Saturday, April 30, 2011

Friday Dinner Group: Speakeasy Style At Manifesto, Rustic Fare At The Farmhouse

The First Friday Dinner Group is having difficulties sticking to the first Friday of every month for scheduling, as evidenced by our last Friday in April get-together last night. Whatever.....the thrill of meeting up with these fine folks for me is not only the riotous camaraderie, but the opportunity to hit the hotspots I haven't been fortunate enough to check out yet. Last night was most assuredly a highlight for me.

Our group was celebrating Debbie's birthday last night and as details were being hashed out, our evening ending up being split between two locales. The first portion of our evening was at Manifesto in the Rieger Hotel and our time spent there was one of the coolest experiences I've had in Kansas City. I'd heard of Manifesto before and had read that you needed to text the Rieger powers-that-be to get seats in their 48-seat bar. When K and I arrived at the historic Rieger, we couldn't figure out where Manifesto was exactly. It wasn't in the bar area of the dining room and we couldn't find a separate entrance. In fact, we nearly stumbled into an Airstream trailer in the parking lot that apparently had its own little party going on. We finally realized that no matter how sophisticated our Smartphones were; our handheld GPS was not going to lead us to Manifesto. Shelving our pride, we did the dreaded deed.....we asked for directions. Our lovely guide walked us through the stylish dining room in the Rieger and led us to a back hallway where a gentleman stood ready to check our reservation. Once approved, we were invited behind a billowing black curtain and led down a narrow brick stairwell into a long, near pitch-dark corridor. I was slowly beginning to recognize images....a woman's eye in a black and white print; the soft glow of candlelight...eventually I could see a group of young women whispering over drinks and could finally see the tall, crescent moon-shaped booths where we were seated.

Once settled, our eyes would finally adjust to the darkness and we could make out the brick walls and read our cocktail menu by candlelight. Cocktails are indeed the specialty at Manifesto. They are hand-crafted, labor-intensive and cunningly creative. Even the cocktail specialist mixing these liberating libations seemed to attune his whole body into their creation. No mixing cup juggling, Tom Cruise antics here.....the cocktails themselves are the stars of the show and that's how it should be.

Unable to decide on which of these unique concoctions utilizing the freshest of ingredients to choose, I asked our knowledgeable server for a suggestion. He then turned the tables on me by replying that he was a fan of every selection and said he could deduce which drink I should order by what mood I was in. I then parried back in this verbal chess match by saying that I wanted a drink that told a story....something that spoke to the history of the Rieger Hotel. He smiled in reply and said he knew exactly what to bring me. That drink was the Jackson County Democratic Club, a tip of the hat to the mob-happy Prohibition days of Boss Tom Pendergast that consisted of Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Luxardo (a lemony Italian liqueur), Yellow Chartreuse, Lemon and Regan's Orange Bitters. Keith chose a particularly burly drink named Brass In Pocket, a potent blend of Yamazaki 12-year Japanese Single Malt, cherry heering (a Danish cherry liqueur) and whiskey barrel and cherry bitters. We sipped these standout cocktails; hunched into whispered conversation while vintage 20s jazz played in the background. Even the back of the cocktail menu carried vintage rules of behavior, including the instruction for "gentlemen not to approach uninterested ladies". Kansas City was in its heyday in the roaring 20's and this felt as close to experiencing a real speakeasy as I'll ever get. It seemed thrillingly unseemly....these devilish drinks sipped in a shroud of darkness made the air feel a bit if the danger were real and we might get busted at any moment. What a brilliant beginning to our evening.

