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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Wine Dinners at Willow Spring

I have spoken often of the charming shop and bistro Willow Spring Mercantile in Excelsior Springs, MO . I am always in great awe of owner Daphne's boundless energy and these days she and her husband Jim are truly outdoing themselves with their new wine dinners. Their first was a big hit and this past Friday we were fortunate to be able to attend their latest sold-out event.

Willow Spring was packed to the hilt for this local wine-loving dinner. One large party filled the downstairs dining room and we were seated upstairs in the main retail area. We enjoyed the company of friends: Betty and Linda, Keith's compatriots from the Hall of Waters and John and April, our pals from the Elms. Soon, the local wines began flowing and the four-course dinner began arriving on vintage-style plates.

The first course was a tasty appetizer of Jumbo Shrimp wrapped in Prosciutto that was paired with a choice of Strother Ridge Winery's (out of Lee's Summit) Chardonel or Pirtle Winery's (out of Weston) Weston Bend Rose. I went with the drier Chardonel, which paired nicely with the shrimp. The next course was an Italian salad featuring to-die-for goat cheese croutons and that was paired with Strother Ridge's Traminette. The main dish was apparently a famous one for owner Jim. Daphne informed us that this has been a traditional holiday meal for her family. Jim was making Italian specialty Chicken Spiedini and while being quite excited to sample it; I find the dish to be a bit intimidating. It seems as if so many Italian families and restaurants have signature spiedini dishes, including local favorites Garozzo's and Mary Ann's Trattoria. I have to say that Jim certainly put his own stamp on the spiedini: it was as good as any I've ever had and in fact, was one of the best: succulent and perfectly cooked and accompanied by a flavorful citrus-tinged fettuccine with sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus cooked in a savory, lemony broth and warm breadsticks. This course was paired with a Smokestack White from West Winery out of Macon. The piece de resistance was the amazing Chocolate Wine Cake with chocolate ganache, both made with a local Norton red. This dessert was paired with a choice of a blackberry wine from Crown Valley Winery of St. Genevieve or a Norton from Cooper Oaks Winery in Higbee. The cake was a decadent ending to a truly delightful meal.

During the course of the evening, Keith was seeming a bit wistful. He commented on how far Daphne and Jim had come; indicating the impressive array of local wines that were displayed behind the counter. He was remembering when it was only a few bottles displayed. Keith is bursting with pride for "our little Daphne" and indeed we all are. She and Jim, while raising a family, have worked incredibly hard to grow this charmer of a shop into a must-visit downtown destination and it's wonderful to behold. These wine dinners are clearly rocketing to success also and I can't recommend them enough.

Watch their website at http://www.shopthemercantile.com/default.html for details and dates of upcoming events or call 816-630-SHOP for more details.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pasta From Betty's House To Ours

It was all about the pasta this weekend. By happy accident, we were able to enjoy two delicious and hearty pasta dishes this weekend: one at the beautiful home of Our Miss Betty and the other one at our own home. Carbilicious, baby....

The Divine Miss Betty welcomed us and the Nelsons to dinner in her lovingly appointed Victorian home. Betty had Keith hook up a printer for her so I took the opportunity to stroll through the multiple rooms and admire her astounding eye for detail. Every room has a warm and unique personality and every nook and cranny has something that catches the eye. The kitchen is Charm Central and it was made that much more warm by the delectable aromas that were wafting about. The standout feature of Betty's home for me is her obvious love of books as evidenced by her filled-to-capacity bookshelves; including her cookbook nook. There's something about those bookshelves, like the ones at my friend Jane's, that for me, whisper an aura of coziness.

Dinner was delicious from start to finish. We began with a light and flavorful salad of greens, blue cheese crumbles, blueberries, toasted pecans and a Dijon-based dressing. The main event was a hearty and filling four-cheese fettuccine bake accompanied by cheese and onion bread. Dessert was a decadent chocolate ganache torte. More than sated, we thanked Betty and headed home to beat the latest snowstorm.


The next day, we tackled two recipes to take on the Cookbook Challenge and these would be #19 and #20(for those of you paying attention, the challenge is to cook a recipe out of every cookbook we own, which number around 80. I'm at #20 with seven months left. Yikes.). The first was a Creole Chicken Spaghetti from the What Can I Bring? cookbook by Anne Byrn. We lightened it up a bit by substituting whole wheat spaghetti noodles for the real thing. The pasta dish was very good but I questioned the designation of Creole. The description actually said it was a mix of Creole, Southwest and Italian but it lacked a kick that I would associate with Creole cooking. I would probably add red pepper flakes to kick it up a notch the next time we make it. This made a huge batch and will serve as great work lunches for the week.

