On Conquering Fears

five spice calamari
I took one of those “How Well Do You Know Me?” quizzes on facebook a while back. They clearly are no indication of how well you know someone, but rather a way of showing how many (or how few) tidbits you can ‘guess’ right. I let out a huge guffaw when reading that most people think I would rather mingle at a party than people-watch. wtf? I’m one of the best people-watchers I know, and I cringe at making small talk unless it’s about a new all-clad pan or pasta roller attachment.

I also got a few chuckles out of the question about my fears. I used to think I didn’t have any of those. Spiders? No. Heights? Heck No. Snakes? Not really, but they do make me shiver when I see them on tv. I finally admitted it after years – I do have a fear…

The big ol’ ocean. Or rather, any large body of water, with waves and a ‘deep end’.

before scuba

Yep, I said it. I marry a swimmer and I’m afraid of the ocean. And can I swim? Does doggy paddling count?! You see, a long time ago, in grammar school, I got caught in the undertow. It probably wouldn’t have been a big deal, but this stupid wench I was with decided to stand on my shoulders so that she wouldn’t go under. Yes, wench. Wouldn’t you agree? It was traumatic at best. And needless to say, I only go into the water if I’m sweating bullets.

Or scubadiving.

scuba gear

I avoided the dreaded scuba in Fiji. I nodded every time Chris mentioned it for this past vacation, secretly hoping he’d change his mind. I was terrified. And not just at being in the middle of the Caribbean. Sure, it’s gorgeous, but there. is. nothing. under. my. feet. for feet. And to even think of, on top of that fear, of remembering to breathe, and remembering to equalize my ears.

during scuba
Equalize my ears. That’s another er, issue. A couple of years ago, my ears wouldn’t equalize for days after a flight. Days. I just knew I’d make it all the way into the big scary water and after it all, I wouldn’t be able to go past 5 feet because of my stupid ears.

Did I ever mention that I’m practically blind without my contacts? Thanks, Dad. My contacts are -6.5, if that means anything to you. That’s why I don’t wear glasses – I’m scurred that they’ll “fall off” and then I’d be lost, and blind, and then I’d run into stuff. And who knows what you might run into in Chicago. So on top of the ocean fear and the pressure fear, I also have the water-is-going-to-get-in-my-mask-and-then-my-contact-will-fall-out-and-then-I-can’t-see-anything fear.

I suppose that, when you love someone, you sometimes put your fears aside. You take one for the team, so to speak. I knew Chris, being a certified diver, was ├╝ber-excited about the scuba venture. But I won’t pretend that I enjoyed every second of it. I won’t pretend I didn’t almost give up at least 10 different times (7 of those in the pool during ‘training’). I think I almost used my whole air tank by hyperventilating the second I got in the sea, just on the way down the rope. One time, my ears started making this crackling noise, and it took all my might to not shoot straight up to the surface. Another time, I thought I felt water creep into my mask, just a little, and again thought about bee-lining to the sun.

steamed calamari
But I did it. And after about 20 minutes of hyperventilating and dreading seeing even the prettiest fish of them all, I finally started to enjoy it. I started to realize that, underneath the big scary body of water, there is another world, completely separate from our own. It was amazing, and gorgeous and beautiful and all of those nice words. And afterwards, I felt accomplished. I felt like, if only for a few moments, I’d conquered three ‘fears’ in one. And I survived it.

So in light of said fear-conquering, I thought I’d cook up some water creatures that many might be afraid to even eat, much less prepare – squid, or more fancily, calamari. I myself, will admit that I was a little apprehensive about cooking the little buggers. Rightfully so – the first recipe I tried was a dud – and by dud I mean neither one of us could eat the leftovers. That’s bad, folks.