Readjusting to sunlight upon leaving, our caravan motored to River Market for a rustic dinner at The Farmhouse. Our location in the dining room was ideal; our long, black-lacquered wood table was next to the patio door and a perfectly gentle breeze wafted through the entire evening. The decor is indeed akin to a country farmhouse; featuring painted portraits of roosters and servers in cowboy boots. The menu centers around farm-to-table fare featuring many local farms and growers. K and I started with the Cheese Plate Featuring Assorted Local Cheeses from Green Dirt Farms from Weston and Heartland Farms Dairy in Fenton. Our favorite cheese was the sheep's milk cheese from Green Dirt and the candied walnuts. For my entree, I went with one of the house specials: tagliatelle pasta tossed with fresh asparagus, black olives and housemade pancetta in a lemon-butter sauce (continuing the bright, lemony taste theme established with my earlier cocktail). Keith chose the veggie burger consisting of white beans and smoked feta with a side of crispy, house-cut fries and housemade "tomato jam". I stuck with a New Belgium IPA here but those that chose cocktails found that the creativity didn't end with Manifesto. Carolyn sipped a chocolatey creation and Ken, the gentleman next to me sipped on a drink featuring pistachio liqueur.

It was a grand evening all around. I can't wait to see what we do to top this one.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Royal Wedding Madness

The anticipated morning has finally arrived and thankfully passed without incident. Actually, I'm most grateful that it has passed, period. The long and long-winded road to the royal wedding of William and Kate was overkill at its finest. In retrospect, I suppose I can't blame the networks for vying for royal wedding is a rare event and really, I don't think NBC has promoted it anymore than they have The Voice. Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't break in, smack in the middle of the royal kiss, to show a promo for The Voice.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime event.....wait, this is three times in my lifetime?....oh, hell, there's Harry, too, he's probably next....never mind. If you haven't guessed, I'm a tad underwhelmed with these royal nuptials, to be honest. The outcome of the last two royal marriages has left a bit of a sour taste for this latest pomp and circumstance. We didn't get up at the ungodly hour the coverage began but we did Tivo it to fast forward through the highlights. As a matter of fact, we had planned our first garage sale to begin today and while that didn't pan out, it certainly could have pierced the air of civility that royal wedding watching would cultivate. I can see it now, just as that magical moment arrived, when the sun peeked out and Kate stepped from the limo to reveal the dress, a deep voice bellows from the garage...."I'LL GIVE YA FIFTY CENTS FOR THIS BOX OF CRAP!!"

The royal wedding is an occasion, nonetheless, so I did make something to nosh on during the rapid DVR viewing of the wedding. My bookstore received the inevitable copies of The Royal Wedding For Dummies last week and had I followed its initial suggestions for royal wedding food, I would have made guacamole and hummus....uh, what? Nigella Lawson posted a recipe for Strawberries and Cream Mini Muffins in People magazine and she was quoted as saying that this was a proper English breakfast and that "strawberries and cream are about as English as you can get." Imagining Nigella's husky voice saying this could cause the stiffest of upper lips to quiver, so make them I did. Strawberries are in season and the muffins turned out light and lovely. I felt as if I should be sipping Earl Grey also, but I'll stick with a cup' o' joe.

Frankly, the food was as ever among the highlights of royal watching. I would have loved to have attended some of the street parties, particularly the one in the photo. Harrod's window displays featured various designer's wedding cakes made to celebrate the big day. I thought the elaborate hats at the wedding were a kick as well....many of the sculptured Phillip Treacy creations were akin to modern art but the hats on Fergie's girls were.....interesting,to say the least. The Beckhams arrived looking like they were carved out of ivory and Elton was appropriately and disappointingly low-key in his own outfit. C'mon, Rocket Man, where's the obnoxious chapeau? Hell, if I were the crafty type, I might be inspired to fashion my own hat, utilizing the platter the muffins were on and the philodendron atop the TV.

Truth be told, I wish Will and Kate the best. William and Harry have carried on their mother's spirit of service and seem to be somewhat level-headed. Kate's a lovely girl and she and Will deserve as problem-free a wedding day as anyone. Good on yer, Will and Kate!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Kids Are Engaged!

There's a plethora of international flotsam and jetsam on weddings this week, but the most important nuptial news I've received of late is that Kara and Drew, a.k.a. The Kids, are engaged! The night after my farewell breakfast with them, my phone buzzed in with a text from Kara that they were engaged, and that text was followed by texts from Drew telling me how he proposed. I read the texts with wet eyes and renewed faith in happy endings....or beginnings in this case. Congratulations, Kara and Drew!

