Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cooking Rockstars

Life is not all fun, games and adventure here in Cactusland. Occasionally I have to go to work and make enough money to fund the next round of excitement. For the last two years I've been putting my undergrad to good use (novel concept, I know) by working with an agency in Kentuckiana that provides residential psychiatric treatment. Basically we're 1-2 (depending on which of our programs you're talking about) steps below a psychiatric hospital. 

I currently work with lower functioning clients in a group home setting, something I never could have predicted I would enjoy. Like all kids, our kids need structure and lots of it. One of the ways we provide that is to engage them in group activities, which may or may not be typical group therapy. I'm not much for sitting around talking about feelings, so when I was brainstorming ideas for a group, there was really only one option: cooking group.

In the way that all Southern women feel food is therapy, I embrace cooking as a treatment activity for our kiddos. My Mama and Mema both have shown me how much better the act of preparing a meal can make you feel; how the simple steps of a recipe can be more effective than any amount of pharmaceutical help. I was certain that if I could get them cooking, I could help them on their path to wellness.

The first meeting of cooking group had me a tad nervous, as I wasn't sure I could maintain the interest of 6-8 kids that are known for emotional outbursts.  I did spend many years teaching kids and adults, so my skills for providing informal education are there, but possibly a tad rusty. I picked a recipe for our inaugural group that I had learned on the fly with Reader several years ago: Thai Peanut Noodles. It's a homemade, decently healthy interpretation of a street food favorite and it requires a fair amount of actual cooking.

My lil cooking rockstars, 7 the first week, took to the group like ducks to water. Within our hour together they had learned how to mince, saute, boil and toss; basic ideas for an accomplished food wrangler, but heady stuff for those uninitiated into the kitchen.  After my groups had finished putting together the dish  we all sat around the table, Top Chef style, and tried that first bite together. I couldn't help but be impressed; they had gone to town on those noodles.

After a few minutes of slurping and chewing I suggested we go around the table and share any comments, constructive or otherwise, about the dish.  The responses ranged from "This is awesome" to "This is freaking amazing."  Clearly, we had a winning dish and some pretty awesome newbie cooks.

Last week we worked with eggs: scrambled, as french toast and as a fritatta.  This time when we went around the circle while sampling the food I was impressed to hear some comments that actually considered why the dish was good, what could have been better, etc. It was a great group.

This week I'm teaching them easy fruit cakes: a peach cobbler, a blueberry buckle and a black forest dump cake (unfortunate though the name may be) and I can't wait. To watch these kids that so often struggle to maintain their behavior focus on food for an hour every Sunday night is amazing. They are totally engaged, involved and on task.  I remain their fascinated, fearless leader. By Christmas, we'll be whipping up homemade figgy pudding. Trust.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Local Celeb at a Local Pub

Fuschia and I were too exhausted after our long week in FL to do much in the way of cooking this weekend. Saturday afternoon found us at Molly Malone's in St. Matthews, hoping for a quick bite.  The place was pretty much dead, something I was truly surprised by. Normally that bar is a haven for the yuppie crowd, with tons of people hanging out on the patio.  Maybe only late night draws a huge crowd, cause we were holding down the joint with no more than 20 other folks.

Like most American-Irish pubs, Molly Malone's has dark wood, fish n chips and Guinness on tap. They also have a a great space with high ceilings (a bit of a rarity in the average pub), an uncluttered feel and decently friendly waitstaff.  Fuschia and I chose the steak and onion sandwich and fish n chips, respectively, while electing to share a Magners Irish Cider for fun.

Over the years hard cider has become our go-to beverage, as neither one of us ever developed a real beer friendly palate. As most of you know, I can drink a beer or five, but I may not enjoy it to the fullest degree possible. But hard cider? I love cider. Introduced to me by my now bestie Spurs, hard cider is my fave indulgence; my beverage/dessert.  Upon trying the Magners, a blend of 15 apples, we both agreed that the dry finish and complexity of flavor was really appealing. We had no trouble finishing the pint.

