Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mandi's Favorite Things

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you've likely heard of the annual show that Oprah Winfrey does called "Oprah's Favorite Things". I wouldn't call myself a big Oprah fan and I don't watch her show very often, but I do mark my calendar every year for that one show she does at the beginning of the holiday season - the one where she showcases her favorite goodies, gadgets, toys, technology, etc. and then gives them all away to everyone in the audience. If you've seen the show, you've watched the audience full of grown adults jump, scream, and cry as they realize they are getting to take home thousands of dollars of new products. The show features the things Oprah has grown to love that year - everything from silk pajamas to the iPad; key lime bundt cakes to Jimmy Choo shoes; Sony camcorders to stainless refridgerators. And it's quite a spectacle. The show is such an advertisement for the products she features that the whole world practically runs out to buy what they saw. Sales skyrocket, and unknown companies are put on the national map.

While I know I don't carry a fraction of the influence that Oprah does, I do stumble across some pretty cool things every now and then that I love to share with other people. In fact, just the other day I was in St. Augustine, Florida on vacation with my husband and kids, and I found something I went crazy over. This little shop hiding in the tiny historic town of St. Augustine had the coolest idea ever, and I instantly fell in love. I wanted to tell the world about it (especially because they ship their product all over the country), so it inspired me to write a "Favorite Things" blog of my own. I want to share some of the things I've found and fallen in love with, so that other people can discover them and enjoy them as much as I have. And since this is a food-themed blog, I will limit my list of favorite things to favorite "food things" (meaning it is in some way connected to food - which is my favorite thing anyway). So here are my top 5 "favorite food things" of the year (try not to jump and scream and cry). By the way, the place in St. Augustine is # 1 on the list, so you'll have to read to the end to find out what it is.

5. 'Southern Scrumptious' Crunchy Sweet Pickles

My mom's cousin, Betty Sims, is a cookbook author and culinary instructor in Alabama(she knows people like Martha Stewart). I recently visited her home and attended one of her cooking class/demonstrations at her 'Southern Scrumptious' studio. She makes and packages her own sweet pickles to sell (and ship). I love sweet pickles, and I've never had any even close to as good as these. They're thick, crispy, and super-delicious, and they're made with whole cloves of garlic (which means they HAVE to be good)! Put them on a pimento cheese sandwich, and you've got heaven. To purchase a jar ($7.95), visit the Southern Scrumptious facebook page or website ( - an extra special perk is that the proceeds go to a charitable foundation for Lou Gehrig's Disease (Betty's son recently passed away from that disease).

4. VIA 'Lightly Sweetened' Iced Instant Coffee from Starbucks

I'm not an instant coffee fan, but this is not your grandmother's instant coffee! I became hooked when the barista at Starbucks convinced me to taste it - magic I tell ya. It's a powder-fine, microground natural roasted coffee with a touch of real cane sugar in a packet. You simply mix it with cold milk and shake it up - at home or on the go, it takes 30 seconds, and it tastes like a fresh iced latte (thick, creamy, and bold). That means I don't spend $3.00 on a drive-thru iced latte nearly as often as I used to - which makes my husband very happy. And while we're on the topic of Starbucks...

3. Starbucks 'Cake Pops'

Whoever decided to put a ball of cake (complete with icing) on a stick is on my list of heroes. Brilliant in my book. They come in 3 flavors - birthday cake, tiramisu, and rocky road - and the birthday cake is my clear favorite. On the outside, it's a pretty pink circle of firm (and not too sweet) icing dabbed with a few tiny white sprinkles. Inside it's pure deliciousness - a super moist white cake that melts in your mouth. A bite-sized cake 'popsicle' on a stick - seriously, what could be better? Thanks to these suckers, I can no longer drive past a Starbucks drive thru without stopping for one.

2. 'Anthropologie' Aprons

I'm an apron-lover. I have a slight obsession with them, actually. One of my favorite places to be is at my stove in my kitchen. I love to cook, and I tend to make messy things - fried stuff, saucy pastas, things that require flour and other messy ingedients... so I actually need aprons to protect my clothing (I'm a bit of a messy cook). But I don't believe in wearing your basic 'plain Jane' apron - I love the cute, fancy, unique ones that may as well be part of your wardrobe. Some of my aprons are cuter than my actual clothes (which makes me wonder why I wear them over my cheap 'Target' clothes so that my mess ends up on the awesome apron instead of what's beneath it). Anyway, 'Anthropologie' has the coolest aprons out there. They have cool designs, patterns, colors, and prints, and they are all cut differently - some are long, some are short, some have ruffles, some have v-necks, etc. My husband loves coming home to find me at the stove in my cute 50s throw back apron, looking like June Cleaver. He finds some of them to be super-sexy too! So I try to wear them as often as I can (I aim to please). You can find them on anthropologie's website (

