Monday, July 13, 2015

My favorite byline involved meat pies

If I had time, I'd tell you the back story to this. Feel free to ask me about it later. :) Here, the text-only version (I had two photos published, too!) of my proudest byline.

Meat Pies, Get Your Meat Pies!
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Date:     Mar 2, 2003
Start Page:     E.04
Section:     TRAVEL

The first time I bought a meat pie I was in a small bakery in New Zealand looking for a quick breakfast. The muffins, with tops sagging like the hats of the Seven Dwarfs, looked wimpy, but the pie's slightly browned crust and little shell, a bit smaller than a Swanson pot pie, won me over. I ordered. I took a bite. It tasted like salty, gravied ground beef in a greasy shell.

"What the -- " My Australian travel mates started laughing at me, and I sensed a lesson coming on.

"You don't eat meat pies in the morning. That's just feral."

"You don't get a meat pie in New Zealand, you get them in Australia."

"You eat them at a footy game, not for brekkie!"

"Don't you know what a meat pie is? You Americans . . . "

Later, living in Sydney, I saw meat pies in bakeries and cafes and in the hands of Aussie blokes calling the Adelaide Crows "bloody mongrels" during an Aussie Rules football match. Meat pies seemed equivalent to hot dogs and hamburgers: Available. Affordable. Convenient. Sometimes questionable. Yet how many Yanks would order pies filled with beef bits?

The meat pies of Australia's short history were the staple fast food (fish 'n' chips aside) before Thai and Indian takeout and the like gained popularity over the past decade. The pie concept dates back to the Middle Ages, when they were the perfect traveler's fare: filling finger food that preserved well. After arriving in Australia with British convicts (who began using a pastry lid rather than a mashed potato top), the pies became the blue-collar man's lunch, a final feed after a night at the pub, and a student's lunch from the school cafeteria.

The artistic part comes with a pie's consumption.

I received my lesson in pie-eating at the Upper Crust, an award- winning gourmet pie shop and bakery north of Sydney. A patron happily enjoyed a Singapore curry pie (a takeoff of the traditional beef pie but with lots of curry sauce) and demonstrated the correct way to slide a pie from its brown paper wrapping with each bite -- with two hands and no fork or knife

Later, I tried the no-hands approach with my sun-dried tomato, chicken and char-grilled eggplant pie filling, but I ended up with chicken in my lap and reaching for a spoon.

The Upper Crust's owner and pie chef, Sylvia McGrigor, creates pies whose fillings seem more like main dishes. Her ingredients go beyond beef, salt, pepper and beef stock, and don't even mention using the animal parts once found in factory-produced pies. Instead think garlic, sauvignon blanc, asparagus, couscous.

"As soon as you bite through all that carbohydrate, what's inside has to have ooomph," she said. "On the plate is cinema, and it has to be theater in the pie."

The experience at Harry's Cafe de Wheels, Sydney's famous 67- year-old pie hot spot, is in its own category: unique but not quite gourmet, just a good feed from a vending caravan like those on Constitution Avenue but with neon signs and colorful murals of sailors and warships. Mention meat pies to Sydney-siders and they'll send you to Harry's for a Tiger, a homemade ground-sirloin meat pie that's topped with mashed potatoes, bright green mushy peas and gravy.

The Cafe de Wheels caravan kitchen, which faces Woolloomooloo Bay, once served sailors from the nearby naval base. Nowadays local workmen, drag queens, tour buses and movie stars chow down there -- even Pamela Anderson can say she's been to Harry's.

I admit that the Tiger won my heart for best basic meat pie, and I was happy to sit alongside local businessmen spooning mushy peas into their mouths just as I was. But the pie I now crave is Sylvia's tomato, chicken and eggplant combo and her light and flaky crust. At least when I go back for more I'll know how to eat them, even if I do need a spoon. And I certainly won't order one for breakfast.

