I currently live in Charlotte, NC and after spending 7 years as a personal chef and caterer, I am now happy to share my love of cooking with friends and family. My heart is in the kitchen, but my soul is in the stars!

Friends Forever

Do you have what it takes to be a really good friend?

If a friend trusts you with a secret, can you cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye promise not to tell another soul?

Do you always remember their birthdays?

Do you promise not to fight over boys even if one of you has to swallow the bitter pill when Mr. Right chooses her over you?

When a fight breaks out, can your friends count on you to have their back?

When I lived in the Wasteland, one of the (many) things that I struggled with most was the fact that I had no friends. I had close friends located far away, but the Captain and I didn't socially interact with alot of people and while he was honestly one of my best friends, I truly missed having a gossip-filled lunch with my girlfriends or having other friends over for an impromptu dinner. It was a lonely existence and when I found myself back in the Queen City, I made it a point to become acquainted with lots of cool people and also made it a point to keep the fires burning under the friendships formed so long ago.

I made this sinfully delicious Caramel Apple Pie for my friend G., who's birthday was back in....oh, I don't know... November sometime? We tried numerous times to get together so that I could gift him with some good home cooking but I got sick, he had a hot date, the holidays interfered, and before we knew it, it was next year. But being the good friend that I am try to be, I hounded G. until he came for his birthday dinner.

It's hard enough to imagine that this recipe, with all of its decadence, came from a 1999 publication of Cooking Light, but even harder to imagine that it took me this long to find out about it. After the gluttonous holidays, we probably should all be counting our calories but at 277 calories a slice, this isn't too bad of an indulgence and definitely worth an extra mile on the treadmill tomorrow!

Bake the pie, invite some friends over to enjoy, and if you can't decide who's going to get who's back during the fight, just call my friend K. because she's really good at getting your back when it counts!

P.S. I cheated and used a pre-made pie crust because I was pressed for time and I don't think G., in all of his birthday dinner excitment, even noticed.

Caramel Apple Crumb Pie
Cooking Light, November 1999

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chilled butter or stick margarine, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
3 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon ice water
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
Butter-flavored cooking spray

1 tablespoon butter or stick margarine
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
9 cups sliced peeled Granny Smith apple (about 2 3/4 pounds)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons chilled butter or stick margarine, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup fat-free caramel sundae syrup
Preheat oven to 375°.

To prepare crust, lightly spoon 1 cup flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine 1 cup flour and salt in a bowl; cut in 2 tablespoons butter and shortening with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle surface with ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time; add vinegar. Toss with a fork until moist and crumbly (do not form a ball).

Press mixture gently into a 4-inch circle on heavy-duty plastic wrap; cover with additional plastic wrap. Roll dough, still covered, to a 12-inch circle. Freeze 10 minutes or until plastic wrap can be easily removed.

Remove 1 sheet of plastic wrap; fit dough into a 9-inch pie plate coated with cooking spray. Remove top sheet of plastic wrap. Fold edges under; flute. Line bottom of dough with a piece of foil; arrange pie weights (or dried beans) on foil. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes or until the edge is lightly browned. Remove pie weights and foil; cool on a wire rack.

To prepare filling, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Combine 1/2 cup brown sugar and cinnamon. Add sugar mixture and apples to skillet; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in 3 tablespoons flour and lemon juice. Spoon into prepared crust.

To prepare topping, lightly spoon 1/4 cup flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine flour and 1/4 cup brown sugar in a bowl; cut in 2 tablespoons butter with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal.

Drizzle syrup over apple mixture; sprinkle topping over syrup. Bake at 375° for 30 minutes or until apples are tender. Cool on a wire rack.

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Have I mentioned this before?

I hate to be redundant, but some things are just worth repeating ad nausem, like this seafood paella originally posted by Meeta of What's for Lunch Honey?

I've been searching for a good source of mussels ~ either fresh or frozen ~ and short of making a special trip to the ritzy side of town, I haven't had much luck here on this side of the tracks. During the height of the holiday shopping season, I was forced to walk into the one place on Earth that I hate abhor (I know that's a strong word to use, but if you knew how long I lived with having that as my only source for pretty much everything, you'd understand my aversion) and was pleasantly surprised to see the cryovac packages of frozen mussels in the seafood department just like I used to buy from my food purveyor when I had the catering business. I tossed a few in my cart and finished my shopping while visions of paella for dinner danced in my head.

I was so proud of myself for being able to walk through those doors, buy what I needed, and get out without having a panic attack that I called the Greek Goddess and asked if she'd like to partake in the delicious bounty. I don't even need to tell you what her answer was. Paired with a crisp chilled Chardonnay, a fresh green salad and lots of girl talk with your bestest friend, it was a lovely way to spend the evening.

If you'll click here and try the recipe, I promise I'll never speak of it again. Maybe.

