Rosemary Olive Oil Cake

The Finished Product w BrushstrokeJeff and I are having some friends over for dinner this evening.  It will be a very casual dinner as I try out some recipes for one of the cooking classes I’ll be teaching at the Kitchen Shoppe in the spring.

I am excited for this new journey and have been learning so much along the way.  Each iteration of a recipe teaches me about the effects of all kinds of things – a change in spices, different cooking times, higher or lower temperatures, fresher ingredients – on the end result.  It has been a fun process and I am thankful for the support of my family and friends – those people who are willing to eat not only the successes, but the failures as well!!!

For dessert tonight, we’ll be having Rosemary Olive Oil Cake.  Some people find the idea of baking with olive oil quite strange; frankly I feel sorry for those folks because they are missing out on some amazing moisture and flavor!

I thought I’d show you the process of making this cake.

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Food Journal

I realized today that even though I’ve only been Blogging about food since September of last year; I’ve been Jlogging about food for a lot longer!

Front Cover w FlowersI’ve spent the majority of the day committing to paper recipes for a class I am teaching in a few weeks; and, as often happens when I am thinking about things I’ve made in the past, I pulled out my food journal.  It will come as no surprise to those of you who have read past posts that I got sidetracked!  My self-diagnosed ADD kicked in AGAIN and with a smile on my face I traveled down memory lane.

My food journal is a beautiful brown-leather covered volume that I swore I would keep in pristine condition – I vowed to only write in it in my best handwriting.  Ahhh, the best laid plans…… A few of the pages began neatly – with legible printing; but over time they have become splattered and spilled upon and you can see some days where my passion for what I was recording overtook my desire to write neatly!  That’s how passion goes….

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A Crackerjack Event

Last week was so much fun….I spent the majority of it preparing for a party I catered for our friends Lowell and Nancy on Saturday evening. They were welcoming some friends from our church into their neighborhood.  Lowell and Nancy are such gracious hosts and some of the most generous people I have ever met – they’re quite inspiring.  So it was my pleasure to cater the party.

We met a few weeks ago to talk about the menu, decor, buffet placement, etc. I then worked out a menu, which Nancy and I tweaked along the way, and last Tuesday I did all the grocery shopping I could do in advance.  On Wednesday food prep began and by Saturday afternoon, Jeff was helping me unload the car at Lowell and Nancy’s beautiful home.  Their house overlooks a lake, which made working in their kitchen a pleasure. The view from the window over the sink is spectacular!

Between 2:30 and 4:00 I got the bar, the dessert table and the appetizer buffet set and then at 4:00 I began putting the finishing touches on the food.

Nancy and Lowell chose a nautical theme and I had great fun coming up with ideas for the bar and buffets. Jeff agreed to tend bar, so I wanted him to have a nice space to work.  I created the bar using a 4 foot table; two vases with sand, rope and shells; a piece of reclaimed wood; and some other decorations including a string of battery-operated lights.  Everyone at the party commented on the bar.

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Busy Day and Great News

I am catering a party for some friends on Saturday night and have been working on shopping, food prep, tablescape (you know how this word makes me nervous), etc.  And I’ve had some great help!

I finished all the grocery shopping I could do in advance on Tuesday.  And if you’ve been reading you know I set up a schedule for myself working backwards from Saturday.  I am happy to say we (my mom and I – she is fantastic help with catering jobs) are ahead of schedule – but I try not to jinx myself with that kind of thinking!

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The Best of Bread!

A 70’s rock band, a colloquialism for money, or a sandwich platform – any way you slice it, it’s delicious!

And it turns out bread is also a great vehicle for getting to know people better! Friday Jeff and I had the pleasure of spending the day at the beautiful home of a great couple – Darrell and Donna – that we know from church.  They invited us to their home to learn Darrell’s techniques for no-knead bread making after hearing me bemoan the fact that I don’t have the best luck baking bread.

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It’s the Holiday Season – Whoop-De-Do or Whoop-De-Don’t?

“Chrismas makes you feel emotional,
It may bring parties or thoughts devotional
Whatever happens, whatever may be
Here is what Christmas time means to me…..”

It’s true – Christmas does make me feel emotional.  Sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a not-so-good way. I was reading an article on mercurynews.com earlier today that included a quote by author Sophia Dembling.  The quote about Christmas read, “it’s the most extroverted time of the year.”  I can really relate to that….particularly being an introvert myself.  The article went on to quote Dembling as saying, “I don’t want to check out of it entirely, but it can just completely overwhelm you, and then you get crabby.”

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Behind the Scenes: Dinner for 14 – The Dinner

How richly has God blessed me?  More richly than I deserve!

As I looked around the dining room table on Saturday night, to see the faces of 13 friends who love and support Jeff and I, I was shown living proof of God’s enormous love!

The evening began as people arrived in a trickle and then a stream.  Soon after 6:30 our house was bustling with the sounds of friends talking and laughing, glasses clinking, and Christmas music playing softly in the background.

As people arrived and settled in, we opened the many bottles of wine that were brought by our guests and nibbled on Rosemary Cashews, Black Olives and Salami & Provolone Curls.  When you are serving a full meal, your pre-dinner nibbles should be tasty but simple.  You don’t want to make your guests so full that they aren’t hungry for dinner; but on the other hand, you don’t want people drinking on an empty stomach and you want their appetites to be teased by the appetizers – perhaps Penny’s boyfriend Zack on The Big Bang Theory is right, they should be called “appeteasers!”

Everyone was nibbling and had a drink in hand, so Jeff made a lovely toast to our friends and to the evening.  That was a great moment for me to usher everyone into the dining room!  Thanks, honey…

After a brief explanation of the menu, Mark said a beautiful blessing over the meal and everyone dug in. The meal included: Fruit Stuffed Pork Loin w/ Madeira Wine Sauce; Gruyere, Caramelized Onion & Roasted Garlic Potato Stacks; Roasted Butternut Squash & Wilted Spinach Salad w/ Dried Cranberries & Pepitas; and Parmesan Herb Rolls.  Keeping in mind advice I wrote a week or so ago about entertaining, I had to keep food allergies in mind; so I made Fruit Stuffed Chicken Breast for the guest who is allergic to pork.

   

As every hostess hopes, the conversation was lively and everyone seemed to really enjoy the food.  I have to say again that I just love cooking for people who love to eat!!!!

So that I could remain with my guests and not be stuck in the kitchen washing dishes, I cleared the table to the utility sink in my laundry room and filled it with hot, soapy water.  That made clean up after everyone left go very smoothly!

With everyone’s’ bellies full, we played a rousing game of Catch Phrase between dinner and dessert.  That produced a lot of laughter, more than a touch of competitiveness, and lead us all to ponder Jeff B’s question, “Which phrase best describes you: (1) I love to win or (2) I hate to lose.”

After the game I set up out the desserts while Jeff filled the coffee carafe and Ben & Christa set up their Hot Brandied Cider.  Everyone got dessert at their own pace and ate when and where they wanted.  There were lots of little side conversations going on, which as the hostess made me happy.  I really enjoy hearing the buzz around me!

After dessert our guests continued to nibble and talk and laugh and spend time with one another.  But that inevitable time of the evening came – the time I find most objectionable – when people begin to leave. I figured out that I think I feel this way because when I was little and we went visiting, I didn’t normally stay awake until people said their goodbyes.  I just woke up in my bed the next morning with wonderful memories of time spend with loved ones!

