So Simple Yet So Super

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

I like to think of myself as a pretty resourceful person. Especially in the kitchen. Tonight was one of those nights when I was hungry and I wanted something really robust but I didn’t want to spend all evening cooking. And, I’m in one of my clean out the refrigerator modes. So, I looked around tonight and came up with a winner: a quick, kick-something Chicken Tortilla Soup. If it weren’t for packing my daughter a lunch tomorrow, I’d have eaten the rest of it myself!

As I looked around, I found that I had a bag of cooked, shredded chicken breast. I had fresh corn, onion, corn tortillas in the fridge. That got the idea cooking. Since I’m a cookbook and recipe junkie, I constantly peruse different versions of dishes. Over time, I think an amalgam of information ends up brewing in my head. I tend to take sombrerothe parts of one that I like, combine it with an idea from another, add something in from that one. So after seeing chicken, corn and tortillas in the kitchen, I just got this craving for a Mexican themed soup.

Even though it was in the 90’s today, don’t let that deter you from soup. Soup is highly UNDER-rated. It’s one of the world’s most perfect foods, really. It can contain proteins, all kinds of veggies, pasta, rice, even fruit. And I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who just finished a bowl of soup and wasn’t feeling all full, toasty and good on the inside. And there are the added benefits of freezing it for later, taking to a sick friend, using it in lunchbox thermoses and being able to have a giant crockpot of it waiting for you at the end of the day.

Our tortilla soup tonight was, in a word, FANDANGOTASTIC. I combined 2 cups of the shredded chicken with:

  • 32 oz chicken broth (one of the big rectangular cartons)
  • 1 cup of fresh corn kernels
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove minced fresh garlic
  • ½ tsp cumin
  • ½ tsp chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 cup chunky salsa (I used Herdez)

I brought all of this to a boil, then turned it down and simmered, covered for about 30 minutes. Remember that my chicken was already cooked when I started this. If you have raw chicken, cook it before adding to the other ingredients. At dinner, I offered crispy corn tortilla strips, sour cream, cheddar and sliced green onions to garnish. Some avocado would have been choice, if only I’d had one on hand!

All three of us devoured our soup and managed to save just enough for my daughter to take to day camp tomorrow for lunch. As an added bonus, our house smells divine! I keep walking out onto the patio just so I can come back in and smell my house! And, all of this, start to finish (with some chopping) took 40 minutes. Perfect for a weeknight dinner.

Elizabeth writes Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef). Please read, follow and comment. You can also find her culinary musings on Facebook and occasionally on Twitter.

Tales From Texas, Part 4

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

TexasClick here to read part 1 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series.
Click here to read part 2 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series. 
Click here to read part 3 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series. 

My culinary journey into Texas ends with the “Texas BBQ” that my sister ordered from T-Bone Tom’s, who enjoyed some Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fame. Of course, here in the glorious South, BBQ means pork, mustard sauce, white bread, coleslaw, hash and rice, and maybe some cracklin’s on the side.  Well, in the great Texas, it’s a whole different ballgame.  They are all about the beef.  Well, hello?  They are Texas, where pretty much all the beef comes from, right?

So the package of a typical Texas BBQ is smoked brisket and sauce, smoked sausage, potato salad, coleslaw, pintos, bread (untoasted Texas toast), pickles and onions on the side. While we don’t typically cook brisket in the South and call it barbeque, I’m a big brisket fan.  I love corned beef so much I check the prices on it every time I’m in the grocery store.  I love meats that “string” when they are cooked.  I was really looking forward to this food.  My brother-in-law picked it up and I helped set it all up on the table for my sweet niece’s 3-year-old birthday party. I’m not sure how many of the other pre-schoolers got their fill of Texas BBQ, but the rest of us were in good shape.

