Category: cooking

When Counter Surfing Goes Wrong, the Sandwich Disaster

My boyfriend endured a stressful work week so I wanted to make a perfect sandwich for him on Friday. The bakery-fresh English toasting bread held ham, turkey and cheese with sliced lettuce and tomato.

I placed the mayo and mustard on just right. I evenly layered the meats and cheese. I adorned each quarter with a half a jalapeno olive, affixed with toothpicks. The plate also had green grapes and pretzel sticks. I placed this work of art up on the bar-height counter.

Byron walked in and I went to present this masterpiece, only to realize Buster the Catahoula Leopard Dog ate one of the quarters, toothpick and all. The vet said to keep an eye on him. We prayed it would pass without injuring him.

Checking the aftermath of the puppy’s counter surfing reminded us of this scene from Jaws.

The dog seemed unfazed and he enthusiastically ate a big bowl of kibble for dinner, per usual.

We settled in to watch Dateline and the puppy became uncharacteristically quiet. We praise him for calmly laying down. But, it was an upset stomach that brought him down. Suddenly, he stood to the barf position. I guided him to his crate and gave him a bowl of fresh water. Within minutes, the poor doggie barfed up dinner along with other things.

Mercifully, Buster rejected the toothpick and there was no apparent blood. I felt like the Richard Dreyfuss character in the autopsy scene in Jaws when he pulled a license plate and other random items from a shark’s belly; when the puppy coughed up his dinner, we found the toothpick, the olive, tomato, turkey, a rubber band and a dryer sheet.

He felt good enough for a little second dinner. We encouraged him to drink extra water. He went to bed at his normal time and woke us up for his breakfast.

We updated the vet’s office with his condition. I am very relieved he did not eat the green grapes, which are harmful to dogs.

For breakfast this morning, I opted to prepare a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Buster watched and sniffed as I cooked the bacon, which at no time was left unattended. While I fried the egg, the bacon dish was secured in the microwave for storage. Buster himself was secured. It is a good idea in this house to place a wayward or begging dog in a crate or the bedroom to prevent counter surfing.

The next time you make a sandwich that won’t be immediately eaten by a human, be sure to lock it a way. The microwave is a great spot to stash food to keep it away from the doggies!

The Catahoula Leopard Dog and the Foxhound: Jealous Much?

The Sage Leopard is a lifestyle blog primarily about cooking, but bear in mind it is named for a dog who thinks he is a prince. Today, Higgins reminded me I have always told him I love him more than anything, except he now notices I love someone else too.

That someone is Buster Tobias, our Catahoula Leopard Dog, who is at this writing is 50 pounds and counting. He’s nine months old and new aspects of his personality continue to emerge, including jealously.Catahoula Leopard dog in jealous repose.

As I pet Higgins on the love seat tonight, Buster first sat in disbelief and let out a protest howl. He then laid down and bore into my soul with the guilt-trip eyes. Higgins challenged me to stop giving him my undivided attention.

This dynamic might be part of the reason I’ve struggled to train them alone. Instead, my boyfriend and I took them to our favorite dog trainer. Higgins immediately knew his master from his boarding school days and Buster is so happy-go-lucky he had no idea what we were bringing him into. After a few visits, Buster started crying on the way to obedience training, even if training mostly amounts to heel, sit, stay and lay down.Foxhound-Catahoula mix lounging on couch.

The truth is Buster is not a fan of rules any more than Higgins is. When he first was learning to stay in lay-down mode, he started stretching out his back and front legs to inch forward with his paws.

His trainer was not letting him get away with it. Whining ensued. I think I caught Higgins laughing at Buster. The key to getting this training to stick was bringing Byron along so the four of us trained together. That’s when the hounds realized I was serious. Now they had two humans to follow.

Tonight when Byron got home, Buster had not immediately noticed because he was outside. When he came back in, I asked, “where’s Daddy” and Buster ran to the front door. When he eventually found his human daddy in the master bedroom, he wagged his tail and wholeheartedly greeted Byron.

This begins a night of relaxing and a cycle of habits: Higgins racing around the backyard looking for possums and barking like crazy, Buster climbing furniture to watch Higgins through windows and crying, and of course: Higgins and Buster vying for the role of top dog.

