So you won’t have to …

You’re probably like me and have stood at Wal-Mart’s self-checkout registers of doom & wondered how much rotisserie-chicken juice you’d have to spill on the scanner  to short it out and bring Wal-Mart commerce to a greasy halt.  Well, stop wondering because I have the answer: More than you think. Aren’t you relieved? I’ll retrace my steps so you can replicate this experiment to test for consistent results, although I discourage tempting Wal-Mart karma.

Here’s what happened: Recently I offered to bring supper to Older Daughter & my three grandsons. By “bring,” I mean “choose from various takeout options” because sadly I am not the sort of mom/grandma who has tasty dinner items in her kitchen unless you count half-empty -full bottles of wine. Older Daughter had a sinus headache and wasn’t hungry so no vegetarian option needed. This pointed to a run to Little Wal-Mart* for the rotisserie chicken that the 7-year-old & 3-year-old grandsons like and the 8-month-old grandson eyes with increasing optimism. Also a good choice because son-in-law was working late and he could eat when he got home. A vital detail here is that I was wearing my new long pendant necklace that has had several charms dangling from the bottom, such as an elephant & an old-fashioned long and skinny key**.

So I go to Little Wal-Mart, feeling cute & stylish in my elephant-and-key necklace PLUS feeling pat-myself-on-the-back good for helping Older Daughter. I grab the warm chicken, packaged in one of those two-part plastic containers, as well as King’s Hawaiian rolls, chocolate soy milk and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. As I put the container of warm & juicy chicken in my cart, I notice the plastic lid seems precarious. This is when any normal non-cute-necklace-wearing person would Take Some Action. Not me. Instead, I was thinking about how much I liked my new necklace & maybe I should get the one with penguins, too. There wasn’t room for, you know, logical & productive thoughts.

And then next, like a blurry slow-motion explosion that cannot be stopped, comes my arrival at the self-checkout register, my one-handed removal of the chicken from my cart, the unwieldiness of the plastic container, my instinctive reaction to set it down quickly and the inevitable upside-down dropage of said container. Then chicken juice. Everywhere. The mist cleared and time returned to normal and I expected alarms & flashing red lights, but nothing happened. Nothing. Crickets chirping. Nobody was in line behind me and the employee at the self-checkout desk was staring intently at nothing or maybe at the produce section to her right. Difficult to tell. After a minute or so of considering options — Leave quietly? Pretend chicken juice was covering the register when I arrived? — I got her attention. “I dropped something,” I said as she walked over. “Hmm,” she said. “Yes. I see.” She brought paper towels & a spray bottle and began expertly dismantling the now-chickeny register. This was when my Southerness kicked in because of course you’re not going to stand there while somebody else is cleaning up a mess YOU made. That’s akin to putting grapes in your chicken salad — not going to happen. So I leaned over with a paper towel and started wiping my side of the register, stretching to reach the far corners, at the exact moment she dropped the scanner’s glass cover back into place and caught the long skinny key of my adorable new necklace underneath. Thoughts of Isadora Duncan‘s demise via a similar fashion mistake briefly put me in panic mode — although greasy chicken juice and a Wal-Mart register isn’t as glamorous as a long silk scarf and sports car — but she quickly raised the cover and freed me. The key charm was slightly mangled and the elephant slightly dented but the chicken miraculously was fine except for significantly less juice. Which probably was a good thing. You’re welcome.

* Little Wal-Mart — This is what Middle Grandson calls Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets.

** Elephant-and-key necklace — Why are elephant and key charms together on a necklace? All I can think of is “The Secret Garden,” one of my favorite childhood books because who among us doesn’t believe she has a rich & mysterious uncle on an English estate with a long-hidden secret? The fact that my only uncle was a high-school teacher in California did not dampen my dreams.