The brisket was simply fantastic: smoked, that nice dark “bark” on the outside and perfectly cooked.  The sauce was a red sauce, of course, because the rest of the world hasn’t discovered the magical versatility of mustard like we have! I’m sure the smoked sausage was great, but being a less-than-enthusiastic sausage eater, I didn’t try it myself. The potato salad was a pretty typical old-school style, as was the coleslaw, but the pinto beans were awesome.  I guess you’d say they were pretty much the “charros” that you find so often in this part of the country. While all the grown-ups polished off most of the barbeque, the toddlers turned their attention to my niece’s very elaborate fondant-covered dragon cake.  Fine, kids.  Eat your cake.  We’ll handle this brisket!

My first trip to Texas was really great.  I was able to spend great quality time with (most of) my family (my husband couldn’t get away and come with us 😦 ).  Taking my child to NASA was an awesome experience and I know she learned so much. Frankly, so did I.  Visiting the Kemah Boardwalk was fantastic.  Vivver wanted to ride the Boardwalk Bullet roller coaster.  She was tall enough to ride, so off we went.  It is a major league coaster and when it was all over, she was in tears.  But, by the end of our day there, she bolstered herself up and wanted to do it again.  She did fine and confessed to me later that it was her mantra “I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok” that got her through it and actually allowed her to enjoy the crazy thrill. 🙂

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”. Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.

Tales from Texas, Part 3

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

Click here to read part 1 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series.
Click here to read part 2 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series. 

TexasI guess growing up, I always thought of Texas as being nothing but desert, cattle farms and oil rigs. Well, lo and behold, Houston is coastal.  Who’d-a-thunk it?  I mean, I know how to read a map, but for some reason, it surprised me to see so much water and “beachiness.”

The first night we were in Houston, my sister and brother-in-law decided to take us to “the place under the bridge.”  Turns out this is really called Outriggers Oyster Bar & Grill.  Casual, on the water, just across the way from Kemah Boardwalk, and yes, under the bridge.  Apparently, we are in the midst of crawfish season (it was driving them all crazy when I called them crawdads, so of course, I called them crawdads on purpose!).  As we struggled with the children’s menu, my sweet 7-year-old gourmand heard “crawdads” and said, “That’s what I want!”  My mom and I chose the shrimp and avocado appetizer, sister got shrimp tacos, brother-in-law opted for Tilapia Veracruz and my dad selected the oyster Po-Boy.

Mine was fab-oooo!  It was slightly spicy broiled shrimp over two avocado halves atop shredded lettuce, all dressed with a wonderful remoulade.  Vivi’s crawfish were delicious and tender, but were pretty generously coated with spices on the shells.  She made it through about eight of them before the cumulative effect of spice hit her.  I must admit that when I requested a glass of milk for her, I was surprised to be told they have no milk.  I said to the waitress, “Wow, so you don’t serve any White Russians here, huh?” and was horrified when she said sure they do, but they make them with creamer.  **Note to self-don’t order a White Russian here.**  My brother-in-law’s fish was beautiful and he didn’t leave a bit on that plate and he didn’t share a bite with me either L My sister reported that the shrimp tacos were awesome, but my poor dad was disappointed.  His oysters were so overly breaded that he couldn’t even taste or appreciate any oyster.  He was disappointed, to say the least.

But, overall, this is a great restaurant.  I think my dad would have been much happier if he’d ordered what mom and I had.  I bet next time we go, he will, unless he’s already stopped at the Kroger and loaded up on tamales!

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”. Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.

Tales from Texas, Part 2

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

Click here to read part 1 of Elizabeth’s “Tales from Texas” series.

TexasAs soon as we arrived in Houston, we were starving.  Thankfully, Southwest Airlines stills treats their customers like customers and we’d had some Diet Coke, Ritzbits, and peanuts on the plane, but the snack was wearing thin by the time we landed.  My sister works from home and had a few things to finish up, so mom, dad, the Vivver and I headed out to a place called Miller’s Café.  My parents had tried it out on their last visit, so it was a place they knew and could find.  (Important when driving someone else’s car in a foreign town!)

As my sister had already pointed out to me about her new town, everything seems to reside in a strip mall.  There are very few free-standing buildings or restaurants.  I guess since Houston pretty much developed around the astronauts in the 60’s and 70’s, the shopping center mentality went along with that era. Miller’s is on the corner of a strip mall.  It’s a casual, unassuming “joint.”  The first thing I noticed as we drove up was a sign on the window that reads “Home of the Almost Famous Hamburger.”  They had me at hello.

