No-fuss Breakfast Tacos

When we moved to Columbus, we had a hard time finding a yoga studio we loved.  We tried at least a dozen studios but none were quite what we were looking for.  The problem was we were truly spoiled in Charlotte, living in walking distance to Yoga One in Plaza Midwood.  Yoga One had everything we were looking for:  a challenging flow, great instructors, and HOT ROOMS.  Eventually, I turned to online offerings, and I eventually found Pino Rizzi on Youtube.  Pino’s classes are the toughest at-home yoga videos I’ve found on the interweb, and we hit the mat one or twice a week for a Pino class from the comfort of our living room.  Though I’ve never met Pino, I often find his voice and phrases poking around my brain.  Things like:  ignite the yogi rock star within you or NO, I GOT YOGA as the response to anyone who asks you to get cocktails after work.  One of my favorite Pino-isms is “drop the extra.”  Extra in this context can be lots of things — unhealthy lifestyle choices, negative self-talk, or excessive stress, for example.  Pino says there just comes a point when all that “extra” just isn’t working and you just DROP IT.

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Eating my way through Columbus

As a self-proclaimed restaurant-scouter-outer, I’m always on the hunt for new, interesting places to try.  As such, I’m constantly asking people for recommendations.  Where’s the best Indian?  Who has the best tacos?  Where can a girl get a decent breakfast sandwich?  Here are some of my recent favorites around Columbus, in iPhone-photo dump fashion.  Did I miss your top pick?  Let me know if the comments below!

Dan the Baker.  The first time I stopped into the Toast Bar, I ate approximately 17 pieces of the free sample bread at the cash register.  No shame.  All the bread is sour dough based, and the country sour is my favorite.  I try to grab some each week at the Clintonville Farmers Market!  Pictured below is the wonderful mushroom tartine available at the Toast Bar in Grandview.

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Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams!  This is, hands down, the best ice cream I’ve ever had.  You heard me.  So rich, so creamy.  My favorites include Brambleberry Crisp, Lemon & Blueberry Buttermilk Yogurt, Salted Peanut Butter with Chocolate Flecks, and Brown Butter Almond Brittle.

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6-1-pho.  I wanted to check this place out immediately, solely based on the punny name.  I’m happy to report the food keeps me going back.  Most of the dishes are based on recipes handed down from the owner’s grandmother.  I love that!  My favorites include the veggie pho and the cold noodle salad with veggie egg roll and tofu on top!

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The Refectory.  I had the privilege of enjoying an eleven course tasting menu with the #cbusfoodbloggers last month — get the drool worthy recap here.  My favorite dish was the sturgeon and gambas duet with herruga caviar blinis and sun dried tomato beurre blanc.


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Whole30 – Notes from the Other Side

In my whole 30 years, I’ve never gone on a diet.  Actually, come to think of it, there was that one time, back in college, when I challenged myself to eat nothing but raw fruits and vegetables for three whole days.  SO.MANY.GRAPES.  I also had a brief stint as an uncompromising calorie counter, and while that helped me limit the amount of food I consumed, it was more about calorie give-and-take, like having a sensible lunch so I could calorically finagle a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dessert.

Diet is a dirty word.  It makes me think of limitations, restrictions, sacrifices and, ultimately, unhappiness.  And thus, I’ve avoided all of them.  Because food is my THING.  My everything, really.  Without it, I don’t know who I am.  And I mean that literally, in the least dramatic way.  Without food, I don’t know how I’d spend my time or my thoughts.  I’d feel empty, physically and mentally.

Over the Christmas holiday, my mom asked my thoughts on the Whole30.  I’d never heard of it, but a little bit of research told me it was basically an extreme 30-day version of the Pal1969415_10102575857932084_8226543047997873534_neo diet meant to help participants nutritionally reset–to find the mix of food and nutrients that made their bodies feel and operate optimally.  This “nutritional reset” idea resonated with me because I’ve been on downward spiral since my big 30th birthday in July.  Lots of travel, lots of fun, and lots of eating with reckless abandon have accumulated in a 7-pound gain I’m not planning to keep.

