Out of office

The Lush's Blush blogSeveral years ago I had a job that I didn’t like very much. Looking back on that experience now, I know that part of the problem was my attitude. It was easier to complain about stuff than to just put on a smile and make the best of things. At any rate, during that time, I pretty much LIVED for the moment when I could turn on the out of office reply on my email and clock out for a vacation. Whether it was a long weekend or an entire week off, the moment of pure bliss came when I turned the out of office reply on.

I’ve recently been seeing a meme circulating that says something like, “Create a life you don’t need a vacation from.” I can certainly see the wisdom in that statement and at the same time, I disagree with it.

I am happily now at a place where I really like my job. And I love my life overall. But guess what, I still love to go on vacation!

There is great satisfaction in getting a job done whether that is your actual “day job” that makes you money or just jobs around the house like keeping the laundry clean and the living room vacuumed. But there is also great satisfaction in having a few days, or maybe even an entire week, where you have none of those responsibilities.

And so once again, that blissful moment is so near, when I shall turn on the out of office reply.

The Lush's Blush blog

Cuban-inspired food from Key West

Honeymooners in Key West - The Lush's Blush blog
The newlyweds in Key West

A month ago my husband and I were enjoying our honeymoon in Key West. Though we are settling in to married life now, I think both of us are still pining for Florida. For the food mostly, and the cocktails. We had some of the best food while honeymooning in Key West. We ate fresh seafood nearly every meal. Another cuisine that we came to love while in Key West was Cuban food. As you probably know, Cuba is only 90 miles away from Key West and as such there is a huge Cuban influence, especially on the food in the Keys and throughout southern Florida.

Most every morning we began our day with pan

Cuban Coffee Queen in Key West | The Lush's Blush blog
Cuban Coffee Queen in Key West

Cubano (Cuban toast) and cafe con leche(Cuban coffee with milk) from this little place called the Cuban Coffee Queen. Their slogan is “Drink more Cuban coffee, do stupid things faster.” We got a real kick out of that and we loved the coffee. We’ve been trying desperately to recreate it since we’ve been back home, but it’s not quite the same. I guess everything always tastes better when you’re on vacation.

Cuban dishes are typically served with black beans and rice. One of the places Morgan and I ate while in Key West, El Meson Del Pepe, had the best black beans we had ever tasted. We begged to know the secret. The server told us that most all Cuban dishes begin with what is known as sofrito, which is sautéed onions, garlic and peppers. The beans also are simmered all day with bay leaves, salt, and a little cumin.

Cuban food in Key West | The Lush's Blush blog
Dinner at El Meson de Pepe in Key West

I remember Mamma putting bay leaves in things like soups and stews, but to be honest it’s not a seasoning I use often. I may have to start using it more though, because those beans were out of this world. You wouldn’t think something as simple as black beans could taste so delicious, but they did.

We have fixed some Cuban dishes several times since we’ve been back home. We have cheated, of course, and used black beans from a can instead of simmering them all day.

Cuban cuisine in Key West | The Lush's Blush blog
Ropa Vieja at Juan Loves Lucy in Key West

My mother-in-law came for dinner a few weeks ago and Morgan prepared a Cuban-inspired citrus marinated pork tenderloin with rice and beans. He said a pork tenderloin is one of his new favorite meats. He sliced the pork into pieces and put it in a bag with fresh lime juice. The small tender pieces of meat quickly soak up the citrus flavors and it’s a marinade that doesn’t take very long to prepare.

Although we didn’t cook our beans all day, he did jazz those up a bit with a dash of lime juice and he added some sautéed onions, lime zest and lime juice to the rice as well.


Morgan’s Cuban-inspired citrus marinated pork
Ingredients

• Pork tenderloin, sliced into half inch pieces
• juice of two limes
• juice of one orange
• two to three cloves of garlic, chopped
• pinch of cayenne pepper
• salt and pepper to taste
• tablespoon of olive oil

Directions: Combine juices, garlic and seasonings. Allow pork slices to marinate in mixture for half an hour to an hour. Do not marinate longer than an hour. Remove pork from marinade and sauteed in olive oil pan until browned. Serve with rice and beans.

