50 Shots of America: South Carolina

Ah, South Carolina, home of Charleston, the grand lady of the South. All sorts of antebellum thoughts start running through my head when I think of the coastal cities of the 8th state of the Union.

But first, some history.

The Carolina colony was one of the original 13, settled in 1670 by English colonists from Barbados and then French Huguenots. Pretty much from the get-go they did a brisk market in slave trading, specifically trading off thousands of Native Americans  which was the cause of the Yamasee War and, ultimately led to the split of the colony into North and South in 1719.

Of course, most know that the Civil War (ahem, the War of Northern Aggression as some prefer to call it) began with the shelling of Ft Sumpter but South Carolina had been stretching it’s independent legs prior to this momentous occasion. They were the first to declare their independence from British Rule and the first to ratify the Articles of Confederation. In 1832 they declared Federal Tariffs unlawful and opted out, only to have to rescind this option in a couple of years.

With all of these firsts, South Carolina seems to have learned it’s lesson and was the next to last state to ratify the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote) a full 53 years after it was nationally ratified and it was also the last state to remove the Confederate flag from their statehouse in 2000.

Nonetheless, southern hospitality is still recognized as the state’s stock in trade. Another state known for it’s peaches and having milk as the official state beverage, South Carolina goes one step further to have an official State Hospitality Beverage: Tea. Iced, no doubt, with plenty of sugar, southern sweet tea is practically a food group to it’s citizens. Some may find it one step removed from syrup, but that’s how we like it in the southeast.

Which leads us right into…

Hospitality Suite
(serves 2)

3 oz Brewed Tea, strong
2 oz Peach Schnapps
1 oz Tan Sugar Syrup*
1/2 barspoon Vanilla (the real thing, no imitation extracts!)

Combine over ice in a large shaker and give it a firm handshake to a count of ten. Strain into chilled glasses.

Now, this is a bit more generous that previous shots–by the time the ice melts in the shaker and adds a bit of volume you should end up with 2 4oz cocktails or 4 2oz shots. Never make this for one–you’re gonna want to share this with someone to be in the true spirit of hospitality. In fact, the first batch was so good, we made another after supper.

This slightly spiked take on a sweet peach tea would go great with any of the seafood available along the South Carolina coast or with the official State Snack: Boiled Peanuts–aka Southern Caviar.

*Tan Sugar Syrup is my shorthand for a 1:1 simple syrup made with half white sugar and half brown (hence, tan). The molasses in the brown sugar adds a bit of depth to the syrup and it comes through with a stronger base ingredient like brewed tea. You could also use Demara sugar and achieve a similar result.

Short Cut Suppers

We don’t keep a lot of packaged foods in the house–instant dinners, box mixes, frozen entrees. Partially because of my dietary restrictions and partially be cause we just like to cook from good, basic ingredients. If we don’t feel like cooking one night (it happens from time to time), it usually means going out or at least picking up take-out.

All of that to say, when we *do* have something pre-made it’s a rare occurrence and usually happens because of one of the following reasons:

  • I went to the store hungry. Though even then I’m more prone to pick up snacks or some really rich cheese instead of something pre-packaged or instant mix.
  • I saw something new and was curious enough to give it a try.
  • I went to World Market. Something about all of the imported foods they carry just makes me want to try anything and everything they carry—I’ve yet to be disappointed.

The most recent case was a combination of the last 2, when I stumbled upon the Punjabi Butter Chicken Simmer Sauce from Tiger Tiger.

There’s usually a few other criteria if I’m going to pick up something like this. Usually it’s as real-food as possible (no long list of chemicals or preservatives), comes from a reliable source and is something that I can’t easily make myself.

This fit the bill pretty well. After trying to find a recipe that matches the awesomeness that was in that jar I’ve come to the conclusion that I might have to try a few before I find the at-home version I’m looking for. There are no cryptic ingredients  and it looked like something we might find at our local Indian restaurant which we don’t make as much time to visit as we’d like.

All it took was cutting up some chicken (we also added a couple of large-diced potatoes), browning it and adding the sauce until it was warm and toasting some naan in the oven. Making the rice took the longest but it was totally worth it and we got our usual 4 servings out of a single jar with no problem (2 for dinner, 2 for lunches the next day).

It was a nice compromise between cooking from scratch and take-out. What’s your short cut of choice on those nights when you don’t want to do too much?