This most welcome news created a happy mood that carried on to the following day. The mood was helped by the overdue return of warm rays that have been denied by the quilt of gray our city's been sporting for some time. The morning was not without its bracing bad news we watched the southern U.S. tornado statistics were rolling in. We said our silent prayers for the suffering and stepped out into the warmth in literal fashion with a two mile walk along the rolling river in Parkville. The day's caloric intake consisted of oatmeal and spinach salad so that we could take advantage of the fair temps and fire up the grill for the real deal tonight. I chose a High Country BBQ Beans recipe from the Cook Like A Man cookbook and the Deen Brothers BBQ Chicken recipe from their first cookbook. Why, just stirring the simmering beans from the Cook Like A Man cookbook generated a fresh patch of chest hair. I liked cooking this recipe, actually, as it was a bit casual in its instructions. The recipe suggested a several hour simmer time and ours simmered for four hours. The combination of this BBQ bean dish and the chicken made for a meat-heavy meal but also a slew of leftovers for work lunches this week. Our handling of the chicken dish deviated from the recipe a bit as we baked the chicken for 45 minutes in the oven and then put them on the grill for another 15 minutes and they turned out scrumptiously. The bird was marinated and basted with rich, smoky and locally-made Smokehouse BBQ sauce out of Gladstone. I was digging my chicken so much and tearing through a wing so hungrily that one side of said wing smacked me in the cheek and left me with a stripe of barbecue sauce. The beans, however, were the highlight. Luscious, slightly spicy and layered with flavor, these masculine beans made us feel like burly men.

In the end, it was a Smackdown of Flavor tonight. I'm feeling like grabbin' a brew and turning on Spike TV. The recipe for the beans follow and these two dishes count as Cookbook Challenge #51 and 52.

P.S. The odd pic at left is of a drop of vanilla on vegetable oil before it was mixed up for a recipe featured in the next post....pretty cool, eh?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Creative Crepes With The Kids At Chez Elle

K and I met Kara and Drew for our last meal together in KC before they move on to St. Louis later this week. We shared breakfast together at local creperie and coffeehouse Chez Elle on charming Summit street downtown. Chez Elle's location is in the historic Summit Theater building. We all went for the savory crepes for our meal and were duly impressed by these light, fluffy and made-from-scratch selections. I completely dug my Tour Eiffel, which featured smoked salmon, artichokes, capers, caramelized onions, herbed cream cheese and creme fraiche. Keith chose the Fromage; a beauty stuffed with Brie, bacon and pesto. Kara's selection, the most attractive one I might add, was Le Franco: caramelized green apple with spices, toasted walnut, fig compote and Brie cheese. I sipped a warm hazelnut latte to help lift the chill and fire the neurons.

Breakfast was completely satisfying and the locale was utterly cozy, but the occasion was still tinged with sadness. I have already experienced work shifts without Kara and Drew and its gonna suck not havin' them around. They are only moving across the state, however, and I look forward to visiting them in St. Louis and sharing some food memories with them there.

I called them "the kids" in the title of this post as that's what I called them in person. I'll miss ya, travels!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter And The Definition Of Family

The holidays that pass this year all constitute a first....the first holiday without Dad. Thanksgiving was the worst; I kept hearing a whispered version of his halting version of Grace in my head and I kept picturing him carving the turkey or heartily digging into his food. Christmas was equally sad in that respect and with each holiday, I am flooded with childhood memories of holidays spent together. Even when we couldn't spend these holidays together; he and Mom were never far from my mind and I would call and ensure they had plenty to eat and were feelin' the love.

Easter is here once again and I'm remembering the exasperation of getting up at 0-dark-30 to attend sunrise services, the wicker basket filled with plastic grass and a chocolate bunny and the soul-nourishing meal with the family. The meal would feature country ham and cheesy scalloped potatoes and fresh green beans and corn. I would eventually learn the truth about the Easter bunny; taking solace in the introduction of Cadbury eggs. I would be baptized during one of those sunrise services.

