Monday, March 23, 2015

Nokomis Beach: A Beautiful…Simple…Almost Unspoiled Hidden Gem!

I saw a Facebook status in my newsfeed with an image of Beyonce that read “It’s easy to go broke trying to look rich. Remember to always act your wage!”.  Well let me just set the record straight (esp for those back home), the beach is “F-R-E-E!” when you’re not staying and just going for a day trip. Then can head back home. Though as we get more settled here, I hope to spend a few weekend stays here and there. Fortunately, living in “Suburbia” aka “The Outskirts” of New Tampa puts us within an hour’s reach of a variety of beaches. Some of the best that the Gulf side of Florida has to offer. And each has it’s own personality, flair, culture and lifestyle to it.

Nokomis goes on my list of “Beach Towns That Time Forgot” / “Classic Beach Vacation Spots”. Also on that list goes Anna Maria Island (a beach we visited before I started the blog). These beaches aren’t overrun with vendors or massively commercialized. It’s like one of those towns you see in Hallmark Channel movies. And we LOVE Hallmark Channel movies in all of their wholesome cheesy goodness and quaint small town settings as we binge watch together during holidays. So, if you’re looking for a busy strip and party town you won’t find it at Nokomis. Which was great because it’s Spring Break season here and there are just some things I am not ready for my 3 and 5 year old to see let alone do I care to be placed in the awkward position to explain. (Case in point this FOOLERY). Nokomis Beach is surrounded by residential property and private owned rentals. It is located about 25 minutes away from Travel Channel renowned and one of the U.S.’s Top Beaches…Siesta Key!

We were visiting Mr. D last weekend and he now lives a stone’s throw away from Nokomis Beach. There are only a few shops on the street leading to the bridge that goes in to the beach. One of the shops includes an ice cream parlor, Bentley’s. We stopped in to visit Mr. D’s granddaughter Lexi and get some homemade ice cream.
DSCN1968 DSCN1972
It was like a parlor that time forgot, there was a classic soft serve ice cream machine on site. The parlor is also family owned. It’s simple inside, several pictures of people having a good time at the parlor enjoying ice cream, a couple of patio furniture tables and chairs. There was ice cream, sorbet, and gelato all available in a nice variety of flavors to choose from. Julie had strawberry and Jerry had his favorite “banilla”. Papa Smurf had Reese’s peanut butter and I had cappuccino crunch both in waffle cones. Both were really good, and the cappuccino crunch tasted just like a creamy frozen cappuccino, and the crunch crumbles tasted more like chocolates rather than strong flavored mocha bits. The Reese peanut butter was good but a little too sweet for me. When I was a kid though, you couldn’t keep me away from Reese Cups. They were my favorite chocolates and still are. We really liked the ice cream its very creamy and tastes of real flavor. From the taste it appears the real deal, no artificial fillers here. The cone protectors that they give you are GENIUS! They catch all drips and keep the cone in tact so everybody stays happy :-)

I stopped in next door to a sunglass and beachwear shop to get some sunglasses. The shop owner was nice and very polite. We talked for a bit as she cleaned the lenses of my new sunglasses with a microfiber cloth. I told her about my cousin who landed a deal with Nordstrom Rack selling his line of sunglasses. And to that she said “…Now see that’s great when people can just cash in on their creativity! I need an idea like that but I’m not as creative.” Oh to cash in on creativity :-D  Anyways, staying on topic, there was a bait shop and a convenience store located in the same spot as the ice cream parlor though I did not seem much else. Although, TripAdvisor lists some restaurants that appear small, quaint, privately owned, and seamlessly tucked away.

After ice cream we headed down the street to the two lane draw bridge that leads to the “jetty” and the main beach. Don’t even ask me where my Nikon was to take a picture of the canal. Maybe we went over to fast, but it was probably because the water looked just like The Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz and my eyes were locked in a gaze that left me motionless. Mr. D told us that the water changes colors in the canal naturally. However, here is an old picture from our very first visit several months ago, sorry no Emerald City colored water in this one and it was a little overcast that day (the beach was also closed that day).

