50 Shots of America–Virginia

Looking over the information available on our 10th state, Virginia, I stumbled upon the list of Food & Wine Festivals that happen throughout the year in the Old Dominion State. There are a LOT of them. But, you know, with a considerable agricultural industry and 130 wineries in the state, I suppose that should be expected.

The home of the Jamestown settlement and birthplace of about 8 presidents, I was always told that the state got it’s name in honor of Elizabeth I, the virgin queen. That’s not necessarily wrong, but I also read that there are a couple of Native American words common to the area that sound similar, so it’s a toss-up who really gets credit, there.

Still, I figure that’s as good a reason as any to offer up a non-alcoholic sipper for the umpteenth state (okay, yes, I know, we’re only up to 10 with this one) to claim milk as a state beverage.

Cheerberry Cooler

2 Blackberries
1 Strawberry, quartered
Peach nectar
Cherry soda

In a low-ball glass, muddle the berries with a healthy splash of the peach nectar until thoroughly crushed. Fill the glass half-full with crushed ice and top with cherry soda. Stir to combine the fruit with the soda and float a bit more peach nectar along the top.

Cheerwine is a very-cherry, very carbonated soda bottled in North Carolina but very popular in Virginia. If you can’t find it or another all-cherry soda, substituting Cherry 7-Up will also work. In large volumes this would make a lovely spring or summer punch and, in the absence of fresh, frozen fruit can be substituted. If served doubled in a tall glass make sure to include a spoon so the fruit doesn’t go to waste.

Review: Bonefish Grill

In celebration of Todd’s new job we went out to eat a couple of weeks ago and ended up at our local Bonefish Grill (a national chain with locations in 28 states). I say ended up because we were initially going to go to a restaurant that, in the interim, had either closed or relocated since I last thought of them. Bonefish was handy, I’d heard good things, so we went.

Of course, being 7pm on a Saturday night, there was a considerable wait. An hour, expected, but here’s where they earned a few points in my book: In addition to plentiful and comfortable seating and being able to place bar orders while we waited, every 20 minutes a waiter would circulate with a tray of appetizers, toothpicks and napkins. During our hour-and-a-bit wait three different apps came by: their Bang-Bang Shrimp, the Saucy Shrimp and some Bang-Bang Chicken (not on the menu but, according to the manager who was serving it, you could ask for it). We loved the Bang-Bang Shrimp and even ordered one to share when we got to our table. (Imagine my glee when the copycat sauce recipe was listed in the most recent issue of Food Network Magazine!)

The interior of the restaurant was amazing. We couldn’t see the bar for the crush of people still waiting inside but I’ve been told it’s a pretty impressive feature in and of itself. Instead, from our seats in the dining room I saw a fantastic back-lit cut-out mural. It complemented the dimly-lit room and sure-footed wait staff. That’s where one of my larger complaints lie: the waitstaff wear chef’s jackets. I fully admit that I’m sensitive on the use of the title Chef for every other home cook and it’s for the same reason that, having spent two years in Culinary School, I do NOT like waitstaff dressing the part of chef. I’m sure someone just thought it “looked cool” but it irritates me.

Anyway, back to dinner. We’d ordered drinks on the patio–a Mangotini that had a bit too much citrus in it for either of our tastes (but at least was made with fresh mango and not Snapple) and a rum drink whose name escapes me at the moment that was just too much booze, not enough mix. In fact, the entire cocktail menu seemed a little heavy on high-octane drinks. But that’s just one girl’s opinion based on the menu descriptions and the 2 we tried.

The menu itself focuses on a variety of fresh fish grilled and topped with your choice of sauces. For a seafood place, Bonefish Grill offers a variety of other entree options that all sound very good. It was tough to make a choice, honestly, and then we both settled on the Imperial Longfin (tilapia stuffed with seafood and topped with a buttery lemon caper sauce).

First to come out was warm bread served with olive oil and pesto; our waiter listed the ingredients for us and the surprise feature was the use of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) instead of pine nuts. I’m going to have to try that at home, next time, not to mention using pesto for the dipping sauce instead of just herbed olive oil. Next, we both opted for a cup of the corn chowder with lump crab meat. Velvety smooth. A slight crab flavor permeates it but I would guess it’s from stock or a stock base, as the crab meat itself was in the bottom of the cup as a garnish.

