An Authentic Mexican-Italian Meal

It’s well known that when you go to your favorite Chinese Buffet you’re not getting authentic Chinese food and Outback doesn’t serve up food indigenous to Australia. Teppanyaki, where the supposedly Japanese guy in the tall hat tosses knives and fire around as if they are as harmless as a three-year-old juggling Nerf balls, originated in Japan 1945 and arrived in America in 1964. The cuisine never really took off so much in Japan, but the tourists loved it! Not really what I’d call authentic. And, for the love of salsa, please don’t try and tell me Taco Bell is real Mexican food.

A few nights back I made some manicotti. When I say made, I mean I took the pre-made ricotta stuffed pasta out of the freezer, put it in a pan, added some home-doctored sauce from a jar, sprinkled it with cheese and popped it in the oven. Apart from meatballs, my Italian food cooking skills are pretty lame. It was tasty enough and enjoyable, but I’m sure many an Italian chef would have been horrified.

Last night, I decided Mexican was in order. According to Jim, I make a mean pico de gallo. I’m particularly proud of that, being as he’s a Texan and all and I figure he knows Tex-Mex better than anyone else I know. Yeah, even the Mexican food in Texas is more Tex than Mex, but I digress.

Feeling somewhat lazy and lacking the time, ingredients or willingness to get too into dinner making, I remembered I’d bought some frozen bean and cheese burritos. Normally, I don’t get this kind of crap because God only knows what’s in there beyond innocent beans and cheese. I fall short of making my own tortillas, (It may still happen! After all, it’s got to be easier than prepping acorns to be edible) but normally I’d put a bit more effort into it than last night.

So, I turn the oven on, decide that due to not having anything better to top the burritos with I’ll open a can of chili, (without beans, of course, because chili in Texas doesn’t have beans, does it, Jim?). Now I have a starch (ala the tortilla), and three proteins (beans, beef and cheese). Well, one must have a vegetable to make it a meal so to try and correct this oversight, I chopped up some onions and peppers and gave them a little sauté before adding the chili to the pan. Good enough. A nice, thick hearty chili.

In about 30 minutes everything is ready. I put the burritos in one of my pasta bowls and pour a good helping of the chili over them and top it with cheese. For a moment I considered popping that under the broiler to melt and brown the cheese, but was just too hungry to bother. Twenty minutes, a glass of milk, and two chili-smothered burritos later, I’m stuffed.

As I’m putting things away after the meal, I realize there are no leftovers. Whatever am I going to take for lunch the next day?! I poke around in the fridge and find, ah-ha! leftover manicotti! I set to work putting some into a plastic container for the next day.

And then it hits me. Leftover chili-smothered burritos vs. leftover spaghetti sauce-smothered manicotti. What the what? I look at the manicotti, a tube of starch by way of a pasta shell, stuffed with cheese, covered with meat sauce that also contains peppers and onions and topped with melted cheese. I think about the burritos, a tube of starch by way of a tortilla shell, stuffed with beans and cheese, covered with Texas-style chili (aka meat sauce) that contains peppers and onions and topped with cheese that I considered melting in the oven for a few minutes.

An insane notion enters my mind. What if I were to cover the manicotti with Texas chili and bake it or how about taking the burritos and covering them with Italian spaghetti sauce? What have I stumbled on? Visions of alternate history flashed through my head. What if instead of the Spanish having such a huge influence on the Native cuisine back in the 1600’s, it had been Italians!? Could it be called a Mexican-Italian dish? Would Taco Bell be, I don’t know, Piadina Bell with little packets of tomato sauces on the side?

I’ll never look at manicotti or burritos the same again.

Mind blown.


Next thing you know people will be putting tomato sauce on low mein noodles!

Exploring My Inner Squirrel, or, How I Went Nuts

Acorns, acorns everywhere! It’s that time of year when walking around the Arts Quad here at work, or walking to the parking lot can be hazardous to your health. The mass quantity of oak trees we have on campus are shedding their bounty, acorns. They fall randomly. They cover the sidewalks. They get kicked while you walk, crushed under tires, and many a squirrel is gathering and burying them for later.

A couple years back, upon seeing all these nuts, I pondered if they were edible. I mean, they are EVERYWHERE! If we can eat them like the squirrels do, why aren’t we taking advantage of them? It’s free food for goodness sake! As it turns out, they are edible. “Three Fat Guys In The Woods” made some porridge out of them. I found a recipe for Acorn-Maple Cookies made with Acorn Flour.

