Day Two.

Well, I made it through the first day of no sugar. One of the most difficult things is deciding to what extent you’re going to quit sugar. What about carbs? What about fruit? What about ….?

So I spent a great deal of yesterday figuring all of that out. I am not giving up carbs. Of course, by way of giving up sugar, my carbs will be reduced but carbs are not my Lenten focus. Fruit. I’ve decided that, for these 40 days, I’m going to avoid fruits that are super high in sugar density (bananas, mangos, grapes) but I’m going to feel free to eat raspberries and grapefruit and oranges and the like. I’m going to read labels and avoid eating anything that has any of those “ose” words in it and bread is actually quite low in sugar so I’m not giving it up completely, though I may find that I want to chose my bread wisely. And milk/dairy. No way I’m letting that go. Bring on the lactose, Baby.

Thats the thing about “giving up” something like sugar. Everyone has to decide what the rules are for themselves because sugar is in everything. It’s not like giving up soft drinks or cigarettes or red meat, where everything seems black and white. I’m sure there are people that give up lactose, all fruit, all carbs and such but I’d rather not. Thanks.

Yesterday, I had a solidly sugar-free day. Egg omelettes for breakfast, a funky quinoa/tuna salad for lunch. I really struggled on the line at work. My dinner usually consists of eating a bite of this and a bite of that from a black plastic spoon during service but my choices were strictly limited. I had a few bites of blanched broccoli and a small chicken leg (that’s cooked in oil, salt and pepper only). Consequently I was starving at the end of the night. I got to the All-Star Movies resort where my husband was working and bought an over-priced bag of mixed nuts from the gift shop as my late-night snack. In the past, I would have gone for milk and Nutter Butters so I felt triumphant.

I was surprised at my willpower. I’ve been walking around for two days with boxes of Girl Scout cookies in my bag and I wasn’t tempted even once. Also, I had prepared myself for raging side effects of sugar withdrawal but that didn’t seem to happen, really. I felt very sleepy from about 2:00 on and at about 5:30, I developed a headache that was helped greatly by ibuprofen.

But I slept better than I have in a long time. And I slept for a long time. I don’t know if that was the lack of sugar or just the end of a very long week but I was thrilled. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten 8 1/2 hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep. And I had read that today, on day two, I’d have flu-like symptoms and feel like crap. But so far, I feel great! Maybe I wasn’t as addicted to sugar as I thought. Or maybe, the shoe just hasn’t dropped. Either way I’m just taking it one day, one meal at a time.

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Quitting Sugar, Day One.

My blog here has been neglected, nearly abandoned and occasionally glanced at wistfully as I plow through my very busy real-life that has taken shape around me over the past several years. It’s been nearly 3 years since I made the move from Texas to Florida. In that time life has been busier, tougher and all-together more beautiful than it had in a very long time.

But the blog.  Oh the blog. I think at one time I swore to myself that I wouldn’t let it go. But then I realized that I had blogged mostly for me, and suddenly, I didn’t need it so much anymore. But now I’m back, for a short time anyway, because I’m facing a challenge that scares me and I could use the support and the commitment that this blog facilitates.

Several years ago, I adopted the tradition of Lent into my life. I was not raised liturgical and for many years, I paid little attention to Lent. But then I did it once and realized the benefit in setting aside 40 days each year to make some sort of sacrifice, and commit more to my spiritual well-being, my relationships to those who share my space and my personal fulfillment, which often gets placed on a back burner to earning a paycheck and doing mountains of laundry.

Last year, I made the commitment to give up red meat, which I thought would be a challenge but within a couple of weeks I was almost feeling guilty at how not-a-sacrifice that felt. In fact, Easter came and went and I think it was several months before I even considered eating a piece of bacon or steak. I didn’t even miss it.

So this year, I decided to make up for it and go nuts (literally in some respects). I had been thinking for some time about how my sugar intake had creeped up over the years and I worry about it. That much sugar can’t be good for anyone. I plan to live a long and healthy life, I’m incredibly active and I should eat to support that. No doubt I’ve become addicted to the sweet stuff. So I’m giving it up for Lent. 40 days sugar free. I’d love to say that I’ve spent weeks researching and coming up with recipes but I’m busy, I’m tired, I haven’t. I’m going in on a wing and a prayer and just making it up as I go. It’s not going to be easy or comfortable and there will be times that I question my sanity and that’s where the blog comes in. I’m less likely to break my commitment if I’m accountable to something or someone. So read it, or don’t read it. This is for me.

