The Gleeful Gourmand: 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding! (Or Not)

Christmas is only six days away. Six! Do you know how I know that? It's not the calendar sitting next to me. That would require counting. No, my neighbor has a wonderful flag she puts out every December that counts down the days. I see it when I leave the house. I see it when I come home. I see it from my office window, and dining room window, and even in my dreams. It is a delightful flag...until it isn't. There seems to be a wall of insanity I hit every Christmas season. Things are fine, going swimmingly, if not a little busy, and there's plenty of time to get everything done. And then all of a sudden, it's so completely not fine, and the flag says there's six (six!!) days left, and I run face-first into the wall of insanity.

Actually, that's not completely true. I ran into the wall of Christmas insanity two days ago, when there were still eight days left. At this festive and insane time of year, all of us just want a moment to breathe, relax, make merry and enjoy. So last Friday we got together with some of our neighbors and went to see two unbelievably tacky light homes, and then ordered takeout and hung out while all the kids played. It was wonderful to take some time to laugh, eat, and not stress out.

"I won't get off your porch or stop singing until you give me a slice of this..."

I brought an unusual dessert (for us Americans, anyway): a Figgy Pudding. I have been obsessed with this dessert for awhile now, but have never buckled down to make it. It makes its own case in a Christmas carol we're always belting out: "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." This is the most demanding Christmas carol I've ever heard. Imagine with me: a bunch of freezing Brits, going around singing at every house, and then they get to one particular house and start harassing its occupants (in song, no less):

"Now bring us some Figgy Pudding, now bring us some Figgy Pudding, now bring us some Figgy Pudding, and a cup of good cheer!"

That's a tad rude. I mean, they don't even say "please." It gets worse:

"We won't go until we get some, we won't go until we get some, we won't go until we get some, so bring it right here!"

Wait, what? I can very plainly see the owner of the house, his brow furrowing ever deeper at these revelers' song. They won't go until they get some? Seriously? What are they going to do, just stand there in the freezing cold and keep singing until he forks it over? What if he doesn't? What if he has no Figgy Pudding?

Which brings me to my point: Based on the lyrics of this song, Figgy Pudding must be so incredibly good people will literally shout at you, and demand in chorus that you give them some, or they won't move from your porch. I needed to make this to find out for myself. Now, the British are not exactly well-known for their excellent cuisine, but their desserts, or "puddings," are pretty well-known. Besides which, I love figs. It was time to find out once and for all what all the hoopla was about.

After scouring Pinterest and the Interwebs for a good recipe, I finally hit on this one. It seemed just right. Not as complicated with head-scratching ingredients like Nigella Lawson's, but also not so simple that it could be made in a crockpot. I didn't have a special mould for it, so I used my soufflé dish. The first task was dicing 2 cups worth of dried figs. And boy, oh boy, was that fun.

Have you ever tried to dice dried figs? Like trying to chop rapidly hardening cement glue. It reminded me of that scene from "Gladiator" when Maximus escapes the Roman soldiers trying to kill him and it starts snowing in the forest, and he tells one of them, "The sometimes makes the blade stick," when the executioner can't draw his sword. And now you know the weird type of things that run through my head when I'm all alone in the kitchen.

Figgy Pudding
But I digress. The batter seemed very dense, and very thick. The smell of molasses was overwhelming, and I'm positive I forgot to whip the butter until it was light and fluffy, which may have accounted for the fact that it was rather dry and dense in the end. But no matter. It smelled amazing baking in the oven, and it came out of the soufflé pan perfectly. I even snipped a sprig of holly from my own holly bush out front to decorate it.

I told our neighbors that they were guinea pigs, and that it might really stink. To that end, instead of the normal whipped cream the recipe suggests serving with it, I made sweet bourbon whipped cream. Because everything tastes better with bourbon.

I knew I was going to have a problem with it with the first slice. It was way too dry on the outside, and although the flavor was very good, it just didn't do anything for me. All I could think about while I was eating it was another recipe I had seen where a hot toffee sauce was poured over the top of it. And that's exactly what this recipe needed. Less time in the oven, and drowned in a hot, boozy sauce.

My girlfriends swore they liked it. My husband said, "It's...very fibrous." One of the other husbands said, "Mmmmm..." and sort of trailed off, and the other left his sitting on the counter. I didn't blame him one bit.
Well, at least we got the "cup of good cheer" part right!

More wine and beer was poured, and the bourbon whipped cream tasted fabulous. So it's back to the drawing board with me and Figgy Pudding. The obsession has cooled off for now. At least until I can find a Brit who's willing to make me a real one.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving Tips and Tricks!

Thanksgiving is officially one week away from today! If you follow me on Twitter, you know I've been sending out tweets on Thanksgiving tips. I throw them out there as they occur to me, and today I've decided to organize them all in one place.

Maybe you're hosting Thanksgiving for the first time. Maybe you're an old pro who's been in the Thanksgiving game (our culinary Super Bowl, am I right??) for years. Maybe you're a guest who's not sure what to bring. Don't worry, I have tips for you all. I certainly remember the first holiday feast I hosted all on my own, and I know I would have been sunk without these time-saving tips and tricks. So pour yourself a glass of wine (or bourbon), roll up your sleeves, grab a pen and let's get started:

1). Order your turkey now.  This may seem like a no-brainer for most of you. In fact, most of us have already ordered the bird. If you haven't done it yet, now is the time. Stop stalling and do it already. If you have questions about size and cooking time, there are lots of knowledgeable folks (like the folks you order from) who can answer your questions.

2) Make a list.  I cannot stress the importance of this one enough. Without a list to work from, you can find yourself in the weeds before Thanksgiving even happens. Write down every single dish you plan on serving, and next to those items, write out all the ingredients you'll need. Take that list and plan on doing your grocery shopping this Saturday. Don't wait until the week of Thanksgiving to stock up on all you need. Produce will be freshest at the store now, and everything will still be relatively well-stocked. Get it out of the way, and that's one less thing you'll have on your to-do list.

Bourbon-glazed turkey.

3) Make a second list.  Decide what time you want to sit down to eat dinner, and write down a schedule of when certain things need to go in the oven or on the stovetop to meet that timeline. If someone is helping you cook, make sure you make this particular list together so that your movements in the kitchen will be in good synchronization. Like a lot of people, I have a small kitchen with only one oven and 4 burners to work with. I may love all things gourmet, but a gourmet kitchen I do not have. But I still crank out delicious holiday dinners on time because of this list, and the next tip:

4) Look at your list and find things to make ahead and freeze.  This is a big one. Almost as important as the list. If you can knock out a few items to make and freeze, you'll be ahead of the game come Turkey Day, and able to relax with your family and guests instead of freaking out. Some things that can be frozen: Pie dough, breads, and cranberry relish (can be made and stored in the fridge up to 3 days out). Stuffing can be assembled (not baked) the day before.

