The obvious Americans — and happy St. Patrick’s Day!

It’s been almost a year since I was in Ireland, drinking my fill of Guinness (or Smithwick’s — I’m not serious enough for straight Guinness, despite my cupcakes) and thinking I blended amongst the locals eating out in Dublin. Though I was, of course, an American tourist, I wasn’t prancing around with a neon pink fanny pack and white tennis shoes, barking at people to serve me “A-mer-i-can food, dammit!” and generally setting international relations back a few centuries.

Not that I recall, anyway. (So much Smithwick’s.)

(Okay, not really — I’m not a drinker — but everyone is a drinker in Ireland. Even my mother, plied repeatedly with Irish coffee.)

I’ll just come out and admit it: I can be a bit smug when I travel. I try to never be “the ugly American,” offering courteous smiles to everyone I meet and never stiffing the locals on tips. On our trip to Italy years back, our tour director said something that has stayed with me: “We are all international ambassadors.” Meaning, you have an unpleasant interaction with an American. You think they’re rude. Though it’s not necessarily fair, our minds may make a leap: this American woman was rude. Americans can be rude. All Americans are rude. And so on.

I try never to be rude. To blend, if you will, and this doesn’t just apply to international travel. When asked by a clerk if I was “from Texas?” while shopping in Los Angeles years ago, I just cocked an eyebrow and laughed. If she thinks my Southern accent is strong and Texas-like, she’s obviously never met a real Texan. (Or a real Southerner, ’cause my twang ain’t go nothing on the accents of my North Carolina relatives. I’m sort of jealous, really; I’ve just got the Eastern Seaboard thing goin’ on. Though I do use “y’all” with reckless abandon.)

So anyway. In Dublin. I’m trying to blend and not be rude and be a courteous American when I walk into a pub with my family. I’m trying to not scream “TOURIST! TOURIST OVER HERE!” and just enjoy a casual evening in Ireland. Before we’d uttered a word — before we’d even greeted a soul in the place — a cute young waiter approached, passing out menus. “Evenin’,” he said with a smile. “Americans, eh?”


I was flabbergasted. I didn’t think I had a “tell.” Is it my purple jacket? My jaunty swagger? The way I “style” (term used loosely) my hair? My liberal eye contact?

Grabbing hold of our good ol’ American enthusiasm, my family and I exchanged questioning looks while I laughed, “Yes — what gave it away?”

The server’s crooked smile would have made Edward Cullen jealous. With a gentle but aggravating shrug, he replied, “I just know.”

“But how do you know?” I pressed, suddenly desperate to see what set us apart. “The way we walked in the pub?”

We hadn’t known where to sit, of course. Not locals.

“I just know,” he repeated, and then I dropped the matter. Mostly because I was starving and we were soon going to be served this:

(And yes, we ordered burgers and fries in Ireland. How cliche.
But I tried haggis in Scotland, so sue me.)

Then I forgot about cultural identities and international relations and politeness and fanny packs (or lack thereof).

Om nom nom nom.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Cool and creamy pumpkin pie mousse

While searching for healthy twists on traditional holiday recipes, I knew right away I couldn’t leave out my most favorite of all autumn items: pumpkin! (Were you really expecting me to say anything else?) I’m doing a magazine spread of healthier alternatives to the dishes that make this season great, and it’s not like I could print and promote a recipe I hadn’t tried myself. Am I right?

I said, am I right?

Yes. Of course. So I whipped up this pumpkin pie mousse, adapted from a recipe found online. I actually lost track of where I originally found this one, but it’s pretty similar to this version. The biggest change from traditional pumpkin pie is that we’re not using a real pie crust, and there’s no additional sugar. Plus, we’re using all fat-free or low-fat ingredients.

And do you think the pumpkin pie fanatics around my house missed those calories? Absolutely not. This light, fluffy and decidedly pumpkin-y concoction tasted delicious, and the added crunch from the crushed graham crackers kept it from feeling too much like dipping into simple pie batter. It’s cool, refreshing — and simple. Very, very simple.

So when you’re eager to try out a pumpkin dish this fall but aren’t ready to commit to a full-blown pie, keep this one stashed in your repertoire. This pumpkin nut wouldn’t steer you wrong.

Pumpkin pie mousse

1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup skim milk
1 (1 ounce) package instant sugar-free vanilla pudding mix
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 (8 ounce) container fat-free frozen whipped topping, thawed
1/2 cup crushed graham crackers
Cinnamon, to taste

In a medium bowl, mix together the milk, pumpkin and instant pudding mix. Stir in the pumpkin pie spice, and fold in half of the thawed whipped topping. Pour into an 8-inch pie plate and spread remaining whipped topping over top. Sprinkle with crushed graham crackers and lightly dust with cinnamon. Chill for one hour, or until set. Serve in individual cups for an added touch.

New go-to dinner: Turkey oven sandwiches

The menu around our house has slowly grown in diversity, but it takes something special — something very special — to earn a regular spot in our weeknight rotation. One night is taco night. Then we have spaghetti night, or chicken nuggets night. My dad will probably thrown chicken on a grill on a different day, and then we’re left with dreaded Leftovers Night or We’re Going Out to Bob Evans Night.