Cookies? Butter? Sugar? Yes, Please

You know you’ve been lazy and bloggy-averse when even your mom tells you to update your page.  So … yes, ma’am. Here you go. Plus, since I’m sitting here watching the “Dancing with the Stars” folks be all healthy and active, I really should do something equally energetic. Like blogging. (What, by the way, is the deal with these half points? Is this allowed in Mirrorballus Land?) Speaking of “healthy,” run as fast as you can to your nearest Trader Joe’s and buy a jar of Cookie Butter. (You also can order it online, but you’ll want to balance your intake of this incredibly delicious and addictive spread with as much running as you can manage.) This gift from the Angels of Yummy is exactly what it says: cookies mashed up into creamy buttery spreadable goodness. It’s like peanut butter without the peanuts. (Or butter either, actually.)  The “Speculoos” on the label refers to a kind of Scandinavian/French thin gingerbread-like shortbread-type of cookie. Also, the word “sugar” is mentioned four times in the Cookie Butter ingredient list: Sugar syrup, plain ol’ sugar twice and — my favorite — candy sugar. Candy. Sugar. Candy sugar! Topped off with sugar, sugar AND sugar. What could be better? Cookie Butter melts insanely lusciously into pancakes, waffles, muffins, biscuits and other warm-from-the-oven treats. Or spread it on graham crackers, ginger snaps, vanilla wafers or whatever you’ve got handy.  In the store, the 11-ounce jar is less than $4. The nutrition label has a lot of zeros on it — for vitamins, calcium and iron. But don’t let the rest of the label lull you into thinking “this really isn’t that bad.” Sure, it says only 90 calories and 6 grams of fat in a serving, which as we all know is half the stats of other nut butters. But, wait. The Cookie Butter serving size is 1 tablespoon, which also is half of other nut butters. Sorry about that. Worth it, though!

Children

My dear husband always cautions me against overloading you all with photos of 2-year-old grandson Capt. Adorable, but I can’t help it. I mean, he is so adorable, right? And it’s the weekend and I only have about 10 minutes before Dr. Who starts and I haven’t blogged for a couple of days so I really want to get something up here and I was browsing through my photos and saw this and I knew — I KNEW — you would want to see it, too. I mean, look at those curls! That determined look in his eyes. Those precious little baby knees. Adorable!!! This is at the opening this past week of the new Earth Fare — now officially my most favorite grocery ever, although I still cannot pass by a Whole Foods or Fresh Market without stopping — in Huntsville, Alabama. All sorts of vendors were outside passing out samples and free stuff — Party Time! Anyway, we were lured over to the kettle-corn guys by the irresistible kettle-corn smell and Capt. Adorable immediately was taken with their cart shaped like an old-fashioned car — or maybe it really was some kind of old car or something. The kettle-corn guys told us all about it but I was too busy drinking in the Captain’s adorability to listen closely. It’s a grandma thing.

Shopping

What is it about North Carolina and super-cool grocery stores? First, our much-loved Fresh Market originated in Greensboro, and now the up-and-coming Earth Fare is starting to grow beyond its Asheville roots. Earth Fare emphasizes healthy, fresh, local, organic, non-toxic and earth-friendly — and affordable pricing. Besides all the usual grocery-store sections you’d expect, it also has a bakery, deli and salad bar  — you can take out or eat in — and a health-and-beauty section. Think Fresh Market’s seasonal variety along with Whole Food’s in-store options mixed with a local farmer’s market commitment to sustainability all supported by the pricing of a Publix or Kroger’s. I mean, any mainstream grocery store that sells rain barrels at its front door and locally made gluten-free bread in the deli has got my attention. Earth Fare says it does not sell anything with high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors, unnatural sweeteners and synthectic growth hormones in milk and meat, and I believe it. You just sort of feel healthier as soon as you walk in. I’d heard rumors about the Earth Fare store that’s opening on University in Huntsville, Alabama, in the building formerly occupied by Office Depot and Barnes and Noble across from Madison Square Mall, so when I was in Chattanooga recently and my sister-in-law said she needed to stop by Earth Fare for some groceries, I was delighted to get a sneak peak. You know I like browsing through a good grocery store almost as much as a good shoe sale. All I can say about Earth Fare is, “Y’all are gonna love this.” Go to http://www.earthfare.com to learn more.

