Category Archives: Kitchen

Blood Orange Margaritas & surviving the first months in San Diego

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When you’re working more than full-time for an erratic cafe owner with a weak grasp of the English language, standing on a concrete floor for such long hours that your hips start to burn, getting yelled at for turning away customers at 11:55 p.m. because you and the other overworked girl were ready to close up for the night, then San Diego isn’t quite the vacation that it had seemed on previous visits. It becomes real life.

I’m sorry that I’ve been missing from this space. I’ve jotted down many blog post ideas over the past weeks–months, actually–that I’ve been living out here. I’ve eaten lots and lots of good food, both at home and at restaurants, gotten sunburnt and bought bags full of blood oranges and avocados at markets.

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Emma’s Mac-A-Roo, the ultimate macaroni and cheese

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That’s my silly sister, on a day long before end-of-the-year work consumed her life. 

Emma put in 14-hour days all week just so she could be home for my last weekend.

Busy season for accountants on the audit side is January and February, and 12-hour days aren’t uncommon, as she’s learning in her first year as a newbie at one of the Big Four. Saturdays are required too, unless, apparently, you present extenuating circumstances like your oldest (and favorite) sister is moving across the country. So she clocked in at 7:30 a.m. all week, getting home at 10–or later–at night. And, she still had to spend a few hours with a calculator and laptop and scary spreadsheets while our pups played. (And mind you, she wasn’t as happy as she was in the above snapshot, taken before a UVA game this fall. Far from it.)

But, Emma: I’m so glad you were here. It may be awhile before we can again cuddle, lunch with a great friend, or shop for running sneakers together. Or, eat mom’s macaroni and cheese.

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Perhaps most memorable this weekend, we dined on some favorites: Mac-A-Roo and later, grandpa’s fluffy and delicate pancakes. Watching “The Wizard of Oz”–she’s obviously seen this classic too many times and knows every single line–while cozied up in grandpa’s living room wrapped up a low-key evening. (Along with this dark chocolate caramel panna cotta.)

For some reason, Emma and I refused to like homemade macaroni and cheese when we were kids. Was it too saucy, too different than what’s from the blue box, too flavorful? But then, our family went to Outback. And life changed. Emma ordered the kid’s Mac-A-Roo, a simple bowl of noodles tossed with a rich, creamy cheese sauce. My mom, astonished, said, “I could make that at home!” With the macaroni and cheese recipe from Betty Crocker, homemade Mac-A-Roo quickly became a favorite for our family.

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It’s simple and hearty–start with a roux of butter and flour, whisk in milk (for a bechamel sauce), and then melt in cheese. My mom tends to use a mix of American (no longer available in a blue box though, she lamented, just sliced) and grated cheddar. Spoon it over pasta for a saucier dish, creamy cheese clinging to the tiny ridges on the penne, or bake and allow the noodles to soak up the extra sauce and the whole dish will get crusty on top. Emma prefers it unbaked, but my favorite is baked; this weekend, she won. A side of peas always complements Mac-A-Roo, though I don’t know why. That’s just what we’ve always done. The peas are a tad sweet, green (and thus healthy), and blend in well to a bowl of ultimate richness.

Like Dorothy says, there’s no place like home.

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Mac-A-Roo (aka Macaroni and Cheese)
From Betty Crocker

2 cups / 7 oz. uncooked pasta
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground mustard
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cups milk
2 cups / 8 oz. cheese (equal parts American and shredded cheddar)

If baking the finished dish, heat oven to 350ºF.

Cook macaroni as directed on package.

While macaroni is cooking, melt butter in 3-quart saucepan over low heat. Stir in flour, salt, pepper, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Cook over medium low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth and bubbly; remove from heat.

Stir in milk. Heat to boiling, stirring constanly. Boil and stir 1 minute. Stir in cheese. Cook, stirring occasionally, until cheese is melted.

Drain macaroni.

Choose how you’re going to serve: Either spoon the sauce onto bowls of pasta, or, mix the sauce and all cooked pasta together and pour into ungreased 2-quart casserole. Bake uncovered 20 to 25 minutes or until bubbly.