Our food arrived piping hot (truly, I have a blister to prove it) and looked nearly as appetizing as pub food is capable of looking. Although I had cheated and gotten fish n roasted potatoes, I enjoyed my meal.  The roasted potatoes had a wonderful char on the skins, with a smooth interior that was perfect. They were instantly my favorite part of the meal.  The cod was beer battered, deep fried and served with two things that I detest: coleslaw and tartar.  I know, I know...I just can't make myself eat that stuff.

The fish was decent, although a tad undercooked, and I managed to eat 1.5 fillets.  Fuschia meanwhile was steadily devouring a steak sandwich that she reported to be okay.  Because she believes food is only a vehicle for condiments, Fuschia is often less than enthusiastic about sauceless entrees. That was how the steak sandwich offended her.  After applying some post facto mayo, she reported the plate a success, finishing her sandwich and my leftover cod.

Due to having to work just a few hours later, I abstained from additional cider intake, though I could've easily done damage to that keg.  As we're paying the check Fuschia lowers her voice, cocks her head and says "look who it is".  I slyly glance in the direction she's indicated, nod sagely and say "A really tall dude and a not so tall dude." With that my lovely Fuschia, in that classic way that Louisvilles' natives reserve for those of us that just aren't from here, rolls her eyes and says "that's Pitino". 

My incomprehension may have been obvious because she followed that pronouncement with a sigh and "you know, the head basketball coach for the Cardinals. you know, they were number 2 last year."  Oh yeah, that guy.  Clearly I was expected to know just by seeing him, but what can I say.....I'm a freaking football fan.  Mark Richt I would have asked for an autograph:)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I Would Fly 1000 Miles...Part Two

That night, just hours after our adventure off the beaten path, found us right back in Old San Juan at a welcome dinner hosted by Fuschia's parents. I'd actually seen this particular restaurant just a few days before while indulging in my love of No Reservations.  Anthony Bourdain had visited this place (the name escapes me) to try the authentic pina colada in its alleged birthplace. He seemed disappointed with his experience and while I've had better (hell I've made better), I enjoyed it enough to have 4 or 8. For some reason I can't remember exactly how many.

As usually happens when I enjoy the libations a little too much I provided an impromptu therapy session for one of our dining companions, became besties with the older lady next to me and became inappropriately interested in the flamenco dancers' umm, abilities.  Then it was time for the main event, the thing I had actually come to PR for: mufungo.

Root words aside, mufungo is not a mushroom; rest easy.  Mufungo is a pile of smashed, fried plantain that has been mixed with pork fat, topped with veggies and/or meat, then covered with a sauce, usually tomato based.  At the welcome dinner I had chosen the seafood mufungo, despite the fact that it would have a lil calamari on it.  Perhaps it was the hype, perhaps it was the heat, more probably it was the vat of pina colada I had consumed, but I just couldn't do justice by my mufungo.

I tried several bites, delighted each time by the savory flavor of the plantain, the freshness of the scallops and shrimp and the brightness of the tomato sauce. A wonderful medley of flavors, yet heavier than I would have anticipated for tropical cuisine.  I ate maybe a third of my plate, satisfied that I had experience this quintessential Puerto Rican dish and checked it off the mental to-do.

Influenced no doubt by the coconut rum that had replaced a majority of the plasma in my bloodstream, I was inclined to head straight to bed upon our arrival back at the hotel.  After sleeping it off we spent most of Saturday prepping for the actual wedding.  The beach was fine to stay at, but to get married at? Clearly you have to find a hacienda in the rain forest overlooking the ocean. Duh.  So off we went in rented bus: the entire wedding party, the FOG and FOB, me and the Reverend (the brother-in-law in charge of marrying us all).

