I currently live in Charlotte, NC and after spending 7 years as a personal chef and caterer, I am now happy to share my love of cooking with friends and family. My heart is in the kitchen, but my soul is in the stars!

Returning to Normal

No matter how old you get, there are times when only your Momma can make you feel better.

When you're down with a bad cold, only Momma can make chicken soup just the way you like it.

A scraped knee?  Momma will make the boo-boo all better with nothing but a kiss and a Snoopy band-aid.

When your first (second, third or twentieth) true love breaks your heart, Momma is there to help you pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make you feel loved again.

And so it is that after I've been in a blogging/cooking rut for almost a year, only Momma could get me started again.

This time last year Boy Toy and I were getting ready for vacation in Mexico and the folks were on safari in Africa.  It was the last week of "normal" as we would know it until very recently. After months, days and weeks of watching my mother struggle to get her strength back, I was very pleasantly surprised when she showed up and dropped five dozen ears of corn at my doorstep.  Things were definitely getting back to normal.

My hometown in Tennessee has long been known for fruit and produce grown by the Scott family - namely strawberries, tomatoes, and corn.  There is a world of difference between real farm-grown food and the mass-produced food in the grocery store but most people never have the chance to experience the difference. Nor have they experienced the satisfaction of "putting up" food to be enjoyed long after it's out of season.

As a child, I can vaguely remember most all of my family members sitting on the porch at some point in time stringing and snapping beans from the garden or "working" tomatoes into pints and quarts.  It was a family affair - a time to be together, talk, laugh and tell stories.  It was a joint effort to do the work and a joint effort to enjoy the bounty for the rest of the year.  It was a way of life.  Sadly, the art of canning and preserving food has been lost on alot of today's population.  Invite a bunch of friends over for a bean stringing party or a corn shucking soiree and see how many show up!  I'm still a farm girl at heart because, even after years of being removed from it,  I still love the satisfaction of "working" real food. 

The folks and I spent Friday evening shucking and plucking 60 ears of corn (some of us even clowned around) from Scott's farm and planned to prepare it on Saturday for the freezer.  Once you get past all the shucking, it's really a pretty easy thing to do.  

Once the corn is clean of all the silks and the ends are trimmed, fill the largest pot you have with water (about halfway) and bring it to a slow simmer.  Add the corn in batches and give the water a few minutes to return to a simmer.  Cook the corn for about 4 minutes, making sure to push the corn down to the bottom a few times because it floats to the top. 

Remove the corn from the pot and put it into an ice bath to stop the cooking process.  Once the corn is cool, use a sharp knife and cut the kernels from the cob.  Bag the corn in freezer bags - it works best if you make the filled bags lay flat so you can stack them in the freezer and take up less room.  We bagged the corn in both pint and quart bags and got 10 pints for me and 9 quarts for Mom. 

When you're ready to use the corn, defrost it and cook however you please.  I like to saute it with a combination of olive oil and butter along with fresh garlic, diced red or green bell peppers.  Add fresh herbs like parsley, thyme or basil at the end of cooking and season with salt & pepper. 

With a little bit of time and effort this summer, you can enjoy fresh corn all year long!

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I'm a Debbie Downer

Here at Wish Upon A Chef we talk mostly about food and recipes, but I want break from tradition for just a few minutes and talk about life.  And we can't really talk about life without also talking about death. 

I started this blog in 2006 during a rough patch in my life.  Cooking and blogging gave me something to look forward to and be accountable for and I blogged like hell during those days.  Things eventually worked out for the best and I've thanked my lucky stars for the joy and happiness I've experienced since those dark days.  But I think we all know it can't be roses and rainbows every single day and blogging or cooking can't always cure what ails you.

My blog has been without words for the last 3 months.  My meals have consisted mostly from the stock of frozen prepared foods in my freezer.  There has been no creativity or desire.  No words would come. 

My mother has been battling stage III cancer since September.  She is preparing for a bone marrow transplant in March at Vanderbilt hospital.

We tragically lost my 16-year-old cousin to suicide in November.

Jesse James, my furry four-legged companion of nearly 12 years, died in February. 

My job has caused a great deal of anxiety and stress over the past several months. 

I look at myself in the mirror and I hate what I see - the dark circles under my eyes, hair badly in need of coloring.  I hate the way I feel - lethargic, unmotivated, depressed.  My thoughts have been dark and brooding.  I've been going through the motions and nothing more, but it's time to change all of that and the only way I know how is to dive right back into life. 

It's time to breathe life back into Wish Upon A Chef and resurrect a few other projects that I've been working on.  It's time to be thankful for the times we've had and make the most of the time still yet to come. 

I chose a Caramel Apple Cheesecake from Pinterest as my inspiration for getting back into the kitchen.  The recipe that I found was based on Mimi Hodges' Candy Apple Pie, which won the Pie of Emeril's Eye contest, but I tweaked it just a bit more and came up with the perfect blend of sweetness to celebrate a friend's birthday this past weekend.

It's life.  It's death.  It's all going to get in the way at times.

