The taste of home

I am officially homeless.

I moved out of my apartment in San Diego, the adorable beach bungalow where I spent 14 crazy years. I left all of my lovely friends and my boyfriend. Most of my stuff has been sold or donated. The rest was crammed into a cargo van and hauled 2,258 miles (give or take) to my mom’s house. I am comfortable here – goodness knows it’s nice to relax after that crazy fast drive from California – and my family is great, but I literally have no home to move into.

I am still waiting on my RV; I found the one I think I want in a town nearby. It needs new tires so the owner/seller has offered to deduct half of the cost of new tires from my purchase price. I am waiting to hear from him about a new microwave he is installing, and hopefully I will be bringing my new-to-me RV here to my mom’s house this week. Then, I plan to take at least a few days to spruce it up and get it ready to hit the road — plus I gotta find a road trip buddy.

In the meantime, east Tennessee is amazingly beautiful and I am enjoying my rest here.

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Our family moved from California to Tennessee once before, when I was about 12 or 13. My mom, my sister and I were living with my grandmother in Joshua Tree, then we all moved to Cookeville, Tennessee. I had more of a culture shock moving here then I did when I was in high school and did an exchange program in Germany.

It was all so different from what I was used to seeing landscape-wise, in the high desert east of Los Angeles; but also the culture is so different in so many ways.

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The lush greenery. The churches on every corner. The super-thick, country accents coming out of the mouths of people of every age. The smoky haze hanging over the tops of the trees. The roads that make no sense. The juxtaposition of torn-up trailers with rebel flags hanging outside, and stately farmhouses with perfectly manicured lawns. The liquor laws that change every few miles … where you can’t even have a glass of wine with dinner in one county, but in the next county five miles over, you can buy anything you like. Pickup trucks EVERYWHERE.

It was like another world. As my little sister and I were getting used to changes — spending the night with friends and having homemade biscuits in the morning (which at the time seemed impossibly fancy), farm work on the weekends, and prayers in our public school classrooms — we were also keeping up the recipes that warmed our hearts no matter where we were living.

My grandma was a Scottish immigrant in the late 1950s. I don’t know much about the food she cooked when she was in Scotland, but I imagine that she thought her fancy “Macaroni Mix” was very American. It’s basically a spicy spaghetti sauce, but tossed with elbow macaroni instead of spaghetti noodles. It uses up all of the extra veggies you have in your fridge. It feeds a bunch of hungry people. It’s super chunky, and my grandma’s version had a ton of ground beef, chopped onions and bell peppers. (Because I hated bell peppers, I was allowed to remove the chunks from my macaroni mix, but I had to eat the rest.)

Somehow, this macaroni mix became a family favorite. My mom still says it was the best dish and best recipe my grandma made (for me it was her barley soup, which you can find the recipe for here). My aunts and uncle would request Macaroni Mix for their birthday meal – the one time each year they got to choose what the family ate for dinner.

The meal is obviously not complicated or expensive (in fact, I am positive that is one of the reasons Grandma made it so much), but for us, it represents everything about home. It’s warm and comforting, it’s cheap and easy, it’s wholesome and healthy.

This time moving to Tennessee, it’s temporary. It’s the same, but different. The mountains are still smoky, the trees are still a luscious green, and the sunsets are still achingly beautiful. The accents are the same. There are still churches everywhere, but there are also reflexologists. The liquor laws are still wonky, but you can find homemade kombucha and craft beer around the corner …. er, mountain.

This time, it’s “Trump 2020” flags flying outside of the rundown trailers.

The roads still don’t make any sense.

But we still have Grandma’s macaroni mix, which reminds us that we’re back home.

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Try the recipe:

Macaroni Mix

(serves 6-10)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. package of elbow macaroni
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 2-3 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped (optional)
  • any leftover veggies in your fridge (recommended: carrots, squash/zucchini, okra)
  • 5-6 fresh mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 large (24 oz) can of pasta sauce (recommended: Hunt’s Four Cheese)
  • 1 small can of Rotel (or any kind of diced tomatoes and green chiles)
  • 1 small can of plain tomato sauce
  • 2-3 generous handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. ground sage
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • 1-2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 1-2 tsp. steak seasoning (any blend of red and black pepper, garlic, paprika)
  • salt and pepper
  • seasoned kosher salt (optional)
  • grated parmesan cheese (for topping)

Directions:

Start a large pot of water boiling and in a separate (preferably cast-iron) pan, brown the beef and diced onion. Once the meat starts to brown, add the Worcestershire, the sage and steak seasoning, and the garlic, mushrooms, and other veggies (except the cans of tomatoes/sauces). Mix thoroughly as it continues to cook.

By this time the water should also be boiling. Add kosher salt (seasoned with rosemary or other herbs if you have it) and pasta to the water, and cover the pot.

Once the pasta, meat and veggies are fully cooked, drain the pasta and add the meat/veggie mixture into the pot. Turn off the heat. Add the cans of tomatoes and tomato sauces. Mix thoroughly. (Note: depending on how “wet” you like it, you might want to add another small can of tomato sauce at this point. This is usually where I think that this isn’t enough sauce, but then I just go with it, and it comes out perfectly.)