We also made Cheddar Scallion Rolls from the King Arthur Flour Whole Wheat Cookbook and they were amazing.....the aroma from the oven alone had me swooning. Miscommunication between K and I had us brushing them with butter before baking as opposed to after. That and the fact that I let myself get a little distracted and the outer crusts got a little too dark. They were not burnt though, and the taste was terrific. It was a bit labor-intensive and the waiting periods for letting the dough rise tested my patience but the end result was way worth it. We had such a difficult time finding a warm spot to properly let the dough rise that we finally positioned the pan of dough directly over the pellet stove in the basement. I have also determined that we when making King Arthur recipes, it is best to check out their website because they improve the recipes from the books slightly. Check them out at http://www.kingarthurflour.com/ I will definitely make these again.

The recipes follow:

Creole Chicken Spaghetti

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups sliced onions (2 medium sized onions)
2 cups (8 ounces) sliced mushrooms
1 to 1 1/4 cups chopped green bell pepper
3/4 cup chopped celery
4 medium-sized cloves garlic, minced
1 jar (32 ounces) pasta sauce
1 can (14 1/2 oz.) diced tomatoes with juices
2 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. chili powder
2 teas. ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups shredded cooked chicken (about 1 lb; from 3 large chix breasts or 1 rotisserie chicken)
1 lb. spaghetti
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded cheddar cheese

Directions

1. Place olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions, mushrooms, bell pepper, celery and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onions soften and the mushrooms begin to lose their liquid, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the pasta sauce and tomatoes with their juices and stir to combine. Add the sugar, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder and cumin. Taste for seasoning, adding more sugar as needed and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and let simmer until the sauce thickens slightly about 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chicken. Cover and keep warm.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Break the spaghetti noodles in half. Stir in the spaghetti and 1 teaspoon of salt, reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook the spaghetti, uncovered, according to package directions until just done, 6 to 7 minutes.

3. Drain the spaghetti well in a colander, shaking it to remove the excess water, then return it to the pot. Pour the sauce on top of it and stir to combine well, the reheat gently over low heat. Transfer the sauced spaghetti to a serving platter, top it with the cheese and serve immediately.

Cheddar Scallion Rolls

2 cups (16 ounces) warm water
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup (6 ounces) honey
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup (2 ounces) Baker's Special dry milk or nonfat dry milk powder (optional)
1 tablespoon dried dill weed
4 cups (17 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2 cups (8 ounces) King Arthur Premium Whole Wheat or 100% White Whole Wheat Flour
2 cups minced scallions
2 cups (8 ounces) grated reduced-fat cheddar cheese

Pour the water into a large bowl. Add the yeast and the honey and stir until dissolved. Add 1 cup of the all-purpose flour and stir until dissolved. Add 1 cup of the all-purpose flour and stir. Let this sit for 10 minutes, to give the yeast a chance to get going.

Mix the salt, milk powder, dill weed and 1 cup of the all-purpose flour. Add to the yeast mixture and stir well. Stir in the scallions and the cheddar cheese.

Add the rest of the flours, one cup at a time, stirring well after each addition, until the dough starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead, adding more flour as necessary, until the dough has formed a smooth ball.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Place the bowl in a draft-free place and let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead briefly to expel any air bubbles. Divide the dough into two equal pieces and roll each into a rope that is 24-inches long. Divide each snake into 24 one-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a round ball and place the rolls on greased or parchment paper-lined baking sheets. The rolls should be placed 2 inches apart.

Spray the rolls with water or cover with damp towels. Let rise for about 30 minutes, or until slightly swollen. While the rolls are rising, preheat the oven to 375°F. Bake the rolls for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned and baked through. Cool the rolls on racks. Yield 48 two-inch rolls
.

Cook's Notes: We did not have King Arthur brands so we used others.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Turkey Chili and Gorilla Bread

Despite my ode to improving dietary intake a couple of posts ago, K and I find ourselves still gravitating to a mix of the healthy and the hearty. In the midst of multiple snowstorms, we were craving some spicy chili so Keith whipped up a batch with ground turkey to lighten it up a bit. Of course, the lightness was offset a bit by a dollop of light sour cream and a handful of Frito's to top it off, but I digress....