So, we entered and it’s was a pretty typical burger joint.  Big coolers filled with ice and bottled beer and a huge menu hung up high describing all these great burgers.  There were some other sandwiches and stuff offered, but I was all about the burgers.  My eyes stopped on the “grilled onion burger.”  So, I ordered that, mom had a bacon cheeseburger, dad went cheese-less (I know, he’s a cholesterol Nazi) and the Vivver got a basic kid-sized cheeseburger.  The kid burger came with some awesome fries. I tasted them and was tempted to order some for the adults, but turns out, we couldn’t have eaten them. We could hear our burgers sizzling up on the flat top and they were served to us steaming hot.  I think I failed to mention so far that these are hamburgers about the size of my 7-year-old, Viv’s, head.  Like most people, I looked at it and said something profound like “oh, wow, these are huge. I’ll never be able to eat that.”  Well, I realize I was ravenous after my peanut snack, but I’m telling you, this was an amazing burger.  It was hot, juicy, and well-seasoned. The onions were grilled perfectly so that they were soft & sweet.  And, I ate the whole thing with no regrets and no stuffed-to-the-gills feeling afterwards.

I’m liking this Lone Star state!

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”. Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.

Tales from Texas, Part 1

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

TexasI guess it was around September that my little sister told me that her husband was looking around for a new company.  She was not excited about the fact that the top location choices were Texas and Colorado, since she now has a little one and has all our family within a couple hours drive of each other.  But, it was a great opportunity and a sweet deal, so in the midst of the holidays, they moved to Houston.  Her husband went before Thanksgiving, while Katherine stayed behind to deal with getting their house in Asheville sold and closed.  After that was completed, she loaded up what was left in her SUV along with the baby, the dog and my parents.  They accompanied her out there to make sure she got there ok and to help with the toddler.

While in Texas, mom and dad happened into a Kroger one day to get groceries to take back to Katherine’s new house.  They couldn’t help but notice that there was a lady behind the deli counter making fresh tortillas.  But, wait, there’s more…she was also making tamales!  Ever since they returned to South Carolina from this journey, I’ve heard about these tamales non-stop.  Other than chile rellenos, tamales are probably our favorite Mexican specialty.  Mom and dad were blown away by how great these “grocery store” tamales were. I’ve been jealous hearing about them ever since.

Well, since the kids had a half day and the next day off from school, we scheduled a long weekend for me and my daughter to fly out with mom and dad for a visit.  (This time of year is crazy for us…it starts with my niece’s birthday [3 this year], next day is mom and dad’s anniversary, March 31 is dad’s birthday, next day is my sister’s birthday [not an April Fool’s joke, it’s legit], then my baby’s birthday on the 8th.  And don’t forget that Easter typically falls somewhere in the midst of all this celebration. So, off to Houston we flew to celebrate all our family festivities and to check on my sister and her new town.

We had several great culinary adventures on this trip, about which I will write subsequent posts.  But today, we’re talking about tamales.  After a visit to the Johnson Space Center (NASA), we went to a Mexican restaurant called Edouardo’s.  Both my parents and I ordered the tamales.  We were served two pork tamales with charro beans. The tamales Tamaleswere certainly better than any I’ve had around here.  The masa was nice and tender and moist. The pork was well seasoned and moist and was that kind of “shreddy” meat that I like. The masa was a bit thick, but since it wasn’t dry, it was ok with me.

However, the next day, mom and dad made a grocery run before my niece’s party started and guess what they came home with?  A 10-pack of Kroger tamales.  I know it sounds improbable, but those little ladies at the Kroger deli have got it goin’ on!  These were some of the best I’ve ever had.  Now I understand why mom and dad have been talking about them for the last 3 months.  Unfortunately, once the package was opened, none of the tamales stuck around long enough for any photo shoots, but I did get one of the (almost as good) ones from the restaurant!

ElizabethElizabeth writes “Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef)”.  Follow the page on Facebook. All the cool kids do.