5) Delegate.  Guests always want to know what they can bring (listen up, guests, NEVER arrive empty-handed!), but this could go one of two ways. Either you want them to bring a dish to join your lineup, or you don't. If you do, be prepared that it might not mesh well with what you're serving. Or it might not be good. It's a big risk. If you say yes, own it and be prepared to deal with the consequences. Let them know what you're missing in the lineup and give them direction on what they can make. It's in their hands on whether or not they do what you've asked.

If you decide not to let them bring a dish, here is a great way to make them feel useful and included: Ask them to prepare an appetizer or two, or a fun cocktail to enjoy before the big feast. Or, tell them how you're preparing the turkey and ask them to bring a couple of bottles of wine to complement the flavor. Always pair the wine to the turkey - don't worry how it will mesh with all the sides. GUESTS: If this is the route you go, but you're not confident in picking out wines, don't stress out. Go to your nearest wine shop, and let someone there help you. They really know what they're talking about! Guests, if you're still unsure what to bring and your host has said no to dishes and beverages, bring flowers. That's a safe bet.

6) Get the guest room ready. Speaking of guests, some of them might be sleeping in your home. Don't wait until the day of, or even the day before to get the room ready. If you have 20 spare minutes this Sunday, do a quick clean of the room (or rooms), make sure the linens are fresh, and everything is ready to go. Make sure it's as comfortable and accommodating as possible. I always like to have a vase of fresh flowers for my guests on their nightstand. Another nice touch is a luggage stand that can be folded flat for storage when not in use. Small bottles of water are nice, as are little snacks like chocolate so your guests don't have to feel embarrassed scrounging for nibbles in the middle of the night.

My table last Thanksgiving.

7) Set the table the day before.  This might be tricky if you have small children, since they seem to always sense when something nice has been set out and they go after it with great gusto, but this can be a huge timesaver. The great thing about Thanksgiving is that trends right now for the dining room table are all over the place. You seriously could put a pile of pinecones in the middle of the table and it would be considered chic. But seriously, don't stress out about this. Lay out your table exactly how you want it, down to the last detail. It doesn't have to match, because mismatched dishes are actually en vogue right now. Do what looks pretty to you. Last year, I was looking to jazz up my table, so I found some mini pumpkins for ¢99 and put them on a linen napkin on top of my china. The point is: Have fun with it! If you still can't figure out what would look best, remember that a good floral arrangement with some votive candles can go a long, long way. But once that table is set - bam! One less thing you have to do on Turkey Day. Only have one table and need to use it during the day? Grab a guest before it's time to sit down and have them set the table for you while you finish the meal.

8) Day-of Mise-En-Place. "Mise-en-place" is French for "putting in place," or better known as "prep work." Take a look at your dishes and their ingredients. For each dish you make, get your mise-en-place on as much as you can the morning of (with the Thanksgiving Day Parade blaring in the background, of course!). Things that need to be chopped, diced, sliced, what-have-you can be done and put in small bowls or Tupperware and stored away in the fridge until you need them. Lay out each casserole, platter, and plate you'll need and put a sticky note on each so you'll know which dish to use for what. That keeps the flow going.

It might not end up looking like this, and that's okay!
9) Enjoy and Have Fun! Listen. Your real life probably does not look like Pinterest. It is not the pages of Southern Living or a Pottery Barn catalog. I can say that with complete confidence now that I know how to style food and take pretty pictures of them. So don't freak out if your home, your table, or your food doesn't closely resemble what you've Pinned. That is not the point. The real point is the fun you had, the memories you made, and how much you laughed along the way. And if something goes wrong, like (Heaven forbid), you ruin the turkey, don't worry. In my family, the legend of the Thanksgiving turkey that toppled off the pan, bounced across the kitchen floor and then rolled under the dinging room table is still told with tears of laughter and fun to this day. Enjoy the day, your family, and your guests. That's what truly matters in the end.

Did I miss anything? Leave it in the comments! Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hardywood Park VS. Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery

When my husband, Buck, asked if he could write a guest post about beer, I had no idea what to expect. But knowing him, I figured it would be funny and informative. Boy, is it ever. The opinions below are completely his own. This post was not sponsored in any way, shape, or form. Enjoy!

There are precious few things in life that a man is truly loyal towards…his wife, his barber, his football team, his wife, his country, his wife, and his favorite brand of beer. Let’s face it, guys, at our core we all stand ready to try any new adventures that might come along at the drop of a hat. We justify our hardwired infidelity by continually referencing our unshakeable loyalty to those things we hold sacred. Honestly, do you know how many times I’ve pointed to my unflinching loyalty to the Oakland Raiders as a shining example of just what a faithful and reliable soul I really am? Who’s going to question a guy who has remained committed to da Raiders for the past 10 years?? 

Actually, loyalty lies at the center of my chosen profession. I’m a lifelong member of the advertising community, and at our root, most of what we do in advertising is either attempting to create new loyalty to a brand, or break an existing relationship and seduce you away. We’re not much better than the succubus at the end of the bar trying to get you to forget that ring around your finger, whispering seductive promises that it can all be yours…but only if you use our brand of razors, eat our chips, etc.

But as a true, red-blooded MAN, there’s supposed to be one loyalty that is unshakeable… a commitment forged in steel and anchored in stone.  A vow that must go unbroken. For it is written, “Once thou hast picked a beer that is thine own, thou shalt remain faithful and true to that malted elixir of life FOREVER!” (Insert dramatic trumpet blast here.)

That’s why I decided to write this blog post. It’s actually a declaration of guilt. I have a cheating heart. And the worst part about it - I LOVED it.  And that’s where the guilt that can only be understood by those readers who had both Jewish and Catholic parents can truly empathize. This is my confession:

I cheated on my beer.

No, it wasn’t just a one-night stand that could be attributed to a crappy beer menu that didn’t offer my favorite brew… we’ve all been there before, and that’s an easy one to justify.  “But honey, I totally would have had you, but you weren’t on the menu… c’mon, I still love you!  Now come over here and give me a swig!”  No, this, my friends, has blossomed into a full-fledged, torrid affair of the heart (and liver) that has caused me to leave behind everything I once held dear. I look in the mirror, and I don’t recognize the face I see before me: The face of a Lickinghole lover.

The farm and brew house at LCCB. Photo Courtesy of Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery.

Yes, there, I said it!  I LOVE LICKINGHOLE!!  And I am not afraid to shout it from the roof tops, no matter how many strange looks I might receive or how many people shout back, “pervert!” or “You’ll rot in Hell for that!”  I don’t care, because dare I say it? I covet it.