We also made a dessert to try out for a future brunch and that was a recipe from the Paula Deen and Friends cookbook: Banana Chocolate Gorilla Bread. I've had some marvelous Monkey Bread (I'm talking 'bout you,Rhonda and Christine) and this just took it up a notch. A little labor extensive but worth the effort. This counts as Cookbook Challenge #18.






We also made some spicy chicken salad for the week ahead and this was a good test for me to get more sensory about cooking and less recipe-driven. If I do say so myself, it turned out so well that I never once ate it as part of a sandwich....it was just so good, I just ate it on its own and was perfect to take to work for lunches. I also now understand the difficulty of recreating random cooking for recipes.

So, I'm light on the deep thoughts and witticisms this week and will just move on to the recipes:

Keith's Chili:

Ingredients:
1/2 lb. ground turkey
1/2 lb. gorund beef
2 tbsp minced onions
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
2 tbsp chili powder (we used Penzey's Chili 3000)
1 can black beans, drained
1 can chili beans
1 can red kidney beans, drained
2 cans diced tomatoes (we used flavored: garlic and olive oil)
1 small can of white shoepeg corn ( we used mexican-spiced corn)
Tomato Juice

Directions:
In a slow cooker set on high, put meat in to brown. Add tablespoon of chili powder to meat while it's browning. Once meat is browned, add onions, garlic, salt and pepper and additional tablespoon of chili powder. Add all beans, diced tomatoes, corn and enough tomato juice to ensure good consistency....it changes all the time. Cook for four hours.....we leave it on to simmer all night on low. Chili, as always, can be always be adjusted to what ever ingredients float your boat. This one, works extremely well for us and is delicious.


My Spicy Chicken Salad

4 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
1/2 14.5 oz can of black beans, rinsed and drained.....use as little or as much as you like
1 cup of light mayo
1 cup of light sour cream
1/2 cup of fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 a red onion, diced
1/2 a cucumber, diced
1/2 a red pepper, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
2 tbsp hot sauce
1 teaspoon shallot pepper
1 teaspoon salt

Mix well and refrigerate overnight. As with the chili, mix ingredients to your liking. This one was damn good for me.

Banana Chocolate Gorilla Bread

Ingredients

  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
  • 2 (12-ounce) tubes refrigerated crescent roll dough
  • 6 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 bananas, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 4 ounces (about 2/3 cup) semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Mix the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, melt the brown sugar with the butter over low heat. Break open the crescent roll packages and separate the triangles of dough. Brush each triangle with sweetened condensed milk and top with 2 banana slices and 1 teaspoon chocolate chips; fold the edges of the triangle together and seal. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Sprinkle each with 1/4 teaspoon of the cinnamon sugar.

Put half of the walnuts in the Bundt pan and top with half of thedough packets. Pour half of the brown sugar-butter mixture over the dough and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the cinnamon sugar. Repeat with the remaining ingredients. Bake until puffed, golden brown, and firm to the touch. Bake for 1 hour. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer it to a rack and allow it to cool for 15 minutes. Put a platter on top of the Bundt pan and invert. Slice and serve warm.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Stranger Than Fiction

When I attended Christmas dinner at Jane's, I eventually did as I tend to do at her welcoming home and gravitated toward her bountiful bookshelves. Jane has an impressive collection of books and I gain serenity from simply perusing the shelves. I often find myself asking to borrow one of Jane's books because I can poll my personal literati: my bookstore friends. After throwing out several titles to the crowd for opinions(my friends are far more well-read than me), only one title received a unanimously positive review ....We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

I brought the book home but waited until I'd finished another book before I began reading it. This book is a fictional work concerning Kevin, a high school student who commits mass murder at his school. The heavy subject matter had me dreading the book a bit but eventually I started reading. It's written in a series of letters that Kevin's mother Eva writes to her husband. As I found myself entranced by Eva's words, I slowly start to realize that this is no ordinary book. Then, something happened that made the timing of reading this book even heavier.

The Arizona shooting was in the news and suddenly real life became stranger than fiction, once and sadly again. That terrible shooting is the very definition of senseless tragedy. After following the horrifying details in Arizona, I, at first, wasn't sure I wanted to continue with the book. Soon, I realized I needed to. I was filled with dread at this point and every word seemed to carry much more weight. The pages themselves even seemed heavier. The book, again, is fiction, but as Eva wove the story of her family through her letters, the book slowly but surely upended every pre-conceived notion that surrounds these acts of brutality. As I watched the aftermath of Arizona play out in the media, I read about Eva's life in the hometown where her son took many lives and what she has had to face from former friends and neighbors. Shriver's book takes no sympathetic stance on Eva, Kevin or anyone for that matter. As the book reached its harrowing conclusion, it left more questions than answers about everything and that, I believe, is the point.