At the end of the draw bridge we were able to see a large boathouse where you could rent boats and jet skis. Once we were at the beach, the view and the water are beautiful but it was too cool for swimming (at least for us). Though, it was still quite a warm day. The sand is great for shelling. There are tons of shells to be found here. Julie was so excited because she loves to pick things. She gathered quite a few and said “These are for (Ms.) ‘Kaffy” as she gave them all to Mr. D.---for his wife.  We forgot the beach toys in our car which we left parked back at Mr. D’s but the kids didn’t care. They were just fine picking shells, playing with a cup and a plastic bottle from our packed lunch and snacks. I am really grateful for their appreciation of the simple things. Even if it may only last for this innocent portion of their lives that alot of older parents stop us  and say “aww the ‘fun age’ enjoy it, it goes fast!”
DSCN1974 DSCN1983 DSCN2005

We were surprised to encounter a drum circle while there. There were lots of belly dancers and hula hoopers. And there were some mean drummers out there. Here is a clip!

We stayed until sunset, when the shore line fills up with onlookers and photographers.
DSCN2016 DSCN2010 DSCN2012

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Florida Strawberry Festival

So we decided we may check out The Strawberry Festival the weekend of its last run (March 7-8). Saturday was a bit too cool so we passed and just ended up going to the grocery shopping for dinner. Sunday, we forgot to "spring forward" and showed up for church embarrassingly late. The computers were down/off at the kids' check-in area signaling that something was off. Next thing you know one of the young ladies said "You forgot to 'spring forward' sorry guys see you next week" of course after explaining to a totally aloof couple that we were consequently an hour late. Anyways, it was turning into a lazy Sunday soon thereafter, but the sun was beaming. It was quite warmer than Saturday as we walked around the neighborhood trail and pond to the playground. The pond was swarming with fish surfacing. Large ones too. Papa Smurf never realized just how well stocked the pond is (although we do see people come through to fish frequently we never see what they catch). So, he was excited and wanted to fish. But en route for supplies, the kids were very vocal about wanting to go to The Strawberry Festival. We made a detour to the Publix to get tickets, which were $8 for adults and $4 for kids. Twenty-four dollars total for a family of four not too bad.

We're about 45 minutes out from Plant City, where the fair is held, coming from deep in the burbs of the greater New Tampa area. The I-75 to I-4 both had wall to wall traffic heading into town. There highway advisory boards flashing instructions for where to go and park "Festival Parking Exit....". Once we took exit 19 there were cars lined all down the road. And that's where you see flaggers and makeshift parking lots (sadly some people had their front yards turned to parking lots, others threatened you like they would go Jazmine Sullivan style if you dare park in their yards! Or at least have you towed). Most lots averaged about $10-15 a park; I only saw 1-2 for $5 but they were closer to the highway and one looked kind of dodgy. We parked closer in on a middle school parking lot for $10. So now we're up to $34, $35 counting a $1 basket of strawberries we bought. As you get closer in, it's almost like Bangkok. There are alot bicycle taxis and golf cart taxis taking people to and from for a price of course. People were hustling hard and you definitely couldn't knock them for it.

Once we entered, it was extremely crowded and not what we expected, even on the last day after 3:30 pm. The biggest surprise was that as soon as we were inside the strawberries disappeared completely. Not even a jar of preserves, no uniquely prepared strawberry treats, no plush strawberry characters or mascots walking around, no strawberry trinkets or souvenirs. There was plenty of fair foods, but every food cart and grill had the same exact things, deep fried Oreos candy bars and sweets, corn dogs, chicken on a stick, pizza, steak and cheese, and there were too many smoked turkey leg spots to count. Eat at your own risk! Some adhere to food safety while others could care less. There was one guy for instance he was stabbing his turkey legs with a thermometer to check for the right temperature and there was another who had raw shaved beef for steak and cheese sharing the same griddle with turkey legs, raw meat touching the turkey meat and juices running all over…Gross!