It wasn’t always that way. I used to belong to another, and we were happy together for many years. Yes, there was a time when Hardywood Park and I shared unbridled passion. I swore that I would be forever true to Hardywood. I waited in lines for hours, surrounded by bearded hipsters in skinny jeans. Sure, I might not be exactly the kind of young and virile consumer that Hardywood seemed to attract, but dang it, I loved them and that love and devotion had to count for something! Even if I wasn’t their ideal demographic, I would MAKE them love me… I would SHOW them that a middle-aged dad from the ‘burbs could be cool too! I would spend copious amounts of money on their specialty beers, and in the end, I would make them realize that I was the one they really wanted, despite my seemingly genetic inability to grow a proper beard.

But then, one night, I was lamenting the lack of Hardywood beer in my fridge and feeling especially low, resorting to the comforting and familiar embrace of a former flame – Legend. I was approached by the bartender and offered something that would change my life.

Of all the beer pubs in all the world, they had to be offering this new concoction with a utterly ridiculous name in mine… Lickinghole! What kind of name is that?!  I couldn’t even imagine being even mildly attracted to her. I mean, c’mon: “Hey Joe, can I have another Lickinghole?”  “Honey, I’m out of Lickinghole… I need to get s’more!”  Ridiculous… my devotion lay with a beer with a strong and noble name: Hardywood. My God, if that doesn’t sound like something a real MAN would drink, I don’t know what does… heck, I’m sure the makers of Viagra and Cialis wished they’d thought of it!  HARDYWOOD… not Lickinghole. But then, in a moment of weakness, I let my lips go where my ears were unwilling and like Bobby Brady seeing the fireworks in that episode where he gets his first kiss (or was it Peter?), lightning struck and my world was turned inexorably on its head.

It started innocently enough…I would still buy Hardywood, but it was no longer exclusive. I would buy three bottles of Hardywood for every one Lickinghole, using my larger investment as proof (PROOF!) of my continuing fidelity. But then, as I sat at my desk at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday, dreaming about the decadence that was only a couple short hours away, I began to realize that I wasn’t salivating in anticipation of a delicious, frosty Hardywood. No, I was dreaming of Lickinghole! Gasp! Get behind me, you cruel harpy of a beer! But the damage was done… and the seal was permanently broken. 
Lickinghole was no longer just an occasional mistress, stealing broken sips in the shadows, unwilling to reveal our love in the light, subject to the judgment of others. No, I had to finally admit that my heart belonged to the Hole and that despite what others might say – how they might snicker and laugh whenever I ordered her – I was in love and I didn’t care who knew it.

It is cleansing to finally tell my tale – therapeutic, in fact.  In the months that have followed my admission, so much has changed.  My beer fridge is now stocked almost exclusively with three or four different varieties of Lickinghole. I still have three bottles of Hardywood’s Bourbon Cru that I’m holding onto for old time’s sake, but that’s just because it’s out of production until next Spring, and frankly, sometimes it’s nice to take a drink down memory lane.  Lickinghole doesn’t mind – she knows that while I may wax nostalgic from time-to-time and perhaps even have a dance or two with Hardywood on occasion, I’ll always come back.

Photo courtesy of Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery
And I’ve gotten over whatever stigma I feared might come as a repercussion. Now I can proudly order Lickinghole without blushing, and have even taken several of my friends out to meet her.  Once they see her beautiful, bucolic brew house set amongst the trees and fields of Goochland county and spend some time getting to know her while listening to bluegrass music and, perhaps, playing a little Frisbee golf, they all seem to understand my decision.*

My only real fear… what if one day my new love and old flame finally meet?  Would they fight over my affection, hissing and scratching at one another?  Would they be civil?  Would it be awkward? What if… what if they were ever to combine their forces?!  Would I feel like some kind of polygamist?  Would some kind of unholy union be hatched?  And would I have the fortitude to actually ask for either a Lickingwood or a Hardyhole beer?!  My liver shudders at the thought.

The Rosemary Saison. Photo courtesy of Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery.

I will always bear a fond place in my liver for the wonderful beers from Hardywood.  Founded in 2010, in Richmond, VA by partners Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh, Hardywood has enjoyed meteoric growth and success thanks to its amazing line of exceptional, creative beers… and as their distribution starts to expand beyond Central Virginia to Maryland, Pennsylvania and beyond, you would be very wise to put any/all of their beers on your hit list… but be warned, many of their offerings are “potent,” to say the least.  You won’t find any watered down, low-carb, sissy beers amongst this crowd.  Here are a few of the key players:

Singel – Their most popular and widely distributed beer, this 6.2% ABV Belgian Abbey style Blond is Hardywood’s flagship.  It’s also one of their most drinkable beers under a wide variety of different occasions – not quite as robust as some of their other offerings, I consider it very refreshing, while at the same time having enough flavor – and punch – to make for a very pleasant drinking experience.

Gingerbread Stout – A seasonal favorite that has achieved mythical status in and around RVA; the GBS was rated a perfect 100 by BeerAdvocate Magazine in 2012. For many in the Richmond area, this has become the quintessential flavor of the holidays. An imperial milk stout flavored with locally sourced ginger and honey, GBS packs a firm punch (9.2% ABV), but it’s also so heavy that you’re unlikely to drink more than one in a sitting. 

Bourbon Cru – Just as there’s always one former flame that you never forget, I will always carry a torch for this beauty of a beer.  But like a lot of beautiful ladies, you need to keep your wits about you or she’ll leave you in a world of hurt.  At 12% ABV, this is no amateur’s undertaking. An Abbey-style Quad seasoned in Virginia bourbon barrels, this complex, caramel-flavored concoction is the perfect love child of a great foundational brew coupled with the bold remnants of its bourbon prison. The vanguard of Hardywood’s “Barrel Series,” the release of Bourbon Cru is as beautiful an aspect of Spring as the first flowers or returning song birds.

When you visit the gorgeous farm that’s the birthplace of Lickinghole Creek’s beer, you can’t help but wonder if they work some of that bucolic beauty into every one of their creations. Considering how many of the ingredients come from the farm itself, there may be a lot of truth to that notion. Located on 260 acres in rural Goochland County, Virginia, the Lickinghole brewery is the ideal location to enjoy a pint while soaking up the wonders of a Virginia summer sunset. The owners, Lisa and Sean-Thomas Pumphrey, pride themselves on growing the hops and other essential ingredients on the property, as well as drawing much of the water they use from the breweries namesake – the Lickinghole Creek that bisects the property. In less than two years, they’ve built up an impressive catalogue of beers and a very loyal following.  Here are a few of their better known offerings – but again, consider yourself forewarned; at 9+% ABV, several of these pack a real punch!

