Rebooting with a memory

Cracker Barrel fireplaceIt’s been w-a-a-a-y too long since I’ve posted on here. So it seems only fitting to reboot the blog with a post about a food memory.

It’s not a fancy place. It’s not even a local place, even though I try to stick to local restaurants here. In fact, you’re likely to find this restaurant in most cities, usually next to a family friendly hotel, right off a highway.

But sometimes, even the most commonplace chains can hold big memories’

The chain? Cracker Barrel. But it’s not about the menu or some amazing dish, although the food is good. It’s about family. Family lost, and family found.

It started on a one ordinary Christmas Eve. While everyone else was running around buying last-minute gifts or frantically wrapping or assembling, my mom decided we would head to Cracker Barrel for an early dinner.

So off we went. My mom and dad. Me. My kids (two, that first time). My little brother. We waited for our table outside in the rocking chairs, talking and laughing. My mom and I never had a good relationship, but somehow, on that cool, almost chilly, South Florida Christmas eve, everything felt okay. Close even. When we were called to our table (near the lit fireplace!) we continued to laugh and talk. It was crowded and service was slow, but no one cared. We were, for the moment, a happy family. It felt like magic, no matter how unlikely the setting for real magic. Without realizing it, we had started a tradition.

The next year, the kids and I again joined my parents and brother for another Cracker Barrel Christmas Eve,  And two years later, a new family member in tow (my youngest daughter), we did it again. Every year, as soon as we walked into Cracker Barrel, rich with the scent of candles and biscuits, the magic returned.

Sadly, the relationship between my mom and I broke down completely after that last visit. And before we could repair it, and spend another Christmas Eve at Cracker Barrel, she passed away.

But in a weird twist, the universe stepped in. Because of family battles between my mom and other family members, I never got to know my cousins very well. But one Thanksgiving, I was invited to join a group of them for a cousins reunion dinner. We feasted and caught up and laughed. And then, before everyone headed off to bed, we made plans to meet again in the morning for brunch, before everyone headed home.  The place? Cracker Barrel.

A different city, a different location, but it didn’t matter. Just as on those Christmas Eves, the magic was there. I had family. We laughed, we ate, we shopped and we connected. And we planned for future get-togethers, with future breakfasts and brunches at the same spot.

Now I live far from my cousins, and those gatherings are just memories too. But when I feel too lonely and disconnected, I grab my daughter and we head to the Cracker Barrel here in Austin.  The beach is far, far away. My cousins are no where within driving distance, and my mom has been gone for over three years now.

But for a moment, when I walk around the shop, or watch the flames in the fireplace, or engage my daughter in a game of checkers while we sit in rocking chairs, everyone is right there. Just out of sight, maybe. But all there.

I know someday I will go home, and once again be near that Cracker Barrel where it all started. But until I do, I love knowing there’s a place where my memories are alive and well at highway exits across the country.

Do you have a restaurant or food that evokes memories of times or people long gone? I would love to hear about your special memory.

Changes coming to A is for Austin

Rusty Texas star and metal Texas StarsHi all…

When we started this blog, we were hoping to keep up a steady stream of posts about area eateries, festivals, music and outdoor fun. But as it turns out, that’s harder than we thought. Neither our waistlines nor our wallets can handle eating out several times a week. And some of the exciting festivals and events haven’t quite worked with school schedules and homework.  The result has been too much time between too few posts.

But we still want to keep the concept alive. So I’m making some changes to the content by expanding the scope.  So here’s the scoop on the new face of A is for Austin.

Mondays will be “Make a Difference” Monday, an idea I started but hadn’t really gotten off the ground. That’s where you’ll find profiles of people and organizations making a difference for Austin area people and pets.

Tuesdays will be “Taste of Austin Tuesdays”, with recipes and cooking tips for a vegetarian take on Austin cooking, interviews with Austin area chefs, and information on upcoming Austin foodie events.

Wednesday will be “Wordfree Wednesday”, where I can post images of a wonderful place around Austin.

Thursdays will be the day for reviews of local restaurants, events and festivals.  Making that one day a week will make it much easier to keep content fresh (and our calorie intake under control!)

Fridays will be “Find it in Austin Friday”. That will give me the chance to share some of the amazing shops and vendors I’ve stumbled upon around the area.

Sundays will be open for whatever else I want to share. It might be another event, a date night idea, or a restaurant I just have to talk about.

One other element will be changing. While I love taking the photos for my collages, sometime the venue just isn’t right for snapping a dozen shots.  So future posts might have one picture, a collage, or a few photos. I will let the setting decide.

I look forward to writing this blog for a long time to come, and hope that these changes will make it more useful for you. See you on Sunday for the new beginning!

So what are you making with your Thanksgiving leftovers, Austin?

Southwestern corn chowder and spiced sweet potato souffle with stuffing crust

This is another one of those off-topic posts (I’m thinking of making them a regular feature on Fridays, so I can share the rest of the Austin experience with y’all.)

Today’s off-off-topic (kind of like off-off-Broadway but without the pretentious audiences) is a “What to Do With Your Thanksgiving Leftovers” cook-off on Google Plus.  There was three of competing, plus an awesome judge and timekeeper (sucking up?  You bet!) and a fun audience.