Then I began combing the web for something new to make with ground turkey, something our freezer seems to never be without. Until a few months ago, ground turkey was reserved for homemade meatballs (thereby placing them on the roster for Spaghetti Night) and not much else. But now? With this recipe for turkey oven sandwiches, the times have been a’ changin’.

I love these because they’re simple, quick and different, plus mighty tasty and easy to prepare after work. And the best part is that they’re completely customizable — appropriate for the varied tastes of your family and guests, for sure. My dad hates celery, for one, so he gets one that’s completely plain . . . no celery, no onion, no nothing (well, besides cheese and sour cream). Everyone’s happy because they get what they want, and I’m happy because . . . well, it’s just delicious.

Whenever I think about making these, the best part is that we usually have everything we need right at home — minus the pita bread. I’ve made many a run to the grocery store and walked out with just pita bread, but it’s worth it. Filling and warm, these “sandwiches” — open-faced, anyway — are definitely comfort food. They don’t have to have the calories of traditional comfort foods, though; it’s easy to use fat-free sour cream instead of regular, reduced-fat cheese, etc.

The recipe below is a guideline, and most ingredients should be considered “to taste.” For instance, Spencer and I are totally nuts over garlic — so way more than the teaspoon below goes into our skillet. I’m also guilty of slapping tons of garlic salt, black pepper and other random spices, and these have never turned out poorly. The last thing you want is bland ground turkey, so go bold! Add what you think your crew will like — I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Also, I can easily make five sandwiches from one package of ground turkey — sometimes six, depending on how hungry everyone is!

Turkey Oven Sandwiches

Adapted from Betty Crocker

For turkey:
1 pound ground turkey
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic
1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon parsley
1 teaspoon black pepper

When layering pitas:
4-6 pita breads
1 medium tomato, diced
1 medium celery stalk, sliced (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup chopped red onion
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (or to taste)

For topping:
1/2 cup sour cream
1/3 cup mayonnaise
Paprika, if desired

1. Heat oven to 425ºF. In a skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil and garlic before adding turkey, poultry seasoning, garlic salt, black pepper and parsley. Stir occasionally until turkey is no longer pink, then drain.

2. Layer pita bread rounds on ungreased baking sheet (it’s okay if they overlap). Layer turkey, celery, red onion, tomato and Cheddar cheese on pitas.

3. Mix sour cream and mayonnaise, then spoon over top. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until topping is light brown. Enjoy!

Confessions of a non-gym rat

“Fitness” has always been a four-letter word for me. My past “workout” routines have involved making the circuitous route from my favorite easy chair to the fridge for more spinach and artichoke dip, or the short walk from my desk to the restroom. Sometimes, if I’m feeling super adventurous, I park a little farther away from the office door . . . you know, for the extra walk. Or I get a salad instead of a mayo-drenched sandwich.

But these were all very minor, sporadic changes. Only twice have I made a concentrated effort to get in better shape, lose some weight and generally feel better about myself — and once was by accident. In college, my campus was enormous; the miles it took me to walk from my car in a distant parking lot to class were what allowed me to eat Chick-fil-A for lunch daily and still lose weight. My sophomore year at the University of Maryland, I dropped ten pounds without blinking.

And then I got spoiled.

In the post-college world, of course, I’m not walking uphill in the cold or jogging to a class across campus in five minutes or less. I’m getting up and dressed, then going to work and plunking down at my desk chair — where my behind sits for four hours or more at a stretch. I’m not moving. I’m not active. And I think the way I feel reflects that.

My dad warned me this would happen. In your first “real world” office job, it seems, you’re completely stationary — and that’s not exactly conducive to keeping your weight down. I debated doing something about it years ago but never felt motivated . . . until I broke up with a boyfriend. And needed a way to channel my aggression/boredom.

So exercise it was.

I bought a series of walking DVDs by Leslie Sansone, which I’ve written about before. They’re awesome. And for a year or so, I was very religious about doing a two- or three-mile walk nightly. But, you know . . . eventually, I became bored. Complacent. And after getting back from a trip to California, I completely lost my momentum. Then stopped.

For the past few months, Spencer and I have been sporadically going to the gym together. It’s free for him at work, so no commitment, and just $5 for me each visit. This worked off and on each week but, coupled with a 45-minute drive after work to his building, it just wasn’t practical. For us to achieve some sort of real fitness routine, it has to be convenient and sustainable. We have to be able to go several times per week.

Enter the gym.

Yes, friends, I’m now a keychain-card-carrying member of a local gym. I go in and use a locker room. I own workout pants and can use an elliptical. On Sunday, Spencer and I had our inaugural one-hour session and left feeling great. Sweaty, tired and decidedly not glamorous . . . but great.