When something as senseless as the Arizona tragedy unfolds, we all feel desperate to assign blame, if for no other reason, than to achieve some type of closure. As Shriver's fictional work illuminates, closure is hard to attain as these horrors quite often bring up more questions than answers. Politics took the spotlight from the Arizona shootings as finger-pointing flew from both ends. Sure enough, I'd love to see a more civilized tone from both sides of the political forum. In the end, though, there are no easy answers. Sociopaths are out there, bad parenting happens, teachers are overwhelmed and political rhetoric gets nasty.....you can pick your poison, but in the end we are as always, left with more unanswered questions than ready answers.

In our desperation to understand, maybe the best thing to do is create positivity where so much negativity breeds. Let the politicians and media folk draw their swords while maybe the rest of us can just pray for the victims and do something to help out those in need. The Arizona tragedy was one reason I took a few days to start writing again.....as Eva herself writes, she was a woman who loved good food but in the wake of the horrors, appetite felt unseemly. So did writing about food. Congresswoman Giffords said in an interview with an Arizona newspaper that her favorite food was a good hamburger....I hope she gets to enjoy one soon. Gifford's husband made a statement that many people were wanting to help in some way. He suggested that they donate to the Tuscon Community Food Bank, which was a cause near and dear to her heart.

We can all do the same. It's still not an easy answer to tragedy but it's a chance to do something that helps those in need and help create the positivity we all desperately crave. Yesterday was Martin Luther King day, a day of service intended to benefit the community. In the spirit of MLK, we could all do a little more to help out our fellow man....Lord knows I could. Here in KC, Harvester's is a wonderful organization fighting the good fight to combat hunger in the community. January 21 through January 30 is Restaurant Week and that means hundreds of area restaurants will be donating 10% of their proceeds to Harvesters. Click here to donate, read about Restaurant Week or just learn more about the good work Harvesters does: http://www.harvesters.org/Index.asp?~=.

One final thought on the Arizona tragedy making the rounds on Facebook and courtesy of Mark Shields of PBS:

"This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Rollercoaster Romance

The title of this post is not referring to my 11 years and counting with Keith. I've waxed rhapsodic enough about that relationship. No, this would refer to my lifelong love affair with food. That relationship, like most, has had its ups and downs and also, like most, sometimes requires re-evaluation and work.

My love for food is obvious, as anyone who has read so much of one post from this blog can attest. My relationship with food is not unlike long-term human relations. There are moments when I'm just not that into it and moments when I'm completely swooning. There are moments of outright lust and moments of utter boredom. For the most part, I'm madly passionate about food...its flavors, textures and tastes. However, that relationship must be analyzed sometimes. It is a new year and that of course, for so many of us, is prime time for personal palate cleansing.

I stroll the fixtures and shelves at the bookstore and I take in the myriad titles awash with promises to help us lose weight. I started out the year telling myself to start looking again at getting the body in better shape, particularly after the pants-tightening holiday season. Alas, I didn't do as so many of my compatriots did and set goals for 2011. I naively thought that my head would start to clear after New Year's and the meals would magically transform into healthier fare. Forget that so many of our loved ones chose the hot holiday items to bless us with this year: food gifts. There were still sugar cookies from our neighbors, fudge from our friend Betty, etc. Okay, get through that and we're home free, right? Oh, look, the Girl Scout cookies have arrived and my beloved Thin Mints are here. Wow, the manager from Jimmy John's wants to thank us for his business and is dropping free sub sandwiches by for us. What's this....a large man dressed in Statue of Liberty drag is dropping off bags of chocolate-chip cookies to entice us to use his employer's tax service? Yeah, the official holiday season is done, but temptation is always afoot.

So what to do? That's a personal choice, of course. How will I go about it....if I actually go about it? I could leap onto another fad diet. Of course, when I attempted the South Beach Diet, I was far more bitter than I ever was quitting smoking. Diets, by and large, don't play out for me. The only thing that has ever worked for me was the method I used when I turned 40 a few years back. I ate healthier, allowed a few splurges and worked out like a dog.....as in a couple of hours in the gym followed by running...every day. That, however, was several pounds and years ago and I question my ability to return to that.....so,we'll see. Keith's sister Kim has been a phenomenal example in healthier living this past year so I look to her for part of my inspiration.