The challenge?  Come up with a creative way to use Thanksgiving leftovers to make a tasty Black Friday meal.  And we all jumped right into the challenge.  We each cooked in our own kitchens, and shared the event as a live Google Hang Out.

The first competitor was Mary Helen Leonard of Mary Makes Dinner. She crafted her Thanksgiving leftovers into a tempting-looking Turkey Day pizza.

The second competitor was Amy Kritzer from Kosher food blog What Jew Wanna Eat and a series of regular cooking demonstrations from Google Austin.  She turned her Thanksgiving ingredients into a delicious looking Thanksgiving Benedict.

My creations were a bit different.  Because we are vegetarians (or at least 2/3 of the household is; my husband eats, well, pretty much everything!) , I skipped over the turkey and went right for the leftover veggies and stuffing.

And because we’re living in Austin, I opted for a local flavor, too.  I started with a Southwest Corn Chowder, full of chopped veggies from the vegetable tray, corn, mashed potatoes and an array of smoky spices.  The soup was finished with a dash of cream, and garnished with fresh cilantro and a sprinkling of Mexican cheese.

Southwestern Corn Chowder

I also made a dish with leftover sweet potato casserole and stuffing, combining the sweet with heat by adding cayanne, San Antonio Chili Powder,  a touch of garlic and some hot Paprika to the potatoes and then whipping them with eggs and egg whites.  That became the soufflé to top a crust made of twice-baked stuffing baked in muffin cups.

Sweet potato souffle on a stuffing crust

I was going crazy getting ready for the event, but I had so much fun doing it!  If you want to see the video, check it out on Google+.  And don’t forget to vote for your favorite chef!  There are prizes afoot, so click here to pick your number one choice! 

After Thanksgiving Cook-Off

Getting ready for the unexpected in Austin

I know that this isn’t my usual post for A is For Austin, but between the storms in the Northeast and the earthquakes in Utah, it seems like being prepared is a really good idea.

Whether it’s a fire, flood, hurricane, tornado or ice storm, when the unexpected hits here in Austin, will you be ready? Experts say that in a crisis, it usually takes about three days for people to either reach safety or for help to arrive. So being prepared with the things you need for those first 72 hours only makes sense.

That’s why I decided to take a step away from my usual reviews to offer some advice on putting together a 72 hour kit for you and for your kids. Sure, there are books about what to include and what to leave behind (I know…I wrote one!) But in reality you can put together a simple three-day kit without spending days researching it.

Ready?  Here’s a checklist for simple 72 hour kits for kids or adults

I know it’s kind of long.  But don’t let that throw you. The list has suggestions for kits for kids, for teens, for babies, and for adults. And just in case an emergency keeps you in your house instead of heading out, I’ve also included things you should have on hand in case weather makes it impossible to get out.

Most of the things on the list are easy to find around Austin. Some you may want to buy online. Not sure where to look?  Here are some suggestions for where to find the basics for your kits without spending a fortune.

BackpacksGoodwill and Salvation Army are great places to find good backpacks for really low prices. Expect to pay from $5 to $10 for a full-sized backpack in good condition. If possible, choose a backpack with separate zippered sections — it makes it easier to keep things organized.

Camping gear – When it comes to things like space blankets, camp stoves, emergency tube tents and high density food bars, head for your local REI , (there are several around Austin) Bass Pro (the nearest one is in San Antonio) or Cabelas (head to Buda, TX for the closest one to Austin.) Yes, you might find cheaper prices at some discount stores, but the quality might not be there. An emergency situation is not a time to cut corners.

Sleeping bags and tents – You can get a compact emergency sleeping bag at almost any outdoors store, like the ones mentioned above. But if you want to get a real sleeping bag or tent that will last, start with Academy Sports.  They have good prices, and several Austin area locations. If money is tight, head for the thrift stores to check for sleeping bags. I usually see several decent ones each time I’m at Goodwill, and they’re usually under $15.

Multitools, pen knives, scissors and more – If it’s something that might have been confiscated at the security checkpoints at the airport, odds are it’s available at the State Surplus Store in Austin.  Go here for multitools, basic tools like screwdrivers, and emergency supplies like Swiss Army knives, all at seriously low prices.

The little things – Before you pay a lot for the small things in your 72 hour kit, check out Dollar Tree. They’re a great source for kids books, coloring books, emergency candles, inflatable pillows and small sized-toiletries. There are plenty of locations around Austin, so it’s easy to find one near you.

A word of caution…avoid buying crayons or toys made in China. Yes, they’re cheap, but they may also be toxic, so skip those, even if it means paying a bit more somewhere else.

If the budget is super-tight, consider printing coloring pages from your computer and stapling them together. Saving the crayons from restaurants after your kids color is another way to stock your bags for little or no cost.

Healthy food and drink choices – If you’re facing the stress of an evacuation or a storm that makes travel impossible, the last thing you need to do is add to your stress by filling your bags with junk food. Austin is fortunate to have several wonderful places that offer healthy, compact choices in food and packaged drinks. Try Whole Foods, Central Market or Sprouts for tasty, healthy snack bars, dried fruit, juice pouches (or boxes) and ready-to-heat packaged meals with less salt than grocery store brands (important when water may be limited.)

