Tennessee

In our infinite wisdom, we decided it would be a good idea to drive 1,020 miles to visit some friends over spring break. This will tell you either a) how great our kids are or b) how foolish we’ve become in our old age. Let’s just say we had a great trip to Nashville and a day to visit, but then things went south rather quickly thanks to a stomach bug my youngest picked up somewhere in Virginia.

Speaking of Virginia, if you ever find yourself in the northern Shenandoahs, be sure to visit the Luray Caverns. It was the real deal and blew both of my kids away.

I also have to mention Pal’s. It’s a fast food joint in southwestern Virginia and Tennessee. We weren’t hungry when we stumbled upon it, but I had to take a picture anyway. Judging from the high volume of traffic moving through the drive-thru, they must be doing something right beside their architecture.

Once we arrived in Nashville, we quickly set out to consume as much BBQ as possible. Some of the best we had was at Martin’s.

It was one of those meals where a hush fell over the table. Even the kids were quiet for a long time. Or at least it seemed like they were. I was so busy enjoying the food that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if the kids had suddenly caught on fire.

The cornbread was made with white cornmeal and contained a generous amount of black pepper. Arnold’s in Nashville also was not afraid to use large quantities of black pepper in their food. But both restaurants pulled it off brilliantly. And the dry rub baby back ribs at Martin’s were stellar. So was the cole slaw. I want their cole slaw recipe.

Sadly, one has to take breaks and rest up in order to get ready for the next round of eating. In our spare time we convinced our hosts to finally go out and get themselves some chickens. We got to visit a cute little farm and soak in all the green green trees and grass.

Pigs are not my favorite animal. But this particular group of swine was rather amusing, especially this sow that insisted on mounting the largest male repeatedly.

In the barn we got to visit some piglets that were beyond cute. Maybe pigs aren’t so bad after all.

Tennessee was a welcome respite from our grey New England existence. I just wish we had more time to take it all in (and eat more). But after this trip we drafted a new family rule: no more road trips that are longer than eight hours. However, time with friends and another order of Martin’s ribs might lure us back someday.

Chewy Granola Bars

[donotprint]This recipe is as close as I can come to homemade chewy granola bar perfection. It’s the result of lots of testing and tweaking of every decent looking recipe I could find. Because I have a huge soft spot for Quaker Oats S’more Chewy Granola Bars, I tried a variation that included mini marshmallows and chocolate chips. But sadly, they melted. I also played a lot with the ratios of sugar and fat and this recipe it is as low as I’m willing to go with both. Anything less pretty much leaves you with a crunchy granola bar.

We’ve been doing a fair amount of hiking (i.e. strolling in the woods while potential buyers poke around our house) lately. These granola bars have served us well on the trail. They are also free of nuts or nut-products so they are legal in my kids’ lunch boxes and snack bags. So, at the moment, they seem like one of the greatest snacks of all time.

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Chewy Granola Bar Recipe

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup brown rice syrup or Lyle’s golden syrup or corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cup quick rolled oats
3/4 cup brown crispy rice cereal
2 tablespoons roasted sunflower kernels
1/4 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Line a 8 x 8-inch baking pan with parchment paper. The paper should come out and over the top edges of the pan thereby creating handles for easily lifting the granola out after it has been baked. Lightly grease the paper with butter or spray oil. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat along with the brown sugar, syrup, and salt. Bring mixture to a low bubble and stir for a minute to be sure that all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the oats, cereal, sunflower kernels, and raisins. Pour the butter mixture over the oat mixture and stir well with a rubber spatula. Transfer the mixture to the prepared 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Press the mixture down into the pan firmly with the rubber spatula. Otherwise, the granola bars may be too crumbly.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. For best results, I wait to cut the bars until the pan is moderately warm or even getting close to cool. After a few minutes out of the oven, you can speed up the cooling process by carefully lifting the granola out of the pan with the parchment paper and placing it on a cooling rack.

Cut and serve or store for up to a few days in the refrigerator in an airtight container. They freeze well too. Best served at room temperature. Try to avoid serving them cold as they are a lot less chewy and sweet.

Yield: 12 bars
Prep-time: 15 minutes
Bake-time: 20 minutes

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Snack baggies

The latest tool in my snacking arsenal is probably one most other families are already familiar with: snack-sized plastic baggies. I’ve had a box of these (that I bought by accident) sitting in my cupboard for quite a while. Usually, I use the larger sandwich-sized bags. Why? Well, I guess because I like to pack more snack than is necessary just in case.

But I’ve recently begun to realize that a little more portion control might be a very good thing for my family. I love the size of these snack bags. They keep me in check and my kids are much less likely to overeat at snack time. It’s beautiful.

Out of the Bubble

Yesterday afternoon, we pulled into a rest stop in central Massachusetts and were greeted by a Ronald McDonald flanked by American flags.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to look down my nose at this unintentional commentary on the state of America. The fact is that our car contained a rather impressive collection of  highly processed “foods” – all of which we’d been happily ingesting for the past few hours. The rest of the way home I started to seriously wonder why we do this.

My family has developed an unwritten rule as of late that when we go for long trips in the car, the junk food flood gates are happily opened. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this family tradition has kicked into high gear since our diet has improved at home. Mom and Dad love the chance to revisit the unbridled days of high sugar, high fat, and high salt. And of course the kids are more than happy to join us.

I guess this would be fine if I didn’t already have school lunch, birthdays, kids’ menus at restaurants, holidays, and all the other “treats” that my family is bombarded with to take into account. More importantly, I worry about the binge mentality that we are modeling for our children. And while it tastes good at first, this stuff is really gross and deeply unsatisfying. 

Obviously, we’ll need to cut back on the next trip. I could even devote hours to making fantastic yet healthy treats that rival store-bought snacks. But I doubt I will. This “food” is a part of the world we live in and in small amounts is no big deal.

The real problem is being forced to acknowledge how fragile the healthy food environment I’m trying to build at home is. Are we ever going to be able to coexist peacefully with junk food when we move outside of our little bubble? Are we ever going to be disciplined enough to sample unhealthy foods  moderately?

Better yet, could there ever be a day when we pull into a rest stop and be greeted by a parade of dancing fruits and vegetables? That’s something I’d be more than happy to mount our flag next to.