Three Chopt Tripel – This is one HECK of a great beer… and that is not only evidenced by the amount of it that I constantly keep in supply, but also by the fact that Lickinghole uses it as the basis for an ever-expanding array of specialty beers like their Bourbon Barrel Three Chopt (recently ranked as the #7 most popular tripel in the world by BeerAdvocate, along with a stellar rating of 95) and the forthcoming La Calavera Catrina Tequila barrel aged tripel with lime zest (I can hardly wait to try it!). This is just an outstanding everyday beer that you can enjoy with a great meal, yet refreshing enough to pop open after an afternoon sweating in the yard. Full bodied and extremely flavorful, if you like Belgians, then you’ll love this baby.

Rosemary Saison – Lickinghole’s Rosemary Saison was just recently thrust into the spotlight thanks to praise and accolades that it received coming out of this year’s Great American Beer Festival.  In fact, went so far as to declare it “the best beer at the GABF,” which is no small compliment. It’s also one of Lickinghole’s newest offerings, so it’s making a nice splash right out of the gates (it also happens to be my wife’s favorite, so it’s got that going for it as well). A 6.8% dry and hoppy farmhouse ale, combined with rosemary grown right on the farm, this beer is everything a saison is supposed to be…but like many other Lickinghole offerings, this lovely was only bottled on a very limited basis (2,500 bottles), so get it quick or suffer the waiting game that so many Lickinghole aficionados have become all too familiar with.

Batchelors Delight – I am 99% certain that this is the BEST beer I have ever tasted in my life.  And I say that with a VERY heavy heart knowing that it’s completely sold out and unavailable until 2015… oh, the humanity!!  A Nicaraguan Rum barrel aged Belgian Quad sporting a hearty 12% ABV, this gem gets its unique (and no, that’s not a misspelling) name from “one of the most notorious and important pirate ships in history.”  This beer is so good, that like the pirates its named in honor of, there are an unlimited number of despicable and treacherous acts that I would be willing to commit in order to get my hands on more of it… but luckily all I have to do is remain patient until it’s released again.  Gives me time to set aside a special fund so that once it is available again, I can buy it by the truck load!

*GG: Plus they have a playground for the kids. I mean, come on. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Bonefish Grill's New Fall Menu

*I was given a gift card and invited by Bonefish Grill to try their new Fall Menu. All opinions good, bad, or otherwise are completely my own.*

It isn't typical for me to seek out seafood when I'm dining out. My son is highly allergic to almost all fish and shellfish, and it's become very routine for us to not only avoid it at home, but also avoid it at restaurants (with the exception of when we're visiting the ocean). But when I was invited to try the new Fall Menu at Bonefish Grill, and read all the delicious descriptions of their offerings, not only was I enticed, but I suddenly remembered that I actually love seafood, and I hadn't had any in a very long time. "Sold!" I said to myself.

We set off for the nearest Bonefish Grill with a couple whose food opinions we really value. Bonefish Grill's Fall Menu, which you can find here, has a few true hints of Fall flavors such as pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin créme brulée, and some richer fare you wouldn't  necessarily see on, say, a Summer menu. But working with fish and Fall flavors must be a bit of a challenge because the overall vibe from their new menu didn't precisely scream "Fall!"

Our waitress was prompt and professional, and knew her wines and beverages backwards and forwards, even pausing to make sure I really wanted to switch the wine I was drinking with my meal (my pre-dinner drink was a Sauvignon Blanc, and I switched to a recommended pairing of a Chardonnay for my entrée). I appreciated that for a chain restaurant their waitstaff seemed very knowledgeable, ready to answer any questions and guide choices.

We started with their famous Bang Bang Shrimp, and the Cold Snap Fresh Ceviche. Of course the shrimp delivered in all its perfectness, but we were left scratching our heads over the Ceviche. While it was served in a creative bowl made out of ice, it seemed half-filled with strips of lettuce, and very little of the Ceviche itself. It also seemed to lack the proper seasonings, most notably hints of lime. There were plenty of warm tortilla chips, but not much to put on them.

The Cold Snap Fresh Ceviche.

For the entrée I settled on the Pan Roasted Snapper + Shrimp, which boasted broiled grape tomatoes, a scampi sauce, fresh herbs, haricot vert and an herbed couscous. I truly enjoyed my fish and the shrimp, both of which were cooked to perfection. The Snapper was tender and delicious, and the sauce was very fresh and lively. The tomatoes seemed like a bit of an after-thought, however, tossed on perhaps for a burst of color. The haricot vert were perfectly seasoned, and wonderfully crisp, but I did not enjoy the couscous. It seemed to be of the larger "pearl" variety, and I wasn't overly fond of its texture. It had a rich, sumptuous flavor thanks to either chicken broth or stock, but I couldn't help but wish it was normal, fluffy, light couscous (Disclaimer: This could just be a "me" problem. I have issues with certain textures).

The Snapper + Shrimp (L), Pumpkin Ravioli (R)
Our friends had the Vintner's Burger with house made chips, and the Malbec Marinated Steak + Shrimp. The Burger was good, made sweet with caramelized onions and a red wine jam, and tangy with Danish blue cheese. The cheese was a tad too skimpy in their opinion, but they noted that if you found yourself at Bonefish Grill and either couldn't, or didn't want to order seafood, this would be an excellent option. The house made chips were also particularly good. The Malbec Marinated Steak was very good, and had a nice flavor profile, though our friend wished he had taken the upgrade to the filet from a sirloin. The shrimp on the steak was delicious, as were the mashed potatoes, which boasted small nuggets of roasted garlic. One misstep on his dish was the succotash it came with - a mixture of edamame (we think) and corn that was terribly bland.

Bonefish Grill's Vintner's Burger with house made chips.

The only true head-scratcher of the night came with my husband's dish, the Atlantic Salmon + Bacon Jam Butter. The salmon itself was wonderful, and the bacon jam butter complemented it perfectly. The salmon was cooked to absolute perfection - moist, but crisp on the outside. He also had the succotash which he did not like at all, and a side of Pumpkin Ravioli, which was delicious. The pasta was nicely cooked and the pumpkin filling had great rich flavor without being overbearing (but we both thought the addition of the crispy sage on top was unnecessary and added nothing to the overall taste). The problem was the way it was served. The salmon and dollop of the dreaded succotash were served on an absolutely enormous plate, with both salmon and succotash shoved together to one side of the plate in a haphazard manner, leaving a huge blank space. The three Pumpkin Ravioli came on its own tiny plate. It didn't seem to make much sense - why were they on their own plate? Why couldn't they be on the plate with the salmon? And if they couldn't be there, why put the salmon on a plate that was so enormous so as to leave half blank? We may never have the answers, but it was a little bizarre, especially since up until then all the presentations of the plates were fine.