Walk paths and lines were more like huddles of confused people, where one would ask at each line "Is this the line?" as passerby's just broke through in droves like cattle. Yes, you couldn't even move your elbows or see the ground and you could just throw the whole idea of "personal space" out of the equation. But this much I can say, the crowd was very polite and considerate despite the fact that it was such a very uncomfortable situation.

Being from the DMV, I can remember at least 2-3 times in my lifetime that Six Flags America had advisory signs outside of their park that read "Park Closed--At Capacity" "No Entry--At Capacity". Therefore, I really did not understand for the life of me why they continued to allow people to enter the festival; especially when those who were already within the gates could barely walk through the paths. The crowds at the festival were definitely a stampede hazard. Maybe we're getting old but even Papa Smurf said the same "...maybe I'm getting old but crowds just aren't my scene anymore...".

Somehow we inched through, stuck together without getting separated and were able to make it to a ticket booth. Yes, the rides cost separate of course. The cost was $25 "All You Can Ride" and $20 for a sheet of 20. We settled on 10 tickets, call us cheap but we figured Julie could enjoy 3 rides at least and then we would leave to be fair. We wanted to be good sports though we would rather leave. So, we just grinned and beared it and luckily enough after 1-2 rides the crowds significantly thinned out.

The aftermath, we thought it was just us but by the next morning we found out our neighbors had the same thoughts about the event. One left early and only allowed his girls to do one activity. Our neighbor who Papa Smurf has dubbed “The Buckeye” stated "It just was not at all what we expected. Where were the strawberries?! It was so crowded! And it was just not what we expected at all."

The final verdict, we won't be back. It was more like a large parking lot carnival and definitely not a festival. Maybe because I come from the DMV area and the D.C. area is known for its festivals and cultural events too. All in all I give it the rating of "Tourist Trap" and Papa Smurf has dubbed it "A Money Pit". Most of the 1-3* ratings on Yelp are the more honest and fair, 3 giving the event a stamp of the good old "benefit of the doubt". I leave you with a rhetorical question..."How do you know you have
entered a 'Tourist Trap'?" When you enter a themed event and the theme of the event itself is no longer present! And on top of that everything almost including the air you are breathing will cost you. You have trouble setting the said trap apart from anything else you have ever experienced. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Culinary Adventures With Cookbooks: The Chew: What’s For Dinner…

In attempt to keep my content fresh and varied in between lulls with my own recipes, interpretations, dining out, outings, and travels I’m on a cookbook binge of sorts; having fun with recipes and giving my reviews.

I first discovered The Chew while we were still living in Columbia. I think it was an episode that the Neely’s were making a guest appearance. I was always curious as to what they were up to since they virtually disappeared from The Food Network channel. After one episode of The Chew, I was hooked. I was very intrigued by Carla Hall. She calls the DMV home, graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting, left the corporate world to model, fell in love with French cuisine. Then, she pursued a degree in the culinary arts and somewhere in the mix she developed a business/office lunch catering service. She went on Top chef to compete and is now on The Chew. Who says you can’t reinvent yourself?! We have alot in common, I also graduated college with a Bachelor's in Accounting, I'm originally from the DMV and we both love food!

One of the things that makes this book unique is that there are different voices, collaborators, and cultures involved with the commentary, food experiences and recipes shared. Each has something great to bring to the table. There is also an immense amount of encouragement as well as ease (short cuts, tips and tricks) for those who believe they can’t cook, or simply just do not have the time.