It’s 8:46 am on Wednesday, February 18 and I’m officially sugar-free. Better get the Girl Scout Cookies out of my cabinet.

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I’ve Fall-en for this Soup!

Fall has been my favorite season for as long as I can remember. I think it has something to do with growing up in Texas. Sometime in early October, the oppressive summer temps give way to cooler nights, less humid days and brisk air. It is the season of blessed relief and always welcome. I remember getting a lighter feeling my step and a happiness beyond belief at the first signs of fall – the scarecrows in the stores, the pop-up pumpkin patches on corner lots and the magazines on the shelfs – full of oranges and browns and recipes for apple cider and pumpkin delights.

In my early 20's, I took a trip to New England in October and my love for fall was cemented in the bright red foliage of the maple trees and the tributes to witches in Salem, Mass. In fact, were it not for the brutal winters, the fall in the Northeast might be enough to draw me there permanently.

As it is, I now live in Florida. The summers aren't as severe but the falls aren't as delightful either. Our boringly consistent temps simply drop a degree or two each week. There are no state fairs or jacket-worthy mornings. There don't seem to be pumpkin patches on every corner and the surest signs of fall we have are the billboards for Universal's Halloween Horror Nights and Mickey's Halloween Party.

But there is still the food. With the onset of my favorite time of year, I'm obsessed with fall produce, braised meats, stews and soups and things that warm us from the inside out. This week, as our highs slowly dipped out of the 90s, I indulged the fantasy of fireplaces and sweatshirts and hot cocoa. I turned up the A/C, threw on jeans and a sweater and came up with a soup to make us forget the hot sun just outside the door. It's based on a recipe for an Italian Meatball Soup but I was in “quick and easy” mode and opted for simply ground sausage. It was delicious enough that every member of my family ate it joyfully, my youngest even ate the vegetables in the soup with rave reviews. And don't worry about precise ingredients. I threw in vegetables that I needed to use up, your refrigerator might have other things that would be delicious in this soup. Just toss them in!

If you're lucky enough to be in a cool location, enjoy. If not, just turn on the A/C, wrap up in a blanket and fool yourself into thinking you are. Either way, it's still good.

Italian “I'm Too Lazy to Make Meatballs” Soup

  • 2 pounds Italian sausage, removed from casting and crumbled (I used a combination of mild and spicy)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 1/2 cup beef stock
  • 2 (14 1/2 oz) cans Italian stewed tomatoes
  • 2 cans Cannellini beans, undrained
  • 3 carrots, cleaned and sliced
  • 3 parsnips, cleaned and sliced
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • sliced mushrooms, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 10 oz. baby spinach
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot or dutch oven, brown sausage. Add onion and cook until translucent, add garlic and cook an additional 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add in beef stock, tomatoes, beans, carrots, parsnips, zucchini, mushrooms, celery seed and thyme. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Stir in spinach and season to taste. Cook an additional 5 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

 

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Moving Up, Moving On

Keep Moving Forward

It seems that I've typed that before. I may even have another blog with the same title. It's merely coincidence that it's a phrase coined by Walt Disney himself. Yet, that coincidence has given me much comfort in the past few weeks as I've had to make and come to terms with a very difficult decision.

As most of you know, this whole Disney thing has been a crazy, fun and almost unbelievable experience from the start. I've now worked in three different kitchens at three very different locations. First I did my Culinary Program at Port Orleans Riverside. At that time, my only goal was to be hired on as a “regular” castmember. In August, that happened. At the time, my only option was to go part time and put my name on a waiting list for full-time employment. I agreed and was sent (with an enourmous amount of apprehension) to the All-Star Movies Resort. I was pleasantly surprised by that kitchen and enjoyed my short time there. Three months later, I received a call from Casting that a full-time position had opened up at Fort Wilderness in Pioneer Hall. The idea of the location (a campground AND a show) excited me and I couldn't wait to get there. Little did I know that this location would excede even my high expectations.