Main Street Revitalization is Happening!

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

The phrase “it’s a small world” isn’t just a cliché.  At least, not if you live in the South.  It’s a FACT. This phenomenon is probably true in all areas of the world, but I can attest to its omnipresence here in the southern United States. It would not be an exaggeration to say that at least once daily I meet someone that I have a connection to, in one way or another.

A good example: Today I overhead a man mention a “swing dancers club” and then it hit me that I’d met this guy before.  Sure enough, he was one of the organizers of a swing dance celebration a few years ago during which Neil’s grandmother was honored.  Why, you ask?  Betty Wood, or “Nana” as we called her, was one of the original Big Apple kids.  She WAS swing dancing.  And sure enough, this was the guy who arranged a weekend-long celebration during which Nana taught Lindy, Big Apple and Jitterbug classes and received the key to the City from former “Mayor Bob” Coble.

Michael'sAnother example of the small-worlded-ness to which I refer?  Michael Fusco.  Mike Fusco was (is) the older brother of my high school buddy Dave Fusco.  When we were in college, the Fuscos’ opened Irmo’s first gourmet, upscale restaurant called Restaurant 1-2-3. To this day I believe it was truly the only high caliber restaurant Irmo has ever enjoyed.  Later, the Fusco family moved on to open yet another high quality restaurant, this time in Lexington…Cinnamon Hill.  And then they hit the Vista with the Rhino Room. All of these ventures were successful, top quality, something-to-talk-about restaurants that we Columbians were fortunate to experience. Now, Mike has hit Main Street and true to form, we are all going to benefit from his experience and his talents.

Michael’s Café & Catering officially opened last Tuesday for breakfast and lunch.  They are located at 1620 Main Street.  Yes, that’s the “Mast General” block.  For those of you who work downtown, you might be interested to know that just around the corner is a 24/7 gym.  You can work out, pop into Michael’s for a coffee, juice or smoothie, and grab breakfast to eat or take with you to your office…granola, yogurt parfaits or a hot breakfast burrito.  There’s something for everyone.  And, as you’ve certainly surmised from the title, Michael’s provides catering services, including a full service, tech-outfitted conference center adjacent to the café for your big events.  And for those of us who attend downtown churches, Sunday brunch is on the near horizon!

Tuesday night, Michael was über generous and opened his café up to me and some of my friends from the food blogsphere.  We were able to tour the beautiful, shiny new kitchens, the sharp conference center, and the hip yet warm café. We also tasted some of Michael’s menu treats!  We tasted, photographed, tweeted, instagrammed and otherwise bragged to our friends about the experience.  Let me tell you this…if you are ever invited to a restaurant preview, dry run, soft opening, whatever you want to call it, GO!  They are so fun and you really feel a connection to the place when you’ve been included in something so special.

So, anyway…you want to know about the food, right?  We sampled lots of goodies.  Here goes:

