The Victual Files: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill

One of my favorite things in life to do is to go to a small town and check out the local eatin’ joints. Restaurants in small towns define the character of the town itself in so many ways. How many towns to do you know of only because there’s a restaurant there that serves good BBQ or chicken fried steak or even a great hamburger? Out here in Arcadia, it’s commonplace for us to take trips SPECIFICALLY based on eating something we’ve heard about.

So, we decided to put together a side project for the Arcadian Experience…we took a map and drew a 100m circle on it, and decided that we are going to covertly go into restaurants within that circle in north Texas and post our thoughts about the dishes and overall experience.  We call this new project:  The Victual Files, prounouced “vittle files”.  We are Victualphiles working on the Victual Files.  Catchy, campy, and all ours.

This isn’t a chance to slam restaurants or to give harsh criticism for their food. Rather, it’s a chance for us to share a little piece of life in those towns and the love and care they put into their food. Disclaimer: even though we will focus on the 100m radius, we will probably do this for any other restaurant we might venture into anywhere we go. It’s our site, our project, our rules.  Another disclaimer: I seriously need to update my iPhone to a new version.  The camera on this thing sucks to high holy hell.  Sorry in advance for the blurry pictures.

I’m going to start with one of my favorite places to eat: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill. Owners Marlene and Ben Horst started this restaurant in 1999 and both still work there daily. When you walk in, the first thing you notice is that you’ve stepped back in time…an anachronism to a “simpler” life when sodas came from jerks and green was a much softer hue. From the outside, you see the sign and the awning that immediately give you an idea what to expect on the inside.

When you step in, TBC doesn’t disappoint. From the floors to the lights to the tables, this is as authentic as you get in a small town. One of Ben’s trophies even hangs on the wall right next to the old Dr. Pepper machine (although, the modern stereo on top of the Dr. Pepper machine might not be all that authentic).

Above the service area, Marlene writes her daily specials on a large white board. One of my favorites, the crawfish etouffee, is running today for the last time this season. It happens that her son and daughter-in-law live down in Lafayette, LA, so she’s got a little Cajun tint to her. From time to time, Marlene and Ben will have a crawfish boil dinner. I love crawfish anyway, but they make it BYOB so you can bring your cooler in and have some tasty mudbug that they cook in the alley behind the store.

The quaintness of TBC is striking. From the colors on the walls to the ceiling tiles and light fixtures…

…this place makes you want to sit down and have a nice lunch in the middle of the day. Oh, but wait…my favorite part of the entire place…

It’s this bar. I’ve been literally BEGGING Marlene and Ben to rebuild the foot bar that goes underneath the stools so I can eat up there. I tried it one day, but the stools are just long enough that you can’t get enough leverage w/o sliding off. If there’s any critique I have of TBC is that I can’t sit at the bar and eat lunch.

Above the bar:

If Tom’s peanut bar doesn’t scream “old timey”, I don’t know what does. What’s that you say? Old Dr. Pepper and Coke stuff say “old timey”? Well, ok, they’ve got that, too.

I love sitting in the booths along the mirrored wall across from the bar. They bring out the tea, and keep it flowing. A big cup of Texas sweet tea is a great way to start out lunch.

When I go to TBC, I don’t even have to order. They know that I’m there for the French Dip. I love a French Dip in the first place, but the FD at TBC is my favorite. It’s not too stuffy and not all that complicated. Just a nice hoagie roll, some melty cheese, and tasty beef consommé to dip the sandwich in. Marlene’s hoagie bun is this delicious chewy bread that holds together so well when you dip it. A lot of FD’s will have a yeasty bread, but falls apart. This doesn’t do that…it stays nice and gummy, with lots of yummy gluten to hold it together.  Sorry to my celiac-suffering friends.

There are lots of other things on the TBC menu that are good as well. They have other sandwiches, special hot lunches (again, the etouffee is remarkable; the Cajun catfish is our minister’s favorite. We call him “Rev. Awesome”). Sometimes I’ll throw them a curve and order something different, but if I’m treating myself it’s the French Dip all the way.

If you order a sandwich at TBC you get choices, mainly what sort of chip you want and if you want a pickle. Nothing overly complicated…it’s either Sun Chips or Ruffles, and the pickle is just a clean, crisp deli pickle.