And so this self-declared carbohydrate connoisseur said yes to the Whole30, and gave up grains, sugar, beans, soy, dairy, and booze for thirty whole darn days.  I was scared at first, mostly because it had taken me a lot of time and effort to find a mix of foods that kept my low-blood sugar in line throughout the day, and I was hesitant to mess with that “magic” formula.  But I went forth and swapped my normal egg and Ezekiel toast for a veggie frittata and roasted sweet potatoes.  Oatmeal got the axe in favor of coconut milk chia seed pudding.  My lunches weren’t all that different–a salad with protein, just no cheese or quinoa as I’d normally use.  Buh bye mid-afternoon protein bar, H-E-L-L-O roasted broccoli and cauliflower rice (OBSESSED).  Dinners weren’t much different either.   Meatballs and marinara over zucchini noodles, mixed greens topped with carnitas or baracoa plus guacamole, stir-fry with ALL THE VEGGIES, burger-salad-what-have-yous.

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Cheese Plate 101 {IFBC 2014}

I’m proud to come from a family of foodies.  Though some attach a negative connotation to the word (shout out to Huffington Post and Eatocracy, among many others), I use the term “foodie” endearingly.  We foodies are people who, at the root of it all, love food, though it’s more than simply eating the food (or excessively consuming the food, as the case may be).  Food is the binding tie, the common ground, the one thing that unites us all, family and strangers alike.  It’s about sharing, and connecting, and traditions.  Food is love, after all.

My foodie family is big on potluck get-togethers.  Everyone brings a dish to share and the host handles the main course:  MEAT.  As far back as I can remember, there were two dishes we’d consistently have on hand for the hors d’oeuvre hour:  potato chips and French onion dip (Lawson’s or Heluva Good only, people) OR cheese and crackers.  This was my formalized introduction to the cheese plate.  The preferred cracker of choice was the round, buttery kind that disintegrated instantly on tongue contact, and the preferred cheese was Colby Jack.  If it was a really special get-together, like my Dad’s annual (epic) Christmas Eve parties, there’d also be some pepper jack and a little bit of Swiss.  For the life of me, I never understood why they wasted space on the plate with that shitty Swiss cheese.  No one liked it.  And at the end of the night, it’d be the only thing left, the last cheese standing, all hard and slightly yellowed from the night’s neglect.

But I digress.

Cheese board

The foodie family lesson to be learned here is that when you tell your guests to “come hungry” you better have something on hand for them to nibble on til mealtime.  The simpler the better, because as the host, you’ve got bigger fish to fry.  The cheese plate is my go-to, and though mine looks much fancier than the cheese plates of my youth, it comes together just as fast.  Plus, cheese tastes best at room temperature, so you can fix it and forget it before the guests arrive.

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Topical Taters {IFBC 2013}

I remember eating mashed potatoes on the sunporch at my friend Allison’s house.  We were sitting cross-legged on the floor, huddled around a wicker coffee table, our plates just inches from our mouths.  There was other food, I’m sure, chicken or maybe meatloaf or some other forgotten piece of protein I’d pushed to the side to make room for the Halasa family mashed potatoes.  I’d started with a mountain of them, yellow from the excessive butter content and so dense they required I carry the paper plate two-handed to our roost at the kids’ table.

Sitting there on the floor with my girlfriends, I momentarily admired the mass on my plate, eager and anxious, before bringing one mounding forkful of those creamy, lumpless potatoes to my mouth.  I delicately slid the fork mashed taters between my lips, twitterpated as my eyes squeezed closed and the warmth of the potatoes coated my tongue and throat.  After each bite, I’d drag the edge of my fork over the potatoes, smoothing out the craters, like a Zamboni methodically perfecting the surface of an ice rink.

Moderation was a mystery to me, and each swallow brought me simultaneous pleasure and nausea; I was powerless to the potatoes.  Forget meat sweats, I was fighting carb-induced hysteria.  As I battled my inner ever-present demons of gluttony, I placed my fork on the table, letting my fingers linger on the warm metal while the internal turmoil waged on.  Abruptly, I jerked my fingers away from the fork and scooped up the remaining mashed potatoes with a cupped right hand.  I brought them to my mouth, hesitating for just a moment at my lips, questioning and confused, when a brash flash of clarity zapped through my mind and I quickly and swiftly smeared the mashed potatoes across my right cheek, followed immediately by a scoopful slathered across the left.  It was fast, like an impatient father slapping sunscreen on a squirming toddler, and when I lifted my potato-masked face I found two silent, slightly horrified teenage girls staring at me.

Unlike most people, when I say something is so good, I want to smear it all over my face, I’m speaking from hands-on experience.  I know exactly what it takes to trigger that sort of primal action.  I know the complete lack of self-control delicious food can cause.  I know what potatoes can do to a girl.

