Fall

Oh you silly people who thought that just because the calendar says “July” we are still in summer. Wrong! It apparently is time to start counting your orange  napkins and trying to remember where you put the box of jack-o-lantern lights and, hey, how long can leftover Halloween candy stay in the freezer anyway? I’d heard rumors that a few craft retailers were in holiday mode already — Christmas truly is in July at Hobby Lobby — but that seems reasonable to me when you’re talking about getting a head start on handcrafting your memories. However, I’m just not sure I’m ready to start shopping for fall decor yet. I mean, I haven’t even worn all my summer clothes yet. Even the employees at this Cracker Barrel seemed embarrassed. “We’ve got some Thanksgiving things over there,” one whispered, grimacing, “and I hear Christmas is coming next week.” Oh, dear. Actually, my main concern is not the ever-earlier starting bell for holiday spending but a deep dismay that fall coming to Cracker Barrel means that the seasonal summer specials soon will be gone and my new favorite breakfast of Blueberry Streusel French Toast will be … well, toast. Have you had this yet? I’m telling you, it’s like the warmest freshest blueberry muffin/doughnut/pancake/pastry/pie ever. Ever. Go get some. Right now. Just please don’t bring back a black-cat coffee mug. Until late September, at least.

Vegetables

There’s a commercial on TV about some sort of food where the voiceover says something along the lines of “Nobody comes home and says, ‘I can’t wait to eat a big bowl of lettuce.'” But  that’s exactly what happens in our house on the days our local hydroponic farmers, Steve and Connie Carpenter, open their farmer’s market. I promise you that once you eat fresh hydroponic lettuce, you will never let plastic-packaged iceberg pass your lips again. Steve’s explained why lettuce develops more flavor when it’s grown hydroponically, but all I know is that a sandwich made with good toasted homemade bread and some of this tender-yet-crunchy lettuce is beyond delicious. Literally, it’s one of the things we just stand there and eat out of our fridge. But if you want actual recipes, go to http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100428/ARTICLES/4285000 to find some recipes from a “Meatless Meals” cooking class I covered recently. Sherry Campbell, my friend and the director of the Shoals Culinary Center in Florence, Alabama, is a confirmed meat lover, but fresh and homegrown vegetables rank right up there with her, too, and she gave us some wonderful veggie recipes — although of course she admitted that at home she’d add a nice grilled steak to the menu. Go to http://www.jackolanternfarm.com/ to find out more about Jack O’Lantern Farms. Farmers’ markets are gearing up here in northwest Alabama/northeast Mississippi/southern middle Tennessee, and we can’t wait.

Cooking

Don’t these vegetables look gorgeous? I went to an Oriental-cooking class earlier this week and watched amazed as the chef produced piles of perfectly chopped and consistently shaped fresh veggies. I would have snapped the actual cutting but his knife was flying so fast I didn’t want to get in his way. He made it look easy, but I’ve taken a knife-skills class and let me tell you that it is not. I guess experience is the key, though. Our teacher/chef — Justin Letson, chef de cuisine at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Muscle Shoals, Alabama — did show us an easy trick for julienning peppers: Cut off the ends, then make a slit in the pepper and sort of unroll it as you use the knife to cut out the core and membranes. Then pop out the stem and cut up the end, too — which I wastefully never did before. So simple! And the resulting Lemon Stirfry with LoMien was delicious. And pretty. Our class was at the Shoals Culinary Complex in Florence, Alabama — a kitchen incubator that’s part of the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center, http://www.shoalsec.com/facilities/SCC_index.html — and this class was so popular that director Sherry Campbell is scheduling a second one. Maybe I’ll go to that one, too — best stiry fry ever!

Oscars

Every year I imagine I’ll throw a fabulous Oscar-watching party. I imagine everyone — me, included — wearing Caifornia-chic casual style. I imagine a creative bounty of innovative finger food. I imagine intelligent movie-savvy conversation. But of course what happens instead is that I forget it’s Oscar night until three minutes before and I end up watching in my ratty pajamas and eating out of a Cheetos bag and saying things to the cats such as “‘An Education’? I’ve never heard of that movie before.” The cats are not impressed. However, if you imagine a glittering and successful Oscar-watching party and you have faith that you will actually do it, then take a look at this AP article about Oscar-inspired cocktails: http://www.heraldnews.com/lifestyle/x655498432/Oscar-inspired-cocktails-toast-the-movies It might have shown up in your local newspaper but in case it didn’t, you’ll want to take a look. Raise a glass for me, and I’ll in turn toast you with a Cheeto.

