Caves, pogo sticks and Pancake Strawberry Shortcake

Birthday partyOnly a 5-year-old boy would have the good taste to request his mom’s Perfect Strawberry Shortcake Pancakes for his birthday dinner — accented with Star Wars decor, of course. Older Daughter obligingly whipped up a batch while Younger Daughter sliced the berries and made sweetened and real whipped cream. Family and friends sat down to the feast, even husband JP, who although he’s successfully sticking to a low-carb eating plan, cheerfully made an exception for Older Grandson’s birthday party. It’s what grandparents do. And only a 5-year-old boy would request the following for his special day: A trip to a nearby state park to explore a cave, a visit to the local children’s science museum, a pogo stick, Legos (always on any list he makes) and a dinosaur model that includes bones, muscles and a pink squishy stomach and other mysterious parts. Of course, all requests were granted.

I Chopped Vegetables — And Didn’t Hurt Myself!

I love taking cooking classes. It’s so much fun to be with other folks who — as hard as this is to believe — are as culinarily-challenged as I am. Yes, it’s true — there are a few of them out there. However, it’s also true that most cooking-class students are talented and innovative food fans who want to improve their skills and increase their repertoire. I mainly just like to eat. Every once in a while, though, I am able to impress. Such as during a recent class I took at the Shoals Commercial Culinary Complex. “Ah, you’ve done this before,” the instructor/chef said as he observed my onion-chopping technique: While keeping the ends intact, slice the onion in half and then half again to give yourself a flat base to work from, remove skin but don’t slice off ends, then make horizontal cuts and then vertical cuts and then cross-cuts, resulting in quick and easy diced onion. Of course, I learned that from my friend Sherry, who is a Shoals-famous cook and cooking instructor now working far away from home. Temporarily, we all hope. I mean, the chef teaching in her absence at the Culinary Complex is a nice guy. He knows what he’s talking about and is helpful and patient and everybody enjoys his classes. But is he Southern sassy? Does he know the difference between oatmeal and grits? Is he willing to stop at every Starbucks he sees on a road trip? Come home, Sherry! We miss you! I’ll even chop up some vegetables in your honor.

Proof that I Actually Can Sometimes Every Once in a While Cook

Okay. Here’s a test for book-club members. My four-woman group recently read a newly published book about family relationships that’s been making the rounds lately. (Side note: We were sort of “meh” about it, but more on that later.) It was my turn to host, and since at our mettings we always try to outdo and impress each other prepare a meal that ties in to the book we’ve read, I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot because one of the main characters in this book is a chef. Food descriptions are scattered throughout, and, honestly, we all agreed that they were the best part of this book. Anyway, I took my cue from the book and made, among other things, Elvis Cookies (roasted banana ice cream sandwiched between peanut butter cookes and rolled in caramelized bacon) and a spinach frittata. So the question is: What book did we read? If you’ve been keeping up with book-club news, you should get it. Of course, the other question is: Did anybody actually believe I’d made this entire meal myself, all by myself? As a widely known non-cook, I can understand folks’ skepticism. After all, while I worked in the kitchen that day, my husband anxiously kept asking me, “Honey? What are you doing? Do you feel okay?” and my fellow book-club members were stunned into silence when they saw their plates. At least, I think that’s why they didn’t say anything as they were eating.

Can I Get A “Yum?”

One of summer's perfect pleasures: Fresh strawberry shortcake topped with homemade whipped cream sweetened with homemade mint syrup and fancied up with a fresh mint sprig. This was dessert at Older Daughter's house recently. I'm headed back very very soon.

The Pirates of the Captain’s Backyard

It’s after Memorial Day. It’s the first day of June. College students are home. Teachers are done. So it doesn’t matter that the calendar insists on a June 21 starting date  — around here we know that summer already is underway. Luckily, I’ve got the best thing for summer: A 3-year-old grandson with a knows-no-limits imagination. And a big backyard. Here we’re playing pirates. His ship is the slide/treehouse on the left and mine is the slide I’m (uncomfortably) sitting on, on the right. First we had to run around the yard looking for treasure, with a lot of “arrrr, matey” and other piratey phrases. Then we got on our ships to sail toward Treasure Island, since the whole running-around-the-yard thing didn’t yield much, gold-wise. We did find a silver and red pinwheel, which pleased me much more than it did Capt. (Hook) Adorable. Since I was having trouble finding Treasure Island — didn’t pirates have GPS? — the good Captain literally jumped ship and came over to help me. Good thing, too. No telling where I might have ended up. But perhaps Treasure Island is there over that fence? Naw — it’s just the neighbors’ driveway.

And in more “welcome, summer” news, click here for some great Southern recipes for the best of hot-weather eating, from the blender to the grill to the dip bowl. No oven required.

Of Food, Clocks and Men

Here are some things I’ve written lately — a couple of food stories and my weekly newspaper column — that you might like to read. And this does not mean I’m too lazy to put up a blog post this morning. No, it does not mean that at all. Nope. Definitely not.

Did you know that food can help you deal with the stress of this weekend’s time change? It’s true. Studies show that the first few days after springing forward (and you have to do that this Sunday morning, remember) can be stressful as folks adjust to the changing routine. But using mealtimes as a way to combat the effects of eating breakfast in the dark and supper at 10 p.m. can help! (This story includes some fun and easy breakfast ideas.)

And don’t forget that St. Patrick’s Day is Thursday. Even here in northwest Alabama, where leprechauns are pretty rare and Guiness is considered an exotic brew, there’s a deep Irish connection we can honor with food.

I’m almost 54 years old. I still do not always understand men. And by “men,” of course, I mean my husband. But when the “men” are a precious 3-year-old who’s cute and sweet and has a smile that makes me melt and say things such as “Sure, sweetie, I’ll read ‘Cat in the Hat’ again for the fifth time,” I understand completely.

But It Was Only A Dozen Cupcakes! Or, The Perfect Holiday Meal

I know that Christmas is over and we’re all enjoying a break from Forced Holiday Baking, but I can’t stop remembering all that great Christmas food — mainly because a lot of it’s still in our refrigerator. As we were talking over our first Christmas in our new house, my husband commented that all the meals were good except that on Christmas Eve afternoon, when we set up a buffet of holiday goodies, there simply was too much food. But I ask you: Is cheese (good cheese) and crackers and pistachio nuts and hummus and cheese straws and cocoa-ginger straws and toffee bites and Pepperidge Farms Ginger Man cookies and cupcakes and walnut-espresso brittle and white-chocolate/cranberry/pistachio bark and dark-chocolate/peppermint bark too much? Plus Chex mix. Plus the sugar cookies we made and decorated. Plus assorted pumpkin and cranberry breads. Plus a yummily delicious fudge pie with homemade sweetened vanilla whipped cream — although we had that for Christmas Eve-dinner dessert. On second thought, never mind. I think I know the answer my question. But it wasn’t all my fault. Everybody contributed: Younger Daughter brought the excellent cheese and made the whipped cream. Older Daughter perfected the bark and brittle recipes, which I hope she’ll make her signature holiday dishes. And what’s Christmas without Chex Mix and decorating sugar cookies? So there.

And speaking of food, here are some recipes from friends and family for some cozy and warming hot drinks. I’m always amazed at the great ideas people have. Look here for ways to use up leftover holiday ingredients and tips for jazzing up instant cocoa as well as a recipe for homemade coffee liqueur and some wonderful tea punches. Now all I need is a roaring fire and a soft fuzzy blanket …