Let’s talk about pickles for a second. I love pickles, and not just pickled cucumbers. Pickled okra, pickled green beans, pickled eggs (Pedigree White Trash)…I love pickles. Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor offers you two types of pickles with your sandwich: old pickle or new pickle. The difference is how long they’ve been in a jar. (For the record…Zingerman’s is the best deli I’ve ever been in.  The reuben there might be the best sandwich alive.)  I’d love to see some homemade pickles make their way to a menu near me here in Arcadia, but that’s a big order and a lot of work. “Who has time to make pickles?” one might say. Not me, which is why I want someone else to make some pickles. I digress…

My order: French Dip, Ruffles, pickle. Sweet tea. That’s all I need in this world.

Look at that cheese melting out of the sandwich. You get a healthy stack of roast beef, a decent ramekin of dip, and a good handful of chips. Luckily for me, Ben has big hands. And now I feel kinda awkward…

A closer look at that cheese oozing out…

Take that little monster and hold her head underwater for a bit…

Then let her up for a breath before you devour her…

And that’s a helluva lunch. I’ll slowly walk thru this sandwich…if I don’t have a good 20min to eat once I get my plate, I won’t go in the first place. No need to rush, and no need to rush the experience. As a matter of fact, I’ll take those plain ol’ chips and dunk them in the dip, too.

As a creature of habit, I have places I go eat for specific things, and at some point I’ll cover some of them in the Victual Files digest. I can’t think of a better place to start, though, than at Marlene’s.

Marlene’s @ The Big Chill in Graham, Texas…open M-Sat for breakfast and lunch.  Breakfast at Marlene’s is suberb as well.  Do yourself a favor and go give Marlene and Ben a try.

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Garden Calamities, Bad Kids and More Bad Dogs

Garden Calamities, Bad Kids and More Bad Dogs

7 to 10 days ago I planted a few rows of spring plants that are space-savers—ideal for my intensive gardening plan. These are also the plants that give you quick pay-off in terms of gardening—radishes, mesclun, rocket (aka arugula), spinach and carrots. All sprout quickly and can be harvested between 25-45 days.  A super-speedy turnaround considering our beloved tomatoes can take up to 90 days to mature.

Planting a sorta-early spring garden...

These quick-return crops have already started to show signs of life … this photo was taken on Monday, 7 days after they were planted.  

Showing signs of life.

See the little sprouts coming up … I have no idea what this is because I didn’t properly label my rows – oh well. I will be able to identify them once they get past the initial phase of sprouting.  

Then Tuesday, I started writing this piece and decided to take photos showing progress.  I went out to the garden to take photos, but there was evidence of a minor Garden Calamity.

Evidence of a very bad dog.

A big dog print in my raised bed …  I only planted half of one raised bed and that is the only place the dog tromped thru. Of course it’s right in the middle of a planted row.

 I still didn’t get the story finished, so after work on Wednesday, I went to take another progress photo.

Then another Garden Calamity struck … usually when that happens it has to do with a bad dog. Yesterday it had to do with a kid … my 4-yr old son came into the house and declared: “I water momma’s flowlers. I help jew, mom.” I didn’t think a lot of it, but then walked out to see what he was talking about.

Seedlings almost washed away by a 4-yr old.

Holy Garden Calamity, Batman! I don’t’ think 4-yr olds understand that you can’t put the sprinkler wand/spray head thingy right up next to the seedlings. And this story has changed drastically since the initial draft, due to Garden Calamities.

Bad kid, good kid? Definitly a cute kid!

More to come on tomatoes and spring gardening in North Texas… I’m dying to plant my tomatoes, but the old farmers say, “thunder in February, frost in April.” And we had thunder in February along with a frozen foot of snow and ice that cancelled school for a week. I’m going to wait a few more days on planting my tomatoes. Hopefully I can avoid future Garden Calamities.

96 tomato plants ... almost ready for a North Texas garden home!

Spring’s Fling: Chocolate Covered Strawberries

Spring’s Fling: Chocolate Covered Strawberries

Strawberries and Chocolate ... Simple Goodness.

Spring is the season for strawberries.  I love berries of all kinds.  And now is the strawberry’s time to shine.  When you are making things with 3 to 5 ingredients, it’s really important to get the best available ingredients possible. This means using fresh produce. If you can get locally-grown produce, even better.

