HOT Sponsored Review of Monthly Pepper Box

Back again with another review for US Family Guide.  Monthly Pepper Box (to which I was given a three-month subscription in exchange for my honest review) is NOT a box full of pepper shakers or a box full of jalapenos and habaneros!  Rather each box contains three bottles of what I would call hot sauce.

This service will normally run you $20 per month, but with this special link, you can get 10% off your three-month subscription.  Here’s the company spiel:  Your best friend in the pursuit of all things hot sauce, Monthly Pepper Box is like having a miniature hot sauce festival delivered to your door every month. Each month discover savory gems of artisan hot sauces. Every box, you’ll get 3 bottles of succulent heat ranging from a “Low Burn” to “Call the Fire Department” from hot sauce companies you’ve never heard of.


For me one of the most fun aspects of this particular subscription service is seeing the creative names and labels on the sauces I’ve received so far.  This month’s shipment of High River Sauces included Tears of the Sun, Hellacious Hot Sauce, and Foo Foo Mama Choo.  Their ingredients were as individual as their names–of course they all include peppers of one kind or another, but you will also see mango, papya, peach, agava, lime, and ginger in the ingredient list which is helpfully included in each shipment along with a description of each variety.  Last month’s selections included two Captain Assjack selections (Minorcan Ghost and Minorcan Gold) and one from Frankie Flamingo & Company (Flamingo Fire).  I can’t wait to see what they send me this month!

A note on customer service:  I didn’t even notice this because who looks at this kind of thing, but the Flamingo Fire in the first box was past its expiration date.  The folks at Monthly Pepper Box were extremely apologetic about this, and a replacement bottle was shipped out the same week.  In addition to the original email apologizing for the error, I received at least two updates regarding how the company was working to correct the situation.  I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to forgive mistakes when a company provides that kind of follow up.

Now, I am probably not the best person to review these sauces because I have a very low tolerance for hot and spicy things.  But my spice-loving oldest son who loves to cook with hot sauces was very excited about them.  What I appreciate about them is the variety, which honestly I didn’t even realize existed! I am looking forward to experimenting with them more (I’m making chili tonight) especially when it’s warm enough to start grilling again.

The value and variety of these boxes are undeniable; my one question would be whether a monthly subscription is necessary.  I mean, how much hot sauce can a family use?  But that’s probably a matter of personal taste, and a three-month subscription will stock up your kitchen with a nice variety of sauces to use.

SPONSORED: Monthly Pepper Box

I wouldn’t go out on Black Friday if everything were free.  I’m much more a cyber-Monday girl! And in that spirit I’m going to be offering you a few deals from US Family Guide (for which I will be compensated with free products, which I will honestly review in the future).

First up: Monthly Pepper Box.  Details–and a promotion code–follow.  If you order, let me know what you think!


Your best friend in the pursuit of all things hot sauce, Monthly Pepper Box is like having a miniature hot sauce festival delivered to your door every month. Each month discover savory gems of artisan hot sauces for only $22. Every box, you’ll get 3 bottles of succulent heat ranging from a “Low Burn” to “Call the Fire Department” from hot sauce companies you’ve never heard of. Get 10% off your membership (Gift & Ongoing) at Monthly Pepper Box. It’s the perfect box for the Pepper Head in your life, especially if that Pepper Head is you!

My readers get to save! 10% off Gift Membership or Ongoing Subscription signup – Use code: 10HOLIDAY .@usfg

I’ll be back next month to review my first hot sauce shipment!

Low Carb Pumpkin Sausage Soup

It’s fall, so it’s time for pumpkins!

Lorelei at Dollywood last Fall
Lorelei at Dollywood last Fall

However, those of us who are doing low carb must forswear pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin bread, pumpkin bars, pumpkin cookies.  So sad for us!
Luckily, pumpkin lends itself well to savory dishes as well.  The following recipe, which I picked up at my last visit to the wellness nurse, is adapted from this one.