Once I had moved away from home, I would return for Easter family get-togethers for awhile, but in time, my sister's worsening mental illness would turn any holiday into heartbreaking drama and it sadly became easier on my parents if we just skipped the holidays. Every now and then, I would slip in on a holiday and take the folks out for dinner but even that would become difficult.

During my time working in the restaurant biz, Easter became a day more about making money than memories. That may seem depressing but when you're working for tips, Easter can be one of those days that can guarantee you'll get bills paid that month. As each year passed without family holidays and money concerns would take over, the meaning of family became a little less defined. I loved my family as much as I ever did but our time together was far different from what it once was.

Faith and family shaken, I would lament some of those years spent working or alone but eventually accept that it was what it was. Family, though, would come to evolve in definition for me as the years passed. When I lived in Charleston, WV, my co-worker Mimi invited me and a couple of other Misfit Toys to her parent's home for Easter dinner. Her folks, Virgil and Mary, (yes, they were Virg N' Mary for short) were two of the finest folks I would ever meet and they opened up their home to us on a family holiday. We were all restaurant servers and Virgil and Mary wanted us to enjoy a nice meal and be served ourselves for once. They prepared a luscious lamb with mint jelly and even popped open a bottle of Dom Perignon in celebration. These misfits could not have been made to feel more like family....I will never forget that Easter dinner. Mimi and Virgil lost Mary not long ago and I know they struggle with these holidays as well...I hope they are having a great day.

I would return to my hometown area at a time when all of my family was feeling spiritually beaten but friends would again surround me and fill me up when I was down. During these days, I would enjoy an Easter dinner with the Reckards at Dotte's house and again would be accepted into another family over another divine lamb dish. The only caveat to that dinner would be the ridiculous plastic Easter glasses we were all donning at the table....that would be Dotte herself modeling in the pic.

Many years later, Keith and I would leave town in 1999. We experienced an Easter sunrise service on a dock on St. Simon's Island, watching the breathtaking sunrise settle over ocean waves. We sought out the Cadbury eggs every year. Soon, I would be accepted into Keith's family and I would experience the holidays with this new group of folks every year. Keith's sister would have children and I soon knew what it meant to be part of a family with young kids for the first time. Tanner would be born close to the Easter holiday and his birthday would be entwined with the holiday every year. I would even bear witness to a crisis of faith through young eyes: Sierra would learn the cold, hard truth about Santa and the Easter Bunny this year but then had to maintain the magic for the sake of her younger brother. This year, she helped hide the eggs for Tanner and nearly gave it away a couple of times but in the end, proved what an awesome big sister she is.

This new family and I enjoyed Easter Brunch together at the Elms this year where we were also joined by Dave's nephew and his family. I dug into ham and potatoes again and this time, forgot all about the chocolate bunny as I stood mesmerized by the vast dessert table.

Having bid farewell to the family, Keith stayed on to finish a little work and I drove home in solitude; lost in thought. The sun was finally peeking through the gray blanket of clouds. I was missing Dad but I know he's watching out for all of us. Thinking of him helps me remember to count my blessings and one of the greatest of those blessings is that while the meaning of family has changed and evolved for me over the years, my family itself has grown and transcended blood and labels. While finding my place in this new and growing family, they and other members of my extended clan would help provide comfort for me when I lost my own sister and father. My family is large and grows in members every year and with that, so do my blessings. Thank you, Easter Bunny (bawk-bawk!).