Oak Bounty

Oak Bounty

Last week, as acorns fell from trees barely missing my head and bounced off the sidewalk behind me, I decided that I would try my hand at the incredible, edible acorn. I gathered 30-40 nuts from a variety of different trees over the course of three days. I didn’t want to get too carried away with this, in case they proved to be nasty. While dinner cooked, I started cracking them open with a hammer because, well, who the heck knows where my real nutcracker is?

Hammer Time

Hammer Time

Other than a few nuts that went flying across the kitchen and my fiancé coming out wondering what the heck I was doing, then asking “Why?” when I told him, (answer: In the event of a Zombie Apocalypse and we’re desperate for food, of course) it was a pretty easy and quick process. Some of the nuts I’d chosen were too old. The meat inside was a shriveled, dry thing the size of a raisin. The majority however, proved in good shape.

I moved on to step two after dinner by placing the freshly shucked nut meats into a shallow dish of cold water to soak overnight. Acorns contain a pretty hearty amount of tannins which makes them super bitter to eat right from the shell. I tried a little pre-soak nibble and almost immediately spit it back out. The next morning I drained the brownish-yellow water and refilled the pan to let the nuts soak another eight hours. Another nibble was taken and again, spat out. So far, so bad.


Soak, soak, soak.

Next, I placed them into a pan and began the boiling process. I let them simmer for about 15 minutes, drained, nibbled (without spitting it out this time) and boiled a second time for another 15 minutes.  I drained again and this time, let them sit in the strainer to dry. The final product after three days was a couple handfuls of, hopefully, edible acorn nuts!


Those are some hot nuts!

The final step, taking more than just a nibble. I removed a good-sized piece, popped it in my mouth, chewed cautiously and well, hm. Not so bad. The vast majority of the bitterness was now gone. There wasn’t a lot of flavor to them, a bit like a bland macadamia nut, but they were certainly edible. I think I’ll maybe try and roast them a bit next and add a touch of salt before presenting them to the family for a taste test.



Will I do this again? I don’t know. It was a lot of fun really and now that I know better what to look for when gathering the nuts so I get fewer dried up raisins stumps, I may move on to try and make some Acorn Flour and bake up some of those Acorn-Maple cookies I saw a recipe for next.

Hope In A Bowl Of Chicken Alfredo

We had company last night, my boyfriend’s Uncle Lloyd and his uncle’s wife, Betty. It was a very casual affair with a simple, homemade meal. Up for discussion were mainly travel adventures and life in the gated senior community they now call home in South Carolina. They were both dismayed that neither of them were able to make the senior citizen’s baseball team. Their attempts to do so were quite comical though.

Of course, considering the crowd, the topic of writing came up. Jim mentioned he’d just finished reading one of my books. I’m very modest about my writing efforts because I guess I just don’t feel my ‘successes’ are worth mentioning. They don’t live up to my expectations of where I’d hoped to be at this point in my life. I’m published, but pfft, I don’t even bring in $200 a year on what I have out there.

The banter turned to things like, “Some people who write never get ANYTHING published,” and “Sometimes luck plays just as big a role as talent.” Betty commented that sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the RIGHT reader, the person who loves your work and knows who’s who and what’s what in the business. I haven’t found that person. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will. When Jim and I last saw his cousin nearly a year ago, he said he wasn’t the best writer in the writing classes he took. To paraphrase part of the conversation, “There were a lot of people in those classes who were far better writers than I am. I, however, was the most persistent [in getting published].”

Persistence, as the saying goes, paid off for Jim’s cousin. I am doing my best to be persistent. I try to have queries out there at all times, always hoping that eventually one will come back with something other than the generic, “We’re sorry, but this isn’t what we’re looking for right now,” rejection form letter. If Queries are the Job Applications of the writing world then I am not finding any gainful employment here. If you’ve ever been desperately looking for a job and either never hear back or go to one interview after another only to be told, “Sorry, you’re not quite what we’re looking for,” you know the feeling well. It sucks, doesn’t it?

You can’t give up though, can you? No, not if you really care about getting a job. You’re driven to keep on filling out the forms, submitting the letters, and tweaking this or that to adjust the resume to fit the job you are applying for. What does it take to land that job? The right person to see it and realize, “Hey, this person’s got some potential. Let’s give him a shot and see.” That’s really all I’m asking for, a chance beyond the erotica.

To add insult to injury, over the past few years I’ve read a number of novels by quite famous female writers and I just shake my head wondering. They were alright, but as modest as I am, I write just as well, if not better, than they do. The plot to one was over the top predictable. Another told me the story instead of showing me. That was even more annoying. A third contained some of the most two-dimensional characters I’ve ever encountered. Yet, there they are, out there, known, loved, embraced, accepted and appreciated for their skills.

