Crock Pot Cocktail: Pumpkin Spiked Hot Cocoa

Per usual with Virginia weather, the seasons changed overnight. On Sunday I was slathered in sunblock on the James River, and two days later, I'm enthusiastically hoping a sweater still fits. And it feels wonderful! Not just the fact that the sweater fit. I'm talking about all of it. The crisp, clean air, the cozy throw blankets, the smell of wood smoke. Sigh.

The latest online cooking class from Ladles and Linens got me even more in the spirit. Sweet, sweet Sarah made Hot Coconut Milk Punch (pictured below). For anyone who hasn't joined the party, these cooking classes on Facebook are free - one of the silver linings of COVID-19. 

spiked coconut punch

While we're all feeling warm and fuzzy, I'd love to share a crock pot cocktail recipe. Pumpkin Spiked Hot Cocoa! It's creamy and delicious, and when made in a crock pot, a real crowd-pleaser. I'm a big fan of ready-made cocktails for guests. In the summer they're in iced pitchers and when it's cold out: the crock pot. No muss, no fuss, and more time to relax.

Note: If you are hosting underage visitors or non-drinkers, skip the vodka and this is good to go! 

What you'll need:

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  •  
  •  

Instructions:

  • Put the slow cooker on low
  • Mix in all the ingredients (except the chocolate chips)
  • Whisk until smooth, then add in the chocolate chips
  • Cook on low for at least 2 hours, until the chocolate chips are fully melted
  • Whisk again and serve with marshmallows or whipped cream dusted with pumpkin pie spice

Enjoy! As evidenced by the below photo, my sister (pictured right) and I really get into the autumn spirit. Bonfires, hayrides, the whole bit. I can confirm that a simmering crock pot of goodness was responsible for the bottom two photos!

 

 

 

Happy fall y'all!

halloween decor on display

If you step into a Ladles and Linens store, you can't help but get caught up in the excitement of the season! It doesn't take much to get us worked up these days. Though our homes are the most important place in the world, we sure have spent an awful lot of time in them. Ladles is bursting with inspiration; there's even an online Halloween curated collection for people who would rather shop from home. 

autumn-themed towels

When COVID-19 first hit, there was a lot of fear that winter. Spring gave way to a spate of home improvement projects, and got us back outside. But by the time the dog days of summer hit us, without summer vacations and pools to break up the days, there was a whole lot of sameness.

So bust out the pumpkins, light a spiced candle and bring on the autumn hygge!  Ladles and Linens has you covered. We have to make the most of every season. Without proper school, it's hard for my son to note the changing of the seasons. Now he's greeted by a scarecrow and a collection of gourds every time he returns home. He lights up at the differentness of it all.

Embrace that ubiquitous pumpkin-spiked latte and check out Ladles and Linens for the coziest, cheekiest and tastiest autumn-themed goods to get you into the spirit!

Happy Labor Day! Here's how to make the most of it.

 

Who knows what next summer will look like? Perhaps we'll once again pack into pools and dominate the beaches. I hope for the health and well-being of everyone, and once that comes to fruition, everything else will slowly fall into place. Until then, we need to enjoy the irony of Labor Day: celebrate labor by not laboring! 

Now more than ever, we need to treat ourselves. We got through a Covid-19 summer without many of the friends and family we normally see. Pools were closed and vacations were canceled. We couldn't hide away from the heat index in movie theaters to the tune of tacky summer blockbusters. But we did it. With a little bit of grumbling and a truckload of creativity, we did it!

Now let's celebrate this milestone properly, before we are pummeled by pumpkin spice. Let's start with cocktails!

It's still warm and our herb gardens spilleth over, so why not sip a refreshing gimlet? Gin has herbal notes, and you can give it a summer twist with muddled basil and cucumber. Shake the gin and muddled basil-cucumber mix with lemonade, lime juice and ice until chilled. Strain over ice, then garnish with a fresh basil leaf - Thai basil, if you know what's good for you!