We literally went over the mountains and through the woods for about 40 min before I rediscovered a key piece of information about myself: motion sickness is not just a ploy to get the front seat.  By the time we arrived at the venue I was too sick to appreciate anything other than the lack of motion.  Attempting to climb the steps up to the main part of the hacienda I became overwhelmed with the need to avail myself of a bucket or bush and quickly stumbled off the side of the path.  Realizing we had located one of the bedrooms, Fuschia helped me into one of the most peaceful, beautiful bathrooms I've ever seen so that I might refresh myself. And boy did I.

Thus reinvigorated we finished the climb only to find ourselves in an exquisite open air house that looked out over the rain forest.  With all of the features one expects in a house sans walls, this hacienda was something I could never have imagined. Instantly I understood what The Geeks had fallen in love with, why they had gone to the trouble of carting us all up the side of a mountain.  Built around an open courtyard, featuring rambling rooms, including den, kitchen, billiard room, and a hammock room, the house was definitively elegant romance at its finest.
The wedding itself was excellent with both bride and groom looking happier than I can remember ever seeing either of them.  As is typical of a reception in Fuschia's family, everyone enjoyed themselves immensely, proclaiming love to one and all before catching a charter bus back down the mountain. Arriving back at the hotel well after midnight, Fushcia and I had every intention of partying in the casino, but soon realized that the same physics problem that had overwhelmed me en route to the hacienda now threatened her composure. Faced with the certainty of an uncomfortable few hours we retired early once again.

We spent the next day soaking in the pool(s), lounging by the pool and playing the ocean. Clearly, an overwhelmingly stressful day.  Our last night on the island was spent once again watching TV, contemplating how old we were acting.

Monday morning found us walking on the beach and having one last soak in the pool before heading upstairs to attempt containment of the disaster area that was our room. An hour of diligent battle left us with one carry-on apiece, a purse each and a sudden readiness to be headed stateside. We caught the last US Airways flight out of San Juan for the day, scheduled to arrive in Charlotte, NC a scant 30 minutes before our connecting flight to Lexington, KY would depart. Even I, in my semi-comatose state, was willing the plane to go just a bit faster.

We hit the terminal running in Charlotte; I couldn't help thinking of the scene in Home Alone (you know the one). Pushing people aside, we really worked our quads trying to make that last flight to bluegrass country. Finding ourselves at the necessary gate we were, how can I say this politely, taken aback, to discover that our flight, already getting us home close to midnight, would be delayed by ninety minutes.  Turning to the only activity available in most airports, we ate some classic American junk food and read the newest People magazine while waiting to board.

Finally hearing our gate being called we headed outside (that's not a typo) to get on our plane.  Having in the past flown primarily in and out of Atlanta, I wasn't aware that planes were ever actually boarded outside (except in movies, of course).  But here we were.  If that wasn't confidence crushing enough the plane also happened to be my favorite variety: school bus with wings. Seating roughly 49 people, these commuter jets are the only thing capable of inducing claustrophobia in yours truly.  The universe was obviously having a laugh at my expense that night since the pilots appeared to be twelve and no more capable of flying a plane than I am. Perfect.

Having sobered up by now I was mildly alarmed when our flight started out a little bumpy, but I tried mightily to focus on my Southern Living.  The real problem came after drinks were served and our flight attendant received a phone call from the pilots. Like any highly paranoid person , I'm attuned to nonverbal mood indicators and this woman was screaming stress. She immediately sat down in the jump seat, strapped herself in and began pounding ginger ale. 

Turns out we were flying through a rager of a storm system battering the East Coast that week.  Lucky us.  Our lil plane bucked and shimmied, even heaving occasionally as the turbulence played kickball with us.  Fuschia, fearless Fuschia, turned an alarming shade of green and began gripping the armrests. Strangely it was a look being sported by a majority of passengers. And just like that I became the fearless one.  Concentrating all my efforts on helping her feel better, I forgot that I was scared, forgot that my Sprite was sloshing violently and just comforted my partner.