Low Carb Pumpkin Soup

12 oz. sausage
1/2 c. onion, chopped
1/8 t. garlic
fresh basil, oregano, and rosemary, to taste
1 can pumpkin
4 c. chicken broth
1/2 c. whipping cream
1/2 c. water
salt and pepper to taste
Brown sausage, crumbling as you cook.  Drain (not in the sink, remember!) and return to the pan.  Add spices and saute until done.  Add pumpkin and mix well.  Stir in broth.  Simmer 20-30 minutes.  Stir in remaining liquids and simmer on low 10-15 minutes.   Salt and pepper to taste.
Servings: 6
Net carbs: 8 g
pumpkin soup

Low Carb Love Affair

A few weeks ago I shared the story of my lifetime of dieting, and I promised to write about the healthy changes I’ve made.  Since this morning I visited the wellness nurse and can now report I have lost 45 lbs. since taking charge of my health at the end of March, it seems like a good time to fulfill that promise!
After years of looking askance at the claims of low-carb enthusiasts, and being absolutely sure that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie, I am now a convert.  I won’t bore you with the latest science because you can google as well as I can.  Let’s just say it makes sense to me, and that the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the lack thereof.
Like I wrote before, I am a diet expert, and this is the easiest diet I have ever been on.  If you want to get healthy, and lose weight, and feel good, and never be hungry, this is the diet for you.
I had to make a couple of major changes that were very difficult for me.  The first one was giving up cereal.  I loved cereal, and I not only ate it for breakfast every morning, I also had a bowl right before bed every night.  When I first decided to make healthy changes, but before I met with the wellness nurse, I went out and bought a lot of very healthy whole grain cereals, only to find out at my first appointment that pretty much all cereal is too high in carbohydrates for it to work in a low carb diet.  I was EXTREMELY attached to that evening bowl of cereal and it was hard to get past that but I did.
The other super hard thing was coffee.  Coffee is fine on a low carb diet, but not when it’s full of sugar.  So I started by cutting the number of cups per day rather than cutting the sugar!  Slowly (one week at a time) I cut the sugar by .5 tsp until I could drink it with nothing but cream.  This was huge!
I now cook exclusively with butter, olive oil, and coconut oil.  Remember when coconut oil was bad and canola oil was good?  Well, forget that.  I don’t even use Pam (or the generic equivalent) anymore.
Giving up bread, pasta, potatoes, and rice is not hard in the sense that I crave and want those things and feel sad about them but rather in the sense that they are ubiquitous and seem almost necessary!  So I have a few substitutes:  low carb bread that you can get at Kroger for an occasional sandwich (about twice a week); low carb wraps (also from Kroger) that can be used in lieu of hot dog buns, or to make burritos; low carb sandwich thins for hamburgers or black bean burgers; and mashed cauliflower with cheese instead of mashed potatoes.  I’ve heard of some pasta and rice substitutes that I haven’t tried yet, but mostly I just have given those up for now.
Someone asked me the other day if I still go out to eat and the answer is yes, absolutely!  Eating out is easy on this diet.  At American restaurants order steak, chicken, or fish and substitute broccoli for the customary baked potato and take the complimentary bread home to your kids.  At Asian restaurants get meat and veggies and just eat a couple of bites of the rice.  If you must go to Italian restaurants, get a non-pasta entree.  At Panera Bread or the like, get salad and soup instead of the sandwich.
It can be a little daunting to remember what is low carb and what is not, but if you have an iPhone you are in luck!  Yes, Siri can count your carbs for you.  And of course before long you will more or less know, just like you know how many calories or points or fat grams are in things after awhile when you follow those kinds of diets.
On a typical day I eat two scrambled eggs and coffee for breakfast.  I have hummus with vegetables, or apple slices with peanut butter, or handfuls of nuts for snacks most of the time.  And you are encouraged to have two or three snacks (and lots of water) each day, to keep your metabolism moving.  For lunch I try to go heavy on vegetables.  For supper I focus more on the meat.  I am eating all the things I have avoided my entire dieting life, and it turns out that these are the things that make you feel full and satisfied.  I AM NEVER HUNGRY.
Now that I basically know how many carbs most things have in them, I don’t really count them.  Supposedly I’m allowed to have about 40 a day, but my philosophy is just to try to avoid them as much as possible so that if I need to go over ever (this happens sometimes when we are eating out at a church function or some other place where the menu is not under my control) it will sort of even itself out.  So unlike other diets, there is nothing to count or write down (although that might be useful if you are having problems staying on track) and no meal plans to follow.  THIS IS EASY.
Will I eat this way forever?  Not exactly, but probably in a modified way.  For example, I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that whole grains and beans are bad.  So when all my numbers are below where they should be, and I have lost all the weight I want to, I will likely reintroduce these items occasionally.  I do still eat small amounts of beans and brown rice even now.
Below are some examples of easy, delicious, and lower carb meals I have been enjoying.
Tuna salad made with actual mayonnaise, pickles, onions, cucumbers, celery, and tomato:
Food Tuna Salad
Tomatoes, black olives, olive oil, and brown rice:
Food brown rice olives feta
Tomato, fresh basil, and mozzarella:
food tomato basil mozzarella salad
Salad with artisan lettuce mix, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, feta cheese, and Green Goddess dressing:
Have you ever tried low carb eating?  Any other life-change success stories to share with us in the comments?