Happy Easter, everyone.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Confounded Cook Trampled At Easter Egg Hunt; No Tears Shed By Happy Children Enjoying Sugar Rush

That's the headline that was swimming in my mind as I stood ready to cut the yellow ribbon on the back lawn of the Elms today. It was time once again for the annual Elms Easter Egg Hunt and Eric, GM of the Elms, asked me to cut the ribbon that releases the egg-hungry hordes. The overcast skies, chilly temps and damp grass did nothing to lessen the crowd size or level of excitement. Sierra and Tanner stood directly in front of me, on the other side of the ribbon, clutching their baskets. I stared at the sea of small children and they stared back at me; nearly exploding with anticipation. Keith, ever concerned for me, mildly suggested that I embed the scissors into my leg so I wouldn't put one of the little darling's eyes out. Yes, don't worry about me, I'll ensure that the children are safe; just ignore the geyser of blood that just burst from my left thigh. The countdown grew closer and the kids were looking as if they might burst into some sort of angry playground mob....especially that little girl in the pretty floral dress....she looked so ready to stomp my head with her shiny patent leather shoes. Who came up with this idea of getting kids this worked up and then sending them hunting for sugar? Whatever. Not all that long ago, I had to stare down a mad crazy crowd of teenage girls waiting for the release of the final Twilight book and that was WAY more terrifying.

In reality, the kids and their folks were very well-behaved as they poured across the property on the search for the eggs, some of which contained gold coins. Sierra found one of the coins but she showed her heart and character as well: seeing a child crying because he didn't find any eggs, Sierra gave him some of her eggs. She is the golden child after all.

The hotel was hopping today with the hunt going on as well as a wedding being set up. The wedding had peacock feathers as a theme for their decor and their cupcake tower featured cupcakes with edible peacock feathers. Today was also Tanner's eighth birthday and while the celebration of this is largely taking place next week in conjunction with his First Communion, we did take him to lunch. We went to Ventana and got to try some new items. I had a cup of soup that I couldn't wrap my brain around...Buffalo Chicken Soup. Spicy with that unmistakable buffalo sauce flavoring, topped off with bleu cheese crumbles and a celery stick; it was something else and that something was mighty tasty. I also had the new menu item called the Sugar Burger that's become their latest craze. I admit that the description didn't sell featured a burger with a smoky brown sugar glaze, sauteed onions, cheddar and bacon. I'd read and heard so many raves about the burger that I had to try it and I'm so glad I did. The flavors just flow, baby....its a durn good burger. The kids were treated to Oooey Gooey Chocolates next door and their locally made ice cream. The fine ladies at Ooey Gooey also showed us their chocolate-covered Peeps and a tool-happy cake they were making for someone's birthday.

That evening, the fam descended on our home for the fish fry we had planned for the previous night until Mother Nature reminded us we're on her time. Keith's dad brought crappie that he caught himself and we deep-fried it in a Cajun-cornmeal breading, hit it with a couple of hits of Sriracha hot sauce and zing went the strings of my heatseekin' heart. Helen brought her vintage slicer and sliced Yukon Golds and sweet potatoes razor-thin and deep-fried them for some delicious chips. Kim concentrated on her studies a bit more with a little help from an ice-cold Boulevard Wheat. I made pasta salad from a Disney cookbook, of all things. Tanner entertained us with his comedic skills while we enjoyed angel food cake with fresh strawberries for dessert.

This was a nice, peaceful end to the day that contrasted nicely with the morning's Easter egg stampede..the recipe follows for the pasta salad from the Disney Mickey's Gourmet Cookbook and that counts as CC#50.

Pasta Salad(from MGM Studios Theme Park and Mickey's Gourmet Cookbook)

1 1/2 cups tricolor rotini pasta
1/4 cup cabbage, shredded
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup tomato, diced
1/ cup celery, diced
1/2 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced
2 teaspoons herb seasoning
1 teaspoon dill, fresh, chopped
1 teaspoon basil, fresh, chopped
3/4 cup plain yogurt
4 tablespoons vinaigrette dressing, divided

In a 2-quart saucepan, boil pasta until tender and rinse with cold water. Toss with 2 tablespoons vinaigrette dressing and set aside. In a large bowl, combine shredded cabbage, onion, celery, and cucumber. Mix well and season with dill ,basil and herb seasoning. Add cooked pasta, yogurt and remaining vinaigrette. Blend well and refrigerate at least 1 hour. Serve chilled.