Category Archives: In the kitchen

“Everything is copy.”

That’s the lesson that the parents of one of my favorite writers, Nora Ephron, taught their daughter. They were screenwriters, and Nora rebelled by becoming a journalist. (Later, she ended up a screenwriter, too. And an essayist. And a novelist.)

So when I spontaneously decided yesterday to complete a two-day juice cleanse, of course I decided to write about it. You can read about my journey this weekend at Birmingham magazine’s website.

And don’t worry, Mom and Dad. If I feel badly, I’ll eat.

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Filed under Autobiography, Bits & Pieces, In the kitchen, Journalism

Taking solace in the kitchen

It’s been a busy summer, and that’s meant a calendar full of travel and concerts. So much time on the go has resulted in a lot of eating on the run, whether picking up a meal in a drive through (it’s happened more than it should!) or dinner at a restaurant before rushing to the next event.

I love a good meal out, and I’m not afraid of a fridge full of leftovers. (I can eat the same meal for days without getting bored.) But a homemade meal means more to me than nutrition; cooking slows me down and encourages me to take care of myself.

So I’m striving to make kitchen time a priority, regardless of how full my calendar becomes. Earlier this month I found the perfect dish for that aim: Sunset magazine’s sage-rubbed pork tenderloin with sage butter. It’s perfect for an impromptu dinner gathering because the meat doesn’t require a lengthy marinade, and it’s also inexpensive. Preparation is simple, and perhaps best of all for an on-the-go lifestyle, it’s excellent left over.

That, plus the time to unwind in the kitchen, is a winning recipe to me.

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Filed under In the kitchen

Flying biscuits are not the way to a man’s heart.

As part of Food Summit 2010, held in November, FoodBlogSouth and Desert Island Supply Co. hosted a Food Stories storytelling event. Based on the Moth radio program, the event brought storytellers together to share food-oriented tales, told in an open-mic type setting. Since the inaugural FoodBlogSouth was held this weekend, I thought it time to share the tale I told during Birmingham’s first Food Stories event.

Though I don’t fit neatly as part of Gen X (I’m barely too young) or the Millennials (I’m too–well, too lots of things!), I’m comfortable as part of the instant generation. I grew up on instant oatmeal and mashed potatoes. I thought I hated grits until I was in my 20s, when I discovered that they’re excellent when cooked on a stove top instead of being served from a packet. My mom’s a great cook, but when you come home from work and have four kids and a husband to feed, you’ve just got to get food on the table.

And so I began college with little kitchen know-how. That translated into many meals of Pasta Roni, cooked in my dorm room microwave, and the occasional splurge on George Foreman Grill-cooked steak. We didn’t even have a kitchen on our floor, so cooking on a stove top was nearly unheard of.

But I’d heard that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. And so, when my crush and his roommate came to visit, I decided it was a good excuse to venture down to the basement’s kitchen. I rushed to pretty myself up, leaving little time to bake Pillsbury biscuits (which I thought were surely the way to impress an 18-year-old boy. I don’t know what got into me). So I prematurely pulled the biscuits from the oven, then rushed to the dorm’s lobby to meet my friends. “No one will notice if they’re not quite ready,” I thought.

I thought wrong.

Teenage boys aren’t the most gracious people, and the undercooked biscuits became a game instead of a snack. The dorm’s elevator doors opened every time the elevator returned to the first floor, as though a phantom Dorman Hall resident were waiting for a ride to her room. The guys decided to take aim as the doors opened, and my undercooked biscuits became flying biscuits as they sailed into the waiting elevator.

We joked about elevator food for years, but as college progressed my culinary skills improved. My roommates and I hosted many dinner parties where we tested out recipes we found in Southern Living and Better Homes and Gardens, sometimes inviting the same two guys to taste how far our cooking had come. I baked, decorated and hand-delivered Christmas cookies to everyone I knew (leading me to swear off making 300-plus cookies in a single night ever again). I exchanged food for labor every time I moved, and I was still determined that my cooking would eventually snag the attention of whichever boy I was currently interested in. (Because teenage and 20-something boys are just out to date their moms, right?)

When Sex and the City creator Candace Bushnell visited my college campus, a friend was responsible for showing Bushnell around. Talk inevitably turned to relationships, and mine in particular. Bushnell’s advice: Tell her to stop cooking for men. She’s never going to get one that way. I laughed off that advice, but I did become more sensitive about my maternal instincts.