Also, as a note, two of us chose the suggested wine pairings with the entrées, and found both to be on-point with the flavor profiles.

For dessert we had the Pumpkin Créme Brulée, which was rich without being too heavy, and sinfully delicious (though we wished the sugary caramelized top had been a trifle thicker); and our friends had the Coconut Pie, which was out of this world fantastic with a buttery rum sauce.

Overall we had a grand time (thanks to the lovely company), and the food was very good. There's plenty for seafood lovers to enjoy with both their Fall and regular menus.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fall Comforts: Johnny Marzetti

The memory is very clear in my head: I'm 12 and sitting at the little table in my Grandmother's kitchen; the table that was always laden with desserts, fresh fruit for picking a quick snack, and scrumptious breakfast rolls and pastries from the bakery down the street. My cousin is there with me, and we're talking to Grammy Jeanne, immersed in a serious conversation about some current event. My Grandmother is buttering a white soufflé dish liberally, pouring in a mixture of macaroni noodles, ground beef, and tomato sauce and generously sprinkling fresh shredded cheddar over the top.

After popping it into the oven, she sits down with us to talk some more. Maybe we don't always agree, but the delicious smells overwhelm kitchen and the conversation is cordial. Right up until her death, my Grammy Jeanne loved talking about news and politics. I can see this picture in my head, and my memory lights up as I remember thinking, in the midst of serious conversation, I can't wait until dinnertime.

Johnny Marzetti
And then I flash to another memory: Coming home on a cold Fall day from who-knows-where. Maybe riding my bike, or roller skating on the street. I come to the backdoor and before I even open it I inhale and close my eyes. Onions sautéing in butter. Ground beef dusted with garlic powder. Cheese, tangy tomato sauce. My Mother is making Johnny Marzetti, working from the recipe her Mother had written out for her after she had gotten married.

Both of these memories are so strong and speak of comfort and love. And yet, when I mention Johnny Marzetti to most people, it's almost always responded to with a confused, "Johnny Marzetti, what's that?" When I explain it to them, they often correct me and say it's Goulash (it's not), glorified Hamburger Helper (Heaven forbid), or want to know why it's called Johnny Marzetti. Up until this week, I had no idea why it was called that, and how it came into existence. Well now, dear readers, I have the answer.

The year is 1896, and Marzetti's, a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio has just been opened by Teresa Marzetti, an Italian immigrant. Since Marzetti's is very close Ohio State University, it's often frequented by hungry young men looking for good, filling comfort food that reminds them of home. Realizing that these starving students also need a meal to fill up on that's cheap, Teresa concocts a dish that uses ground beef, cheddar cheese, tomato sauce, and elbow macaroni noodles. She names it "Johnny Marzetti" for her brother-in-law, Johnny, and sells it for ¢45. The dish becomes wildly popular, and by the 1920s has spread like wildfire across the Midwest (it's also the national dish in Panama - thanks to soldiers during WWII eating so much of it - but made with olives and Arturo sauce).

"Why after her brother-in-law?" My Mom asks me over the phone as we talk about how this dish got its start in our family. After all, my Mom's family is from South Jersey, not the Midwest. "Why not her actual brother, or her husband?" I don't have an answer for this, but in my head I imagine that Johnny the brother-in-law loves this dish so much he eats his weight in it, and much like me, has a reverence for it that becomes something akin to devotion; a desire so strong for this simple dish that nothing can comfort him but this. Forget your eggplant parmesan, your spaghetti, your alfredos. This dish is the pinnacle of his culinary love. So much so that Teresa is forced to say, "Wow. He likes it so much, I should probably name it after him."

My Grandmother's recipe that I wrote out exactly as she had written, and her locket. That's her and my Grandfather.

Anyway, that's the story I tell myself. My Mom vaguely remembers eating Johnny Marzetti in high school, which would have been in the early 1960s. But she has no idea how Grammy Jeanne came across the recipe in the first place. Was it a magazine or newspaper article? Had a friend or family member passed it along to her at some point? That part of the story is lost, but the point is, Johnny Marzetti became a family favorite, and it's still a family favorite today in our home. Not only is it ridiculously easy to make, but it's kid-friendly and delicious. My kids can be picky at times, but not when it comes to Johnny Marzetti. I can casually mention the name and it will be met with screams, claps, and lots of jumping up and down. I'm not exaggerating.

You know it's good because their faces are covered with it.

And yes, I realize that you could hustle your little self to the store and buy a box of Hamburger Helper, and it would be much the same, except that it wouldn't be, at all. I like picking out the freshest ingredients. I like knowing what noodles I'm using, and real cheese (extra sharp is best). I love sprinkling fresh parsley into it. No, it's not a healthy dish, but I like creating it all on my own.

You can dress it up or dress it down. There have been notable substitutions and additions (not by me, I'm a devotee to the original recipe) of ground turkey, italian sausage, cream of mushroom soup, paprika, pimentos, mushrooms and even soy sauce. You can use different noodles if you're not an elbow macaroni fan. But sometimes what's simplest is best. I give you my Grandmother's take on it:

Johnny Marzetti

2 Tbsp. butter
2 large onions, chopped
1 1/2 lb. lean ground beef
1/2 lb. sharp cheddar cheese, grated
3 small cans tomato sauce (or 2 regular ones)
2 1/2 or 3 cups elbow macaroni
Salt & pepper to taste
Garlic powder
Freshly chopped parsley

• Sauté onion in 1 Tbsp. butter, add seasonings to taste, and ground beef. Stir fry for about 15 minutes.

• Boil noodles in salted water, drain, toss with the other tablespoon of butter.

• Add 1/2 of the grated cheese to the meat and onions and stir until melted.

• Add one can of tomato sauce to the meat mixture and stir well.

• Add the noodles to the meat mixture and blend. Place in 2 buttered casseroles. Cover each one with 1 can of sauce. Divide the remaining cheese over the top of each.

• Bake one of the casseroles at 325˚ for 25 minutes and cover the other casserole with Saran and aluminum foil and freeze for later.


I typically use 1 large sweet vidalia onion. I also use way more cheese on top of the casserole that's going into the oven, and leave the one going in the freezer cheese-less. I like having freshly grated cheese on the dish.

Instead of buttering the dishes (2 8x8 pans, or one 9 x 13 if you're feeding a crowd), I like to spoon a bit of tomato sauce evenly on the bottom instead. Not only does it add flavor, but the Marzetti comes out just as easily.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Destination: Toki Underground

Ramen. The last time I ate ramen before this past weekend was in the little house my friends and I rented in Fredericksburg my senior year attending Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). I can very clearly remember boiling the hard, scratchy noodles and flavor packet, microwaving a Hot Pocket to go along with it, and settling down to watch "The Simpsons." Gourmet dining at its finest, really.