50 Shots of America–Maryland

You know, if Maryland was a person, I think they’d be pretty confused.

Take, for example, this scattering of facts:

  • Founded as a haven for English Catholics, Catholicism has been banned at least twice within it’s borders! Still, it boasts the first cathedral in the United States (the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and was home to the founder of the Sisters of Charity who became the first US-born citizen to be canonized, St Elizabeth Ann, 9.14.1975.
  • It’s considered Little America or America in Miniature because it boasts so many different environments in it’s just-over 12,000 square miles–that’s a lot of everything to put in such a small space!
  • Despite being predominantly Democratic, it’s most famous political son was the Republican VP under Nixon, Spiro Agnew. Of course, maybe that should read infamous…
  • It’s technically south of the Mason-Dixon line (since that point of demarcation is it’s northern border) but was coerced into not seceding with it’s southern brethren (of which roughly half the state identified with) because Lincoln pointed cannons at it from DC! Incidentally, the land DC sits on was ceded by Maryland back in 1790.
  • The state sport is jousting, which is rather unique, but it’s tough to actual witness unless you attend the Maryland Renaissance Faire in Crownsville, and it only runs 3 months of the year!
  • And look at the state motto: Manly deeds, womanly words. Would you like to be in the metaphorical room when those two duke it out?

It’s for these reasons I dub the following drink:

Wit’s End

1/2 oz Rye whiskey
1/4 oz Goldschlager
1/2 oz Ginger syrup*
Club soda

Combine the rye, goldschalger and syrup over ice. Shake like a jouster is barrelling towards you with his lance aimed at your shaker. Strain into a cordial glass and top with club soda, giving it a little stir with a swizzle stick to combine.

Even though the state beverage is, indeed, milk the early trials of milk and rye and Old Bay seasoning (in honor of that which seasons the famous Maryland Blue Crabs that are such a treat) fared about what they sound like they would. (Actually, it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t really what I was looking for. Plus, we just did a milk cocktail not too long ago.) Rye whiskey was quite a popular item in Maryland up until Prohibition but since then most distilleries have closed, the last surviving one transplanted to Kentucky. Still, rye and soda can be found in some of the older Marylander establishments for those looking for a taste of the old ways.

Old Bay, back to the seasoning for a bit, is described as a combination of celery salt, bay leaf, mustard seed, black and red peppers, cinnamon and ginger. Yum! And while the first sets of ingredients had me thinking something along the lines of a Bloody Mary, the cinnamon and ginger seemed a nice foil for the rye, which can be quite strong if you’re not all that into whiskey. (Hint: Rye whiskey reminds me more of Scotch than Bourbon.) Also, there was a taste of gold mining going on in the Old Line State but it didn’t last long. Still, it made the Goldschlager an obvious choice.

*To make ginger syrup you can go two ways:

  1. Make a basic 1:1 Simple Syrup with about an inch of fresh cut ginger simmered in. Strain and cool.
  2. Dice and mash an inch of fresh ginger and let steep in pre-made simple syrup for 2 weeks or more.

One last note about Maryland (though, I admit, there’s plenty more to say). During the War of 1812 the British were trying to take the Port of Baltimore and did battle against Fort McHenry. Francis Scott Key is said to have penned the Star Spangled Banner during this onslaught. I find this incredibly synchronistic as, completely unplanned–I couldn’t plan this stuff if I tried!–my topic over at the 64 Arts (my personal blog about living creatively) for Friday is Anthems. Coincidence? I’m not sure there is such a thing!

the Chicken Condition

An easy thing to do, if you’re goal is to eat a bit healthier, is to eat more chicken and fish compared to beef and pork. Most people know this. But a strange thing has happened over the years when it comes to the median size of a fresh chicken breast.

If I buy a pound of chicken breasts at the local grocery store I invariably end up with 3 breasts in the package and almost always it’s 2 very large ones and 1 not quite as large. None, however, are anything close to 3-4 ounces, which is a serving size of chicken.

Since 1 lb of chicken should yield at least 4 servings (5 is closer to goal, but I’m not going to quibble about an additional ounce of lean chicken, especially if it’s being prepared healthily, as I would be about an additional ounce of potato chips or fried something or other) so a mis-matched package of 3 leaves you with a few options to serve 4: buy 2 packages and store the leftover 2 in the freezer for another application or, using a bit of basic math*, divide it into 12 pieces so that we’re somewhere close to even servings.