Honeymoon adventures in Key West

It hardly seems like it can be true, but I will soon be celebrating my one-month wedding anniversary. Is that even a thing? Should we do something special to commemorate being married for only a month? I think we should. Any excuse for cake and champagne I say. At any rate, the old saying “time flies when you’re having fun” is true as always and Morgan and I have been having lots of fun since our wedding. Most especially, we had tons of fun on our honeymoon in Key West, Florida.

Neither of us had ever been to Key West before and we enjoyed it

immensely. If you like tropical places and have never been there, I would highly recommend it. We visited most of the well-known tourist attractions while there including the Shipwreck Museum, the aquarium, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory and, of course, the home of famed author Ernest Hemingway. I admit I mainly wanted to visit the Hemingway home to see the six-toed cats, but ended up enjoying the tour as well. We had a fantastic tour guide who told wonderful stories about Hemingway and his wives. If you are a fan of the author, cats or just enjoy seeing beautiful homes, this is a definite must-see in Key West.

As you know, Morgan and I love to eat, so another highlight of our trip was the many wonderful meals we shared together. We ate fresh seafood for nearly every meal. I ate so much mahi-mahi I thought I might turn into one! Morgan is more adventurous when it comes to seafood and he ate a variety of different fish including hogfish and grouper.

Upon arriving in Key West the day after our wedding, we left our bags at the hotel and headed out to find some lunch. Our hotel was right near a marina with a boardwalk along which were numerous restaurants and bars. The first one we came to was called Half Shell Raw Bar. It quickly became our favorite place and we ate there at least four times while on our honeymoon.

We were seated right on the dock overlooking the water below where you could see fish swimming by! Diners would occasionally drop a French fry in the water and watch the fish splash around trying to get to the morsel of food first. As soon as we were seated for our first meal in Key West, the server came over and asked what we wanted to drink and were we interested in doing the cocktail challenge and getting a free T-shirt. My new husband and I looked at her in wonder and then looked at each and back at the server to say, challenge accepted!

The signature drink at Half Shell was a shot which included alcohol and a raw oyster. We weren’t quite brave enough to try that, but luckily we were allowed to choose a different drink for the challenge. I told the server I wished I was brave enough to eat raw oysters. She suggested we try their oyster sampler platter which was comprised of baked oysters, two oysters Rockefeller, two oysters in a garlic cream sauce and two in an andouille sausage red sauce. We agreed and that became one of our favorite things we ate during our trip.

I did end up trying a raw oyster later in the trip and liked it, although I confess it was coated in so

much cocktail sauce I probably didn’t taste very much of the oyster. I’ve always had a fascination with oysters though only recently began eating them. There is something very sensual and glamorous about the thought of eating raw oysters right off the shell. Perhaps next time we go I may be brave enough to try eating one right off the shell.

Oysters Rockefeller (Recipe from www.tideandthyme.com)

• 8 Tbsp butter
• 4 large cloves garlic, minced
• 1 shallot, minced
• 1 (10 oz) bag baby spinach
• 1/2 tsp kosher salt
• 1/4 cup heavy cream
• 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, finely shredded
• 1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
• 20 oysters, shucked and on the half-shell

Directions
Preheat oven to 425. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and shallot, and saute until soft and fragrant – about 2 minutes. Pour half of the melted butter mixture into a small bowl and combine with the breadcrumbs. Toss to combine and set aside. To the remainder of the butter in the skillet, add the baby spinach. If it doesn’t all fit, just let it cook down some, and then add more. Season with salt and toss until wilted. Slowly stir in the cream and let reduce for a minute before removing from heat. Carefully place the oysters on a baking sheet. Spoon a small amount of the spinach mixture onto each oyster, then top with about 2 teaspoons of the breadcrumb mixture and a small pinch of Parmesan cheese. Place in oven and bake until oysters have plumped up, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven and serve immediately with lemon wedges and hot sauce, if desired.

