school_lunchI've got two kids in school now . . . and both require that I pack them lunches or snacks. . . which, at first, sounded great. I get to decide what my kids get to eat. But then I went to the school meetings.

One school says "Only healthy stuff. No fast food or sodas." YAY, I say. Then the other school says, "Nothing homemade. Only prepackaged foods." NOOOOOO WAAAAYYYYYY, I say.

And, to complicate things, the allergies. No peanuts anywhere and one school bans all nuts. Um . . . . I kind of rely on nuts as an easy, portable and nonperishable whole-food snack. . . . And then there's my kid's carrot allergy. Do you know how nice/healthy/easy it is to just pack some raw carrots in a lunch?

Ugh.

I had mild guilt when my oldest just ate in the cafeteria last year at the local Catholic school. They required a doctor's note just to have water with lunch (the other option is non-organic white or chocolate milk). I knew it wasn't exactly what I wanted him to be eating . . . but it was easy and I didn't have to think about that one extra thing. Now, at his new school, I have to pack him a lunch. I love that . . . . and I hate that. 

Anyway, that got me thinking about eating healthfully on the go — I mean, even I would be better off with a packed, thought-out lunch at work too — in a world with so many special needs and restrictions and . . . well, just overworked parent brains.

So I did a little research beyond what I normally pack for myself . . . I mean my kids aren't going to eat the almond butter sandwiches I eat everyday. And the research shows . . . .people and websites are crazy. There is no way I'm going to make my child an alfalfa sushi sandwich rollup or sesame-pecan chicken strips with a mustard/peach preserve dipping sauce, as some chef from the Food Network suggested, for a lunch box. I guess I'm a little bothered by the unrealistic-ness of all that. It's kinda how I feel about most stuff on Pinterest. Yes, I'm that mother whose kid doesn't bring a homemade craft for every classmate on every holiday. And trust me, I love me some crafts. But that's insane.

So, I'm pulling this all way back to basics. Back to whole foods. Back to a place that feels manageable on a busy night/morning, but also a place I don't have guilt. As my husband reminds me when I get stressed about finding time to cook — "it doesn't always have to be a five-course meal." Yes dear, I'll say it in public, "you're right."

So here's the start of my list for no frill lunch items:

  • Whole fruit — banana, sliced apple, pear, grapes, Satsumas, berries . . . whatever is in season
  • Raw veggies — carrots (not us), celery, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, edamame (cooked, but served room temp), 
  • Freeze-dried or dried fruit — raisins, craisins, mango, apples, kale chips, fruit leathers, 
  • Cheese
  • Hummus (can be prepackaged and kids can dip crackers, veggies or pita wedges in it)
  • Crackers, pretzels
  • Corn chips with salsa or bean dip
  • Granola bars (organic options)
  • Homemade muffins (made over the weekend if I'm feeling ambitious. . . . )

And as for the "pre-packaged only" school . . . . well . . . . as the old saying goes "if you don't have anything nice to say . . . . "

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lentilsSo I asked the kids if they had any requests for dinner this week. And what did my 8 year old ask for . . . out of everything he could think of?

LENTILS.

I had to ask twice just to make sure I heard him correctly. Of course his little brother wanted French fries. . . guess you can't win them all. . . 

Anyway, this is one of those recipes from my childhood that is stupid easy and all from the pantry. . . so it's not hard to make any time a kid asks and without having to go to the store.

Lentil Chowder
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Ingredients
  1. 8 oz dry lentils
  2. 1 tsp salt
  3. 1 can stewed tomatoes
  4. 8 oz tomato sauce
  5. 1/4 tsp celery salt
  6. 1/8 tsp garlic salt or powder
Instructions
  1. In a pot, cover lentils and salt with 1" of water.
  2. Bring to a boil then simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until lentils are tender.
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Oshkosh camp

The Chattanooga group's Oshkosh camp

My 8-year-old son just got back from an airplane trip with my dad to the Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin. They went with three other Super Decathlon airplanes from Chattanooga, slept in tents by their airplanes, learned the science of flight and watched airplanes and helicopters do tricks. They had a blast.