Suffice to say, I didn't know from real ramen. I had certainly heard, and read, about real ramen since college, but I had never had a chance to experience it. Then about a year ago I was reading an article in UMW's Magazine about one of its alum, Erik Bruner-Yang, who had opened up an incredibly successful and wildly popular Taiwanese ramen and dumpling shop in Washington, D.C. called Toki Underground.

Our first course at Toki Underground: Fried Chicken and Steamed Buns

Just reading the descriptions of the food had me salivating, and I knew I needed to try this restaurant. I finally had the opportunity this past weekend when I went up to D.C. for a girls' weekend with two of my best friends. We made an attack plan for having dinner on Saturday evening. Yes, you read that right. You actually need a plan of attack to eat at Toki Underground. Problem number 1: It's ridiculously small. Intimate, is more like it, with seating on stools all along the outside perimeters of a tiny room. Problem number 2: They don't take reservations. Here's what we knew to do, based on some friends who had already been: Show up a little before 5 p.m. when they open; line up with a bunch of other hungry, ramen-crazed people and put your name on the list (or get first seating).

We didn't get first seating because we were a little late getting ready, but we were pretty proud of ourselves getting second seating. They told us it would be about a 45-minute wait, and took a cell phone number to text us when our seats were available. We walked about five paces down the street and into the nearest bar for a drink, enjoying the air conditioning. Did I mention that it was about 100 degrees that afternoon? Okay, maybe not 100, but it sure felt like it.

They ended up texting us about 30 minutes later, and we went upstairs for our first look at Toki Underground. I have to admit, though the initial shock of the smallness of the space was the first thing I noticed, the second thing I noticed was how cool it was. With Japanese art and neat Asian toys and trinkets placed around carefully, and a well thought-out playlist spinning, it just had a cool vibe. However, with its open kitchen blazing like the fires of hell, it felt anything but cool. I'm fairly certain all three of us were praying fervently that we didn't get the seats right next to the kitchen, so close you could reach out and give one of the chefs a high-five. So close I watched one poor diner mop his streaming brow with a paper napkin, only to have the napkin dissolve and stick to his face.

Main Dish: The Toki Classic ramen bowl.

Luckily we got seated across the room next to the windows and stairway. We perused the menu and immediately ordered an appetizer of Fried Chicken and Steamed Buns, a spicy, crunchy explosion of deliciousness that made me think of a crazy mashup of Asian and Southern comfort food, especially with its condiments of aioli, relish, and pickled cucumbers. They provided lots of water in fun mason jars, and we ordered drinks (Toki Monster, a bourbon-based cocktail; one whose name we can't remember but had vodka, lemongrass, and grapefruit; and ice-cold Sake for me).

Next up our ramen bowls arrived quickly: Two Toki Classics (made with a triple stock, pulled pork, veggies, soft-boiled egg, sesame, and nori to name a few ingredients), and one Vegetarian (same principle ingredients with more veggies, and a mix of mushrooms). Served with chopsticks and a small metal ladle for digging into the broth, this ramen was beyond good. My first bite was a surprise - remember, the last time I had ramen it came from an orange package. These noodles were sublime. Silky, rich, creamy, and instantly addictive. With the right amount of spiciness, it was like nothing I've ever had. Every bite was sumptuous, and every slurp and sip revealed a different dimension and depth to the dish.

Sake, frosty cold and perfect with ramen; The Toki Classic ramen bowl. Supreme deliciousness.

The only problem was the heat. I don't know if their air conditioning units weren't working right, but it was downright blazing in there. Hovering over bowls of steaming ramen only added to the problem. The Sake and water helped, but I couldn't help but think that next time I made a trip to Toki Underground, it should be in the dead of winter. That said, I can summarize with this: The point is, while D.C. has many fabulous restaurants, and even more new restaurants that are making a splash on the national scene (hello, Rose's Luxury, you are next on my list!!), I would literally endure anything, including searing heat, torrents of sweat, and any amount of line-standing to have seconds at Toki Underground.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Neighborhood Patio Crawl!

I live in a great neighborhood. I hate to brag, but I do. We've lived here for 9 1/2 years, and we've made some amazing friends, not only in our neighborhood, but also the two small neighborhoods that flank ours. What's so great is that it's a nice mixture of young families, newlyweds, and empty-nesters who all have a really good time together.

We've had lots of parties, festivals, and impromptu fire-pit hangouts together, but this past July we decided to try something totally different and new: A neighborhood Patio Crawl. With four participating houses with four different themes, it was a wonderful, crazy, fun night. Here's how we did it (and how you can plan your own!):

Bourbon Ginger Snap Punch, and a "Caesar" cocktail. Pic on right by Allison Shumate Photography.

1) We started early at 6 p.m. This was an adults-only party, so those of us with kids got babysitters. My house was the first house, so I had our babysitter actually take our kids out to play at the playground, and then for a treat of frozen yogurt afterwards, so that by the time they came home for bed, we had already cleaned up and were on to the next house.

2) We set a limit for exactly 45 minutes at each house (except the last house - more on that later), and stuck pretty rigorously to that. There are a couple of reasons you'd want to consider doing this: a) It kept the party lively, and didn't overburden any one of the houses (again, except the last house); b) It didn't keep the host or hostess at the next house waiting too long, wondering if anyone was going to show up. Designate someone willing to keep everyone on track and who has a really loud voice for this job.

3) Each house had a different theme, complete with cocktails and food. Ours was "The Bourbon Trail," and we served a Bourbon Ginger Snap Punch; Chicken Kebabs with a Sweet Bourbon Dipping Sauce; and fun Watermelon Skewers with cherry tomatoes and basil. The other three houses featured:

"New York, New York!" - Manhattan cocktails, a giant cheese pizza, and antipasto platter
"Canada: Party On, Eh?" - Caesar cocktail (like a Bloody Mary but made with Clamato juice - a blend of tomato and clam juices), Poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds), and smoked salmon with cheese curds
"Margaritaville" - Margaritas, Sea Breezes, chips and salsa, and slow cooker tacos with all the fixins.

4) Four houses turned out to be the absolute perfect number for our crew, and the last house was crucial. Someone has to step up and be willing for the party to kick into high gear at their home, and also be willing to let people stay longer than 45 minutes. This is also going to be the house you're most likely to get into trouble in as far as pacing the alcohol goes. At least, that was my problem. I was doing just fine until I got to Margaritaville!

Watermelon, Tomato, and Basil Skewers; Chicken Kebabs with Sweet Bourbon Dipping Sauce. Pic on right by Allison Shumate Photography

The great thing about a Patio Crawl is that it keep things interesting. It was so much fun discovering what each house had come up with. The weather was beautiful, and a grand time was had by all. The next morning? Not so grand, but that's another story for another time.

