The Back Seat

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

Life is a funny thing. It’s full of joy, laughter, tough decisions, mistakes, sadness, tragedy, rewards and fulfillment. You never really know what each day will throw your way. You just have to wake up and see what happens. Sometimes the events of the day, or days, make every woman blogit important for certain things to take a back seat. For me, it’s been cooking. I love to cook. It’s my hobby, my challenge, my catharsis, my fun. But since August 6th, I haven’t done much adventurous cooking. I’ve been pulling out old stand-bys, quick weeknight dinners, and easy meals simply because of all of the oddball circumstances that life has thrown my way.

August 6th was my mom’s birthday. My daughter and I were in Houston, enjoying a visit with my sister and NASA summer camp when we got the phone call. My mom had been hurt and was in the hospital with a brain bleed. A subdural hematoma. She was being admitted to the ICU, being CT-scanned every 6 hours and I wasn’t there. The course of the next month was a trying one. But, as life happens, there was a blessing in disguise. The doctors discovered an aneurysm hiding in my mom’s head. We would have never known it was there. It’s repairable, so that’s next on our family agenda.

As we began October, our whole town was turned upside down. 13 years ago, I sold my best friend and her husband their house on Timberlane Drive. Over the years, we all complained about the cost of the flood insurance they were required to have, but every time the street flooded, it was a reminder that if anything bad ever happened, they would be protected. Well, on October 4th, something bad happened. Something really, really bad. Were they protected? Yes, more so than lots of other people, but not enough. Flood waters completely overtook their tri-level home. Think about how many feet up off the ground a tri-level house is. Take a moment…it’s staggering. It’s a complete loss, no fixing it up, no moving back home. It’s gone.

So, we have all been very pre-occupied with my mom’s health and my friends’ recovery. Cooking has truly taken a back seat and I miss it. But, there is a light at the end of both of these tunnels, so before long, I will be back in the swing. In the midst of all this craziness, a friend from high school brought me a little surprise. She works for Congaree Milling and dropped a care package of grits, cornmeal and polenta for me to try. I already have some ideas of how I want to use them and, of course, write about them. And, Thanksgiving is coming. So yay! Prime time to get back in the front seat!

Elizabeth Akre writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef).” You can also follow on Facebook and Twitter.

The Great Tamale Project

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

Of all the cuisines, Mexican is one of my all-time favorites. I love queso and chips as much as the next guy, but for me the ultimate Mexican dish is tamales. And they are hard to come by. Not many restaurants serve them and it’s even harder to find a person who makes them. I know. For years, I’ve wanted to learn to make them. I’ve always been told that they are soooooo hard to make. They are soooooo complicated. They are such a project that someone’s grandmother might make them for a very special occasion. So, I’ve merely dreamed and aspired to become a tamale cook for a very long time.

I came across an old 1980’s Mexican cookbook that a friend was throwing out. I scooped it up and there it was: a tamale recipe. I read it over and over again because I just couldn’t grasp what was so difficult about what I was reading. And then it happened. I bought a Boston butt and I made tamales.

I don’t know what I’ve been waiting on. I let others convince me that this was some insurmountable task. But here’s the news flash…it is not difficult to make tamales. At all. It takes some time, but it’s not hard. And, they were fabulous!

I trimmed the excess fat and cubed the meat.

Simmered on the stove with peppercorn, bay leaf & onion.

making tamales

Guajillo peppers are soaked then pureed into enchilada sauce.

making tamales

Look at this color! Shredded pork is mixed with the enchilada sauce. It tastes much better than canned sauce, for sure.

making tamales

Instant masa is super easy to work with.

making tamales

Spreading masa on the corn husk.

making tamales

You just spread and pat it out with your fingers.

making tamales

Top with masa with a little of the meat mixture.

making tamales

Then you fold the sides over the filling and tuck under the pointed end.

making tamales

Ready to spend an hour in the steamer.

making tamales

Steamer is all loaded up with tamales.

making tamales

My first plate of homemade tamales!

OMG! My tamales were fantastic, if I do say so myself! The sauce has out-of-this-world flavor. It’s so simple to make. You soak the chiles in hot water to soften them up, then remove seeds and purée them with the soaking liquid. Then you cook the purée with some garlic, flour, vinegar, cumin and oregano. Nothing difficult about that. The pork is stewed with some garlic, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns. After it’s cooked, you shred it, mix with sauce and refrigerate overnight. Nothing hard about that. You also save the pork broth for the masa. Refrigerate that overnight so you can skim the fat off before mixing up the masa.

