Thank you for the inspiration, Kroger ClickList. It’s time to blog again

Scene: The Hubs, aka Mr. Eats, aka Legal Boo, sits at one end of the dining room table. I sit at the opposite end of the table. I talk with my hands, and he nods as I recount the adventure I began the day before called Kroger ClickList, an online feature from the grocery store chain that lets you select your groceries online and pick them up at the store. I pause so he can appreciate the enormity of the discovery I’ve just made.

“I haven’t seen you this passionate in a while,” he says. “You should blog about it.”

So here I am. Not just to tell you about Kroger ClickList (which is, indeed, a game, nay, LIFE changer), but to dust off the old blog and remind myself that I’ve still got it.

I’ve taken breaks from Ashlee Eats before. Sometimes, it was for personal reasons, like a hefty quarter life crisis. Other times, I stepped away to work be a student. And then there was the time I wrote a book *cough cough Louisville Diners is still available online and in stores cough cough*.

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But this last absence was different. For me, it felt like the end.

Nearly two years ago, I got what would be my dream job at CNET where I review ovens and cooking gadgets and write about smart city efforts in my hometown. With the position of senior associate editor at the top of my resume and the accompanying glee I felt every day going to work for CNET, I thought I was done with Ashlee Eats. The blog had kept me sane for a good chunk of my adult life. It gave me a reason to get to know Louisville again, and fall in love with the city. It gave me a voice during times when I was overwhelmed, lost and wading through my 20s. And most importantly, it connected me to readers who turned into friends and helped me find a community of people who love food and Louisville as much as I do. I began as an AmeriCorps intern, and now I was an author and editor. I thought I was too busy to be a blogger, too.

Then, I turned 30. Pardon my language, but shit got real. We bought a house. We put our beloved dog, Roscoe, to sleep after an illness that came quick and left us devastated. We want to start a family in the next few years. I worry about things like 401Ks and life insurance and remodeling. I call my congresspeople and attend rallies and host fundraisers and do whatever it takes to try to make my country a better place. For God’s sake, I eat shredded wheat for breakfast — AND I LIKE IT. If that’s not being a grown up, I don’t know what is.

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In all of the madness that came when I embraced adulthood, I lost the slice of freedom this blog gave me. This was where I could focus on two things I love: food and Louisville. This was where I could share the adventures I had while I ate my way through the city. I could be myself here, and I didn’t have to worry about the rest of it.

It turns out that I need the blog now more than ever to balance being an adult. So I’m back. I won’t make any promises about frequency of posts because I still have to find a place for Ashlee Eats in my schedule — blogging and working a full-time job in which you want to invest your energy isn’t easy. But I have to do this for myself. I have to reclaim that fun, creative part of my life that this blog created for me. And honestly, I just need a place to gush about all the cool foodie finds I discover, like Kroger ClickList. Seriously. Remind me to tell you more about it later.

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Leslie Knope and me

For the past year, I’ve felt a lot like Leslie Knope, post-Harvest Festival.

I’d like to assume you all watched Parks and Recreation, one of my top 10 favorite sitcoms of all time. If you don’t, you need to get on that immediately (just skip season one). In the meantime, I’ll break it down for you: Leslie Knope, the plucky assistant director of parks and recreation in Pawnee, Ind., planned the Harvest Festival to help her city recover from financial trouble. The festival was a hit, but Leslie panicked soon after because she didn’t know how she could follow up such a successful project.

I know Leslie’s anguish. I spent five years building a career as a Louisville food writer right on this blog.  Then, I got the chance to write a book that focused on the topics about which I cared the most: frugal, local eating. Louisville Diners was like my graduate thesis, my chance to showcase a segment of this city’s food scene. I was thrilled when it came out last March, but with the publication came a new worry: What comes next? Specifically:

  • Would I write another book? If so, about what?
  • What else could I do with Ashlee Eats?
  • There are so many good food bloggers and Instagrammers and whatnot documenting the Louisville restaurant scene, was my voice even necessary or interesting anymore?
  • Should I just focus on my day job and wrap up this blog?

On Parks and Rec, Ron ended up locking Leslie in a closet to force her to sleep and shut down her brain. The next day, she had ideas out the wazoo thanks to that mental reset. I don’t have any problems getting enough rest (napping is one of my favorite hobbies), but after a year of worrying, I’ve decided I need my own reset.