Almost.

You see, another problem with these chicken breasts is that they’re not uniform in size so if you cook them as is you run the very real chance of not cooking the center of the thick portion all the way before the thinner end is dried out into jerky. And chicken is NOT something you want to serve medium-rare. Shudder.мека мебел

The way we fix this in our house is, first, to buy the 5 lb+ packs of chicken. Not only do these chickens tend to be slightly less gargantuan that their single-pound counterparts, you’re price per pound is generally lower, making money sense as well as serving sense. Depending on the size of the breasts, there’s usually 9-11 in there. That’s where the second fix comes in: we split each breast in half, latterally (like you’re going to butterfly it, only not stopping part-way through). Not only does this give us 2 correct portions per breast and stretches the grocery budget but it also makes for a more uniform piece of meat that cooks evenly and looks better on the plate than a bunch of pieces!

Incidentally, there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to splitting the chicken breasts. If you do botch one or two, set them aside and put these oops along with any other smaller portions in a freezer bag marked pieces and use that the next time you make a stir-fry or chicken salad. We usually keep 4 portions per bag because we cook enough to bring for lunch the next day (both for saving money on unnecessary lunch purchases and the health-benefits of a home-cooked lunch) but, obviously, use what works best for your household.

*Remember fractions? Back when you had to add 1/3 and 1/4, in order to do so you had to find the LCD (lowest common denominator–not liquid crystal display!) so you could add apples to apples. The LCD of 3 breasts and 4 servings is 12 pieces, but only if the breasts are of similar size.

50 Shots of America: Massachusetts

In 2005 I took my first plane ride ever up to Plymouth, Mass., to learn the new accounting system my company purchased. (Actually, we flew into Boston–late–and drove to Plymouth by way of Rhode Island… whoops!) At any rate, we didn’t get a chance to do much sight-seeing (one of these days I *will* visit Salem) but we did make it into town to see Plymouth Rock.

Or, you know, what’s left of it.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to gaze on this pebble of our Nation’s history (we’re talking about the site of the second permanent English settlement in North America, after all) let me break it down for you:

It’s a rock. In a cage.

After years of being gouged at and dragged around town the powers that be put what was left of the bit of glacial rock (1/3rd of it’s original size, by then) back where it came from, on the beach, surrounded by a promenade and covered by a portico. You walk up and look down. At a rock in a cage (there are gratings–bars–that allow sea water into the enclosure and back out again).

But, you know, it works. At least they don’t charge you to see it, otherwise it’d be like paying a dollar at the fair to see the world’s smallest horse.

Which brings me to this week’s beverage:

Rockin’ Tea Party

1 oz strong-brewed Tea
1 oz Cranberry Juice
.5 oz Gin
1 Sugar Cube

Combine the tea, juice and gin in a shaker over ice and shake vigorously. Place the sugar cube in the bottom of the shot or cordial glass and strain the mixture over it.

In this little sipper we have several facets of Massachusetts represented: Plymouth Rock, of course, by the sugar cube, tea for the 1773 Boston Tea Party–one of many early actions in MA that spurred us into the American Revolution, cranberry juice for it being the 2nd largest cranberry-producing state and gin for it’s part in the temperance movement.

Oh, yes, there’s some irony in creating a cocktail for the state that is directly responsible for Prohibition and, therefore, “bathtub” gin. But all’s well that ends well, and Prohibition definitely didn’t last.

Other things Massachusetts is responsible for? Check out the short list:

  • the Presidential families of Adams and Kennedy
  • Transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson
  • the Telephone, 1876
  • Johnny Appleseed and a whole host of cider-apple trees
  • Volleyball, 1895
  • the first Subway system in the US, 1897
  • Birth Control Pill, 1954
  • Vulcanized Rubber, 1839
  • Sewing Machine, 1845

The Naughty & Nice Party

Also known as a Heaven & Hell or Angel & Devil Party, this style of Valentine’s Party is a good way to bring both couples and singles together in a fun, low-pressure environment and have a little fun.

Invitations will ask the guests to come as either angels or devils. Now, depending on your friends this could mean anything from a halo or a pair of horns to fabulous costumes or even just wearing white and pink versus black and red. As long as they get into the spirit, it can be fun. Having some spare halos and horns (both very easy to construct if the party store isn’t helpful) is a good idea, though, for those who “forget” to embrace the theme.