One of my favorite things about summertime are the thunderstorms. I sit on the front porch swing, sip something cool and hope that the lighting borders frightening. The perfect cocktail for this is a dark 'n stormy. Just mix iced ginger beer with dark rum, and add a squeeze of lime. It's a little sweet, a little spicy and 100% summer. 

The pandemic and all its restrictions have been a perfect excuse to splurge a bit. Pools closed? Rent someone's private pool by the hour via Swimply. I found a spot in Virginia just 16 miles away from me! Don't forget to pack these chic stemless wine cups - they won't break, they have lids to ward off bugs and they stay cool in the sun!

Perhaps your splurge should involve open waters. If you miss the beach but fear how packed they'll be for Labor Day Weekend, rent a boat. If you aren't a skilled or even licensed boater, simply rent a pontoon. It's a floating raft with a mild engine, and handles well. You'll have room to spread out and tan, picnic or go fishing. And boating in general is perfect for social distancing. 

More than anything, take the time to relax, and give yourself some grace. Sleep in, watch a classic film, moisturize, and grill all of the meats. This is the quiet before the fall. 

Save time with this tasty freeze-ahead staple

veggie burger with arugula

It's not even Labor Day, and already I'm seeing "back to school" photos on my feed. This is for all the families already on the hustle. I plan to join their ranks after Labor Day. In the meantime, I'm planning ahead. Our family isn't used to having lunch together during the week. It may be extra work, but it's an opportunity to improve on the usually-disappointing options at school. Because in no world should ketchup or pizza sauce count as a serving of vegetables!

I used to be a vegetarian, and still love the versatility of beans. They span the colors of the rainbow, are a great source of protein and are budget-friendly. I'm going to share a great flavor combination cooked in my slow cooker. You can simmer three pounds in one session, and freeze the leftovers for endless ready-made meal options.

 

  • Grab one pound bags of dried black-eyed peas, green split peas and lentils
  • Pour into a giant bowl and wash well, then drain
  • In a saucepan, caramelize two thinly-sliced onions in olive oil. Two minutes before they're fully caramelized, toss in chopped garlic (about five cloves)
  • There are many ways to add flavor and a little fat. You can use crumbled bacon bits or a little lard - vegetarians can use butter
  • Place everything into a slow cooker, and fill it with water two inches above the food line
  • Sprinkle in more flavor to taste. In addition to salt and pepper, I use cumin, jalapeno powder, and dried cilantro
  • Turn the slow cooker on high for six hours, or on low for nine hours
  • Check to ensure the beans are fully-cooked. Drain any excess water, then use an immersion bender to smooth the beans into a creamy mix

Fun options:

Veggie burgers! If the patties are too soft to stick together, you can mix in breadcrumbs. Fry in a pan with butter, then stack the veggie burger on a bun with sliced tomatoes, arugula and garlic aioli. They freeze beautifully too! Just individually seal each patty in plastic wrap, and stack them into a freezer storage bag before freezing.

Seven layer dip! Don't be limited to just seven layers either! We started with a smooth layer of beans, then stacked on guacamole, cheese, sour cream,  salsa, chopped cilantro, chopped green onions, arugula and black olives. Dip in some tortilla chips, and you have a meal so fun, you don't even realize that you've touched upon all five food groups! Fill a quart-size freezer bag with beans, and it's the perfect amount for one layer.

You can do a polenta bean bake!

  • Preheat the oven to 350
  • Grease a pyrex or Le Creuset baking dish with butter
  • Pour in one cup of Red Mill dried polenta
  • Pour three cups of boiling water on top of the polenta
  • Add 2 tablespoons of butter, one teaspoon of salt and mix well
  • Take a spoon, drop in the beans, and mix everything
  • Bake for at least one hour, or until the polenta bean bake is mostly solid in the oven
  • Remove from the oven, cool, cut into squares, fry in butter and melt cheese on top

 The perfect amount of beans for this dish can be frozen ahead in one quart-sized freezer bag.

loaded nachos

Other fun options:

  • Loaded nachos
  • Bean soup (just mix with chicken broth)
  • Tacos
  • Mix with rice - a macrobiotic snack!
  • Bean and cheese burritos
  • Huevos rancheros

 

Homeschool lunch ideas: One chicken, three ways

As we enjoy the last couple weeks of summer, fall is nipping at our collective subconscious. Whether or not you're going to be homeschooling kids in the fall, being inventive with meals is a universal life goal.

