Monthly Archives: September 2012

37 Cooks

I can’t believe I forgot to mention a fun new endeavor that I’ve been participating in. Have you heard of 37 Cooks yet? It’s this new phenomenon that’s taken the Internet by storm lately. It started when Sandra offered to share some of the two gallons of Slap-ya-mama seasoning that she’d received as a gift. It snowballed into a variety of cool cooking challenges. The latest development? We have sponsors!

Head over there and see what the 37 Cooks have been creating. You can start by checking out my recipe for green chile-chicken pot pies. They’re tasty and miniature, a winning combination. And if nothing else, just answer me this: how sweet does our dining room look in that photo?

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the coconut-chicken curry recipe

 
 
Comfort food used to be your mom’s mashed potatoes, chicken soup with noodles, or maybe even macaroni and cheese from a box. It’s something traditional, familiar. It’s effortless – perhaps brought to you on the couch while you’re sick. Prepare to reboot all of your expections, because once you try this coconut-chicken curry, you will forever turn to it in times of need. Times when you need dinner ready in half an hour. Times when you need to impress a date. And of course, times when you need to indulge in something creamy and delicious that comes together fast.
This dish was inspired by traditional Sri Lankan chicken curry. We take it to the next level by making it creamy instead of dry, because extra curry sauce is a gift from the kitchen gods. You’ll start with a whole onion, sliced thin and sauteed into smoky sweet ribbons. Then you’ll add a burst of flavor in the form of aromatic ginger and garlic, coupled with garam masala, turmeric, and cayenne enough to tingle but not burn. A kaffir lime leaf, if you have one, is a great tidbit to throw into the skillet. Sliced chicken will brown in the spice mixture before simmering until cooked through. At the end, coconut milk brings everything together. The richness is tempered a bit by the addition of tomatoes, which soften enough to release their juices.
 
Some enjoy the dish as is, almost like a soup, but it’s also wonderful served with steamed jasmine rice.
The Coconut-Chicken Curry
Serves 2-4, depending on appetite
1 tbsp vegetable oil or ghee
2 onions, sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
1-inch piece of ginger, minced or grated
1 tbsp garam masala
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp cayenne
1 kaffir lime leaf (optional)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced thin
1 cup water
1 14-oz can coconut milk
2 tomatoes, quartered with seeds removed
2 tsp salt, or to taste
In a large skillet preheated over medium-high heat, sauté onion in vegetable oil or ghee. Stir frequently until brown and . Add garlic, ginger, spices, and kaffir lime leaf, stirring constantly until aromatic – thirty seconds, minimum. Add chicken and stir to blend. When the chicken pieces are beginning to brown, add one cup of water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, then turn the heat down to low and simmer until chicken is cooked through – no more than five minutes.
Add coconut milk, tomatoes, and salt. Simmer for about five more minutes. The texture will be that of a rich broth, studded with chicken and laced through with caramelized onions.
Salt to taste. Serve with white rice, if desired.
 
 

Adventure: Diving in Key Largo

Let’s get up to speed. I learned how to scuba dive, got my PADI open water certification, and fell in love with it all.

My partner-in-crime, coincidentally, is also a certified diver. When he lived in Florida, he dove all the time. He even has his own gear. So once I was certified, it was only natural that we would want to dive together. And thus came our next adventure.

Here’s the thing, and I write this for the other twenty-somethings out there who find their dreams limited by cash flow. Diving isn’t what you’d call a cheap hobby. Buying basic gear (fins, mask, snorkel, boots), scuba school, and my certification weekend set me back quite a bit. But once you’re certified, you can spend something like $50-75 and get on a boat. That’s a splurge, sure, but not completely unreasonable. The priciest thing is usually getting to the place you want to dive. To travel and stay in Mexico, Thailand, or Australia isn’t always cheap.

While you can travel all over the world to dive, we’re lucky to be within driving distance of a great choice: Key Largo. The trip is not what you’d call a short jaunt from Atlanta. But if you stop in Tampa and see friends, it’s divided into two very manageable portions. Since the dive season was starting to wind down, we found a stay-and-dive package for an incredibly reasonable price. So reasonable, in fact, that we will probably make an annual tradition out of this trip.

