Eating My Words….After Eating Some Seriously Amazing Food

Sometimes the most unappetizing thing to eat is your own words!  Especially when you are not shy to share your opinions – like me.  So today, instead of breakfast, I AM eating my own words…fortunately I have a nice cup of coffee to wash them down – thanks, honey!

For quite a while I have been saying that I don’t believe we have any REALLY good restaurants in Central, PA.  That is not to say that there never have been…..some of you may remember The Empire in Carlisle or Brian Kent’s in Hershey….and it is also not to say that there aren’t current restaurants where you can get a good dish (dare I say even a great one), or good service, or nice atmosphere.  The problem I find is that these things rarely come all at the same time in Central PA.

So when I am asked about my favorite restaurant or where I like to eat, I usually preface my answer with something like, “If you don’t mind traveling…..”.  Or, my answer is that I prefer to cook at home.

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A Rare Treat

I had a rare treat on Tuesday….lunch with my husband on a weekday!  It wasn’t planned, which made it even better.

Jeff needed to pick up his car and asked if I could give him a ride.  As I was on the way to his office, I called him to let him know I’d be arriving soon. While on the phone, I teasingly asked if he’d be taking me to lunch as payment for the ride.  I was taken aback when he said, “yes!”  I expected him to reply with some sassy comment, putting me in my place for even suggesting that he had to pay for the ride!  Sometimes he knows how to render me speechless – not an easy feat!

On the remainder of the ride to his office, I thought about the different places we could go – some of our favorites…but as soon as he got into the car and I asked him if he had any ideas; he gave the exact right answer…Alvaro Bread and Pastry Shoppe.  Immediately my mouth started to water.  Everything there is homemade – bread, pasta, sauce, pastries, gelato…..oh, the possibilities were endless.

When we arrived I was comforted by the homey interior – exposed brick, terra cotta colored paint on the walls, and framed photos of the owners’ travels to Italy.  And the cases lined with pastries and cookies reminded me of trays of cookies at weddings in my family.  All lovingly made and beautifully decorated.  When we looked at the offerings of the day, I immediately knew what I would be ordering.  Deciding took only as long as it took me to read the words, “tortellini with rolled eggplant.”  They had me hook, line and sinker!  As we waited in line to order I found myself muttering a silent prayer that they wouldn’t run out of the eggplant before I got to the counter!  You see, the folks at Alvaro’s make the best eggplant rollatini I’ve ever had.

The eggplant is sliced as thin as humanly possible, breaded so lightly you’d swear that angels blew the breadcrumbs onto the slices, and fried so gently.  The result is not greasy at all, but tender on the inside and crispy on the outside.  The base of the filling is the freshest ricotta you’ve ever tasted! Mmm mmm mmm!

The tortellini – of course, homemade – is fantastic.  The pasta is incredibly smooth and just thick enough that it doesn’t tear when it’s rolled into the tortellini shape.  The filling is light and flavorful.  And the sauce – oh, the sauce – is perfection!  It’s just the right combination of fresh tomato sauce and cream.  You’d expect it to be heavy, as many cream-based sauces are; but it is silky and light with fresh tomato flavor.  Jeff also ordered the tortellini, but he ordered the Italian sausage rather than the eggplant.  Normally I would ask for a taste, but I was so engrossed in my food – trying so hard to pace myself that I’d have some to take home – that by the time I thought to ask, he was finished!

It is almost impossible to leave Alvaro’s without some kind of sweet treat.  When you look into the cases lined with cakes and cookies and pastries and homemade gelato, you’d swear the dessert gnomes were whispering, “Try me, try me!”  But we steeled our resolve and left without dessert…..but not without a loaf of rosemary bread!

If you are looking for a warm, homemade, filling lunch – the kind after which you probably need a nap – I’d give Alvaro’s Bread and Pastry Shoppe 6 forks out of 5!!!!  And no, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes or my math!!!

Rules are Meant to Be Broken

There was so much activity in our vacation kitchen that my smile was an accessory to EVERY outfit I wore!  But two things in particular stand out to me as outside the norm.

The first is that I got to cook with my dad.  Not since (1) the days of scrambled egg hoagies when I was young and my mom worked in the evenings or (2) the days of ordering so much pizza from Pizza Village in Bethlehem, PA when I was a teen and my sister was away at college and my mom worked evenings that the Italian guys knew us by phone number have my dad and I spent time in the kitchen together “creating” (or phoning in) a dinner.  But my mom was under the weather on this trip and my dad and I were determined to still serve her fabulous grilled clam pasta; so we set to work shoulder to shoulder under my mom’s direction!