In a kitchen job the key to a great location is all in the people – and the people here are, for the most part, outstanding. I adore the sous chefs here – even my “least favorite” is charming and sweet. My “favorite”, Michael is someone I would just take everywhere with me if I could. He's smart and funny and kind but cares deeply about this place and expects people to work hard and work right. I've learned things from him that I will never forget. My executive chef, Ernie is equally as wonderful. I'd love to just go have a beer with these people and am so honored to work for them. Most of my co-workers are simply amazing. I love the laughs we share, the teamwork we nurture and the fun we have while working long and hard. These people have become a weird sort of family to me in such a short time.

The downside of working here is the work itself. In my current classification, I get to work 4 stations. I can work the buffet, where I transport food from the kitchen to the buffet line and take dirty dishes back to the stewards, I can work ribs for the show (my favorite), where I cut ribs, bowl up beans and make a few salads for the buffet, I can work salads for the show where I put together buckets of salad, followed by plates of strawberry shortcake (repeat 3x) or I can work chicken – the only station that allows me to really “cook” and the one that nearly breaks me every time I do it.

So a few weeks ago when I received a phone call offering me a promotion and a transfer to the Garden Grill at EPCOT, I was instantly conflicted. The idea of being at EPCOT, of working at a restaurant that serves things like Beef tenderloin and sustainable fish of the day as opposed to fried chicken sounded great. Leaving these people I love – not so great. And so began long agonizing days of weighing pros and cons. One day I'd feel certain that I would take the transfer – the next, certain that I'd decline it. There are very valid arguments for both decisions and either would be “acceptable”. Then I remembered a conversation I had with one of my very first chefs here, Rafael. At the time, I was on the culinary program and was discussing with him my desire to come on full-time and “do more”. I had noticed that many many people had been at that location for years and years, doing the same thing everyday. I was concerned that this was the “norm” and asked how to avoid that. His response was that people tended to get comfortable in one spot, doing one thing and grew complacent. They stopped moving forward. I didn't understand that at all, until I got here. You see, even though I find the work rather blah, I love coming to work each day because of the people. It's scary to think that I might jump overboard into an ocean of awfulness and wake up everyday with regret. But I've been scared, taken risks and jumped overboard so many times in the past couple of years that it would be crazy to let that fear stop me now. I have yet to regret anything, at all.

So all of that to explain to you that I'm taking another leap. As of June 16, I'll be over at The Land Pavilion at EPCOT (home of the ever-popular ride, Soarin') and the Garden Grill. The Garden Grill is a great little restaurant that imparts a theme of farm-to-table, fresh, green eating. I'll let you know if this is even remotely true or just pure Disney show. I'll be making new friends and learning new things and hopefully growing in the process. I'm going to Keep Moving Forward – until I can move no more.

 

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I’ll See Your New Fantasyland and Raise You a Duff Beer

When you live in Orlando, the ongoing battle between the two most major attractions is evident almost constantly.  For the most part, Disney and Universal have a symbiotic relationship.  Many people flock to this area and visit both while they are here.  Disney has Universal beat on size, hotels, sheer capacity to house and move thousands and thousands of people on a daily basis.  What Disney doesn’t seem to have, however, is the cool factor and in the most recent announcements of expansion, this is more evident than ever.

Now before you Disney nuts go all Grumpy on me, let me clarify that Disney is super cool in it’s own Disney way.  Their image is pretty well established and the things they do need to fit into that image.  The things that Universal is announcing wouldn’t necessarily work at Disney and the same is true in reverse.  They are two separate theme resorts with two different feels.  Still, while Disney still holds the cards in the fight for guests, I see Universal creeping up slowly – and doing it well.

ImageThe two big things that have been announced at Disney are the conversion of Downtown Disney, a shopping, eating, entertainment district, to Disney Springs, a larger, shopping, eating, entertainment district, and the transformation of Camp Minnie Mickey at Animal Kingdom into Avatar Land.  The acquisition of LucasArts has lead to some wild speculation but nothing has come of it, or will come of it soon.  New Fantasyland just opened and it’s a great expansion with two attractions, two restaurants and a shop that serves LeFou’s Brew – a good attempt that, from what I understand, falls short when compared to the Butterbeer at Universal.

