this particular point in the year), but at the same time…this seems like a good time to drop the burdens of self-recrimination and guilt. 

Sure, I’ve lost the tiny bit of fitness I had built up during my inconsistent workouts.  But…it’s a new year. Yes, I’ve completely lost the habit of walking Rosie after work, but…it’s a new year.  It may have been a long, long time since I did any regular volunteer work, but…it’s a new year.

No, it’s not the dawn of a new age for me, or a miraculous rebirth of sorts.  It’s just a convenient opportunity to forgive myself and move on.  It kind of reminds me of a Rosh Hoshanah tradition a Jewish friend once described to me, of writing one’s sins on paper that is burned, then tossing the ashes into flowing water to let them wash away.  What a wonderful way to feel refreshed and ready to step into a new year without encumbrance.

So welcome, 2014.  You look so fresh and clean.  I hope I can be the same.