Whole30 – Notes from the Other Side

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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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5 Healthified Southern Dishes plus HAM!

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Last month, I spent a good bit of time working on five healthified southern recipes for Our State Magazine’s online food blog.  For me, recipe development starts with research.  I look at recipes online, brainstorm, bookmark, flip through cookbooks, and talk to my foodie friends, all the while scribbling down notes and ideas.  Then comes the testing.  I lay out the ingredients and get to work, jotting down notes (usually on the back of some random envelope from the recycle bin) as I go, tasting and adjusting continuously.

Obviously, one of the perks of developing recipes is eating the wares.  Well, after you’ve snapped approximately 3,000 photos of each dish, that is.  Normally, I incorporate whatever recipe I’m working on into my weekly meal plan.  No sense in wasting food!  But, at the time of this healthy southern recipes project, I also happened to have a a whole ham to cook for the North Carolina Pork Council.

Want to throw a successful holiday party?  Just add ham.

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Barbecue Pulled Pork Tacos {recipe}

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Ladies and gentlemen.  I gots the fever.

BBQ Pork Tacos

Barbecue pulled pork.

Can’t stop.

Won’t stop.

I blame it on Midwood Smokehouse, my favorite barbecue spot in town, which I frequent at LEAST once a week.  I bounce back and forth between the pork cuban (authentic Cuban bread, hickory smoked pork, thinly sliced ham, Swiss cheese, and dill pickles… I die!) and the pork and brisket tacos.  And when I’m lucky enough to have some meat leftover, I make barbecue pulled pork omelets the next morning.

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Crazy Easy Crustless Quiche with Arugula Salad {as seen on WBTV}

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Now that fall is finally here, it’s time to bust out some comforting cool-weather breakfast recipes.  I’m a self-declared morning person, but when I wake up with a grumbling tummy, the less hands-on time required of a breakfast recipe, the better.  That’s why I love baking eggs in the oven.  Call it a casserole or a crustless quiche (or a frittata if you start the cooking process on the stove top).  The method is simple:  eggs are whisked with a little milk (or half-and-half or cream, whatever you have on hand) and then combined with one to two cups of the fillings of your choice—sausage, leftover veggies, cheese, whatever sounds good–and baked for 30 minutes.  Breakfast done.

Turkey Sausage Crustless Quiche 4To take the dish up a notch, top it with a simple arugula salad tossed with an olive oil and lemon dressing.  Not only does the arugula salad add extra veggies, but the tartness offers a nice contrast the richness of the eggs.  Plus, look how fancy!

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Chinese Baby Back Ribs {recipe}

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When I think of ribs, I think of my dad.  My dear ole dad.  Grilling has always been HIS THING.  Even if it meant standing in the driveway with a golf umbrella during a tornado warning with occasional hail (yeah, that happened).   Even in the middle of those brutally long Ohio winters when temperatures dropped so low the inside of your nose would most literally freeze.  Even after that one time he got a little carried away with the lighter fluid and singed off half his beard, even then, dad was out there grilling.

Chinese Baby Back Ribs 2When dad makes ribs, he slathers them in barbecue sauce, tucks them tightly in foil packets, throws them on his Texas-style offset smoker, and lets them hang out for HOURS . It’s a simple, straightforward technique, but it’s pretty much impossible to replicate this sort of perfection in a tiny apartment kitchen with nary a smoker to be found.  Remember that first time I made mussels and they were an embarrassing abomination?  Well, true to form, my first attempt at making ribs was a complete and utter failure.  When I lifted the crockpot lid after ten hours of slow cooking, I found the meat had shriveled so much I could see more bone than brown.  I was irrationally optimistic as I pulled a bit of meat off with a fork and sampled the day’s wares.  It was, undoubtedly, the dryest meat I’ve ever laid tongue on.  Ten hours in the crockpot and a little liquid smoke seemed too good to be true.  This just in:  it was.

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French Silk Pie with Lemon Fennel Cracker Crust {IFBC 2014}

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Last week, at the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, hundreds of food bloggers from around the globe (yes, it really does have international reach) gathered in Seattle to talk blog.  There were sessions on the creative aspects of blogging (story writing, recipe development, and wine pairing) and the technical aspects (like Google+ and SEO—that’s search engine optimization, totally nerdy, totally cool), plus plenty of opportunities to network with other bloggers and with national brands.  I was one of the lucky few who sat down with Lesley Stowe, creator of Raincoast Crips, to talk about her career path and how her Raincoast Crisps, which started as a minute part of her business, grew to become her company’s main (incredibly delicious) product.