We drove. Down through Georgia, with a quick trip to Tampa. Andre and Catae graciously allowed us to crash at their place for a few hours of much-needed rest. Then we headed down through Alligator Alley. No forest fires this time, like last year.

Snapped out the window, somewhere on I-75 between Fort Meyers and Miami

Instead, we were graced with a lovely sunset hiding behind naked trees.

Upon our arrival to Amoray Dive Resort, it felt like we’d been taken back in time. Our room looked like it had been designed in the 1980s and never updated. With its white wicker furniture, neon upholstery, and a TV that had an antennae, it was like no hotel room I’ve seen recently. However, it was clean and comfortable. And furthermore, we could wake up, stumble sleepily down the steps, and be ten feet from the dock. We weren’t there for a fancy room, though. We were there to dive. And dive we did.

The next morning was simultaneously scary and awesome. We woke up early to grab my rental gear and secure our spots on the boat. It was packed! There were tons of people milling about, attaching tanks to gear, and stringing up weight belts. This was my first time as an independent diver and not a member of a class, so I took an extra-long time making sure that my stuff was properly set up. It was tough to focus. I was literally bouncing up and down with excitement, just like a little kid. I feel so bad for my boyfriend sometimes. He has to be seen in public with me. But just as quickly as my excitement mounted, it faded away when we anchored at the dive site.

Listen up, future divers. Here’s how you enter the water from a boat. You rarely just climb in like you’d enter a pool. Instead, you execute a “giant stride entry.” This involves standing on the edge of the boat, taking – you guessed it – a giant step, and then dropping into the water. From there, you float for a second, meet up with your buddy, and descend. Xavier went first. When it was my turn to follow, I stood paralyzed at the edge of the boat with all of my gear on. It was about four or five feet to the surface of the water, and with my crippling fear of heights, it was just too much to bear. Moments away from my first real scuba diving in the gorgeous Florida Keys, I panicked.

The first mate of the boat was a very nice guy, but he started to get impatient. “I’m going to give you a little push,” he told me, leaning over to knock me overboard. I thought about skydiving and just went for it before he could touch me. The drop was quick and easy, as these things usually are once you get over your fears. And then Xavier and I sunk beneath the surface together for the very first time.

Well, let’s talk for a minute about just how incredibly awesome scuba diving is. First of all, when you dive a coral reef, you’re going to view the most amazing things. You sink gracefully to the bottom of the ocean floor and at first it’s a little creepy because, you know, you’re sinking. But you can still breathe. And you can see! Imagine going to the aquarium, and looking through the glass at the schools of fish, the gently undulating coral, the occasional big fish that swims by and scatters everything in its path. When you dive, you’re not just watching that. You’re inside of that.

Second of all, you’re weightless. You’re floating. You’re unencumbered by gravity, and you can play with that for fun and for utility’s sake. My dive buddy was the best at this. It’s considered an absolute no-no to touch the coral with any part of your body or gear; for one, you’ll damage a delicate living organism, and also, it very well might be poisonous. Xavier gets around this by floating upside down on his head to look under reefs. He’s the most fun person I know outside of the water, so it was only fitting that we had a blast thirty feet deep.

That was the only photo we got of us together underwater. If you think taking a self portrait is challenging in the best of circumstances, this was a nightmare!

For you lovebirds who are looking to dive together, I will also offer this piece of advice: kissing underwater is a challenge, but not impossible. Just remember that if you try to adjust your lips, your mouths will be flooded. This makes for somewhat awkward moments and will require you to stop kissing and immediately reach for your air supply. Fortunately, practice makes perfect – and practicing is fun!

On a whim, I purchased a disposable underwater camera. These exposures don’t even come close to doing justice to what we saw: a shark, an eagle ray, a manta ray, a sea turtle, huge barracudas, the most colorful little fish. But I brought it underwater for two of our six dives, and the shots are pretty cool.

This one was taken in a moment of utter awe. It’s upside down because that was my viewpoint. I was simply playing in the water. I’d somewhat mastered my buoyancy, and was enjoying the weightlessness by laying backwards and floating upside down. I was completely lost in my own little world when I looked up and saw a giant school of fish around me. It sounds really corny, but I was one with them, and for a second I felt like a fish and an impostor all at once. Most of all, it was so exciting to be there. The moment was overwhelming in the best possible way.