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I’m moving to San Diego!

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The cake worked. The next Monday was sweeter, brighter.

And now, life’s about to be a whole lot sunnier.

In two weeks–likely on Valentine’s Day–I’m moving West, to San Diego, where a 70-degree heat wave at the end of January coincided with yet another “polar vortex” in the East. Sweaters are staying in Virginia. Kitchen supplies are coming with me. And pup’s along for the ride.

Here’s the plan: My wonderful parents are helping to box up my belongings next weekend. We’ll ship them cross country, and my furniture will find new homes. My last day at the newspaper is Feb. 11, and  I’ll spend a day or so back in my hometown. Then, the bulky Kitchen Aid and dog crate will get stowed in the trunk and I’m sure we’ll cringe at how little space there actually is. My dad’s a pro a figuring out the puzzle on car trips, so, hopefully we’ll have room for a few suitcases, a cooler of treats, some books on CD. The two (three) of us will spend the next five-ish days bonding in the 2000 Camry, with plenty of dog/human stops along the way. If all goes well, we’ll find a few adventures, and maybe even snap a photo at that little spot you may have heard of, the Grand Canyon.

At the end of the road, we’ll be able to pick up lemons and avocados at farmers markets, and shells and sand dollars at the many, many beaches… and more!

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It’s a huge, scary, life-changing, nerve-wracking, major leap of faith. Leap of love. And I couldn’t be more excited. Three thousand miles have stretched between Tom and I for two-and-a-half years, longer than I would have ever guessed if you had asked me back in October 2011, when he and his dad packed up the U-Haul for his own adventure. And finally, within days, we’re going to be together–with the pup–in a sunny California city of 1.4 million.

The move will also be a personal challenge, for, as I have learned, California is really, really far from Virginia, where my family and friends live. Making this decision has been quite an endeavor, with many tears and questions and doubts over the past few months. But, knowing Tom’s there, that we’ll finally be in the same place, and lemon and orange trees abound, that makes it worth it. Timing couldn’t be better, and really, I’m not yet 25, so what better time is there to drop everything and embark on such a huge, invigorating (expensive) change?

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After writing over a check for two arms and a leg, we have a bright little apartment next to Balboa Park that we’ll call home for the next 12 months. I’m excited to decorate, though compromising on colors and furniture will likely be our first challenge to overcome. Plus, I’ll be on quite the budget until I get the whole job thing sorted out. If only Rachel could bring in a paycheck, too.

I’ll share what I can as we drive, and as we start this new part of our lives. Rachel and Tom will certainly have some acclimating to do with each other, while I get over freaking out that I’ve gone from a small Civil War-obsessed town of 27,000 to being surrounded by 50 times as many people, many who surf. Fredericksburg is 10 square miles, San Diego is 372. The differences are just beginning.

So. If you have tips, advice, questions, warnings, restaurant recommendations, frugal decorating tips, relationship suggestions, dog traveling tips or just some love, please share! This is big, and I need you with me! And I really can’t wait for the adventure, and to take you along with me. Let’s go!

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Sock-It-To-Me Cake

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My newspaper’s bankruptcy filing, mice in kitchen cabinets, snow and days of below-freezing temperatures, a friend’s engagement (!!!), another best friend laid off, being denied an apartment, an interview set up (!!), still not having a firm moving date… This week, you guys, was too much. (In perspective, of course, thankfully everyone is still ok, my family and friends are healthy, everyone has a home.) But still, what a roller coaster few days, on top of this months-long state of upheaval.

Growing up, I’m learning, isn’t so easy. Decisions to make, relationships that change, jobs and homes and money on the forefront.

