Sunday, December 28, 2014

TRAVELBLOG POST #9 - May The Fez Be With You

Okay, just stick with me here.  It will make sense, I promise.

Didja ever just want to slap someone upside the head? Only myself, folks. Because when I pulled this post up to ready it for publishing, I realized the first part was stored on my iPhone, as I had been writing it while on a tour bus.  It was good stuff, and I looked forward to joining the two pieces of the essay.

Well, damn, spit, and dirty socks, the first part has disappeared off of the iPhone, assuming I saved it in the first place.  Just slap my face and call me Sally.

I'm pretty certain that what I lost was the entire island of Grand Turk. I guess I can't recreate the commentary, but I have some awesome pictures to show you.  Grand Turk was a big surprise for us, because more than one person told us there was nothing there but the beaches, and it turns out they were wrong.

Incredibly, outstandingly wrong.  That is a replica of John Glenn's capsule Friendship 7, the original of which splashdowned nearby (relatively speaking - close enough there was a Project Mercury tracking station and hospital on the island).

I thought my friend Chris Owens might enjoy these pictures.  The water, the sky, the sand - so many gorgeous combinations, so many shades of blue.

Isn't Nature incredible?

St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, Anglican-Episcopal, established 1899. Gorgeous stained glass windows.

 Yeah, he is.


Salt was such an incredible part of the island industry and economy - and then it wasn't.  You can still see salt pans all around the island, but now they are used for drainage.

Polite donkeys waiting for the office to open.

Seriously?  All I saw were tame donkeys.

Donkeys are very polite here on Grand Turk.  This one is waiting his turn on line to purchase a hot dog.  No mustard.

Not a beach, just a view of a neighborhood in Heaven.

The water was unbelievable.

I could have spent another two hours in this museum.

While contemporary thought tells us that Columbus first landed on the island of San Salvador, some scholars believe he landed on Grand Turk.

It's hard to see, but there are articles and exhibits here devoted to the possibility that Columbus' ship Pinta was shipwrecked off the coast of Grand Turk.

I developed a great affection for this island when we were told the basis for the name.  Do you see the little red hat on top of the cactus?  The cactus happens to be indigenous to the islands (along with so many other cacti). The red hat apparently reminded someone in charge of the red fezzes worn by gentlemen in the Ottoman Empire and an occasional TARDIS, and thus the name "Turks" for the islands.  Very cool.  Fezzes are cool.

Oh yes, there are beaches - gorgeous beaches.


Speaking of cooking, things were weird in the dining room tonight.  Our servers were crazy rushed, and clearly under unusual pressure.  Yesterday they were dancing in the aisles; today they were stressing at their stations. The maitre d' and a few of his assistants were scooting around like the Warner Brothers' Roadrunner.  Beep beep.

Throughout this week's travelblog, while I've been raving about the cruise, I've been totally honest about the food.  No one who has cruised a while - and this is our 13th cruise, and the 12th on Carnival - comes onboard a Carnival ship expecting gourmet food.  For the most part, Carnival food is okay.  Quantity has always been great, if you are into that sort of thing. Since I haven't experienced hunger since June 2, 2003, quantity is not an issue for me.  There's always an extensive selection available, whether upstairs on the Lido deck for breakfast and lunch, or the main dining room for dinner.  I have always been able to find something tasty.  Occasionally there's a bomb, like the Baked Alaska or the Veal Parm.  The tilapia is always dry, but the salmon is delicious.  The appetizers are very good - beef carpaccio, escargot, fried shrimp with plum sauce, shrimp cocktail, smoked duck breast, and other tasty tidbits. Their flatiron steak is a good standby.  Soup is hit or miss.  I've noticed that the chefs here on the Sunshine are lax about seasoning.  Salt is almost always missing, and there have been several dishes that really needed a flavor boost from aromatics like onion and garlic. The salad bar and the plated salads are always good.  Cakes, pies, that sort of thing - pretty good.  The cheesecake is too light and airy, but we're from New York and we have certain standards the rest of the country will never match.  The warm chocolate melting cake and the soufflé are to die for.

You get the idea.  Overall, the food is good, not great. There are high points and low points.  Last night was a low point.  Chewy, stringy, tasteless beef filet I've trained my husband to be a descriptive food critic), and the strangest oysters Rockefeller I've ever tried to eat.  My wild mushroom bisque was very good.  Rob said his apple pie was very enjoyable.  But those oysters - one of the worst things I've ever been served on a cruise ship.  I'm putting those on the Baked Alaska list.  Never again.