A few weeks back I finished writing my ninth novel. I have at least three more in me patiently waiting for their stories to be told. Where will these go? I’m not sure I want to know. If I knew they’d never be shared with anyone but a handful of family and friends, would I make the effort to write them? If I knew they’d bring me millions, would I put more effort into getting them done? Will that elusive Right Reader that Betty mentioned EVER enter my life? Is it any wonder so many writers are slightly insane? How do I up the odds of making it? What about my queries is not getting through to the right person?

The doubts creep in and tear me apart all too often. All the encouraging words sometimes don’t do much to lift the spirits of the jobless man standing in the soup line. He needs the job. He wants the job. He KNOWS he can do that job. His wife, family and friends are encouraging and supportive. They tell him to keep trying. In his mind, he remains an unrecognized and unwanted failure.

That’s the place I am standing now, bowl in hand. I’ve not given up. I’ll persist a while longer. I’ll write. I’ll edit, rewrite and submit again and again. I’ll try and look at Lloyd and Betty’s visit as another nudge in the right direction – that little glimmer of hope offered to me over a honking big serving bowl of Chicken Alfredo with broccoli and sweet red peppers on a hot and humid Tuesday night in July.


I’ve heard the remark, “Nobody sits down and eats dinner as a family anymore,” many times over in the past year. Until about five years ago I probably would have blamed it on the parents being too busy to bother or the kids having a lot of afterschool activities or heck, maybe even on cable television or video games. That’s no longer my tune.  I blame the increasing importance of retail stores and company greed.

My current household consists of four people between the ages of 23 and 56. Of those four, I am the ONLY one who does not work retail. That means I am the only one who has a standard Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm type of hours work schedule. One person has a set weekly schedule as far as days of the week go but is seldom home before 6 pm, closer to 7 o’clock most nights. The remaining two people have wild and random days they work and wide ranging hours. They can be on duty anywhere between 5 am and 10 pm. People leave the house as early as 4 in the morning to get to work and arrive home as late 11 o’clock at night or even midnight, depending on the time of year. Week to week this schedule varies. I have gone as long as three days and nights without seeing some members of the household upright and awake despite living in the same place. This does not even bring into the picture trying to find a date and time where my daughter can come over to visit or even meet us for dinner somewhere.

How does one schedule meals together when people have to work these wild shifts? Is anyone really going to show up at 7am on a Sunday morning to buy a pair of work gloves or set of ski poles? How often does someone arrive at 9:30 at night to order a set of cabinets?  What happen to a standard eight hour day? Oh, that’s right… MONEY!

If we stay open longer, more people will come. They will spend more money. We can get richer, faster. In the meantime, we have to have employees on duty for the customers that will be busting down the doors to get in at 7 o’clock in the morning. You never know when you’re going to have an “I need a new pair of boots” emergency! We better be open – – – just in case. And being open all these extra hours and having to pay the employees, not to mention the increased electric bill, we better lower the pay scale to cover all that thus making our profit even bigger! Woot!

Family sit down dinners where EVERYONE is present are few and far between in my house anymore. When they do happen it always seems to be a very special occasion and it really makes you appreciate that time. It’s a shame that the majority of corporate big wigs seem to have no concept anymore of what it means to have family time. Maybe they feel they’ve done their time and now that they’ve worked their way to the top of the ladder, those things are no longer important. Instead, they should be climbing down from that lofty position and remember from whence they came. Show your employees that you actually give a damn about them.

I stopped at a newly opened Hobby Lobby in town a couple weeks ago and then realized as a I pulled into the parking lot, “Oh, crap. It’s Sunday. They aren’t open on Sundays.” How awesome is that? I’m not even a Christian so I don’t need the time for ‘Worship’ but dang, the ‘time with their families’ clause really struck a chord with me and made me smile. Yes, it was slightly inconvenient as I’d made as special trip to check out the new store but if that’s the biggest thing I have to worry about in my life, that Hobby Lobby is closed on Sundays, I must really have a boring life. Which, I don’t.

As we dive head first into the holiday shopping season, I urge you to keep in mind those people behind the counters who are waiting on you. (I put in my retail time, too, folks, I know how nasty some holiday shoppers can be.) Remember they are only doing their jobs and trying to support their families on a pay check that probably barely covers their living expenses. Don’t get all snippy and impatient when a certain sweater isn’t there in the size or color you demand. Don’t be pushy and rude to your fellow human beings. Life as we know it is not going to implode on itself because you didn’t get the best deal of the day. Really – it’s not!