A few guests hung in there with us until after midnight – we talked about life and shared stories….you know, the things you do with friends.  All in all, I’d say Dinner for 14 was a success.

I hope some of our guests will share with you their observations about the dinner………

 

 

Behind the Scenes: Dinner for 14 – The Day Of

Guests arrive in 65 minutes….I can’t wait to tell you all about prep today and the dinner!!! Stay tuned……..

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OK, it’s Monday morning.  Yesterday was a day of complete and utter laziness.  I didn’t get out of my pajamas until 5:00 p.m.!  But it sure felt good…..

 

This morning I want to update you on the prep schedule for the day of the dinner and tell you about the dinner itself.  I’m sitting in my office with a cup of coffee, a glass of Naked Green Machine juice, a bottle of water (I don’t THINK I’m dehydrated, but maybe I am since I feel the need to have so many beverages on the desk) and a bowl of oatmeal.  There’s nothing like a filling, nourishing breakfast to get your day started right!

 

Saturday morning – the day of the dinner – started early – my eyes opened and my mind began spinning at 6:45 a.m.  By now I know myself well enough that I don’t even try to go back to sleep when my mind is spinning; so I got out of bed and started planning the day.  I consulted my schedule and began penciling more specific steps for each task.

The schedule called for:

  • Pick up chairs
  • Pick up dishes
  • Get a little extra sleep!!!!! Yeah!
  • Set table
  • Set appetizer buffet
  • Set dessert buffet
  • Set bar
  • Make filling and fill macaroons
  • Sweep floors just before everyone arrives
  • Spruce up powder room
  • Make rolls
  • Cook chicken
  • Put finishing touches on all food
  • Primp and pamper and perhaps take a cat nap

I added:

  • Finish cooking pork
  • Make Creme Anglaise for Tiramisu
  • Cut greens from pine trees for dining table, powder room, and buffet tables
  • Roll salami and cheese appetizers
  • Arrange food on serving platters
  • Heat Madeira wine sauce and ladle into gravy boats
  • Get coffee pot ready
  • Set coffee cups at end of bar
  • Definitely take a nap (I even went so far as to schedule the nap from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. and then work the timeline backwards so I wouldn’t miss the nap)

Jeff woke up around 7:30 and we had a quick breakfast and set to work.  He started making the Creme Anglaise and I started making the filling for the macaroons.  Both were flopping, but we didn’t let that deter us.  Jeff started over and I just altered the recipe until the filling was the consistency I wanted – of course, I ended up with about 400 gallons of it (I see a chocolate peppermint trifle in our future)!!!!

It’s funny, Jeff and I have been entertaining since we were married many years ago (it will be 20 years in August 2013).  We have gotten significantly better at it!  We used to argue and fight and be harried all day and exhausted when our guests arrived; but now that we use a schedule and we work together instead of at odds, it’s much, much easier.

I love the day of an event….setting the table, tweaking the details, smelling the food…..it just fills my soul and releases my creative muse!  They say the devil is in the details; but to me, it’s not the devil – it is surely God!

 

 

By 1:30 I was ready for a nap – at least physically.  I lay down on my bed and tried to fall asleep; but I couldn’t stop myself from mentally going through the list and anticipating how the dinner would progress.  I realized that I had overlooked an important detail.  I didn’t plan any wine glass markers and people would be spending a lot of time uttering, “Is that my glass?”  So as I tried to nap, I was plotting how I could make wine glass markers that fit into the white and silver theme.  I wanted them to be festive, but not take a lot of time.  Because I was determined to lay quietly until 3:00.

I’m glad I persisted in napping, because I finally fell asleep and I know my body and brain needed rest.  But when I woke up, I hopped into the shower, dried my hair and then headed to my craft supplies to start on the wineglass markers.  I needed a little help with executing my idea, so I hollered for Jeff.  He came up to my office and was shaking his head….not surprised, but still amazed that the clock was ticking and I was just starting a new project.  He helped and we got them done in record time.  And they turned out to be a good conversation starter and an attractive way to keep glasses organized!

After the wine glass markers were complete, I finished getting myself ready and headed back to the kitchen.  Jeff hopped into the shower while I set the nibbles out on the appetizer table and just before the guests were set to arrive we had all the food heating and we each had a glass of wine in hand.  Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Jeff gave me a gift!  Now all I have to do is decide when I want to go to the Hygea Salt Room for a little rest and relaxation!!!!  Thanks, honey!!!!

Click here for more photos of Saturday’s preparations.  And stay tuned for a description of the dinner!

 

Behind the Scenes: Dinner for 14 – Day 5

We are preparing for dinner for 14 at our house tomorrow evening.  Today was Day 5 of the preparation schedule.

I have three things to say emphatically:  1) I am sooooo incredibly lucky to have the husband I have – he took the day off today to help me clean and prep.  I completely understand that not many husbands would do that and so I want to publicly thank him for being such a terrific guy!  2) I am also incredibly glad I got more done yesterday than was on my list.  In addition to the things on the list, I also prepped all the ingredients for the food I needed to make today and it was a HUGE help!  And finally, 3) I RRREEEAAALLLLLLYYY wish I had a cleaning person (or perhaps a magic wand).  As much as I love cooking; I loathe cleaning!  But I will admit, now that the house is clean I am really happy.  It smells like a combination of clean and yummy right now!

I never did get my walk in with my fuzzy gals yesterday, but I certainly got my share of exercise going up and down the steps and wrestling said fuzzy girls in the shower before getting into bed last nigh!

The following are pics of the progress from yesterday.

Tree is Decorated - All 12 Feet of It!

Tree is Decorated – All 12 Feet of It!

Tiramisu….step by step:

Potato Stacks w/ Gruyere, Caramelized Onions & Roasted Garlic:

After a hearty breakfast of savory oatmeal and copious amounts of coffee, Jeff and I got started on our list.  On the agenda for today:

  • Pick up chairs (did not happen, but will get them tomorrow)
  • Cleaning – every room is sparkling at the moment – if only it would stay that way!!!
  • Make potato stacks – no, Mark, not curly fries!
  • Stuff and partially cook pork roast (and chicken breast for those allergic to pork)
  • Hang pictures (didn’t happen yesterday, but done today)
  • Iron napkins
  • Make vinaigrette
  • Roast butternut squash
  • Laundry (in order to make sure what we plan to wear tomorrow evening is clean)
  • Make iced tea
  • Fill nail holes and touch up paint in dining room

We can check  everything off the list – and then some.  I also finally found a way to display some ornaments I’ve been wanting to display for the last few years and created and embossed a printed note for each place setting.

Tomorrow’s list includes:

  • Pick up chairs
  • Pick up dishes
  • Get a little extra sleep!!!!! Yeah!
  • Set table
  • Set appetizer buffet
  • Set dessert buffet
  • Set bar
  • Make filling and fill macaroons
  • Sweep floors just before everyone arrives
  • Spruce up powder room
  • Make rolls
  • Cook chicken
  • Put finishing touches on all food
  • Primp and pamper and perhaps take a cat nap

I am looking forward to quality time with our friends and to kicking off the holidays in a festive way.  I can’t wait to show you pictures of the evening!