Mix the shredded cheese, mix completely, and then taste it before adding salt and pepper as desired. Serve immediately with grated parmesan on top.

NOTE: keep in mind that this is a Grandma Recipe. The measurements are not exact, and the basics can be adapted. It doesn’t matter what type of onion you use. If you only have rotini pasta instead of elbow noodles, do it. If you prefer ground turkey to beef, change it. I prefer to make this without bell peppers because bell peppers are gross, but I have been informed by other family members that it’s not “really Grandma’s recipe” if it doesn’t have the bell peppers. Make it how you prefer to eat it!

 – – –

I spent many years in Cookeville, and later I went to college at Tennessee State University in Nashville. But I never really spent very much time in the eastern part of the state, which is where my mom lives now.

Check out my Instagram and Facebook pages for more photos! Links to the right –>

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Since this is all new to me, we took some cool drives to nearby towns. We visited Historic Downtown Jonesborough, which is the oldest town in Tennessee, and where the first abolitionist papers were published.

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It’s a very adorable town, even in the summer heat and humidity.

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We also stopped at the Nolichucky River and enjoyed the scenery …

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… on our way to Asheville, North Carolina, which is only about 50 miles away. The drive there was amazing — 40 or so miles, on an interstate, where you feel like you’re literally in the clouds. You see why they call these the Smokies.

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I will update this space soon, when I either purchase this RV, or keep up my search.

Cheers, ya’ll!

Want to help me out on my road trip? Donate to my GoFundMe campaign here

Maybe it’s because it’s Canadian? Eh?

I’ve always been a huge fan of carrot cake. It’s by far my favorite non-chocolate dessert. So when I stumbled upon a recipe for Carrot Cake Jam, I knew it must be love. And it was. It was all the best things about cooking. It was fun and simple to make, it was very pleasing to the eyes …

However, strangely (to me anyway), the recipe left out raisins. The second time I made this, I added raisins, as well as a little extra nutmeg and cinnamon.  If you eat it, slightly warmed — not heated, but just to take the chill off, on a bagel with cream cheese, it’s like a recreation of the carrot cake itself. Mmmm….

Adventures in marmalade

My family is Scottish and as such I feel it is somehow in my blood to enjoy and be good at making and cooking with marmalade. But after sampling a few different marmalades and making my own (courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa here) I discovered the unthinkable. I really don’t care for traditional marmalade. It’s too bitter and you can’t make a peanut butter sandwich with it. It’s lovely, and it’s easy to make, but I had my doubts.

I tried another batch, this time instead of navel oranges using fresh and local mandarin oranges (although they were very seedy and required lots of seed removal), as well as a large can of crushed pineapple. While still generally unusable for a sandwich, it works on toast, and is also insanely good as a base for a meat marinade. Here’s a nice steak marinated in a vinagrette with the orange/pineapple marmalade on the grill. The smell is fabulous.

Call me mint jelly, cause I’m on the lamb!

 

The lamb was tender and perfect … but I can’t take the credit. It was all Paula Deen’s recipe. However, it went fabulously with a jar of homemade mint jelly. This is a super-easy jelly recipe, basically boiling mint and sugar together with a few drops of green food coloring and pectin. The fresh mint in the marinade and the sweet juiciness of the lamb are heavenly …

Pepper Jelly, aka the first time EVER that something was not spicy enough.

One of the perils of a good jam, jelly or preserve is that you really can’t taste it without burning your face. By the time you can sample and possibly make any change to the taste, it’s already cooled and in cute little jars.

Jam Lesson #5:

Quit being such a p**sy and go for the spice.

Since I have never made (or really eaten, to my knowledge) any kind of pepper jelly, I figured I would follow the easiest recipe (calling for a red bell pepper, a green bell pepper, and 6 jalapenos with the seeds and ribs removed). It looked like it was going to be pretty mild, but I was unprepare for how sweet it was.

Anyway, it makes a lovely jelly, it is awesome spread on a tortilla before the hot carnitas and cotija cheese is added, and it was great mixed with soy sauce as a spring roll dip. I plan to make a spicier version … perhaps more than a couple of versions, I’d like to have a variety in my pantry, from wimpy to pants-on-fire.

And then there was … bacon. Bacon jam.

I felt triumphant. I had gone from being a jam virgin to making three relatively successful jams that people seemed to enjoy eating and hadn’t lost their eyesight or anything. I had some empty jars left over and was wondering what to attempt next when I came home to check my mail, just to find that Martha Stewart had dedicated a large section of the December 2010 issue of “Everyday Food” magazine.

Page 100. Slow-cooker bacon jam. What.

Martha, why do you mock me? I will make that bacon jam. Show you.

Jam lesson #4:

But it’s not jam.

Ok, I’ve had enough of your attitude. Just because it doesn’t have pectin and mounds of sugar? Just because it’s slow-cooked instead of forced to the rolling angry boil?

Well, I am no expert. It might not technically be jam. But people love to eat it and people love to get it as a gift, neatly wrapped in a pretty piece of fabric.

