Monday, November 23, 2009

The Road More Travelled

I’m not generally a gear-head. When I find technology that works, I stick with it. I still have an answering machine, a land line, and I keep my cell phone and PDA as two separate entities. Until a year ago, I still had the VCR my parent’s gave me for my 21st birthday, and no I will not be telling you what ancient year that was, but suffice it to say it was PRIME technology for its time, but was thankfully not a Betamax.

I’m also a little bit old-school in some ways. I can read a book on a Kindle, but not the way I want…I like dog-eared pages, wrinkles from reading in the bathtub, and the occasional crumb or tea-stain on the flyleaf. I have an HD Television and the appropriate cable set-up, but I watch most things in standard definition, finding that things in HD are too sharp, too bright, and make me all blinky. Plus there are a lot of people on television who are very talented, but should not be seen in high def.

However, there is one area where I not only want gear, I want the best, the brightest, the newest and shiniest. Travel stuff. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of traveling for pleasure in my life. Lovely vacations hither and yon, all over the world. Long trips and short trips. But it wasn’t until I started doing a lot of business travel that I began to appreciate gear. The essentialness of really good, make-your-life-awesome gear. When you spend any time as a road warrior, suddenly equipping yourself for travel comfort and success becomes a moral imperative. And as I began this new arena, I discovered an interesting phenomenon. When you talk with people about travel, women tend to share ideas about clothes and shoes and how to pack your suitcase, and men tend to share what stuff makes their trips less stressful.

I’m a smart girl. I know you’re supposed to decide whether a trip is a “black trip” or a “brown trip” for ease of packing accessories like shoes, bags, and belts. I know to pack anything messy in zip-top bags in case of inner-suitcase-explosion. I roll my stockings and put them in the toes of my shoes just like every other woman I know. I can fit my clothes into my suitcase, but WHICH SUITCASE?

With a three-week European trip imminent, which was to be followed quickly by a two- night and a six-night business jaunts, I decided to really explore the world of travel gear, looking for stuff that would make my travels easier and lighter, and if I could make it stylish as well, so much the better! I researched, read reviews, and then got hold of the things that seemed a good fit for my experiments. Then I took my shiny new toys on these three very different excursions. And here are my top-ten, never leave home without them finds:

Travelpro Luggage:

I’ve become fanatical about the right suitcases, especially with all of the new regulations for both carry-on and checked baggage. And my favorite suitcases are made by Travelpro. I noticed the logo on a lot of airline personnel bags, and asked a flight attendant about them. She said that the industry relies heavily on the brand and that they are very durable for extensive travelling. The Platinum 5 was top of the line when I was in the market, so I invested in a 19 inch for short overnights, a 22 inch rollabord to carry on for longer business travel, and a 25 inch version for checked baggage for longer trips, as well as the rolling tote for use as a carry-on bag. They have since come out with the Platinum 6, which surprised me, because I couldn’t believe they could improve on such perfection. Seriously, I love these suitcases so much I could date them. All sorts of useful stuff, shoe pockets and a clip-in hanging toiletry bag, zip-out internal hanging bags to keep your evening wear and business suits wrinkle-free, plus a strong yet light-weight frame that can withstand some rigorous handling. It even comes in a lovely blue, just so you don’t have to look at every black suitcase on the carousel with wonderment.

Okay, once you have the suitcase (and have decided on that “black trip/brown trip” thing), how do you effectively maximize the luggage space? A guy pal who takes extended trips for business, often to multiple cities, said that his best travel gear was his comprehensive set of these packing aids…zippered canvas cubes of many sizes and shapes. He explained that by packing his clothes in the cubes, he could keep himself organized, and easily find exactly what he needs at any given time. I outfitted myself with a wide array, (in the lovely pale green color called Tree Frog, and some coordinating patterns in green and gray) and segregated my clothes. One for lingerie, one for socks, one for workout clothes, one for pants and shirts, one for pajamas…it took less than two minutes to put the puzzle together in my suitcase, and the same to unpack when I arrived at my hotel. I took a couple of extra cubes packed flat so that I could shift dirty clothes into them, and Eagle Creek even has some that are two-sided, so that you can have clean on one side and dirty on the other! By keeping my clothes in the cubes inside the hotel drawers, repacking was a cinch.