Next, we played around a bit. This is my boyfriend showing me in scuba-signs that he is okay.

And here he is in the midst of a school of largish fish.

Here I am, awkwardly trying to pose for the photograph and keep my fins above the coral reef.

And here I am exploring some more. I think that’s a grouper under the reef. You can see its creepy glowing eye.

In a nutshell, diving is amazing. I cannot wait for our next trip.

Although we spent hours underwater, there were plenty of sights and adventures on Earth’s surface. Our resort had kayaks, which we enjoyed after an initial hiccup in sea navigation. (I won’t elaborate, but let’s just say it wasn’t me – I was a coxswain, remember?). We explored the mangroves around the bay and worked on our tans under the strong rays of sun. Sunglasses? Who needs ’em?

The view from the resort was amazing, especially at sunset. We sat on the dock and enjoyed our own musical entertainment.

And for some reason, one morning I awoke early enough to catch my first sunrise in years.

The trip to Key Largo was a raging success. How could we not have a blast swimming with sharks? We enjoyed a very relaxing long weekend. It was also the grand finale to an action-packed summer that put my finances in the proverbial hole. Fall around here is going to be a lot tighter. But that means exciting budget adventures, creative recipes on the cheap, and lots of time to explore Atlanta with my camera. Sounds great to me!

(All photos are mine! If you want to use one, just ask).

On Learning How to Scuba Dive

It’s been a busy summer, friends. In the space of just a few short months, I set foot in thirteen states. We jumped out of a plane. And for good measure, I learned how to scuba dive. Why not? You only live once.

Before skydiving, I was nervous. Jumping out of a plane just didn’t feel natural. In fact, I hardly saw the point. Why strap a parachute to yourself and hurtle to the ground at 9.8 meters per second squared? It just didn’t make sense, not until I actually jumped out of the plane and felt the utter exhilaration. The view was amazing, but the adrenaline rush was something that I’ll chase for a long, long time. Now I get it.

Scuba diving, on the other hand, made sense to me. It was something that I’d always wanted to try. I love water – being in it, around it, on top of it – and I love marine life. Diving is the best way to experience all of that, with the additional benefit of feeling weightless and floating underwater.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – you’re not just allowed to don a scuba mask, strap on a tank, and jump into the ocean to swim with the fishes. Before the fun stuff, you have to get through scuba school. For me, scuba school was one long weekend divided between the classroom and pool time. Like a good neurotic student, I read the textbook in advance, endured the teacher’s ramblings and rape jokes, then rocked the test with a 96. The pool sessions were much more enjoyable. After getting hands-on experience in assembling scuba equipment, we learned “skills” like what to do when your mask floods with water and how to control your buoyancy.

After scuba school, you must complete four “checkout dives” in an open-water environment. For me, these dives took place at Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. We went through The Scuba Shop and I’d recommend those guys to anyone. The staff is incredibly awesome. They went above and beyond in getting my paperwork from the original scuba school, even when that owner (see ‘rape jokester’ above) proved to be less than helpful. And when we finally got out to dive with them, both Xavier and I had a blast.

Getting suited up for scuba diving is no joke. The first thing to be concerned about is your temperature. Your body loses heat up to 25 times faster in water than in air, so you want to be sure you’re wearing a thick wet suit to ensure comfort. Since we’d be doing a lot of floating around in cool water, the instructor gave me a 7mm neoprene suit for my checkout dives. Putting that thing on was the most challenging part of the whole weekend, requiring maneuvering and contouring like the sassiest music video you’ve ever seen. After the suit is finally in place, you’ve got a BCD: a vest that fills up with air and allows you to float. This vest has a little hose with a button that adds air and another that deflates it. You depress the deflate button to descend underwater for a dive. The descent is aided by the weights that you wear, strapped to your waist by a thick webbed belt. And of course, you’re carrying your tank, your fins, and the regulator hose that winds around your shoulder and allows you to breathe underwater. It’s definitely awkward, adjusting to wearing so much bulky equipment.

I was incredibly excited for my first open-water dive. When my class and I clustered around the buoy and obeyed our teacher’s instruction to sink, mine was the first index finger to deflate its BCD. I waited to sink with bated breath. Nothing happened. I released the breath and its buoyant properties. Still nothing.