This was by far the most popular jam I made in 2o10 … even though I suppose it’s technically more of a tapenade or dip. Here goes: render a massive amount of bacon – the recipe says  1 1/2 lbs but I doubled it to three and may have (ahem) used a little extra – in a big pot. When it starts to smell like victory, add chopped onions, garlic, chives, and assorted things you like to use.  I added some extra herbs. Then add a cup of strong coffee, maple syrup, cider vinegar and some brown sugar. Put it all in your slow cooker, on high, with the lid off. Your kitchen will smell amazing.

Smells like victory

 

After the mixture starts to thicken and get bubbly and a little darker, it’s ready. I learned after two batches of this awesomeness that although bacon fat is … well, kind of the idea, it is a little bit greasy for some. If you’re giving it as a gift, skim off some of the fat, if for nothing else then because it doesn’t look pretty through the glass jar.

This stuff is delicious on any sandwich. I also tried some with hot sauce and cream cheese as a tasty dip for tortilla chips. It is amazing.

Pretty bacon jam

Why not share?

Of course, it wasn’t an accident that the magazines are putting ideas like homemade jams and jellies in our heads around the holidays. From Halloween til New Year’s, people everywhere – like me – are looking for ways to wow their friends and acquaintances with the deliciousness coming forth from your kitchen. Something that can be done on a budget? Even better. Something that can be decorated artfully and delivered personally? Lovely.

Pom-Pear Jam

Ginger-Peach Jam

I have always loved ginger and peach together. A few years ago my ex and I ran a bartending company, and I was experimenting with different flavors in simple syrups. One of the tastiest ones I made was the ginger/peach.

Really it’s a very simple recipe, as are most jams and jellies. A tasty fruit or two, in this case a fruit and candied root (packaged as “sugar ginger” at the asian foods store), a citric acid (usually lemon juice but sometimes wine or even a vinegar), sugar and pectin.

I boiled the peaches (fresh or frozen, not canned, you definitely don’t want the extra sugar and preservatives in even a “light” syrup) with the chopped candied ginger, added sugar and pectin, and that was it.

Jam lesson #3:

The deal with jam

The whole jam-making process is way, way easier than I thought it was. Once the measurements are worked out, it gets even easier. I used the Certo brand pectin gel, which is sold in packets of two. It comes with an easy-to-use instruction sheet detailing the ideal ways to measure the fruit for certain kinds of jam, and how much sugar to add. For example, for a berry jam, you would use 4 cups of fruit, 7 cups of sugar and one packet of pectin. My layperson’s understanding of it is that the consistency depends on your ratio of sugar to fruit/citrus to pectin, so follow the instructions on whichever pectin you use. Once the three components are mixed together at a rolling boil, it is ready to ladle into jars and seal.

 

“Jam? Hell, I can do that!”

It started innocently enough … I was flipping through my issue of Cooking Light magazine, reading a nice little feature on the awesomeness of pomegranates, when I see a recipe for a fresh pomegranate-pear jam. Sounds tasty, right? Looked easy at first glance, too, until I realized it called for the cook to physically extract the juice and seeds from the pomegranates.

Now, I don’t like lazy cooks any more than you do. But really? Unless you have a juicer or a strong-armed pirate hanging around, it’s not likely that you can pull something like this off in less than a couple of hours. And the recipe yields 2 cups of jam? OK, some modifications clearly needed to be made.

Jam lesson #1:

Measure. No, really.

But what the hell do I know about making jam, much less converting the recipe of someone clearly more qualified? Is jam making like cooking, an art, that can be altered according to the mood of the cook? Or is it like baking, which is basically chemistry that eventually is tasty? Well… there’s only one way to find out.

The recipe calls for pomegranate juice, seeds, rose wine, pears, sugar, and pectin. Fresh rosemary is tossed in at the end.  I mushed up the cooked pears and added the juices and perhaps a little too much wine. I left out the pomegranate seeds since I don’t particularly care for them (and why make something you won’t eat yourself), and I think that might have contributed to the gelling failure. I added the sugar and, since I probably tipped a little extra wine into the pot, the measurements were off and the jam barely set.

It was strange; I sealed a few jars of this non-setting jam, and the half-cup or so that I simply refrigerated gelled perfectly. I also later attempted another batch where I kept the seeds in, measured the fruit to the sugar exactly (using the charts in the packet of Certo pectin), and it was perfect, although much sweeter than the previous batch.

Jam lesson #2:

Who says it has to stay jam?

The best lesson I learned from the pom-pear failure was that it wasn’t a failure at all. I had attempted making it into jelly donuts and jellied candies, but they weren’t sweet enough. I glazed pears with it in a pie crust, and it was total liquid. (*Disclaimer: I can’t bake. This failure could totally be a failure of me to bake properly instead of a failure of the failed jam. Wait.)

I wasn’t until weeks later when my friend, who had asked me for a jar of the failed jam, informed me that she had used it for a glaze on some chicken breasts. I did the same thing, also glazing some carrots, and they were divine.

Strongly considering making a batch of jam that doesn’t set and labeling it “chicken glaze” instead.