-- Sara Zailskas

Pies at Harry's Cafe de Wheels (Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo) are about $1.30 to $2.30. Pies at the Upper Crust (1003 Pittwater Rd., Collaroy) are about $1.20 to $2.90. Sauces extra.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Throw-It-Together-Dinner Roots

Between my mom and my dad, hands down, my mom is the cook. My mom managed to break outside her ethnic Lithuanian, peasant-food background and, in her adult life overseeing our household, make recipes that came from her friends or were clipped out of the Chicago Tribune: Indian shish-kabobs, linguine with clam sauce, chop suey. Such dishes, while mundane in today’s international food culture, truly pushed the boundaries in our world. When my mom dies, people will talk about her food.

I’m a good middle-of-the-week cook: I can walk into a grocery store after work not having had time to think about dinner let alone research a recipe, look at a piece of meat or catch the glimpse of a vegetable, scan my memory for tastes that come to mind, and end up throwing together something that ends up tasty and “actually pretty good” (as my husband says).

I’ve always credited this ability to my mom, who I watched add in an extra dash of this or that and make recipes just right. I spent hours watching her cook as I grew up. But it’s been a year since my dad died, and in hindsight, I’ve realized I actually owe my food spontaneity to him.

For his one-year anniversary this Christmas Eve, I planned to memorialize him by visiting the lakefront of Lake Michigan where he spent so much time painting, swimming, shooting his bow and arrow, or barbecuing for us on a holiday weekend. But when I woke up that morning, I realized what I needed to do was make pancakes.

He'd make pancakes Sunday mornings for me and him – his one meal a week he was responsible for, you could argue -- and when I became high school age and started sleeping in way past pancake hour, he'd always leave one or two in the pan for me to find later, a trend that would continue even when I was home from college during breaks. His pancakes were always really flat, which drove my mom nuts – “He over-beats the batter! You don’t do that!” -- but I never complained. He used to balk at my using Aunt Jemimah syrup instead of real maple syrup from some farm in Michigan, but this morning he'd have been proud, because I've since made the switch and thankfully reached for the “good” stuff.

This gesture of making pancakes surprised me; I have not associated my dad with food in that way, despite the fact I knew he could be self-sufficient if called upon and enjoyed a good meal. He was old school foodie, a true meat-n-potatoes, dinner-on-the-table-when-he-comes-home kinda guy.  As I remember him, however, I realize how connected he was to food, maybe even moreso than my mom.

When people recall my dad, they think of a reserved man, an artist who was a free spirit and loved the outdoors. One strong memory takes me back to when I was young – maybe 6 or 7 or – and we’d go smelt fishing along the shore of downtown Chicago. And what did we do with the smelt? We’d bring them home and fry them up. Well, my dad would, and I’d watch. He’d coat their thin, silver bodies in flour, dip them in egg, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper before throwing them in sizzling butter. Sometimes, if we were really tired when we got back – you go smelt fishing at night – my mom would do it, but I could tell they shared the same simple recipe.

My dad didn’t just take me smelt fishing, we fished and brought home blue gills and such for dinner, which he’d clean and get ready for my mom to prepare. Today, if I go on vacation and catch a fish that a resort cooks up for us, I consider it quaint and holistic. Turns out my dad had been serving up the real experience the whole time.

But back to my ability to throw things together. What I remember about my dad is that his recipes were as straightforward and simple as you can get; you could argue they weren’t truly recipes at all. He literally threw things together, and while basic, they hit the spot – no measuring needed. While I certainly am influenced by my mom’s ability to explore different foods, what I’ve become most proud of is my blank canvas dinners. Food is a major part of my life, my creativity, my recreation. A huge reason why is not just because I enjoy it, but because I have the ability to make it work for me and to be exciting, whether I’m throwing together something on a whim after work or researching reservations to secure for a vacation my husband and I have planned moths out.

“This has nice flavors,” my dad would say if he liked something. He didn’t have the vocabulary necessarily, but he could pick up on elements of a wine or dish, and when he was at the stove, improvise along the way.

Not bad qualities to inherit, I’ll say. Here’s to you, dad.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Quick Content Strategy Takeaways from Last Month's Q&A with Kristina Halvorson

Last month Kristina Halvorson -- one of the first people who really brought attention to and defined content strategy for the masses -- took thoughtful questions from the Chicago Content Strategy Meetup group, and I passed along notes applicable to my association coworkers. Thought I'd share here too.