Over the weekend (on Saturday night), we used this book (“The Chew: What’s for Dinner? 100 Recipes For Every Night of the Week) to make Chef. Michael Symon’s “Cheesy Bacon, Butternut Squash Mac n’ Cheese Casserole”. I was watching “Julie and Julia” again for the umpteenth time. I decided to Google the blog and its author. In the process, I encountered some negative commentary and there was one comment that really bumped out at me; stating that today’s food bloggers hailing themselves as “our” experts can only follow recipes. Wow. I thought that was too large of a stereotype and an over generalization. We widely and vary by our experiences, repertoire, subject matters, styles, and genres. Besides, we all have to start from somewhere. I’ve been cooking for over 20 years (okay, showing my age now lol). I say embrace recipes! I didn’t really take off with cooking until years 7-8 as far as experimenting and making recipes my own; which by age 21 included what every woman should have in her cooking repertoire by their twenties a "Man Trap” lol jks, it doesn’t matter if it’s all you got or just a  dessert, as long as you have it ;-) With all of that said, as you become more seasoned as a cook you will be able to manipulate flavors and tastes to your heart and palate’s desire, yet still make something very delicious though different from the original source of inspiration!

What am I really saying in sharing that, well that we tweaked this recipe! (Lol) We didn’t have conchigliliette or penne so we used elbows. Although, if I were to make this again, I would use capitavi for sure, because of the grooves the cheese sauce adheres to the pasta better. It was my first time using gruyere cheese (once again another cheese that you will have to search for in the deli section of your grocery store). It’s pale, a white cheese, appeared to be of the aged variety. It has little moisture and a pungent odor. However, once cooked into cheese sauce it can be equally creamy and the odor wanes; the taste also construes the same. It was also my first time trying/ using mascarpone. It’s very creamy and rich, though almost flavorless. It’s like a combo of ricotta and cream cheese, though it doesn’t have the grittiness of ricotta. It is very creamy, fluffy, and makes a great cheese sauce. Mascarpone is a #HealthyOption that can be used in place of butter on toast and cream cheese on bagels. Cooking tip: If it is your first time working with an ingredient taste it first! The key to successfully tweaking a recipe is tasting your ingredients. Sure, it sounds good together but does it taste good together? Now there is the spice rub!

The cheese sauce that M. Symon makes for this recipe was not as thick as the one I make for my mac n’ cheese. It was slightly thinner and less fluffy once set. It was more like the title suggests, a casserole sauce. Likewise, I added Digiorno’s 3 Cheese blend with shredded asiago, parmesan, and Romano cheeses) to help thicken the sauce to my liking. We used smoked paprika instead of chipotle pepper, although I did use a very scant dusting of cayenne pepper. I was out of chipotle pepper and figured that together with the smoked paprika it would mimic the flavor somewhat. The smoked paprika along with the bacon gave the smokiness that the recipe called for without the high heat. We don’t use or consume butternut squash much, we’re more of an acorn squash, yellow squash, and zucchini family. But I have to say the butternut squash took the heartiness of the casserole to a whole new level. I was a little confused by puree vs chopping the butternut squash. The methodology mentions it vaguely but on the ingredient list size it was only listed as chopped and no measurement for pureed squash listed. So we left it chopped.

Overall, this recipe is 5* and as M. Symon says, a good way to sneak veggies to your kids. This recipe also includes the growing increasingly popular these days…green machine superstar…kale! Papa Smurf said “It’s so filling, it’s like a meal in and of itself. It’s so filling!” Although we served it as a side with our BBQ ribs. It’s sure to be a crowd pleaser especially for macaroni and cheese lovers. We plan on using this recipe for Thanksgiving and think it would be a perfect fit for the occasion.

(Recipe and info from The Chew: What’s for Dinner? 100 Recipes for Every Day of the Week)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Culinary Adventures With Cookbooks: “Grill It”


A couple of weeks ago I checked out a couple of cookbooks, Bobby Flay’s “Grill It” and Mario Batali’s “Italian Grill”. We still haven’t set up WiFi at our place yet so I don’t get as much use out of my Kindle Fire HDX as I would like. Though it gets used plenty enough. However, as much as I love my Kindle I still love actual books too. Julie is reading now, above grade level and with her current pace she becomes more fluid by the day. She reads daily (thanks to the daily “Books in a Bag” program her Kindergarten has) and likes to pick up books that aren’t “easy peasy” as she refers to them; so she’s looking for a challenge. Jerry dabbles a little with sight reading now. They love the children’s room with all of the toys, playing with other children, reading books, and picking out a few to take home. While they are occupied it gives me time to browse more freely.

