Day Trip: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip down to Tacoma for a walk around Point Defiance Park and to visit the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.  It was drizzling and cold, but I had most of the day to burn while anxiously waiting for the Seahawks game to start, so I bundled up and headed south.

If you haven’t visited the zoo and aquarium in Tacoma, you should-it’s a delight!  The zoo is smaller than Woodland Park Zoo, but there are plenty of animals and marine creatures to keep you entertained for at least a couple of hours.  There are also several daily talks, and a children’s area if you bring the kids and they still have some energy to burn.  In addition to visiting all of the animals, I watched the daily shark feeding and a presentation with the polar bears, as well as got hands-on to pet stingrays, sharks, and goats.  If you want an experience that’s even more immersive, you can try the Shark Dive; it’s $75, for ages 8 and up, and seems to be a good deal considering that swimming in a tank full of sharks is a rarity.

Given that it is winter (and perhaps because it was Seahawks game day), the crowd was small.  I have been here in the past during the summer, which can definitely get more crowded.  But on this visit, there was plenty of time to enjoy each exhibit without having to fight for a good view.  I spent lots of time with the tiger cubs, walruses, polar bears, and sea otters (they are the cutest!).

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

While you’re in the area, take a drive/bike ride/walk around the 5-mile Drive (in Point Defiance Park), or explore the Ruston Way, Old Town, and Proctor neighborhoods in Tacoma’s northern end of town.

Not-to-be-Missed Mexican Food Along a Mississippi Highway | southernbeets

Horchata & Tamales in Mississippi

There’s a whole hot tamale culture in Mississippi.  In fact, Anthony Bourdain ate some tamales when he visited the Delta region earlier this year on his show Parts Unknown, and CNN did a little story on tamales in the Delta online at   One day when I was venturing around at local fruit stands, I drove by a little Mexican restaurant just off Highway 49 near Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  To my surprise, I had some of the best Mexican food that I’ve had in a long time.


Not-to-be-Missed Mexican Food Along a Mississippi Highway | southernbeets

Not-to-be-Missed Mexican Food Along a Mississippi Highway | southernbeets

To start, the chips and salsa were awesome.  They used flour tortillas instead of corn, making for a thick and lightly crunchy chip (I prefer this over corn chips), and the salsa was homemade.  I also ordered a glass of horchata, which is a rice milk drink flavored with spices and vanilla, and one of my favorite summertime drinks (but hard to find down here).  The horchata here was thick and full of flavor, and I keep wondering why mixing it with iced coffee hasn’t become a thing yet.

As usual, I ordered way too much food.  After the chips, I had a pork tamale and seafood ceviche.   The cornmeal of the tamale was moist, the meat juicy, and the sauce spicy.  The ceviche, which is fresh raw seafood cured in lemon or lime juice, was awesome.  It had fresh tomatoes and avocado, and was a lighter alternative to the traditional Mexican dishes.

I ended up taking home half of my meal (plus a piece of amazing chocolate cake that was baked in house) and enjoyed it the next night for dinner.  The tamale was even better the next night after soaking up some of the sauce.

Amazing Mexican Food Along a Mississippi Highway

Not-to-be-Missed Mexican Food Along a Mississippi Highway

Do you have any favorite places for Mexican eats in the South?  Comment below, or send me a tweet @southernbeets.  Happy eating!

Make-Ahead Breakfast: Steel Cut Oats

Make-Ahead Steel Cut Oats

Make-Ahead Steel Cut Oats


I’m a bit of a planner, and I’m up for anything I can get done on the weekend to free up some down-time during the week.  I also make sure I eat breakfast every day to keep those hangry (hungry + angry) feelings at bay.  My requirements for breakfast are that it’s 1) filling, 2) quick to prepare, and 3) yummy.  I find meal bars unsatisfying, and although I love a hearty smoothie, sometimes a bowl of warm goodness is more satisfying.  I used to eat instant oatmeal, then I heard about the health benefits of steel cut oats (in 1/4 cup uncooked oats, there’s 5 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein) and picked up a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats at the store to give them a try.

Steel cut oats (also sold as Irish oatmeal) is the whole oat that’s been cut into little pieces. It’s the least-processed form of oats you can prepare, so all that protein and fiber is still in tact.  They take longer to cook than rolled or instant oats (about 20 minutes to cook on the stove), but you can make a batch and reheat by the serving during the week.