Bacon in Key West

Just a quickie about one of our favorites places we visited in Key West while on our honeymoon. We love, love, loved this little bar called 2 Cents. During happy hour they give you free bacon. What more can I say? You also get to roll dice to see what kind of drink special you’ll get for Happy Hour.

If you’re ever in Key West, this is a must-do! They have delicious cocktails also!

I love surprises

Sunset in Fernandina | The Lush's Blush blog
Sunset in Fernandina Beach, Florida

You know those people who say “I don’t like surprises,” well, I’m not one of those people. I love surprises. My Mamma was the surprise queen. Over the years she planned surprises parties for me and she would always keep one special Christmas present as a surprise for that night. Some years she actually found Christmas presents months later that she had hidden away so I would even get a surprise well after the holiday.

Click here to skip to the recipe for Leighanne’s Tangy Pot Roast

My fiancé is also good at surprises, although he is one of those who claims not to like them himself. For my birthday this year we weren’t able to celebrate together on the day of my actual birthday. He surprised me later in the week, bringing me lunch to my office. One of the Arby’s bags he set down on the desk was our lunch, in the second bag was my birthday present! He and my mom often colluded to surprise me. For our two-year anniversary he got me a piece of jewelry I had seen while on vacation and really wanted. My mom helped him contact the shop and order the ring for me — a huge pink agate druzy. He showed up unexpectedly at my house two days before our anniversary with two dozen roses and the pink druzy ring. He really surprised me this past Christmas when he proposed. Though we had been together more than five years and had talked seriously about marriage, I still wasn’t prepared when he dropped to one knee and opened up that ring box.

A golden sunset in Florida | The Lush's Blush blog
Sunset in Fernandina Beach, Florida

My bridesmaids are also good at surprises. One of my bridesmaids, Amanda, lives in Texas and wasn’t able to be here for my bachelorette celebration at the wine festival. Instead she surprised me by sending me a hand-painted wine glass to use for the day. A few weeks ago my other two bridesmaids pulled off a pretty epic surprise. They had told me a few months ago that they were taking me to Charlotte for a spa weekend at the end of May. The day arrived and we piled in the car to head to Charlotte. As we passed through Charlotte I noticed that no one seemed to be paying attention to the directions and so I asked what exit we needed to get off.

“Oh, we have a while longer,” said Leighanne. A little while later when we were no longer even in North Carolina I said “ok, what have I missed.” The spa weekend had been a hoax all along and they we were really taking me for a beach weekend at Amelia Island in Florida!
My bridesmaid Leighanne’s sister has a place there and I had been to visit before. It is a beautiful place. Leighanne and Sarah said they were a little worried that I might be disappointed that I wasn’t going to be getting a massage and pedicure, but I wasn’t at all. Not that a spa weekend wouldn’t have been nice, but the beach trumps about everything in my book.

Cocktails in Fernandina | The Lush's Blush blog
Sipping on fun and fruity drinks in Fernandina

We had a great time relaxing on the beach and just enjoying each other’s company. Of course, eating some good food was also on our agenda at the beach. We enjoyed appetizers at a beach-side restaurant called Sliders and a really great meal at a little pub where we dined al fresco under beautiful live oaks draped with Spanish moss.

Leighanne also prepared us a great meal to enjoy the night before we left. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I love my Crock-pot. With just a little prep work you can have a meal simmering and cooking all day and ready when you arrive home. Most of the meals I typically prepare in a slow cooker are very rich, warm and comforting foods. As such, I tend not to use my Crock-pot as much in the summer when lighter fare is what’s more enjoyable.

Leighanne’s roast she prepared in the Crock-pot though was the perfect dish after a long day at the beach. Though the meat was hearty, there are lots of carrots in the recipe which give a nice summery flavor and she paired it with a lovely fresh green salad with fresh berries and goat cheese. Sometimes a typical winter comfort food like pot roast can surprise you with its deliciousness on even a hot summer day. Leighanne has graciously shared her recipe.