It All Boils Down to This

It’s New Years Day and y’all know what that means, right?  Black-eyed peas and greens, at least for us Southerners.

new years peas
As long as I can remember, my mother forced us to eat at least one bite of black-eyed peas each New Years Day, “For luck,” she said.  Later I learned that greens are also required, if you want to make money in the new year.  And who doesn’t want that, right?

new years greens 2
Luckily in this house a majority (read:  everyone but the little people) like either the peas, the greens, or both.

I’d never realized until this year that this tradition is strictly a Southern one.  I looked up its origin this afternoon while I was cooking and learned that it started post-Civil War, when supposedly those affected by Sherman’s March to the Sea were left with precious little to eat except for the black-eyed peas which the Union soldiers (who called them “cow peas”) assumed were only good for fodder for the Southerners’ long-gone cattle.  The erstwhile Confederates grew strong again on this minimalist yet healthy diet, and the foods eventually morphed from a generic “new beginnings” meal to one symbolizing future luck and prosperity.

As I perhaps have mentioned, I am an English major so I found additional meaning in today’s meal.

Just look at these collard greens, y’all.

new years greens
I don’t know if you can tell but that’s a LOT of greens. (And for only .99 at Kroger, too!)  It’s three enormous bunches which were too big for the plastic produce bag and took up the entire bottom shelf of my refrigerator.  It probably took me an hour to wash and rip them up so I could cook them.  The picture of them in the pan?  That was less than half of them.

Yet after ten minutes cooking, we were left with this:

new years greens 3
Yes, that’s what they boiled down to.  So that’s the source of that saying! I thought, cleverly, to myself.

But I also really did think, and announcedto my husband, that I am going to try to apply the lesson of the greens to any situations (I won’t say problems yet) that arise this year.  Whatever big tangled things I have to deal with, I’m going to envision them as a big mess of greens that haven’t been cooked yet.  I’m going to know in advance that really there’s just a little kernel at the heart of whatever it is that I really have to deal with.  Before I get all worked up and confused and overwhelmed, I’m going to think about what it all boils down to.

Happy 2014 to you!

I Fell off the Wagon . . .

The NaBloPoMo wagon, that is.  But, y’all, this week has been brutal.
First there was the all-nighter.  Jake got his paper done.  Emily bagged on us around 3 a.m.  I stayed up and up and up.  For those of you who have heard me rant about helicopter parenting, all I can say is that sometimes even big kids need their mothers, and Jake needed me that night.
Furthermore, any of you who do legal work will no doubt cringe when I mention that I also had discovery requests to fulfill the following day.  So I was working on that the following morning while continuing to help Jake with the paper.  I did not get to finally collapse until close to 4 p.m.  I slept for 17 hours.
This blissful unconsciousness put a serious dent into Thanksgiving prep time, however.  Normally I would have at least shopped for the food on Tuesday.  But that had to wait until Wednesday and I did not get down to serious cooking business until close to 7 p.m.  Brining the bird, cooking the giblets, and preparing the sweet potatoes and the mashed potatoes took until about 2 a.m.  Six hours later I was back up to cover the turkey in bacon and get it into the oven.  Then I moved onto the pies, and in between those major tasks handled all the little details that those of you who have hosted 18 people or so more Thanksgiving dinner won’t need me to explain.
2013-11-28 09.17.242013-11-28 15.29.502013-11-28 15.30.36
The fruits of all this labor were delicious, and as they say, a good time was had by all.  But after they all went home, it was back at it for me to clean up until around eleven (well worth it to come downstairs this morning to a clean kitchen instead of a mess).  Whenever I made the mistake of sitting down for a rest I wasn’t sure I could get back up again!  I finally treated myself to a long-anticipated soak in the spa tub and I thought I might just have to spend the night in there.
Mark my words, y’all:  I am NOT doing this again next year!  Next year you are going to be reading a post about how we went to Mass and then next door to the Crown Plaza for their Thanksgiving buffet.  You heard it here first.