As winter set in, I promised that I would cook more and try to focus on fitter foods. It has worked to a degree. My last post displayed a wonderfully healthy plate of Asian salmon and roasted potatoes. A few days ago, I made Chicken Piccata from the Cooking Light Superfast Suppers Cookbook and we chose this recipe specifically for its non-breaded, healthier creation. I also chose a selection with odd origins: an "eavesdropped" conversation a Facebook friend was having. Said friend was preparing to prepare cauliflower for her family and a friend of hers had a suggestion as to its preparation......just writing that has me preparing to pop ibuprofen. Anyhoo, the friend suggested roasting the cauliflower and then coating it in a mixture of tahini, garlic, lemon juice and fresh parsley. That sounded delightful to me, so we whipped that up as well. We added a bit of citrus-garlic rub that we had on hand and mixed the ingredients to taste.....it made for flatout amazing cauliflower and I don't believe I've ever used the word "amazing" with cauliflower before. No exact science here...just mix up the ingredients to taste while the cauliflower is roasting at 500 for 10-15 minutes and then coat the cauli but good when its done. Delicious.

So, good and good for you, right? Well, it would have been had we not done what we do so often....succumbed to cravings. So, this meal accompanied a recipe I'd featured on here before: Aaron McCargo's Funked Up, Tricked Out Potatoes or something like that. Whatever the title, the ingredients include a stick of butter and heavy cream....you can look up the recipe in my post Git Back In The Kitchen, Fool! This somewhat sabotaged the goal of a healthy dinner and while delicious, the meal also made for the unintentionally whitest fare around. Seriously, you might want to slap on the Ray Bans to look at that bright plate. Food stylists are plotzing and nutritionists are saying, uh, a little color would go a long way to increasing the attractiveness AND the nutritional value of that plate.

I've also sworn to uphold a healthier outlook when eating out as well. On a return trip to Santa Fe Drive in Overland Park, I introduced Keith to the delightful aromas of Penzey's Spices and strolled the retail shelves at the Culinary Center. I taught him the tasting ropes at The Tasteful Olive where we delighted in the Cinnamon Pear balsamic vinegar and were wowed by a Violet dipping oil. We had lunch at the Clock Tower Bakery and Cafe and chose a healthy thin-crust enchilada pizza with grilled chicken(pictured top of page). The crust actually consisted of cornmeal and it was yummy. I had to look at the bakery case at the end and found that they featured an iced lemon roll. Loving me some lemon, I ordered it and loved it. Once again, however, I upended the goal and left with a far higher caloric intake than intended.

My relationship with food, as it does year in and year out, requires work. I jest about much of it but it is serious business. My family history is rife with ruddy health issues....heart trouble, high blood pressure and obesity among them. My mother is and my father was diabetic. I just had the vitals done by my doctor last month and thankfully, all is well. That said, I ain't gettin' any younger. So, I need to get a grip sooner than later. We'll see how I do....I'm not making any promises.

You might ask....if you're concerned about your relationship with food, why did you choose to write a food blog, Fool? Writing about food may put a heavier emphasis on the eating than necessary but as those of you who have read the blog can also attest, you know that food is far more to me than empty calories. Food, to me is a connector....to my family, my friends, the world. Writing this blog has enriched my life and even saved it in darker moments. I believe food is a healer as well and I intend to explore that more.

So, my relationship with food will need some fine-tuning but its in fine form for the most part. The recipe for the Chicken Piccata courtesy of Cooking Light Superfast Suppers follows and is Cookbook Challenge #17.

Chicken Piccata

Ingredients

  • 2 whole boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1 1/2 lb.), rinsed, patted dry
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Preparation

Place chicken between 2 sheets of waxed paper and pound until thin. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper..

Heat 1 Tbsp. butter and 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until butter foams. Add 2 chicken breast halves and cook without moving until browned, 3 minutes. Turn and cook until firm and browned on both sides, 3 minutes more. Transfer to a plate and cover loosely with foil to keep warm.

Add 1 Tbsp. butter and remaining 1 Tbsp. oil to skillet; cook remaining chicken breast halves. Transfer to plate and cover to keep warm.

Add lemon juice and broth to skillet and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of pan with a wooden spoon. Boil, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add remaining 1 Tbsp. butter and parsley and stir until butter melts. Season with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over chicken and serve immediately.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Strange Bedfellows

The title of this post is a tad more titillating than intended....the strange bedfellows are actually ingredients. The ingredients are part of a Black Bean Salmon recipe from Sam The Cooking Guy's cookbook. The Cookbook Challenge #16 had me searching out salmon recipes as we had been craving it and I was looking for a new way to cook it. I chose Sam's Black Bean Salmon as well as his Roasted Potatoes with Feta. The recipes seemed almost deceptively simple but the two primary ingredients with the salmon gave me pause...apricot preserves and Asian black bean and garlic sauce. It didn't even sound good at first but Sam insisted that this recipe rested among some of his best, so I threw caution to the wind and made it, along with the potatoes.