Behind the Scenes: Dinner for 14 – Day 4

If you’ve been reading you know Jeff and I are hosting dinner for 14 at our house on Saturday evening.  I want to give you a behind the scenes look at entertaining during the week leading up to the dinner.  I didn’t blog yesterday, but you didn’t miss much….mostly it was prepping for a meeting for my consulting work, but there was also some shopping for the party.

I’ve been wanting to add two half sheet pans to my kitchen inventory.  The dinner on Saturday gave me the perfect reason to buy them – I will need lots of sheet pans to heat food on the day of the dinner; so I went to the restaurant supply and bought those.  Also, since we just repainted the powder room, I wanted to get some new hand towels.  Check!  And finally, until yesterday we didn’t have enough white cloth napkins; but now we do.  And a great surprise was that I had a gift card for the store at which I found them! Bonus.

That leads us to today.  Things are heating up in terms of party prep.  As I write, I have a tray of macaroon cookies in the oven and two trays on the counter waiting to be baked.  The macaroons I am making are the bite-sized French macaroons, not the coconut ones. Several months ago, my Aunt Pam visited and brought me a macaroon cookbook.  I’ve been looking for a reason to learn to make these and this party gives me one.  Although there are many yummy recipes in the book, I am adapting one for the holidays.  I am using the recipe for the chocolate macaroon cookies, but I am making a white chocolate peppermint filling.

Also on the schedule for today:

Jeff –

  • Work
  • Last minute grocery run
  • Help decorate the tree and house
  • Hang new photos in dining room
  • Bathe dogs
  • Make tiramisu

Jan –

  • Make macaroon cookies
  • Make macaroon filling
  • Photos for blog post
  • Write blog post
  • Select serving dishes and utensils for Saturday dinner
  • Iron cloth napkins
  • Decorate tree and house
  • Help with tiramisu
  • Make rosemary cashews

I have to tell you how good the house smells right now – so chocolately! Mmm mmm mmm!!!! And as I peek in the oven, I am thrilled with how great the cookies look.  The “frilly foot” that is present when macaroons are made right is starting to form on the bottom of the cookies.  Yeah!!!!!  I must admit that I did a test run on Tuesday evening so that I would know what to expect when working on these today.  And boy did I learn a lot from the test.  I learned that I needed to pipe smaller circles onto the trays in order to get the right finished size.  And I learned that I needed a firmer batter than I had on Tuesday.  I would highly recommend not making a brand new recipe on the day of an event unless it’s a recipe that is very similar to one you’ve made previously.  You never know what can go wrong, but a test run can give you a chance to make adjustments as necessary and can give you a boost of confidence!

The first tray of macaroons is out of the oven cooling.  The second tray is in the oven baking.  And the third tray is still resting on the counter.  As you can see from my list above, I have a lot to do today so I’d better get to it.

Just one final note.  Don’t make your days before an event so busy that you don’t have a chance for a little fun, some nutritious meals, and reasonable bed-times.  The last thing you want on the day of your event is to be so tired you can’t enjoy yourself.

I started my day with a warm bowl of oatmeal.  I’ve got Christmas music on the radio getting me into the spirit and I’m going to try to fit a walk with my two favorite furry girls into the schedule today.  It’s easy to get to “party overload” – I know, I fell prey to it many times in the past; but over the last several years I’ve mellowed and learned a thing or two about entertaining.

With the proper planning you CAN be an “unflustered” hostess!!!!

Behind the Scenes: Dinner for 14 – Day 2

This coming Saturday evening Jeff and I are hosting dinner for 14 at our house.  If you read Behind the Scenes: Dinner for 14 – Day 1, you know we are working from a daily schedule to prepare for the dinner on Saturday.  This morning I made myself a warm and healthy breakfast.  I made steel cut oatmeal and topped it with a tablespoon of low-fat peanut butter, a sliced banana, a tablespoon of dried peaches, a teaspoon each of chia seeds, ground flax seed, pepitas, and sunflower seeds.

While eating, I reviewed our schedule for the day, which looks like this….

Jeff –

  • Work
  • Buy Hooks for pictures
  • Shop at BJ’s with Mimi
  • Buy Wine/Beer

Jan –

  • Prep for consulting meeting on Wednesday
  • Photos for blog posts
  • Write blog posts
  • Laundry
  • MM&L Bible study

As you can see, the schedule at the beginning of the week is light in terms of party prep.  Things will really begin to pick up on Wednesday; but throughout the day on Monday and Tuesday Jeff and I will both be thinking about our tasks, developing our mini plans of attack, and thinking of things we may have forgotten.  Also, if there is extra time during the day (hahahaha – when is there ever extra time?), we can look ahead on the schedule to see if there is anything we can complete ahead of schedule.  The more we can get done in advance, the less there will be to create stress the day of the party!

But for today, getting tasks out of the way that will impede progress later in the week is what we are concentrating on.  So far, so good!

Behind the Scenes: Dinner for 14 – Day 1

This coming Saturday evening Jeff and I are hosting dinner for 14 at our house.  I realize that scares some people, but it absolutely energizes me.  I love all the activity in the days leading up to the dinner almost as much as I love spending time with friends around my table!

The key to successful entertaining is planning.  So yesterday was Day 1 of the process – the day Jeff and I sit down to plan.  When we plan we make multiple lists.  To produce our lists we ask ourselves (and each other) several questions, including:

  • What projects do we want to complete around the house before the event?  In this case, we [actually I] wanted to paint the powder room.  It hadn’t been painted since we moved in and had only one sprayed-on coat of builder grade paint; so it badly needed to be spruced up.  Fortunately on Black Friday I convinced Jeff to take the pedestal sink and toilet tank out of the room so I could paint while he was out for the evening.  That was one project we could check off our list before the planning even began!
  • What do we want to do in terms of cleaning?  We take a virtual walk through each room and write down specifics for this question and the previous question.  For example on our list for this week:  “Master Bedroom: patch holes and touch up paint (Jeff recently hung a flat panel t.v. on the wall and there were some holes from the old connections), dust ceiling fan, dust and vacuum.”
  • Is there anything (besides groceries) that we need to borrow/purchase for the event?  For our dinner on Saturday, I want to set the table with a silver and white theme so I am borrowing china from my mom.  And I don’t have enough white napkins so I am going to buy a few more.  (White cloth napkins are always a good investment – they can be used for almost any occasion).
  • What are we going to serve?  We plan the menu from appetizer to dessert, including beverages.  We try to do some easy recipes and some more complicated recipes with a balance of items that can be made ahead (in part or in full) and items that need last-minute attention.  That way we’re not wearing ourselves out in the kitchen on the day of the party!
  • After we ask ourselves all the questions above, we lay out a schedule for each day of the week leading up to the event – writing in the tasks we will do each day.  We also include in our schedule personal appointments and work so that we don’t over-schedule on any of the days.
  • Finally, we put together our grocery list so that when one of us does the shopping (typically our approach to entertaining is “divide and conquer”) we know exactly what we need.  We begin with the list we made of the things we going to serve.  We look at each recipe and determine if we need to multiply it and, if so, by how much.  One of use usually reads off the necessary ingredients while the other is in the kitchen looking to see what we have vs. what we need. We also consider if an ingredient will be used in multiple recipes and, if so, we calculate the total of the ingredient we will need overall so that we’re not trying to do these calculations while we’re shopping.  Finally, I get a little crazy and arrange the grocery list into categories so that all like items are together – for example, all dairy products in one section of the list, all produce in another, etc.