Together we chopped and grated and zested and sautéed and grilled the necessary ingredients to end up with a fabulous, if a bit too spicy but just sassy enough, pasta!

First we cooked the bacon to crispy perfection and removed it from the pan to get crisp on paper towels.  We poured off all but a bit of the bacon grease.  In the remaining bacon grease we sautéed red onion until it was beautifully translucent and the bottom of the pan was a gorgeous chestnut brown.

Then we deglazed the pan with about a cup of Pinot Grigio and let it cook until most of the wine evaporated.  We added the juice of two lemons and let that cook a bit longer.  We added olive oil and chopped garlic, a few too many hot pepper flakes, the zest of two lemons, some cracked black pepper and one or two ladles of the salted water in which the pasta was cooking.  We let that get nice and mellow and put the cleaned, fresh clams on the grill.

 

 

 

 

The clams cooked until they had absorbed the taste of the fire and smoke.  When they opened we put them in a large foil pan and tossed them with the pasta, crisp bacon, oil mixture, zest of two lemons, and some chopped fresh parsley.  The whole, delicious dish was served with grilled Italian bread, some fresh made seasoned bread crumbs for sprinkling over the pasta, and a bit of parmesan cheese.

Which brings me to the second thing that struck me as outside the norm in our vacation kitchen.  Fish with cheese!  Horror of horrors!  Sins against food and man!

I have watched enough episodes of Chopped on the Food Network to hear Scott Conant say at least a gazillion times that it’s just not done.  You don’t serve fish with cheese. It’s not the Italian way.

Well I stick out my tongue and give the raspberries to that sentiment!

As far as I am concerned, if we (cooks everywhere – whether home cooks or Michelin starred chefs) hadn’t pushed the proverbial envelope in the kitchen and broken a few rules along the way, we would still be eating exactly what our ancestors ate thousands of years ago exactly how they ate it!  AND there would be no cooking shows like Chopped on television – Chopped, which judges food based upon CREATIVITY, taste and presentation – not on tradition and rules.  How can we be creative if we do what we’ve always done?  In fact, isn’t the definition of insanity “doing what you’ve always done and expecting a different result?”

Sorry for the rant, but I REALLY had to get that out of my system!

This turned out to be a great meal because I got to cook with my dad, I got to eat the freshest clams I’ve eaten in I don’t know how long, and I got to break a few rules.  So I say eat what tastes good, cook with the people you love, and be innovative in the kitchen.  After all, as Thomas Edison once said, “There are no rules here — we are trying to accomplish something!”

Sea Food

Good Morning!

What an amazing morning…..Jeff and I got up early to catch the sunrise on the beach.  I am so lucky to be married to a man who understands that if I am going to get up early enough to see the sunrise I NEED to have some coffee with me.

Sitting on the beach is one of my favorite things in the world – I love hearing the sound of the waves and I marvel at how no two waves are alike – kind of like snowflakes!  I love the smell of the air and how if I stay long enough my lips taste salty.  It is no wonder people flock to the beach and come here for respite.  I can’t imagine being able to look at all this beauty and not attribute it to God!

And speaking of God, we were all grateful last night for the blessings we’ve been given.  We were sitting at the table enjoying a FANTASTIC meal and even better company.  Then after dinner we retired to the deck for drinks and to watch the night sky.

The menu last night was:

Felty cooked the steaks to perfection – a luscious medium rare.  The taters had a light coating of olive oil, salt and pepper and were in the oven for a good 90 minutes.  The outside was perfectly crisp and the inside was succulent and creamy…..mmmmmm……and the corn was sweet and hot……ahhh!

Oh, and it was capped off by a homemade pizzelle with a light dusting of powdered sugar.  Does life get any better than this?

I don’t know if it was especially good food, the spectacular company, or being by the sea – perhaps a combination of all three – but I can truly say it was a memorable meal – one of the best in a while.  I love that great sea food doesn’t have to be seafood!

 

 

It’s the Simple Things

I had a crazy busy day yesterday.  The kind where you don’t sit down from the time you wake up at 7:00 a.m. until you go to bed at 10:30 p.m.  And I did not feel 100% today.  And I was on my own for dinner. And I was too tired to cook, but neither a frozen meal nor a sandwich would cut it.