I’ve grown a lot since I started the blog in 2010, and so has Louisville. I started the blog to chronicle my adventures in frugal eating. Now, it’s time to think bigger. It’s time to be loud. And it’s time to dismantle my own insecurities about living up to the unreal expectations I loaded onto my own back.

Like Leslie Knope, I love my city. But we both know that our towns aren’t perfect. I want to do more to make Louisville a better place. I want to continue to explore the corners of our city that don’t get nearly enough attention when you see write-ups about the joys of Louisville’s eats. I want get readers out of their neighborhood comfort zones in search of a good meal. I want to talk about what we as a community can do to address the fact that 53,400 Kentuckians have to visit a food bank each week. I want to highlight the wonderful diversity in our city’s food scene that you can access for less than 10 bucks. I want to support worthwhile charities. I want to show this city some love but hold folks accountable for the problems in getting people access to healthful food. And I just want to eat and write about it.

After the Harvest Festival, Leslie ended up having a full career that maybe even culminated with the presidency (curse you, ambiguous ending). I’m not running for office, but I can see that my career is just ramping up. I just have to take a note from Leslie and Ron and get out of my own way.

 

What I’ve been up to since my last blog post

In no particular order:

  • Procrastinated
  • Traveled to Berlin, Germany for work
A poor attempt at a selfie in front of a remaining piece of the Berlin Wall.
A poor attempt at a selfie in front of a remaining piece of the Berlin Wall.
  • Found my FitBit after losing it three months ago
  • Traveled to Brussels, Belgium for fun
A frites stand in Brussels, Belgium. That look on my face? Pure joy.
A frites stand in Brussels, Belgium. That look on my face? Pure joy.
Rob and I in Berlin. He's the best.
Rob and I in Berlin. He’s the best.
A café americano in Berlin.
A café americano in Berlin.
  • Finished my second semester of grad school
  • Got new glasses
My new glasses. Roscoe is less than enthused.
My new glasses. I love ’em. Roscoe is less than enthused.
  • Went (sort of) vegetarian for a month
  • Watched two seasons of Dynasty on Amazon Prime
Alexis Carrington serving
Alexis Carrington serving “grieving” widow realness.

When a new job gives you biscuits, make a breakfast casserole

Just one of many loads of biscuits CNET Appliances bakes to test ovens.
Just one of many loads of biscuits CNET Appliances bakes to test ovens.

A dream job seemed like a fantasy. For the past few years, I’ve assumed that a job was something I had to tolerate for eight hours a day so I would have enough money to pursue the activities about which I was really passionate. I was lucky enough to land somewhere that wasn’t too bad. My co-workers were fun. The work was new. I gave up the idea of earning a paycheck from doing what I love and loving what I do (a first-world mantra that glosses over things like taxes, rent and savings accounts) and settled into a content cubicle life.

Then my dream job showed up, slapped me in the face and reminded me that you can do what you love and get paid for it.

Last week, I began working at the technology and review website CNET as a senior associate editor. I test and review ovens for a living. Seriously. I can’t make this up. A food writer landed in a job that requires boiling water, broiling burgers and baking biscuits in order to recommend which ranges are a good fit in consumers’ homes.

Y’all, I’m living the dream. Let’s pause for a praise break.

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So anyway, back to these biscuits.

We take appliance testing seriously at CNET, so seriously that we go through cans and cans of refrigerated biscuits to test how evenly ovens will bake them. I hate seeing food go to waste, especially when it can be repurposed into something even better than the original. So I grabbed a bag full of biscuits and made a strata, which is French for “breakfast casserole made out of leftovers.”

Biscuit strata.
Biscuit strata. Don’t mind the “cajun” edges.

This recipe is versatile enough to work with all sorts of leftover bread. For example, I adapted this recipe from one in the Kentucky Fresh Cookbook that calls for cornbread. Using stale bread for strata is approximately 100 times better than just throwing it away or tossing pieces into the grass for birds (spoiler alert: my dog Roscoe is eating your bread scraps). You can also through in whatever meat, vegetables and cheese you have on hand. This is a great clean-out-the-fridge dish.

Cut the biscuits into cubes for the recipe.
Cut the biscuits into cubes for the recipe.

I hope you enjoy the first fruits of my new job. I’m still learning how everything works, so it might be a little bit before my first review is up. In the meantime, find yourself some biscuits and enjoy.