Scorched Stew Saga

I have been thinking about beef stew for weeks, ever since it first began to get chilly.  There’s something about this time of year that makes me want to cook.  I’ve been thinking a lot about chili and roasted root vegetables and pots of pinto beans too!
But some of those things are time consuming, so I picked up stew beef when I saw it on sale, got all the vegetables I wanted late last week, and planned to tackle the stew this weekend.
It was a busy weekend as always, so I made my preparations in stages:  On Friday night I floured and browned the beef, and sauteed the onions, peppers, celery, and herbs from my garden, then put all that in the stockpot and refrigerated it.  Saturday evening I added the liquid and started simmering.
Finally, this afternoon was the time for chopping vegetables (lots and LOTS of vegetables) and letting it all cook together so we could have it for supper.
Well, I put the pot on the stove and turned it up high to get it boiling.  I didn’t realize that all the beef had settled to the bottom of the pot.  I didn’t think and I didn’t pay attention until I smelled the scorching.  By the time I moved the pot off the stove the damage was done–only a few pieces of beef were burned, but the broth had that terrible scorched taste.
I’ll end your suspense right now and tell you that with a lot of work I was able to pretty much fix the stew.  And I’m going to tell you the steps I took–thanks to all those genius internet cooks out there–in case something like this ever happens to you.
First, a no-brainer:  I transferred it all to another pot, with NO SCRAPING involved.
Second, I peeled and halved two potatoes and cooked them in the broth for about thirty minutes to absorb some of the flavor.  Then I repeated it with another pair of potatoes. (The potatoes got added to the dogs’ dinner, so we are all winners!)
Third, I threw in a couple of pieces of bacon and some all-purpose “BBQ” seasoning, meant to fool the tastebuds into interpreting that burned taste as though it were meant to be there!
Fourth, I added more liquid to the stew (which I would have been doing in any case), beer, as it happens–and threw in a few more beef bouillon cubes.
Fifth, I put in some apple cider vinegar and a couple of spoons of sugar.
I tasted after each step, and yes, it was getting better, but the taste was still lurking.  It was at this point that all the vegetables were finally chopped and ready to be added and I may as well tell you what they were:  rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, and three kinds of potatoes.
Finally, when the vegetables had softened I added the final ingredient, which completely got rid of the lingering source.  What I want to know is why this works and who thought of it.  I imagine some frantic crazy woman so exasperated with the bad taste of her stew that she just yelled, “The hell with it!” before dumping in a spoonful of . . .
Yes, that’s right.  And it was like a miracle.  It melted right in and took away the bad smell like creamy peanutty magic.
beef stew