For me one of life’s simple pleasures is chocolate-covered strawberries. I’m a chocoholic and a lover of all berries. But this is simple and delicious.  There are three ingredients: strawberries, cream and chocolate.

Wash a package of fresh strawberries and pat dry.  I used a one-pound package for this recipe. Set them aside to continue drying.  You want them to be as dry as possible to dip into the chocolate.

Strawberries! These came from United Supermarkets!

Next, use a high-quality semi-sweet chocolate.  Scharffen Berger is my favorite … it’s happiness in a wrapper.

Happiness in a wrapper!

If you can’t find it in your local grocery store, Ghirardelli makes a good-quality chocolate and is readily available in most stores.  If you prefer, you can use a darker chocolate, which has a higher percentage of cacao. Kitchen Tip: sometimes you can find a good chocolate bar for melting and baking in the candy section instead of the baking section.

Put 3-4 ounces (one bar) of chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl.

Add 1/4 cup of heavy cream. (technically this is chocolate ganache, which is just the fancy way of saying: chocolate with cream.)

I love cream.
Cream makes everything better-- that and butter!

Microwave for 30 seconds at a time, stirring in between, until the chocolate and cream have melted together.

Mix well!

Take your dry strawberries and dip into the chocolate and put on a chilled plate or pan covered with wax paper.

Dippidy-do, I love you, chocolate.

Stick in the refrigerator for 45 minutes so that the chocolate has time to set up.  Then serve it up and enjoy.

Mmmmm ... Chocolate and Strawberries!

(PS – my photos will improve, I promise.  I’m now motivated to learn how to use my camera much better!)

The Band

The Band

“We’re putting the band back together!”   What movie?

If you live anywhere near Chicago you don’t get to guess … or if you’re a die-hard Dan Aykroyd or John Belushi fan … enough clues, already.

“The Blues Brothers!?! They still owe you money, fool.” Thank you Aretha Franklin and The Blues Brothers for the awesomeness of that quote.

Jake and Elroy Blues with Aretha

So my hubby and Runnin’ Buddy are now in a “band.” A band of two and they’ve decided to name themselves the Inlaws (no hyphen, I’ve been instructed).  The name is cleverly thought up.  You see they are just getting started as an acoustic duo.  And their first “gig” is to play as the intermission band at the annual Knights of Columbus rodeo dance.  The gig was acquired thru their “connections.”

Practic session in the back yard while smoking elk tenderloin.

The name comes from the fact that one of the head organizers of the rodeo is the father-in-law of Runnin’ Buddy.  And my hubby’s father-in-law (my dad) is the bass player in the headliner band, 380 West.  Hence, the Inlaws.

Runnin’ Buddy has played in serious bands before.  He played in several Austin-based bands whose booking venues could range from 100-2,000 people.  He’s a lead guitar player, and pretty darn good too.  Just in the last few months of tinkering around and playing with my hubby – the hubby has improved tremendously with his guitar playing. Did I mention that Runnin’ Buddy was a really good guitar player?

The pressure of the-first-gig deadline is looming, and with that I have a whole new appreciation for my mom.  She has endured hours-long practice sessions with my dad and his band.  The process of learning a song includes picking-around with different chords, random outbursts of broken lyrics, and the repetitious play-pause, play-pause of recorded music, followed by the plunkey-pick-around learner’s version. I love that my husband has a musical side and I’m even happier that he’s found a Runnin’ Buddy to play with him.  Fortunately I really like the songs they’ve chosen to play and best of all … I get to make song requests.    First up, It’sAll Been Done by the Barenaked Ladies.

Perennial Favorites and Bad Dogs

Perennial Favorites and Bad Dogs
I was just writing about spring and how I love to watch things grow … and it’s even cooler to see perennials emerging from their winter slumber. 
 
Half the time I forget I’ve planted them, then I will start to see this little bit of green peeking out.  After an investigation, I realize it’s not a weed, but a perennial. 
This is a lilly -- not sure which kind yet.

Love perennials … they are more expensive than annuals, but if you select the right varieties for your area, you will be able to enjoy them year after year. 

I personally try to have a good mix of perennials and annuals.  One of my most favorite annuals of all time is the pansy. 

Happy Pansy Face

Look at this pretty, happy pansy face!  Fortunately where I live, I can plant pansies in the fall and they will usually overwinter then grow all spring until the end of April.  Then I rip them out and replace them with something more heat tolerant.