In Search of the Unexpected: Javelina Hunting in South Texas

I’ve seen javelina on hunts in Texas and Arizona, but had not yet been on a dedicated javelina hunt. I had no idea what to expect.

I knew what the hunt would likely be like: gear up and sit quietly. Maybe stalk, quietly. What I didn’t know was what the meat would taste like if we were to harvest any. You can tell just by looking at javelina that the meat will be very, very lean.

Contrary to popular opinion, the javelina is not a wild hog. It’s in the peccary family. They are pretty wild looking. It’s the kind of animal that looks prehistoric and kinda bizarre in the way an alligator is amazing to gaze upon.

In Texas, there is no hunting limit on wild hogs because that is an invasive species. By contrast, the javelina is supposed to be here and hunting them is regulated. We were on a Texas Parks and Wildlife management hunt and each hunter was allowed to only take one javelina.

We were encouraged to take as many hogs and coyotes though. The coyotes eat the deer on this wildlife management area and the hogs are destructive to the environment. We did not see any hogs but heard a lot of coyotes.

The hunt was fielded by a drawing and Byron and I were among those picked. They also had a lot of standby hunters hoping to be drawn the first morning of a three-day hunt. I actually had the honor of drawing a select few from those names in a bucket.

Ultimately, there were about 40 hunters on a wildlife management area covering 15,000 acres. Byron estimates our compartment was more than 600 acres. To get around, we drove the truck over dirt roads and senderos (dirt paths). Some of the roads were pretty treacherous and as Byron maneuvered his big pickup over and through giant holes, he joked he sure wished he had a BMW. Seriously, we are not car people. I need a vehicle my dogs can jump into and I don’t worry about floods or mud.

The first afternoon we made our way around our compartment, finding old deer blinds to use and corning some of the roads and senderos. We used deer corn, which javelina like to eat.

The next morning, we set out before dawn. Legal shooting time is a half hour before sunrise. I climbed up into a blind I checked out the day before, above the road we corned. After dawn, I heard hoof steps, but it was a young buck. No javelinas showed.

I moved to another location for the afternoon and sat quietly. This may be my favorite part of hunting. Just sitting. Listening. Bird watching. I bring a journal and take notes about the nature around me. I may jot down notes for a novel I am working on. I breathe deep and let go of things that don’t really matter.

I just sit. It’s wonderful. It’s something I reflect on over and over when I am busy in regular life. It’s these small moments I can go back to in my mind and regain perspective. It is so quiet you notice everything.

It’s also hard to not notice the sound of a four-legged creature coming through brush. The stride sounded shorter than a deer. It was a javelina, I was sure. He emerged onto the sendero. I was shocked.

He moved along and I took deep breaths. I slowly raised my rifle. Slowly. Watching him through the scope, I waited to see if he would move into a broadside position. The moment came to pass. I saw I had a clean shot and took it. He dropped. I lowered the rifle and breathed.

This is a stunning moment to collect. You have taken a life to harvest the meat. Again, this was an unknown to me. I wanted to be fully thankful and appreciative of the harvest. My phone vibrated. My boyfriend texted to check if the report he heard was from my rifle. I affirmed. He said he would head my way.

I waited 20 minutes. We met and moved to the javelina. It was time to field dress it. I asked Byron for a moment and rested my hand on the javelina’s torso and cheek. My man said a prayer of thanksgiving. Hunters do not take hunting lightly. For starters, there are plenty of hunts where you do not get anything. That’s why it’s called hunting. Moreover, we eat the meat. I love cooking with venison. I was very nervous about javelina. When we dressed it, I could tell this was a very healthy, lean animal.

We placed it in the truckbed and brought him to the check station. I reported where exactly I took it and a wildlife manager weighed it and checked its teeth to gauge the age. Three years old. We placed it in a meat locker and went back out for a few hours.

Byron too harvested a javelina from the same area. We sat together in silence after I had spotted them and radioed Byron to rejoin me. I had been wondering if a coyote was going to show up to take what we had left of the javelina. I was somewhat surprised to see more javelina. Byron and I sat there a good while when they came along again.