Nearly a decade later, I’m still single and still cooking. My kitchen is no longer filled with jarred pasta sauces and frozen meals, but instead canned tomatoes and loads of vegetables. And though I’m reluctant to cook for a man besides my best guy friend, I’m confident about one thing: Despite Candace Bushnell’s advice, my friends and I surely are eating well.

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Filed under Autobiography, In the kitchen

Who am I kidding but me?

It’s been a long couple of months–good, but over-filled with activities and obligations. So as the weekend approached, my calendar remained empty. I told people that I hadn’t tried to get football tickets, and that if they were to fall into my lap I would think about going to the game.

Then they did. And very quickly, I said yes.

Who am I kidding? I can’t turn down Alabama football. Last weekend was the first time that Alabama had taken the field as a No. 1 team in my life. (Yes, we won a national championship in 1992, but we weren’t ranked No. 1 until we beat Miami.) We’ve lost to Mississippi State for the past two years. And though Auburn already ensured that State won’t claim the Alabama State Championship this year, I want to see us destroy them. (We better destroy them.) We could be–should be–on our way to a 12-0 regular season. I was there as we opened the season, I was there for the too-close Kentucky game, I hope to be there for the history-making Iron Bowl. But I better take every game I can get (especially as I remain camped out on the Tide Pride waiting list!). 

After talking to the friend who came into tickets Thursday night, the official plan was to take it easy (our entire group is socially exhausted) and leave Birmingham at 5 p.m. for today’s 6:45 game. But even as I hung up, I suspected I was again lying to myself. And so this morning I found myself back in the kitchen, quickly preparing my favorite beer-cheese spread for this afternoon’s tailgate. 

It’s been a while since I’ve added a recipe to my go-to list, and this one definitely merits a place. It’s incredibly easy and always a hit, especially with the boys. The ingredients are things that I typically have in the kitchen, save for perhaps a large quantity of cheese (easily remedied). Don’t have an amber beer handy? Sub in another, so long as it’s a good one! (Today I used Yazoo Dos Perros.) And it’s perfect for a cold autumn day spent on the quad.

Now, get me to Tuscaloosa!

Beer-cheese spread

Prep: 15 min., Chill: 2 hr. This recipe makes a lot, but it can be frozen for up to a month. It fits perfectly into 4 (10-oz.) ramekins. Try it over French fries, hot dogs, and chili too.

This recipe goes with Grilled Beer-Cheese Sandwich


Makes 5 cups


  • 1  (2-lb.) block sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1  small onion, minced
  • 2  garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2  teaspoon  hot sauce
  • 1/4  teaspoon  ground red pepper
  • 1  (12-oz.) bottle amber beer, at room temperature
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Garnish: thyme sprig



1. Beat together first 5 ingredients at low speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until blended. Gradually add beer, beating until blended after each addition. Beat at medium-high speed 1 minute or until blended and creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and chill 2 hours. Garnish, if desired. Store in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 2 weeks.

Note: For testing purposes only, we used Abita Amber Beer. This spread can be frozen up to 1 month; thaw overnight in refrigerator.

Grilled Beer-Cheese Sandwich: Spread 1 tsp. softened butter evenly on 1 side of 2 bread slices. Place bread slices, buttered sides down, on wax paper. Spread 1/4 cup Beer-Cheese Spread onto 1 side of 1 bread slice. Top with remaining bread slice, buttered side up. Cook sandwich in a nonstick skillet or griddle over medium heat 3 to 5 minutes on each side or until golden brown and cheese is melted.



Therese Halaska, Portage, Wisconsin, Southern Living, OCTOBER 2007
I typically serve it with crackers or apples.

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Filed under Be true to your school, In the kitchen

For your days and excitement

Candace Bushnell would have been very unhappy with me Saturday night.

Instead of spending money and fighting crowds to get dinner, beer and football at a sports bar, I invited the boys to my house. Sure, we were limited in our game selection, but the food and drinks were free.

And so I put myself to work in the kitchen, chopping, sauteeing and ensuring every burner was occupied. I kind of felt like the little woman, keeping the boys fed and beered while they watched the game. I was in my element: football, cooking and later, Clue. I was so engaged in what I was doing, in fact, that I barely paid attention to the score–and I love football. I still couldn’t tell you the final on the Florida-Miami game without first looking it up (though I of course know who won).