Once the planning is done, there is no guessing what we should be doing – we have a schedule, we know who will do each task, and we can operate individually and efficiently!  Of course, sometimes we forget things and we have to revise the schedule; but after many years of working together, we have a system that works really well for us.

Day One – Sunday, 11/25 – Planning – Check!  We are off and running…

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner is my niece Ashley’s favorite meal of the year and my second-favorite meal of the year.  Enjoying it yesterday was an excellent reminder of why we love this meal so much.

My sister – Laura – offered to host Thanksgiving dinner this year.  An interesting choice for someone who gets so stressed out about entertaining, but she did an amazing job!  The food was wonderful, the ambiance was festive yet relaxed, and the company couldn’t have been better!

As most families do, we have some family traditions when it comes to Thanksgiving foods – and they never disappoint; but we also try new things each year, which keeps the meal fresh and exciting.  This year was the perfect mix of standards and new introductions.

The standards:

  • Turkey & Gravy – It’s not always made by the same person every year.  This year, since my sister’s family hosted the meal, she (Laura) made the turkey.  It was really good….please understand, I do not really like turkey very much – I love chicken, but turkey doesn’t thrill me.  If I were a turkey lover, which I am not, I would probably say it was fantastic; but a rating of ‘really good’ from me when it comes to turkey is like a perfect score from someone else.  It was golden and juicy and flavorful – not a bit dry!

  • Mashed Potatoes – Laura’s Thanksgiving mashed potatoes do not fall into the low-fat category by any stretch of the imagination.  But they do fall into the delicious category!  If I could describe them with only three words, I would choose smooth, rich and decadent!
  • Stuffing – Or is it filling?  Or is it dressing?  I can’t tell you which category it officially falls into (I truly don’t think there is a formal distinction), but Laura’s Sausage & Cranberry Stuffing is out of sight!  It is moist and flavorful in the center of the pan and toward the edges of the pan it gets crispy and golden….what could be better than that?

  • Corn Pie – The recipe goes back quite a ways into our childhood and it is one of my favorite things about the Thanksgiving meal.  This year, in addition to the corn pie I also tried a new corn recipe (see below).  It was truly delicious, but I think – perhaps it’s tradition – I still like corn pie for this meal.

  • Laura’s Cranberry Sauce – My sister’s recipe – which I have never seen – is just the perfect cranberry sauce.  It’s quite tart and refreshing – in my opinion, it is just the right complement to all the heavy, fat laden side dishes that are typically served on Thanksgiving!
  • Jeff’s Cranberry Applesauce – Even though we have Laura’s Cranberry Sauce, Jeff makes this applesauce each year as a labor of love for Ashley. Each year he remembers how much she likes it, so he starts with fresh apples and lovingly turns them into a yummy side dish that is equally as good served warm or cold.  It is another light and refreshing offering that balances nicely with the other flavors in the meal.
  • Pumpkin Pie – My dad is not someone who bakes a lot.  In fact – unless I am mistaken – the only time he bakes during the year is Thanksgiving.  But based solely on his pumpkin pie you would swear he is a world-class baker!  The nut crust is absolutely incredible – flaky and rich…..mmm mmm mmm.  The filling is luscious – the perfect balance of pumpkin and spice with a hint of sweetness.  He makes one pie “with” and one ” without” every year. The with and without refers to the bourbon.  I usually have the “without,” but everyone who eats the “with” usually raves about it!

The New Introductions:

  • Gulliver’s Corn – I know it’s overkill with the Corn Pie, but I one of the Kitchen Shoppe visiting instructors, Diane Phillips, was telling me about the recipe and I was so intrigued I just had to give it a whirl.  She makes something called Gulliver’s Corn, which is quite rich and which my nieces agreed tasted kind of like macaroni and cheese. Although the more traditional part of me thinks Corn Pie belongs at Thanksgiving, this dish was delicious and I will definitely make Gulliver’s Corn for other meals.

  • Salad du jour – I’m not sure how salad fits into the Thanksgiving meal for other families, but for our family it’s usually a marginal player; however this year it was one of my favorite things!  My mom made a terrific salad – lettuce was the base, but it was topped with a huge array of fresh fruits, some cranberry chipotle cheese cubes, and toasted pepitas.  It had a light vinaigrette and was a great accompaniment to everything else on the buffet.

I think over the years my sister has convinced herself that she’s not good at entertaining, but she actually is!  We had a great tasting and great looking meal, a nice selection of drinks – from wine and beer to a new chocolate bourbon, lively conversation, a break between dinner and dessert, some family game time, a chance to spend time catching up with family, and even a little Big Bang Theory!  If you ask me Laura was only missing one thing yesterday – confidence in her own ability!  Remember, entertaining is not a competition – if it is you are hosting the wrong people – and in my Entertaining Survival Guide I recommend that as the entertainer you should do the best YOU can do!

Entertaining Survival Guide

With the holiday season upon us, it’s important to think about your role as both host/hostess and as guest.  In my never-to-be-humble opinion, entertaining – whether at the holidays or any time of year – should be less about the person doing the entertaining and more about the people being entertained.  That is not to say that as the entertainer you shouldn’t enjoy the process – I wholeheartedly believe you should and I certainly do.  It is to say that you should put your guests’ needs and desires above your own.

The following are a few things to consider when entertaining:

  1. Do the best YOU can with what you have or can afford.
    When entertaining, you don’t have to spend a lot of money or make complicated, overly fancy or fussy recipes.  I believe you should do the BEST YOU CAN (don’t compare yourself with how other people entertain) with what you have, what you can afford, and what your skill level allows.   Maybe you don’t have the skills yet or can’t afford to prepare a five-course meal for 20; but that doesn’t mean you can’t entertain.  Consider an appetizers only or desserts only buffet.
  2. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to entertain beautifully.
    Make recipes that fit into your budget – for example, pasta is a relatively inexpensive way to feed a crowd and you can select a protein to add in a small amount to fit your budget – chicken, shrimp, beef, etc.   You also don’t have to spend a lot of money on table decorations.  If you don’t have enough of one kind of china for the number of people you’ve invited, mix and match in an artful way and your guests will think you planned it like that.  And if you have flowers or greens or herbs growing in your yard, you can have a fresh centerpiece without spending a lot of money.  Also, consider using food as centerpieces….if you are serving pasta, you can fan spaghetti in a low vase for a funky, low-cost table accent or you can put pretty bowls of citrus on the table for pops of color that can be eaten at a later date.
  3. Know your audience.
    Depending on the number of people you’ve invited it is nearly impossible to please everyone with every dish, but you should be mindful of food allergies and other dietary restrictions.  If you’re not sure whether guests have special dietary needs, ask them! Oh, and as a sub-tip, don’t be too sensitive if someone doesn’t eat something you make.  Not every recipe is for everybody!
  4. Keep centerpieces low.
    If you are having a sit down dinner, keep your centerpieces low enough that people can converse across the table.  Although tall centerpieces can make a striking statement, they can also hinder conversation – so I say use them on a buffet table, not on a dinner table!
  5. Pay attention to details.
    Put yourself in the guests’ shoes and ask if all your senses are being stimulated in a positive way.  What are they seeing – is your food visually appealing?  Is your table setting attractive?  Is there four inches of dust on the table?  Are the cloth napkins so wrinkled they look like you’ve stored them rolled up in a ball?  You don’t have to use cloth napkins, but if you do then make sure they look nice.What can your guests hear?  Play music appropriate to the occasion, but not too loudly.  If you’re putting finishing touches on things in the kitchen, don’t bang pots and pans.Use different textures when setting your table so that IF your guests were to reach out and touch things (which as good guests they probably shouldn’t) the experience would offer diversity of texture – some smooth, some soft, some rough – this also makes things more visually appealing as well.  Smell – perhaps the most important when entertaining with food.  Smell can create a feeling of hominess and is what will tempt people to try the food!  And of course, taste is important.  Plan a menu with diverse flavors, but flavors that complement one another well.  And please, please taste as you are cooking to ensure well-seasoned (not overly seasoned or bland) foods. As far as cleaning goes, I do not subscribe to the school of thought that your house has to be in pristine condition when you are entertaining; but spruce up the bathrooms, dust and vacuum, put away major messes and please don’t do what one host did at a Christmas party I attended several years ago – when looking over the foods on the buffet, I noticed a box of rat poison on the counter near the food.  I opted not to eat anything and to make an early exit!!!
  6. Set expectations with the invitation.
    Let people know what they can expect from the evening.  Is your event adults-only?  If so, say it on the invitation.  Are you serving a full meal or light refreshments or dessert only?  Make it clear on the invitation so people eat accordingly throughout the day.  When inviting people for an event, we typically remember to tell them what time to arrive, but if you have time constraints on the end of the event, be sure to include an end time on the invitation as well…..of course, keep in mind that you may have a few people who overstay their welcome so plan accordingly.
  7. Don’t entertain out of obligation.
    If you don’t enjoy entertaining in your home and are inviting people ONLY because they’ve invited you in the past – DON’T.  Find a different way to reciprocate – perhaps treating them to dinner out or buying them a small gift of thanks.  People can spot an insincere host a mile away! Also, please, please don’t tell people how hard it was to prepare to entertain them.  I cringe every time I’m invited to the home of a particular acquaintance because every time she entertains she complains to her guests that it took so much time and effort to entertain them – perhaps she does not mean to sound like she’s complaining, but it comes across that way and makes people uncomfortable.
  8. Allow time for mixing and mingling.
    Plan the evening/event so that people have time to socialize and stretch their legs.  Perhaps you can serve a light appetizer and cocktails in the living room prior to dinner or serve dessert in the den after dinner so that people aren’t stuck sitting at the table next to only one or two people!
  9. Include everyone in the conversation.
    As the host/hostess, it is your responsibility to make good introductions – offering people who have just met things they may have in common.  Also keep your ear to the ground when side conversations are going on – you may have to subtly steer people away from offending topics.
  10. Spend time with your guests.
    Select the menu so that you won’t spend all your time in the kitchen right before the meal and don’t worry too much about clean up while your guests are still there.  If you make sure you have an empty dishwasher when guests arrive, you can clear dishes right to the dishwasher, which keeps your countertops clean and clear but doesn’t tie you to the sink washing dishes while people are wondering where you are.  I hope you’ll invite people you want to spend time with and who want to spend time with you.  You can clean up after people leave!  Also, don’t take phone calls during your event.  If the phone rings, answer if you must; but get off the phone quickly unless it’s an emergency.
  11. Be gracious, warm and welcoming. 
    In order to be relaxed and not frazzled when your guests arrive, it is best to create a plan or schedule for preparation.  Do as much as you can in the days before the event – including selecting and ironing the clothes you will wear.  Also, take some time for yourself the day of the event – whether it’s a few minutes to primp and pamper, time with a favorite book or some favorite tunes, or time to get some exercise.  These things will refresh you and make you more welcoming.  Also, please don’t be too rigid with your rules – you may prefer that people take their shoes off in your home, but some people are uncomfortable in bare feet.  Be flexible!
  12. Tips for hosting overnight guests.
    Make them comfortable.  Have snacks and beverages – glasses and a pitcher of water or bottles of water – in the guest room.  Keep extra towels, toiletries, toilet paper, etc. in a place guests can easily access them and invite guests to feel free to do so.  Have a place for them to charge their electronics.  Know what their plans are and offer maps, directions, coupons, etc.  Spend time with your guests, but also offer them some down time and a little privacy.And last, but certainly not least….
  13. Say thank you!
    Let your guests know you sincerely appreciate the opportunity to spend time with them.  A written thank you is a terrific touch.  I know, social mores have become very relaxed; but a written thank you is always in good taste – especially if your guest has brought you a gift.  I’m sure I’ve missed this step with some guests; so let me offer a sincere apology for my oversight!!!

That brings us to being a good guest, which in my opinion is as important as being a good host/hostess.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t arrive too early or late.
    I know some people think it’s better to be 30 minutes early than 5 minutes late, but be mindful of your host’s/hostess’s schedule when you plan your arrival.  He or she may be putting the finishing touches on things (including hair and makeup) so be gracious!
  2. Don’t complain about foods you don’t like.
    You certainly don’t have to eat everything that is served, but you also don’t have to tell everyone why.  Either refrain from taking something you don’t like or take only a little.  A good host/hostess will not ask you why you didn’t eat something!
  3. Don’t stand in front of the oven, refrigerator, etc.
    Your host/hostess is probably doing last-minute prep, so stay clear of the areas he or she is likely to need to access. Find a spot where you can converse, but not be in the way.  If the host/hostess invites you out of the kitchen, take the hint and mingle with other guests.
  4. Don’t monopolize the conversation.
    Keep in mind that everyone at a party should have a chance to interact.  Unless you’ve been invited to speak on a particular topic at an event, you should share “air time” with other guests.
  5. Don’t bring something you expect the hostess to serve if the hostess has already declined your offer.
    If you’ve offered to bring a dish and the host/hostess declines, don’t bring a dish that you expect him or her to serve – especially one that will require oven space that may not be available.  If you must bring food (which I doubt is the case), then bring something the host/hostess can enjoy later – perhaps some cookies, bread, or wine (if they drink alcohol).
  6. Don’t bring kids or other guests who have not been invited.
    If a host/hostess does not specifically invite someone, do not ask to bring additional people.  If you cannot attend because you’ll be with someone else, tell the host/hostess and give them the opportunity to invite your “add on” or not.
  7. Don’t create a scene if there is someone in attendance with whom you do not get along.
    Be gracious to everyone at the event.  If you absolutely cannot get along with another guest, either do your best to avoid them or take the host/hostess aside, explain your situation, and make an inconspicuous departure.
  8. Offer to help, but if help is refused be respectful.
    Sometimes a host/hostess has a system that works well for him/her or a kitchen that is too small for extra hands.  It’s always good manners to offer to help; but if the help is refused, sit back, relax and enjoy being pampered!
  9. Refrain from using your cell phone or electronic devices at the party (especially at the table) unless it is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. 
    If your phone rings ask yourself if you really have to answer it.  If you do (perhaps you are a doctor on call), then apologize, excuse yourself, and be as brief as possible.
  10. Say thank you!
    Let your host/hostess know you sincerely appreciate the effort they expended to entertain you.  A written thank you is a terrific touch.  I know, social mores have become very relaxed; but a written thank you is always in good taste.  I’m sure I’ve missed this step with some hosts/hostesses; so let me offer a sincere apology for my oversight!!!