Biscuit Strata

Adapted from the Kentucky Fresh Cookbook by Maggie Green

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/2 pound bulk sausage (pork or turkey)

3 cups milk

6 large eggs

1 teaspoon dry mustard

8 cups biscuit cubes (any thick, stale bread will also do)

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Directions

  1. Spray a 13x9x2-inch baking dish with nonstick spray. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook for five minute until the onions are softened.
  2. Stir in the sausage until it is cooked through, and drain off any excess fat.
  3. While the onions and sausage cook, whisk together the milk, eggs and dry mustard in a medium bowl.
  4. Assemble the strata: Put half the cornbread cubes into the baking dish. Cover the cubes with the sausage mixture and 1 cup of the shredded cheese. Pour half of the milk mixture as evenly as you can over everything in the dish. Cover with the rest of the bread cubes, the remaining milk mixture and the last cup of cheese.
  5. Cover and refrigerate the dish for 2 hour or overnight.
  6. When you’re ready to bake the strata, preheat the oven to 350. Bake the strata for about 50 minutes or until the cubes on top are golden brown.
  7. Let the strata stand for 10 minutes before you serve it.
  8. DEMOLISH THE STRATA

Louisville Diners is out TODAY!

The look of pure glee when I received promotional posters for Louisville Diners in the mail. Thanks, History Press! PS, excuse my haggard appearance. It was a work from home day, y'all.
The look of pure glee when I received promotional posters for Louisville Diners in the mail. Thanks, History Press! PS, excuse my haggard appearance. It was a work from home day, y’all.

All the exclamation marks. All the confetti. None of the pants. That’s how I will celebrate today’s release of my first book, Louisville Diners. Unless I pull a Harper Lee, I hope this is the beginning of a fruitful career in the publishing world. Louisville Diners is available online and in local Louisville retailers. You can also get the goods straight from me at upcoming events. Don’t see Louisville Diners at your favorite store? DEMAND they stock it (seriously, guys, let’s throw a few hissy fits and get this book to the masses). Let’s mark this special occasion with a couple of shameless self-promotions, yes? First, here is an excerpt from Louisville Diners. This little section comes from a section about the diners of Dixie Highway. Consider it an amuse bouche, if you will. You have to buy the book to get the whole meal. *clears throat* *lowers voice an octave to obtain a proper writer’s tone* Let’s do this.


Growing up, fast-food giants were the guests of honor at the dinner table every Thursday night. My mother worked at the beauty salon until 8 p.m. on those days, which was her one late night of the week. As an adult, the 8 p.m. cut-off time doesn’t seem too bad. As a kid, my mother’s late night stretched through homework time and snack time and TV time until it finally collided with bedtime. My mother needed something quick, easy, and portable to bring to the table before I had to go to bed. Convenience eclipsed local ownership. So the fast-food restaurants scattered along Dixie Highway, the main thoroughfare for my southwest Louisville community of Shively, became reliable dinner companions. My family’s omission of local Dixie Highway diners from our meal rotation was an understandable oversight. When I was a kid, it was a big deal when a major restaurant or retailer arrived on Dixie Highway, and an even bigger deal when they left. Not much has changed in 20 years. There are just as many chain restaurants as I remember – maybe even a few more. It’s still a boon for Shively and the other communities in the South End when a national giant takes notice of Dixie Highway and validates the buying power of this area. Big names in casual, fast-casual, and fast-food dining continue to take root along this roadway with the hopes of growing this region’s restaurant appeal. In the years of my childhood and a healthy portion of my adult life, the corporate signage was so big that I missed the perennial diners that give substance and pride to the South End. There is a lot of good, local eating at the diners that dot the Dixie. You just have to spot them amongst the abundant collection of chain restaurants, used-car dealerships, big-box retailers, cash-advance storefronts, and car washes that populate the roadway… Dixie Highway is long enough to put some space between these diners and let them nourish their own distinct communities of regulars. These eateries thrive in the shadows of their big-name competition by preserving the flavor that’s unique to this chunk of Louisville. Diners here have gained a clientele so faithful that fanfare follows renovations and re-openings on a level once reserved for the big boys in the restaurant industry. The food here is borne of necessity rather than innovation, but there’s also a healthy dusting of novelty and creativity…


Like it? Want to read more? To commemorate today’s book release, I’m going to give away a signed copy of Louisville Diners. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post that answers the following question: What is your favorite diner and why? You have until Saturday, March 21 at 12:01 a.m. to leave a comment. I’ll announce a winner Monday, March 23. Good luck!

