Sunday, September 30, 2012

Following the Posse Trail

The Posse is a fast-moving tribe, always on the lightning-quick go, either together or individually.  The roster of dinner attendees always shifts, as everyone is wicked-busy, so we catch up when we can.  Various friends and family members attend at different events while at least a few core members make it to most sites.  Here's a few snapshots of the Posse par-tays...

A while back, Posse member Mike chose a local Liberty pool hall called the Brass Rail for the latest Posse wind-ding.  This joint is billiards nirvana, but we were seated near the electronics darts area and soon I was lost in smoky, hazy memories of the various dives and rotating cast of characters whom I played multiple rounds of electronic darts with.  The one that stands out in those wobbly memories was the dearly departed Bogies in Parkersburg, WV.  Bogies sported many a fine attribute of a great dive: in addition to the pool tables and darts was a delicious menu of hearty steaks and stick-to-you-ribs appetizers (like the sausage and cheese tray with hot mustard that I often craved) as well as an admirable dedication to music both in its regular roster of live music acts (hello, Smokestack Betty) and its nicely diverse jukebox (where more than a few of my quarters went toward repeated plays of Bonnie Raitt's sweetly melancholy Angel from Montgomery - a great cry-in-your-brew tune).  The Brass Rail was a pool hall on steroids however, with its massive bar, well-lit rows of billiards tables and surprisingly eclectic menu.  Among the truly fine dishes that got passed around the table this night were the Nachos Azul; a with its indigo-blue chips, smoked pulled pork, jalapeno cheddar queso, fresh pico, shredded romaine and lime sour cream and my Baja Chicken salad with peanut-glazed grilled chicken and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.  Carl's dad joined us and Jen and Dave were in from Minnesota, so it was a fun and lively group which went well with the upbeat atmosphere.

Another night of Posse frivolity took place at Carl and Charlotte's Smithville Lake home.  This gorgeous homestead reflected the couple's Southwestern sensibilities and was the perfect locale to celebrate Carl's birthday after their recent Santa Fe vacation.  Charlotte gave us the tour of the grounds where we met her lovely horses before hanging with friends inside to sample all of the hearty Southwestern fare like spicy bean dip.  Dinner was the real deal however, when I finally got to try their much-mentioned green chile casserole and it was certainly worth the wait.  That creamy casserole featuring spicy hatch green chilies was true Southwestern comfort food and it was served in a gorgeous Nambe dish..  Served with Moroccan-spiced grilled pheasant and Anasazi beans, it was one mouth-watering platter of goodness.  Made me long for another trip to Santa Fe where green chilies were blessedly everywhere...

Finally, we were at the most familiar Posse hangout of all when we spent a recent evening with our beloved Carolyn.  We took Keith's mom Helen and Aunt Ruthie where they unsurprisingly got on with the Posse like a house on fire (most folks do, after all).  Carolyn's husband Jim wielded his special brand of culinary magic and whipped up a soul-nourishing lasagna accompanied by a foccacia bread so warm, flaky and buttery that I've grown to cherish it.  These two, in calories and taste were more than enough to satisfy...but that didn't stop Jim from supplying a to-die-for key lime pie and cheesecake flan.  Kerri brought some moist and tasty brownies with caramel that she made with a method I can't wait to try...but that's for a later post.  Best of all was that Carolyn spent the evening with us.  Her presence is precious if bittersweet: we all crave to our very core seeing Carolyn stand up from her wheelchair and talk to us with that sure and passionate voice of hers that we miss so much.  Nonetheless, she was present and that was a beautiful thing.

Lotsa Posse is always a beautiful thing.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Market Season

The farmer's market is starting to wind down with the changing of the seasons.  The Excelsior market only has a couple of runs left.  While trying to outrun the seasonal close, we tried out another well-known market recently and enjoyed the beans out of it:  the Overland Park Farmer's Market.  On their website, they actually refer to themselves as the Overland Park Farmers Garden and indeed, that does seem to be a more apt name.  This "garden" has much going on during these incredibly popular Saturdays, not the least being capacity crowds and an abundance of amazing produce.  On our recent visit, the crowds milled about the many food displays on a crystal clear day while the lilting sounds of a calypso band floated across the plaza.  We visited many a booth; Keith picked up cucumbers for pickling and I, ever the cheese-hound, found my way to the Shatto milk booth, where they were sampling several of their locally-made cheeses (the Gouda is so goood-a.....yeah, I know...ouch).  By the by, this excellent market ain't close to closing; they're hanging around until mid-November.