iPod touch : with travel Apps

I’ve been an iPod girl for years. Couldn’t live without it. But my 60G Classic is so full of music that it was difficult to use for watching videos, which is the best way to get through a long flight or a weather delay. I thought what I wanted was the snazzy new 160G iPod, after all, with all that room I could load it with all the TV shows and movies I could ever want for a trip. That was until I found out about Apps. I have a phone I like, so when the iPhone hoopla began, I didn’t pay much attention. But then my girlfriend Jenn said I should take a look at the iPod Touch, and when I did, I was an immediate convert. Or I should say, addict. I got the 32G Touch, and proceeded to pillage the Apps store like a mad pirate. Best travel Apps: WiFi Finder to help you locate the nearest WiFi, Zagat/LocalEats/Urbanspoon/Yelp any of which will help you figure out where to eat in most major cities around the world, FlightTrack to help you keep an eye on your flights, iFareFinder to help find the lowest fares (great also for needing to find a replacement flight when yours is cancelled, MyGates to help you get around the world’s major airports. Travel Help can find you local info on hospitals or embassies or other essential contact numbers, Taxi can find you a cab and summon it to your location, Translator will give you the translation of anything you type into all the major languages you might need, plus there are plenty of travel guides and maps for places you might visit. I also love the Kindle for iPod, turning my Touch into an e-book reader, the addictive and soothing game Ancient Frog (you’ll just have to check it out, it is impossible to describe), and the NYT Crosswords App keeps my brain from turning to mush. SportsTap keeps me posted on how my teams are faring, Mobile News gives me the AP updates, and Pandora creates custom radio stations for me based on songs or artists I like. The fact that it is the best little video player on top of it seems like a bonus. (get the anti-glare screen protector…just my advice) If I had to choose the one single best piece of travel equipment from this list for you to invest in, this is it, hands-down.

Your iPod, phone, Blackberry…these are delicate little gadgets and they need protection, especially if you are schlepping them all over creation. But frankly, I’m sick to death of the ubiquitous rubber sheath or hard plastic cases. The plain leather ones at the store are boring, the fun ones are a bit too Generation Text for a professional gal on the go. I know they function well, but I wanted something pretty, and appropriate for a woman over the age of 16. Then I found Vaja Cases, a Buenos Aires company making handcrafted custom leather cases for all of your small electronics. And they are gorgeous. A bit pricy may be your first reaction, but I’ve had my classic iPod in one for over 6 years of heavy-duty use, and the case is still beautiful and looks barely used, and more importantly, the iPod inside looks practically new. I also have them for the iPod Touch as well as my Blackberry, and if they made one for my laptop, I’d invest in that too. With over 32 colors of buttery leather to choose from, not to mention some lovely and sophisticated designs, you’ll want all your small electronics dressed in this stunning couture.


The new mini laptop craze is in full swing, and there are many of these adorable things available in a wide range of prices. For me, I wanted the option of an ultra-portable netbook which would fit easily into my purse, would handle basic e-mail, word processing, and internet, and had decent hard drive capacity. And yes, I wanted it to be adorable! The most craveable one on the market is without a doubt the Sony Vaio P series. These tiny powerhouses are the size of a clutch bag, weigh less than a Chihuahua, and come in four sexy colors. But more importantly, they pack the punch of a much bigger laptop. It will take a bit of time to get used to the half-size screen, but just tell yourself it is the biggest Blackberry screen you’ve ever seen, and you’ll shift your thinking. The keyboard is 85% the same size as a regular one, and took only moments to get used to, and the touchpoint navigation button is instantly intuitive, but they also have a Bluetooth mouse available if you prefer. I wouldn’t want to have to do a ton of business on it, it will never replace your primary laptop, but for vacations or short business trips where you don’t need your whole life with you, but still need to check e-mail, do some review of business documents, and maybe look some things up on the internet, this is the one. It is on the high end of the pricing for netbooks, but that is because it is a serious piece of equipment, with a larger capacity hard drive, and decent processing speed. If the Sony isn’t in your budget, the Aceralso has a very cute one for about half the price, which functions well and also comes in a gorgeous dark copper color…my mom bought this one and loves it!