Mini French Silk Pies

At the IFBC, Lesley announced their newest product, the Lesley Stowe Raincoast Flats, which come in two varieties:  Lemon & Fennel and Kale & Walnut.  Both the Raincoast Crisps and the Raincoast Flats are no-brainers for cheese plates and dips (check out my Cheese Plate 101 post for cheespiration), but the lemon-fennel combination immediately  had me craving chocolate.  I don’t know why.  I’ve learned not to questions these sorts of things.

Mini French Silk Pies 2

Earlier in the summer, I made Food 52’s (now infamous) Atlantic Beach Pie, which uses a combination of crushed saltine crackers, sugar, and butter as a crust.  I used this same technique here with the Raincoast Lemon Fennel Flats, which resulted in a crispy, flavorful crust, the perfect base for the light and silky chocolate topping.

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 {beautiful turquoise platter by jmnpottery}

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Cheese Plate 101 {IFBC 2014}

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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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Restaurant Roundup: The Round Bistro, Fahrenheit, Stagioni

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THE ROUND BISTRO.  I don’t make it out to Gastonia very often (once a year, give or take), imagebut I made a special trip last month to check out Chef Jack Acheson’s restaurant, The Round Bistro, and celebrate the restaurant’s two year anniversary with a wine dinner.  Within minutes of speaking with Chef Jack, one thing becomes blatantly apparent:  his strong passion for the history and diversity of American food.  That’s what fueled him to chose American cuisine as his concept for the Round Bistro, and each month, Chef Jack develops a new regional menu that features indigenous ingredients of a specific U.S. region.  Last month’s region was the Pacific Northwest, and for September, he’s taking a fun turn and featuring famous football stadium foods.  Ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible, and Chef incorporates what’s in season into his regional menu planning.

The menu at the The Round Bistro is large, and spans the gamut from fondue-of-the-day to potato-crusted crab fritters, muffaleta to “Pittsburgers”, plus several salads, She Crab soup, shrimp and grits, and fresh salmon FIVE ways (including baked parmesan crusted, olive oil poached, cedar plank roasted, and blackened).  In short, if you want it, they’ve got it, brunch included.

Every third Thursday of the month, The Round Bistro hosts a wine dinner.  Chef Jack works closely with a sommelier to select regional wine pairings for each of the six courses, and he uses these dinners as an opportunity to showcase his culinary creativity.  The menu for the wine dinner I attended included a cold peach soup with mint and cantaloupe, bay scallop over cactus and smoked gouda salad tossed in a green apple vinaigrette, cedar roasted salmon over basil tomato risotto, wine poached heritage chicken over rosemary polenta, pappardelle pasta with lamb ragu, and chocolate and raspberry mousse parfait, plus wine pairings for each course.  All for just $65 per person.

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As seen on WBTV: Three Awesome Sausage Toppers {recipe}

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Did you catch me talking sausage toppings on WBTV this morning?  Check out the video link below!

Here we are, in the height of backyard barbecue season, with literally dozens of ketchup and mustard covered hot dogs under our belts, and I.am.bored.  Don’t get me wrong, I love that classic combo, but sometimes I crave to shake things up a bit.  Get a little spicy, a little saucy, a little something like THIS:

Sausage toppings

TOPPING REMIX #1:  a Mexican-inspired sandwich using Johnsonville Chorizo Sausage  topped with some of my homemade guacamole and fresh pico de gallo.  Incredible flavor, practically impossible to eat just one.

TOPPING REMIX #2:  a Johnsonville Turkey Sausage with Cheddar topped with barbecue sauce and a simple lightened up slaw.  Hearty and healthified without sacrificing a pants size.

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Chinese Porterhouse Pork Chops {recipe}

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Growing up, pork chops were one of my least favorite family dinners.   Coated in Shake n Bake and cooked, and cooked until they were so firm a steak knife would bow as you sawed through them, it was one of the few meals I wouldn’t fight my brother for seconds on.  They ranked only slightly higher than hobo dinners, yet, just like those horrid foil packets of sliced kielbasa and mushy vegetables I dreaded, the chops required a vat of Ranch dressing to make them swallowable.   Of course, this was before the USDA revised the temperature guidelines for cooking pork.  The new rule-of-thumb is 145 degrees and 3 minutes resting time, which results in one juicy, tender chop.  Voilà:

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Speaking of revisions, did you know pork cuts recently underwent a renaming process?  I had no idea, until I started searching for this month’s North Carolina Pork Council Blog Network featured cut of pork:  the Porterhouse Chop, formerly known as the pork loin chop.  I found this handy reference image on the Pork Be Inspired website:

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For these chops, I was shooting for big, bold flavors and juicy meat — something a wee bit crazy to put the chops of my childhood to shame.

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