The result was truly and surprisingly delicious. Sam says it best....the combination of the salmon with these two other ingredients tastes like there's fifty ingredients. The potatoes were quite good, as well...the feta cheese really set them off. Recipes to follow...

Yeah, I know...this post is a bit....well, blah. This time last year, however, I was feeling pretty hopeless and would cease blogging and cooking, for that matter, for what would become a long, bleak winter. For now, it's good to just cook dinner in my own kitchen, filling the kitchen with mouth-watering aromas while the winter winds blow outside. Keith would arrive home from work and we would settle in to enjoy this simple meal. Sounds sedate.....but now I know all too well that this, today, for me is bliss and for this, I thank my lucky stars.


Roasted Potatoes With Feta
  • 1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes, quartered
  • 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary - or 2 dried
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup baby red onions, peeled or 1/2 large red onion cut into a big dice
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  1. Pre-heat oven to 400
  2. Put potatoes, garlic, rosemary and onions in a large bowl
  3. Add olive oil and mix well
  4. Place on baking sheet and bake until brown and crispy - about 30 minutes, but don't burn
  5. Remove from oven, place on serving tray or plates and sprinkle with feta and more rosemary
  6. Sit back and enjoy the praise!

Black Bean Salmon
  • 1 cup apricot preserves (which is pretty much the same as jam)
  • 1/4 cup black bean & garlic sauce
  • 1 whole salmon filet, about 1.5 pounds
  • 3 green onions, finely chopped
  • Sesame seeds

  1. Mix apricot and black bean in a small bowl and stir well
  2. Spoon over top of salmon to cover
  3. Broil about approximately 7 minutes an inch
  4. Remove to a platter or serving plates and sprinkle with green onions and sesame seeds

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Rascal

Today is the anniversary of the passing of our good friend and Linda's husband Jack. We lost Jack to cancer a few years back and he is, as ever, sorely missed. Jack was a rascal with a seemingly gruff demeanor who, as the rough layers were peeled back, revealed many an interesting side to him. One of those intriguing characteristics was his most masterful cooking skills.


I first met Linda and Jack when I was sent from the Plaza B&N to help open the new store at Zona Rosa. This personable couple were the first to befriend me at this store and after helping them set up the music department, they invited me to have a beer with them at a local brewpub. I was a little out of my element in the Northland so I asked for a rain check. Eventually, I would socialize with them and the evolution of our dinner party group began with Jack and Linda's first invitation to dinner.



Jack's occasionally stern countenance was often a source of amusement for those of us who worked with him. Our store has always been overrun with unruly teens and Jack was the captain of corralling them. The rest of us might get attitude in return but Jack had that authoritative look that growled, "Don't @#*! with me." and they would just scurry away. It was brilliant to watch. However, I think Linda was occasionally a bit frustrated with Jack's rude rep as she knew her husband was a different and gentler man outside of work. I would encounter that softer side when Jane and I joined Jack and Linda at their home for dinner. The invitation didn't come right away. Jack started by torturing me with loving descriptions of the meal he'd cooked the previous night. He would be nibbling on the aromatic leftovers in our break room while I was heating up some Campbell's soup. Realizing he had me swooning with the aromas, Jack started bringing me his leftovers as well and frankly, if the leftovers were that good, I couldn't wait to try out the freshly prepared goodness. Soon, I would start bringing these leftovers home and having Keith taste them. Finally, the invitation came and Jane and I joined Jack and Linda for dinner. Linda would mix a stellar martini and then Jack would soon wow us with his culinary know-how. I savored every bit of that first meal: a velvety crab Bisque, fresh halibut in Vermouth sauce and garlic mashed potatoes. I was in heaven. We enjoyed ourselves so much we decided to make the dinner party a regular date and host it at our various homes. Ronnie and Keith would eventually join us to make it a solid six.