Entrees come with your choice of one side and the vegetable of the day. That day the vegetable was a succotash redolent with wood-smoked bacon. It was fresh, tasty and very different from the mushy amalgamation I’ve had under that name in the past. I chose the herbed Jasmine rice as my side, Todd the potatoes au gratin. Both came on the plate obviously from a portion scoop like this was some sort of cafeteria lunch. My rice was a little over minted but otherwise fine, Todd’s first bite of potatoes was raw though that did appear to be an aberration. It was also apparent that the au gratin was portioned then topped with the breadcrumbs and cheese before a moment under a broiler or some such. An… interesting way to do things.

The fish itself was very tasty–unless you tasted a bit that was without sauce or filling. The unadorned tilapia was just that: unseasoned and uninspiring. But the sauce was absolutely lovely, not too heavy on the capers, and paired nicely with the seafood stuffing. Another major point in Bonefish’s favor were the realistic portion sizes. Usually a stuffed fish dish is gargantuan, way too much food, not to mention grouper is the stuffed fish of choice for most restaurants I’ve been in. So I guess that’s two points.

Overall we enjoyed our experience. The bill came to $61 including tip (but not including the bar tab). I’ve got my eye on the Fontina Chop for a future visit and, of course, more of those Bang-Bang Shrimp.

Con Update: MegaCon Day 3

And it ended much the way it began: not exactly promising.

Ah, well, it wasn’t all bad. I got some drawing done, some work on next week’s strips, walked around the Alley and checked out some of the other artists. There was a lot that just wasn’t my thing but there were some fun finds that I’ll go through and link to later. Tonight, I’m just plum exhausted.

There will be some serious thought given as to whether I’ll return to MegaCon next year. The girls beside me? Did gangbusters all weekend. They were doing chibi art of popular manga and pop-culture properties. Talking to other artists the story was the same: MegaCon is not the place to try and sell original ideas (unless you’ve got a huge community built already). Still, there were some awesome moments and fun, but mostly with the other artists and we’re all in the same boat.

Looking forward to my first local appearance next weekend, the Bizarre Bazaar at Railroad Square. Hopefully the crowd there will be more receptive to what I have to offer. I’ve always done this for the fun, the make folks laugh and look at life a little differently. But, like most people, I’d also like to be able to make this my business, not just something I squeeze into every available moment. Until that happens I will continue to spend my time, compensated or not, on this and hope that I keep making folks laugh.

Con Update: MegaCon Day 2

A much better day.

It started with a familiar sight: a backlog of cars trying to get parking anywhere near the West Hall. Anticipating the impending hike from the back 40, Todd dropped me off out front and then went to find parking in the nearby (relatively speaking) hotel parking lot, grabbing one of the last available spots. Meanwhile, I wondered where on earth I was going to enter from the lobby (having never really seen the Con from this side) when I spotted Doug Sneyd and his lovely Booth Babe (not what you’re thinking) walking with a sense of purpose. I followed them right through the security line.

As we walked I asked how their day was, yesterday, and we chatted about his book doing very well and how accommodating the show organizers were being. All good to hear. She also mentioned that the book came with an original sketch inside and he’d even draw you’re profile and add bunny ears if you want them! Uh, sold! (For those who don’t know the name, he’s famous for his Playboy cartoons–really great stuff! One of our local bars has those sorts of cartoons plastering the walls in the ladies room. I presume the mens, as well, but I’ve never been in there to check!) I snuck over to their table during an afternoon lull and had a nice chat with the both of them. Just great people.

Unfortunately, my would-be Character Cocktail patrons didn’t make it back to the table today (maybe tomorrow?) but I did get to chat the service up to others who may order later. I sold a couple of books, a mini and a whopping 5 mini-martini glasses! We’re down to a stock of 2! I’m glad I have more blanks ready to go at home 🙂 A couple of folks from SoulGeek stopped by the table to say hi, it was good seeing them again, and I met a new reader (Hi, James!) who’d flown out from California to attend the show! Wow! (Not just to see me, of course, he was meeting up a group of Kevin Smith fans, who could be seen roaming the ailses in Mooby gear. Very cool.) I also had some nice chats with other vendors and got some random art done while manning the table.