All these things factored together make it the perfect night to bust out some comfort food!  Normally I would want something gooey or chocolaty, but not tonight.  Tonight it was the simple things and just a few of them! If you use really good ingredients, you don’t need lots of them.

So here’s the formula:

Imported pasta + a small pat of butter + freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano + cracked black pepper = heaven!

Let’s analyze the ingredients.

1. Imported pasta – I know there are people out there who cannot possibly fathom paying more than $1.00 for pasta.  They are couponers who believe all dried pastas are the same.  NOT TRUE!  I guess growing up on handmade pasta has made me a little fussy (or a lot fussy) about the kind of pasta I eat.  My favorite brand is La Fabbrica Della Pasta.  It has a great flavor and a comforting starchy goodness.  The sauce (if you’re having it) adheres nicely to it – it doesn’t slip off!

2. Butter – Less is more, but some it good!

3. Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano – NO, I am not referring to the junk in the green can.  I am talking about the nutty, salty real deal – the cheese that if I could only eat one food for the rest of my life would be my choice.  I give it a coarse grate and sprinkle it over the hot buttered pasta.

4. Cracked black pepper – I like it cracked or ground coarsely, but I use a gentle hand when adding it.  You’re food shouldn’t taste like pepper, it should taste like what you are making; but I love how it creates a spark on the tip of my tongue.

For me, the pasta was heaven.  It gave me the comfort I was craving, the illusion of having a home cooked meal (I can hardly say I cooked when all I did was boil water), and the easy clean up I love.  It was exactly the kind of pasta Jeff wouldn’t appreciate because he likes his pasta like he likes his women – saucy!

Food Connects….Part 2

As Jeff and I sat in church this morning I was feeling particularly blessed.  I am a little embarrassed to admit that my mind was wandering a bit and that after glancing at who was sitting near me I started making notes on my service outline that had nothing to do with the message.

[I will apologize right here to Pastor Shawn. He preached a great sermon about involving God in our personal finances and I really was listening to the message.  In addition to the notes I took that had nothing to do with the message, I really did take notes that were pertinent to the sermon; it’s just that my mind was working overtime….yeah, working overtime.  It’s true that women can multitask! ]

Anyway….at some point I realized that Jeff and I were surrounded on three sides by other couples who we are so fortunate to count as friends.  I couldn’t help my mind from reaching back to what I had been mulling over all day Friday – the idea that food connects. I realized that we have shared meals with all these couples and, if memory serves, we’ve shared one particular meal with all of them.  It’s not a fancy meal by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one that is meaningful for several reasons.

We first had Taco Soup on our missions trip to Ecuador in 2008.  The last night of our trip, the full-time missionaries with whom we were serving invited our team over to their home in Quito for dinner.  They made Taco Soup.  After spending days eating in unfamiliar places and sometimes not really knowing for sure what we were having, the soup was a wonderful tonic – warm and comforting. We ate and talked and connected over the soup and were so grateful to the Brown’s for their hospitality.  Before we left, we asked for the recipe.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve made Taco Soup since we returned to the states, but I can tell you it is ALWAYS for a crowd, there’s always lots of laughter, and invariably someone always asks for the recipe.  I always triple the recipe and make it in a huge, heavy yellow pot. I’ve even loaned the pot to a friend so that she could make the soup for a crowd too!

We served Taco Soup at our small group meeting the night before our friend, Laura (one of the folks sitting near us at church this morning), went into labor with her first baby.  We served it several times when Jeff and I have taught a finance class to premarital couples at church.  We served it to our ministry team when we had training on how to counsel people about their finances. We made it when we went on vacation with my family over Christmas in 2010. Taco soup has been like an old friend to us.

Of course, thinking about Taco Soup got me to thinking about other food / food traditions we have had at small group meetings.    Before she moved away, our good friend Bev used to make the most amazing Banana Pudding when there was a special occasion.  She got the recipe from her mother-in-law and all of us in our group are indebted to said mother-in-law for her generosity.  Our friends Laura and Aaron, who were newly married and who are so careful and smart with their money, used to bring Doritos each week.  Now, that may not sound like a big deal – but each week they’d bring a new flavor and everyone looked forward to the “Doritos du Jour.”  Until that year, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of Doritos! My personal favorite was the cheeseburger flavored!