Updated: The original question was, “What is your favorite Louisville diner?” However, our first commenter kindly reminded me that there are folks who will read this book that aren’t from Louisville. *face palm* So let me know about your favorite diner, wherever you’re located. 

#LouisvilleDiners is out March 16. Here is everything you need to know.

The first copies of my first book have arrived. Excuse me while I throw confetti around the house.
The first copies of my first book have arrived. Excuse me while I throw confetti around the house.

The Us Weekly was enough to make my Saturday a little brighter. Then I made it up the steps with my mail in one hand, my Chinese takeout in the other, when I saw a History Press/Arcadia Publishing box at my apartment door.

I’ve spent the past few weeks handling the business side of the publication of my first-ever book entitled Louisville Diners (brace yourselves, this is the first of many mentions of the book title). The work isn’t as sexy as you’d think. Writing is easy, but I’ve learned that you also have to handle your business like a boss.

So anyhoodles, a March 16 publication date had been floating around for a few weeks, but the arrival of my first copies from the publisher and confirmation of that date put everything into place. If I hadn’t been so hungry for Chinese and celebrity gossip, I might’ve dropped everything in my arms and ripped open the box right at my threshold. There was also an 18-pound terror terrier waiting for me who was more worried about a potty break than my debut into the publishing world. Eventually, I ripped through the box with my car key, jumped up and down without shaking anything to the ground, and shed a couple of happy tears as Roscoe gave me the stink eye for not leashing him up fast enough. I didn’t care about his judgement — a hard copy of my first-ever book was in my hands.

It's me!
It’s me!

There is still a huge part of me that is having a hard time grasping that this book has happened. There is are two covers with words between them that I wrote. There’s a page in the back with my picture under about the author and I’m that author. It’s all so surreal. There aren’t enough hashtags to express all the emotions, but here are a few:

#humblebrag

#blessed

#YAAAAAS

Now that Louisville Diners is in hand, it’s time for some shameless self-promotion. *clears throat, cracks knuckles*

  • Louisville Diners will be released Monday, March 16. You can buy it online at the publisher’s website, HistoryPress.net, and at retailers around Louisville. I’ll have a more solidified list of stores carrying Louisville Diners in the coming weeks.
  • Louisville Diners is about Louisville diners — the places, not the people. I wrote about more than a dozen diners in the area, interviewed some other food writers and community folks and got to know the people who make great, down-home food in our city. The back of the book says it best: “Packed with insightful interviews and helpful tips that only a local can provide, Louisville Diners is a delectable look into the best the city has to offer.”
  • My first official signing will be from 3-4 p.m. March 21 at McQuixote Books and Coffee inside the Tim Faulkner Art Gallery in Portland (1512 Portland Ave.) I will have books for sale and I’ll sign your copy with something rich and thought-provoking (just kidding, I’ll do this by the seat of my pants). Click here for more info.
  • Then, I’ll pack some snacks for a journey out of the county. I’ll be at the Oldham County Library on April 2 (the Mahan Library, 12505 Harmony Landing Lane in Goshen, to be exact) for a talk and signing. I love libraries AND I’m regionally friendly, folks.
  • On May 14, I’ll be at Carmichael’s Bookstore at 7 p.m., selling my wares and maybe getting a laugh or two.

Those are all the events that are set in stone — FOR NOW. In the meantime, the lovely folks at History Press will be convincing various local retailers that Louisville Diners is worth a spot on the shelf along with scheduling more signings and events. I also have a crack team of talented friends who are helping me plan a fun party to celebrate the book. Stay tuned for more details.

I’m still just shy of Oprah levels of a full schedule, so you can reach out to me directly if you’re interested in having my book and/or me pop up at your business. Just send me an email at ashlee [dot] eats [at] gmail [dot] com.

Now, it’s time to cozy up in my reading chair with my Us Weekly. Celebrity gossip waits for no author.

Cue the confetti, the $10 Challenge returns today

Holy crap, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a $10 Challenge.

It began as procrastination. Then, working on the book kept me from doing much in my free time, let alone write something that wasn’t related to the manuscript. Then, when I finally did have time, I was intimidated to get back into writing the $10 Challenge because I had been gone for so long. My blogging had become sporadic in the back half of 2014, and I was scared that 1) I had lost my $10 Challenge groove, and b) no one would want to hear what I thought about restaurants in the city anymore. A few weeks away from a blog is like an eternity in internet time. How could I make up for lost time?