After that lively scene, we sauntered around the awesomely food-centric Santa Fe Drive.  We stopped in Penzey's Spices just to take in the heady aromas of their ever-growing spice lines and of course, ended up carrying out various jars, such as Turkish Aleppo, an eye-opening version of crushed red peppers.  Soon, we were settled in to the funkified Great Day Cafe for breakfast.  Its a delightfully offbeat little place with lots of eccentric little touches like the colorful little S&P shakers on the tables and the figurines of the Beatles hovering over the cozy little stage area.  Speaking of the stage area, owner Greg Tugman was wailing on the sax when we were there that day.  The live music scene here was one of the main reasons I wanted to grub out here...this was after all, our second attempt at eating here.  The first time, the place was packed and the jaunty tuneage was being served by one Annemarie Timmons, an accordion-playing former escapee of Communist East Germany who was entertaining the hell out of the crowd with her German folk songs.  I wanted to hang then just to watch her perform but it was too busy for us to sit.  This time we got to grub indeed and it was worth the wait.  I had a filling and tasty breakfast burrito and Keith enjoyed his fresh biscuits with peppery gravy.  I also dug the extra attached fortune-cookie-style tip to the creative class.

Love, love hanging on Santa Fe Drive....that street is one long paean to the joys of food.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Dean's Pickles

The color palette of our kitchen domain has been sporting a decidedly more emerald hue of late. We have been pickling everything that we can capture in a jar.....ok, maybe not lightning bugs, but many things of a vegetable variety, at least. Keith recently made a successful batch of bread and butter pickles as well as dill pickles, so I jumped in on the in-house pickling craze, as it were. I had a fairly crystalline idea of what to make, as my inspiration came from a beloved old friend and co-worker named Dean.

Dean and I were servers together in an eatery in Marietta, Ohio called the Becky Thatcher Restaurant and Lounge. Located in a moored historic sternwheel boat, this unique joint was a beloved hangout for my friends and I long before I was employed there. It was long a fun, casual joint that served wonderful breaded chicken wings and various Greek specialties (owing to owner Manny's family heritage) such as spanakopita and later would enjoy a time as a true fine-dining destination featuring fresh, flavorful dishes (including my favorite; a mouth-watering Steak Au Poivre). Dean was one of the lead servers at the Becky, and pretty much everyone, from employee to customer, adored him. He was an excellent server and an even better friend. Dean had a wicked wit characterized by a devilish twinkle in his eye and when he told a humorous (and frequently salacious) tale, he did so with a faux Southern accent that was somewhat inexplicable as he was from New York. These were also the bygone days of restaurant work; when it often meant hoisting drinks after work and Deano and I got rather pickled together a few too many times; but oh, I can still feel the catch in my side from the uncontrollable laughter that would inevitably ensue. Dean was also quite the pickler...he made some marvelous pickles and quite often brought jars of them to generously share with us. My roommate at the time, also named Greg, and I were partial to Dean's pickled green tomatoes....zesty with a spicy, flavorful punch...its a wonder Greg and I remained friends while we tried to race each other to that last green tomato.

One of the memories I flash back on frequently was a summer afternoon when I was riding with Dean to work and we spied a somewhat heavier-set woman in her 60s astride a riding lawn mower, buzzing around her yard while sporting a barely-there pink halter-top. I braced myself for what I assumed would be a catty, cutting remark from Dean regarding her but instead he drawled, "Honey, that right there is gonna be me...letting it all hang out and not givin' a damn". I remember cracking up and agreeing. Sadly, that was a reality not to be...a few years later while I was living in Atlanta, I got a call from Greg tearfully telling me that Dean had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Not long after, I spoke with Dean on the phone a few times and he always insisted in that soft voice of his that he would beat that illness and sure enough, he remained as upbeat as ever. Not long after, we found out that despite his valiant fight, we had lost him. Dean was one of those voices, no matter how soft it was, that seemed impossible to go completely silent. His spirit though, lives on.

So, indeed, when it came time to join Keith in pickling, it was Dean's pickles that I wanted to recreate. I tried a different variation by using tomatillos; the first ones that Keith and Kiko had grown in the garden. I wanted that zest, and the first attempt didn't get it. The flavor just wasn't there. I found a pickled green tomato that came very close to Dean's at an Amish market: Jake and Amos' Pickled Green Tomatoes. These addictive little beauties feature that flavorful punch I was looking for. On a weekend lake trip later, we tested them on (Keith's brother-in-law) Daves' palette and he identified some ingredients: caraway, cumin seed, white peppercorns. Still later I decided to give it another try and used those ingredients with some garlic and onions and apple cider vinegar with another batch of beautiful tomatillos. Now this was more like it...a week later, I sampled them and the taste was much closer, zesty and punchy and savory. I sealed them back up for another couple of weeks to soak up all the goodness. In the meantime, the K-Man whipped up some spicier bread-and-butter pickles.