Caramel Apple Cheesecake
adapted from Mimi Hodges, winner of Good Morning, America’s “Pie of Emeril’s Eye” Contest, 2000

1 1/2 cups ginger snap cookie crumbs
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
5 1/3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Apple Filling
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3-4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
16 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup chopped pecans, for garnish

To make the crust: preheat the oven to 375 F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper. Combine the cookie crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and melted butter in a medium bowl. Use a fork to stir until the crumbs are evenly moistened. Transfer the mixture to the prepared springform pan and press into an even layer over the bottom and about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the pan. Bake for 6-8 minutes, or until golden in color. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for about 10 minutes.  Reduce oven heat to 350 F. 

To make the apple filling: Melt the butter in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, salt and cinnamon, stirring to combine, and cook until gently bubbling, about 1 minute. Add the apples and toss to coat. Cook until the slices are tender, and most of the liquid in the pan has been reduced, about 15-20 minutes.  Add the cooked apples to the cooled crust.

Refrigerate the crust while you make the filling. 

To make the cheesecake layer: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until smooth. Add the vanilla, egg and lemon juice and beat until incorporated and smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Pour the cheesecake batter over the apples in the crust and spread into an even layer. Bake until the cheesecake is set, about 20-30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool to room temperature then refrigerate for at least 4 hours before making and adding the caramel.

To make the caramel sauce: Add the butter, brown sugar and heavy cream to a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Lower the heat to medium and continue boiling until the mixture thickens slightly, about 7-8 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool slightly.

Remove the sides of the springform pan, then gently pour the caramel over the cheesecake. Garnish with chopped pecans, if desired. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.

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Give thanks for pumpkin pie

When I was a kid, I overheard two woman having a conversation about how they dreaded the holidays.  They were griping about having to shop and wrestle with the tree and this, that and the other and they were just going to be so glad when it was all over.  As a kid, I just could not imagine the horrid thought of not wanting to celebrate the holidays!  How could you not look forward to putting up a Christmas tree and baking cookies and going to parties and having loads of presents from Santa??  I vowed right then and there that I would never be a grumpy grown-up like them.

But guess what? 

In those years of teen-angst when I wanted nothing more than to become an adult, I didn't realize just how much of a rip-off adulthood actually is.  I didn't know that I would grow up to become a woman who did not acquire the seemingly mandatory female shopping gene and someone who hated crowds. I didn't realize it would be challenging to scrape together extra cash for buying gifts because there were so many bills that needed to be paid.  And where does one find the time to totally redecorate their home and bake dozens of cookies and attend holiday parties after they work 40+ hours each week? 

I can totally sympathize with those women from long ago and fully understand what they were talking about.  Now, don't get me wrong - I've managed to overcome these obstacles in years past what with the advent of online shopping and 0% interest credit cards and such. But on top of everything else, I have had alot of sickness in my family these past few months and a recent tragic death and I don't feel like "doing" the holidays this year.  Even my favorite holiday, Halloween, passed by without much fanfare this year and Thanksgiving will be much the same.  I don't care about all the hoopla and bling - I just want to spend time with my family and loved ones and be thankful for yet another year together. 

With my recent switch to more real foods, I wanted to prepare a Thanksgiving feast this year with nothing but real food.  No processed soups in my green bean casserole.  No canned turkey gravy and no white flour in my breads and desserts.  But there was no motivation to research and test recipes.  No excitement to shop for ingredients.  No desire to prepare food for days to impress my guests. 

Boy Toy is in charge of frying the bird and I'll do the regulatory sides, but nothing fancy this year.  I made my favorite Trader Joe's Copy Cat Cranberry Walnut Tart and cranked out a couple of pumpkin pies.  I used my secret ingredient in the pies: Chinese Five Spice.  I love this stuff!  It is a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves but the addition of star anise, Sichuan pepper and fennel give it a subtle kick. I like to use it interchangeably in recipes like my cinnamon roll recipe that calls for alot of cinnamon.  I know it sounds weird to use peppers and fennel in a sweet recipe, but trust me, it works.  The mixture is not overpowering at all and leaves people wondering what the taste is and feeling like they can't quite put their finger on what it is exactly . 

Serve this pie with freshly whipped cream and give thanks that it is so easy to make! 

Easy Pumpkin Pie
Serves 8

1 frozen deep dish pie crust, thawed
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin
1-1/4 cup evaporated milk
2 eggs, beaten

Heat oven to 425.  In a large bowl, combine filling ingredients.  Pour into pie crust.  Carefully transfer to oven rack.

Bake for 15 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 and continue baking 30-40 minutes longer or until knife inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool 2 hours; refrigerate until serving time.

Serve with fresh whipped cream.

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The Intimadator

"When you work in a small office, there are very few places to hide the crazy."

This is my favorite quote of the week from one of my coworkers.  She's fairly new to the office and is just now finding out what I've known for five years now - our office is a Monday through Friday psychopathic roller coaster ride.  It's a running joke that my job reminds me so much of my second marriage and I partly think that fact has helped me cope with the office full of crazy for so long.  After a while you learn how to spot the subtle (and not so subtle) signs of who is having a bad day, when to keep your head down and when it might be time to sign the separation papers and find the door.