Holiday entertaining should not be drudgery.  It should be a happy occasion to connect with people in a meaningful way.  Whether you are the entertainer or the entertainee, if you put your best foot forward and are sincere in your interactions everyone will have an enjoyable time!

A Labor of Love for My Love

I am lucky to be married to a man who knows how to cook, clean and iron his own shirts.  He’s quite self-sufficient.  In fact, if it weren’t for trouble matching his clothes and folding a fitted sheet, he probably wouldn’t need me at all.

Over the years, we have learned numerous things from one another – not from any formal lessons, but as couples do – simply from being around one another for enough time. For example, I have learned to put the toilet paper roll on the holder the “right way,” the first 15ish steps of troubleshooting my computer before asking him (an IT guy) for help, how to change a ceiling light fixture, and that you can enjoy a Phils game IF you sit in the good seats!  He has learned how to wrap a gift without 1,000 wrinkles and 1,000,000 pieces of tape, that a crock pot (or anything with a cord) is not a gift unless expressly requested by the receiver, that some towels are just for show, and that you don’t have to follow a recipe to the letter for it to turn out well!

From the beginning, we’ve shared household chores in a non-traditional way.  He enjoys coupon clipping and grocery shopping, but has allergies.  So until a few years ago, he did all the grocery shopping and I cut the grass.  When we both worked full-time, he made dinner as often as I did (ok, maybe he still does) and we shared cleaning responsibilities (ok, maybe we still do).  It’s a balance that may make other couples scratch their heads; but it works for us.

With all that said, it’s unusual for Jeff to ask for something.  But when we returned from vacation he began hinting that he’d like me to make a peach pie.  So I put it on my To Do list.  The hinting started getting less subtle, so yesterday – with the last of the peaches – I surprised him with a peach pie.

I must be honest and admit that making pies intimidates me, and not for the reason you may think.  I have no trouble making pie crust.  It doesn’t scare me in the least.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m pretty good at it.  It’s the fruit fillings that get me every time!

In the past, no matter what I’ve tried – flour, cornstarch, tapioca – my fillings have always slid out of the pie with the first cut.  I had some seriously bad pie mojo.  But all that changed on vacation.  We got some really yummy peaches at a farm stand on the way to the OBX so I couldn’t resist attempting to bake a pie.  I googled ‘peach pie’ and looked at several recipes.  I decided on one entitled ‘Peach Pie the Old Fashioned Two-Crust Way’ from allrecipes.com.

The recipe worked like a charm and my bad pie mojo lifted!  I think I learned a few things about my sad pies of the past.  Here’s what I did differently this time:

  • I used room temperature peaches.  In the past I am fairly sure I used fruit from the fridge.  I don’t know exactly why I think this has an impact, but drawing on tidbits I’ve learned over the years, I know many recipes call for room temp ingredients (except when making a good pastry).
  • I mixed the filling about 30 minutes prior to filling the pie, which gave everything a chance to meld, the peaches a chance to juice and the flour a chance to begin absorbing that juice.
  • I waited until it was fully cooled before cutting it.  When I made my pie on vacation I had an easy distraction – the beach.  I made it in the morning and then we headed off for a full day at the beach and the pie had a chance to rest.  Yesterday, I made the pie in the afternoon and then went to my Bible study group and Jeff worked his part-time job – so again, the pie had time to fully cool.

When I got home from church last night, I texted Jeff a picture of the pie and this is how the remainder of the text exchange went:

JEFF: What is that?
ME:     What do you think it is?
JEFF: Pie!!
ME:     it IS pie
JEFF: But what kind
ME:     What do you hope it is?
JEFF: Peach
ME:     Yep
JEFF: !!!
JEFF: Are you sharing?
ME:    The question is are YOU sharing?  I made it for you!
JEFF: I’ll share it with you

As I disclosed earlier, Jeff is very self-sufficient so it is nice to be able to do something for him that makes him happy and is unexpected.  I was amazed at his restraint….he came home from work and did not have a piece of pie.  And he didn’t even have one for breakfast with his morning coffee.  He did, however, cut a “small piece” to take for lunch so that he could have another piece this evening.  It is true what they say, the way to a man’s heart (or at least my man’s heart) is through his stomach!

PS.  In case you were wondering, it is incredibly difficult to cut a piece of pie and pour a hot cup of coffee so that you can get some good photos and NOT indulge!

 

Fabulous Friday!

I spent several hours on Friday evening with my friends Ben and Christa, who invited me to the tres bonne annee wine tasting event at the Hilton Harrisburg.  The event celebrated the wines of Chile and proved to be a fantastic time.  This was my first official wine tasting event and I am quite sure it spoiled me for all others.

We arrived a bit early and while we were waiting for the doors to officially open, were able to look at the wines we would be tasting at the “mobile state store” – No, it’s not like the book mobile, but wouldn’t that be fantastic? – and to peek in the doors to watch the elaborate set up.

 

When we were finally able to enter the ballroom I was amazed to see it set for 300 people.  My mind operating as it does, my first thought was – holy moly – we’re tasting nine wines and they are already set in front of us – that means there are at least 2,700 wine glasses in here – who owns 2,700 wine glasses?  Boy am I glad I didn’t have to wash them all!!!

Each place was set with a place mat on which the names of the wines were printed and on which the glasses were set in the order we would be tasting them.

There were also pitchers of water for cleansing the palate and platters of breads, crackers, cheeses, fruits and pate.  The precision with which each place was set – so that there were no discernible difference from one to the next – was quite impressive and quite beautiful.  Although I am a person who generally appreciates that which is different; I was comforted by the uniformity!

 

The panel of speakers included a representative from each of the following:

  • The Wines of Chile, a promotional organization representing 90 Chilean wineries
  • Carmen Chile – one of the three wineries represented at the tasting and Chile’s oldest winery
  • Conca y Toro – one of the three wineries represented at the tasting and another long-time player in the Chilean wine game
  • Vina Arboleda – one of the three wineries represented at the tasting and a young winery fueled by a passion to produce wonderful wines

The panelists each took a turn educating us about Chile, the 4th largest exporter of wine to the U.S., and its wines.  I learned that Chile has 3,000 miles of coastline and that the colder climate on the ocean means a longer harvest.  I also learned that Chile is known mostly for its red wines, but that it has excellent white wines – my favorite of the whites we tasted was the Carmen Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011.

Each winery representative described the wines we were tasting with careful detail.  They told us about the oak vs. non-oak aging, the fermentation, the climate in the region in which the grapes are grown, the aroma or bouquet of each wine, the subtle notes that could be detected in the smell and taste of each wine and the foods with which the wines would pair well.  We saw a brief video about each winery.  For me, the videos made me want to explore Chile on my own.