Of all the sessions at the 2013 International Food Blogger Conference, my favorite was Kim O’Donnel’s interactive writing workshop, which focused on breaking through writer’s block by reminding us that we all have something to write about, the trick is starting small-scale.  We started with “I remember” and then rapidly jotted down as many memories as we could conjure over the course of three minutes.  “I remember eating mashed potatoes on the sunporch at my friend Allison’s house” was one of many memories on my list, and I’m so happy to finally have this specific memory written on the blog.

I would like to send one last HUGE thank you to Truly Good Foods for sponsoring my attendance at the IFBC!  Truly Good Foods specializes in premium snack mixes, raw and freshly roasted nuts and seeds, dried fruit, and hundreds of bulk and packaged candies, spices, grains and specialty foods. Truly Good Foods has an extensive line of retail branded products, including Grabeez®, Buffalo Nuts® and Dip & Devour Dipping Chocolates.

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My first roast chicken

I thought about doing it for months.  It’s just one of those things — a kitchen right of passage of sorts — that everyone has to do (at least once).  Of course, I didn’t want to do it just to do it–I wanted it to be the juiciest most flavorful chicken EVER.  So, I researched.  To truss or not to truss?  Butter on the skin or under?  Which herbs?  Breast side up or breast side down?  I had this feeling in my gut that I was on the road to cosmic alignment—that somehow I’d channel the kitchen gods and miraculously stumble upon the “secret” to the perfect bird that I could then share with my friends and family and all those other folks on the interweb.

my first roast chicken

In actuality, the fact that I’d mustered the courage to even attempt roasting a whole chicken was somewhat of a miracle.  Of all the meat phobias I’ve fostered over the years, chicken is the one animal that consistently causes me to question being a carnivore.  Just the words “chicken skin” make my upper lip curl.  So when I picked up the whole bird at Whole Foods, one handed, like I was palming a basketball, and felt the bird’s ribs, solid under a squishy layer of skin and flesh, I nearly gave up on the whole idea.  I nearly gave up on eating meat, for that matter.  Yes, my resolve was tested at the meat case and again, later that day, when it was time to give the bird its last bath.  I used tongs to discard the white bag of parts-that-shall-not-be-named, but I had no kitchen contraption large enough to hold the carcass under the cold running water, that is, of course, except for my hands.  As I rinsed the cavity out, I waited for the water to fill the bird to the tippy top, like a drinking glass does when you’re washing it, and it took me a minute or two to realize my approach was faulty due to the GIANT HOLE in the other end where the animal’s head and neck once were.  I had a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.  A hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole.

I put the buttered bird in the oven, lemon rind and rosemary peeking out between the legs, and got to washing my hands (and arms) for the 57th time.  my first roasted chicken

When all was said and done, the chicken turned out ok.  Not miraculous, but glistening brown and cooked all the way through.  (Success.)  And I realized, as I was eating it, that perhaps the reason I’d never roasted a whole chicken wasn’t because of my kitchen inferiority complex;  I just don’t like chicken.

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Shitty mussels with a spicy tomato sauce.

People often think that as a food blogger and eager eater I must be an awesome cook. Truth is my cooking adventures seem to flop as often as succeed; I’m more kitchen klutz than Master Chef. I burn things (pots, proteins, and appendages included), get nauseated at the sight (or smell) of raw meat, and I scrambled the shit out of my spaghetti carbonara last week. Things just don’t always go according to plan when I’m in the kitchen, and that’s exactly what draws me in. With cooking, there’s risk and reward, and the opportunity to create something with my own hands titillates my brain (and my belly). So despite the burnt carnitas, undercooked scallops, or, in this case, mussels of questionable edibility, I keep on trying to learn. shitty tomato sauce

My ultimate desire is to possess the ability to cook freely, without the aid of a recipe. I want to look at ingredients and understand them and innately know how to bring out the best of their flavors. I want freedom from recipe paralysis, a condition that has occurred, in my opinion, due to over saturation of recipes in the media. They are everywhere we look, and we’re all constantly bookmarking and tagging and pinning things to try later. Problem is, when later comes, we’ve got a bushelful of recipes and an empty tank of know-how. So, tonight, it’s grilled cheese for dinner, AGAIN. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Cooking, just like life, is a learning process. We natural-born perfectionists often try to conceal our mishaps, sweep the crumbs under the rug, if you will. I know I do. For many of us, cooking is so much more than a chore or an obligation–it’s our time for creativity and spirituality and personal growth–and personal “success” in the kitchen should not (and cannot) be judged rigidly.  Hiding our food faux pas is a repressive practice. This is not living. In the wise words of Anne Lamott, these “mistakes” are simply shitty first drafts. They can be tweaked, streamlined, or gussied up later. All that matters in this moment is that you showed up in the kitchen and gave it a shot.