Food

I don’t know about where you live, but here in my corner of the South it’s a cold and wet winter’s day — with more to come. Perfect for soup! And luckily just this week I went to a soup- and stock-making class at the Shoals Culinary Complex business incubator in Florence, Alabama — http://shoalsec.com. My friend Sherry Campbell, the culinary-complex director, teaches the classes and always makes me want to go home and immediately start cooking. And with soups, you can. I mean, we all (usually) have plenty of water around, right? That’s pretty much all you need … well, maybe some vegetables, too. And some butter and olive oil. A little salt? But that’s all! Sherry used a Jamie Oliver recipe for English Onion Soup with Sage and Cheddar and it was some of the best onion soup I’ve ever had. Most of the times when you order onion soup in a restaurant, it’s too 1) sweet, 2) salty or 3) cheesy. But this was juuuusssttt right. The key is using three different kinds of onions — red and white onions plus shallots — along with garlic and leeks and then sauteing the veggies slow and low so they’re soft and rich. Then add the stock and simmer. And when you put the bowls under the broiler with the bread and cheese, add just a bit of cheese so it’s not overwhelming. Result? Perfection! Sherry also made a creamy Sweet Potato and Apple Bisque that didn’t have one drop of cream in it and a super easy Chicken Noodle soup that makes the broth and the soup at the same time. Sherry also reminded us to save all vegetable trimmings and peelings — I’m keeping mine in a plastic bag in the freezer — for vegetable stock. And to go with soup, you’ll need some good bread, such as these jalapeno corn muffins. They’re from Laura Hester of Red Gingham Gourmet. Laura’s a Shoals Culinary Complex client who started out baking bread in her own kitchen and now sells her products all over the area, including these muffins — which we lucky Shoals folks can buy frozen at local grocery stores. And if you’re not from around here, it’s worth a drive over just to get some, I promise you.

Chicken Noodle Soup

1 whole fryer chicken or 5 large bone-in chicken breasts

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch sections

4 stalks celery, cut in 3-inch sections

1 large onion, quartered

4 cloves garlic

2 bay leaves, kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

Put everything in a stock pot and cover with 8 quarts of water and cover. Bring to a boil and then cut heat back to medium and cook until chicken is falling off the bone, about 1 1/2 hours. Use tongs and pull chicken out of broth. Let cool. Pull skin off and discard. Pull meat from bones and chop the meat. Strain all veggies out of the broth. Add chicken to broth and season. Bring broth and chicken back to a boil and add one package of fettuccine or one package of spaghetti noodles broken into thirds. Cook until noodles are al dente.

Sweet Potato and Apple Bisque

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 cups chopped onion

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tart apples, cored, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 12 ounces)

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

3/4 cup apple juice

1 teaspoon each dried thyme and dried basil

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add remaining ingredients, cover partially and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Cool slightly. In the bowl of a food processor or your blender or with an immersion blender, puree soup until smooth. Return the soup to the pan and heat until warmed through.

English Onion Soup with Sage and Cheddar

Serves 8

Good knob of butter (start with a couple tablespoons)

Olive oil

Handful fresh sage leaves, 8 leaves reserved for garnish

6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

5 red onions, peeled and sliced

3 large white onions, peeled and sliced

3 banana shallots, peeled and sliced

11 ounces leeks, trimmed, washed and sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 cups good-quality hot beef, chicken or vegetable stock

8 slices good-quality stale bread, 3/4-inch thick

7 ounces freshly grated Cheddar

Worcestershire sauce

Put the butter, 2 glugs of olive oil, the sage and garlic into a heavy bottomed, nonstick pan. Stir everything round and add the onions, shallots and leeks. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place a lid on the pan, leaving it slightly ajar, and cook slowly for 50 minutes, without coloring the vegetables too much. Remove the lid for the last 20 minutes, the onions will become soft and golden. Stir occasionally so that nothing catches on the bottom. Having the patience to cook the onions slowly gives you an incredible sweetness and an awesome flavor, so don’t be tempted to speed this up. When your onions and leeks are lovely and silky, add the stock. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. You can skim any fat off the surface if you like, but I prefer to leave it because it adds good flavor. Preheat the oven or broiler to maximum. Toast your bread on both sides. Correct the seasoning of the soup. When it’s perfect, ladle it into individual heatproof serving bowls and place them on a baking sheet. Tear toasted bread over each bowl to it like a lid. Feel free to push and dunk the bread into the soup a bit. Sprinkle with some grated Cheddar and drizzle over a little Worcestershire sauce. Dress your reserved sage leaves with some olive oil and place 1 on top of each slice of bread. Put the baking sheet into the preheated oven or under the broiler to melt the cheese until bubbling and golden. Keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t burn! When the cheese is bubbling, very carefully lift out the baking sheet and carry it to the table. (From “Jamie at Home,” by Jamie Oliver. Copyright 2008. Published in the U.S. by Hyperion, jamieoliver.com.)