Okay ladies, this is where the rubber meets the road. This piece of travel gear is my new secret weapon, and I cannot stress enough how much easier it has made my life. The travel jacket has removable sleeves to make a vest and has 22 internal pockets, each designed for specialized use (phone, iPod, book, water bottle, travel documents, glasses etc.) the thing is incredibly sophisticated in terms of design. From the outside, it looks like a basic vest. Underneath it is fully rigged out to carry essentially everything you would normally put in a carry-on bag (laptop excluded, unless you get the Sony Vaio P, in which case it fits perfectly). The vest is designed to distribute the weight evenly, and the internal pockets don’t make bulges, so no one knows how much stuff you have in this thing! Plus it has a patented tech system which allows you to internally install your phone and MP3 player and get the wires where you need them…it even has tiny earbud pockets! It is like having a secret agent bonus carry on bag, and totally fulfills a large percentage of my Alias fantasies. On my last trip mine held: iPod, iPod Touch, Blackberry, cell phone, sunglasses, wallet, travel documents, passport, book, bottle of water, snacks, Kleenex, gum, camera, magazine, airplane charger for iPod, lip gloss, pen, magazine, and on my way home, the small bag of souvenirs I bought in the airport! Amazing.

Chargepod : system

All this gear has one downfall. All those chargers! The size of my charger bag has been growing exponentially, and creating a lot of extra weight in my suitcase. But all that is over. Callpod has created a single unit that can charge all your stuff, in one outlet and at the same time! The Chargepod can charge six small devices all at once. All in its own perfect little carrying case. You can finally leave all those huge chargers and bulky cords at home! Genius. (Stay tuned for their V2 which will be able to charge 3 USB devices, 3 small electronics, and a laptop all at once!)

The new security regulations against carrying on liquids are awful for those of us who travel to wine country. But the good people of Bottlewise have come to the rescue. They have developed a system for packing bottles of wine (or olive oil or honey or whatever else you want to bring home) in your luggage. The padded cases have a heavy-duty internal plastic bag with double zipper, which ensures that even if the unthinkable happens and that bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape does break in your suitcase, the damage is contained within the bag. But with this padding and proper use, you should be able to get your wine or other liquid treats home from abroad safely and securely.

Guide books are great, but heavy to lug around. Part of the fun of a trip is in the planning, and the rest is in the adventures you can’t plan for. These small pocket sized notebooks are the best of all worlds: They come with a full set of maps for the city you choose, and the rest of the book is blank for you to write your own travel guide! I buy one for the city I am visiting as soon as I book the flight, and then fill it in with the information I glean from the travel guides and magazines and online sites I read before I leave. That way I can leave the guidebooks home, and still am able to add the fun discoveries I make along my way to use for a future visit or recommend to friends. A great gift for someone who is planning a trip.

Most of my travel is for business, quick trips that often require I head straight from the airport to a meeting. Comfortable traveling shoes aren’t always that adorable, and a lot of them are difficult to get on and off at security. I have always had a small Imelda-level substance abuse problem with Pumas, I live in them, have them in every color and hue and my friends have attempted to have a Puma intervention for me ever since they found out I have a whole shoe closet devoted to nothing else. (Don’t judge me.) But as much as I love them, the lace-up versions can be tedious when you have to get in and out of them efficiently. Then I found the Puma Simplice. (insert singing of angels here) These adorable ballet style flats have all the comfort and durability I have come to expect of Puma, with kicky satin styling, in a range of awesome colors. They look like a great flat, wear like a sneaker, and best of all, you can step right out and in of them at security without missing a beat. And yes, I did get them in black, brown, navy, pewter, and hot pink, and no, I don’t think that is excessive, and yes, I do think it showed tremendous restraint not to buy the red and white ones too. Best place to buy them, Zappos, (which is actually the best place to buy any shoes).