Q. I work in a silo-ed organization that’s dept.-focused. What should I be doing when my hands are tied most of the time?
  •  Establish who owns what content on the website and who’s accountable for it.
  • Communication – that will be main task to keep going and stay in on what’s coming down the line.
  • Audit the content for the groups regularly
  • Ask “What is the key objective of this page” or “this piece of content” each time – and push people to answers beyond describing an emotional response, e.g. “They will recognize us as a resource.”
 Q. What can I do when the content creators I work for live and die by PDFs?
 Make sure they are tagged, summarized, and curated and have the right meta data associated with them for your system. That said, “I [Halvorson] can’t think of a search result that gave me the top resource – a PDF – as one of first results.”

Q. How do I sell importance of content to C-suite, particularly in arguments for resources?
  • Recognize they don’t care about content’s importance and won’t understand it.
  • Base your arguments and sell to 1) what makes them tick/keeps them up at night and 2) what will make them look good.
  • Find champions of content who can talk to them and sell to them in their language.
 Q. There is an abundance of tools and even CMSes applicable to content strategy. How do we know which to use?
n  Pick your content strategy and THEN choose the CMS or the tool – not the other way around. Don’t base your content strategy on your CMS.

Q. What trends are you and Brain Traffic [Halvorson’s content strategy agency] noticing?
  • Among potential clients, clients, and non-content-based audiences she speaks to: people still learning about content strategy and then asking, “Where do I start?” (But it’s a hot topic.)
  • Among designers and developers she talks to: the responsive design trend and people forgetting about the content behind it.
  • Among content strategists: questions about organizational challenges and how to tackle them; understanding their business and how content strategy fits in.
 Q. I’m not a developer but we’re being asked to know code on top of everything else we need to know. What am I supposed to focus on?
Response from a developer at Leo Burnett:
  • “Know just enough to be dangerous.”
  • Know when just enough to identify when content has to get involved or when you should get a developer involved.
 Good resources she noted:
n  A soon-to-be-published book by Karen McGrath. I think she said the title will be “Content Strategy for Mobile.”

And my “wow” moment: Brain Traffic trimmed its site down to one page and increased inquiry volume 70% (I think that’s what she said) literally overnight. Obviously not all organizations -- particularly associations -- can or should do that, but I think it’s just a really cool illustration of paring information down to the most basic levels and having it become more effective.

Yeah, That Tri Sucked It

I promised to let you know how I did on my last tri, and here it is, almost October. Good thing you're not on the edge of your seat.

For the record: my time was only a couple minutes slower than my average. Mentally, I felt like it was 20 min. and falling.

I can't stand doing something poorly -- whatever the reason -- when I know I can do better. The swim was actually fun, despite the fact we swam parallel to the shore in barely deep-enough water, and we had racers washing up onto us. We all basically got the same swim time and were completely exhausted, trudging out of the water slower than I've ever see racers move. I like the rush of being thrown around by waves, which is why I can call the swim fun.

The bike was good -- not amazing, but solid. I can live with that.

The run sucked it. I was winded, zapped, and -- this is my own damn fault -- bonking, meaning I ran out of energy. That has nothing to do with my health or limited training; it was complete idiocy that I forgot to have some sort of a breakfast. So that's what really got me. I was so mad at myself I started crying at times. I tried to imagine someone telling me I'd win $1 million if I went just a little faster yet could not go faster. Knowing this was a sprint triathlon and that I was going so slowly still makes my blood boil.

Am I glad I did it? Now I am. Am I going to do another tri? Of course. I just don't like excuses, and this race forced me to come up with a lot of them.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

July 28 Triathlon, I Will Rock You (or At Least Show Up)

The past few tri seasons just have not been ideal:

2010: Recovering from pneumonia is not a good way to enter a training season. But, I still managed to finish Chicago Triathlon. Despite, the chest cold, asthma attack, and 20-min. stint in the medical tent, I had a better time than healthy people in my wave -- and still came in 17 of 219 for swimming in my age group. 