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Cruising into a new year

We've all seen those t-shirts in the tacky souvenir shops at the beach that say, "My parents went to the beach and all I got was this lousy t-shirt." And scarily enough, I've seen people actually wearing them. Well, my parents went on a cruise and all I got was this fabulous cookbook.

While most people their age are home passing the time by gardening, tinkering in the garage, or even putting a pencil to paper to figure out how to live more frugally so they can be sure to leave a hefty inheritance to their only and well-deserving daughter (are you reading, Mother?), my parents are emailing me pictures like this......

or this.......

And when people ask, "How are your parents doing? Is their health good? Do they still drive?" I meet their it's a pity to see your parents get older isn't it? expression with something like, "Oh, yeah...they're in Russia right now," or "Well, they're having a hard time deciding whether to go to China on their next vacation or to Hawaii again." Yeah, it's a pity.

Gone are the days when my parents laid awake at night worrying about how much longer I would stay out with friends and break curfew....wondering if my grades were good enough to get into college....wondering if I'd grow into a respectable woman with a good job, husband, 2.2 kids and a dog contained behind a white picket fence.* Now it's me who lays awake wondering why do they not suffer from empty-nest syndrome? Do they not miss me? How can they in good conscience spend my inheritance on lavish food and fruity drinks while lounging on the Lido deck???

*Sigh* Not that I'm bitter or anything. I think it's great. Really, I do. So, while I wait for my next email to arrive with pictures from Destination Unknown, I'll share some of these fabulous recipes with you and we, too, shall live like a happy and carefree couple cooling their heels in the sand and trying to decide if they'll have dinner in the main dining room or just order room service and lounge in their quarters while wearing a fuzzy bathrobe.

If you'd like to make sure my folks are spending my inheritance well, click here and just try to keep up with them.

*They still worry about this.

Mango-Stuffed Chicken Breast with Cumin & Cilantro
Serves: 4
A Taste of Elegance Cookbook (Holland America Cruise Line)

4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on or off as desired
1/4 cup finely minced cilantro or flat leaf parsley
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 pure olive oil
1/2 cup plain yogurt (whole milk or lowfat)
1 mango, halved, pitted, peeled & sliced
4 sprigs cilantro, for garnish

Insert a small, sharp knife into 1 side of each chicken breast, keeping the opening you make no bigger than 1-1/2 inches long as you move the knife in an arc to create a large pocket along the length of the hicken breast (go only 2/3 or 3/4 down its length so you don't break through the surface at the thinner end). Place in a glass or enamel bowl or square, glass baking dish.

In a food processor, combine the cilantro, garlic, cumin, salt, cayenne, and lemon juice. With the motor running, gradually add the olive oil through the feed tube until the mixture is blended. Add the yogurt and quickly pulse once or twice more. Alternatively, create the whole marinade by hand.

Pour the yogurt mixture over the chicken and toss to coat, pushing some of the marinde into the "pockets" as well. Cover and chill for 1 to 6 hours, turning occasionally.

Heat a charcoal grill to medium hot (when you can hold your hand 5" above the rack for 3 to 4 seconds) or preheat a gas grill to high, covered, for 10 minutes and then reduce the heat to medium. Insert slices of mango into the pocket of each chicken breast and seal the openings closed with metal turkey pins or toothpicks.

Grill the chicken on a lightly oiled grill rack, turning occasionally, until just cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes total. Alternatively, broil the chicken for 7 minutes on each side or brown the chicken skin-side first in a large pan in butter and olive oil and then bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until cooked through. Remove the pins and serve. Garnish with the cilantro sprigs.

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Hibernation &'s a warm thing

As the temperatures continue to fall below freezing, all I can think about is warm and hearty meals. Casseroles, soups and stews, and anything laden with cream and fat to help put an extra layer of insulation on the old arthritic bones. I've gone into hibernation and as a result my kitchen is a non-stop flurry of heat producing activity.

Turkey Sausage and Bean Soup was a weekly request by one of my clients back in my days as a personal chef. It was common practice for me that, after I had cooked for a particular client for any length of time, my tastes in food became very similar to theirs and this very quickly became one of my favorites as well. I'm amazed at how much flavor the Italian turkey sausage provides ~ you'll notice there are no herbs or spices called for in the recipe. And as with any soup, it can be modified to accomodate whatever you do or do not have in your pantry at the time and it freezes exceptionally well. I've been known to saute a bit of cabbage along with the other veggies and I'll even go wild sometimes and vary the type of beans, crazy girl that I am. Like mushrooms? Throw some of those in as well. Whatever floats your boat, but rest assured it is excellent when prepared as written and served with a thick slice (or three) of butter-laden, freshly baked French bread. Yum Yum!

Sending you warm wishes and rising temperatures soon....