Sales haven’t been going like gangbusters, I won’t lie, but I made people laugh today and I think that laughter is slightly more precious than dollars. Too bad my landlord doesn’t agree. As such, I’m hoping to convert a few more browsers to buyers tomorrow.

Don’t forget, tomorrow is Pi day. If we were at home I’d be baking a (preferably) square pie. Instead I’ll have to settle for some of the restaurant variety. Also, remember to set your clocks ahead or you’ll be an hour late somewhere.

Until tomorrow!

Con Update: MegaCon Day 1

Thankfully the predicted torrential rains turned out to be more of a steady drizzle when we arrived at the convention center this morning. Also thankful for the fact that we were able to back right up the loading ramp and unload the trunk in the overhang there, not getting wet in the process.

Turns out our booth neighbors are Tally girls, too. Both students at FSU, they have a webcomic as well but I neglected to get the url today. Oops! I’ll fix that tomorrow. Actually, it didn’t seem crucial because we didn’t think our hotel had wifi, seriously hampering our evening productivity. This info has been updated and I am typing from the comfort of our comfy hotel bed. (I know, I know, we’re not the post-con party types.)

Traffic today was slow. Partially because of the fact that it was Friday and los of folks were still at work/school, partially because the weather was absolutely icky the entire day. Still, for a slow day I manged to connect with a few folks, made some people laugh, helped some people out and got some folks interested in getting a Character Cocktail* done, which (hopefully!) will pan out tomorrow. It would awesome considering there were absolutely no sales today.

But it’s early days & I remain optimistic.

*What’s a Character Cocktail? It’s a custom-made cocktail recipe (alcoholic or non-) that is based solely on you! With the recipe comes a ready-to-frame piece of art with the recipe and a little drawing. Price is $30 (includes shipping the art) and the process takes about 2-3 weeks, total, to allow for recipe testing and art creation. All you have to do is fill out a fun little questionnaire so I know who I’m creating the drink for and around. Interested? Shoot me an email at randomactscomics[at]gmail[dot]com and we can get the process started!

A Well-Stocked Bar

Cheers! This week I’m at MegaCon in Orlando, Florida, and am away from my home bar. 50 Shots of America will resume next week. Until then, I hope you’ll find the following enlightening–it’s long, but for good reason.

The Basic Spirits

To make a wide variety of drinks, a bar stocked with a bottle each of Gin, Vodka, Rum, Whiskey, Tequila and Brandy. You don’t have to go out and buy all of them at once. If you’re still in the process of building up your stock, choose a particular cocktail to serve at each gathering, and use the opportunity to add another basic to your bar. Scotch isn’t used as much in mixing drinks, but it’s another good one to have on hand.

Once you’ve got the basics covered, you might want to add some variety in your vodkas and rums. Vanilla vodka is exceptionally good in sweet drinks and there are plenty of flavored vodkas on the market–the only problem is picking which ones you think you’ll like! Rums come in white, dark, golden and spiced, each with their own applications. Once you’ve managed to get those basics down, you can also moved into the flavored varieties; coconut and pineapple are especially nice.

Liqueurs

Liquor is only the beginning of a cocktail. A lot of variety can be achieved with just a few liqueurs to add to a vodka or rum base. Used in smaller quantities, these bottles can last a while (as long as you don’t leave the caps off! Alcohol evaporates, after all, and while speed pour tips may look professional they’ll cost you in the long run with the shrinkage of your stock). Triple Sec (an orange liqueur) is one of the first you’re likely to want, though you should consider the more specific Cointreau if your budget allows as the latter is smoother and less overpowering in a cocktail.

Schnapps can be found in many flavors, with peach and butterscotch being two of the more popular–and tasty–options you should lay in as soon as possible. A good chocolate liqueur is nice to have, along with a coffee liqueur and an Irish Cream (not a schnapp–is there a singular for schnapps?–but it goes best here; just buy some!).

Vermouth, a fortified wine (the others are distilled from liquors) is integral to making a classic martini. It comes in both dry and sweet varieties, the former more common these days.