That and many other trips have kept this little son of mine very busy this summer. And, while I'm a proud and thankful mama, I've also missed my little red head. So, in honor of him coming home, I made one of his favorite breakfasts today — cornbread.

cornmeal2My cornbread recipe is my great grandmother's, whose father owned a bakery in Illinois in the early 1900s. He even owned the first car in the county for deliveries. I know you're reading between the lines and thinking, "This isn't SOUTHERN cornbread." And, yeah yeah. But it's good. Even my born-and-raised-in-the-South husband loves it. So there.

And I also found some local cornmeal last week that I've wanted to try — Country Boy Brand yellow cornmeal from Denham Springs. 

Cornbread
Serves 4
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Ingredients
  1. 1 1/4 cup flour
  2. 1 cup cornmeal*
  3. 2 1/2 tsp baking powder (aluminum free)
  4. 1 tsp salt
  5. 5 tbsp sugar
  6. 1 1/3 cup milk
  7. 1/3 cup oil (I use extra light olive oil)
  8. 2 eggs
Instructions
  1. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Whisk milk, oil and eggs in a separate bowl.
  3. Pour liquid ingredients into dry, stirring lightly so it's still lumpy.
  4. Pour into greased cast iron skillet (I use ghee to grease).
  5. Bake at 325 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean from the center.
Notes
  1. *I used Country Boy Brand cornmeal, but I prefer stone ground
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wisconsin to louisiana heart

eggplant_soupThibodaux Service League, a local volunteer organization, published and sells a cookbook of Louisiana recipes called Louisiana Legacy to help raise money for the community as well as preserve local recipes — totally cool and up my alley.

And . . . I admit, I'm in Service League . . . and I'm actually on the executive board . . . and I write a food blog . . . and the cookbook's been out since the '80s and I just bought a copy . . . embarrassing, I know.

Anyway, I've now got my copy all bookmarked up just waiting to try some of these local recipes. I know I'm not a native, but I'm proud of the Louisiana food traditions and thankful to all those before me who kept this cuisine alive. And thankful for the Service League members who thought to collect, test and put their heritage in print. That's a beautiful thing.

So first up for me was cream of eggplant soup. And as it says at the bottom of the recipe, "This is a luxurious and different approach to soups, and certainly a 'what to do with all those eggplants?' when they are plentiful!"

And, as a matter of fact, I am overrun with eggplants . . . and have been for a month or so, but, as I mentioned in my last post, one of our air conditioners died and our house was hot for two weeks . . . and I wasn't adding any heat by lighting fires in my kitchen. But now it's fixed, the house is cool and we had soup for dinner.

Cream of Eggplant Soup
Serves 8
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Ingredients
  1. 4 tbsp butter
  2. 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
  3. 1 1/2 cups finely chopped celery
  4. 1 1/2 cups diced potatoes
  5. 2 small eggplants, peeled and diced
  6. 1 pinch of thyme
  7. 1 pinch of basil
  8. 1 tsp curry powder
  9. 1 1/2 qt chicken stock (or vegetable)
  10. 2 cups heavy cream
  11. salt and pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. In a 5 quart saucepan or Dutch oven, sauté vegetables in melted butter until soft. Add seasonings. Cool until potatoes are done and ingredients begin to stick to the pan. Cool vegetables enough to be liquefied in a blender or food processor.* Blend to creamy consistency. Return mixture to saucepan. Add stock and simmer about 45 minutes until soup thickens. Remove from heat; stir in cream. Serve immediately.
Notes
  1. *I cooked the unprocessed vegetables in the stock for the 45 minutes and then used an immersion blender at the end before the cream.
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Also, Service League still sells this cookbook at local retailers and through the league to support community causes like the Juvenile Justice Center and needy families. So pick one up or message me and I'd be happy to get a copy for you!

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salad copyThis summer has been psycho busy. What was supposed to be a peaceful summer turned into freelance-work hell (pardon my explicit, though accurate term), some add-on (though lovely) trips and 2-weeks with a broken air conditioner (Louisiana is spelled j-u-n-g-l-e).  

We just got back from a weeklong trip to the beach, we have a new air conditioner and I've made big progress on most of my freelance projects. So in an attempt to foster the peace, my husband took me to one of my favorite out-of-the-way places — Nottoway Plantation — for a date the other night.