Food and Friends

What could be better than friends and food? My cooking club, the GINGERS (Girls In Need of Gourmet Experience Really Soon) got together recently for a Chinese meal, Southern-style. We were all impressed with the tableware our hostess used: A set of dishes her ex-father-in-law had bought in Southeast Asia decades ago. And even better was the food everybody brought to put on these dishes: Seaweed salad, barbecue chicken wings with peppers, a mushroom medley, jasmine rice, spicy cookies and other yummy dishes. I’m always amazed at how culinarily creative and innovative my fellow GINGERS are — I’m definitely the weak link and I think they keep me around only because I’m the one with the most e-mail patience when it comes to setting our meeting dates (“If Polly can’t do Saturday the 15th and Sarah can’t come on Tuesday the 23rd and Cheryl’s out of town on Monday, can everybody do next Friday, instead?”) My contributions to the evening were quick run-into-the-store additions to the menu: Chinese wine and beer, vegetable and brown rice sushi, almond cookies and some chocolate-covered Piroutte-like cookies. But I have an excuse: I was babysitting my 23-month-old grandson, Capt. Adorable. Plus, believe me when I say anything I could buy would serioulsy taste tons better than anything I could make. One of the best things one of us brought, however, wasn’t food at all. One GINGER has a granddaughter adopted from China. She brought one of the traditional gift bags her granddaughter had given her classmates to celebrate the recent Chinese New Year and told us all about what the various items represented — fascinating! So we learned as well as ate and talked and laughed. Our evening was a balanced blend of exploring authentic Chinese food and celebrating the Americanized versions we’ve all come to know and love. Now we’re trying to decide if we want to tackle Irish or not. The only thing I know about Irish cooking is that I love the fried mashed potatoes at McGuire’s Irish Pub in Pensacola, Florida — but I’m willing to learn.

Valentine’s Day

Back when my two now-23-and-25-year-old daughters were in high school, our house was one of those where all the kids gathered for after-parties — after graduation, after prom, after band banquet, after whatever. I got pretty good at figuring out how to feed dozens of kids — little weiners and chocolate-chip cookies always were big hits — and enjoyed every minute of it. In fact, I sort of miss those days. But Younger Daughter brought them back this weekend when she hosted a party for the girls in the high-school percussion ensemble she’s working with this semester. She planned the menu and did a great job of combining healthy with Valentine’s indulgence: Carrot and celery sticks with no-fat vegetable dip, tortilla and pita chips with salsa and spinach-cheese dip, raspberry squares, Valentine’s fortune cookies, iced and decorated sugar cookies and No-Pudge Fudge cupcakes, vegetable and turkey rollups, pimento cheese (necessary for all Southern parties, you know), olives, Red Velvet cake balls and a chocolate fountain with pretzels, marshmallows and fresh pineapple and strawberries. And she used what we had around the house for decor — red candles, various heart-shaped items and the cards and boxes of candy that were the party favors. And all I had to do was help with food prep and then I got to go watch the Olympics opening ceremonies on TV while YD took care of everything else — she and the girls even cleaned up afterwards. And one of the best parts? Leftover sugar cookies for breakfast the next morning!

And check out my weekly newspaper column about everybody’s favorite love holiday at http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20100212/ARTICLES/2125000

Food and Books

This past week, my four-woman book club had our November meeting at my house with the book “The Space Between us” by India-native Thrity Umrigar. We had just finished “The Help,” about black maids and the white women they worked for in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and “The Space Between Us” is much the same story — privileged upper class women and lower-class servants. However, “Space” focuses more on the relationship between two individual women and what happens when that relationship is tested. We all loved this book for the insight into Indian culture and the stories of struggle, love and loss the two women main-characters endured. Highly recommended. And because book club is just us four friends, whoever is hosting usually tries to find some favors and cook a dinner that goes along with the theme of the book we read that month. Luckily, for my turn I found three oh-so-cute enameled trinket boxes from India at the World Market in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And for cooking, I turned to Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey’s “Easy East/West Menus for Family and Friends.” Okay, I didn’t actually cook anything from that cookbook — you know me better than that — but I did get some good quick and easy menu ideas (thank you, grocery stores!): Roasted onion and garlic jam on toasted strips of nan bread, sauteed chicken breasts in a garlic and ginger sauce, turmeric rice with onions and golden raisins, roasted asparagus, a couple ready-made heat-and-eat curry dishes (hot, hot, hot — but tasty, in a hot mouth-burning sort of way) and English tea cookies for dessert. Good friends, good books, good discussion, not-so-bad food — and my three friends don’t mind the bonus cat hair they get at my house, at all.