Busy working parents and people on the go can turn leftovers into reinventions, all just as delicious as the first meal. I hope to make this the first post in a series, where every few weeks, I drop in a new idea on how to whip up quick meals with leftovers. And I'm going to keep it zesty!

Night one: Roast chicken (buy the biggest one you can find!)

  • Preheat the oven to 375
  • Slather a chicken (breast side down on the roasting pan, to keep it moist) with a generous amount of melted butter and Lawry's Seasoning Salt
  • Top it off with sliced lemons, both laid atop and stuffed inside the chicken
  • Roast and baste every half hour, for at least 1 3/4 hours, until the skin is golden and crispy

After you enjoy dinner, pull the remaining chicken off the bone, and refrigerate it. Make a broth with the bones. Toss into a stock pot with a lot of water and let it simmer on low overnight. If possible, add depth of flavor with twigs of thyme, sliced carrots, onions and celery. 

Night two: Taco Tuesday!

  • Warm half of the remaining chicken in a skillet on low, with butter
  • Dust the chicken with cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper
  • In a separate pan, melt bacon fat, lard or butter in a hot skillet
  • Throw on corn tortillas, making sure both sides are glistening and slightly toasty
  • Salt one side lightly and place into a tortilla warmer
  • Chop up cilantro, onions, and secure a good hot sauce or salsa
  • Build your tacos and enjoy

    Night three: Greek lemon chicken soup

    The first two recipes were mine, but I'll admit to outsourcing when it comes to Greek lemon chicken soup: Avgolemono. It's a delicious way to introduce your kids to Greek cuisine. A good recipe can be found here - and you already have the chicken broth prepared from the first night! Don't worry about the chicken prep, either. You can toss in the remaining shredded chicken in the end. You can even soak the chicken ahead of time in lemon juice and thyme for extra oomph. 

    These three recipes embrace Americana, Mexican and Greek cuisine. Variety is the spice of life, and expediency in the kitchen is the secret to a stress-free workweek. Whether or not you are a parent, we are all in uncharted territory. The only thing I am sure of, is that we got this. Bon appetit!

    Millions of peaches

    I like to joke that I'm a lazy gardener. When you plant a fruit tree, fruits drop by the bushel every year. I live in the city, so I have to be judicious with what space I have. Rule of thumb: Don't grow things unless they fruit or flower.

    But there's more to it than cutting back branches every spring. From April to October, there's an all-out war on my property. It's me against the birds and bugs who try to decimate my crop. I'll get emotional if I bring up squirrels. I'm armed with netting, a fake owl to spook them, a dog to chase them away and thorny raspberry borders. Nevertheless, they persist. This year, I snagged what I could from those freeloaders and made myself a peach cobbler.

    Organic fruit is imperfect, but with a good wash and a sharp knife, backyard peaches are heaven. And so was our dessert. Peaches are in season and it's the perfect time to buy it by the bushel and make some cobbler! They'll never taste better or be more wallet-friendly than they are in the summertime. 

    Here's how we did it:

    Ingredients

    • 1/2 cup salted butter
    • 1 cup all-purpose flour
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 3/4 cups of sugar (separate)
    • 1 tablespoon baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon of salt
    • 1 cup whole milk
    • 4 cups fresh peach slices (skin on is fine)
    • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

    Instructions

    • Melt butter in a 13- x 9-inch baking dish.
    • Combine flour, 3/4 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt; add milk, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour batter over butter (do not stir).
    • Bring remaining 1 cup sugar, peach slices, and lemon juice to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly; pour over batter (do not stir). 
    • Bake at 375° for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. Serve cobbler warm.