I am thoroughly enjoying my life, my friends, my kitchen.

J: This is like a mini-orgasm in my mouth.
P: Well don’t ruin it for the rest of us.

–Reactions to that meal (pork chops, creamy orzo, and broccoli and grape tomatoes in a homemade balsamic vinaigrette)


Filed under Autobiography, In the kitchen

Then we’d lie beneath the shady tree

My cup runneth over.


Filed under In the kitchen

You’re one with the wind through the open window

A good dinner in, just because.

That’s herb encrusted veal (from The Cook and The Gardener by Amanda Hesser–which I unfortunately don’t have with me, so I can’t share the recipe–but PS was an excellent excuse to use herbs de Provence) and bavette cacio e pepe. It’s a deceptively easy meal.

Bavette Cacio e Pepe
(Linguini with Cheese and Pepper)
Makes 4 servings as a first course

One is tempted to add more cheese, butter, and oil to this recipe. Resist this impulse. There should be just enough butter and oil to coat the pasta like a salad dressing, and just enough cheese to season it. If you add too much, the pasta will get oily and the cheese will make it loathsomely heavy. When done right, it’s an elegant dish with compact flavor.

Sea salt

¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

¼ cup finely grated pecorino Romano cheese

½ pound DeCecco brand linguini fini

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon very coarse, freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Sprinkle in enough sea salt so that it tastes seasoned. Meanwhile, mix the cheeses together in a small bowl. When the water boils, add the linguini and cook it for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Near the end of cooking, scoop out about 1/2 cup of cooking water and reserve.

2. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Drop in the butter, oil and 1/2 tablespoon pepper and stir with tongs or a large fork, lifting and folding the pasta together. Add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the pot and place it over medium-high heat. Cook for a minute, stirring to emulsify the sauce. Test a noodle to see if it’s done. It should still be a bit firm in the center, though not as stiff as licorice. Remove from the heat and sprinkle half the cheese over the pasta. Blend once more, then divide the pasta among four warm bowls. Pass the rest of the cheese and pepper at the table.

–Amanda Hesser, Cooking for Mr. Latte


Filed under In the kitchen

Stained up my clothes pretty good and I turned that dirt to mud

I feel like I was a homebody this weekend, although that’s not necessarily true. I was out from 8 a.m. to sometime after 5 p.m. Saturday, working on a church event, enjoying a book swap (and making new friends!), drinking coffee and grocery shopping. But when I returned home that night, I locked myself in, cooked and went to bed early.

I spent time with friends Sunday and again last night, but I’ve also been able to find time to sit around the apartment by myself—a very important thing in my life. And one perk of doing that? Eating in. Last night I threw together an easy guacamole, using whatever was in my fridge (and a few sale items from this weekend’s grocery trip). I ate nearly all of it for dinner and a late-night snack. Tonight’s goal? Finish it off when I return home from a walk with friends.


Best of all, I think that (well into my twenties) I’ve finally learned to like vegetables.

CJ’s weeknight guacamole

1 avocado, scooped out and smushed

2 tomatillos, diced

½ cup diced tomatoes

¼ cup diced onion

½ bunch cilantro, roughly chopped (about ¼ cup)

½ tablespoon red wine vinegar

½ tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon lime juice

Dump into a medium bowl, stir and eat.

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Filed under In the kitchen

It’s not the spark that caused the fire

Baking always makes me think of Candace Bushnell.

The Sex and the City creator spoke at my college senior year–before TBS syndicated and cleaned up the show, years before I saw it. My friend Apryl was assigned to escort Candace around campus. (That’s so Apryl.) As you would expect, talk turned to relationships.

As you would expect if you know Apryl, talk eventually turned to my relationships.

Let me give you a little background: Although I am certainly not the world’s most active dater now, I was even less so in college. But for some reason, I thought cooking would make me a more marketable woman. I made biscuits when guys came to visit us in the dorm. I brought carrot cake to the guys who stood in line for our block of football tickets. (That made me really popular; I saved their thank you message on my answering machine for as long as I could.) My roommates and I hosted dinner parties for as many as 15 people. We concocted a menu to complement a murder mystery night my senior year. We once offered Easter afternoon lunch for all our friends who didn’t leave town for the holiday.

Haven’t we been taught that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?

I’m not sure how she brought it up, but Apryl and Candace got to talking about my cooking. She’ll never find herself a man if she keeps that up, Candace said. Tell her to lay off.