When we returned to the check station, we joined other hunters who were also cleaning their meat. I asked them how they liked to cook it. Chorizo. Sausage. Another guy likes to wrap in foil with veggies and roast it over a fire. Byron took great care in icing down and re-icing the meat. He then was diligent in trimming any fat. He packed the back strap and tenderloin in kitchen shrink wrap (Food Saver). We also used a meat grinder and sealed up that meat as well.

The first thing I made was spaghetti with tomato and ground javelina sauce.

Javelina browning with parsley and spices.

To start the tomatoes, I sautéed diced garlic and onion in olive oil and added dried oregano and parsley. Once the garlic turned gold, I added a big can of plum tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then turn to low to simmer for at least a half hour. In a separate pan, I browned the javelina in olive oil with fresh parsley. Again, salt and pepper to taste. Once it was cooked, it was time to confront the unknown. I took a fork and picked up a piece. The taste? Good. Very nice. Nothing overpowering. Lean. Perfect for sauces. I think it will be great in chili too. That’s next!

The Sage Leopard

Ranch Jalapeno Lemon Potato Salad for a Seafood Boil

It never ceases to amaze me that imported shrimp is available in the supermarkets here when we are so close to the Gulf of Mexico and its wild shrimp. And the price difference is really not that notable.

Another staple of Gulf Coast living is crawfish season, which seems to go on a really long time. I was sent to the grocery store to buy a couple of pounds for a certain someone who eats them like they are going out of style. Oh well, the store only had a 15-lb. sack the fish counter guy said they don’t split. Instead, I resorted to 2 lbs. of wild Gulf shrimp, a lobster tail and a cluster of snow crab. Terrible, right?

Seafood boil with shrimp, crab, lobster and corn.

Anyhoo, my work was nearly done because my man was going to boil the seafood. I did intervene to vote again putting corn and potatoes in the seafood boil. If you do that the spices concentrate in the corn and potato, rendering them nearly inedible, even for spicy food lovers like me. I allowed the corn to go in the boil, but not potatoes.

Instead, I used the same red potatoes to make potato salad with a local twist: Meyer lemon juice. This time of year is all about the citrus in this region and we are blessed with a Meyer lemon tree.

I got to work on the tater salad while Byron organized his shrimp boil. Ahem, meaning he got the water, a lemon and some Cajun spices ready.

I boiled a separate pot of water with the potatoes in it. It was a 2 lb. bag of red potatoes. The timing depends on the size of the potatoes. Try waiting 20 minutes and test a potato with a toothpick. You can use a slotted spoon to place the potato in a spoon rest.

While the water boils and potatoes cook, collect your salad dressing ingredients (see below). Start by chopping garlic and the fresh dill. Cut the stem off the jalapeno and seed it. Then dice. Mix all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Use a whisk and place the bowl in the fridge. Once the potatoes are cooked, drain them in a colander and let them cool. When they are cool, fold the creamy dressing in with the potatoes in a large serving bowl and enjoy.

Preferably serve with a seafood boil! The ranch dressing cools your palate while eating spicy seafood.

Jalapeno-Garlic-Meyer Lemon-Dill Ranch Dressing Ingredients:

  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ sour cream
  • ¼ Duke’s light mayonnaise
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • Handful of dill (about 4-6 tablespoons chopped)
  • Half a jalapeno, seeded and diced
  • 2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed Meyer lemon
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • freshly ground pink salt


The Sage Leopard

When Life Gives You Meyer Lemon, Make Pesto

Lemon pesto on pasta is downright divine. You can eat a big bowl of pasta while enjoying the refreshing aura of citrus flavor.

What makes it pesto? It contains pine nuts, just like basil pesto, as well as garlic an Parmesan cheese.

Meyer lemon pesto with pasta and basil.

Pasta happiness: Meyer lemon pesto, spaghetti, chèvre and basil.

Before I tell you how I came to make lemon pesto, courtesy of a Pinterest search and a Tasty Kitchen recipe, I want to tell you why I find lemons so romantic.

Shortly after my boyfriend of several years started dating, we walked around his yard and he showed me where he thought about planting trees, shrubs or flowers. In the side yard where he considered planting vegetables, I asked about a little plant, maybe 18 inches high. He did not know what it was. Well, it was a Meyer lemon tree that grew and grew and grew.