What I love most about these is that you can add in favorite mix-ins, like raw fruit and veggies, and they’ll cook along with the oats.  I love adding chopped apples and craisins, or grated carrots and golden raisins.  Nuts or coconut can be added at the end.

Here’s the basic recipe I use for make-ahead steel cut oats:

  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup steel cut oats
  • 1 to 1.5 cups chopped or grated fruits/veggies (chopped apples, peaches, pears, pineapple; grated carrots; frozen berries or cherries)
  • 1/4 cup dried fruit (chop if pieces are large)
  • 1 teaspoon spices (cinnamon + nutmeg, pumpkin pie spice)
  • 1/4 cup sliced or chopped nuts, or grated coconut
  • pinch of salt
  • sweetener, to taste (I don’t add very much, if any, when I use apples and dried fruit)
  1. In a large saucepan, bring water to a boil on high; add oats, fresh fruit, and dried fruit, then reduce to low.
  2. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.  Oats should be creamy; add a bit of water if they’re too thick.
  3. Stir in spices, nuts/coconut, salt, and sweetener.  Eat right away, or spoon into containers (mason jars work well) and refrigerate.  I usually like to pour some milk on mine before I eat them.  To reheat, take the lid off of the container and reheat on high for 60-90 seconds.  You may need to add a bit of water before reheating if they’re too thick.

I hope you enjoy this as much I do.  If you give it a try, let me know what you think!  And if you come up with some more delicious combinations, I’d love to hear about them.  Comment below, or send me a tweet (@southernbeets).

Recipe Roundup: Sweet Potatoes, From Appetizer to Dessert

photo 2

Last week I made a trip to a fruit stand and picked up a few too many locally-grown sweet potatoes.  The tendency to overbuy was something I warned about in my previous post about shopping at farmers’ markets and fruit stands (probably because I’m guilty of it on most shopping trips).  But I had them, and I wanted to make something delicious.  Having a bounty of sweet potatoes isn’t really a bad thing considering all of their healthy properties (high in fiber, all sorts of vitamins, potassium, and iron).  I opted to make some oven-baked sweet potato fries to snack on while I watched movies on a rainy afternoon.  Below are my favorite ways to use sweet potatoes, from appetizers to dessert.

  1. Savoring the Thyme’s Baked Sweet Potato French Fries.  They are crispy, salty, and cheesy, and healthier than traditional fries (you know, the kind that are actually fried).  These pair well with outdoor grilling, kids like them, and you can add your favorite dipping sauces.
  2. Roasted Grape, Goat Cheese, and Honey Stuffed Sweet Potatoes by How Sweet It Is.  This is one of my favorite side dishes of all times.  Roasted grapes and goat cheese add a huge punch of flavor, and the honey rounds out the sweetness.  Sometimes I make this as a casserole by scooping out the insides of the sweet potatoes and spreading them inside of a casserole dish.  Yum.  Just yum.
  3. Cookie and Kate’s Vegetarian Sweet Potato Chili.  It’s satisfying enough for both my vegetarian and omnivorous friends, so it’s one of my go-to recipes for game nights and get-togethers.  I’ve made it in my crockpot before, but cut out the tomato liquid and reduced broth to one cup.
  4. A Family Feast’s Sweet Potato Risotto.  Sweet potatoes make the taste and texture of risotto rich and savory.  I normally use beef stock for risotto, but this uses vegetable stock and makes for a great vegetarian option.
  5. Love and Olive Oil’s Sweet Potato Layer Cake with Molasses Buttercream.  This is such a beautiful AND delicious spice cake (seriously, click the link above and see for yourself).  The only extra labor is roasting the sweet potatoes, which you can do the day before and then store them in the refrigerator.
Recipe Roundup: Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potato Risotto

Do you have a favorite recipe that features sweet potatoes?  Please share by commenting below, or send me a tweet (@southernbeets)!