My trips were unmitigated successes, all three. The Travelpro suitcases show no wear and tear from baggage handling, the Cote du Rhone in its Bottlwise jacket made it safely home intact to give to Dad, unpacking and repacking took less than five minutes at every location, neat little green Eagle Creek cubes lined up in drawers and on shelves in the blink of an eye.
My Sony Vaio P elicited open stares of envy from everyone in the travel lounges and my neighbors on the plane, including a deep sigh from a fellow female traveler who said “That is the sexiest computer EVER.” with an air of longing, and with its ultra-portable size and minimal weight, I could keep it with me on my wanderings in case I happened upon a place with Wifi and could shoot a quick e-mail home. It was great to have at meetings for taking notes or referring to documents.
The Vaja cases still look brand new (as do the little components they house), and the killer combo of my single voltage converter/adapter and my Chargepod meant that everything I needed stayed charged for all my trips and only took up one outlet! My super-secret-agent-spy vest became an essential extra carry-on bag, not to mention a great alternative to a backpack for those day trip excursions, and of course had the perfect pockets for my Moleskine city guide and a pen so I could make fast references to the maps, and remind myself which restaurants I had read about in the area.
I was in and out of my Pumas in the flash of an eye at security, and they were appropriate and adorable at meetings, and handled museum wanderings and Roman ruins climbing with equal finesse. And best of all, my iPod Touch got me through six flights, totaling over 30 hours in the air and twelve hours in the airport lounges, with e-books and movies and TV episodes, and the lovely Apps found me the right Metro stations all over Paris, translated menu items in Provence, found me a decent restaurant for lunch in New York, and got me driving directions in Sun Valley.

Sometimes, being a gear girl can really pay off!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Ultimate Football Party

I am a stalwart Chicago Bears fan, however embarrassing their on-the-field performance may be in any given game. I have always been deeply grateful for my grandfather’s foresight in buying season tickets the year the team was founded, which have passed down through the family over the years to my Dad, who takes my sister and me to all of the games. And yes, I do mean ALL of the games, including the below-zero-sleeting-foggy-sweet-fancy-MOSES-it-is-flipping-miserable-out-here games. I know all the words to Bear Down Chicago Bears by heart. I own a special pair of navy/orange/white Puma’s that I only wear to the games. My sister’s dog is named Payton, and his AKC name is Sir Sweetness, in honor of Walter Payton, one of the finest running backs to ever play the game.

I am a fan.

What I am not, is a tailgater. Schlepping all that gear to a game, getting there early and setting up a grill, adding extra hours to time in the cold, it was just never a part of our family routine.

But I do love a good party, and one of the great things about football season is the excuse to have football parties. I don’t mean Superbowl Parties, those are their own unique entities. I mean a good old fashioned random Sunday afternoon or Monday Night Football party, either watching a great classic rivalry, or just rooting for your home team with friends.

Today at noon, I will be appearing on the WGN news to do a segment about just such events, and wanted to be sure that the expanded version of my tips, tricks, and recipes were available in their entirety here on the blog!


Decorate the room with the television in the colors of your home team…plastic plates, cups, silverware and napkins easily found at the party supply store or at Target.

If you have one available, set up a second small TV in the kitchen (where people invariably gather) so that the game is on wherever people are.

Buy team hats (readily available online inexpensively) for your guests as party favors….if the logo hats are too expensive, buy plain baseball caps in the team colors.

Cover your buffet table in a green tablecloth and use white duct tape to make yardage lines, and white latex numbers to mark off the yard lines. Both of these can be found at Office Depot. You can also download team logos online and print them out to put in the “end zones”.

Make little labels for your food with fun names “Touchdown Dip” “Field Goal Drumsticks” “Monsters of the Midway Meatballs” “Goal Line Guacamole” “End Zone Empanadas” “Special Teams Salsa” “Defense Deviled Eggs” (someone stop me as I beat a metaphor to death…)

Set up a White Board with a standard betting grid (also easily found online if you don’t know how to do one already) but with the numbers covered up and have your guests write their names in a few squares. At the end of the first quarter reveal the numbers, and give out prizes for the people in the squares with the winning scores for each quarter, with a grand prize for the person in the square with the final score.