The first time my husband took me there, I sort of thought we weren't ever coming back . . . it's that in the middle of nowhere. But I know why they built there in the 1850s, it's serene and beautiful on the banks of the Mississippi. And The Mansion Restaurant, with over-sized windows overlooking lawns with sweeping Oaks, has delicious food.

As with all restaurants that I love, their menu features local Louisiana foods. And as the waiter went through their daily specials he said they had a duck special. My husband loves duck. Duck with Swiss chard and wild rice in a fig and raspberry reduction . . . totally what my husband would love. And then the waiter said it.

duck_pie copy"And it's really delicious. It's Mallard."

I'm not sure what I thought my husband was eating when he ate duck . . . but I never envisioned it was one of the cute, green-headed kinds. I suddenly had visions of a limp, iridescent green head lying on his plate. The waiter actually laughed out loud at my wide-eyed stare. There's a reason I'm mostly a vegetarian.

Anyway, I usually get the Louisiana strawberry salad, but this time I tried and loved their house salad with almond brittle and Louisiana cane vinaigrette. And even with the duck trauma, I took a vegetarian break and had an amazing chicken breast over mini-cubed potatoes tied together with a savory, full-bodied sauce. I guess chickens don't make me feel as bad because they're ugly?! But in the end, both the chicken and the duck looked remarkably similar . . . and the fig and raspberry sauce on the chard was divine.

And date night is always a dessert night. I'm funny about sugar, I'll only eat it if it's made with really good ingredients and worth it. And the bourbon pecan pie was worth it. . . which reminded me why I get pecan pie in the South and not in New York City (like I did for Thanksgiving last year and couldn't even finish one bite).

And for a minute, just before the school crazy begins, the summer was peaceful and I was on a hot date.

wc_la_heartWHITE CASTLE

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biscuitsSo my mom got my littlest son hooked on fresh, homemade biscuits in the morning when we were visiting (thanks mom!).

She let him help her make them and even choose the size of the biscuit cutter — he chose really small . . . . we had 2-inch mini biscuits.

Lucky for me, her recipe is incredibly simple and fast. So I don't mind making them when he asks. And today, he chose hearts. Love that boy.

Cream Biscuits
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Ingredients
  1. 2 cups flour
  2. 2 tsp sugar
  3. 2 tsp baking powder
  4. 1/2 tsp salt
  5. 1 1/2 cup heavy cream (try the local Feliciana’s Best Creamery)
Instructions
  1. Whisk together all ingredients except cream. Stir in cream with wooden spoon. Knead until smooth (30 seconds). Pat to 3/4 inch. Use 2 1/2 inch round cutter or cut into 8 wedges.
  2. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes (may need to adjust if making smaller or larger biscuits)
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genealogyMy mom and I worked on genealogy when I was at home last week . . . and since then, I've gone a little berzerk. Like I've traced my husband's family back to the 1600s in Spain on one side and the 1500s in France on the other . . . who then moved to Acadia, Canada, and then here. 

So yesterday we decided to take his mom and go on a little day trip to the family homes and gravesites and take pictures to add to the family tree. We took some pictures of his South Louisiana heritage and found some South Louisiana good eats along the way.

We started in Paincourtville to find the grave site of a relative who drowned in Bayou Lafourche at age 10 and his sister who died after shooting herself in the leg . . . . hmmmm . . . Anyway, we decided to stop for lunch in Donaldsonville on our way to Brusly and randomly found The Grapevine Cafe and Gallery when I did a quick search for lunch options. And it was such a nice surprise — a creative, locally inspired menu in a gallery of Alvin Batiste art. Not a lot of vegetarian choices, but the portobello fries with garlic aioli were delicious. And across the table, my husband was raving about the blackened redfish with lemon butter . . . if you like that kind of thing . . .

We had a few more stops and ended up at two cemeteries . . . that are now in the 'hood . . . in Baton Rouge for a couple of great-great grandparents. We also stopped to see Mike the Tiger . . . because that's just what you do when you have little boys and are in Baton Rouge.

On our way back south, I was searching for a new local place to get dessert and came across some locally produced caramel apples, Le Posh Pomme, sold at Alexander's Highland Market. So we stopped. And, I can't believe I just discovered this market. Its whole focus is local food and they carry all my favorite stuff. Now, I will forgive myself a little . . . it just opened a little over a year ago. But still. Anyway, they are sooo conveniently located south of Baton Rouge just off of I-10 by the Blue Bayou Waterpark. It's closer than Whole Foods, has more local stuff and is missing the frantic, watch-out-for-the-crazy-yuppies Whole Foods' experience.