There must have been a boatload of complaints last night - literally - and that must be what was causing the air of despair among the dining room staff.  At some point, a maitre d' type lady came over to ask us how the food and service had been.  We told her about those two dreadful dishes. I also told her that the service had been great as usual.  The part about the service wasn't entirely true, but I wasn't throwing those kids under the bus. It wasn't their fault they weren't walking Gangnam style this evening, I am sure of that.

We were approached by two other dining room captains with black jackets and furrowed brows, and at that point we just told them everything was fine. They could see those unnaturally emerald green oysters on my plate and draw their own conclusions. Having both worked in food service, we have some idea how hard it is to please everybody in a crowded dining room.  When "everybody" adds up to 3000 passengers, it is virtually impossible.  I have to say Carnival comes pretty close.

But those oysters Rockefeller ... damn ...

Saturday, December 27, 2014



What the hell does that mean, anyway?  What is a bounding main?  Is that anything like trying to move through crashing white caps?  Thirty foot waves?  Is it really sailing or hydroplaning?

Not to complain, because this has been an awesome cruise, and this is truly outside of the control of the Captain and the bridge crews, but this ship has not stopped bucking like a bronco on speed since we left Port Canaveral.  It's rocking like Jerry Lee Lewis and rolling like Tina Turner.  Our steady speed and careful navigation does not deserve this type of beating, especially since it won't let up.

We've been on a couple of cruises which each had a day or two of serious rocking.  The last time, we were playing rope-a-dope with Hurricane Sandy.  But for some reason, this cruise has been an eight day roller coaster ride despite the complete absence of hurricane conditions.  (Unless you want to count that water spout we all saw on the second day of the cruise, which I don't because it was really off in the distance.) The ship is only level when we are in port.  The rest of the time, it tilts and twists like a particularly limber pole dancer.  Since I am a bona fide klutz who has gotten seasick on more than one occasion, I am constantly tipping one way or another, trying to keep my balance and my dignity.

Which just goes to prove that I made a good judgment call all those years ago when Bethe called to suggest we all go on another cruise together that wasn't on Carnival or Norwegian.  She told me to think about ABC - Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao - on Windjammer.  Very exciting, except Windjammer was practically a sailboat.  Sailing the exotic southern Caribbean in a floating hotel was one thing; attempting that in an oversized canoe was something else.

So then came our second formal night.  Rob and I had decided a while back that we wanted to have a nice picture taken while we were onboard, so I carefully picked the dress, which I had gotten some years ago to wear at a wedding, and took the matching shoes.

These shoes, with the three inch heel and the snappy ankle strap.  Shoes I only wear with that particular dress on special occasions.  Shoes that I can just barely manage to wear for short periods of time under very controlled circumstances.  Pretty shoes for sure, but hardly practical for someone with dinky ankles and the innate ability to tip over while wearing flats. So I never wear heels to work, and the last pair of dress up shoes I bought to wear to my niece Mara's wedding were flats. I still tripped occasionally but at least I didn't have as far to fall.

But just this once, for the picture, I wanted to look really good, and besides, hurricane season was over, right?

I am not sure how we managed to stand upright for the picture-taking.  There were times I felt Rob was going to accidentally push me over because of the relentless motion of the ship.  We were clutching on to each other to keep from falling.  I was certain those photos would come out ghastly, but the photographer turned out to be quite talented and all I can say is not too shabby.

After dinner, all dressed up and feeling pretty, if just a bit unbalanced, we headed to one of the shows.  Walking to the lounge, and maneuvering up and down the stairs was akin to bungee jumping.  If it wasn't for Robert, I'd still be sitting there, unable to move.  And if it wasn't for the motion sickness wristbands I have been wearing constantly, I would be face down on my bed, sick as a dog, missing the whole cruise because I would be passed out from the Bonine.

So it's been interesting.  Good thing I still have a sense of humor.

I Woke Up in Love This Morning - Creamy Saffron Paella Salad

I woke up in love this morning
I woke up in love this morning
Went to sleep with you on my mind
I woke up in love this morning
I woke up in love this morning
Went to sleep with you on my mind

I woke up at 4:13 this morning for what I thought was the usual reason, but soon realized I was in the midst of an Insane Itching Episode, the kind that makes me want to shred my skin from my body.  I finally had to take a hydroxizine, something I haven't needed in months, and relief slowly took over.  In the meantime, my mind was consumed with those two containers of white rice that accompanied our order from the Chinese take-out last night.  I thought about making arancini - Italian rice balls - but I did not have all the ingredients, not even close, and besides, I did not feel like frying yet again.