Bitters, also available in several forms, are misnamed. They do not add an unpleasant taste to a drink, instead they smooth out the other flavors. Angostura and Peychaud are two you should look for. It comes in small bottles with an equally small price tag. Since you only use a few drops per drink they will easily last for ages!

Mixers

So we’ve covered hard liquor and liqueurs, the last component to most drinks I make is a good dose of a non-alcoholic mixer. I enjoy the flavors that come from the booze, but I don’t want to be knocked over the head by the fumes or have my mouth burn from an imbalanced drink. Know what I mean?

Of course, since most cocktails are small, opening a 2 liter of soda or half gallon of juice for just a couple of ounces can lead to a lot of waste if you don’t drink those things often (we don’t, most nights we drink water that we keep in the fridge–just refill it when empty and move onto the next cold one, lol) or a very crowded fridge if you like to mix up your drink list frequently.

Instead, look around the juice and soda aisles for the tiny bottles and cans they carry, and keep these on the bar or in the pantry for whenever you need just a bit of something or another. Right now we have 12 oz (or so) bottles of apple, cranberry and orange juice along with 6 oz cans of pineapple, pink grapefruit, mango, peach and tomato juice. Again, the trick to not breaking the bank is to stock up gradually and then, as items are used, pick up replacements.

Sodas are also a popular mixer and we usually keep a 12-pack of caffeine free Coke classic and Sprite. Since I don’t drink soda often, these 12-packs last AGES and are tucked away on the bottom of a bookcase we have near the bar to hold just this sort of thing (along with extra glasses, liqueur overflow and bar books). Ginger Ale, Tonic Water and Club Soda can be found in both liter bottles (fairly handy) or cans and small bottles. An excellent invention for the really non-soda-drinkers among us are those wee 6-packs of the mini cans. Perfect for a single hi-ball or the like.

Garnishes

This is one thing I don’t often do at home. For parties? Yes. But usually I don’t worry about garnishes when I’m testing a recipe or just mixing up something for me. Still, having bottles of martini olives, onions and maraschino cherries in the fridge can come in handy when you want to go all out. Lemons and Limes (both for muddling and garnishing) should be chosen for their blemish-free rinds and even color. A small, green-skinned lime is much better than a big lime with brown spots on it, no?

So, to sum up this slightly epic (in length, if nothing else) post:

  1. Cover your basic spirits
  2. Add variety and specialty items slowly
  3. Buy mixers in small, non-perishable forms

Lessons From a Party

Learning never stops–it’s one of the few constants in life. I find that whether it’s something as simple as a new flavor combination or a more efficient way to complete a task, the kitchen offers plenty of opportunities the learn something new. Even if it’s what NOT to do!

Last weekend I hosted a small Wedding Shower. Here’s what I learned:

“Just Enough” Can Still Look Abundant

How sad is it to walk into a party and see a few small amounts of snacks laid out on large plates on a large table? That sort of thing makes me hesitant to take anything, not wanting to make the spread even more meagre for folks coming behind me. Guests who see an abundance of food and drink, though, will freely help themselves.

Of course, we’ve talked about figuring out how much food to prepare and, in the case of small parties, the choice seems to be between making just enough and making enough to fill out your serving pieces. I was facing this particular dilemma since the Shower had a limited guest list (and an even more limited response!).

  1. Instead of bringing out the larger folding table I usually use for parties, the small kitchen table was just large enough to hold the various serving dishes I’d purchased to go with the theme. If the gathering is very small, tray tables arranged around the party room, the tops of low bookcases (or even cleared shelves of tall ones) or a card table may make the most of a smaller spread.
  2. Keep the serving pieces smaller and pile the food upon them. Rather than spreading out the food, pile it up and on! The smaller the item, the smaller the plate. There’s a fine line between abundance and overwhelming, so just make sure guests can easily serve themselves from the bowl or plate without knocking anything off or spilling.
  3. Create varying heights on your table. Whether you have multi-level stands available (stacked cake pedestals make a nice display) or place boxes or crates under the plates and bowls, adding height takes up some of the extra space on a table. If your risers are pretty (glass blocks from the hardware store, for example) leave them in plain sight but it’s easy enough to camouflage cardboard boxes or other items by adding an extra tablecloth or tea towel to the arrangement.