We never found the caramel apples, the bakery people said they hadn't seen them in a while, but that they're really good and sell out really quickly. Hmmm, Le Posh Pomme, be on notice, I'm hunting you down. But we did find some locally made bread from Our Daily Bread bakery and I finally got a bottle of the locally made Re:'s dressing/marinade that I've been wanting to try. I'll let you know what I think.

So it was a good day — tripping with my family, tracing their family's steps and finding new local foods.

la

SOUTH
LOUISIANA

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212I think the restaurant business is hard . . . like really hard. Hard because there's always a new, trendier place. Hard because just loving to cook is never enough and hard because people are often not very nice (just eavesdrop the next time you are out to eat and listen to how people treat servers). I know if I tried it, I'd be on Restaurant Impossible in a hot minute.

But one of my favorite restaurants in Chattanooga — where I moved from, where my parents still live and where we just got back from vacation — has somehow managed to have great food and people for more than 20 years. I think mostly because they focus on quality local foods, from local people and places. And, I kinda think that's always trendy.

212_saladAnyway, we go to 212 Market every time I'm in Chattanooga. Their menu always features seasonal, local produce. And, having been away from home for a while, I was missing my humid South Louisiana (yea, my skin was dry way up in Tennessee . . . I was shocked) and saw Cajun slaw on the fried green tomato salad. Pretty much all attempts outside of South Louisiana to do Cajun food and flavors fail, but this was really great with a little spice and lots of fresh. I followed it up with one of their daily specials (I pretty much always order stuff from a restaurant's daily specials since I think that's where the chefs get to play), the June veggie risotto with local broccoli, carrots, yellow squash, zucchini and parsnips. 

Great food is definitely not the only thing that makes a great restaurant . . . I've noticed that at the best, the owners are always around and the servers make it look easy. 212 has Sally and Shannon.

212_limeSally runs it and her mom makes all the desserts (that's her key lime tart over there . . . amazing). And every time I go, Sally is there. And Shannon. Shannon has been serving and doing a little bit of everything else ever since I started going when I was a reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press and my mom and I went every Friday for lunch. And we love her.

This last visit we were a little unorganized — we were out with my rascal boys at the children's museum — and decided last minute to grab lunch. And Shannon had left for the day. We hardly even knew how to order . . . Shannon just knows what we'll like. The food was still great. . . . but it's never the same without her.

So if any of my South Louisiana people travel through Chattanooga on I-75, this is an easy stop downtown, right across from the Tennessee Aquarium and a bunch of other great family activities. And while you're there, check out the tray of desserts made by Sally's mom as you walk in, and keep an eye out for Sally checking on everything and ask for Shannon's section.

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teaTwo of my favorite things are sweet tea and lavender . . . sweet tea from the South and lavender from when I studied in France during college.

Now I've never put them together . . . but leave it to my mom to come up with an amazing summer treat. She was inspired by her garden that was overflowing with lavender and mint.  

For whatever reason, lavender isn't used much in American cooking. But the French put it in everything from chocolate (divine) and cookies to meats. I love the soft floral flavor . . . maybe because it reminds me of the French summer sun, masses of purple flowers and running my hands through them, perfuming them for hours. Bliss.

So as I let my two wildebeests tear through Mimi's house this afternoon, I sat on the porch overlooking the Chattanooga valley and sipped lavender mint tea. . . a world away . . at least for a few minutes.

Lavender Mint Sweet Tea
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Ingredients
  1. Simple Syrup
  2. 1 cup water
  3. 1 cup sugar
  4. 1 tbsp fresh lavender buds
  5. 3/4 cup fresh mint leaves
  6. Tea
  7. 4 cups cold water
  8. 4 tea bags (I prefer a plain tea like an English Breakfast tea)
Instructions
  1. Simple Syrup: In a small saucepan, combine all ingredients, stirring until sugar melts. Simmer for 2 minutes. Strain, pressing solids through strainer. Keeps chilled for up to 3 months.
  2. Tea: Pour boiling water over tea bags and steep for about 20 minutes.
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