Then I considered some kind of rice salad.  I have been making a wonderful Paella Salad for years, which I like to serve as part of a brunch buffet, and I had most of the ingredients, so after a half hour or so of noodling about on the Internet I made my decision.  Well, sort of, because I wanted to change the dressing.  Actually, I needed to change the dressing, because normally I would cook the rice in chicken broth imbued with saffron.  Since the rice is already cooked and cooled, I decided to try a saffron mayonnaise dressing instead of the clear Italian dressing I would normally use to capture that lovely saffron flavor.  I made a few other minor changes to my original recipe, and this is the result.

Creamy Saffron Paella Rice Salad

Saffron Mayonnaise Dressing:
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon hot water
2/3 cup Hellman's mayonnaise
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 clove garlic
Kosher salt
White pepper
Cayenne pepper

Soak the saffron threads in the water for at least 5 minutes.  In a mixing bowl, add the saffron water and threads to the mayonnaise.  Add the lemon juice, and whisk together.  With a microplane, grate in a very small amount of garlic, maybe 1/4 of the clove.  Season with the salt, pepper, and cayenne, to taste. Whisk everything together and refrigerate the dressing while you assemble the rest of the salad.

Rice Salad:
1 large container cooked white rice (Chinese take-out), chilled, broken up into a large missing bowl
1 cup frozen petit peas, defrosted under warm water and well-drained
1 large plum tomato, seeded and chopped
1 bunch green onions, white and light green parts, sliced
1/4 cup chopped bell peppers, any colors (I used a combination of red and orange mini sweet peppers, which is what I happened to have in the refrigerator)
1 - 1/2 cup cooked white meat chicken, cubed small
4 oz. (about 3/4 cup) diced Hillshire Farms kielbasa
1 1/2 cup flake style imitation crab, broken up by hand

Combine the rice salad ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Toss gently to combine.  With a rubber spatula, fold the saffron mayonnaise into the rice salad.  This recipe makes quite a lot, so feel free to cut it in half for smaller groups.

*EDITED 12/28/14 - if the rice salad seems dry, prepare another batch or half batch of dressing, and fold into the salad.

Okay ... the Van Gogh episode is on Doctor Who, get ready to leak tears.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Happy birthday to you, yeah! - Triple Chocolate Cupcakes

They say it's your birthday
It's my birthday too, yeah
They say it's your birthday
We're gonna have a good time
I'm glad it's your birthday
Happy birthday to you!

I woke up this morning, and my first thought was, whoo hoo, I can collect Social Security!  That's me, thankful for the small things.  I don't want to retire, not now, not for a good number of years, God willing.  But it's nice to have the option.

When I was a junior in high school, Honors English, our class was given an unusual writing assignment.  We were to write our own obituaries.  Some parents were rather upset at the morbid nature of the assignment and complained to school administration, but since I never told my grandparents anything they didn't absolutely need to know about what went on at school, they had no opinion on the matter.

My problem in completing this assignment was that I had never imagined a future for myself.  I had no dreams of husband, children, nor accomplishments.  I was 15 years old, in the early throes of a depression that would chase me the rest of my life.  My relationship with my grandparents had gone permanently south, and all I could dream of was getting out, but seeing no way to do so.

If I remember correctly, as a result of the complaints, the essays were not graded.  But they were returned to us with some comments, and all I can recall is my impression that the teacher was annoyed with me.  In retrospect, perhaps she was concerned, or even worried.  All I know is that she did not like the obituary I wrote for myself, in which "Cindy Morris, a graduate of Lawrence High School, became a war correspondent in Vietnam and was killed while covering a story.  She was 28 years old.  No husband, no children."  No Pulitzer Prizes, either.

As you might imagine, things have gotten a lot better since then.  They also got a lot worse at times, but that's life, as they say.

So today, on my 62nd birthday, I am happy and grateful to be here.

And I am going to bake cupcakes.  These are for my office peeps; I had planned on making them before Christmas, but epic fail and all that.  I think I'll freeze the baked cupcakes until Sunday, and then I'll frost them.

Triple Chocolate Cupcakes

1 (18.25 ounce) package devil’s food cake mix (with pudding in the mix)
1 (3.4 ounce) package instant chocolate pudding mix
1 cup sour cream
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 tablespoon instant espresso granules dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water 

1 cup real chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 - 12 cup muffin tins with paper liners or spray with non-stick cooking spray.
2. Using a stand mixer or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat together all of the ingredients except for the chocolate chips. Beat for about two minutes on medium speed until well combined. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand.
3. Spray a regular ice cream scoop with release spray, and scoop, distributing the batter between the muffin cups.
4. Bake in preheated oven for 22-24 minutes or until the tops of the cakes spring back when lightly touched. Allow cupcakes to cool inside muffin tins for about 10 minutes.
5. Remove cupcakes from muffin tins and allow to fully cool on a wire rack. Once cupcakes are cool, prepare your frosting.  