Fortunately for me, I was seated next to exactly the right person to discuss exploring Chile.  Her name is Liz Caskey, of Liz Caskey Culinary & Wine Experiences, and she is a former Lancaster native who now lives and cooks in Santiago, Chile and hosts culinary and wine tours of Chile and other South American countries.  Although I did not have the opportunity to speak with her at length, I was impressed by her adventurous spirit and her knowledge of the food and wine of Chile.

The following are the wines we tasted in three groups – whites, Carmeneres, and Cabernet Savignons.  I’ve included a few tidbits of information about each wine and my favorite in each group is indicated with an asterisk (*).

We tasted three whites:

  • *Carmen Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – Non-oak aged, fresh green aroma, refreshing on the palate, pairs well with fresh seafood.
  • Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Chardonnay 2011 – Oak fermentation, pale yellow, fine herbal notes, subtle aroma of toast.
  • Arboleda Chardonnay 2011 – Oak fermentation – delicate aroma of fresh fruit and citrus, aroma not as “toasty” as Conca y Toro.

We tasted three Carmeneres:

  • Carmen Gran Reserva Camenere 2009 – barrel aged 100% Carmenere, smoky, spicy, very dry, faint taste of paprika and coffee beans.
  • Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Carmenere 2010 – 90% Carmenere and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, the pigment “hangs” on the glass more than the other two Carmeneres (I’m not talking about the “legs” or “tears” of the wine – widely debated as an indicator of the wine’s quality, but the actual pigment), very dry, almost dusty mouth feel, pairs well with tomato dishes, pasta and lamb.
  • *Arboleda Carmenere 2009 – 100% Carmenere, fruity on the palate, least dry of the three Carmeneres, paired well with the salty cheese and peppery pate.

Lastly, we tasted three Cabernet Sauvignons:

  • Carmen Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Carmenere, complex aromas, I detected traces of raspberry and grapefruit, pleasant rounded tannins (I found a good explanation of tannins and mouth feel at Just Grapes Wine Blog).
  • Arboleda Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – 90% Cabernet Sauvignon 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot, juicy (which I learned is from the acidity), fine tannins, spicy finish.
  • *Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Carmenere, aroma of plums, cherries and chocolate, a hint of vanilla, nice mouth feel. This is the bottle I purchased because I knew Jeff would enjoy it the most of all the wines we tasted and he wasn’t able to attend.

I find it interesting that I my three favorite wines of those we tasted were evenly distributed among the represented wineries.  I think that speaks well for the youngest of the three wineries – they seem to be on the right track. Christa and I stole a moment with the winemaker from Arboleda – Carolina Herrera – to ask a question about how she determines how much oak and the type of oak to use for fermentation.  I was impressed to learn that she is only 29 years old.  Her passion and enthusiasm for wine making were unmistakable.  I thought she was an excellent representative of the wines of Chile.

Although I know the wines I like to drink; I don’t know much about wine in general. The evening offered the opportunity to learn about the different regions and valleys of Chile, the terroirs or micro-climates that affect wine making and Chilean wines, and the three wineries represented.  It whet my appetite to continue learning about different wines and set a pretty high bar for future wine tastings.

All in all I had a great time spending the evening with Ben, Christa, and 297 of our closest friends!

 

 

Just Peachy

Last week in the Outer Banks was terrific.  I truly can’t remember the last time I was so relaxed.  We let each day unfold like a surprise.  We had no plan, no itinerary, and no stress!

On our way home, just before we crossed from North Carolina into Virginia, we stopped at a roadside produce stand to pick up some late-summer peaches.  And boy are they good!  Jeff and I usually overdose on PA peaches in August; but this summer we just didn’t find any great peaches near home.  Fortunately, North Carolina not only delivered on a great vacation, but on great produce as well.

As a salute to vacation, I decided to bake today; which is funny since our fridge is bare. After scanning the contents, I decided to make a crostata – a rustic Italian tart.  But I wanted to amp it up a little so I added some brandy to the last of the blackberry syrup Jeff used to make a refreshing blackberry gin drink on vacation and I added a little bit of fresh thyme from the garden.

I used the 3/4 cup of blackberry syrup that remained and added to it 6 Tbsp of brandy and 1 Tbsp of chopped fresh thyme.  I cooked it over medium low heat for 15 minutes, whisking frequently, until it reduced and became dark and thick.

While the syrup reduced, I made the dough.  This dough is a very simple recipe with just a few ingredients:

I pulsed the flour, salt, sugar, lemon zest and thyme in a food processor until just combined and then added the cold butter.  I pulsed the food processor until the butter incorporated into the flour mixture and resembled coarse crumbs.  I added the ice water a bit at a time until the dough began to hold together.

Then I turned the dough out onto a board, gathered it together, shaped it into a ball, flattened the ball into a disk, wrapped it in plastic wrap and refrigerated it for approximately 1 hour.

I rolled the cold dough into a rough 12-inch “circle” – remember this is a RUSTIC Italian tart –  and transferred it onto a parchment lined baking sheet.

I then topped the dough with the blackberry, brandy, and thyme reduction – kind of like you top a pizza crust with sauce.

I sliced two ripe, juicy peaches and arranged them on the crostata.  I folded the edges of the crostata toward the center – no need to be precise.  In my opinion, the more rustic looking, the better.

I brushed the crust with egg wash and sprinkled it with some white (I’m not quite sure why they call it white when it is really clear) sanding sugar and baked the crostata in a 400 degree oven for approximately 35 minutes.

The end result is a delightfully mouth-watering treat.

I rewarded myself with a piece of the crostata dusted lightly with powdered sugar and a steaming cup of Jeff’s yummy coffee.  I’d say my day is going to be just peachy!

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!”

No Such Thing As A Little Lie!

As I was pickling some cherry tomatoes early this morning, I got to thinking about the Bible study I began last night with a group of women from my church.  The study is entitled ‘Me, Myself & Lies’ and was written by an inspiringly talented and brave woman named Jennifer Rothschild. There are four women from our church co-leading the study… two of these women I know and have an incredible amount of respect and love for. Two I am looking forward to getting to know better, along with the other members of the group, over the next 13 weeks.

I will do my best to briefly explain the concept here, but please understand these ideas are Jennifer Rothschild’s, not mine – although I suspect and hope that by the end of this study I will have begun to believe her message instead of the lies!

Click here to listen to a little ditty about lies by Dave Barnes.

The focus of the study is the lies we tell ourselves that wound us.  We may have made these lies up ourselves or we may have heard them from others (including Satan or sadly even from people we love) and believed they were true so we started telling them to ourselves.  If you are a woman reading this, you already know what I mean even if you’re not willing to admit it.  [You may know what I mean if you are a man, but I’ve never been a man so I don’t really know for sure].

These lies are things like, “Why did you even try that? You knew you were going to fail.” Or “Don’t bother looking for a bathing suit this season; you’re too fat to look good in one.” Or “You’re not smart enough for that job so don’t even bother applying.” And on and on it goes – where it stops, nobody knows.  And we tell ourselves these things often enough that we start to believe them – I mean really believe them in our souls – and they begin to affect our behavior and even the course of our lives.

Anyway, why am I writing about this on a food blog?  Because I realized this morning over the hot steam of the pickling liquid that perhaps the reason I love cooking and entertaining so much is because I don’t tell myself those destructive lies when I am cooking and entertaining.  I know I am good at these two things.  Please don’t misunderstand me – I am not in any way trying to sound prideful or conceited.  However, I have so much “cooking DNA” in me from generations of amazing cooks and I feel such passion for it that I don’t even question whether I can do it.  If only I could transfer this confidence to other areas of my life and to other areas of yours!