      And if you know how to live, serve it with vanilla ice cream!

      Fishing for compliments

      One of the silver linings from social distancing is having that extra time (no matter how small) to check in with ourselves. That can be terrifying for some of us (all of us?), but when you nix the happy hours and dinner parties, hours can stretch before you. Whether it was anxiety-driven, or the result of some much-needed free time, we got ourselves some hobbies. 

      There was the sourdough, the immaculate TikTok dance clips and the tie-dying. My husband took up fishing, and it is a joy to watch. To see his truck skid into our driveway at 11:00 pm. Robert jumping out gleaming with a hefty catfish in his bucket. Or watching him teach our son how to cast a line while we picnic

      This means we're getting a lot of fresh fish at home. Scales, eyeballs and all. Whether you have taken up fishing, or see a great selection at the market, don't be intimidated by the sight a whole fish. One of my favorite meals in the world is a Thai dish, with crispy bass (fried whole) and chili sauce. Before my husband took up fishing, I thought I was at the mercy of the restaurant. I'm happy to say I'm not.

      And a whole fish is worth the extra couple steps. You'd need a scaler and a fillet knife to keep the process hassle-free. A large pan will allow you to fry it whole. At home, we use our wok. Thankfully it comes with an oil drain rack, which keeps fried fish light instead of greasy. Make diagonal cuts on the fish (close to the bone), allowing the oil to cook the fish thoroughly. A temperature probe is necessary for the oil, and 375 is perfect temperature. Use a wide fish turner or risk breaking the fish. Last but not least, find a handsome, large platter to present it on. 

      A full fish, when plated, is as elegant as it is earthy. It elevates the whole meal, especially if an unforgettable sauce is drizzled down the middle. Here's a link to my favorite recipe. So go ahead, pick up a striped bass at the market, or spend a day fishing. One way will save you time, the other way will save you money and allow you to enjoy a day on the water. Either way, the results will be delicious. 

      Sangria: your new favorite fruit

      Eat more fruits and vegetables, they said. It's good for you, they said. Unlike a basic fruit salad, sangria has mood-boosting abilities, and we could all use a little of that!

      On a trip to Barcelona, I was surprised to see that most restaurants kept Sangria simple. Glasses of red wine would come with a can of Sprite, to mix as we wished. Locals told us this was common for quick lunches in Spain. And by quick lunch, I mean a decadent meal with at least five or six sides. While I'm digressing, quick PSA: Never order tapas; it's a money trap. Instead, do what the locals do and order the "menu del dia." You get all the same seasonal and fresh options, plus your glass of wine with Sprite, for a lot less. See our bounty in the below photo!

      At upscale bars, we would find the brandy and fruit-laden variety. Sangria is the type of summer drink that forces you to slow down and take note of everything happening. There are different textures and no two pitchers taste alike. But every pitcher of mine is fruity, fizzy and boozy.

      While there are many options for ingredients (depending on which fruits are seasonal), here's a real crowd-pleaser:

      •  
      • 1 cup sliced peaches (for summer - pomegranate seeds are great for winter)

      Place everything in a pitcher and mix. Pour over ice and be sure to brag to your doctor about how responsible you were with those fruit servings.

      What your favorite drink says about you, from a bartender who's seen it all

      Mike Stankovich of Longfellow in Cincinnati

      Mike Stankovich of Longfellow in Cincinnati (Credit: Catie Viox)

      When Ladles owner Sarah Nicholas and her husband frequented their favorite bar in New York, the bartender would serve her a Hugo spritz, and a lager for Evan. It seemed to fit their personalities. Sarah is a trained chef, and elderflower liqueur appeals to a sophisticated palate. Her husband Evan is an FBI agent and sports fan, and just loves a good beer

      It begs the question: Are bartenders sizing us up based on what we order? I knew just who to ask. Mike Stankovich may look like a hipster bartender at one of those reclaimed wood and Edison lights-type establishments, but make no mistake. He is a tastemaker and cultural juggernaut. Just ask the New York Times, GQ, Boston Herald,  and the countless news outlets that have paid their respects. He's also been my friend for over 25 years. Stankovich now owns Longfellow, a neighborhood bar in Cincinnati with a devoted following. 