For the most part, I love my job but there's only so much intimidation you can take before something you like and enjoy becomes a dread. Only so many days that praying that the boss doesn't come in actually pays off.  So much disappointment when you pull into the parking lot each morning and realize the place isn't totally engulfed in flames (I've actually witnessed one of my jobs burn nearly down to the ground before.)

Wielding power through intimidation is a mighty thing - a rush of addictive adrenaline.  And I only know this because I occasionally get to be the office intimadator - it's a very rare occurrence, but it happens.  And it happened last week.

A few of us were discussing lunch plans - who's going where and eating what and I announced that I was going home (I have that luxury since I only live 5 minutes away) and having leftover crawfish etouffee for lunch.  They looked at me in disbelief.

You're having what?

Crawfish etouffee. 

Where did you get it?

I made it.

That sounds so intimidating.

I tried to explain that my version of the bayou delicacy was one of the easiest things in the world to make but they would have no part of my trying to bully them into thinking that.  They rushed off to eat their fast food and talk about who does she think she is and can you believe she actually said that??  Meanwhile this office outcast went home to enjoy the simplest, most delicious lunch and felt no remorse for lording her cooking skills over the office minions. 

Seriously, folks.  Don't be intimidated or feel bullied by the title of food.  This is the simplest dish ever.  It is by no means authentic Creole cuisine and does not have a roux base because I'm taking steps to cut processed foods from my diet (in this case white flour), but there is still plenty of flavor and the simplistic nature of this dish makes it appear regularly on my menus. 

Rouxlessness Crawfish Etouffee
(Get it??  Rouxlessness = Ruthlessness.  Sounds intimidating, huh?)

Serves 4

1 package frozen crawfish meat, thawed
1 large onion, diced
1 cup green bell peppers, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup scallions, sliced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 stick butter
Tony Cacheres Seasoning
Rice, cooked*

Melt butter in saute pan over medium high heat.  Saute onions, celery and bell pepper until clear, about 7 minutes.  Add crawfish and scallions.  Heat, stirring occasionally, until crawfish is heated through and begins to curl, about 10 minutes.  Season to taste with Tony Cacheres.  Remove from heat and stir in green onions and parsley.  Serve over rice.

*For every 1 cup of rice, boil 2 cups of water.  Add rice and stir once.  Cover and turn heat to lowest setting.  Do not disturb for at least 15 minutes.  Fluff with fork. 

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Cleaning up my crack(er) addiction

Since starting the October Unprocessed 2013 Challenge, I feel like Old Mother Hubbard.  I can still give my dog a bone because he would sell my soul three times over for a Milkbone, but my cupboards are bare since I committed to removing what processed foods were left from my nearly year-long attempt to change my eating habits. 

You can see what my pantry looked like back in April, and I'm pleased to admit that my shelves are no longer straining under the weight and pressure of entirely too much food for one person.  Ridding my supply of processed items was a huge relief but also scared the pants off of me.  What would I reach for during those moments of weakness when I want something to eat RIGHT NOW?

More than halfway through the challenge I'm pleased to report that I haven't starved to death (yet) but it will probably take me just as long to restock my pantry with the good stuff as it did to rid it of the demons.  There's a lot of label reading involved, alot of products in the stores to weed through and one thing I've learned is that just because it's organic, all-natural or non-GMO doesn't mean it's going to taste good and I'm going to like it.  Some of the things I've tried so far, I would rather starve to death than have it in my pantry again. 

I needed to replace my crack(er) pipe addiction with an acceptable alternative quickly, before I committed really bad food-related crimes.  Of course I could make my own but who the bleep has time for that?  Triscuits were my first attempt at finding an acceptable crack alternative, but after doing some research on canola oil (one of the ingredients in Triscuits) and considering I could consume enough of them to kill a lab rat, I decided to steer clear of them.

Have you ever looked at the ingredients listed on the box of your favorite crackers?  Check out the ingredients on this box of Kashi crackers - a brand that markets itself as a healthy, nothing artificial, whole grain good-for-you product.  More than 20 items listed in something you can make at home with less than 5 ingredients.  And God only know where that "natural flavor" came from.  No thanks. 

I started paying attention to sections of the grocery store that I normally blew past, never giving a second glance or much thought to and the Jewish section yielded some really great cracker finds!  Check out the ingredients on the Streit's 100% Whole Wheat Matzo crackers and the Manischewitz brand of matzo.  Pretty simple stuff, huh?

Now check out the ingredients on the Kavli Crispy Garlic crackers.  While it does contain sugar, there's not even enough of it to even register on the RDA scale so I decided they were acceptable.

Finding good, clean, unprocessed convenience items takes a bit of effort and some thinking and looking outside the box.  If there is a questionable ingredient, look it up online and I guarantee you'll find more than you need to know about it (and if it's questionable to begin with that should tell you something, no?)

It's time to slow down, unwind, unprocess and pay attention to what goes into your mouth.  Treat your body like the temple it is meant to be instead of a make-shift pup tent.  You won't regret it and I can promise there are much-better-for-you alternatives out there to the things you currently love to eat.  If I can clean up my crack(er) addiction,  I have faith that you can too!

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