The next day, you simply mix the masa with warm broth, shortening, and baking powder until it becomes a soft, wet dough. You soak your corn husks in hot water for about an hour to make them pliable. Then, it’s just a matter of spreading out some masa, add some filling and fold. They steam for about an hour and then you are ready to dig in. The masa was so soft and tender and flavorful. This is key because even in restaurants I’ve had tamales with dried out masa and it ruined the whole dish. The pork was tender and that sauce, oh the sauce!

And none of this was hard to do. It takes some time, but anything worth doing is worth the time. My parents came to dinner and we all fell in love with the tamales. So much so that later that week, I made another batch. A double batch!

Another Reason I Love Living in SC

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

I’m proud to be a native South Carolinian. There are many, many reasons to love it here. But today, I’m thankful for one my favorites: South Carolina produce. To escape the heat, I rode up to Spartanburg the other day with my daughter, and my mom and dad. My dad is from Spartanburg and considers it to be the peach capitol of the world. You know, South Carolina really is the peach state. For us, it’s not just a slogan, it’s a fact. While Lexington County produces a huge share of South Carolina peaches, we’re just partial to the Spartanburg area ones.

South Carolina Peaches

Check out this photo. The peach on the right is a “grocery store” peach. The other one just came off the tree a few days ago. Which one would you want?

peach comparison

I employed this little miracle machine earlier. I actually got two of these as wedding gifts. It’s awesomely fast, there’s no salt involved and there’s no ice melting all over the floor! My homemade peach ice cream is nestled in the freezer, firming up for our decadent special dessert later tonight.

ice cream maker

Just a little further up the road in Inman, we have our favorite farm for blueberries. Nearby is another great produce shed run by a family. The blueberries aren’t huge this year because of the lack of rain and the surface-of-the-sun-heat that we’ve had this summer, but they are still beautiful and packed with flavor. Mom and I got a gallon to share. I’ve already used some for a coffee cake. This weekend I’m putting together an overnight blueberry French toast recipe to take to church. Look at all these…and this is just my half. Much better deal than the grocery store.

blueberries

One of the reasons I turned the corner on raw tomatoes was because the gorgeous color of summer tomatoes was always so enticing to me. I was handed a shrimp salad croissant at Kiawah a few summers ago. It was dressed with the most perfectly red slice to tomato. I was preparing to take it off, as usual, when I decided to act like a grown-up and try it. I’ve been hooked ever since. How did I go so long without “getting” it and enjoying these summertime jewels? Well, I’ve been trying to make up for lost time. These tomatoes from Inman are just luscious. They are sweet like the fruit that they are. So far, we’ve made a picture-perfect Caprese salad, fresh tomato and bacon sandwiches, and have also enjoyed simple sliced tomatoes with olive oil, salt & pepper.

antipasto caprese

SC tomatoes

I’m sure you all have many other reasons you love living here too. The Congaree swamp, our beaches, Lake Murray, the Stumphouse tunnel, fresh seafood, The Beacon, steeplechases…the lists are miles and miles long. But, make sure you have our plethora of fresh produce on those lists. We are so lucky to have so much goodness available to us year ‘round. Support our farmers, buy local and eat well!

La Madeleine: C’est belle!

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

As soon as school got out, my daughter, my mom and I hopped on an airplane to go back to Texas. My sister won a cruise from her company, so she and her husband were headed for the Caribbean. We were the babysitters for my 4-year-old niece. Yes, we are the longest-distance traveling babysitters. Ever.

Any of you moms know that 4-year-olds can really give you a run for your money. While we had lots of cool excursions planned (Sea World, Wildlife Ranch, Houston Zoo, Kemah Boardwalk) we tried to keep her normal schedule at Montessori as many days as possible. After dropping her at school one morning, the three of us headed to La Madeleine. Although this is a chain, it’s a country French-style café complete with a wonderful bakery and a selection of patisseries that rival any I’ve seen in France. If you’ve never visited France, it’s worth a trip just to see the window displays of the local patisseries that exist in every single town. They are vibrant works of art!

This place was fantastic. The décor was authentic, with rustic country-style tables, chairs, and wood flooring – truly country French. My daughter went to the bathroom about 6 times because they have French language lessons playing over the stereo in there. Each trip brought her back to the table with a new word or phrase.

It was hard to make a choice because there were so many beautiful selections. Vivian chose a lemon muffin with decadent lemon custard filling and the housemade lemonade (the kid likes lemon!). My mom ordered the Cinnamon French Toast and I went with Quiche Lorraine.