1. 'The Hyppo's' Homemade Gourmet Ice Pops

And last, but not least... my number one favorite food thing I've discovered this year is 'The Hyppo' - a store in St. Augustine, Florida that makes their own fresh, local, & natural gourmet popsicles in creative, unique flavors. They make all their popsicles in house with real fresh ingredients (no artificial flavors, etc). When I walked in on a hot May day, I tried the pineapple cilantro (with bits of actual cilantro and chunks of fresh pineapple), and my son got the mango pineapple. Both were amazing! Some of their other flavors include pistachio coconut, cucumber lemon mint, Mexican chocolate, pink grapefruit, strawberry basil, reisling pear, mango habanero, lavender lemonade, blueberry coconut, Elvis Presley (banana, peanut butter, and honey) and so many more. My favorite thing about this great shop is that they ship all of their ice pops all over the country (using dry ice). So I don't have to be in St. Augustine to enjoy these delicious little treasures. I can have my own stash delivered right to my door to keep in stock for the hot summer days ahead. I've also decided that I'm going to send a dozen of them to everyone I know as gifts for holidays, birthdays, thank-you's, etc. It's the perfect unique gift for grown-ups and kids alike. So don't be surprised if you find a box of delicious gourmet ice pops on your front doorstep one day soon with a tag that says "Love Mandi".

I hope you check out some of these things for yourself... and enjoy my favorite things as much as I do! Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Best of Asheville

I've always wanted to be a food writer. I love food, and I love to write; so I can't think of anything better than getting paid to write about food. You know, like the person who writes for Bon Appetit or Southern Living. Or the person who writes the restaurant reviews in the newspaper. Well, since I've yet to find anyone who will pay me to critique restaurants, I just decided to start with a blog. It may not be very lucrative, but I have the freedom to cover any food-related topic I want - from dining out, to cooking, to nutrition, to budgeting... and even some kitchen mishaps.

I've decided to start by highlighting some of the best foods that can be found here in Asheville, North Carolina. This beautiful city is known for its scenery, tourist attractions, and fabulous weather, but few people know that it is also home to some of the best food in the south - and even the country. One of my biggest criteria for choosing a town in which to live is the quality of its food. I spent most of my life in South Florida - one of the great food capitols of the world - and Asheville can certainly hold its own in comparison. You may be wondering what makes me the expert. Am I a chef? Have I attended a fancy culinary academy? Nope. I'm just a regular, average woman who happens to love cooking and eating great food, and who knows the difference between ordinary and fabulous. And that's ok, because most of you are just average people too who understand that passion and experience far outweigh formal education when it comes to the art of food. But if you feel better taking advice from an expert, I've given myself a fancy title (mainly because it sounds better than my usual one - wife and mommy). I'm a self-proclaimed "food maven". A maven by definition is "a trusted expert in a particular field who seeks to pass information onto others... one who understands based on an accumulation of knowledge". It gives me great pleasure to share the culinary treasures I've found here over the past 5 years with other food lovers, because I can truly sense the enjoyment you will expereince as you taste for yourself. So whether you live here or are planning a future visit, take advantage of my discoveries, and know that I'm celebrating with you in spirit as you take every heavenly bite!

My list is comprised of my favorites. I am not getting paid by any of the mentioned establishments, and unfortunately they don't give me free food either. I also have not been to every single food establishment in Asheville, so I'm sure there are many gems left out that I have yet to discover. But I do believe these favorites represent the best of the best, and if you disagree, I'll happily challenge you to a throw down.

Best Sandwich:
1. Caribbean Jerk Chicken Panini (Moments Coffee Shop & Cafe)
2. Hogzilla (12 Bones BBQ Restaurant)

I'm not even a big fan of caribbean jerk seasoning, but this panini is a flavor party in your mouth. It has juicy chicken, grilled pinapple, creamy white cheese (Havarti maybe), fresh greens, and a cranberry-jalepeno mayo-based sauce. Moments is located on Hwy 70 about 10 minutes east of downtown.
The Hogzilla is a hoagie on fresh-baked bread with pulled pork, sugar-cured bacon, and bratwurst sausage. No need to say anymore. 12 Bones has 2 locations - in the River District and south Asheville.

Best Coffee:
1. Brown Sugar Latte (Moments Coffee Shop & Cafe)
They make all of their coffees with fresh homemade ingredients - no pre-made mixes.

Best Chocolate Treat:
1. Indian Liquid Truffle & Maple Liquid Truffle (French Broad Chocolate Lounge)
These are small shots of warm, melted chocolate ganache. The Indian has chai-like spices in it and crushed pistachios on top. The maple is a bit sweeter with a tiny bit of sea salt sprinkled on top. Pure heaven.