I was able to make only what was needed for the party without letting the table seem bare at all! It’s the first time, ever, that I’ve not over-prepared by fridge-filling proportions!

The Cupcake Conundrum

Who doesn’t love cupcakes? They make great buffet items: self contained, easy to serve and just enough for a bite in miniature. The only problem is that iced cupcakes cannot be stacked and therefore can take up ridiculous acreage on the party table or require frequent replenishing, taking up the hostesses time.

My solution? Take out the icing issue! Instead of icing several dozen Red Velvet mini-cupcakes, I left them plain, piled them in the two lower bowls of a 3-bowl stand (height!) and filled the top bowl with the cream cheese icing and a decorative spreader. Guests loved adding as much icing as they wanted and I was free to enjoy the party without having to constantly police the refreshment table.

I may serve all my cupcakes with do-it-yourself icing from here on out, it worked so well. If the spreader idea doesn’t sound like enough fun, what about filling several disposable piping bags with various flavors of icing and setting out an array of toppings (sprinkles, candies, and berries)? I bet most guests would love the opportunity to play decorator!

All in all the party was a wonderful success: the two sides of the family got to mingle a bit before the wedding (it was a couple’s shower), everyone enjoyed the games and I was left with a happy heart and tired feet–the mark a truly good party in my opinion!

50 Shots of America–New Hampshire

We’re already up to our ninth state, New Hampshire, which ratified the Constitution on June, 21, 1788. (So much for coincidental dates, I suppose we can save that lotto ticket!)

The Granite State was, of course, one of the original 13 colonies to rise up against British rule and I’m a bit confused as my sources (read as: Wikipedia) claim that our last state, South Carolina, was the first to declare independence from Great Britain and now New Hampshire wants that honor. You know what? Allowing for a certain possibility of error AND the zeitgeist that undoubtedly roosted in the minds of the various colonies, I’m gonna let last week’s statement stand and just go with the fact that they both had the idea at or around the same time.

I never said I was good at history, folks. This is, after all, about cocktails. I’m just looking for something interesting to base a drink around and holy cats are all these original colonies starting to sound alike! Moving on…

One of the salesmen at my office is from New Hampshire and is a very nice man. Based on he and his wife being the only New Hampshireans I know, I’m going to go with the presumption that all from the state are similarly lovely people as well as equally puzzled about the concept of sales tax and it’s various exemptions. Because New Hampshire has no sales tax or personal income tax (with the exception of dividends and interest), which is very cool. But before you start packing up and plan to move, you should probably also know that NH has one of the country’s highest property taxes as a result. It’s all a balancing act.

Just like mixing drinks! (Nice segue, there, doncha think?)

Blackbeard’s Orchard

1.5 oz Apple Juice(1)
.75 oz Spiced Rum(2)
.25 oz Goldschlagger(3)
splash Maple Syrup(4)

Combine all of the ingredients over ice in the mixing vessel of your choice(5). Shake like a leaf on the top of Mount Washington and strain into a chilled cordial or double shot glass.

Apparently Blackbeard the Pirate (2) used the Isle of Shoals (just off Hampton Beach) for, among other things, his honeymoon and it’s rumored that some of his treasure (3) is still buried there. Granted, it’s possible the treasure is on the Maine side of the Shoals but let’s not stop the inspiration train rolling, shall we?

Even though the state fruit of New Hampshire is the pumpkin, they do a considerable amount of agricultural dealings in apples (1). Then there’s the annual spring open houses at the sap houses (4); you’ve got some considerable sweetness going on in that state. And, despite the annual PorcFest (Porcupine Freedom Festival), this drink is rather smooth thanks to the addition of the maple syrup.

Finally, we kitcheny types owe a major debt to Mr. Earl Tupper of Berlin, NH, as he invented the wonder that is Tupperware(5) in 1933. For that reason I would suggest you forgo your usual cocktail shaker (be it the 3-piece or Boston versions) and, instead, mix up a batch of these for your next home party in the Quick Shake for that extra bit of special.