Deano, I think you would dig the pickles. They are still not as good as yours and maybe that was meant to be. We miss you, friend, but in the meantime, keep 'em laughing 'til we see ya again.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Birthdaze 2012: Billie Holiday, Blissful Mac N' Cheese and A Birdcage Under The Stars

Round up those Posse Gals and let's hit the road! Indeed and once freed from the bounds of toiling in hospitality, we did just that and headed for points midtown and yon to celebrate the latest round of turning a year older for me. This year wasn't as automatically satisfying as last year due to Kristy (She Who Is Bestie) who informed me then that we were actually a year younger than the age I thought we were that? Despite the cold, hard reality of realizing that true age this year, I moved on and forward and off to the first stop: The Plaza-side restaurant named Cafe Trio.

K and I had been planning to hit up Cafe Trio for some time now; tonight, we got to experience it with the lovely company of Posse gals Kiko, Deb, Deb's daughter Andrea and Bunchie. Upon arrival, I was instantly struck by the festive patio and the sleek, seemingly Asian-influenced decor on the inside. A pianist was tickling the ivories and the place was packed for a Tuesday night. Once seated, we were presented with one of the more imaginative libation menus I have ever read. Each cocktail was named for a particular celebrity and each description included a quote by or connected to them. We all ordered a different version so to take in each drink and once the celebs were sipped, they were passed around the table for everyone to try (how salacious!). Amongst those who made their fleeting cameo appearances...the Ricky Martin (Strawberry-Mango Mojito), the Halle Berry (with Pearl Plum vodka and Champagne-muddled Blackberries) and the Courtney Love (aka Liquid Cocaine with Stoli, Southern Comfort, amaretto, triple sec and a splash of pineapple). My personal fave was my own ordered concoction; the Billie Holiday with Stoli Citron, House Lemonade, Monin Blueberry and fresh blueberries. Don't threaten me with love, baby...

The food was a swirl of flavorful fare that had us all swooning. After a starter of creamy spinach and artichoke dip and spring mix salad with house Herb Parmesan dressing, our main events arrived and in true Posse style, we passed around our entrees as we did our elixirs. Its a sure sign of Posse approval when we all rave about everything sampled. I thoroughly enjoyed my nibble of Trio Steak Gorgonzola with its flamed bleu cheese and fabulous shitake and port-wine mushroom sauce. My morsel of Wild Mushroom Ravioli with grilled chicken, roasted garlic and goat cheese was amazing. Keith's roast chicken was stuffed with sage, prosciutto and goat cheese and came with a wow of a side: a delectable spaghetti-squash potato pancake. Once again though, I was happiest with my own choice; the Mac Daddy, a truly Heavenly macaroni and cheese dish. Voted KC's best mac n' cheese, this is a silky, heady concoction with bacon, green onion, cherry tomatoes, and an angelic trio of Fontina, Romano and Bel Paese (an Italian semi-soft) cheeses. If you're gonna go birthday big, go Cafe Trio Mac Daddy. We sampled some lovely desserts including a treacherously devilish Chocolate Spoon Cake and the table favorite; a Creme Brulee cheesecake but I was still knocked sideways by the Mac Daddy. Good thing we could revisit it, as K and I ate on the leftovers of that single dish for three days.

What more could I say to wax rhapsodic about Cafe Trio? How about a full vegetarian and gluten-free menu? Add in the great service and their support of local art and music and the far-out vibe followed me right out the door. Many thanks Cafe Trio, we will most assuredly be back.

The evening just got more sublime when we followed dinner with a performance of La Cage Aux Folles on a moonlight night at Starlite Theater. The Tan Man himself, George Hamilton, led a sparkling cast in the musical version of the 1973 French play that would later inspire a couple of film versions, including The Birdcage. We loved it.

Birthday bliss.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Come Together

The big picture is finally nearing completion. The proverbial light is appearing at the end of the tunnel. The long period of renovation at my workplace, the Elms Hotel and Spa is still ongoing, but the results continue to materialize and they are stunning, by and large. Many, many people have worked very hard to bring about this elegant rebirth for the hotel and it is worth the multitude of madness that all of us have weathered to see this new renaissance.

Said renaissance begins with me as you might suspect: the food. The few times I have worked a Manager on Duty shift, I have been able to experience the knockout food in the 88 restaurant created by Executive Chef Steven Cameron and his talented sous chefs Jacob Moeller and Joe Spiegal. I was thrilled to see Joe's Seared Wild Cook Inlet Canadian Sockeye dish with the mouth-watering black-eyed pea relish and smoked tomato continued on as a menu highlight. I have also tried the Pan-Roasted Barnham Farms Chicken Breast with that delectable spring-pea rice pudding and it is delicious. I have to agree with restaurant manager Erin, though...the small plates are the way to go. I have had several and have reveled in them all. The light and citrussy heirloom and tomato salad with the zingy serrano dressing....the surprising layers of flavor in the Heirloom Tomato Risotto with thyme creme and cinnamon basil grown in the Elms Garden....the bright tang of the Wild East Coast Sea Scallop Ceviche with cucumber noodles and celery ricotta...the savory potato and parmesan gnocchi with sweet corn, crumbled sausage and braised fennel. For lunch, I dig the Pulled Pork Street Tacos with that spicy jalapeno slaw. I will work my way through that entire menu, mark my words. We have also returned for Sunday brunch recently and it was a scrumptious affair, once again.