I should have known – the recipe used steamed calamari, the wicked stepsisters to the succulent little fried mollusks served alongside your sauce of choice. And while many people prefer the ‘rings’ or ‘bodies’ of the calamari, I’d take those tentacles, umm mmm, hands down.

fried calamari
With that being said, I set out to conquer calamari once and for all. The right way. I felt a little sad about the steamed calamari from last week, and figured why continue to mess around? I was in it to win it. I’d say I knocked it outta the park, this time. The fried squid are perfectly crispy with the flour and bread crumb crust, and the addition of spices adds a little kick – so good that I had a tough time not eating them as they drained. But try to wait for the sauce – it’s light which is a nice alternative to the usual aioli or creamy dip served in restaurants.

Cooking squid isn’t so scary after all. The jury is still out on the scuba …

Five-Spicy Calamari w/ Soy-Sesame Dipping Sauce
Serves 4 as an appetizer

canola oil (for frying)
1 c ap flour
1 c panko bread crumbs
1 T five-spice powder
1 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t salt
1/4 t black pepper
1 c
1 lb cleaned calamari; tentacles whole; bodies cut into 1/2″ rings

dipping sauce
1/4 c soy sauce
1/4 c rice vinegar
1 t minced garlic
1 t minced ginger
1 t sesame oil
1 t honey or agave nectar

pour oil to about 3 inches in heavy bottom pot. heat to ~350-375 F. whisk flour through black pepper in large bowl. place buttermilk in another bowl. add calamari to milk, then into bowl with flour. toss to coat and fry in oil in batches, about 2 minutes for each batch. remove with slotted spoon and place on plate lined with paper towels to drain.

for dipping sauce, whisk all ingredients together and adjust ingredients as needed.

Refreshed, Rested, Revived

blue hawaiian

Let me begin by saying there is nothing, nothing at all, like vacation. Whether you go touring the sites in Europe, on an African safari, a remote island in the Caribbean, or simply in the confines of your own home, everyone deserves some time off from life. Time off from being responsible and any issues going on in your life. And yes, time away from the internet.

We chose door number three this year, and landed ourselves on the remote island of Antigua for a week of pure relaxation. We didn’t even plan on having access to the internet, but upon arrival we immediately saw the dreaded hut equipped with wires, a monitor, and a keyboard providing unlimited, free access to the world beyond. Bleh. You think you get away, you think you’re “off the map”, but that world wide web follows you everywhere. We immediately made a promise to only go in that room for brief, very brief, periods of time. For me, I used it to clean the junk outta my inbox.

I responded to one email. I had to, because it made me chuckle. It was from my mother-in-law, and this is what it said:

Hope you are enjoying Antigua. What are you doing spending your time on your blog? I know you love it but now I know you really must love it!!! Love, Susan

You see, she thought I was in that little ol’ hut bloggin’ away. I wasn’t, I swear. I did those posts on jerk chicken and baklava before leaving. I went to my blog once to make sure the formatting didn’t screw up, which blogger sometimes does. In case you were wondering. Just in case.


The rest of the time we did just what we intended. We awoke each morning to the wind and the smell of the Caribbean, suited-up and headed down to eat a lackluster breakfast, usually involving an attempt at an egg dish and unripened tomatoes. Or french toast with plain white bread. Thank goodness for the juice of the day and for a new fruit in my vocab, soursop. Afterwards, we plopped down on some lounge chairs and watched the little bitty waves come and go across the turquoise sea that pictures only try to depict. We marinated our bodies with sunscreen and baked in the sun, day after day while drinking blended tropical concoctions. We broke only for lunch – different fish specials, burgers, jerk chicken, and different desserts every day, generally featuring a local fruit.

caribbean sunset

At night, we loaded up with bug spray, ate varied, tasty three course meals, and proceeded to drink wine on the balcony – just us, the mosquitoes, and music from the iPhone. For the life of me, I could not figure out why I got so many bites while Chris got 1. I have stopped three times already, just while typing this, to itch another one and no joke, have at least 100 tiny little bites on places like the side of my hand, my fingers, my armpits, and my heels. According to WebMD, I either get to thank my parents or my body’s ability to quickly process cholesterol. I prefer being the 1 in 10 people writing with the left hand rather than the 1 in 10 who are highly susceptible to mosquito bites. At first I thought the mosquito netting on the bed was for prettiness – I was (obviously) quickly informed otherwise.