Chef’s Sampler 2010

As I write this I am literally and figuratively digesting a few dozen restaurants that we just sampled at the Children’s Home Society’s 25th Annual Chef Sampler. We’ve attended these a few times in the past (my company used to do the printing so I was able to go to one or two many years ago and then Todd and I went last year for the first time together) and it’s always been a foodie highlight. This year…

First a few disappointments. After searching for a parking space at the AMC end of Tallahassee Mall we finally get in and up to the counter to find that you cannot purchase tickets at this entrance. No, you have to drive to the opposite end of the Mall and enter near Guitar Center. Ugh! The door is being held open by a politician stumping for votes in the upcoming City Commissioners race. Finally, there are lines out the wazoo, going every which way, it seems,  and no real order to be found.

On the up side, it’s the most crowded I’ve *ever* seen one of these events which is great for the Society but there was also a much more casual air among the attendees and there were several children running around. At the risk of sounding elitist–it just wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from this sort of event.

But enough of that, let’s get on to the food!

University Center Club
A variety of desserts including a delectable mini pecan pie and some peanut butter brownies/bars that Todd (who does not like peanut butter) unknowingly picked up. They also had some crab cakes served over an apple(green and red)-cabbage slaw; the slaw was tasty, the crab cake tasted like it’d been frozen and reheated.

Anthony’s Wood Fire Grill
(Opening this March in the Veranda’s at Market Square) Dick Anthony, previously of Anthony’s Italian Restaurant, is making another go at things with his Wood Fire Grill. We were able to sample their Seafood Gumbo (very dark brown, light on favor, rather boring) and Shrimp and Grits (lots of spice but also a great flavor, the grits were very creamy and even Todd liked them! Unfortunately, the shrimp had it’s tail still on–forkable shrimp should not have tails).

the Melting Pot
Ah, fondue! You really can’t go wrong with chocolate fondue served with angel food cake, marshmallows and other tasty tidbits.

On the Border
The popular Mexican chain had a line an absolute mile long. The reason? Apparently they were serving a very full buffet. Having eaten there before and not primarily interested in a chain restaurant, we skipped it.

Harry’s Seafood
With one of the larger displays, this is a regional chain specializing in Louisiana cuisine and a favorite of ours. They were serving Chicken Baton Rouge (light on the tomatoes with chunks of cream cheese and chicken, good balance of spices), Jambalaya (could have been spicier but tasty), Corn and Crab Chowder (thick, rich, with good flavor) and Shrimp and Grits (these grits were cheesy, studded with corn and peppers and quite tasty and the shrimp were appropriately tailless).

Andrew’s 228/Andrew’s Bar & Grill
Penna a la Vodka and Ham and Cheese on Rye Soup! Cheese soup with chunks of ham and well seasoned with caraway Seeds–simply amazing. The vodka sauce was very thin, watery and, according to Todd, rather bland. How unfortunate!

Cabell’s American Bar and Grill
Crab cakes with cajun tartar sauce (definitely an improvement over UCC’s, very tasty, lots of crab and the sauce was spicy and creamy and a nice pair to the cakes) and Sliced roast beef which was very tasty if a little difficult to eat as your walking along balancing a plate on your program on a cup, using one’s chest to balance the whole bit.

Applebee’s
Queso Blanco & Chips, Fiesta Lime Chicken, Margarita Chicken–we skipped this stand because we’ve eat at Applebee’s enough to not want to eat there when there are so many other options.

Tijuana Flatts
Hot sauces glore! Sweet Chili, Habanero, and Jalapeno. The Sweet Chili would be excellent over cream cheese with crackers, the Habanero (according to Todd) was proclaimed WAY too hot, and the Jalapeno was actually a bit bitter. hey also had some chicken quesadillas and seemed to be making burritos farther down the line but we opted to skip those.

Wakulla Springs State Park
We didn’t make it all the way down to their end of the sampler, it was just too crowded. Last year they had some tasty offerings, though (a braised beef and a chicken dish).

SouthWood Golf Club
Serving a tossed salad seems at once novel and foodhardy at the same time. Needless to say, we passed by their offerings and moved on to the next table.

Lucy & Leo’s Cupcakery
A charming display included photos of the (presumed) namesake pups and served up Red Velvet and Chocolate Espresso cupcakes. The red velvet was, unfortunately, a bit dry and lacked that hint of chocolate that should be present. It’s hard to screw up a chocolate cupcake, of course, but it didn’t have nearly the coffee flavor I was expecting outside of the chocolate-covered espresso bean. Still, a cupcake shop that loves dogs deserves another view–we’ll have to check them out in their home location at some point in the not-t0-distant future.