Turkey Sausage & Bean Soup

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 stalks celery -- chopped
2 large carrots -- chopped
1 medium red bell pepper -- diced
1 medium onion -- diced
3 cloves garlic
16 ounces Italian-style turkey sausage -- casings removed
42 ounces chicken broth
16 ounces diced tomatoes
16 ounces navy beans -- rinsed and drained
15 ounces kidney beans -- rinsed and drained
salt and pepper -- to taste
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup white wine

In large nonstick skillet, heat oil over high heat. Add bell pepper, carrot, celery, onion, garlic, and saute until vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes. Crumble sausage into skillet. Break up chunks of sausage with spoon, and cook until vegetables are tender and lightly browned and sausage is cooked through, about 7 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add chicken broth, diced tomatoes, kidney beans, white beans, and white wine to saucepan and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes to blend flavors. Adjust salt and pepper, if needed. Serve soup sprinkled with Parmesan.

"Wish Upon A Chef Catering & Gourmet Market, 2006"
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We're entering the third straight week of below average temperatures here in the Carolinas. My family has been covered up with snow in the mountains of Tennessee and I cannot even imagine the frigid temperatures in the northern and midwestern states.

I think those people standing on a frosty, ice covered soapbox while touting the dangers of global warming should be careful they don't fall off the box as they step down and retreat to cooler temperatures, because we are not convinced of your cause at the moment. But I'm sure, in some cosmic way, all the hairspray I pumped into the ozone back in the 80's is somehow to blame for the icicles hanging from the eaves of my house today. Whatever. Just give me something warm and comforting to eat. And a Snuggie.

This home-style chicken casserole is just the thing to warm your soul and thaw your extremities. It's the casserole that always makes me think of my Granny because she used to make this when she was with us and my grandmother even made it for the family this past Christmas dinner. It's moist, rich and creamy right out of the hot oven and if the thought of that isn't enough to give you the warm fuzzies and make your teeth stop chattering, I don't know what will!

Bundle up, sit by the fire and watch it snow and stay warm with a piping hot serving of creamy home-style chicken casserole.

Chicken Casserole

1 stick butter
1/4 cup onion -- chopped
1 package herb stuffing mix
1 each chicken -- cooked & boned
1 can cream of celery soup
1 can chicken broth

Melt butter in medium saucepan. Add onion and saute until soft (about 5 minutes). Add chicken, stuffing, soup, and half of the broth. Mix well and pour into a 9x13 baking dish, spreading to cover the bottom. Pour remaining broth over top of mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

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Note: You can use any "cream of" soup that you'd like. Cream of celery, mushroom or chicken. If you don't feel like cooking and boning a chicken, just pick one up from the deli section of your grocery store.

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All Dressed Up....

I'll admit that I was a bit melancholy to celebrate the passing of 2009 but as I donned my party hat and horn, raised a champagne toast and watched time fade into the last strokes of midnight, I suddenly became anxious to see what the new year would bring. Last year held nothing but fabulous experiences and I have no doubt that the upcoming year will be full of the same.

I had my pick of New Year's Eve parties to attend and in the end I chose my good friend Richard's Black and White themed party. I had one last uber hot party dress and lots of Bling! in my closet that fit the dress code requirements perfectly. And since the invitation stated to also bring food and a bottle of bubbly to share (as if I would share that!), I decided to take along a batch of black and white Tuxedo Brownies. Only a food dork would think to color coordinate her food offering according to party rules.

As 2009 disappeared into the rear view mirror, so did these tasty little bite-sized morsels. Bake up a batch, settle in, and welcome the new year, new decade, and new experiences!

* Exported from MasterCook *

Tuxedo Brownie Cups

Serving Size : 48
Categories : Dessert-Bars

Amount Measure Ingredient -- Preparation Method
-------- ------------ --------------------------------
1 package fudge brownie mix (plus ingredients to make cake-like brownies)
2 squares white chocolate for baking -- 1 oz each
2 tablespoons milk
1 package cream cheese -- softened
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup frozen whipped topping -- thawed
1 pint small strawberries -- sliced
orange zest, mint leaves, melted semi-sweet chocolate for baking (optional)

Preheat oven to 325. Spray mini muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray. Prepare brownie mix according to package directions for cake-like brownies. Using small scoop, place level scoop of batter in each cup, filling 2/3 full. Bake 14 mins or until edges are set (do not overbake).

Remove pan to cooling rack. Immediately press tops of brownies with mini tart shaper to make indentions (if you don't have the tart shaper, use your thumb to gently press down the center of the brownie). Cool in pan 15 mins. Loosen edges and gently remove brownies from pan. Cool completely. Wash pan. Spray with cooking spray and repeat baking with remaining batter.

Microwave white chocolate and milk uncovered on high 1 min; stir until smooth. Cool slightly. Combine cream cheese and powdered sugar; mix well. Gradually stir in white chocolate mixture until smooth. Fold in whipped topping.

Fill decorator bag fitted with rosette tip with cream cheese mixture. Pipe mixture into cooled brownie cups. Arrange strawberry slices on top. Garnish as desired (I drizzled melted chocolate over them). Place in airtight container and refrigerate for 1-3 hours before serving.

"The Pampered Chef Celebrate! cookbook"
"4 dozen"

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