I’m not going to put pressure on myself to have XYZ complete by a certain time . . . but I would really like to lose some weight before ordering my bridesmaid dress for Erin’s wedding in September. I just want to feel good about me. And with Spencer just as committed to regular gym time, I think we’ll really make a go of this. Our plan is to go every other day after work, and on either a Saturday or Sunday. I’ll have my iPod in hand.

And yes, sometimes I do wear my houndstooth coat to the gym. I’m still me — gym rat or no.

Hot bacon dip — or why you can’t go wrong with bacon

I’ve never been a breakfast person. Pancakes coated in syrup leave me totally cold; sausage and eggs make me want to gag. On vacations and other extravagant adventures, I can down a few slices of French toast — but even that makes me feel queasy after a while. You know what I had for breakfast on Thursday? Leftover spaghetti. And the day before that, it was a can of Diet Pepsi and some cottage cheese.

Basically, I’m weird about morning meals. But I digress.

You know what breakfast food I can totally get behind? Bacon, friends. Crisp, delicious, oh-so-bad-for-you bacon. And if you mention a recipe that includes both bacon, cheese and bread, three of the things I love most in the world, I’m right there with you.

Such was the case on Halloween. Being the true foodies that we are, Spencer and I decided we needed to make a snack to eat while we were waiting for our other food to cook — in this case, green bean casserole and a beef stew for dinner. In between carving pumpkins and getting ready for our Halloween movie marathon, we gathered the ingredients for this tasty dip, which comes courtesy of a recipe written for Spence by Alex, his awesome mom.

And once we pulled the hollowed-out sourdough bread shell from the oven, bubbling over with cheesy, onion and garlicky goodness? Well, it was heaven. I washed my hands of pumpkin guts long enough to nibble on endless slices of French bread, and this dip barely lasted long enough for us to share it with Eric, my sister’s boyfriend. That’s what he gets for arriving late to the festivities. (Okay, so he wasn’t really late — and he called to tell us when he’d be arriving. Maybe I was just being selfish and wanted all the dip to myself! . . . Maybe.)

This was so good, in fact, that it totally ruined us for the dinner we’d had in the Crockpot for hours.

But now I’m eating all the leftovers for lunch at work — and saving $10.

See? This dip is awesome. This dip saves me money.

Hot Bacon Dip

Recipe from Alexandra J.

• 12 slices center cut bacon – crisp and crumbled
• 1 package (8 oz.) shredded Colby/Monterey Jack cheese
• 1 cup (4 oz.) grated parmesan cheese
• 1 cup real mayonnaise
• 1 small onion — finely chopped
• 1 clove garlic (minced)
• 1 round loaf of bread (not wheat – Italian or French is best)


Mix ingredients together in large bowl. Spoon into round, scooped out bread shell (bread bowl). Cover shell with the cut-off bread top. Place on cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until cheese is bubbly. Serve warm. Cube up loaf of French bread for dipping, and use bread removed from round loaf for extra dipping.

Office snacking: The messy aftermath. Today at 3 p.m.

popcorn_bowlIn my daily travels around the Internet and various non-profit websites looking for cool articles for the sections I edit at the paper, I’ve come across quite a few whacky stories (see tips on how to tell if you’re husband is cheating on you at Christmas — always a delight!). Most of them aren’t quite that graphic, but many can get a little strange! Often, though, I actually learn a little something myself.

Today’s lesson? Snacking right at work. Those of us spending our days elbow to elbow with coworkers know exactly what it’s like to see that giant box of chocolate chip cookies sitting, often unattended, mere inches away from your fingers. My friend Sandy enjoys popping a nice bag of popcorn around 3 p.m. — and is always generous enough to share. But the constant offerings of candy, coffee and — gasp! — Girl Scout cookies are almost too much to take! It’s as much about boredom and stress as anything, I know, but I have to really watch myself. I mean, I’m pretending to try and lose weight here. I’ve cut out the soda, God help me. And I’m going to start walking on the treadmill. Every other day. For real this time.

So I need to get serious about the no-snacks at work business. I’m generally pretty good about it, but I do eat lunch out almost every day — and often bring a cookie or something back to my desk after my outing. I keep granola bars and the like in a drawer, too (come on, you know you have a snack drawer!), but I’m going to be limiting that as well. And drinking only water. As much as I can stand, anyway . . .

And, according to the awesome article I will be publishing in my health section soon, I will also be:

• Bringing snacks from home. This limits the amount of mooching that will be required on my part to get a little afternoon pick-me-up, plus cut down on the money I’ll spend on snacky treats in the afternoon.

• Relying on flavorful foods. Bland snacks like veggies rarely satisfy that sweet tooth hankering I’m always battling. I’ll try low-fat crackers, especially with peanut butter . . . mmm. Trying to force myself to eat foods I’m not crazy about, like carrots, won’t help me or my psychological craving for junk food. If I’m going to snack, I need to pick something with some taste and nutritional benefits.

• Talking my coworkers into cooperating. My office neighbors (hi, Brandon and Sandy!) are great and rarely contribute to my bad habits, but we have to be a united front. It’s a lot easier to fight off temptation when temptation isn’t a nice, giant and free candy bar sitting on the edge of your desk!