A shot. That’s exactly what I did with these mussels: I gave them a shot. Though I’ve eaten my fair share of mussels, I’d never made them before. Of course I did my research: cleaning, debearding, sorting. I got it all down before I hit the grocery store. Perhaps, I should have changed my game plan when the man at the Harris Teeter meat counter proceeded to set aside expired bag after expired bag of mussels before settling on one that was “still good” (insert forced smile here). I made a shitty, but spicy, first draft of tomato sauce, plopped my clean, beard-free mussels on top, covered with a lid, and waited for the mussels to open. After ten minutes or so, about a quarter of the mussels were fully open, half were partially open, and the rest were pursed closed tighter than my grimacing lips. Maybe it was first-timer jitters or maybe something really was wrong with these mussels, but after eating a couple of the fully opened ones (while silently battling visions of self-inflected food poisoning), I called it quits.

I call this meal my shitty first draft of mussels with a spicy tomato sauce, and I choose to embrace it, and all its shittyness, at home and here on the ole blog.

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Should I stay or should I go {the week in food}

I’ve been incredibly distracted the last couple of weeks, spending every breath of free time surfing Craigslist and property management company sites for a new apartment.  It’s one of those life moments when I just wish someone would tell me what to do.  Should I stay in my current rental and pay the (exorbitant) rent increase or move?  And if I move, where?  One bedroom or two?  Is it safe?  Can I walk to work?  Does it get good light?  Is street parking a deal breaker?  Is shared laundry?!  Where will I put my shoes?  Is there a coffee shop within walking distance?  What about good restaurants?  Will my beloved green couch fit in the new rental?  GAS STOVE!!!! Will my friends and family still come to visit???

It’s a lot to ponder.

With all this rental business looming overhead, I’ve been a stranger to my kitchen.  You know what that means.  It’s time for a little restaurant recap!

Let’s start with the Common Market hot mama panini–tomato, red onion, red pepper, spinach, Havarti, and mayo plus turkey–that I devoured right there in the parking lot.

Common Market - hot mama panini with turkey

No shame, this girl.

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Lunches, lattes, and lust-worthy onion rings {the week in food}

Over the years, I’ve developed a bad habit of eating at my desk and working straight through lunch.  Bypassing a midday break means more work gets done, and, all else equal, I get to leave an hour earlier than I would otherwise.  It’s a horrible, horrible thing.

Lately, in an effort to maintain my sanity and some degree of happiness, I’ve been making a conscious effort to break away from my desk every day for lunch.  Most days, this means me, my salad, and my iPad huddled next to the fireplace in the back of Caribou Coffee.  It’s incredibly relaxing sitting next to the heat of the fire and feeling the buzz of the city whirling by.  Though, I’m quickly developing and addiction to afternoon lattes.  Good thing or bad thing, I’m not sure.

This week, I also squeezed in a lunch at Pure Pizza at the 7th Street Public Market, which I capped off with a delicious latte o’ love from Not Just Coffee.  (See?  Addicted!!)

not just coffee charlotte

Friday, I met my new friend Keia (check out her blog:  the Sunnyside Up) at Harvest Moon Grille.  Keia and I first met via phone when she interviewed me for her Creative Loafing article on what is means to be a foodie.  This was our first official lunch date, and in true Mary fashion I started our convo off by awkwardly exclaiming “So… I want to be you!”  I quickly followed our laughter with an explanation that I’d love to work as a freelance food writer and attend an abundance of fun food events as she does.  And now you want to be her too, am I right?

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Pork skewers, Phillies, and a bunch of crappy meals {the week in food}

Upon review of my food photos from the past week, I was struck by just how much meh there was!  I went out to eat more than usual, and you’d think the increase would have upped my odds of getting some great meals.  So, apparently the odds were not on my side, BUT I did hit the recipe jackpot with these Asian-inspired pork tenderloin skewers!

Asian pork skewers

Stay tuned for the recipe post coming later this week–I can’t wait to share it with you guys!

The skewers almost made up for the barrage of blah I endured.  It started with dinner with my pal Vanessa at Levant, a Mediterranean restaurant uptown.  The 7pm reservation I made was almost laughable given we were the sole patrons in the restaurant for the duration of our meal.  Is this ever a good sign?  Levant is owned by the same folks who own Kabob Grill (one of my favorite lunch spots in town).  The menu is nearly identical, but the food that we were served was no comparison to Kabob.  I’m still confused on this…  I’ll have to swing by Kabob soon to fill my kafta cravings!

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