ImageUniversal Orlando, however, has recently announced an expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  They’re creating Diagon Alley.  The Hogwart’s Express will transport you between the two areas.  Harry Potter has been a huge boon for Universal and the buzz around this is pretty intense.  But it’s the most recent announcement promises to set the two theme resorts apart even more – A Simpson’s Expansion.  Yep, you heard it.  You’ll soon be able to visit Springfield, eat at Krusty Burger, grab a do-nut from the Lard Lab and even grab a beer from Moe’s Tavern and sip it while resting under the statue of Jebediah Springfield.  They’ll sell slushies at the Kwik-E-Mart, the Comic Book Guy’s store will even be there.  Once your Krusty Burger has settled, you can take a spin on “Kang & Kodo’s Twirl n’ Hurl” as well as the existing Simpson’s ride.  According to the press release, this will make Universal, “The Krustyest Place on Earth”

Okay, Disney.  Your move.

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Strawberry Fields Forever

It’s St. Patrick’s Day!  I suppose I should be posting a great blog on Corned Beef and Cabbage or Irish Stew or green beer (blech!).  But the truth is that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t generally celebrated much any more at my house.  Too many years, I’ve slaved in the kitchen only to spend the evening rolling my eyes in irritation as my husband almost literally gagged on dinner.  To say he’s not a fan of the traditional Irish fair would be an understatement.  To say that he’s probably inwardly jumping for joy that I’ll be working tonight and not trying to be festive is hardly an exaggeration.  Me not cooking Irish cuisine saves me a lot of frustration and stress so I just don’t do it.  But I’m jealous of those of you who are.  I love the stuff.  Eat it and think of me, post pictures.  I’ll live vicariously through you.

That being said, I did have a few days off last week.  These days it’s rare for me to have 2 consecutive days off.  My chef has been great at trying to give me days off for Collin’s baseball games but that means I get a day here, a day there.  But last week there were three days in a row and I needed every one of them.  The first, I slept most of the day, the second, I did those things that needed to be done and the third, I had a little time to play.  One of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store (a good grocery store – not a crappy one) and see 1) what looks good and 2) whats on sale then take it home and create a meal.  Sometimes (as in this past week) I strike gold.  Sometimes, not so much but it’s always fun and I usually learn a something in the process.

So on my third day off, I headed to Publix with no ideas of what I was looking for.  The first thing that caught my eye were strawberries.  When I moved to Florida, I had imagined that oranges would be everywhere.  I had dreamed of oranges trees, farm stands and thought about what I could do with them.  Sadly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Due to some pesky insects and heavy, heavy regulations, every grove I’ve seen has been surround by electric fencing and every orange I’ve seen has been shipped in from California.  But what we DO have are strawberries.  Just 45 minutes west of here is a town called Plant City – the Winter Strawberry Capitol of the World.  These strawberries aren’t your overgrown, nearly tasteless Driskolls.  They’re smaller, tarter and more delicious.  And they’re peaking.  Publix had gorgeous local strawberries on sale as well as Salmon fillets.  I grabbed both, and a little fresh basil and headed home.

My boys had been asking for strawberry shortcake but instead I whipped up a fresh strawberry pie.  If you’d like the details on that, you can check out the blog here:

https://thegourmetgirls.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/berry-good-memories/

It’s an old standard but so delicious and easy.

download-1As for dinner, I knew I’d be short on time, wedging it between Collin’s baseball game and having to pick Ty up from work.  So I did some prep early.  I pulled out the salmon and spotted the bottle of Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Honey sitting on my counter.  If you haven’t tried this stuff, you’re missing out.  We’re not big drinkers and a bottle of liquor will usually last a year or more in my house.  But I have a hard time keeping this whiskey around.  I’ve put it in everything from barbecue sauce to pecan pie.  I’ve mixed it with water and sipped it slowly, I’ve added a bit to coffee.  It’s amazing stuff.  On this night, I decided to make a glaze for my salmon.  I spent a few minutes making the glaze in the afternoon and just left it sitting on the counter.  Then I started to work on the sauce.  This is where those gorgeous strawberries were going to pay off.  I chopped them up in the food processor, added some balsamic vinegar, water, brown sugar and let it reduce.  I then finished it off with a bit of honey and fresh basil.  A little more reducing and the sauce was ready.  I popped it in the fridge and headed out for the game.