Catering Capers
Tuscan chicken salad (which was a little too heavy on the dried oregano, but otherwise creamy and tasty), Pesto Lime Shrimp (it had a tail! Ugh! It’s hard enough to juggle everything but trying to clean oily pesto off your fingertips is another downside of thoughtless cooks serving tail-on shrimp in sauces to wandering guests!) and Asian Meatballs (tasted like your basic sweedish meatball and not very “Asian” at all–and it was the last of the pot so you’d think the flavors would have been more concentrated than not!). Altogether uninspiring. Though I’m quite capable of doing all my own catering, there’s is not a service I’d use even if I wasn’t.

Sunny Days Bakery
Here was an idea I would not have come up with on my own: peppermint fondant over a red velvet cake. The cake was moist and did have the chocolate flavor that is customary–I liked it, Todd wasn’t as impressed.

Piggy’s Barbecue
Sweet Potato casserole was very tasty with a pronouced sweetness from molasses? maple syrup? rum? not sure but it was good. Somehow we missed the corn casserole but we each ended up with beef or pork–the sad thing it was tough to tell which was which! That’s probably not such a good sign. After further reflection I think I had the bbq brisket which was fairly tasty and Todd had the pork which was a little on the dry side.

Trail Break Cafe
Turky and Swiss on flatbread, sort of quesadilla-like, but it wouldn’t be a bad light lunch when you’re spending the day out at the Junior Museum (technically the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Sciences, but to those of us who’ve lived here long enough, it remains the Jr Museum!).

Peterbrooke Chocolatier
This chain opened up on the North side of town a year or so ago and does a pretty decent job of coating all sorts of things in chocolate (potato chips, anyone?). Tonight they had chocolate-covered strawberries (amazing!), chocolate-covered popcorn (which Todd found too salty) and cocoa-dusted fudge (which, in hind sight, is probably meant to be a truffle but, whoa, was that cocoa more than a dusting–do not inhale!).

Carrie Ann & Co
CA&C know desserts. I remembered their Punch Bowl cake from last year and it is to DIE for! It’s basically a trifle with layers of yellow cake, strawberries, pineapple pieces and fresh, sweet whipped cream. Yum! They also had their wonderful buttercake cookies, Kahlua brownies (a nutty cookie bottom, fudgy brownie layer, creamy Kahlua layer and topped with a layer of ganache), truffles, lemon curd tarlets (the blueberry tartlets, Todd said, tasted canned–a pity!) and other yummies.

Granddaddy’s Barbeque
Baked Beans and Brunswick Stew were tried by Todd. The verdict: the beans had a nice, smoky flavor and the Stew looked a lot like a vegetable soup with bits of barbecue instead of stew meat but was very well seasoned. The barbecue pork sandwiches were quite tasty. According to the nice young men serving them up it’s smoked in Old Hickory smokers for 12 hours a day, every day. Very tasty. The house sauce, which Todd tried, was apparently unremarkable, but the quality of the meat and sides makes up for it.

Tomato Cafe & Tea Room
(In)Famous for their “rainbow cake” we passed over this table having tried it last year and were unimpressed (it’s basically food-colored cake batter combined helter-skelter–might be good for kid’s parties but not much else, I’m afraid). They also had small packets of tea you could take with you, so that was nice.

Roly Poly
Wraps, wraps and more wraps. I did not try them because I have a grudge against them: they have one of the more annoying jingles I’ve *ever* heard and it was playing incessantly on the station I set my clock-radio to. Just goes to show: your jingle may make you memorable, but not always for the right reasons. Still, Todd does not quite hold the grudge that I do and tried the Philly Melt they had out (the only thing left on their table and we were only halfway through the allotted time of the sampler)–I wasn’t missing much. It was heavy on green pepper compared to the beef or cheese.

Bella Bella
Pasta al Forno was all gone, no bubble bread this year, but we did snag some Sangria as we passed. Can’t go wrong there!