For Valentine’s Day this year, my friend Lu and I worked together to create an unforgettable 5 course meal for the 14 people in our small group.  She and I not only made the food, but we also made a beautiful card that served as a place marker for each couple. Inside the card was the printed menu for our ‘Story of the Heart’ dinner.  To continue the theme we created a framed, hand-calligraphed favor for each couple to take home.  It read, “every heart has a story to tell” and included a three-dimensional heart with Bible verses about love printed on it.  I cannot tell you whether Lu and I had more fun getting to know one another while working together on this labor of love or having dinner with the group.  Both were incredible times of connection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So if you love cooking, eating and entertaining as much as I do, or if you simply enjoy being a gracious guest; my sincerest hope for you is that you have many of your own stories of food as a connector.  Perhaps memories of meals you’ve shared with friends or memories that warm your heart when you make a recipe that’s been shared with you by a friend or family member.  After all, every heart (and every recipe) has a story to tell!

Taco Soup

1 lb. ground beef
2 cans diced tomatoes, with liquid
2 cans corn, with liquid
2 cans chili beans, with liquid
1 pkg taco seasoning
________

Tortilla chips
Sour cream
Shredded cheddar cheese

  1. Brown ground beef.  Drain and return to pot.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and stir.
  3. Simmer for at least 20 minutes.
  4. Crush a handful of tortilla chips in the bottom of a bowl.
  5. Ladle soup over chips.
  6. Top with shredded cheese and sour cream as desired.
  7. Enjoy!!!

Note:  Taco Soup freezes well if you make too much!

Smoke from a Distant Fire!

No this is not a review of 70’s music – it’s a recap of a great meal….So I got an email this morning from my husband, Jeff.  Attached were some pictures from his iPhone of a fantastic meal we ate this past Sunday with friends and I just had to share them.

Some cooking, eating and entertaining is planned in advance and some is spur of the moment.  And although I am not a good spur of the moment entertainer, I appreciate those who are and love the serendipitous feeling of being included in such events.  We got a call on Sunday from our friends Jeff and Holly F. saying “Jenny and Tom (Holly’s sister and brother-in-law) are here.  We have a brisket in the smoker and the kids are all playing, do you want to join us for dinner?”

Well, these are some amazing people – the kind whose company you just don’t pass up, and did someone say “brisket” and “smoker” in the same sentence?  Of course we went.  The only question was what to bring to contribute to the meal.

I remembered a recipe I had recently found for Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa.  This being the end of summer, which means our garden is littered with tomatoes, made the decision a no brainer.  Jeff and I worked together on the recipe and during the process of slow roasting the tomatoes our house smelled incredible.  I really wish there was such a thing as “smellavision” because it was an aroma that real foodies would love to share.

As I’m reliving the night in my brain, I am asking myself, “What are the things that made it such a memorable meal?”  The answers include:

  • Amazing friends who share your love of truly good food
  • Spontaneity
  • Good beer and wine
  • A lot of laughs
  • A lively atmosphere
  • Incredible food – smoked brisket, roasted tomato Caprese salad, and oil/salt rubbed roasted potatoes

The brisket was divine……it had been prepared with a simple rub of olive oil, salt and pepper and smoked for several hours.  The resulting smoke ring was a sight to behold.  Thanks, Tom! Please remember the photos were taken with my husband’s iPhone, not in a studio!

The Caprese salad was delicious – a keeper of a recipe as far as I am concerned.  The only change I made was rather than putting whole basil leaves in the salad, I made a fresh pesto for the side – you have to think creatively when kids are involved.  And in my honest opinion, pesto flavors a Caprese salad better than individual leaves of basil.  You can schmear it around and get the basil flavor throughout the salad rather than in isolated pieces.

We dug into the meal and I noticed there was not much talking going on – always a sign of good food.  The conversation we were having was mostly about how good everything was.  We hit a point near the end of the meal when there was only one slice of tomato and one piece of mozzerella left on the platter and just a few slices of brisket remained.  You know that stage, where everyone wants to take the last serving, but doesn’t want to look like a pig. In some company this would have been awkward, but not with these friends – one of us proudly took the last of the Caprese salad while another took a slice of brisket and dragged it through the “dressing’ that remained on the Caprese platter – a brilliant idea.  The next thing we knew, we were all picking up one last slice of brisket with our fingers and following suit!  Mmm mmm mmm.

The meal proved that not all cooking, eating and entertaining has to be stuffy.  Sometimes a last minute invitation and eating with your fingers is the finest dining around!!!