Think regional specialties. Every team has some foods that are special for their city or region, and using that as the basis for your menu planning is both fun and delicious. If you are like me, you will have a great time researching the recipes and whipping up your own versions. If you aren’t much of a cook, or if you won’t have the time, see if there is a local place to pick up the food or look online to see if you can get what you are looking for shipped in. I know I have mentioned them before, but Foods Across America is an amazing resource for this, they are often the exclusive distributor of the original and most authentic versions of some really incredible regional specialties. If you do decide to check them out for a party like this, or are looking for some great food gifts, you can get a special 15% discount on all of your purchases through the end of the year by using the code FAASBAL09 at checkout.

If you do like to cook, Chili is a great go-to option. There are regional versions from almost all over the country, so you can customize based on the game you are watching. Arizona Cardinals playing the Cincinnati Bengals? Do a southwest green chicken chili and a classic Cincy 5-way. Dallas Cowboys facing down the Oakland Raiders? Do an all-meat Texas style and a California Vegetarian version.

You can have a couple of your guests bring their “famous” chilis, pick up a vat from a local restaurant or just make my Almost-famous chili! (recipe below)

For an awesome over the top party, try this set up:

One meat chili, one vegetarian (you can add a third version, like a chicken or turkey or green chili if you are having a really big group). Put them in slow cookers on one end of buffet table.

My favorite toppings and add-ins:

Tater Tots
Tortilla Strips
Shredded Cheeses (sharp cheddar, pepper jack, goat cheese)
Chopped onions
Chopped roasted chilis (jalapenos or Anaheim or pepperdew)
Chopped roasted sweet red peppers
Guacamole or Chopped Avocado
Lime Wedges
Nacho Cheese Sauce (one large brick of Velveeta melted with one can of Ro-tel diced tomatoes and green chilis with the juice until blended)
Black olivesGreen olives
Chopped cilantro
Chopped parsley
Julienned jicama
Roasted Corn (cut off the cob)
Fresh chopped tomatoes
Red Pepper Flakes
Different Hot Sauces
Corn Bread Croutons (make or buy a not-too-sweet cornbread, let sit uncovered overnight, cut into squares, spray with cooking spray and toast in a 400 degree oven for 5-10 minutes until crisp)
Sour Cream
Jalapeno Oil (blend fresh jalapeno with olive oil and strain)

For fun bases:
Baked Potatoes (regular and sweet)
Fried Tortilla baskets (corn and/or flour)
Shredded lettuce for making taco salads
Cooked Macaroni (toss in olive oil to prevent sticking)
Cooked Rice (toss in olive oil to prevent sticking)

If I’ve forgotten your favorite topping or base, I hope you’ll share with the class!

Stacey’s Almost-Famous ChiliServes 8-10, multiplies up beautifully

This is a mildly spicy chili, I prefer not to make mine too hot and let people who want more spice add it in to their preference.

¼ c olive oil
2 lbs. ground veal (or beef, or pork, or bison, or turkey…)
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage (turkey or chicken sausage also okay here, ditto the spicy versions)
2 c diced yellow onions
7 T chili powder
1 T dark cocoa powder (unsweetened)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T ground cumin
1 T dried thyme leaves
1 T dried oregano
2 14.5 oz cans crushed tomatoes, San Marzano if possible
12 oz. beer
¼ c tomato paste
3 15 oz cans cannelini beans (great northern, black, or pinto also fine, I find kidney beans get tough in reheating), drained and rinsed

Heat oil in large pot till shimmering, then add onions and cook till translucent. Add garlic and meat (sausage meat removed from casing) and cook till lightly browned. Add spices and herbs and cook additional 10 minutes. Add tomatoes with juice, beer, cocoa powder, tomato paste and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Add beans and cook 10 minutes to heat through. For best flavor refrigerate overnight and then reheat slowly over med-low heat on stovetop or in a slow cooker on low.