Outdoor clothing – If the weather is cold (admittedly a rarity here in Austin, but without proper clothing, even the 50’s can feel cold), having warm clothing can be life-saving. But if cost is an issue, try some of the area’s better consignment and thrift stores.  My favorite is Buffalo Exchange, where they consistently offer incredible choices for a fraction of even the discount stores.

Water pouches and MREs – Water and food are essential for survival, but commercial packaging designed for kitchen use are often too bulky or heavy for 72 hour kits. Using water pouches instead of bottles, and adding some MREs to your pack can lighten your load and make those three days more bearable.

I haven’t found a reliable in-town source for these in Austin, so I recommend you order them from a reliable online store like Emergency Essentials.A case of 64 of them is under $20.00, so it’s an affordable choice, too.

If you do order online, sticking with a trusted source helps you avoid damaged or spoiled food — a problem with some online “survivalist” websites.

What’s in your own four walls — Odds are, a lot of what you need is already in your own house. Look around for small toys, a cuddly stuffed animal, an extra blanket or some ready-to-eat snacks. Put some extra crayons into a plastic box, and give those scuffed shoes another life as your backup pair for emergencies. You may be surprised at how much of your needed emergency supplies won’t cost you anything extra!

Tips and ideas:

  • Use plastic zipper bags to keep things together, and prevent leaks. Those vacuum storage bags are great, too, if you have them.  Just check them once in awhile for leaks to prevent one “re-inflating” in your backpack!
  • Check clothes and shoes every 3-4 months to make sure they still fit and are appropriate for the season
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a familiar toy to a child in a scary situation. Buy a extra of a favorite and keep it in the bag in case there’s no time to grab the well-loved toys
  • Twice a year, check food and drink for expiration dates, leaks, crushing or other damage. I like to have an “eat the treats” party with my kids when it’s time to update or replace the food and drinks in the bags
  • Store the bags in a area of your home where you could grab them in at a moment’s notice. Avoid high temperature storage, as that will destroy food and other items (melted crayons are no fun!)
  • Consider making a duplicate bag for your car, in case an emergency strikes when you’re not near home. Most of the items in an emergency bag are also good to have if your car gets stranded.
  • If your kids are little and go to daycare or a babysitter, consider keeping an extra kit there.

How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You

Stepping away from my format for a few minutes.,..this was too good to pass up! I have always suspected that look in my cat’s eye meant she was planning my demise. On October 24th at BookPeople, I will get to find out from the expert!

BookPeople

He gets high on catnip and then looks at me like this. It can’t end well.

(Meg’s plotting cat, Cash)

For more tips on how to spot a feline with a sinister plot, be here Wednesday, October 24 at 7pm when Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal) talks about his new book, How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.

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Heat’s coming back, so we’re heading to the Caverns!

natural bridge caverns on ais4austin.com

It was great while it lasted…real autumn weather for a few days. But word is the temps are heading back up into the 90’s by Thursday (boo! hiss!). Desperate times call for desperate measures!

So this weekend (or maybe the next one), we’re heading to what promises to be one of the coolest places in the area…Natural Bridge Cavern. We haven’t been there yet, so I’m going to share their info…and a discount to boot!

Come experience one of the world’s premier caverns, Natural Bridge Caverns. Guided tours of huge subterranean rooms and passages are available daily.

The 75-minute Discovery Tour travels 180 ft below the surface and through a half-mile of the largest and most spectacular show cavern in Texas. Other attractions include the Natural Bridge Mining Company, where you can pan for gems and minerals like miners panned for gold.

The NEW Canopy Challenge is a 4 level explorer course and zip-lines. It also includes Canopy Kids, which is great for younger children. Located between San Antonio and New Braunfels, off I-35, exit 175.

For operating hours and additional information, please call us or visit our website for $2 off Adult & $1 off Child Discovery Tour Admission to Natural Bridge Caverns

I haven’t been in a cavern since I was a kid and we spent the summers in North Carolina. I don’t think my daughter has ever been in one, so this should be a great experience for all of us!

Watch for another post describing our experience…and we promise to take lots of pictures!

Hot, hot, and even hotter in Austin!

Tears of joy hot sauce shop in Austin TexasDuring the Pecan Street Festival, we stumbled on a little shop that offers one of the things I love best — spiciness! Serious, hot, mouth-burning spiciness, all neatly packaged into little bottles and jars on the shelves at Tears of Joy.

It’s all here. Local tongue and mouth burning creations, some made in their very own kitchen. And national and international concoctions designed to make everything you eat an experience in heat. And they have tasting tables, too, where you can scoop, dip, and pour to your heart’s content. I was in heaven!

This shop at 618 E. 6th Street in downtown Austin is clearly designed for hot-sauce daredevils like me, but they also have a great selection for less spice-daring souls among us, include (gasp!) mild hot sauces.

Tears of Joy is a great place to find a new hot sauce or paste for your next party or a new recipe. But it would also be a great place to find some gifts for people live far away but need a taste of Texas.