It wasn’t like this as a teenager with light-hearted responsibilities and few life-changing decisions to make. (Back then, I wasn’t too concerned/conscious about what I ate, either.) Some of my favorite memories are weekend-long camping trips with my small Girl Scout troop. We’d set up our tents at one of Virginia’s many great parks, like Douthat and Fairy Stone, and spend hours on the lakes, sunning and paddle boating, building campfires at the campsite, discovering itty bitty frogs on hikes in the woods, having fun and eating well. Menus stuck to this route–silver turtles in the fire, good ol’ sandwiches, biscuits in the Dutch oven with sausage gravy, and one of my favorites, sock-it-to-me cake. My longtime friend Sarah, would always bring this classic jacked-up cake mix, made by her mom, Ellen, who has baked it for as long as Sarah can remember. Not worried about calories, I could nibble on slice after slice at all times of the day.

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Warm Sweet Potato and Lentil Salad with Maple-Mustard Dressing; Packing Lunches for Long Days

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Today is going to be a long day. Snow that’s slowly approaching on the radar may change my schedule for work–a 10 a.m. ceremony is already canceled, so keep your fingers crossed for meetings at noon, 1:30, 3 and 7 p.m., phew!–but either way, my meals are packed and prepped. Covering government meetings makes every other Tuesday challenging. I don’t particularly mind sitting in the board chambers, or listening to local elected officials volley ideas back and forth. There’s always something new to learn, and I feel so very fortunate to be a journalist. [Update: No meetings today!]

But honestly, if I can let you in on a little secret, what most concerns me is what I’m going to eat. With no microwave or refrigerator or even a table, what to pack for a lunch and/or dinner calls for creativity. I typically leave my lunch bag in my car for a few hours too, meaning nothing should be prone to spoilage. Peanut butter and jelly or banana is always a safe choice, but sometimes, I want some more vegetables, more flavor, more variety.

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Warm up 2014 with Mark Bittman’s Chili non Carne

Happy 2014, everyone!

We’re off to a bitterly cold start here on the East Coast, and I’m just starting to get back into my normal routine after a busy holiday season. We’re thawing out from our -3 degree, 25-minute walk, which required layers upon layers to protect my body. Pup didn’t mind, of course. But frostbite isn’t a joke, I read multiple places! For my legs, two pairs of socks, running leggings layered under lounge pants with thick JMU sweatpants worn on top; to warm my core, a long sleeve shirt, fleece, sweatshirt and winter coat; thick gloves on my hands; a knitted scarf around my neck, with a running headband over my ears, a fleece hat, my coat’s hood pulled up and another wide scarf wrapped across my face.

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The next few weeks will be just as hectic as the last three, so I’m thankful to have this morning to slow down, cuddled in a blanket, Rachel nesting in the rug nearby.

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Grandpa Bob’s Date Nut Pinwheel Cookies

I wrote this piece for a food writing course at JMU, and then adapted some of it for a newspaper article about cookie exchanges. These treats were my contribution to this year’s Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap. Date Nut Pinwheels are my absolute favorite Christmas cookie, for they are soft, subtly sweet and sentimental. I hope you enjoy.

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Dozens of tins cover the wooden table in the dining room at my Aunt Margot’s house. The unlabeled tins, stacked on top of one another, beg to be opened so we can see — and sample — what’s inside. Every year, we see many of the same types of Christmas cookies: crunchy peanut butter topped with criss-crosses; hard biscotti from my Sicilian uncle; bite-sized “world peace” made with rich chocolate; chocolate chip, simple but familiar; almond cookies drizzled with chocolate; Mexican wedding cakes dusted with powdered sugar. Every branch of the Thisdell family brings an assortment of cookies for the piles to grow, and after we are all done snacking for the few days in town, we fill up our own tins to take home the fruits of the season. But despite the variety, there’s only one kind I yearn for year after year: date nut pinwheels.

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Streuseled Sweet Potato Casserole

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Just because Thanksgiving and all the leftovers have come and gone shouldn’t mean we can’t reminisce about our favorite dishes, let our mouths water and plan ahead for Christmas.

This sweet potato casserole is at the top of my list for holidays meals, rich and creamy, with a nutty crunch on top. It’s almost dessert before the actual dessert. After years of counting on this dish being on the table with my aunt, uncle, cousins and their children, for me, Thanksgiving isn’t right without it. When I wasn’t home with my family a few years back, I was thankful for this taste of home that I took to a friend’s.

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