Some other handy recipes:

Baked Salami

1 whole 2 lb. salami (I only use Vienna Beef for this, it is really perfect, but if you have another salami you like, it just can’t be dry aged or hard salami)
1 jar Heinz Chili Sauce
1 small jar grape jelly
1 tbsp. powdered mustard (I like Colman’s)
2 pkg. cocktail rye bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove plastic casing from salami, and lightly score on both sides. Place it on a sheet pan and roast 20 minutes. In a small saucepan, heat chili sauce, half the jar of grape jelly, and half of the mustard until the jelly melts. Taste. It should be sweet and sour with a slight heat from the mustard. Need more heat? Add the rest of the mustard. Need more sweet? Add the rest of the jelly. When you like it, and then pour generously over salami, but try not to let too much puddle on the pan. Bake this for another 15-20 minutes. The glaze should be a mahogany color and the salami should be heated through. Take out of the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice thickly and place on slices of cocktail rye bread. Serve with extra sauce on side.

Bite Size Caprese Tomatoes

24 cherry tomatoes
24 bocconcini (mini buffalo mozzarella balls…you can substitute chunks of a larger piece of buffalo mozzarella or burrata, but do not use slicing mozzarella like you would use on pizza)
24 large basil leaves
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
White Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper

Slice top off tomatoes, and remove seeds and centers with melon baller or small spoon. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt and pepper. Drip one drop of olive oil and one of vinegar in each cup. Wrap a basil leaf around a boccocini and stuff into tomato cup. Serve chilled.

Herbed Popcorn
3 T peanut oil
¾ c popcorn kernels
3 T nutritional yeast (this will be with the dietary supplements at your local Whole Foods or health food store, and while it sounds like a strange addition, it has a nutty flavor that is reminiscent of parmesan cheese and pairs great with popcorn)
1 t ground mustard powder
1 ½ t salt (and more to taste)
1 t dried thyme leaves (or herbes de Provence or Italian herb mix)
½ t garlic powder
¼ t cayenne pepper (optional)

Mix all of the spices and herbs with the nutritional yeast in a small bowl.

Put oil and popcorn in a large pot, shake to be sure all the kernels are coated, cover pot with tight fitting lid and turn the stove burner on high. Leave the pot alone until you hear the popping slow down, and then give it a shake or two just to be sure that you are getting all the kernels popped. When the popping slows to three seconds between pops, turn off the heat, remove the lid, and pour the popcorn in a bowl large enough for you to mix it around easily. Sprinkle hot popcorn with about 1/3 of the yeast/spice mix and toss popcorn thoroughly. Taste. Add more yeast mix and salt until you get the flavor you want. Once you have the right balance, let the popcorn sit uncovered at room temperature until completely cool. Store in Ziploc bags or Tupperware containers for up to 36 hours. You can toast on sheet pans in a 400 degree oven for 3-4 minutes to recrisp or if you want to serve warm.

White Bean Caramelized Onion Dip
2 cans cannellini beans or other white beans, drained
Juice of 1 ½ lemons
½ c extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 T fresh thyme leaves
½ c caramelized onions (about one large onion cooked in 2 T olive oil over med-low heat till deep brown)
S/P to taste

Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend until creamy and smooth. Makes about 2 cups dip.

Austrian Style Potato Salad
3 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into large chunks
1 red onion, diced as fine as you can get it
1/3 c rice wine vinegar
½ c canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch chives, chopped fine

Boil potatoes in heavily salted water till fork tender…do not overcook or they will get waterlogged. Soak onions in vinegar. Drain potatoes thoroughly, and pour over vinegar/onion mixture and oil, and mix gently, trying not to break up potatoes. Let sit at room temperature, tossing occasionally until cooled. Taste for salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped chives. This salad is better if it never gets refrigerated, and there is nothing in it to go bad or get rancid, so it is the perfect thing to bring to a party where food is likely to sit out.