It grew so big, that at one point it toppled over under its own weight during a massive rainstorm. But that moment when we first examined it and wondered, Byron found a ladybug on one of the tree’s leaves. I told him it was good luck to find a ladybug. Now, I associate the Meyer lemons with good luck.

We have found many uses for all the lemon juice. It is wonderful for deglazing a pan or marinating chicken. What surprised me was our lemon juice wasn’t great for baking.

At least that was the case with the juice from our first couple of Meyer lemon harvests. I’m going to try again. I started keeping an eye out on Pinterest for savory lemon recipes in addition to lemon desserts.

I have always loved lemon cake and always asked for one for my childhood birthday parties. It became a running joke during family slide shows if one of my birthday parties popped up for my sisters to bemoan yet another lemon cake. My mom even ordered a lemon cake from a local bakery in my college town for my 21st birthday.

I was totally intrigued by the lemon pesto idea. Why not? Lemon piccata chicken tastes great with a side of pasta. Now, I will insist you try this with a real Meyer lemon, not anything else.

Ingredients (based on the Tasty Kitchen recipe linked above)

  • 1 Meyer lemon
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ cup shredded Parmesan
  • ¼ cup pine nuts (or a little bit more)
  • ½ teaspoon honey (I used my honey dipper to place a bit more)

(I also had fresh basil and goat cheese on hand to add to the dish.)

To prepare the pesto, I simply placed the ingredients in my old Cuisinart food processor. But before placing in the lemon, I also had slice the tips off, quartered it and removed the seeds. I hit pulse, saw that it was nicely mixing and let her rip. Voila, lemon pesto.

I cooked a pound of spaghetti and tossed it with half of the pesto. That was just the right amount. The pasta was served with chevre goat cheese and basil. The leftovers were delicious too. The pesto was originally made Saturday night. Tuesday night, I pulled it out of the fridge and tossed it with bucatini. Again, I added chevre and some drizzles of olive oil.Meyer lemon pesto with pasta and basil.

To finish it, I sprinkled in more Parmesan, basil leaves, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. Once again, I’ll have lemon pesto pasta leftovers and look forward to eating it on my birthday!

Baked Ham with Madeira and Chicken Stock

I found myself at the garage workbench, prying open the plastic grinding cap of a black peppercorns jar and wondering why I have to go to a spice store to buy loose peppercorns. Go to any grocery store and I challenge you to find black pepper that is not already ground or packaged with its own convenient plastic grinder attached to the top of the jar. Thing is I like to grind my own pepper and my own pink salt. I like pinching this, sprinkling that and pouring in something else.

Last night, I was making hummus and accidentally spilled in more paprika than intended. No problem! At least it wasn’t the cumin. The whole point of cooking is to bring together flavors, not just pour sauce out of a jar.

Baked ham in wine and stock.

Baking ham takes time and Madeira wine

For the recent New Year’s celebration, I wanted a basic little ham to cook in a Madeira wine bath. Now, I needed two cups of Madeira and only had one, but I found a cup of frozen red wine in the freezer, which was perfect. The ham baked in 3 parts chicken broth to 2 parts red wine/Madeira with two bay leaves. Whenever a recipe or standard practice calls for two bay leaves, I just can’t help myself and toss in two.

Here’s how to start the ham: slice two large carrots and one medium size onion in large pieces. Pour olive oil (about 1/4 cup) into Dutch oven over gas stove. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Saute carrots and onions in pot. Sprinkle some dried herbs in (I used herbs de provence) and the two bay leaves.

Carrots and onions in a Dutch oven.

Sprinkle herbs in with carrots and onions.

Once the onions are golden place the ham in the pot. Pour in the wine and stock. Bring to a boil and place in the over to cook for two to two-and-half hours. Here’s the tricky part: about every 20-30 minutes you want to baste the ham with the cooking juices so clear everyone from the kitchen because you are pulling out a very hot Dutch over pot. Use your best oven mitts. If possible, rest the pot on the open over door and carefully pull off the lid. With a ladle, generously pour the wine-stock juices over the ham.

Ham with hoppin john, turnip greens and corn bread muffin.