Let’s start with the muffin. The fact that the child chose lemon over all the ooey-gooey chocolate items and shiny, glossy fruit tarts was pleasantly surprising. But she surprises me a lot. The muffin was delicious on its own, but then to discover that custard hiding in the center was a great treat.

lemon muffin

Mom’s French toast was amazing, to say the least. It was crisp brioche with a rainbow of fruit on top, and it sported a dollop of “real deal” whipped cream. It was way more than one person could eat, so Viv and I were able to have a few yummy bites.

French toastThe quiche was very nice as well. It was roughly a 6” pie, perfect for one. The crust was so super flaky, which always makes me jealous since piecrust is my culinary nemesis! The filling was rich (real cream I suppose, which is how I like to make mine) and tasted very authentically French.

quiche lorraine

After finishing our relaxing petit déjeuner, Viv selected two adorable mini lemon tarts to take home to share with her little cousin later. Now that I know that La Madeleine is a chain, I’m trying to think of everyone I know in the restaurant biz so I can convince them to open one here. We have nothing like it and I can’t imagine anyone not liking this menu. Until my next visit to Houston, bon appétit La Madeleine!

Mother’s Day Lessons

Here at The Every Woman Blog, we wanted to wish a Happy Mother’s Day to the women who have made us who we are today. To celebrate our mothers and thank peoniesthem for all they have done for us, the Every Woman Bloggers shared the most valuable lessons they learned from their moms.

Elizabeth: I think the most important lesson I learned from my mom is the power of positive thinking. She’s always said we should focus on what we want, not on what we don’t want. It’s more than mere optimism; it’s knowing, BELIEVING that we will get the positive result we want.

Katie: I learned a lot from my mom over the years but what stands out most are the following lessons:

  • Do what makes you happy. Only you know what that is.
  • Family will always be there for you, no matter what.
  • Anything is possible as long as you believe it’s possible.
  • And the most important lesson of all, every day is a walk in faith and everything happens for a reason.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today and wouldn’t have made it through my cancer battle without my mom. She, along with Mike’s mom, kept me focused, believing that better days were ahead even when I was losing hope. Love you mom!

Brady: Not only is it okay to be different, it is GOOD to be different.

Shannon: I have learned so many valuable lessons from my mother. My amazing mother has taught me the importance of using and sharing my talents. Through incredible example, my mother has shown me how much joy one can bring to others by sharing their God-given talents. I have watched her share her musical talents and fill a room with such love, joy and passion. To truly touch and inspire others is such a gift! I can only hope that my life will include opportunities to share my own talents.

Crissie: I learned so much from my mom. Much of it, I didn’t realize I had learned until I was older, as is often the case. It’s nearly impossible to pick the most important thing she taught me. Most of what I am most grateful for are the lessons I learned from her about being a mom, none of which came in the form of “advice” from her, but came from simply watching her and remembering how she handled many different situations while I was growing up.

She gave us freedom and let us grow. She watched, safely from a distance, never really sheltering us, but being close enough to help if we fell, both figuratively and literally. She still does this today with me, although she’s a bit more sheltering of her grandchildren. I think of my mom as I watch my two little boys climb high into our magnolia tree. I hear their laughter and see their happy faces, all while I am silently praying that they don’t fall, but knowing the experience and memories will last them a lifetime.

Another important lesson I learned from my mom is to not be late for anything. Ever. Especially church. While I have tried my best to apply this and, for many years, was able to put this into practice, admittedly, I am not as early as I used to be, though I do try to still be punctual. Especially to church.

Lastly, perseverance. I’ve watched my mom struggle through a number of heath issues in her life, but never shirk her duties in regards to her family or her job. No matter what she was going through, she never gave up. While I don’t know if I’m as strong as she, I do try to persevere and, even when I’ve had trying times, and have felt like crawling under a rock, I remember that there are responsibilities that must be taken care of.

I’m so grateful to God for another Mother’s Day with my mom!

What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your mother? 

Homemade Lo Mein

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

lo mein

If you read my blog, you have probably noticed that I tend to come up with a lot of Asian-inspired meals. Why is that? Well, we like Asian flavors, but more than that, there are endless possibilities. You can stretch meats really far and you can use just about any vegetables you have on hand to come up with something easy and delicious that everybody will eat. At my house, we frequently dine on fried rice, noodle dishes, dumplings and the like.