Barnacle Bills
Fresh-shucked oysters on the half shell with a variety of toppings. I prefer mine plain and it was just amazing. Can’t get enough fresh oysters for this girl! They also had their smoked seafood dip out for sampling but it was a little on the fishy side, tonight–not the best representation as I’ve had it before and it was better. They were also serving up margaritas in generous portions–bless you! It was so very delish and was great to wash down the next few tables.

Hobbit American Grill
A local chain specializing in a variety of quick, good foods like sandwiches, salads, subs and wings. They had some subs out but that was way too much bread for this time of night and a couple types of wings available. We tried their Fiesta Ranch wings and were pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Messy as all get out and way too tough to eat in this setting, but delish none the less. I usually go for their garlic Parmesan wings but these I would order, too!

Masa/AZU Lucy Ho’s Restaurant
We caught this table JUST as it was running out of sushi. Grabbed the last plate to split and had a piece of California Roll and one Fried Shrimp roll. Not bad, but I think I’d want to try them at their shop before I’d give them any sort of real review.

Krispy Kreme
What can you say about those truly amazing doughnuts? And what was I thinking picking up a chocolate-glazed cream one? It may be sacrilege, but I had to toss the last bit of it–should have stuck to a doughnut hole for my fix, lol. Serious, if you’ve never had the chance to try a Krispy Kreme doughnut, you really should at your earliest opportunity.

Stinky’s Fish Camp
Horrible name, in my opinion, but they sure served up an amazing bread pudding with caramel sauce! Apparently these guys started in Santa Rosa Beach and have just opened a spot in Cross Creek. Good to know! I’m definitely curious to see how the rest of their menu compares to their dessert!

Cabo’s Island Bar and Grill
Chili and crab cakes! Todd proclaimed the chili rich and meaty, lots of cumin (maybe a touch too much) but could have used a bit more tomato for his liking. The crab cake was almost all crab, which isn’t necessarily bad, but I do enjoy something more than a loose batter binding it together. This is a fun place, though, just don’t go in wearing a tie after 5pm 😉

PoBoy’s Creole Cafe
We just got our oyster poboy fix at their northside location not 2 weeks ago so were happy to see them out at the Sampler serving up bayou gumbo.  The gumbo was a bit too heavy (maybe getting down to the bottom of the dish?) and way too spicy–more heat than flavor, which was disappointing. We washed it down with the last of the margaritas from Barnacle Bill’s.

Angellete’s Cajun Kitchen
(in SouthWood–no website that I could find) Another place serving up gumbo (chicken and sausage) and shrimp & grits. The gumbo was not too thick or too dark, but had a smoky flavor that I didn’t expect. Still, it was very tasty and, possibly, the best of the night for what it’s worth. The shrimp (no tails! yay!) and grits featured lots of fresh veggies–onions, tri-color peppers–and a light broth compared to the heavier sauces of other places. Unfortunately their grits were white and gluey–the exact type of grits that make a Nebraskan like Todd dislike grits. Such a shame! But that shrimp over, say, Anthony’s or Harry’s grits and I’d be in love!

Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Probably the best single display of the night, they had a variety of marinated olives and tomatoes as well as some chocolatey cake with chocolate sauce and nuts that was very moist.

Japanica Steakhouse
Featuring a grill chef with flames leaping from his hat and mouth(!) we didn’t get to taste any of the food they may have been serving earlier in the evening but we did try some Sake that was much better than the Pearl Sake we’d had another time.

Drink services were provided by Coca-Cola Tallahassee, Cone Distributing (beer), Community Coffee, Premier Wine and Southern Wine & Spirits. Other restaurants that were listed in the program that were either out of food by the time we reached their table or just didn’t see for whatever reason were Another Broken Egg Cafe, Famous Dave’s, Hats Off to Food, Killearn Country Club, Marie Livingston’s Texas Steakhouse, Shane’s Rib Shack and Shula’s 347 Grill.

And there you have it. Todd probably summed it up best when he mentioned, as we were leaving, that it was a bit of a disappointment compared to last year. Whether it was the promoters catering to a different demographic or just the lack of originality in the offerings (seriously–4 gumbos, 3 crab cakes and 3 shirmp & grits in one building?) it makes us think twice about going next year and paying $50 a person to be herded like cattle through a noisy, crowded mall.

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.