Ham with hoppin john, turnip greens and corn bread muffin.

The other delightful thing you can do with the ham-wine-stock juice is use it for other food you are cooking at the same time. For New Year’s, I was making hoppin john and ladled ample amounts of my stock into the black-eyed peas. This would work with with any beans.

The key to this kind of cooking is patience. This is not a quick fix. There is no immediate gratification. Let it bake. Let is stew. Let it ruminated. Relax. And then enjoy.


The Sage Leopard

Pasta e fagioli, an Italian soup with pasta and beans

Wintertime calls for soup and my favorites are Italian with ditalini, a little tubular pasta that lets the soup base slide right through. Pasta e fagioli is a broth-based soup with vegetables and tomatoes, and the eponymous beans. Bowl of pasta and beansA typical bean for this dish is cannellini beans, a classic white bean that also goes well in soups with escarole. Tonight, I’m using cranberry beans, so named because of the cranberry-colored striping on these white beans and their pods. After they cook, these loose the cranberry color and appear a rouge beige color. They provide a wonderful consistency. Pasta e fagioli is a great Sunday dinner soup and a great dish for entertaining. I once served it for a football party and people could just ladle a cup or bowl as they wanted. Before I relate the recipe, here are the basic ingredients:

  • Garlic, onion, celery and carrot
  • Pancetta
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Canned or dried beans
  • Veggie, chicken or beef broth
  • Ditalini
  • Parsley
  • Grated Parmesan cheese

My father makes a fantastic pasta e fagioli, and I had thought he was following a cookbook recipe. Nope, he has it in his mind, so I took dictation from him once and labeled in my recipe binder as Pasta e Fagioli Off the Top of Dad’s Head. Well, the proportions are flexible!

Sorting cranberry beans

Sorting cranberry beans

His basic recipe for a 15. oz can of beans had: 2 stalks of celery, 2 large carrots, half a big onion or a small onion and 2 to 3 cloves of garlic. He only used ¾ cup of tomatoes and 8 oz of pasta. Well, I was using a bag of dried beans tonight and realized I needed to roughly double the proportions:

  • 1 bag of cranberry beans
  • 2 #10-slices of pancetta
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • half a red onion
  • six stalks of carrots
  • six carrots
  • 2 28 oz. canned of diced tomatoes.
  • 16 oz. of vegetable broth, 1 small can of chicken broth
  • An extra can of chicken broth is on hand, in case the beans absorb a lot of broth as they continue to cook.
  • Shaved parmesan
  • *16 oz. box of ditalini, but I’m only going to cook half in a separate pot of water.
  • Fresh parsley to chop and add to soup when serving.

*After the main soup is fully cooked. I will fold it into the pot of cooked pasta, ladle by ladle to the get the ratio right and then reserve the rest of the soup in the freezer. This soup freezes beautifully without pasta. Frozen and then defrosted pasta is just terrible.

Pancetta on a cutting board.

Slicing pancetta

Don’t do it. Instructions: Dice pancetta and place in a hot Dutch oven. Brown. Add diced carrots and allow to soften and meld with the melted pancetta fat. Add diced onion, garlic and celery. Stir, cover and allow to simmer 10 minutes to soften together. Add tomatoes and stir in fresh ground black pepper. Under no circumstances should you add salt because the pancetta is salty! Cover again and simmer tomatoes and veggies for another 15 minutes. Add beans. (I used the so-called quick cook method for the beans so they still needed more cooking to soften up. If you just use canned beans, they only need to be in the soup for about 5-10 minutes to absorb some of the flavor of the broth. The ditalini are separately boiled in fresh water, drained and then stirred into the soup. Hence, pasta e fagioli. Ladle into individual bowls and sprinkle over grated Italian cheese and chopped fresh parsley. If you want a little heat, sprinkle red pepper flakes on and stir. Buon Appetito The Sage Leopard

Why Cookbooks Remind Us of Family, Love & Happiness

Growing up, I liked to flip through my parents’ cookbooks, especially to look for baking recipes. In 8th grade, I crafted a cookbook for a history project, writing out in calligraphy on parchment paper “receipts” from the Colonial Williamsburg era. I even cooked a meal from these 18th century receipts for my English and History teachers. Judging by the looks on their faces around the dining room table, I may have overdone it with the nutmeg and other spices for the meat.