This is supposed to be a time of kindness, giving and love. A simple smile can go a lot further than you think.  Let these folks working their butts off at obscene hours of the day and night share in the joys of the holiday so that when they do eventually get to have some time at home with their family they don’t spend it venting off steam from your rude and demanding customer behavior. As much as you might like to imagine it, these folks are not your personal minions.  Be gracious and patient. It’s amazing how much your service will improve if you’re not being a greedy ass.

But, I digress.

I won’t be out shopping on Thanksgiving Day and by some miracle of miracles, all the members of my family have the day off! I have a lot of things to be thankful for this past year and a day spent with all of them enjoying a meal and some after dinner board games is going to be one more of those things.  We’ll have three generations around our table and that’s really what matters the most to me. Now, pass the gravy, please.


Strawberry Fields For Father

It was a weekend of firsts – well, A First. After living in the area nearly my entire life, I finally made my way to the Owego Strawberry Festival on Saturday. Was fortunate to get a parking space at the DMV Lot. The biggest reason I’ve never gone to this is I’ve never been with anyone who was in the least bit interested in going. Interested or not, Jim agreed to being dragged about crowded Downtown Owego. Trust me, he needs it to be socialized now and again. He’d be a hermit if I let him. In previous relationships I’ve always been the homebody-hermit half so it’s an adjustment for us both – a good one.

Anywho! The lure of strawberries and live tunes and whatever else they had there pulled us both away from our computers for a few hours and out into the sunshine amongst our fellow humanoids. Was a nice walk about, taking in the numerous tie-dye clothing vendors, jewelry hawkers, canned & baked goodies, arts & crafts to beat the band and oh.. yeah, strawberries. To be honest, had I not KNOWN it was a Strawberry Festival, I – erm – probably won’t have, well, known. I’m gonna guess there were a hundred or so vendors at this annual shindig. I think I saw five or six that were selling strawberry-related foods. Strawberry shortcake was there, of course. Strawberry Lemonade made a couple of appearances. The drink of choice at the two bars within the Festival Zone was – you guessed it, The Strawberry Daiquiri. Was hoping for a Strawberry Funnel Cake or maybe some Strawberry Ice Cream. Didn’t see any. The one place I saw that sold strawberries in the raw, as it were, was loading up their truck getting ready to leave as we walked by at about 4:00 on Saturday. I was hoping to see someone dressed as a giant strawberry making their rounds for silly pictures. Nope. *le sigh* There were a couple of good bands there, though and we enjoyed what we heard of them. Someplace you could get an air boat ride on the river but wasn’t able to really find out where it launched from.

We strolled outta there about five and ended up stopping in Candor at Iron Kettle Farm for strawberries. Was real quiet there – we’ll go back again and subject ourselves to their pumpkin madness in the fall.

Met my dad for breakfast on Sunday and after we’d solved all the world’s problems over coffee, we got onto the subject of local festivals. Owego has strawberries, Marathon has maple syrup, Newark Valley took the apple, heck even lil ol RIchford does a weekend dedicated to the potato. Binghamton has a Fairy Festival. In fact, I saw a few of their folks in Owego handing out fliers. It was REALLY hard to miss the 7 foot tall guy dressed in purple wearing matching purple fairy wings. No, he wasn’t a stilt-walker. Oh, and we can’t leave out the Scarecrow Contest held in Candor at their Fall Festival, laws no! M-O-O-N, that spells Scarecrow! Sadly, my own hometown is without a festival. Maybe Corn. They have a lot of corn out there.

A couple hours later, Dad and I parted company. I love spending time with my Dad. Always have. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more aware of how blessed I am when it comes to my parents. I truly could not have asked for better people to raise me. Oh, sure, they MAY have had a wild party now and then and they MAY have been such regulars at a local bar that I, at the age of around 12, could go and order a round of drinks for them without the bartender batting an eyelash, but they were always good people and always treated my brother and I fairly. They were encouraging and loving and much to my mother’s dismay – Dad and I were perhaps a bit goofier in public than she would have liked us to be. That was only on vacations, of course *cough* where Dad would apply the ‘We’re never going to see these people again” logic when Mom would strongly suggest he and I calm down. I tried to use this logic on my own kids but they didn’t quite buy into it as much as I did when young.

I’m gonna start working on getting Jim to go for it a bit more… one festival at a time.