The answer was pretty easy. I just had to tell myself to shut my yapper and get back to writing. I’m my own worst enemy, and I had almost talked myself out of doing one of my favorite things — writing about cheap, awesome food. There wasn’t a light-bulb moment, or a contagious “new year, new me” mantra that got me excited to get back to Ashlee Eats.  I decided to write a $10 Challenge because why the heck not?

Now, I am going to change things up a little bit:

  • Originally, the $10 Challenge was a weekly feature. That won’t fly in 2015, thanks to a full-time job and a book (*cough cough PLUG cough cough*) that I’m going to promote the heck out of when it publishes this year (specific date TBD). Instead, I’m going to publish a $10 Challenge bi-weekly on Fridays beginning today. That will keep me accountable to you guys and get me writing (and eating) more often. Everyone wins!
  • Instead of focusing on just one dish that is less than $10, I’m going to try to highlight various options you have at a restaurant. Ideally, restaurants will offer customers more than just a couple of $10 options, and I want to find them.
  • As always, I’ll take suggestions on where you want to me to go. Simply Thai has been a crowd favorite that I’ll get to this year. Just leave comments, holler at me on Twitter or post something on my Facebook page.
  • In the spirit of nostalgia, I will revisit some old $10 Challenges to see if the restaurants are still offering bargains.

What are your $10 Challenge suggestions for the new year?

Mission Manuscript: COMPLETE

Snuggie? Check. Enthusiasm to be back on Ashlee Eats? DOUBLE CHECK.
Snuggie? Check. Enthusiasm to be back on Ashlee Eats? DOUBLE CHECK.

I did it. I wrote a book.

Last week, I turned in the final version of my manuscript about Louisville diners to my publisher, History Press. My book is called Louisville Diners, because life is too short to dance around the point.

The past few months have been brutal. I’ve never written so many words all at once in my entire life. I also discovered the true depths of my procrastination, which runs as deep as the ocean. I’ve panicked, worried, drank a lot of wine, and eaten my weight in Trader Joe’s organic blue corn tortilla chips.

But I did it. I wrote a daggone book.

I’m saving my true victory lap until Louisville Diners is published sometime next year. There’s a part of me that still doesn’t believe it’s all real. I need the book in my hands before I’ll let myself exhale.

I’m back to regular ol’ blogging now that I have my life back. I missed you guys. And we have so much to talk about.

Holy shiitake, I’m writing a book about Louisville diners

Chicken and waffles from Good Ole Jessie's Diner on Dixie Highway, one of the subjects of the book.
Chicken and waffles from Good Ole Jessie’s Diner on Dixie Highway, one of the subjects of the book.

Everyone expects any announcement of big news to center around a pregnancy when you’re a woman of childbearing age. There are no buns in my oven at this time, but I do have news.

I’m writing my first book, and I have a publisher.

*throws confetti*

*swings pants around my head*

*Carlton dances*

Between eating and writing, I’ve missed talking to you guys on the blog. Ashlee Eats is where I feel the most comfortable. I get to share news about food and detail my own dining and cooking experiences. This blog has also given me a reason to have fun, whether it’s going to the Trader Joe’s opening or eating a doughnut burger. Most of all, everyone reading this has given me the confidence and support to turn a hobby into a book. I thought I was done with writing after I left the newspaper business. You made me realize that the writing part of my life wasn’t over. Thank you for reading for these four years.

Now, enough with the mush. Let’s talk about the book.

History Press is publishing my book, which will receive a proper name later. This book is about Louisville diners and where they fit in the Louisville culinary landscape. I’ve talked to fellow food writers and people in Louisville about the joy of the greasy spoon (a term I use with love). I’ve learned more about the city than I ever thought I would. And I’ve eaten a lot of biscuits and gravy and, subsequently, taken a lot of post-dinner naps. You can check out some of the subjects of the book on my Instagram account.

I’m not sure when the book will come out. Trust me, I’ll tell you as soon as I know. In the meantime (NAME DROP AND PROMO ALERT), check out fellow food writer Steve Coomes’ new book, Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt and Smoke, also from History Press.

I’ll pop in here more to deliver more handy-dandy food news and quips. I pinky promise. And if a bun should start rising in my Easy Bake Oven, I’ll let you know.