When we would take the long drive from New Jersey to South Carolina to visit my grandparents, my palate opened up to new tastes, including grits. My grandmother, also a native of New Jersey, had a stack of Southern Living annual cookbooks. I would pull them off the shelf and flip through the recipes, admiring the pretty pictures and imagining being a grown-up cooking a roast or baking a Bundt cake.Stack of Southern Living annual cookbooks.

Grandmother took note of how much I liked the cookbooks and told me I could have them someday. Fortunately, she had many more years after that to enjoy her kitchen and home. After she passed, my father related he could not find the cookbooks, but he brought me her colorful mixing bowls, which I cherish and use just about every day.

As a grown-up, I’ve subscribed to different cooking magazines, but my favorite is Southern Living. Maybe because they are accessible recipes for the home cook and for everyday dining rather than elaborate masterpieces for culinary artists. Or maybe because I like to flip through the magazine and see pretty pictures of homes, travels and recipes. Moreover, I love them because they remind me of visiting my grandparents in South Carolina. I was, and am, so taken by cypress trees, Spanish moss, palm trees and alligators.

This Thanksgiving weekend, my eldest sister recalled a family road trip from New Jersey to Texas and back with multiple stops in between. It was summertime and their sedan lacked air conditioning. It turned out my mother realized in Houston that she was pregnant with me. We all think it’s funny that I moved to Houston as an adult.

When I first arrived for business, I saw palm trees, which made me so happy. And, yes, we too have alligators, but fortunately I don’t see them unless I go to a nearby state park. Still, some neighborhood kids claim to have seen one in our subdivision retention pond and they do hang out in our bayou. I let my dog swim in the pond, but not the bayou, and keep a wary eye on the situation.

We just got back from a road trip we now take at least once a year to North Georgia, where my boyfriend’s family is from on both sides. An important errand was to the grist mill to pick up bags of grits and cornmeal. The real deal stone-ground grains cannot be beat.

While in Georgia, we also returned to a cousin’s home. I stood in the kitchen admiring her cookbook collection, including a stack of Southern Living annuals. When I told her about my grandmother’s collection, she immediately said I could have her Southern Living cookbooks.

Stack of Southern Living magazines.I agreed to take them, but said she can have them back anytime. In the meantime, I have a lot of flipping pages to do! I usually let my magazines stack up for a few months and then go through to tear out the pages of recipes I want to keep in a binder. Now, I have the books to read!

I just pulled out the 2000 one and the first page I opened is about “The Fruitcake Tradition.” I’m not so sure I want to try that, but appreciated the introduction to the recipe notes this is in tribute to a grandmother. Ooh, what about prosciutto bruschetta with cantaloupe chutney?

From the 1984 book, there is a basic crepes recipe. I was just telling my sister about my crepe maker! There is also a section on how to use a food processor to save time when slicing vegetables and fruit. If you lived in the 1980s, you’ll reminder how the Cuisinart took American’s kitchens by storm. I actually have my grandmother’s machine and love it.

I may never have to look up another recipe online with this array of cookbooks serving an encyclopedia of making everyday cooking grand. I’m so excited and will likely share some of my discoveries with you on this blog!

The Sage Leopard



Why Do Foods and Scents Make Us Happy?

Growing up, my Dad worked for decades in Midtown Manhattan and his stress would dissolve as he sauteed garlic in olive oil, stirring with a wooden spoon in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. This is what makes my father truly happy: cooking good food for people he loves.

We had a lot of rules growing up: no bare feet outside (ooops), clean up after yourself, do your homework, eat dinner together. The greatest insult would be to arrive late for Dad’s dinner, which he cooked by dutifully following every step from Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking.Peeled garlic cloves ready to go into olive oil for sauteeing.

The aroma of garlic in oil is transformative. I could have a really cruddy day, but feel like a new person after wiping down the counters, tidying up the kitchen and starting dinner with garlic and oil. Yesterday, it was diced ginger and garlic in peanut oil. I improvised a meal by adding carrots, green onions, green peppers, curry powder and other spices as well as ground venison. In another pot, I boiled water and tossed in quick cook noodles and bean sprouts. I strained out the noodles and sprouts and tossed them into the meat and veggies mix. What made this wonderful? The crunch, the meat and the aroma of the spices. There was more than one curry powder, by the way.