I laughed off Candace-by-way-of-Apryl’s advice. The show, while entertaining, didn’t exactly depict what I was after.

Still, I’ve been a little sensitive about cooking for people–even my girl friends–ever since. In recent months, I’ve rediscovered that hours spent in the kitchen are almost as therapeutic as hours spent reading or writing. That’s something I do for myself–because I think it’s important to make time for things I enjoy, because I think treating myself well (and eating good food) is a worthwhile pursuit, because cooking allows me to clear my mind and focus on whatever music I’m playing way too loud.

And despite Candace Bushnell’s advice, recently I’ve resumed cooking for others–sometimes even men. There are lots of ways I show that I care about my friends, and sharing food and time is one of them. In the years since Candace evaluated my love life, I’ve learned something important.

I’ve learned how much I value being myself.

That said, here’s the second entry on my go-to recipe list. Frank Stitt’s Southern Table is probably the prettiest book I own, and sometimes I turn the pages just to stroke the glossy food images. (On the subject of being yourself–I told two friends tonight that I have learned to embrace the fact that I’m not cool. I think that sentence embodies my uncoolness.) But here’s a great thing: Although many of the book’s recipes are fancy, delectable creations, and many take the time you would expect from such masterpieces, his cookies are beautifully simple. I make shortbread cookies so often now that I think I went through a five-pound sack of flour in just a month or two.

And a bonus? Since they’re so easy, it’s easy to bake cookies and bring ‘em into the office. I’ve got a bag full on my desk right now, and shortbread with a cup of coffee is the perfect antidote to the stress of deadline week.

Shortbread cookies

Makes 3 to 4 dozen

These cookies are so tender they collapse on your tongue and so buttery a couple seem like just enough–though I usually have to have three. They are the ideal accompaniment to custard-type desserts.

3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat the over to 350.

Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Sift the salt and flour, then add to the butter mixture, mixing until just combined.

Form the dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap the log with plastic wrap and chill for three hours to overnight. Freeze for up to 2 months.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, remove plastic wrap and slice dough into 1/4 inch disks. Place on an ungreased baking sheet 1 inch apart and bake until the bottoms of the cookies just turn golden, about 10 minutes, turning the sheet 180 degrees after 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

Variation: After removing the dough from the refrigerator, slice as above, then roll each disck into a ball. Moisten a thumb and press into the center of each ball. Fill each indentation with high quality raspberry or other fruit preserves. Bake until slightly golden, 10 or 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

–Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, Frank Stitt

(I’ll point out that you don’t actually need a stand mixer for this. I’m sure it would make your life easier, but I mix the ingredients by hand and it’s just fine.)


Filed under Autobiography, In the kitchen, Insecurity, Love letters

Ditch the plans we made

I’m a woman of many routines. I like to go home on Friday nights and cook dinner alone, usually while listening to Says You on NPR. I drink at least three cups of coffee every Saturday and Sunday morning. On Saturdays in the fall, I’m up early and in front of the TV well before ESPN College Gameday begins. On Sunday mornings, any time of the year, I spend hours in bed with coffee, books, magazines, my cat, my journal and other assorted papers, Reg’s Coffeehouse playing in the background. (My phone’s also nearby–gotta be ready to call in and win concert tickets!)

As I’ve sought out recipes to call my favorites, making muffins has quickly become part of my weekend routine. It’s not something that happens every weekend, not yet. But I find myself turning to page 16 in my muffin cookbook even in the middle of the week, throwing together a quick breakfast before I leave for work. It’s early in the year and I’m far from knowing exactly what my stable of go-to recipes will contain, but these muffins are the first to make the list.

Applesauce Spice Muffins

These cinnamony brown apple muffins are moist on the inside and crisp on top.

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 eggs
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup milk
1 cup diced peeled apple, such as Fuji or Golden Delicious
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup applesauce
½ teaspoon cinnamon mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar for topping

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease or line muffin tins with paper cups.

Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and cloves in medium bowl.

In another large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, oil, milk, apple, lemon juice and applesauce. Add flour mixture to liquid ingredients and stir just until flour disappears.

Spoon into muffin cups. Sprinkle tops with cinnamon sugar mixture and bake 25 to 30 minutes until tester comes out clean.

Makes 12

–Totally Muffins Cookbook


Filed under In the kitchen