2011: Thanks to the wedding and my dad's health, there wasn't a lot of time to train. Yet I had my best tri ever at Pleasant Prairie, coming in with a PR on a beautiful day. I needed it. That said, I couldn't get in a second race -- just too busy, and not willing to risk skidding off my bike 1.5 weeks before my wedding.

2012: I can't say that my April ankle sprain completely derailed my training because I was able to spin (mostly), but it did sideline me from running for 2 months. OH, and breaking my arm Memorial Day weekend did not help matters either.

Now that I am just getting back to running, swimming, and cycling (I think -- I was just about to get back on the trail...) I have a head cold. The South Shore Tri is two weeks away. I'll be there, but I just keep thinking: it's not as bad as I came into the race in 2010.

If I've proven anything, it's that I'll still show up. I'll get you, triathlon, just you wait.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Twist on Bill Granger's Spicy Chicken Meatballs

bill granger's spicy chicken meatballs

As a Midwesterner and fan of meat, I can't believe it took me this long to make homemade meatballs. I followed Bill Granger's recipe for Spicy Chicken Meatballs from his cookbook "Everyday" pretty closely and threw in a few twists. I couldn't find a good online link to the recipe (one person rewrote it and suggested sampling the raw chicken!), so here's his recipe with my variations noted.

Bill Granger's Spicy Chicken Meatballs

3 tbs. olive oil (Who uses that little? You need a lot more!)
1 small onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed (I used three)
1/2 tsp. ground coriander (I might have used slightly more)
1 red chili, sliced (I used a red serrano pepper and loved it)
1 lb., 2 oz. ground chicken (I used chicken thigh)
3 tbs. fresh breadcrumbs (Yeah ... I used the canister kind, and it's fine)
1 3/4 oz. pancetta
2 tbs. chopped fresh-leaf Italian parsley
1 lb., 2 oz. cherry tomatoes, halved (I used one of those squarish packages)
(1 medium  zucchini, chopped -- I wanted more vegetables and added it)
(Splash of balsamic)
1/2 c. chicken stock
1 lb., 2 oz. pasta (I used 3/4 pound spirals)
Shaved parmesan (I used grated)
Salt and pepper

His directions, slightly abbreviated in description and with a few variations to accommodate my additions, but true to intention: 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (F). Heat oil in medium-high heat and add onion and garlic. Cook until soft, and then add the coriander and the chili, stirring for about a minute. Place mixture into bowl.

Add chicken, breadcrumbs, parsley, and salt to the bowl and mix with your hands. Refrigerate for 30 min. until firm (I stuck it in the freezer for five). Roll into small meatballs. (Mine were about 1 1/2 inches thick). Place on a lined baking sheet and brush or drizzle with olive oil.

Meanwhile, coat the tomatoes and zucchini in olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the mixture on lined baking sheet. Also start cooking the pasta.

Bake both the meatballs and the vegetables at the same time. The vegetables should take about 15 min.; cook until the the tomatoes' skin looks a little bubbly. The meatballs took about 30 min. to get golden brown for me, but he advises 15-20 min.

When they're done, transfer the meatballs and vegetables into one stovetop pan and add the chicken stock. Simmer for 5 min., then spoon over the pasta and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.

I liked adding just a drizzle of balsamic vinegar to mix in -- add's a touch of sweetness. The above made 3 hearty portions for me.  He says it serves 4.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

10 Tips for Wedding Planning Success

The three months prior to our wedding and up until moments before I walked down the aisle, my attention had to be focused on my parents' health. While not the build-up every bride dreams of, we still had an amazing time -- and our guests call it one of the best weddings they'd attended. 

I'm proud of the fact that I started out completely overwhelmed by the thought of planning a party for 150 people and ended up throwing a great one. I know we came out on top not just because of the support I had but because we made key decisions throughout the planning process that set us up for a great event.