As you may have inferred by now, our plane did land safely in Lexington, though that 40 minutes in the air remains the longest 2/3 of an hour I've ever spent.  While I still gaze longingly at travel pieces featuring the Maldives, Tahitti or New Zealand, one thing is for certain: I'm never flying in a toy plane again. 

I would fly 1000 miles...Part One

Anyone who knows me, really knows me, is aware that there are three things I fear above all else: sharks, serial killers and flying.  In no particular order. Our latest adventure involved only one of these, although it happens to be the one that is statistically the most likely to do me harm.

Fuschia's brother and his fiance, The Geeks if you'll recall, decided roughly a year ago that they simply must exchange their vows in a tropical destination.  Hearing this, I was stoked, thinking maybe a visit to the Keys was in my near future.  This optimism lasted roughly twenty-four hours before I was awakened from my road-trip fantasies and informed that I would be traveling to Puerto Rico for the nuptials. 

I have no problem with traveling or with wanting an exciting wedding.  I do have a problem with strapping myself into a metal capsule that's being hurled 3 football fields per second roughly 5 miles above the surface of the earth.  That I most certainly do have a problem with.

For months I researched alternate ways to get to PR.....bridge? takes too much government funding.  boat? cruise ships will let you have a day pass on the island, but refuse to act as taxi cab.  kayak?  see earlier comment on sharks.  Clearly if I was going, I was flying.  So for love of The Geeks (and honestly fear of Fuschia), on a sunny day in late May, I headed to San Juan armed with an iPod full of Jack Johnson and enough sedative to knock out an elephant.

I assume we had two uneventful flights as I was actually higher than the airplane for most of those 5 hours.  Exiting the airport we were assaulted by the kind of muggy heat I associate with Savannah in August. Tropical had a whole new meaning.  We took a particularly speedy taxi to the El San Juan resort on Isla Verde, just north of the airport and arrived at a pretty swank hotel.  The lobby reminded me of movies about Cuba in the 1950's with red velvet and dark wood attached to every permanent surface.  Elaborate carving, dramatic chandeliers and it was basically like the set of a soap opera. On Telemundo. Our room was so South Beach as to give me a definite case of cognitive dissonance; 1950's Cuba in the lobby, 2012 Miami in the room. 

After having a hearty laugh at the minibar price list and the room service menu, we suited up and headed down to the pool.  Most hotels dig a hole, line it with concrete, fill it with water and call it a day. Not the good people of Hilton.  The pool at The El San Juan was actually several, maybe as many as many, pools in various sensuous, serpentine shapes.  We would even discover later that there was a waterfall that had a pool at the top of it with coexisting hot tub.  Amazing.  Covering every available surface were the most plush beach loungers I've ever seen; they in turn were covered in an assortment of mostly tan, mostly scantily clad guests.  Ahhh, the good life.

We eventually caught up with some of the other wedding guests, as well as Fuschia's family.   Luckily, their whiteness acted as a beacon among all the decidedly caramel flesh.  After a dip in the ocean, a walk down to a local taqueria and a shower we sat down to rest for just a moment.  Instead we rested for roughly 12 hours.

The next day found us exploring Old San Juan, although due to somebody's (ahem, Fuschia) reluctance to scale hills, I will never know what is at the top of that particular city.  We quickly discovered that the only possible way to stay cool in the intense heat was to stop every 400 yards for another pariagua (snow cone).  I tried tamarind and coconut, as well as a few other more mainstream choices.  After inspecting a good number of the fort walls and assorted armaments, warning Fuschia of feral cats' rabies potential and scouting out a food truck featured on the Travel Channel it was finally time to head back to the hotel.

Our brilliant plan, cooked up in our overheated tourists brains involved saving $17 and experiencing the real PR by taking the city bus back. Check and check.  As always, I had managed to lead others on a tour through the local ghetto.  Keepin it real has always been my strong suit.

Part Two to follow.