My daughter loves lo mein. In fact, that’s pretty much her standard order anytime we go out for Chinese. I recently bought (CHEAP) boneless, skinless chicken breasts at Sam’s. Not only were they ridiculously inexpensive, but they were huge. I looked at this chicken and knew I could stretch one of these breasts and feed the three of us. Lo mein came to mind.

Once again, I just looked around for what I had. I had bought one of those Green Giant stir-fry mixes in the produce section. I took out a few of the pea pods (you may call them snow peas) and sliced them diagonally into small pieces. I also cut carrots and broccoli into small pieces.

homemade lo mein

 

 homemade lo mein

For the chicken, I mixed up some cornstarch, soy sauce, garlic powder and ground ginger. I sliced the chicken into strips and marinated it for about 1 ½ hours. I wanted the chicken to be small in the final dish, but I didn’t want it to over-marinate, so I stir-fried the strips and then had my sous-chef husband cut them down into bite-sized pieces. While he did that, I cooked ½ lb of spaghetti noodles and drained them. Using veggie oil, I sautéed a little chopped onion with the other vegetables.

homemade lo mein

From there, all I had to do was add a little chicken broth to the noodles and the chicken. I then gave it all a good mix-up and let it simmer for a couple minutes. And there you have it: Homemade Lo Mein.

homemade lo mein

The lo mein connoisseur gave me a thumbs up and had two helpings. Sous-chef husband went back for thirds. It took no time at all to cook and with just a few veggies and one chicken breast, we had an ample meal. I do similar dishes with rice; veggies, an egg, whatever meat we have around (chicken, ham, shrimp) and we have a big wok full of fried rice that I think rivals any restaurant. Making your own egg rolls is similar; shred some cabbage, chop the vegetables you have in your fridge, stir-fry with some little bits of meat and roll ‘em up! I hope you’ll try some of your own Asian-style creations. It’s fun, easy and never the same.

請享用
Qǐng xiǎngyòng

(Bon Appetit)

Elizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)” and would love to have you a reader. Follow her on Facebook, too!

A Merry Culinary Christmas!

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

The holiday season is full of activity, parties, decorations, rituals, traditions and FOOD, no matter what faith you do or do not practice. While we all enjoy the music, gatherings with christmas friends, shopping for and giving gifts, time with family (we DO enjoy that, right?), I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a person alive who would say they don’t enjoy the food that accompanies the season.

My family attended a “cookie swap” at a neighbor’s house this year, which was great fun. In addition to the cookies, the kids dove into a giant pot of hot chocolate while the adults took advantage of my friend Heidi’s rum punch. The older kids made grilled cheese sandwiches for everyone and it was a great get-together. My husband brought along a high school friend and his family, who came through town on the way to Tennessee. These guys hadn’t seen each other since 1986. So, we ice skated then settled down to have sushi and Tex-Mex together (thanks, TakoSushi!)

This year my sister and her family came home from Houston for Christmas. My three-year-old niece made my mom aware that she had eaten snow crab legs at some point in time and was in need of her own “cracker.” Mom found lobster claw-shaped crab crackers for her and settled on us having a glorious seafood themed Christmas. And, trust me, there were no complaints here! So, on Christmas Eve I made crab cakes while mom and dad went to the airport to pick everyone up. We paired our crab cakes with my dad’s shrimp and grits, which was off the chain. This version involved a light brown roux, peppers and Andouille. Add some salad and it was off to the races.

On Christmas, we did the traditional ham (I LOVE ham!), sweet potatoes, broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese. My husband was delighted that my mother-in-law brought her deviled eggs, which he gives a blue ribbon. But the day after Christmas was crab legswhen Clara got her chance to break in her new crab cracker. Now, we all know that no sort of cracking device is necessary with Alaskan crab, but hey, she’s only three. We had a giant platter of snow crab, boiled corn and potatoes, and focaccia bread. Turns out, Clara is like most kids. While the cracker seemed so necessary & grown up at first, she prefers to have an adult just open up all the crab legs and place a pile of crab meat on her plate. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind that setup myself!

So, we had our culinary feasts to celebrate Christmas and it was just wonderful. I’m sure that you all had similarly satisfying suppers at your house. “Eat, drink and be merry” starts with the food because it’s the best part…it brings us together, demonstrates our love for each other and gathers us to the table to share our time with each other. Happy New Year and Bon Appetit to you all.

Elizabeth Akre is a mom, a Realtor®, and an avid and completely amateur home cook. She writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)” and would love to have you read and follow the blog. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.