  • Greek saladFrieda’s Special: this is a Greek salad, but it’s a killer Greek salad.  Know why?  Frieda is a wonderful Greek lady who is a mutual friend and the salad is reflective of her; high class all the way.  Quality lettuces, ample feta, pitted Kalamata olives, tender & spicy pepperoncini, outstanding dressing.  Not your typical iceberg lettuce salad, for sure!
  • White Russian sandwich: OMG! It’s not complicated.  Turkey, bacon, swiss and a homemade “not your typical” Russian dressing.  This is a fabulous sandwich, friends.
  • Pimento CheesePimento Cheese: We had this as a dip and also as a grilled cheese sandwich. Let’s face it…pimento cheese rocks as long as it’s homemade and made with really good quality cheese.
  • Philly Cheese Steak:  I’m super picky about Phillies.  This is it.  Lean, well cooked “grilly” tasting steak, spicy peppers and yummy onions and cheese.  Add a high quality hoagie roll and, well, I don’t need to say any more.
  • Pasta Salad:  We tried two.  The first was bow-tie pasta with pesto, artichoke hearts (I mean, can you go wrong with artichoke? NO!) and red wine vinegar/olive oil vinaigrette.  The other was a multi-color fusilli with a rice wine vinegar vinaigrette…my fave!
  • Shrimp Salad: Ok, see, we live in the South.  If anybody can work with shrimp, it’s those of us in coastal states.  This is a great example.  The shrimp are what my dad and I call “creek size” shrimp. They are just the right size for a salad on lettuce, in a cup, on a croissant.  Large, stuffable sized shrimp are not right for this job.  They are flavored with herbs and mayo, but lightly so.  It’s not heavy; it’s just what shrimp salad should be.
  • Breakfast Burrito:  Ok here’s the one place I have to insert something personal.  When I heard that Michael was opening a new place, I told my 7-year-old about it.  I’m proud to say that she is a very adventurous eater and loves to participate in the “grown up world.”  As soon as she heard about Michael’s, she said, it “must” have a breakfast burrito. So, I told Mike about it and Viola! he added it to the menu.  Viv is so proud.  If only it were titled the “Breakfast Vivverito” or something…Just kidding Michael!
  • Veggie Hummus Wrap: My girl April is a vegetarian.  If you have veggie friends, you know that there are varied types.  Some are vegan (NO animal products at all…this is a very hard, rigid lifestyle), ovo-lacto (ok with eggs, cheese, milk), pescetarians (fish, shellfish ok), you get the idea.  My friend April describes her vegetarianism very simply as “no flesh.”  That, I love.  I don’t have to think for 10 minutes about what she can or cannot eat.  So, Michael’s has several offerings for our veggie friends.
  • And last, but not least…SMOKED TOMATO RANCH. Holy mother of Krypton.  The mere description doesn’t sound like much, it’s true.  But after hearing a few others comment about this dressing, I had to make my way down the table to try it out for myself.  I don’t really know a better way to say wow, other than wowza, shazamm, holy something…  We all know that in many cases, a salad is only as good as its dressing.  This is fantastic.  You just have to trust me and try it for yourself.  I loved it so much, I asked Michael if he could think of using it as a base for a pasta salad. And, I think this would be the ideal dressing for any salad, even Frieda’s, if you want to deviate from the norm!

The evening was just fantastic and I know that the downtown community will love and support this new eatery. I want to thank Mike, Rebecca and Lisa for inviting all of us in and giving us the opportunity to try out the menu. Michael’s is focused on good quality, culinary talent and supporting other local culinary businesses along the way. Those of you who read my blog posts know my opinion of the importance of supporting local people and local businesses.  Try out Michael’s Cafe. For a few reasons: because you love and appreciate good food, you need an efficient space for parties/meetings, and need a fantastic caterer for your special events.

And, because I said so.  🙂  

Elizabeth writes Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef) to record cooking thoughts, successes, failures and whatever crosses her mind. You can also find her on Facebook.

 

The Egg White Trick

By: Elizabeth Webber Akre

How many times have you made a recipe that calls for eggs to be separated?  Key lime pie uses yolks, soufflés use whites, some recipes even go so far as to call for one amount of yolks and another of whites.  I used to hate having to separate eggs and throw away the part I didn’t need.  Then, someone shared one of the greatest tip with me: You can freeze them.  So simple, yet so brilliant.

Never tried freezing yolks…hmmm

Never tried freezing yolks…hmmm

 I usually end up with extra egg white.  I put one egg white per bag, using those little snack-size zip bags. Then, I place those bags in a freezer bag. I just keep adding to that freezer bag as I have extras. This really comes in handy for me. For instance, I make an “oven fried” pork chop that requires an egg white.  I stick one of these little bags in a cup of warm water and it defrosts in just a couple minutes.

One of my favorite pork chop dishes

One of my favorite pork chop dishes

The perfect chile relleno

The perfect chile relleno

After years of searching, I have finally found the perfect recipe for one of my favorite foods…Chile Relleno. The perfect recipe calls for 5 egg whites. With my newfound s I have them right on hand and don’t have to crack eggs!

ElizabethElizabeth writes Gastronomy (by a Wanna-be Chef). You can also find her on Facebook. Eat, Drink and be Merry!