Anyways, it’s coming up on the middle end of winter but you can pretty much grill year round in Florida. We had a cold spell but our temperatures have been on a major upswing lately with plenty of sunshine. It has been perfect grilling weather but the daylight got ahead of us, after a second trip to the grocery for seasonings and condiments. We had already purchased all of our produce the week before from Shannon’s. We’re now regulars at her market and she knows us now lol because during the last trip she asked Papa Smurf “Where’s the wife?” while I waited with Jerry in the car (so that he could check out since Jerry was having a meltdown).

We tried 3 recipes from the book, including Chipotle Honey Glazed Wings with Toasted Sesame Seeds and Green Onion” (“Grill It” B. Flay pg. 79). I opted out of using the ancho chili powder. Okay, I just flat out forgot to write it down on my loose leaf list, add in the kids in rare form and receiving phone call as we went aisle to aisle…I was totally distracted and walked right past it. However, I am glad I left it out. I should have known with Chef Bobby Flay though, that the recipe would be spicy he is known for his heavy spice. With the small canned chipotle chilies in adobo alone there was more than enough spice/ heat! The glaze was very thick and not much of a glaze, even with the honey. However, I think it may have been a technical error on my part. I felt like it needed some citrus like maybe a bit of lemon or lime juice to loosen the paste up more and balance the heat. Overall, the wings were very good and had great flavor. The spice rub was perfect! Once combined you can smell the flavors coming together nicely before they even hit the oven or grill! Another word of caution, the wings are very spicy! I can’t even imagine with the ancho chili powder. But we love spice.
Now on to the “Grilled Eggplant with Manchego Cheese Salad With Balsamic Black pepper Glaze”. We opted out of the glaze. The eggplant and cheese seemed as though it would be great as a standalone. For the manchego cheese, you will have to look in the deli section of your grocery store as opposed to the refrigerated dairy section. I had never heard of manchego cheese before and looked it up prior to heading out to the grocery. It’s an imported, dry aged Spanish cheese. In appearance, it’s packaged as a thick sliced wedge and reminded me of a hybrid of parmesan an muenster cheese. It won’t knock you over but it does have a bit of an odor. I noticed that the cheese is prone to crumbling when its cold so I set it out at room temperature before having papa Smurf slice it. It was a very unique combination of flavors. I would’ve liked a lighter wet cheese like mozzarella or ricotta with the eggplant. I made another culinary discovery while making this dish. I used extra virgin olive oil, kosher salt, and pepper to bake and broil the eggplant. A few of the more thinly sliced discs of eggplant had gotten quite crispy and were quite tasty without the cheese! Once melted, the manchego cheese reminded me of fontina cheese (a cheese we were first introduced to back when Papa Smurf was working for Panera back home in Maryland).

For anyone looking to stay on track with their NYE diet and healthier eating Flay cites that the Honey Chipotle Wings” are a healthier alternative to traditional deep fried buffalo wings. To my knowledge grilling is a healthier option since it burns off the fat. The grilled eggplant is also a healthy option which could definitely stand alone as an entree as opposed to a side it was quite filling.

The last recipe/ dish pictured was the “Green Onion Slaw” which was also a winner! My first tweak to this was to add a little sugar. I like my slaw a little sweet. I would only use half of the red onion. The whole onion was a bit much and gave the salad too much bite. Be sure to chop the onions finely to cut down the pungent/strong taste as with the scallions already present the onions can really overpower the slaw. I guess it is a matter of preference, taste, and what the chef was trying to create as far as bite, sweetness or without sweetness.

We looked forward to trying many more recipes from both Flay’s and Batali’s books before returning them to the library. However, we only managed to squeeze in grilled porterhouse steaks and grilled corn as Italians would eat it. I will say a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper makes a steak very good! I wish I had taken pictures! I plan on possibly purchasing both books in the near future. I am looking to build my cookbook library.