Here are the recipes we used for our theme, "The Bourbon Trail."

Bourbon Ginger Snap Punch - click here to get the recipe!

Chicken Kebabs with Sweet Bourbon Dipping Sauce: We took 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, dusted them with salt, pepper, and paprika, and then had them sit overnight in a marinade of Italian Dressing. Then we grilled them on medium-high heat until done, and cut into bite-size chunks, with three chunks on a skewer.

You can find the recipe for the Bourbon Dipping Sauce by clicking here.

Tomato, Watermelon, Basil Skewers

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 (4 to 5 pound) watermelon cut into 32 cubes
32 small basil leaves (or large leaves torn into smaller pieces)
16 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Kosher Salt

1. Combine balsamic vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Turn off heat and set aside to cool.
2. Skewer the watermelon, tomatoes and basil, arranging on a plate. Drizzle with balsamic syrup and olive oil (I typically use only 1 Tbsp.). Sprinkle with Kosher Salt.
3. Serve immediately, or refrigerate. If not serving until much later, reserve syrup to drizzle on at the last moment.

Yours truly on the left; the gang mid-crawl to Margaritaville.
Pics by Allison Shumate Photography (P.S. - Her house was Margaritaville. Told you she's fun!)


Friday, August 8, 2014

Cooking With Friends

Last weekend I had so much fun with my college friend, Mel, who came down to visit. We hadn't seen each other in 14 years, literally since we graduated college! Thanks to Facebook, we've been able to keep in touch and share our passion for food and wine. Mel writes over at the blog Mel's Mosaic and is so knowledgeable about wine. After months of talking about getting together, she was finally able to come down to Richmond so we could catch up and cook together.

She arrived armed with a couple of recipes and a couple of bottles of wine. We discussed which recipe we wanted to tackle and then headed to Whole Foods prepared to shop for Health Magazine's Zucchini "Pasta" with Shrimp, and a thrown-together couscous salad. Once home, we continued with the theme and munched on fig halves smeared with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto (and a dollop of honey), and opened the first bottle of wine: Sokol Blosser Rosé of Pinot Noir, which I loved.

Shredding the zucchini into "pasta"

It's always so interesting to cook with people I've never cooked with before. First of all, it doesn't happen that often, but when it does, I find it to be really fun. We all have different styles of cooking, and Mel and I talked lot about that (she's more inventive whereas I tend to not stray to far from a recipe).

Mel, hard at work. Her awesome shirt says, "Pain now…wine later."

I had never made a zucchini pasta, so I found the preparation fascinating. The recipe is super easy, and Mel taught me how to peel the zucchini into strips. What I loved most about this recipe is how packed with flavor it is. With strong bright notes from both lemon and wine (we used an open bottle of Chardonnay), it really takes over your senses with that perfect summer essence: light and luscious.

I threw together a couscous salad with splashes of olive oil and fresh lemon juice, cracked pepper, parsley, mint, quartered grape tomatoes and finely diced shallots. The flavors married well to the Zucchini Pasta and we had a magnificent feast with a Penner Ash Pinot Noir. For dessert we had chocolate-chip meringues from Whole Foods, and a yummy Pear and Almond dark chocolate bar.

Zucchini "Pasta" w/Shrimp, and couscous salad

We had so much fun, and I can't wait to do it again! Thanks for coming down and cooking with me, Mel! You can find the recipe for Zucchini "Pasta" w/Shrimp by clicking here.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Best-Ever S'Mores Cookies

Once upon a time (this past Christmas), I was on the hunt for a new cookie recipe. I always like to switch it up at Christmastime - I enjoy making recipes that we have loved over the years, but I also love tackling something new and fresh. That way, when it comes time to give baked goods as presents to friends and neighbors I know I'm sending out one tried-and-true goodie, and one fresh and exciting goodie (at least to me). Yes, friends, there is a method to my madness.

Bon Appétit usually has some of the best new recipes for thinking outside the cookie/bar box during the holidays, what with their annual holiday cookie editions, but it was actually Pinterest that helped me to find one of the best cookies I've ever had in my life, hands down.

Maybe you saw it floating around on the web last December - The Hot Cocoa Cookie. Featured on the blog Glorious Treats, this delightful cookie has it all: decadence and whimsy all bundled up together in one chocolatey little present.

It starts with a basic chocolate crinkle cookie, and then gets ramped up with a half a marshmallow, and topped off with chocolate sauce. I know that sounds very rich, but the truth is, it all works together so that it's not completely overwhelming. I mean, one cookie at a time is enough for me, but it's just sinful enough, if you know what I mean. Like Glory's recipe, I topped it with Christmas sprinkles. But I noticed that she suggests using all sorts of different colors and themes, so that the cookie doesn't have to be just a Christmas cookie.

That's when it hit me: Graham Crackers. What if instead of sprinkles I crushed up some graham crackers to make the perfect S'Mores Cookie? I mean, yes, I know, it's summer and every other recipe and brownie and dip out there is s'mores this, and s'mores that. And let's not forget the traditional s'more, which, let's face it, no cookie or bar or brownie could ever hold a candle to (due directly to the perfectly singed nature of the marshmallow which is crucial to maximum sweet/salty/smoky flavor).

Yum. That is all.

But there's a catch. Melted marshmallows are messy. With three kids, I get tired of trying in vain to clean their little faces of chocolate and mallow. Have you ever noticed that the more you try to wipe, the more marshmallows cling defiantly to their faces, until you're just at that point of ordering a hose and a tarp to get the job done?

These cookies don't produce that type of epic mess*. The marshmallows, thanks to only being in the oven for about 2-3 minutes, don't really melt. They puff, and then reset, even when you drizzle the chocolate sauce over them. They are soft, and chewy, and oh-so-good; and with the hit of crushed graham cracker you get the taste of s'mores. My only problem was that I crushed the graham crackers to finely. I very highly recommend crushing them so that there are big chunks to let the graham flavor shine through.

Trust me, you want to try this now. You can find the recipe by clicking here. Simply swap toppings and you're on your way to S'More Cookie Heaven.

Note: I found that her recipe for the chocolate icing tends to get a bit thick as you work. Adding about two tablespoons of warm water helped thin it out to continue icing. Be sure to sprinkle with graham crackers before the icing has a chance to set.

* Disclaimer: They actually do get quite messy when your toddler insists that she doesn't like marshmallows after all and attempts to pull all the marshmallow off herself. Then it's a problem. 