Leighanne’s Tangy Slow Cooker Pot Roast

• 1 boneless beef chuck roast, about 3 to 4 pounds
• 2 teaspoons Hungarian paprika
• Salt and pepper
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1/2 cup beef broth
• 1/2 cup red wine, such as cabernet or pinot noir, or more beef broth
• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• 1 tablespoon honey or brown sugar
• 1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
• 1 large onion, quartered, sliced
• 6 large carrots or a bag of baby carrots
• 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

Directions
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Generously sprinkle the roast all over with salt and pepper, then rub the paprika into all sides. Cook the roast for about five minutes on each side to brown. Meanwhile, combine the broth, wine, tomato sauce, vinegar, and honey; set aside. Put the sliced onions, carrots, and garlic in the bottom of a 5 to 7-quart slow cooker. Remove the roast from the heat and place it on the vegetables in the slow cooker. Pour the broth and wine mixture into the hot skillet and use a spatula to scrape up any browned bits; pour over the roast in the slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for one hour. Reduce to low and cook for 7 to 9 hours longer, or leave on high and cook for 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours.

Starlight dinner in Fernandina | The Lush's Blush blog
Starlight dinner in Fernandina

What I ate on my summer vacation

Remember the first day back at school in the fall and the assignment was to write about what you did on your summer vacation? Well, summer is just getting started, but here’s what I’ve done so far. More accurately, in keeping with our food theme here at Kitsey’s Kitchen, here is what I ate while on vacation.

I’ve been a beach girl from a young age. As a child and teenager my summer vacation was always in the Myrtle Beach area. A few years ago, however, I visited Beaufort, North Carolina, and fell absolutely in love with it. I’ve vacationed on the Crystal Coast near Beaufort, Morehead City and Atlantic Beach ever since.

Mainly my vacation consisted of sitting on the beach staring out at mother ocean, walking on the sand and reading. Aside from actually being at the beach, my other favorite part of vacation is going out to eat.

My dad is an avid fisherman and as a child we often had fish frys at our house. In those days I even ate frog legs! Then I went through a phase where I was kind of weirded out about seafood, unless it was your basically basic tiny tasteless popcorn shrimp. After I started going to some of the nicer restaurants on the Crystal Coast, however, I began to learn to love all sorts of seafood. After having to dissect a frog in eighth-grade biology, I still can’t bring myself to eat frog legs though.

Frog legs were on the menu down at the coast last week, however, and my dad ordered them one night at one of my all-time favorite restaurants — Floyd’s 1921. Floyd’s is in a beautiful old home in Morehead City and serves up great southern favorites like meatloaf alongside some seaside favorites. My personal favorite dish at Floyd’s is their mahi mahi. I order mine blackened. It comes atop fried green tomatoes with tasso ham gravy. Floyd’s is one of those places I go all on on the menu. I want a cocktail (the Big Daddy Dirty martini), an appetizer (the mac and cheese), soup (she-crab bisque), my entree (the mahi), with wine and dessert. I’m usually miserable by the time I leave, but it’s worth it.

I’ll pause here for a moment on the seafood to tell you about tasso ham gravy, probably one of my favorite things ever. I actually discovered tasso ham gravy at the beach at my other all-time favorite restaurant Amos Mosquitos in Atlantic Beach. Amos Mosquitos is almost always packed, it’s a popular place on the beach and it’s well worth the wait, locals and regulars often refer to it simply as Skeeters. Quaintly decorated with various mosquito-themed objects, dried Spanish moss hangs from branches on the walls and ceiling and there is even a soundtrack of evening insect noises that plays in the bathroom. You have to love a place that gives that much attention to detail in keeping with their theme.