Best Ice Cream:
1. New Orleans Praline Pecan in a fresh waffle bowl (Kilwin's Candy Shop)
Located in the heart of down-town, this wonderful candy shop features freshly made treats (on the premises) and delicious ice creams, and you can sample their many flavors of homemade fudge for free while you're there.

Best Thai Food:
1. Red Curry Chicken (Little Bee Thai)
This is going to sound crazy, I know, but don't let the location fool you. Little Bee is located inside a gas station (yes you heard that right) in south Asheville. I know, I know... I let it keep me from going there for 4 years (I'm a Thai food diva), but I finally tried it after countless recommendations and it's some of the best Thai food I've had ANYWHERE. It's primarily take-out, and they get so busy filling call-in orders that they sometimes have to turn away walk-in business. They make everything fresh and to order (even the soups and salads are chopped and made as single servings upon ordering). The curry is incredible.

Best Salad:
1. The Main Salad & Any Entre Salad (131 Main)
2. Wedge Salad (12 Bones)
3. Warm Fajita Salad (Papa's & Beer)

Any salad you get at 131 Main in Biltmore Park is great. Fresh greens, house-made crutons, delicious toppings, and homemade dressings make them the best around.
The wedge salad at 12 Bones is topped with sugar-cured bacon pieces, sliced juicy red tomatoes, tiny crispy fried onion rings, and a spicy bbq ranch dressing. You can also add on 4 of their fabulous bbq ribs with their signature sauce (my favorite is the blueberry chipotle). The Warm Fajita Salad is a Fajita-inspired salad at Asheville's best Mexican hot spot. It's a a cool bed of traditional salad elements topped with hot grilled strips of marinated steak and grilled veggies and a light vinegrette-style dressing.

Best Asian Noodles:
1. Red Curry & Chow Fun Noodle Bowl (Doc Chey's Noodle House)
his dish is on the menu as a rice dish, not a noodle bowl, but they will gladly make it with noodles upon request. It is huge, very inexpensive, and filled with noodles, fresh veggies, your choice of protein, and a ton of flavorful sauce that is spicy but not too hot. It's garnished with a lime wedge and a handful of cilantro. Location - downtown.

Best Pancakes:
1. Sweet Potato Pancake (Tupelo Honey Cafe)
This is hands-down the best pancake you will ever eat. I don't care if you like sweet potatoes or not. This huge pancake is just crispy enough on the outside and fluffy on the inside. It's topped with a slab of peach butter and spiced pecans and served with warm maple syrup. It's their signature dish and makes a fabulous breakfast or dessert! They have 2 locations - downtown (be prepared to wait) and south Asheville.

Best Grits:
1. Goat Cheese Grits (Tupelo Honey Cafe)
2. Jalepeno Cheese Grits (12 Bones)
The goat cheese grits at Tupelo are creamy and mild and can be topped with an extra slice of cheddar melted on top if you wish (for the true cheese lover). They accompany most of their breakfast items. The jalepeno cheese grits at 12 Bones are a lunch side (they're not open for breakfast or dinner), and they are not really spicy - just flavorful.

Best Burger:
1. Mushroom Swiss Burger (Pack's Tavern)
This downtown restaurant & bar is one of the only places in Asheville that will cook a burger medium-rare (which is the only way a burger should be cooked). They are thick, juicy, well-seasoned, and come with many different topping options (if you don't care for mushroom/swiss) - like chipotle/ranch, avacado, blue cheese & bacon. Their sweet potatoes fries are some of the best I've had, and their homemade ranch dressing is a great dip for the fries.

Best Non-Chocolate Dessert:
1. Lavender Creme Brulee (French Broad Chocolate Lounge)
2. Maple Butter Cake (French Broad Chocolate Lounge)
Ok, so you're probably starting to see a theme here. The Chocolate Lounge is the best place in town to satisfy your sweet cravings (other than ice cream at Kilwin's). The place is quintessential "Asheville". The atmosphere is fun and hip; they have live music most nights; and the desserts are matchless. The lavender creme brulee may sound like an odd combination, but this creamy custard treat with the slightest hint of lavendar is light, smooth, and heavenly. The maple butter cake is another unique gem. It's the perfect combination of buttery, salty, and sweet. You just can't go wrong at this place.

Best Southern Staple:
1. Corn Pudding (12 Bones)
2. Shrimp & Grits (Tupelo Honey Cafe)
Corn Pudding may sound unappetizing, but this southern tradition is delicious. And 12 Bones does it better than anyone else. This cross between a corn bread and corn soufle is sweet, savory, and moist with just a hint of jalepeno. The perfect accompaniment to the great BBQ they serve. Shrimp & Grits are a southern classic, and Tupelo's are hard to beat. The creamy goat cheese grits are light and bold at the same time, and the perfect stage for the shrimp and roasted red peppers that top them.

There are so many more wonderful flavors in Asheville - these are just some of my favorites. Bon Appetit!