Susan’s Apple Cake with Chocolate Chips

This is one of my favorite desserts, shared with me by my godmother who is the best home-baker I have ever met. It is a great fall cake, makes your house smell amazing, and is moist and delicious. Just try it, I promise you’ll love it!

2 c flour
2 c sugar
4 eggs
4 c cubed apples (3 large or 4 medium, gala, fuji, honeycrisp, anything sweet and crisp)
1 t baking soda
Pinch salt
1 T vanilla
1 c vegetable oil
1 c chocolate chips (lightly dusted in flour)
2 t cinnamon

Combine flour, sugar, eggs, oil, cinnamon, baking soda, vanilla, salt. Add apples. Add chocolate chips. Spread into greased 9X13 pan. Will look like not enough batter. But it totally is. Do not worry. Bake at 325 for 40 minutes till skewer comes out clean. Cool before cutting into squares.

Monday, November 2, 2009

For the Love of Root Beer

I’m not much of a pop person.

And yes, I call it POP, and no, I don’t care if you are snickering at me. If you order a scotch and soda you do not get scotch with Mountain Dew in it. Soda is carbonated water, and POP is carbonated water with sugar and flavorings and that is all there is to it.

But I digress. As an adult I’ve pretty much always been a water or tea kind of girl. I love Coca Cola exclusively in 8oz glass bottles and as more of a treat than a beverage. I drink Ginger Ale when my tummy is upset or when I am the designated driver, in which case I order it with a splash of cranberry and two limes. I did have a brief fling with the Canada Dry Green Tea Ginger Ale which I loved a little too much, and since they do not make a diet version, I had to give it up. (Note to Canada Dry people….PLEASE MAKE DIET VERSION OF GREEN TEA GINGER ALE. I miss it. But I cannot afford to quaff 140 calories a can. Thank you.)

After a short lived love affair withJolt Cola in the late eighties, more for the caffeine than the taste, I mostly gave up pop since I find diet versions tinny and overly carbonated and the regular versions simply too caloric to indulge in except as a rare treat. Luckily I love water, and drinking my eight glasses a day is one of the few healthy things I don’t have to force myself to do. Despite usually finding that flavored waters taste vaguely of furniture polish, I've recently become completely addicted to La Croix Pamplemousse, and am up to about a half a case a day habit. I thought originally it was because Pamplemousse is my favorite word in French, but it turns out that the light grapefruit flavor is just refreshing, doesn't leave an aftertaste or compete with food. Good job, LaCroix! You are totally forigiven for all the times I have partaken of your products and then spent an afternoon feeling as if I drank Murphy's Oil Soap.

An exception to my general indifference to pop this has always been root beer. Most diet root beers actually taste great, I'm very partial to Diet Barq's, and I always have it on hand for when the mood strikes me.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of going to the A&W restaurants as a special treat after overnights at camp. After a few nights in a tent in the woods, nothing was a more delightful indulgence than a perfect root beer float in an honest to god frosty mug, brain freeze imminent.

Over the years, I have tasted root beers from all over the country and have come to appreciate the nuances that the variations contain. Since root beer is made up of many different flavoring agents, from wintergreen to licorice to vanilla, it actually pairs beautifully with a lot of different foods, which can be a delightful and unusual option for the designated drivers and the underage at a party.

While a lot of root beers can be found at your local grocery stores, some of the regional varieties are really special. If you want to do a tasting, I highly recommend ordering the Root Beer Bundle from Foods Across America, and while you are there, browse around to check out their other local specialties from around the country. They have the coolest food gifts out there, including many things that you won’t find anywhere else except the actual original locations. And because I love you, I have hooked you up with a discount code that you can use for 15% off for the rest of the year! Holiday shopping, chickens! Just click the link above, place your order, and type in FAASBAL09 at checkout. Who loves you?

Last year in the midst of my recipe contesting fervor (scroll back through the archives for that saga) I discovered that despite how weird it sounds, cooking with pop can be a fun challenge. Recently I was writing about root beer, and inspired by my success with 7up cuisine, I began playing with it as an ingredient in cooking. As a result I was recently interviewed for an article about root beer which you can read here:

The Daily Herald Article on Root Beer
It was lovely to be interviewed. It was less lovely to have someone make up a quote out of whole cloth and print it as the last line of the article, making me sound like a complete idiot.