Other than frequent trips to the beach, or to the bar on the beach, or into the Caribbean to cool off, we were fairly stationary. Our hike up to our cottage was our exercise, and that hike stole our breath every time. We mustered up enough energy to jetski and I finally tried my hand, or rather my mind, at scuba. Until next time, let’s just say there is something to be said for ‘overcoming’ a trifecta of fears in one moment and then finding enough courage to live through 45 minutes of that same torture, just hoping an ounce of it fades into the sand below.

cool clouds

Not unlike any other vacation, I choose based on locale but also on cuisine. The resort boasted about their food, their fresh seasonal ingredients, and their variety. Other than breakfast, we were more than satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, I could rattle off dozens of places with better food in the states, but if given the choice of eating good food in the middle of nowhere or excellent food in civilization, I would have a tough time choosing without forming a large column listing pros and cons of each.

Nonetheless, I managed to arrive back in Chicago with tighter jeans and no desire to wear a swimsuit in at least a few months. For that reason, I welcome Fall, sort of. I also arrived with an uncanny craving for breakfast fare. I attribute that to the above-mentioned less-than-ideal breakfasts.

frisee salad

So to kick off “salad week”, I started with a variation of bacon and eggs. I’d found this recipe in one of my go-to’s, Cooking Light, and have toyed with making it on a number of occasions but for various reasons never did. It quickly became a recipe I kicked myself for not making sooner – light but rich in flavor, the tarragon vinaigrette is perfect with a small spoonful of bacon fat that coats every little featherlike piece of frisee. The bacon flavor continues with pieces of crunchy crispy bacon and in the same bite, slightly softened bits of rye crouton. The poached egg on top is like icing on the cake.

frisee salad with poached egg

Frisee Salad w/ Bacon & Poached Eggs
Adapted from Cooking Light, July 2009; Serves 4

printable version

4 slices (1 oz ea) rye bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
6 slices applewood-smoked bacon, but into 1/2 inch thick pieces
1/3 c white wine vinegar
1 T chopped fresh tarragon
3 T olive oil
1/4 t kosher salt
1/4 t black pepper
1 head frisee, torn (8 oz; two small heads)
1 T white vinegar
4 large eggs
Cracked black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F

Arrange bread on baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, turning once. Cool.

Cook bacon in large skillet over med-hi until crisp, stirring occasionally. Remove from pain and set on plate lined with paper towel to drain. Save 1 T drippings. Combine that with white wine vinegar, and next 4 ingredients (through black pepper) in a large bowl, whisking. Add croutons, bacon, frisee, tossing to coat. If saving for leftovers, do not add dressing to entire mix; put dressing (~3 T each serving) in smaller container. Otherwise, divide among 4 plates.

Add water to large skillet, filling 2/3, bring to boil. Reduce heat, simmer. Add white vinegar. Break eggs into pan and cook 3 minutes. Carefully remove with slotted spoon and place atop salads; top each with cracked pepper.

On Vacay With a Jerk

jerk chicken
As you are reading this, I’m in a land far, far away. Hopefully, the sun is shining, despite the gloomy 10 day forecast from the week before, and we’re out on the beautiful white sandy beaches of Antigua (which is pronounced Antee’ga, mind you) for the next few days. Who knows, we may even be scuba diving or viewing the island by helicopter by this point. At any rate, you are not here. I’m sorry to rub it in folks, but it is the truth. So instead, I’m leaving you with one more mouth-watering taste of the Caribbean – if the view on the hotel website isn’t enough for you – jerk chicken. Meanwhile, we’ll be eating all sorts of other tasty treats on our much-needed and well-deserved getaway.