MERRY CHRISTMAS!! - There, I said it and I'm glad.  And that's all I'm going to say about that, except to add, God bless us, every one.

It has already been a wonderful day.  I slept late.  My little girl dog, Chelsea Rose, did her business ON THE PEE PEE PAD.  Her Christmas present to her Daddy and me.  I have a leisurely day of cooking ahead of me, and all the ingredients I need.  I am drinking my first cup of coffee.  I just opened the remaining Christmas cards from my office peeps, and I am going to be able to slice into that fruitcake I started boozifying a month ago.  Most of all, I am going to spend the day at home with the people I love best in the world.

The cooking plan is going to focus around another smoked chicken and a beef eye round roast.  This time I am smoking a whole cut up chicken with the skin left on, and using a mesquite, rather than a hickory smoker bag.  I am not planning on saucing it under the broiler, as I did last time, but instead will serve it with a side of white barbecue sauce.  The eye round, which is my favorite cut for roast beef (since I cannot afford to even consider serving my real favorite, prime rib, at home) has been seasoned, well-wrapped, frozen for six months, and now defrosted and ready for it's last hurrah.

Now was to the white sauce - I went so far as to ask my friend Dave, who heads home to Alabama for the holidays, if he was going to be anywhere near Decatur, so he could pick me up a bottle of this quintessentially Alabama barbecue sauce at Big Bob Gibson's.  Unfortunately, Decatur is way north of the Abercrombie Family Homestead.  Rob and I usually route ourselves through Decatur when we are returning from Little Rock, but we aren't expecting to make a trip up there until this summer, if at all.  Fortunately, the recipe, which is from Chris Lilly's Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Cookbook, is all over the Internet, so I made my own.  The recipe is ridiculously easy.

The eye round is still slightly frozen in the center, so I am going to wait to put it into the oven.  I prepare it by following Paula Deen's recipe for Perfect Eye-of-Round Roast, which is similar to the recipe I followed for years before.  I like her seasoning combination, so that is what has been permeating this particular piece of beef, albeit slowly, for the past six months.  Eye of round can be a tougher cut of meat, so the trick is to seal off the exterior when cooking, and to slice it thinly for serving.

The next big project on my cooking list is potato latkes.  I am well aware that Hanukkah ended at sundown last night, but I never got the chance to make my own latkes while Hanukkah was still in full swing.  And they go so good with beef!  Since I am making a relatively small amount, this is going to be very old-fashioned - I am going to hand-grate the potatoes, and fry them on top of the stove instead of using the electric fry pan.  Messy, but worth it.

I am also going to serve Jonah crab claws, but that requires minimal cooking.  I get them in BJ's and the price is not bad.  Definitely cheaper than a drive down to Miami Beach to Joe's Stone Crab.  Not that these are stone crab claws, but they are delicious in their own right.  Just remember to always defrost crab of any kind overnight in the refrigerator, not under cold running water or in the microwave.

A word about crab and crab meat.  As you might imagine, I have strong opinions. Back in New York, we only ate Alaskan king crab, which was purchased frozen, defrosted, and eaten with a Russian-type dressing as a "cocktail".  It wasn't until I moved to Florida that I became familiar with blue crab, which, in my opinion, was vastly inferior to king, or snow crab.  I had tasted soft-shell crabs a few times, but never gave much thought as to what kind of crab they were.  Over the years, I have learned more about blue crab, and am willing to admit that jumbo lump crabmeat is almost as good as Alaskan king crab.  Both of those are ridiculously overpriced, up there with my favorite food in the universe, cold water lobster, so purchase for home consumption is limited.  The Jonah crab claws are a nice compromise.  I've also developed a pretty good recipe for crab cakes, using pasteurized blue crab meat, and they are not half bad.  But nothing compares to eating crab meat out of the shell, dipped in a little butter, cocktail sauce, or tartar sauce.  I'm going to warm these Jonahs in some garlic butter, and enjoy them while making an utter mess of my hands and face.

I have other things on my list, like Kingstowne Wraps, seafood fra diavolo over pasta, mussels in wine sauce, devilled eggs, seafood salad, and tzatziki sauce to go with a naan bread in my fridge, but I've got a whole weekend ahead.  So stay tuned, and click on the link for some of the components of an awesome Christmas dinner.