Best-Ever S'Mores Cookies

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our Perfectly Imperfect Vacation

2:30 a.m., and as the Weather Channel had predicted, Hurricane Arthur was upon us: a Category 2. Peering through the blinds in our bathroom yielded very little. I couldn't see what was happening outside, but I could hear it just fine. It howled. It roared. It whistled shrilly, and as it did, the house, perched right on the beach, shuddered and swayed. The rain pounded fiercely, and as I crawled back into bed, I wondered if we had made the right decision in staying.

Several hours earlier, we had the kids out on the beach wrapped in sweatshirts against the chilly breeze. Plenty of people milled the beach in Duck, North Carolina, enjoying themselves in the twilight as an eerie mist settled over everything, obscuring the ocean. But it was still reassuring: Not many people were evacuating. On the other hand, I watched as others scurried to secure storm and hurricane shutters over their windows. We didn't have those types of sliding shutters - or any shutters at all, so that was unnerving. They were prepared. Were we? We had battened every hatch we could think of, secured everything that was loose, turned outdoor furniture on its side and slid them flush with the house. The bunting and flag we had put up to celebrate the Fourth of July were tucked away safely inside.

What had seemed like fun hours ago now seemed a lot like fear. My parents came down around 3:00 a.m. from their master bedroom on the top floor. "I didn't like the way it sounded up there," my Mom explained. Too much swaying and creaking. Water started seeping under the downstairs door leading out onto the porch thanks to the slant of the pounding rain. The storm raged on, louder than ever, and I crawled once again back into bed next to my snoring husband. I shivered as the house shuddered, and at one point tried to burrow into him. He patted my head gently and said, "Don't be afraid. You can't do anything about it anyway," and promptly resumed snoring.

I dozed lightly on and off until about 5 a.m. when the eye finally blasted offshore, and the wind changed direction, now hammering our bedroom window. I finally fell into a fitful sleep.

I woke up a few hours later when the windows were bright with light and trudged upstairs. Our kids, who had slept through the entire thing, bless them, were bouncing off the walls with excitement and energy. We got them out onto the beach where lots of people roamed watching the waves, huge and furious. The wind still whipped our hair into a frenzy, but it was nice to be out, and for the storm to finally be over. We could even see slivers of blue sky amongst all the gray.

Later as I sat at the breakfast table with my Mom I said, "I think God has been trying to tell me something this week."

"What's that?" She asked. I tried to explain it as best I could, as the thought solidified in my mind.

It was all about not putting my eggs into one basket, I told her. The vacation basket to be more specific. All year I wait to get back to the Outer Banks for our week-long vacation. It's a place I grew up going to in the summers; a place where the minute we drive over that bridge and we're finally on the barrier islands, I just feel better. My whole body relaxes and my soul rejoices that I'm finally back in a place where I feel best of all. And part of that feeling is not just because I'm on vacation. It's because I love the Outer Banks fiercely, and I feel it's a place where  I belong. A place where I could move to and live there year-round. I've been there in every season, and besides the occasional hurricane, there's very little about it I don't love. Its wildness and rugged beauty; the charm of the small town, Duck, that we reside in for one week; and its deep history - the stuff that legends and ghost stories are made of.

The kids and I had been talking for weeks about what we were going to do once we were there, and how much fun we were going to have. But then we got there, and stuff started to go wrong. Like our son coming down with a horrendous cold that turned into a raging sinus infection complete with fever. Like a Tropical Storm that they said wasn't going to impact Duck much that turned into a Category 2 Hurricane.

The morning after Hurricane Arthur

I remember saying at one point during the week when a fever-induced crabby kid attitude started to take over that: "It wasn't supposed to be like this."

But the truth is, it was never supposed to be like anything other than it was.

Look, I am always grateful that I get to go on a weeklong vacation at all. I know it's a privilege and a luxury that many people don't have. And even though as a Mom it's still a lot of work, it's often the best week of the year because the kids are happy, we're happy, and we're surrounded by beauty and good times. But what God was trying to teach me was that I can't put all of my eggs in the vacation basket. I can't put so much faith into one week. It's not like that one week is going to fix everything, or be perfect. Life still marches on, even at the beach, or in the mountains, or wherever it is that you love to go. Life is imperfect, and when I start putting so much hope into one week at the beach, I end up missing the larger picture. I had often thought to myself in the months preceding our trip, "If I can just get to the beach, everything will be fine. I will be fine."

I couldn't even see how naive that was as I tried to hang onto every precious moment, but failed because of the simple fact that "vacation" always comes around so slowly, and always slips away so fast. I never realized how tightly I was holding onto our week at the beach, and how much faith I was putting in it until last week.

Beauty is everywhere, but especially in imperfect moments.

And that's precisely what I know God was trying to teach me: Don't hold on so tightly. You can't make it perfect. Enjoy every sweet moment that comes along, and let go of the imperfect moments. One week can't fix your stressed out, pushed-to-the-limits soul when you have 3 small kids...but it can help. Make the most of ordinary days.

Praise Him when the sun is shining, you've got a book in your hands, and the kids are having a ball digging in the sand. Praise Him when you get to take a 3 mile walk on the boardwalk that follows the Sound all by yourself. Praise Him for the best doughnuts in the world. Praise Him when you get to walk down the beach hand-in-hand with the love of your life, and the kids are playing with the Grandparents. Praise Him when you stay up late watching the brilliant night sky, and you wrap your 6 year old in your arms and point out constellations to him. Praise Him for the geniuses who came up with that constellation App so you can tell your son which constellations are which. Praise Him for great food and good wine. Praise Him for pelicans. Praise Him for good friends you only get to see once a year.

Praise Him when you have to blow your son's nose for the billionth time. Praise Him when you have to hold your son who is crying, and has a fever, and is scared that he'll miss out on all the fun. Praise Him when you're trying to slather not one but two wriggling toddlers with sunblock. Praise Him for the Independence of our country, even though the town's beloved Fourth of July parade was cancelled. Praise Him as the house shakes and sways in the middle of a Hurricane.

That afternoon the sun came out, and Liam came inside from playing on the beach, complaining about his ear hurting. An hour later the pain was so bad he was in tears. After a quick trip to Urgent Care, they confirmed what I expected, an ear infection. It could have ruined the rest of our Fourth of July, and what little was left of our trip, but it didn't. He got some medicine and felt immediately better, and we carried on our festivities as planned - with the exception of doing all our cookout food indoors because the wind was so high we knew we'd never get the grill to light. That night, we sat out on our porch and watched spectacular fireworks go off up and down the beach, as far as the eye could see. Liam ran around with his buddies shrieking in happiness, and the girls clapped and screamed for more - not a bit at all afraid for their first fireworks show. The ocean pounded just beyond, a wonderful soundtrack to echo the booms across the sky.

And you better believe that I praised God for every beautiful, perfectly imperfect moment of it.