Several dinner parties came and went. We all reveled in this wonderful fellowship of great food and conversation. The fateful day would arrive when Jack would receive his cancer diagnosis and the world just seemed to get a bit grayer. Linda was stalwart in her support of Jack and the rest of us tried to be supportive the best way we knew how. Jack was the very definition of courage through his ordeal, though. He endured what I would consider unimaginable pain and discomfort and then later return to work and tell me that chemo "wasn't so bad". Jack was always a tough soul....this is a man whose hearing challenges were the result of a grenade blast during his time in the military. When Jack returned to his life following chemo treatments, all he seemed to desire was a sense of normalcy. Jack loved to devour life and so he returned to doing just that. I remember a particularly uplifting and boisterous lunch of Mexican food with he and Linda.



The photo above occurred on a December day a few years back at Jane's Christmas dinner. It was a lovely evening but we tearfully realized upon leaving that Jack, despite his valiant battle, may not be with us much longer. Indeed, it would be the last time I would see him. In classic Jack fashion, his passing was marked by a celebratory wake as opposed to a solemn funeral. It was held at the Power Plant, his favorite brewpub, where they brewed a special ale in his honor. The place, unsurprisingly, was packed. No long-winded speeches were made but instead a simple toast in his honor....as it should have been.



Jack would not want a lot of fuss so I won't make any. I called him the Rascal because I was one of those people that had the distinct pleasure to discover what a Renaissance man Jack truly was. He was a gourmet cook, a voracious reader, a lover of great film and a creative painter. When that gruff exterior melted away to reveal that wonderful smile of his, it was a treat every time. It might be an ornery grin similar to my Dad's when he was up to something. It might be a proud smile when we raved over his culinary skills. It might even be that rare look of utter bliss that I witnessed when I caught him watching his beloved wife dance at a party they were giving for a friend. However that smile came, it was a joy to behold.




I mentioned in the post on Jane's recent Christmas dinner that Linda, after multiple requests, had surprised me with Jack's recipes. The bisque recipe is in Jack's own handwriting and I offered to copy it off as I believed the original should remain with Linda. Linda herself insisted I keep it as she believed that Jack would have wanted me to have it. Needless to say, I needed a few moments to recover after that statement. Jack would indeed be proud that I had decided to improve my cooking skills.



Keith and I decided to make Jack's Crab Bisque today on the anniversary date. I will save the Halibut dish for another day. The recipe is posted at the end and will count as Cookbook Challenge #15. The bisque was delicious and a visceral reminder of brother Jack. We served it with some Van Till Farms crusty sourdough bread and toasted Jack with a glass of red wine.



Cheers, Jack. We miss ya. Send me some of your cooking mojo.



Jack's Crab Bisque



Ingredients



1 tbsp unsalted butter

1 tbsp canola oil

3 large shallots, minced

5 cups chicken broth

2 cups heavy cream

salt

white pepper

3/4 - 1 lb. fresh or frozen crabmeat

1/2 cup dry sherry

minced tarragon or flat-leaf parsley



Directions



In a large soup pot, melt butter with oil. Over medium heat, add shallots and saute until translucent; about 2-3 minutes. Add chicken stock, heavy cream and crabmeat and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until heated through, about 5 minutes. Slowly stir in sherry and continue cooking for about 2-3 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from fire and either use immersion blender or regular blender to blend until smooth.



Saturday, January 1, 2011

Same Old Lang Syne

If the title sounds as if I'm being dismissive of New Year's Eve, I'm not. I'm a fan of the changing of the years and frankly, I was more than ready to welcome this new year and put last year to bed. 2010 was a challenging year and that's an understatement. This time last year, New Year's Eve was spent watching the wedding of my dear friend Charlotte and before the stroke of midnight, Keith and I headed home to enjoy the moment in relative calm. We were hoping the peacefulness of that moment would spark a theme that would define 2010; despite the fact that I knew that in a few days, I would head home to care for my ailing parents. Life doesn't always operate thematically and despite our best efforts, "peaceful" is not a description I would attach to 2010. Given the opportunity, I would have chosen to enjoy a quite evening at home for this year's New Years, but duty beckoned, and so Keith worked 15 hours at the hotel and I would spend another day in retail madness before heading out to the hotel in the evening to join Keith.


I suppose the title is more a wistful look back on New Year's Eves past as I watched the party unfold. I channeled a little Dan Fogelberg for the theme song for said look back. This year, I enjoyed being able to photograph the great New Year's Hootenanny as opposed to participating in it. Lord knows, I spent many a year dressing to the nines and attending some party or another and generally having a blast. I remember the club in Columbus, Ohio that offered the lobster dinner with the package and it probably speaks volumes about that meal that I remember nothing about it but instead my memory centers on dancing the night away. As I watched the parade of generally well-dressed guests(seriously, did I miss a memo about leopard prints being the hot fashion trend this year?)pass by, I realized that there was a time when I might have envied their evening of fun but this year, I was happy to be a bystander. Sure, it would have been fun to have a partner-in-snark to engage in some mild-mannered fashion bashing (Kristy? Ronnie? Ashley and Jeff? Where were you when I needed you?) as Keith's cattiness gene isn't as, shall we say, refined as mine. Still, the night made for some eye-popping people watching, so I settled in for the show. Unfortunately, the ever-changing lighting played merry havoc with my PowerShot, so my pics sadly suffered a bit.