As I looked around the circle of women last night and as I listened to their brief introductions (and mine), I had nothing but compassion for each person in that room. I was uplifted by the notion that I will link arms with these women for a season to bolster one another and to extinguish the lies.

You see, in our culture women can be vicious to other women.  I don’t use the term ‘vicious’ lightly.  I’m not sure where we learn it or when, but somewhere along the line mainstream culture teaches us that it’s ok to say things (even if it’s only in our own heads) like, “Why in the word would she wear that? Doesn’t she own a mirror?” or “If I were in her shoes I’d just leave him” or “If she just disciplined those kids they wouldn’t act like that.”  No wonder we tell ourselves lies!  We say them about others and others say them about us and in our heads the boundaries between truth and lie, acceptable and unacceptable become blurred.

This morning, I am grateful to have a passion into which I can escape.  A place where the lies STOP!  A place where I feel confident and competent.  I encourage you, if you don’t have one, to try so many things that you find that place where you can silence the lies.

And I challenge you to learn to identify the lies you tell yourself so that you change the messages you send in your own head.  And even more, I challenge you to identify those negative things you’re saying (even if only in your head) about others and change them into positive things.  We women have enough challenges in this world (don’t worry men, I’m not about to have a Betty Friedan moment) that we don’t need to put up roadblocks for ourselves and others.  So put your arms around the next woman you see – tell her she’s wonderful and beautiful and that the lies are just that – lies.  Or even better – find a reason to cook for her, eat with her or entertain to serve her!

Click here to learn more about Jennifer Rothschild.

Top Ten….or is it Eleven?

This morning I was in the kitchen and looked at the four containers in which we store kitchen tools and “gadgets” and, among other things, I wondered why we need four containers and if we actually use the things in them.  I emptied the containers to determine if I could get rid of anything and I couldn’t bring myself to discard anything.  But I was able to ask and answer, “What are the 10 tools you couldn’t cook without?”

Unfortunately I was only able to answer the question with 11 items!  I know, I always have to be difficult.  A friend of mine told me once that she never buys a gadget if it doesn’t have more than one use.  In looking through my containers, I realize I have inadvertently followed her theory. The following are the items I couldn’t cook without.  I thought about ordering the list from least to most important tool, but I truly cannot decide which would be the most important – I just know that I wouldn’t want to do without any of them in the kitchen.

Disclaimer: All items in the following photographs are well-used.  I don’t have the budget the fancy magazines have to show you only pristine, brand new products!

To order items mentioned below from Amazon.com, visit my blog store.

  • Whisks

I have them in different shapes and sizes, but on any given day there is at least one in the dishwasher because it’s been used to beat eggs until they are fluffy, to stir polenta or gravy to eliminate lumps, or to beat something by hand rather than getting out the mixer.  If you find yourself without a whisk – a situation I hope to avoid at all costs – you can use two forks facing one another so the tines interlock.

  • OXO Good Grips Vegetable Peeler

For some items the brand is not important to me, but for others I find it makes a difference.  In the case of my vegetable peelers, I like the OXO Good Grips.  Specifically the Swivel Peeler.  Having peeled an inordinate amount of carrots and potatoes in my lifetime and having used many not-so-great peelers, I prefer the OXO because it’s comfortable in my hand, the food doesn’t get stuck in the blade and the blade swivels nicely around curves.

 

 

  • Salt Box and Kuhn Rikon Pepper Mill (Vase Grinder)

Technically I know this is two items, but they both fall under seasoning and you can hardly even say “salt” without “pepper” so surely you can cut me some slack!  The salt box is a round wooden “box” with a lid that swivels open to reveal the salt yet stays attached.  It’s a good size and fits neatly on my counter blending nicely with the cabinets.  The Kuhn Rikon Pepper Mill (Vase Grinder) was a gift from my mother-in-law and I’ve never used another pepper mill in the many years I’ve owned this one.  It grinds the pepper just the way I like it, holds a lot of peppercorns at one time and never (knock wood) jams.

 

This tool is amazing.  I have two and they’re usually both in the dishwasher because we use them so often.  My favorite use is grating parmesan cheese (my absolute favorite food); but I also use it for zesting all kinds of citrus fruits (this is quite different than a zester that gives you longer “strips” of citrus peel), for finely grating chocolate over tiramisu or other desserts, for grating whole nutmeg, ginger, etc.  I like this brand because the grating blade is longer than others I have tried.

  • Hand-Held Citrus Juicer

I have no idea what brand mine is, but I like the design because it keeps the seeds inside while the juice flows though the holes.  The only drawback of the model I have is that while it is terrific for smaller fruits like lemons, limes, and mandarin oranges, larger citrus fruits just don’t fit into it.  I am typically not in need of so much juice that I would pull out an electric juicer so I don’t even own one.

  • Williams Sonoma Green Herb Snips

Because I grow a lot of fresh herbs in my yard, these are an invaluable tool – particularly during the growing season.  The snips are dishwasher safe and come apart so they dry completely without rusting.  They have an “on board” stripper that removes leaves from woody herbs such as rosemary.


  • Seven Inch Hollow-Edge Santoku

I love this knife!  The brand of mine is Wusthof.  It fits very comfortably in my large hand and is weighted quite nicely.  I really appreciate the hollow edge, which reduces drag when cutting and helps prevent food sticking to the blade.  If you use your knives as much as I do, I would highly recommend investing in a knife sharpener.

  • Ramekins and Pinch Bowls

I am a firm believer in mis en place.  This is a French phrase that translates into “everything in place.”  It means you get all your recipe ingredients prepped and in place before you start cooking.  In order to do that, I use ramekins and pinch bowls of different sizes on a regular basis.  I find prepping all my ingredients ahead of time helps reduce the chance of missing an ingredient and requires me to review a recipe so there are no surprises when I actually start cooking.

  • Food Processor

Again, this is a tool I use quite regularly.  It’s great for making pesto, for grating large amounts of cheese and/or veggies quickly, for making pizza dough and/or bread dough, for incorporating butter into pastry dough, etc.  In fact, I use mine so often that I purchased a second bowl so that I’m not constantly washing the bowl.  My current food processor is a Kitchen Aid and I have had very good luck with it.

  • Silicone Spoons with Stainless Steel Handles

I am a lover of wooden spoons.  I think they are quite beautiful – particularly those in funky shapes made from exotic woods; but I don’t like the hassle of cleaning them.  For the hard core cooking I do, I like being able to throw my spoons into the dishwasher.  Over time I have found that silicone spoons with stainless steel handles really hold up for the long haul.

  • Half Sheet Pans

We use our half sheet pans at least once a day.  We use them for roasting meats and vegetables, for baking cookies and cakes, for reheating leftovers, for making chocolate barks, among a zillion other uses.  You can tell by looking at them that they are well loved.  We own two, but honestly I would say it’s not enough.  Of course, if I owned more I’d dirty more and then I’d be complaining more often because they don’t fit into my sink.

I hope the above information is helpful to you.  I would love to hear the tools you can’t cook without – especially those with more than one use!