Roasted Green Tomato Salsa (Southern Salsa Verde)

When I went to a local fruit stand last weekend, the cashier started ringing me up for items an earlier customer decided not to buy and had left on the counter.  I thought I had cleared things up, but realized when I got home that some beautiful green tomatoes made their way into my Baggu bag.  I have been hesitant to buy green tomatoes since the only way I know how to prepare them is fried.  This clearly shows I had some learning to do.  I started browsing for green tomato recipes and came across several salsa recipes.  I remembered making Bobby Flay’s recipe for Shredded Chicken and Tomatillo Tacos with Queso Fresco and how much I loved the taste of the chicken after it soaked up the roasted green salsa flavor.  So I decided to use this as a guide to make some roasted green tomato salsa.

Here’s how I made it:


  • 3 large green tomatoes, whole
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, whole
  • 1 bulb of garlic, top cut off to expose cloves
  • grapeseed or vegetable oil for drizzling
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 cup of packed cilantro
  • half of a lime
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 Tbls. honey or agave
  • salt and pepper for seasoning
  1. Heat oven to 425 degrees.  Place green tomatoes, a bulb of garlic (top cut off so oil can reach cloves), and a jalapeño pepper in an oven-safe pan.  Drizzle with grape seed or canola oil.
  2. Roast vegetables in oven for 25-30 minutes.  Tomatoes and pepper should start to blacken on the outside, and the garlic should begin to turn soft.  Let cool for 15-20 minutes, then remove stems of tomatoes and pepper and remove garlic cloves from skin.  If you want your salsa to be less spicy, remove the seeds from the jalapeño.
  3. Place tomatoes, pepper, garlic, cilantro, red onion, juice of half a lime, honey, and cumin into a blender or food processor (I had to add my cilantro after blending the first ingredients because my blender is too small!).  Use a blender if you want the finished product to be more sauce-like, and a pulse on a food processor if you like your salsa chunky.  Season with salt and black pepper to taste.
  4. Store in the refrigerator and use within the week, or use this guide for freezing and canning food at home.


Roasted Green Tomato Salsa (Southern Salsa Verde)

Before and after roasting green tomatoes, jalapeño, and garlic.

Roasted Green Tomato Salsa (Southern Salsa Verde)

Blend the roasted vegetables with red onion and seasonings.

Roasted Green Tomato Salsa (Southern Salsa Verde)

Add the cilantro (this adds the extra green color).

Roasted Green Tomato Salsa (Southern Salsa Verde)

Use within the week, or can or freeze it for later.

There are a lot of ways to enjoy this salsa.  Scooping it up with chips, using it in Skinnytaste’s crock pot chicken tacos, using Bobby Flay’s taco recipe above, Jamie Oliver’s steak and salsa verde, add it to a taco salad or black beans and rice, or pour over poached whitefish.  Have more ideas or ways you use salsa verde?  Please share!  Comment below, or send me a tweet (@southernbeets).

Banh Mi and Vietnamese Iced Coffee in New Orleans

“Banh mi” is the Vietnamese term for bread, and Dong Phuong Bakery in eastern New Orleans is known to have the best French bread in the city.  When I saw people leaving with shopping bags full of bread, it was clear that this place is no secret.  They’re also known for banh mi sandwiches (readers of Eat NOLA named it the best bahn mi in New Orleans last year).  These start with their house-made bread, which is filled with lightly pickled carrots, cucumber, jalapeño slices, homemade aioli, and your choice of meat (I get the #4, which is Chinese barbecue pork).  The bread is soft and crusty on the outside, and the fillings are fresh, crunchy, and flavorful.  My cravings for these sandwiches is to the point that I take a 20-minute detour home from New Orleans to pick up a few of these to go (it’s located along Chef Menteur Highway).  Another bonus:  at under $4 a sandwich, this is probably the best lunch deal in the city.

Banh Mi and Vietnamese Iced Coffee in New Orleans| southernbeets

Banh Mi and Vietnamese Iced Coffee at Dong Phuong Bakery

Dong Phuong consists of both a bakery and a restaurant.  The banh mi and sandwiches are served up on the bakery side.  I also go crazy for their Vietnamese iced coffee, which is sweetened and strong, and you can buy at the counter on the north side of the restaurant (if you’re in the bakery, walk though the doorway into the restaurant, then continue walking straight along the front of the restaurant).  You won’t see a menu, but they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about when you order it.

There are lots of other goodies, both savory and sweet, and they make their own King Cake during carnival season.  I usually get some cinnamon rolls to warm up the next morning, or coconut rolls to make into French toast.  I wish there were more gems like this, or at least Vietnamese coffee stands that sell banh mi sandwiches.