Strawberry Birthday Cake, and not from a box

Another reason I miss my recipe notebook acutely at this time of year is BIRTHDAYS.  Lots and lots of birthdays.  Jake’s is January 27, John AND Emily’s is February 4, Teddy’s is February 15, and William’s is March 5.  That’s a lot of cake.
We’ve been through one whole set of birthdays since the fire, so I’ve rounded up all the tried and true cake recipes.  Jake had Milky Way Cake this year, and John had Strawberry Cake.
Ah, Strawberry Cake.  Twenty-five years ago was John’s first birthday with us as a couple.  It was a fantastic birthday–my gift to him was his college ring, and my roommate and her boyfriend and I “kidnapped” him and took him to the Kennedy Center to see HMS Pinafore.  And I baked him the first of many birthday cakes.
“What kind of cake do you want?” I asked him.  And he, no doubt envisioning a box of pink nastiness from the grocery store shelf, asked for a strawberry cake.
My mother did not have a recipe for strawberry cake.  The Georgetown University Library is not exactly overflowing with cookbooks.  And there was no Internet to consult.  And I haven’t used a box cake mix since I was maybe 12.  So I set out to invent my own recipe.
I don’t remember what I did, but although I am sure John appreciated my efforts, he probably would have preferred the box.
John bday 22
But I got better, and I’ve had years to work on my recipe.  The one I made this year was the best one ever, and I am pleased to share it with you. 🙂
It starts with a recipe called “Old-Fashioned White Birthday Cake.”  That came out of one of my mother’s cookbooks years ago.  Then I added some things (strawberries!).
One container of strawberries, washed and drained
sugar to taste
1 c. butter, softened (REAL butter, mind you.  Don’t you dare use that nasty margarine.)
2 c. sugar
3.5 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
3.5 t. baking powder
1 t. vanilla
8 egg whites
1/8 t. salt
It helps if you are an experienced baker when you make this cake, because I cannot give you exact measurements for the strawberry part of this.  Slice up the strawberries and puree them in your blender with enough sugar so that they are not tart.  If you need to add milk to get them pureed, you can.  Sometimes I’ve needed to; this time I did not.  You want to end up with about 1.5 cups of liquefied strawberry.
Halve the remaining strawberries and reserve.
Cream butter and sugar.  Add salt and baking powder and beat well.  Add vanilla and beat.  Add flour, alternating with liquid strawberries, beginning and ending with flour.  The recipe calls for 1 cup liquid.  If it doesn’t look like cake batter should, you can add more.  This is where experience comes in handy!
Now wash your beaters and beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.  (I gave all the yolks to the dog, but you can use the for scrambled eggs or french toast!) Add 1/8 t. salt to the beaten whites.  Fold lightly into cake batter.
Grease two round cake pans and dust with powdered sugar, and pour in your batter.  Bake at 350 until done.  I know that is not very exact, but the recipe really calls for 1 hour in a tube pan.  I started checking at 30 minutes.
When your cake is cool, spread the bottom layer with strawberry preserves.  Actually, I use one of the “all-fruit” strawberry spreads.  Make a basic buttercream frosting, and thin as needed with the rest of your strawberry juice for color and flavor.  Frost cake, and garnish with sliced strawberries.  Everyone will tell you it is the best cake they ever ate.
strawberry cake

Vegetable Chili That Even Meat Lovers Love

I was 19 when I moved into my first apartment–on-campus housing at Georgetown University with three friends.  Excited about having a kitchen, I ambitiously dumped the meal plan and looked forward to home-cooked meals.  To prepare, I bought a green notebook and wrote by hand many family recipes that I considered essential.  I seem to recall that Buttermilk Pound Cake was the first entry!

I held onto the notebook as the years went by.  Whenever I had to consult my mother on how to make sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, or Hot Cross Buns for Easter, I would jot down the recipe so I wouldn’t have to call her again.  During the first couple of years of marriage, when I actually tried out new recipes almost every single night, I copied down the ones that made the grade.

Many of the recipes were never made a second time.  But over the years the cover fell off of the notebook from so much use.  Recipes like Apple Cinnamon Bread became dotted with grease and cinnamon stains.

Then the house burned down.  The recipe book was not the first thing I thought of missing, but it’s one of the things I still consistently wish for, over and over.  I’m calling my mother for recipes again, and I’m hunting for other ones on (thank God for) the Internet.

This Vegetable Chili recipe originally appeared in Sheila Lukins’s column in Parade Magazine around 1991.  You’d think that would be an easy thing to find online, but I have not found the exact recipe and I have searched every way I know how.
I remember well the first time I made it.  John looked at it doubtfully and wanted to know how you could have chili without meat.  A few minutes later he was eating his words along with the chili.  It’s been a favorite ever since.  Additionally, it’s a meal I like to make when I am feeding another family (if I know they like vegetables), whether they have a new baby or sickness or a death in the house.  I double a cornmeal muffin recipe and divide a buttermilk pound cake into two loaf pans, and I have dinner for us and enough to share with another family.