Christmas Recipes:
Mesquite Smoked Chicken
Big Bob Gibson's White Bar-B-Q Sauce
Eye Round Roast
Hanukkah Potato Latkes
Garlic Butter Jonah Crab Claws

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Oh, What a Beautiful Morning (Not) - Mushroom Cappuccino

I don't drink.  I don't smoke.  I don't abuse drugs of any kind.  I don't get it. Why do I feel so awful this morning?  I am not depressed - far from it. This is Christmas Eve day, and I am happy.  I am wearing red slacks (very daring for me), a white sweater, green socks, a green scarf, and even a green bracelet.  I am going to put on the Christmas bell earrings Terry gave me.  When I get into the office, I am going to enjoy the company of my friends and the joy of the season.  So what's the deal with these hangover-like symptoms?

The Orlando Magic played the Boston Celtics last night (not the Brooklyn Nets as I previously reported) and, for the first time ever when I am there watching the game in person, the Magic won. Whoop Whoop!  The only sad part of the evening was when Jameer Nelson  came out wearing Boston green, and when the Magic did their best to try to lose the game in the fourth quarter.  But overall, a happy occasion.

I refuse to let my elderly aches and pains spoil Christmas for me.  There, I said it.

It happens to be a lovely day outdoors, a little humid but nothing really bad. I noticed a few new sculptures around town.  Kissimmee is so cool like that, displaying outdoor sculptures in the historic downtown area.  Maybe I can get some photos.  Or I can snag them from the internet. The coolest one right now is a sculpture in honor of Andy Warhol, and is presently in front of the Kissimmee Welcome Station, at the intersection of Broadway Avenue, Neptune Road, and Main Street.

I previously posted the galloping horse sculpture as part of the December 21 Travelblog entry.  There were others that I snapped that day:

I definitely want to get a photo of the Andy Warhol sculpture before it is moved out.  Regretably, I never did get a picture of the bull sculpture across from the police station, which is a shame, because it reminded me in a rather endearing way of the larger Smithtown Bull at the fork of Routes 25 and 25A in Smithtown, back home on Long Island.

He always manages to make an impression on drivers heading east or west along Long Island's North Shore.

The morning continued on a positive note, with me donning my Christmas bell earrings, and having my second cup of coffee accompanied by a piece of Terry's eclair cake.  And I have to show off her handmade gift to me:

That's the top half of a warm and fleecy blanket, bearing the face of a Yorkie wearing glasses.  It is so perfect for me and I am so thrilled that she made it.  Handmade gifts, the best.  Every year I promise myself I am going to bang out a whole bunch of hand knits to give away at the holidays, and every year I fail miserably.  Unlike the Yarn Harlot, I can't knock off a pair of mittens in one day, a pair of socks in two.  These old fingers don't move that fast (let's face it, they never did), and with my ADD, I'm always being distracted by a chicken or Fox News.

We ended the day a little earlier than usual which gave me time to swoosh into Publix for last minute stuff, well before they close for Christmas Eve. And now I can go ahead and attempt the Mushroom Cappuccino because I am really craving some nice hot soup, and because I don't think I am up to cooking anything else this evening.

Incidentally, the directions provided by the steakhouse are a bit bare bones, and a trifle confusing.  Sometimes ingredients are listed, and then never mentioned in the cooking instructions.  Should you add them to the cooking food, or should you use them for garnish?  Or maybe just use them as props for the picture you plan on taking for the food blog?

I tried to break the steps down so it sort of resembles a recipe written for a home cook instead of a professional chef.  I also tried to incorporate those "extra" ingredients in a logical manner.

Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse's Mushroom Cappuccino

1 pound chopped assorted mushrooms
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1 large clove finely chopped garlic
4 tablespoons (one-half stick) butter
1 - 32 oz. box chicken stock (or 2 pints homemade)
1 pinch of dried thyme, broken up in your hand
Kosher salt, to taste
White pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon parsley
1 pint of heavy cream
Few drops of black truffle oil

Over medium heat, melt the butter.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté just until soft and aromatic.  Add the chopped mushrooms. and stir to coat with the butter.  Sauté the mushrooms just until they start to release liquid. Add the chicken stock, and over medium-high heat, bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to low, adding the thyme, salt, and white pepper.  Simmer for about 10 minutes or until the mushrooms are done.  Add the parsley.

Blend in a blender or with an immersion (stick) blender.  Once the soup is back in the pan, add the cream and a few drops of the truffle oil.  Heat gently to let the flavors develop.  Adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, with bread.