“It's almost like having a beer, but it's not;" Ballis says. "It can be real fun."
 Ballis begs to disagree. I can promise you all that as someone who works with words for a living, that sentence was never uttered. Not even in any possible configuration. Because I am not a ten-year-old writing a letter home from camp. Because in a million years I do not think having a root beer is anything like having a beer. It makes me feel sympathy for anyone who has ever railed against the press for being misquoted, even when I have thought that they probably just let their tongues slip a little bit.

That is all I am going to say about that. Unfortunately it is not all my friends are going to say about it. Last night at a lovely dinner party, my dearest pals spent the better part of the night responding to pretty much anything I said with “Can that be real fun?” or following my statements with the caveat “But it’s not.” I fear I may never live it down, however, if I’m going to dish it out I have to be able to take it, even if it is not “real fun” to think that people are going to read that line and believe that it came from me. Ah, the joys of print journalism. It’s almost like having your actual words and thoughts represented accurately; but its not!

Okay, time to stop channeling Bill Maher, the damage is done.

Back to more important things. Like the root beer that is nothing like having a beer, but is, in fact, REAL FUN!

Root beer is amazing with pork. Any recipe you have with Coca Cola for a braised pork dish or a ham recipe, root beer is a much more interesting and complex substitution. My favorite version is ridiculously simple. Just take a 5-6 pound bone-in pork shoulder and put in a large dutch oven with one to two sliced onions and cover with root beer, slap on the lid and cook covered at 250 degrees for about 4-6 hours until the meat is falling off the bone.

Root beer can reduced to a syrup by simply cooking over medium high heat in a saucepan until it reaches the consistency you like. I cook it down till it is the texture of maple syrup and then lightly paint it on thick sliced bacon before cooking on a sheet pan in a 400 degree oven until crisp and sticky. A surprisingly good pairing for pancakes and waffles, and for rich egg dishes, but my favorite thing to do with it is to make a grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread with a very sharp cheddar cheese, ripe tomatoes, and root beer bacon. Ridiculous. You can also put this syrup over vanilla ice cream for a twist on the traditional root beer float. A ½ cup of the syrup added to your favorite barbecue sauce tastes great, and next time your chili recipe calls for adding a bottle of beer, try a not-too-sweet root beer instead (I like Faygo or Boylan for this). And mixing the syrup into your favorite vanilla frosting recipe can make a great filling for cookie sandwiches, try it between a couple of spicy ginger snaps.

Saveur, my favorite cooking magazine even had this recipe for a root beer cake in their issue 104:

Root Beer Cake (adapted from Saveur Magazine)

1 cup butter, plus 1 tsp. to grease pan
2 1⁄2 cups cake flour, plus 1 tbsp. for dusting cake pan
2 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup root beer
5 tsp. root beer extract
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
2 cups butter
4 room-temperature eggs
4 1⁄2 cups confectioners' sugar2 tbsp. cream

1. Heat oven to 350°. Grease a 9" × 13" pan with 1 tsp. of the butter; dust with 1 tbsp. of the cake flour; tap bottom of pan to remove excess flour.

2. Sift remaining cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl; set aside.

3. Whisk together root beer and 2 tsp. of the root beer extract in a bowl; set aside.

4. Beat sugar and 1 cup of the butter in a large bowl until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition. Alternately add flour mixture and root beer mixture, waiting for each to be incorporated before adding the next. Mix briefly, then transfer batter to pan; smooth out top.

5. Bake, rotating once, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cool.

6. Put confectioners' sugar and remaining butter into a bowl; beat with an electric mixer to combine. Add cream and remaining root beer extract; beat to make a fluffy frosting. Spread frosting on cake.

Also makes great cupcakes, just cut down the cooking time to about 15-18 minutes.

Anyone else have recipes that use pop or other odd ingredients in unusual applications? Please share with the class.

In the meantime, if you try any of these, let me know what you think!