Three minutes later, my first scuba experience took place after my instructor hauled me down the rope by my ankle, imploring me with a raised palm to stop flailing. Apparently, my little kicks had no effect in helping me swim down to the bottom – I was supposed to wait patiently and allow the fifteen pounds of weight strapped to my hips to sink me. But finally, I made it. I was greeted by a cloud of lake silt, 20 feet below the surface.

Lake Jocassee is gorgeous from above. But underneath, everything looks golden-brown and muddy. For a first dive, it was awesome. The lack of scenery gave me a chance to focus on the task at hand: performing my skills so I could earn my certification.

In clouds of silt, we demonstrated “skills:” removing our scuba masks, replacing them, and clearing them of water. We swam to the surface without air, simulating an emergency ascent and exhaling lots of little bubbles the whole way up. We breathed from our buddy’s alternate air source, pretending we had run out of air. And after we’d demonstrated that we could handle emergencies, our instructor led us through fun swims in the underwater world.

Breathing underwater with scuba gear is really one of the coolest things you can ever do. I think it’s the closest most of us will ever be to the weightless environment of space. Imagine what it feels like to effortlessly hover above the ground. If you want to rise a little higher, simply take a deep breath and feel yourself float and glide. It’s simply amazing. I can hardly imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to do dive.

(On that note, the biggest concern I’ve heard is that people are afraid of underwater life. To that, I say: that is the other amazing part of diving! Do you love going to the aquarium and watching the fish interact? Imagine being a part of that. As long as you don’t act like a jerk and intimidate the big guys, it shouldn’t be a concern. [Provided you’re not diving somewhere like Australia, where a thumbnail-sized jellyfish can kill you in three seconds with its venom]).

Anyway, despite Lake Jocassee being cloudy and less than ideal for seeing amazing fish, it was still a great experience. I saw a sunken boat (with ‘Dive Naked’ written on the window) and practiced swimming through a little field goal. Also, the lack of external stimuli allowed me to focus on adapting to the whole experience. The lake wasn’t completely lacking in life. I did see the occasional sunfish, and remembered myself as a kid, fishing them out of the lake at camp.

How funny to be on the other side of the fishhook.

Earning my open water certification was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. It literally opened up an entire new world for me. The next weekend, we would explore that world for the first time. Stay tuned!

(All photos are mine – if you want to use them, just ask!).

Sightseeing New Orleans

It’s embarrassing to see how far behind I’ve fallen with blogging. We spent a weekend in New Orleans in July, and if you follow this blog at all you’ll know that it was an excuse to eat like tourists. We hit all of the classic places.

Fortunately, New Orleans has lots to see for those awkward times when you’re too full to eat and just waiting to eat again.

(Not that that happened much. Let’s just say I was enamored with the daiquiris littering Bourbon Street. There’s a lot to be said for liquid sustenance).

This is Bourbon Street, home of dreams, overpriced-and-under-liquored frozen beverages, and a scene from the most recent season of True Blood.

This is what Bourbon Street looks like on Sunday morning. Be grateful that nobody’s invented Smell-o-vision, because the assault on our nostrils as we strolled down the trash-slicked street was incomparable.

New Orleans is home to some interesting graffiti. I loved the juxtaposition within the architecture: fading grandeur tagged by street artists.

This sign, while not graffiti, made me laugh. I guess my sense of humor is twisted. But really? Really? Can you imagine the dedication ceremony that took place in 2001? “We gather here today to remember countless balls of cells… “

Maybe it was the excitement of being in a new city, but everything was beautiful – even abandoned doorways.

Aside from just strolling around, we made a couple of dedicated sight-seeing stops. One was at St. Louis Cemetery #1. This cemetery is famous for a few reasons, the most interesting being that it is completely above ground. Instead of traditional graves in the ground, these folks have found their eternal resting places in crumbling crypts.

The cemetery is creepy, like most are. But for added unease, the lined-up mausoleums form silent alleyways. As you edge around a row, another explorer might just appear out of nowhere. Some say that this is a very dangerous neighborhood.

Two days in New Orleans wasn’t nearly enough. I can’t wait for our next chance to explore the city!