If I don’t know what to cook or think, I’ll just open the pantry and start sampling smells from spice bottles. Maybe it’s the memories that are conjured up or completely new inspiration. If you really need a lift, take a whiff from the bottle of vanilla extract. The scent makes me think of my mother, who likes to put vanilla in pancakes, brownies and her smiles. Mom really likes baking cookies and brownies. The smile is indelibly impressed and I feel it open across my face when I pull goodies out of the oven. I just made banana-pineapple muffins and the scent is so comforting.

Homemade tomato sauce tastes the best.My grandmother passed away two years ago this Thanksgiving, and I reflect on her memory often. I can still remember the scents in her home for Sunday dinners. The artichokes and olives on a dish before dinner. The tomato gravy that had cooked on low for hours. The way the fresh ravioli smelled when we opened the box. The almond cookies lent another scent to the festivities. I think of all those things when I make my venison meatballs by borrowing from her general recipe. For her meatballs, use 1 egg per pound of meat, Italian breadcrumbs (“but not too much”) and freshly chopped parsley. For venison, add another egg to better bind the lean meat.

Every time I drop tomatoes in saucepan with garlic and olive oil, the colors and aroma bring me home, back to Grandma’s and back to my parents’ old house. Nowadays, most likely, I’m stirring with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

Buon appetito!

The Sage Leopard

The Ultimate, Go-To Mac & Cheese Casserole Recipe

When it comes to mac-n-cheese, I confess I don’t make it with milk and flour. My go-to macaroni and cheese recipe is based on an old Southern Living recipe that uses cream of celery soup, but I often mix it up to make it my own. I also switch it up based on what I may have on hand. For instance, I have used plain yogurt instead of sour cream. Still, the original recipe is delicious. It pairs well with any meat dish, such as steaks, pork loin or pork chops, or sausage. I’ve also served it with venison steaks. It’s great as a side for a cookout and is also a nice match for BBQ. Start with this and consider your own variations.

“Jack in the Macaroni Bake”

Southern Living, February 1994


  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 oz. of elbow macaroni
  • 2 tablespoons or margarine
  • 1/4 cub chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped sweet red pepper
  • 2 cups (8 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1 can (10 3/4 oz) condensed cream of celery soup
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • chili powder

Original Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook macaroni according to directions, drain, rinse and set aside. On stovetop, melt butter in Dutch over, add diced onion and pepper. Saute over medium heat until tender. Remove from heat. Stir in cheese, sour cream and soup. Fold in cooked macaroni. Spoon into a greased 2 quart casserole. Sprinkle with chili powder. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

My basic version means substituting with the following:

  • 1 tablespoon butter paired with 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • add a diced jalapeno (small) with the diced red bell pepper
  • you can switch out the cream of celery with cream of mushroom
  • you can use plain yogurt instead of sour cream
  • I prefer paprika and Cajun seasoning to chili powder, and I like to sprinkle them in a criss-cross fashion for a spice latticework across the top of the casserole

This mac & cheese is classic comfort food. It keeps well in the fridge, but won’t likely last past a second night. I really love it with sweet onion and jalapeno. As for variations, try not to exceed the measurements for the onion and pepper because the base — soup, cheese and sour cream — needs to hold together and any excess with the other ingredients could interfer with that binding with the pasta. I did manage to fold in a little bit of chopped, sauteed kale.

The classic Jake in the Macaroni bake with a bit of kale interlaced with the pasta.

The classic Jake in the Macaroni bake with a bit of kale interlaced with the pasta.

You can make with other short pastas, such as penne, but I am finding that elbow macaroni might just work the best.

This is a stable of my cooking repertoire and a really great centerpiece for entertaining. It’s great for serving to family or anyone you want to feel like family in your home.

Enjoy! Cheers,

The Sage Leopard

These notes were taken from an old copy at my grandmother's home back in the '90s

My notes transcribed from a Southern Living magazine at my grandmother’s home.