The first time I ever ate there, probably about seven or eight years ago, I ordered their fried pork chop with tasso ham gravy. Now what possessed me to order pork chops I don’t even know because truthfully it’s not a menu item I normally care that much about. I must have had some sort of magical food intuition telling me how good this dish was going to be. The pork chops themselves are thin and so tender they practically fall apart at the touch of a fork. The breading is so delightfully crispy with just the perfect blend of seasoning and then there is the gravy. Ah, the gravy. Tasso ham is a Cajun thing. It’s a cut of pork cured in various seasonings and smoked. The outside of the ham is red with all the spices it is cured with. Using this as your fat to make a gravy or even a pasta sauce is just out of this world. Now when I go to Skeeters I ask the server just to bring me a vat of the gravy and nothing else. They laugh at me, but in a way, I’m really not even kidding.

Tasso is not something readily available around here, although I have found it at Whole Foods before. I typically buy at least two and then slice it into smaller portions which I shrink wrap and freeze for later. You can also find it on the website CajunGrocer.com. The combination of the pork, breaded in such delightful seasonings and the spicy and creamy gravy, well, as you can tell, I could go on and on about it. Though it’s not seafood, it’s pretty much my favorite meal when I go to Atlantic Beach. Skeeter’s mojitos are also great and then they have tiny little fire pits they bring right to your table if you order the s’mores for dessert. It’s just overall such a fun place. If you visit the area and go there, tell them I sent you!

Shrimp, flounder and crab legs were other dishes we enjoyed while at the beach last week. My dad’s favorite place is called Ruddy Ducks and it’s right on the Morehead City waterfront. Their shrimp basket is one of the best deals in the area and great quality food. Their fish tacos are my favorite and their burgers are also terrific. If you like a cocktail with your meal, I suggest the Pain Killer.
Another place I had heard about for years, but never tried is a little drive-in dinner called the Big Oak Drive-In. It’s right near the beach in the Salter Path area of Atlantic Beach. They’re famous for their shrimp burger — fried shrimp on a bun with ketchup, tartar sauce and slaw. We finally tried it this trip. We had onion rings and fries and gobbled up those shrimp burgers as fast as we could.

Channel Marker and McCurdy’s are two of our other favorite places in the area. We always get the crab legs at McCurdy’s and they are always great. Flounder at Channel Marker is my favorite and I love their twice baked stuffed potato as well.

As mentioned above, tasso ham is not an easy ingredient to find in our area, but if you should manage to get your hands on some, here’s a recipe for a tasso ham pasta sauce. Truthfully I would put tasso in everything if I could. I have put it in spaghetti sauce, chili, gumbo and even vegetable soup. It’s just a great seasoning to bring a little spice to any dish.

Kitsey and Morgan’s Tasso Pasta
• 8 oz. of tasso, diced into small cubes
• butter
• 3 to 4 tbsp. flour
• 1 shallot finely minced
• 2 cloves garlic finely minced
• 2 cups chicken broth
• 3/4 cup heavy cream
• salt and pepper to taste
• Parmesan cheese to taste
Add a good-sized pat of butter to a sauce pan and on medium heat begin adding your diced tasso bits. Brown ham slowly until the fat is rendered. Add shallot and cook until translucent. Add garlic and sauté just a minute. Slowly add flour, whisking to make a roux. Once flour has incorporated, slowly add chicken broth. The mixture will begin to thicken, then slowly add cream and mix until incorporated into a thick creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste and grate in a small amount of Parmesan cheese (or a larger amount if that’s your thing.) Serve over your favorite pasta. If you are able to get your hands on some fresh mahi mahi, this dish would also make a great accompaniment.

New jewels

I love jewelry. No, really, it’s sort of an obsession. A few years ago I discovered a jewelry designer by the name of Charles Albert. It’s sort of become my summer tradition to buy a new Charles Albert piece each summer while on vacation.

This year’s piece is a huge green turquoise pendant. What I love most about his designs is they typically incorporate unusual stones and crystals. I’m into crystal healing so jewelry to me serves a dual purpose. It is pretty to look at it and typically has healing properties associated with the stone.

This sign gave me a real chuckle, although all 5 out of the 5 voices in my head told me to go for it. They usually do when it comes to jewelry.

Check out more of Charles Albert’s designs at www.charlesalbert.com.