Party rooms are to be divided in half–one side for Heaven, one side Hell, the former decorated in pastels and white and the latter decorated in bold shades of red and black. Colorful masking or painters tape is good for creating the dividing lines to keep it simple or you can go all out with spliced tablecloths, rug covers and sofa throws. Don’t restrict the decorations to the living room, either, feel free to divide any room your guests might wander into.

Potential foods for the angelic side of the table would be anything white, fluffy or sweet. Angel food cake, marshmallows, finger sandwiches, hummus & pita chips would all work well along with steamed dumplings, beggar’s purses and chicken salad puffs; all served on doilies or course. For the other side of the table, everything dark and spicy and decadent should be piled high on industrial looking serving-ware. Dark chocolates, devil’s food and red velvet cupcakes, deviled eggs (consider adding some onion skins to the boiling water and cracking the shells around before draining them to get a wicked-looking marbled effect), spicy shrimp on sugar cane skewers, meatballs in chili sauce… you get the picture.

One other idea, and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination: the party I attended of this sort had 2 colors of plastic cups and the instructions were given that single folks were to use the blue cups and those in a relationship or otherwise unavailable to use the red ones. What a great idea for eliminating the guessing in such a charged situation! Granted, if you didn’t want to use plastic cups at your party, wine glass charms in 2 distinct designs would work just as well.

This sort of shindig doesn’t have to be limited to Valentine’s Day, but it is as good an excuse as any!

50 Shots of America: Connecticut

Our fifth state, the Constitution State (so-named because they had the very first one), ratified the big Constitution on January 9, 1788, and gets it’s name from the Mohegan word for “place of long tidal river.”

As I researched the state I got the impression that they really aren’t into the wild and wacky, up there (even if they are home to the country’s oldest amusement park, Lake Compounce). Lots of industry, economics (thanks, again, to favorable tax conditions for certain types of businesses; namely hedge funds in Greenwich), and lots and lots of schools from private day and boarding schools to numerous colleges including the uber-ivy league Yale University, home of the first football game (American football, of course).

Scads of famous folks came out of the Provision State: Noah Webster (he of the Dictionary), Eli Whitney, PT Barnum (and, therefore, the Circus as we know it), Harriet Beecher Stowe, the beautiful Katherine Hepburn and America’s first traitor: Benedict Arnold. The “Land of Steady Habits” apparently counted inventions among a habit to pursue, as this state was the birthplace of the Hamburger (1895), the Polaroid camera (1934), the helicopter (1939) and the color television (1948), just to name a few. In fact, 2 years before the Wright Brothers made Kitty Hawk famous, Gustav Whitehead was making aviation history in Bridgeport.

But where does that leave us for the cocktail? Don’t worry, I managed to work something out with what I was given. You see, Connecticut is also known as the Nutmeg state. Not because they produce nutmeg or trade in it or anything, no. The story goes that some peddlers would whittle knobs of wood into a nutmeg shape (which is easy to see how that could happen, it being a brown seed and all) and sell them to unsuspecting customers. That’s one of 3 theories I read for the name but none are 100% certain. Still, it’s interesting enough to make it drink worthy!

the Yankee 78

1 oz Milk
.5 oz Brandy
.5 oz Nutmeg syrup*

Combine all ingredients over ice in a small cocktail shaker and shake until nice and cold. Strain into a pretty cordial glass for maximum effect. You can add a very light dusting of freshly grated nutmeg to the top of the milk foam but, I assure you, it’s not necessary.

As mentioned, the shaken milk produces a great, foamy head that contrasts nicely with the off-white to mocha color of the rest of the drink speckled with bits of nutmeg. (The color depends on how dark your sugar syrup ends up.) As there is a considerable dairy industry in Connecticut and milk punches and brandies always strike me as incredibly Colonial, this seemed the perfect vehicle for the nutmeg flavor without it overpowering the drink.

I made the test drinks with fat free milk because that’s what I drink but I think using 2% would add a nice layer of richness to the drink–if I were making these for a group, I certainly would.