When we got home, all that was left to do was season the salmon with salt and pepper, broil it for 5-6 minutes on each side, brush on the glaze, broil another minute or two, warm the sauce and serve.  The result was amazing.  So good, so easy, so full of flavor.  Collin even said he wanted to cook it for his girlfriend.  It was pretty and seemed like a special meal.  Company worthy indeed.  Even my pickier Camden thought it was great.

Not sure when I’ll get another day to play with my food but I hope when I do, it’s turns out as well.  In the meantime, give this a try.  Strawberries should be coming to you soon!

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Tennessee Honey-Glazed Salmon with Strawberry-Balsamic-Basil Sauce*

For the glaze:

3/4 cup Tennessee Honey

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon mustard powder

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and whisk to combine.  Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to simmer and cook 6-8 minutes or until reduced by about half.  Pour into a bowl and set aside.

Strawberry-Balsamic-Basil Sauce

2 cups finely chopped strawberries, plus additional sliced strawberries for garnish

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup fresh basil, chiffonade

In a small saucepan, combine finely chopped berries, balsamic vinegar and water.  Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer and allow to reduce by half.  Stir in honey and fresh basil and simmer another 2-4 minutes.  Keep sauce warm or make it ahead and chill it, rewarming before use.

For the salmon:

Preheat broiler and place salmon on a baking sheet lined with foil or a Silpat.  Season both sides with course salt and freshly ground black pepper and broil 5-6 minutes on each side.  Remove from oven and brush with Tennessee Honey Glaze.  Return to broiler and cook an additional 2-3 minutes.

Spoon Strawberry sauce onto plate and top with glazed salmon, add additional sauce and garnish with fresh strawberries.

*Unless you’re cooking for a crowd, you’ll have both glaze and sauce left over.  It would be wonderful on chicken  (or chicken wings as I’m going to try).  The glaze can be used as a dipping sauce and the strawberry sauce would be excellent over ice cream.  Be creative!

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Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul

Flu and other assorted viruses seem to be rampant these days.  When my boys returned from Texas, they brought back with them severe colds.  They were sick for a few days and now it’s my turn.  If I have what they had, I can be comforted knowing that it’s only a 2 or 3 day thing as opposed to the the flu.  Earlier in the week I made a batch of Chicken Noodle Soup and thought about posting the recipe.  It’s the best I’ve found.  I didn’t but now it seems I have a second chance.  It’s all I want to eat and I’ll be making it again tonight.

Even though the healing properties of Chicken Noodle Soup were long considered to be folklore, it turns out that, scientifically, there is some validity to the arguments.  Studies have shown that it helps to break up congestion, inhibits white blood cells that trigger the inflammatory response, causing sore throats and the production of phlegm (mmm.. bet you’ve never seen that word in a food blog before) and when the chicken is cooked, it releases an amino acid called cysteine that thins out mucus (another great food blog word) in the lungs and aids in healing.

What I mostly love about this soup is how amazingly easy it is.  When you or your family is sick, do you really want to be in the kitchen all day?  I use several shortcuts (including a rotisserie chicken) that turn this into a quick and easy comforting dinner.  You won’t use what little energy you may have to make it.  And it’s delicious to boot.

I’ll post pictures later (Ty has run to the store for a few ingredients) but wanted to get the recipe up now.  Sick or not, you’re sure to love this soup.  It’s a keeper

Chicken Noodle Soup

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 carrots, peeled, cut into small dice

2 celery ribs, sliced thin

1 medium onion, small dice

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs fresh thyme

3 cloves garlic

3 quarts chicken stock (I like to use Knorr Homestyle Chicken Stock)

8 oz. wide egg noodles (I like the Muellers rustic wide noodles)

1 rotisserie chicken, skin and bones removed, meat diced

Salt and pepper to taste

First, heat up the oil in a soup pot.  Then saute the onion and celery for a few minutes.  Add the carrots, bay and thyme and continue cooking until everything is tender.  Add the garlic and saute until just fragrant (about 30 seconds).  Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Add the noodles and cook 5 minutes or until al dente.  Stir in the chicken and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve.

See?  Easy.  And if you’re sick it’s sure to help.  Enjoy!

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