       

      "It's not what the customers order. It's how they order a drink," he insists. "I like it when someone comes in, and knows how they like their cocktails made. Some bartenders may be offended that someone likes it prepared a bit differently, but I respect that." Some pet peeves include leading a drink order with the mixer, followed by a generic liquor request. "Sometimes people will come in and ask for a Coke and whiskey. We have many kinds of whiskey, so it's best to lead with the liquor."

      When I asked him to name certain drinks and the types of people who order them, he demurred. After 25 years, he's decidedly less snarky and judgmental as the guy I met as a teen. Not to mention he has a business to run. "I'll name three cocktails people order that tend to make me think highly of them," he offered. "The Negroni, gin and tonic, and a Manhattan." Why? "They're straightforward and classic."

      Duly noted.

      negroni cocktail

      Below are a few outtakes from bartenders who have no hesitation sharing their opinion on what you order, and what it says about you:

      • Old Fashioned: You've been streaming Mad Men (various sources)
      • Vodka Martinis: Highly successful, highly functional alcoholics.”  - David Bumba, Yuzu, Lakewood, OH
      • Whiskey Sour: “I may or may not be 21.” - Kayla Quigley, Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar, Boston, MA
      • White Russian: “Respectable by my standards.” - Jane Danger, Mother of Pearl, New York, NY
      • Long Island Iced Tea: “We didn’t have your first two requests of Fireball and Goldschläger.” - Brandy Feit, Headwaters, Portland, OR
      • Mojito“You're probably a cool cat looking for something refreshing. Just please don't crush it faster than I can make it; these things take time.” - Ted Vong, TAG Restaurant, Denver, CO
      • Cosmopolitan: “Where's the rest of the bachelorette party!?” — Justin Nelson, Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, Los Angeles, CA
      • “Moscow Mule: "You have a subscription to both Better Homes & Gardens and Sunset. You have strong opinions on how lime wedges should be cut.” — Drew Record, Mister Jiu's, San Fransisco, CA

       

      What's up, dog?

       

      crazy hot dogs

      Guess how many hot dogs will be eaten this Independence Day? If you guessed 150 million, I'd be concerned for you. But you would also be right. That's a lot of weiners.

      Hot dogs are always on the menu for the Fourth of July, but why not heighten the occasion? Go all out with a hot dog bar, where people can stack up thematic franks with uncommon toppings. The great Nora Ephron always said that people love to play with their food. 

      hot dog bar

      The below toppings can be combined for a taste you'll relish. See what I did there?

      The Buffalo Dog: Hot sauce, crumbled blue cheese & diced celery

      Blue Hawaii: Pineapple chunks, bacon and BBQ sauce

      Tex Mex: Grated cheddar, chili, diced onion, sliced jalapenos and crumbled Fritos

      Garden Party: Caramelized onions, grilled peppers, jalapenos and mushrooms

      El Mariachi: Jalapenos, corn, cilantro, diced onion and cojita cheese

      The American Dream: American cheese, onion dip and crushed potato chips

      Some entertaining tips:

      Make a chalkboard menu with combo suggestions

      Create fun names for thematic hot dogs

      Keep all the toppings in bowls or containers the same size and shape. The uniform look is appealing when people are making tough decisions

      Have a DAREDEVIL section for outlandish toppings, like super-spicy ghost peppers, peanut butter or even marshmallows! Scour your cabinets and you'll be sure to find some stand-out options.

      Happy Independence Day!

      girl with fireworks