Yeah I know – jerk seasoning is Jamaican in origin. I wasn’t born yesterday. But last time I checked, Jamaica was in the Caribbean and so is Antigua. So it fits, in a way. And regardless, it fits better than the fried green tomato recipe I was going to leave you with.

jerk in blender

Now the hubs, he is a pretty decent cook. He is the reigning Iron Chef, remember? I give him a hard time occasionally, but it is generally warranted. For instance, you may remember a time when I was in culinary school when the home cooking was limited? Yes, just recently. He practically starved … or so he says. But one night, he decided on a pizza from the Homemade Pizza Company. Now this joint makes great pizza, but you have to bake it yourself. No major feat, right? Well for the hubs, he somehow managed to burn a big ol’ hole in his wrist when taking the pizza out. Moral of the story – griller he is, baker he is not. At all.

And although he can’t bake, he does get fascinated with certain types of cooking. Primarily grilling, which also includes smoking and the use of wood chips. Thus his excitement when watching a Tyler’s Ultimate episode earlier this summer and seeing his “Ultimate Jerk Chicken” made by use of a rigged-up, in-house smoker. Ten minutes later he’d printed the recipe, shoved it in my face and said, “I want this, and I’m going to make it all by myself.” Well, well! And, ok!

wood chips

And so it was. This dish became a project for him and he set out to make it while I was in an early-out class (meaning 8 instead of 11). And he promised to take pictures. Although the marinade-making part was done the night before, so I did get to help, er, watch him make the sauce and snap a few pictures. Oh, and I got to butcher the chicken. Chris didn’t watch Caroline’s video tutorial, but maybe you should if you don’t know how. Buying whole chickens saves money – so go get your learn on and stop buying it already cut, will you?!

Since I was busy getting my learn on, I can’t tell you about the actual process and how easy or hard it was, but I can tell you the end result was outstanding. The chicken was smoked in a roaster over the grill and then baked in the oven for the last hour. It was a long process, but well worth the wait. And I think that’s because he started late and because hubs doesn’t always multi-task well, not because the process in and of itself was long.

smoking chicken

This would be an excellent meal for company, and is sure to impress guests. The sauce had a great kick to it but was also smooth and tangy. It is definitely better than store-bought jerk spices and marinades, and you can taste each component – the lime, the brown sugar, the ginger, cinnamon and definitely the pepper! If you have a food processor, you have no reason to ever buy the crap at the store again. You literally dump the ingredients in and push ‘on’.

And look at that shiny chicken – just makes you want to lick the mess outta this screen, doesn’t it?

The Ultimate Jerk Chicken
Adapted from Tyler Florence; serves 4

Printable version (cool, eh?)

Hubs can surely grill and now ‘smoke’. He isn’t big on sides though. You don’t have to be either – this goes great with some grilled corn on the cob and a little cilantro or basil butter (or plain butter, if you insist). Next time, I’d make
Tyler’s corn porridge that he made on the same show, but if you beat me to it, lemme know how it is!

2 t allspice
1/2 t g cinnamon
1/2 t g nutmeg
1/2 onion
8 cloves garlic or 1 head
1 (1″) piece fresh ginger, sliced
3 scallions, sliced
3 limed, juiced
splash low sodium soy sauce
1/4 c evoo, plus some for drizzling
kosher salt and finely ground black pepper
6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 Scotch bonnet or Habanero pepper
1/4 c packed light brown sugar
1 whole free-range chicken (~5lbs), cut into 8 pieces
limes for garnish
parsley for garnish
smoking chips, soaked in water for 15 minutes

Making jerk marinade. Combine all ingredients in processor (through brown sugar) and process until smooth puree. Season as needed.

Add chicken pieces into a large resealable plastic bag and pour in marinade. Put bag in baking dish and let marinate in fridge overnight.

Preheat grill to high.

Prepare a table-top smoker or take a roasting tray, line it with foil and add some soaked wood chips to the bottom. Place a wire rack over the top, upside down, and lay chicken pieces over the chips on the rack. Cover with foil and grill over high heat. Smoke for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 300 F.

Transfer chicken pieces to a baking sheet and drizzle with evoo. Bake until chicken is tender, about 1 hour. Remove chicken and place on serving platter garnished with lime and parsley.