Our friends and family ask me how I did it. Here's my advice that could apply to any bride:

1) Choose the right vendors. Everyone we hired met the following criteria:
  • We loved their their portfolio. Sounds basic, but we didn't choose anyone out of guilt (say, because it's a friend in the business), because it was convenient, because of "the name," etc.
  • There was no "chasing them down" on our end. If I placed a call or sent an email, I received a reply within a reasonable timeframe. We crossed potential vendors off our list when we realized they struggled to answer a simple inquiry. I couldn't imagine dealing with that month after month -- let alone on our wedding day.
  • I trusted and respected their opinion, and they listened to mine.  
  • We liked their personalities. We knew they'd be with us on one of the most important and emotional days of our life, so if they drove us crazy during a proposal meetings, we knew it wouldn't be fun the day of.
  • They didn't push us. Society puts enough pressure on brides. The last thing I needed was a vendor pushing me to do something I didn't want to do. 
  • My husband approved. The day wouldn't be just about me, so I wanted to make sure he had input and approved of the big decisions. Signing off on vendors is one of them.
  • They were willing to work within our budget. And if we needed to adjust, they always had equally compelling alternatives. 
  • They had solid, realistic replies to, "What's your back up plan in case an emergency happens on our wedding day?"
In short: we hired professionals.

2) Treat it as a business project tied to a dollar amount for which you are responsible. This doesn't mean cutting out all the emotion; it just means not letting emotion take over decisions about budget or get in the way of your being professional. Run your wedding planning as a project with standards your work boss would approve of and you'll have a great event.

3) Narrow choices down to two or three; make a decision; move on. You will continue to see many beautiful, great ideas throughout your planning process. Yes, make a change if needed, but don't look for the sake of looking. After I decided on my bridesmaid dresses and colors, for example, for my own sanity I skipped that section of bridal magazines and spent my time researching whatever was next on my list.

4) When you have downtime, work ahead. There will be lulls. During them, I would imagine how crazy brides get the month before their wedding and used that as motivation to take care of as much as I could beforehand. Sometimes people interpreted my working ahead as doing too much. I'd reply, "I don't know what I'll be like the month before my wedding, so if I can get it done sooner, I will."

This worked out, and for different reasons than I imagined: my dad was in the hospital the entire month prior to our wedding and only got out four days before, when he and my mom still needed assistance. I was thrilled not to have to be taking on anything beyond what was necessary.

5) Look at photojournalists' photos of weddings and pick one whose mood shows what you want your day to be. Tell your friends, family, and vendors what you envision, and make choices that support it. I found a photo of a bride doing a breakdance move on the dance floor and wanted to have as much fun as her -- but I knew I had to plan and mentally prepare to be that carefree. (I think we ended up having more fun that that bride!)

6) Put thought into backup plans, and keep the ideas tucked in the back of your head. My cousin's wedding dress only arrived the week before her wedding, and because she needed major alterations, there was a fear the dress wouldn't be ready.  Remembering that, I made a note about how much I loved the dresses at Nordstrom's bridal suite and kept it in mind as an off-the-rack option if disaster struck.

7) Dish out responsibilities -- wedding-related or not -- whenever you can. There were definitely tasks I, as the bride, needed or wanted to do. But if I could, I handed them off. And in the month before the wedding when most of what was left fell on my shoulders, I accepted my husband's offer to help by having him do non-wedding errands, such as going to the post office or running to the grocery store.

8) But be strategic when handing out tasks. Don't give important duties to people you can't trust, whatever the reason might be. If Aunt Martha, who applies 1960s decor to anything she touches, offers to do the favors for your very classic wedding, find a different way she can help. Similarly, don't send your well-meaning friend who easily gets lost in the city to pick up your rings downtown during rush hour.

9) The day of the wedding, don't worry about having a perfect wedding! Adopt a "roll with it" mentality. Trust that, at that point, you've done everything you can to set it up for success and let go. Have fun! Because if you can do that, when the inevitable hiccup comes up, you'll be able to laugh at it and not have the rest of your day ruined. It rained on our big day, and although we had to make a few adjustments, I'm convinced the outcome was just as awesome as if it were sunny.

10) Let this guide you: The day is yours and your partner's. Everyone has an opinion; do what is right for you. If boundaries with family or friends need to be set, be polite, but set them. You want to look back and know that you made the choices you wanted and that any compromises were ones you were comfortable with.


Want to see a snaphot of our wedding?

Brian and me: Love Like a Sunset. Video by Leap Weddings.

Me, getting ready: Us. A Video By Leap Weddings.