The Elms really put on the dog this year, as it were. Russ, the personable owner of the Changing Seasons Gallery in Independence, created the decor once again and for this event, he really brought it. The centerpieces and table decorations were divine and the look, in all, was beautifully done. I was particularly fond of the tall pieces in the Regent Ballroom with the floating candles. Keith was in charge of everyone getting their "prom photo" taken and that scenario can provide its own comedy. As people line up for this photo on the way to dinner, there is no time to waste and people are quickly posed in front of the fireplace. After one quick set-up, one man looked at Keith and said, "That's it? No foreplay?" Of course, for sheer WTF moments, there was the couple embracing and smiling for the camera when an artificial pine branch fell out of the gentleman's pants. He seemed as surprised as we were. You just can't make this stuff up. On the flip side of the coin, Troy Snelling, his beguiling fiancée Sarah and the rest of his charming entourage always bring a welcome infusion of class(and fun) to any event and this one was no different. Every year that I attend this function, I anticipate Troy making his Grand Entrance, as he is always dressed in dapper fashion...vintage black tux with tails, white tie and black top hat. On entering, he doffs a red velvet cape. Sarah was the very vision of total glam at his side and Troy's friends matched him in sartorial splendor. I was also duly impressed with the lovely redhead in their group....she's a stunner. My pics didn't do this group justice but I had to include them so you could get an idea. Same for the charming couple in front of Keith's Dad's car.....too blurry but you get the idea. I need to work on my photography skills.....the PowerShot is aces with still life but seems to be confounded with people, movement and low light.



The event was split between the two ballrooms of the hotel. A dinner buffet was provided for those on the New Year's Eve packages and a separate five-course meal was offered in the main dining room for Club Level guests or as an upgrade. A special martini menu was also offered this year featuring various martini flights. These flights proved so popular that the bar staff were nearly overwhelmed. We got to sample the buffet offerings: the melt-in-your-mouth Panko-breaded Shrimp Scampi and the delicious Florentine-stuffed chicken breast....yum. Both ballrooms worked well simultaneously for dinner but the evening's entertainment was a tad more challenging. Every year, one ballroom features a DJ and the other a band. This year, the band was the very popular Four Fried Chickens and A Coke. I knew the rep this 11-member party band had as I'd helped get them for a wedding I'd booked a couple of years back. Responsibilities back home prevented me from coordinating those nuptials, so I'd missed that performance. On this night, I watched their raucous showmanship and realized that they were worth their weight in gold. The horn section alone was amazing, they are total high energy and they truly brought the good times. At various times, the trumpet player ran to one side of the room, climbed on a chair and just wailed. Unfortunately, this boisterous band had EVERYONE wanting to be in the Grand Ballroom and despite the DJ's best efforts, the Regent Ballroom spent an inordinate amount of time half-empty. Eventually, the rooms balanced out and everyone got their chill on.



Guests partied on as the night wore on and soon we closed in on the big moment. The digital clock ticked away on the flat-screen over the front desk. Keith loaded and prepared the confetti cannons and the frosted Champagne flutes were lined on the table and carefully filled. The crowds flowed out of both ballrooms and filled the lobby. The DJ announced the countdown....



5...4..3...2..1. The crowds cheered, the cannons shot off, the glasses clinked, the couples kissed. I watched and photographed the ensuing celebratory chaos. One of the horn players sounded off a solo and the partying resumed. K and I soon began the long drive home. During the drive, I was pensive; thinking back on the past year. Tempted to write 2010 off, I instead remembered that while the past year was often a tough road to hoe, it was also a profound journey that was necessary to take. I remembered that this time last year, as I was preparing to travel to my hometown; my friend Linda told me that this would be a very important time for me and my parents and indeed it was; in ways I hadn't imagined. I realized that instead of looking at 2010 as a write-off, perhaps it was a watershed.....a pivotal year of change. We'll see.



Happy New Year, folks. My wish for you is that 2011 be like the perfect meal....comforting and delicious with no regrets.