The drink is named after two other bits of information I discovered about the state. One, that the state song is Yankee Doodle and it’s residents are sometimes considered the first Yankees. Two, that there are only 78 hours out of every week that you can purchase beer and liquor from stores (restaurants and bars are allowed broader hours), and less than that to purchase wine if I read the statutes correctly! Stores can only sell alcohol between 8 am and 9 pm Monday through Saturday, not on Sunday and not on certain holidays. If, for instance, Independence Day falls on a Sunday (a dry holiday on a dry day) then the following Monday becomes dry, too!

I guess we’re spoiled down here with our wine and beer in 24-hour supermarkets and late-night liquor stores!

*To make Nutmeg Syrup

.5 c white sugar
1.5 Tbsp ground nutmeg
.5 c water

Combine in a saucepan and heat until sugar dissolves. You may have to guess a bit because the nutmeg has a tendency to float on the top and obscure the view. Avoid breathing in the fumes as the mixture cooks, that nutmeg can be quite potent! Remove from heat and allow to cool. Strain through several layers of cheesecloth (layers given a quarter turn each to trap as much of the ground spice as possible) once. Some nutmeg will pass through the straining but you’ll catch most of it.

The leftover syrup (this barely makes a cup after straining) can be stored in an airtight contained in the fridge for quite some time. Obviously an excellent addition to eggnog, this syrup would go well in Tiki-style drinks and practically anything that called for rum! For an even richer taste, make it with brown sugar instead of white.

On the Subject of Picky Eaters

Last week I was all set to explain the many and varied ways picky eaters were among my top pet peeves and some creative ways to circumvent the pouty faces and upturned noses. Then I found something that made me change my stance.

More than one way to look at it.

There are lots of ways to be a picky eater. Having allergies, vegetarianism or being vegan count, as are some religious constraints. Being on a diet could be considered being a picky eater. None of these were the sort of thing I was thinking about, though, when I was forming the earlier version of this blog post.

Nor was I thinking about cases like one close friend who has, as she describes it, “texture issues.” Texture issues are apparently way more common than I knew and, according to PickyEatingAdults.com can often go hand in hand with anxiety disorders, OCD and other conditions. From what I’ve read in the responses to an article in Psychology Today, it seems many in this group are unhappy with their restricted diets and wish it were as easy to change as we omnivores suggest it should be.

Not all picky eaters have a medical reason for their behavior. Perhaps my peeve lies more with the unadventurous. Case in point: my 2nd (now ex-) husband who turned up his nose at dinner one night saying he was 40 years old and if he hadn’t tried it or liked it by now, he wasn’t going to bother.

Attitude is Everything

It’s natural for a child to go through a choosy stage. We usually expect adults, though, to have largely outgrown this behavior. Especially in a guest-at-dinner situation, a person who pulls faces and grumbles about there being nothing they can eat gets very little sympathy from me whether I am a fellow guest or the hostess. A diner who, instead, works with her hostess to ensure that everyone is accommodated, however, earns serious gold stars and is someone who I would bend over backwards to satisfy at future events.

As the Hostess

It’s certainly not necessary or expected for you to play short order cook at your next dinner party, but some polite inquiries and careful planning may make dinner a happier affair for all considered.

  • Always ask new guests if they have any allergies you should be aware of. Most folks will take this opportunity to tell you about other serious food issues, as well.
  • Plan your menu in advance so if questions arise, you have the answers available.
  • Buffets generally offer more choices, giving choosy eaters a chance to select what works best for them.
  • Leave sauces and dressings on the side to be passed around and added at the guests’ discretion.
  • Consider modular foods like a create-your-own pasta station or sauce add-ins.

As the Guest

Even the most accomplished hostess is seldom omniscient about her guests’ likes and dislikes. It is the guest’s job, therefore, to help without being pushy.

  • Ask politely about the menu when you are invited for a meal.
  • Offer to bring a dish, especially if your diet is severely restricted (like gluten-free or kosher).
  • Maybe eat a little something before a party so that you’re not left in the lurch by unappetizing options.
  • Excuse yourself and make an early exit if there really is nothing available to you and you find the fare triggers some distasteful reflex that would disrupt the rest of the guests.

Even though I’ve been an omnivore for most of my life, recent health matters require me to abstain from certain ingredients like tomato sauce. If I know a get-together is going to order out for pizza after the main business is settled, I’ll leave before then or eat before I get there. It may not always be the best option, but I’d much rather leave than make my hostess uncomfortable or make a big deal about what is, essentially, a private matter.

Agree? Disagree? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments, I’d love to hear what you think.