 This is Mexican sage, a hearty perennial.

Mexican Sage waking up from a long winter's Siesta

Sometimes I find this in the garden… bad dog … if you can’t tell by the photo,  my dog Ruby, dug in the flower bed and dislodged this beautiful specimen of Mexican Sage. 

Bad dogs dig in the flower beds

I love Mexican sage for my particular area, because it’s hardy and blooms continuously, it can withstand the hot Texas sun and summer, and requires very little watering.

Mexican sage in full bloom -- pretty!

This is a variegated sedum, another hearty perennial that can grow just about anywhere in the U.S.

Variegated sedum, aka striped sedum
Verigated sedum in its full bloom, in the late summer or early fall.

 What’s the difference?

Annuals complete their lifecycle in one growing season, meaning that an annual plant can grow from seed to maturation (seed reproduction) in one season—snap dragons, petunias and pansies. Generally most garden vegetables are annuals.

Perennials have an ongoing lifecycle, meaning they come back every year after a period of dormancy. Trees and shrubs are good examples, but other flowers are salvia, daisies, sedums and chrysanthemums. Some perennials are grown as annuals in northern climates because they are not cold-hardy.  A good example of this is dusty miller. It’s a perennial where I live, but in Kansas and north, it’s not hardy enough to overwinter.     

BTW … for those of you North Texas gardeners out there, we are coming up on our last average killing-frost dates this week and next.  For more info contact your local Texas county extension agent– they know all the scoop for your county’s growing particulars. (PS– if you live in a different state they have extension offices too).

The bad dog ... Looking very pretty on a spring day at the "Goat Ranch." (there aren't any goats, btw).

Tomato time in Texas

Tomato time in Texas

About 2 more weeks and we North Texas gardeners will be able to plant our tender crops.  And that means Tomatoes!  [Why exactly do we have to add an “e” when we make the word “tomato” plural – don’t answer that Micki Jo].

If you have ever had homegrown tomatoes you can fully appreciate the greatness of having fresh garden-ripened tomatoes.  Unfortunately half the year we are relegated to those hard, sorta red tomatoes—I call them red baseballs in the grocery store.

Garden tomatoes!

You can never have enough tomatoes during the summer months … when you are up to your eyeballs, all you have to do is can them.  Then in the winter when you are making a stew or chili, pop open a couple jars of our canned tomatoes, and ta-dah – happiness in a jar.

Canned tomatoes

I went nuts in my greenhouse this winter with tomatoes … There are about 100 or so plants. Yikes! 

Lots and lots of 'maters ... Tomato plants galore

Calling all Gardeners! I need a few of you to take these off my hands!

Bacon Chocolate and a Man-Date

Bacon Chocolate and a Man-Date

Not so long ago my husband and his Runnin’ Buddy ran off to Ft. Worth under the guise of getting ingredients for a crab boil to have a special dinner for the four of us.  

Runnin’ Buddy’s wife and I are always jealous when our hubbies take off like this because they have wonderful “Man-Dates.” They go eat at nice restaurants, (Reata) go shopping and usually end the “Date” with a trip to the foo-foo grocery store, Central Market.

We are all foodies—Runnin’ Buddy’s wife even went to culinary school – she’s a chef! So for us, Central Market is good times. My hubby and Runnin’ Buddy come home from their Man-Date with a truck load of crab and other sundries. 

As parting gifts they brought us Bacon Chocolate Bars. Very interesting mix of sweet and salty.  Not sure I want to eat it every time I need a sweet fix, but it’s very good.  My favorite chocolate is Scharffen Berger.  That is happiness in a wrapper.

Give them chocolate before we tell them about the "Man-Date"

Anyway …After they gave us chocolate, they told us of how the Central Market Foodie was handing out chocolate samples and took a shine to them.  According to the husbands, the CM Foodie gave them about $45 each in chocolate samples.  After they left the area she, then had the audacity to track them down a few aisles over and give them more chocolate.  

Many other [female] shoppers were left standing in the aisles wondering where they got the samples.Apparently the Foodie wasn’t as generous to the ladies shopping for their households in the middle of the day as she was of the dudes on the Man-Date. 

 In all my single years, I don’t think I’ve ever had as good a time on a date as these two did on their Man-Date.