I was doing exactly that for a family that happens to be vegetarian last week.  I found a close approximation to the recipe I wanted and I remembered the rest.  Jake did most of the chili under my direction while I did the baking.
Vegetable Chili

  • 1 medium eggplant, cut in 1-inch cubes
  • olive oil
  • 2 yellow onions, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced; or 3/8 t. garlic, powdered
  • 2 medium zucchini, chopped
  • 3 assorted bell peppers, chopped (I like to use red, orange, and yellow)
  • 1 yellow squash, chopped
  • 1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely minced (decide how much to use depending on the hotness of the peppers and your taste)
  • 1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes, cut in half, with liquid
  • 5 fresh Italian plum tomatoes
  • 1 T. cumin, ground
  • 2-3 T. chili powder (to taste)
  • 2 t. oregano, dried
  • 1 t. fennel seeds
  • 1 c. cooked white beans (rinse first if using canned)
  • 1 c. cooked kidney beans (rinse first if using canned)
  • 1 T. lemon juice
  • 1/3 c. red wine
  • 1/3 c. chopped fresh cilantro
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • plain yogurt, shredded cheese, and chopped green onions for garnish

Preheat oven to 350.  Chop eggplant and stir with 2 T. oil.  Place in 8×8 baking dish, cover with foil, and bake 30 minutes, stirring at the 15 minute mark.  Set aside when done.

In a stockpot, heat 3 T. oil on medium.  Add onions and cook for five minutes.  When I made this last week I had Jake chop everything in advance so he wouldn’t be stressed. but normally I chop as I go.  So I add the garlic. and then the rest of the vegetables one at a time, as I finish chopping.  So each one cooks a couple of minutes as you chop the next, and then cook about five minutes more after the jalapenos have been added.
Add the canned tomatoes and liquid, then chop the fresh tomatoes and add.  Add the cumin, chili powder, oregano, and fennel.  Stir in the reserved eggplant and simmer for 20 minutes over low heat.

Add the beans, lemon juice, and cilantro.  (Oh, the difficulty I had finding cilantro in 1991!  I’d never heard of it–had to consult the Joy of Cooking–and no one else had either!  I had to drive to the “rich” Kroger in West Knoxville to find it.) Add salt and pepper to taste (you may need to adjust this later) and simmer for five minutes.
Garnish with plain yogurt, shredded cheese, and green onions, and serve with corn muffins.

Serendipity in the Kitchen

I rarely use recipes, certainly not for everyday foods.  I like to think of my own mind as a sort of cookbook, capable of synthesizing ingredients into masterpieces.  I’m not sure if that’s a special talent or something that can be learned from years of cooking, maybe it’s a little of both–my 18-year-old son can do it.
Anyway, sometimes I’ll look in the refrigerator and my mind will start going and before I know it there’s an idea I have to try.
Our refrigerator is pretty close to empty at the moment, and that sort of challenge always seems to kick my creativity into high gear, as I try to come up with a use for seemingly unrelated ingredients that will harmonize into something more than only edible.
Tonight’s experiment was a success!
At this time of year we always have a log of Brie in the refrigerator (at least until we eat it all!).  It goes on sale at Kroger for half-price just before Thanksgiving and stays that way until the New Year (which is when we stop buying it!).  At the moment we also have quite a bit of bacon on hand–I bought a little more than I needed for the turkey.   Then there was half a can of cranberry sauce (the jelled kind) that my son had been eating all by itself.  So here’s what I did:
I fried up some bacon (three slices is all I ended up needing).
I placed 8 saltines (that’s all I had–something fancier might have been better, but those were fine) on a cookie sheet.
I sliced half a Brie log into 8 rounds (about 1/4 inch thick) and placed those on the crackers.
I broke the bacon into portions (about two inches each) and placed those on the Brie.
I put a spoonful of cranberry sauce on top.
I popped the cookie sheet under the broiler for about two minutes–just long enough for the Brie to get warm but not long enough to melt.
Et Voilà!
bacon and brie
They were delicious!