Banh Mi and Vietnamese Iced Coffee in New Orleans| southernbeets

Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans

Banh Mi and Vietnamese Iced Coffee in New Orleans| southernbeets

Hours and other bakery items at Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans.

Tips for Shopping at Farmers Markets and Fruit Stands

The neighborhood farmers’ markets and road-side fruit stands are buzzing!  Some of you may have year-round markets near your home, but now is the time that spring and summer fruits and veggies start stealing the show.  The difference in product availability and, for some, price makes for a different shopping experiencing than running to the nearest grocery store.  Here are a few of my tips for making the most out of  your market or fruit stand trip.

Tips for Shopping at Farmers Markets and Fruit Stands| southernbeets

Roadside Fruit Stand

Before You Go:

  • Take an inventory of what you already have at home.  Just bought a few pounds of apples?  Then you probably don’t need to buy more (if you do, they may not be fresh when you eat them).
  • Make a list of anything you want to make sure you remember, such as ingredients for dinner.  If you do what I do some weekends and throw something together like a contestant on Chopped, get some ideas by browsing through some recipes online that feature seasonal fruits and veggies,

At the Market/Fruit Stand:

  • If it’s perishable, only buy enough for the next week.  I get excited when I see the perfect tomato or taste some super sweet berries, but over-buying can lead to waste.  You can also can, pickle, or freeze different fruits and veggies, but consider if you’ll have time to spend in the kitchen to prepare and process everything while it’s fresh (more information on preserving food at home here).
  • Check fruits to see if they are ripe.  Here’s a guide to tell if it’s ripe or not.  Some vendors provide samples or give samples if you ask.
  • Consider price.  At some markets and fruit stands, prices can be much higher than a grocery store.  The benefit of these places is that the produce is usually fresher, produced on a local farm, and has a smaller carbon footprint because it wasn’t transported across the country.  Some markets and stands, however, are tourist spots and charge more (which may be a direct reflection of their high rent).  If the price is high and the bounty doesn’t look great, consider holding off until your next trip to the grocery store.
  • Bring cash.  Credit and debit cards zap profit from small businesses.  Help them out (and it’ll help you when vendors are able to keep their prices low).
  • Bring your own bag or basket.  Again, it helps keep the carbon footprint and costs for vendors low.  And it makes you look like a market warrior.  My favorite bags are from Baggu.  They’re made of recycled plastic, can be washed in the washing machine, come in different sizes, and easily fit into my purse.  I never leave home without one.
  • If you want the best selection at a market, go early.  If you want a chance to bargain prices down, go late.  Some vendors will also cut a deal if you’re buying in bulk (like for canning or storing).
  • Check out the other goodies (some have canned goods, nuts, honey, or baked items).  It doesn’t hurt to take a look, as these will keep much longer in the kitchen.
  • Take care when getting your findings home.  I keep a small cooler in the back of my car for things that need to be chilled (eggs, cheese, fresh yogurt).  And secure your watermelon (I’m not kidding!).  I’ve made the mistake of putting it on my back seat, and it ended up rolling around on the way home right over my tomatoes and peaches.
Tips for Shopping at Farmers Markets and Fruit Stands| southernbeets

For everyone’s safety, secure the watermelon.

Tips for Shopping at Farmers Markets and Fruit Stands| southernbeets

Fruit Stand Goodies

When you get home:  Once you get your market haul home, take some time to store and/or prep your goods.  Fruits and veggies can be kept fresh longer if you store them properly.  For example, berries can last longer if you soak them for 5 minutes in a mixture of 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar and 3 cups water (don’t rinse afterwards), then store in a covered bowl lined with paper towels.  I have found tips online for storing fresh produce and refer to them often.  The worst thing is buying beautiful fruits and veggies and never having the chance to enjoy them.

Tips for Shopping at Farmers Markets and Fruit Stands| southernbeets

A Local Farmers Market

Tips for Shopping at Farmers Markets and Fruit Stands| southernbeets

Country Tyme Fruit Stand along Highway 49 in Mississippi

Do you have some more tips to share?  I’d love to hear them!  Comment below, or send me a tweet (@southernbeets).  Happy shopping!