The ballrooms were mightily decked out in splendiferous decor by Russ and the Changing Seasons crew for a recent wedding show and it made for another glorious look at the hotel. Lots of fascinating touches abounded from Russ including jars with spools, unique bridal bouquets that included Scrabble pieces and a head table centered by a working fountain. The Elms culinary team worked up some awesome edibles like Thai peanut chicken lollipops, bagel and lox bites with onions and capers and roasted fennel and goat cheese pizzas. Had to love the cookie and milk shooters and mini-chocolate purses as well. Good show!

Finally, that crucial and somewhat overdue piece of the rebirth, our spa, is finally coming to life. The Roman bath-like grotto is still a ways off but the retail, quiet and treatment rooms are coming together and they are gorgeous. The excitement is truly building for what is sure to be one very special centerpiece for the Elms.

So much happening. So much yet to come....

Misty and Larry and the Approach of Autumn

The month of September has dawned; its a month that has always brought an almost profound sense of change for me. There was many a year when the autumnal approach meant the creeping sensation of a sort of seasonal depression. These were childhood days when the first TV commercial touting Back to School sales sent a sad shudder down my spine....was it that time already? The annual Labor Day closing of my second home; the county pool? The cool air starting to waft through the Lions Fall Festival where I would drown my sorrows in funnel cakes and melancholy hayrides. My friend Kristy was often there with me and she would always relish the coming of fall and excitedly anticipate football games, new sweaters and boots and well, whatever. I would just harrumph the whole idea: fall just meant the end of all of my beloved summer fun and the advent of school; hallowed halls that held no excitement for me, at least for many years. The last few years of my high school career, I actually came to love school, but the feeling of dread never truly escaped me. As I've aged, fall tends to be just a seasonal precursor to the chill of winter (my most dreaded season of all).

Finally, all these years later, I truly appreciate the coming of fall. This particular year, that appreciation might be exacerbated by this brutally hot, extreme drought-ridden summer. I have actually looked at photos depicting snowy scenes and thought "how refreshing". We'll see if I maintain that feeling come this winter, but right now I myself am relishing that seasonal change. As the much-needed drenching rains that came from Hurricane Isaac were soaking the city, I was actually reveling in the damp and gray conditions that settled in if only for a day.

I might be enjoying the coming of Fall for another reason: Spring and Summer have been an absolute blistering blur of activity and life changes this year. 2012 has indeed been the Year of Possibilities; from becoming married to starting a new job and month by month, life has become wild and unpredictable and sometimes wretchedly busy. I find myself reeling from the ever-more-swift passage of time and as I experience moment after moment, I I taking it all in? Am I appreciating the sheer wonder of the everyday anymore? The fact that I haven't taken enough time to write is part of my problem. Is it all passing by too quickly? Indeed and now, as the seasons change, it is time to take stock once again and as this is my 500th post, it was past time to start documenting those ever important moments once again.
 One recent moment that is crystallized in my memory involves two people I know by the names of Misty and Larry. I told part of the story in my recent post Wherever the Spirit Moves You. I told of Keith and I attending a fundraiser for our friend and beloved local teacher Misty (pictured at the top of the post with her daughters Josie and Jordan) who has been battling breast cancer. K and I were there representing the local Rotary club and helping sell reverse raffle tickets which also raised money for Misty. Over the course of a few weeks, the tickets continued to be sold and the drawing would be held at a barbecue dinner each ticket-holder was invited to attend at the Elms. Our dear friend and fellow Posse member Kiko bought some tickets not only to support Misty but in memory of her mother Pat who passed away from breast cancer several years back. Kiko's father Larry, her brothers and fellow Posse members all bought tickets in memory of Pat as well and soon we were all gathered on a Thursday night along with Misty and her family and watched the drawing unfold over some tasty, vinegary barbecue and spicy jalapeno slaw.

K and I watched from the back of the room and we, among many others, watched as our numbers passed by the as the winning picks. One by one, we all would groan when our chances floated by, but two people in that room maintained an almost odd sense of calm. Kiko and her Dad Larry listened intently as the numbers continued to be called. Keith and I looked at each other as it wound down to two numbers up for the grand prize of $3000....Larry and my coworker Megan. Our jaws hit the floor when Larry's number was called and he won the grand prize (pictured receiving his prize from Elms GM Eric). The only ones who seemed utterly serene in the moment of winning were Kiko and Larry. The day of the barbecue, after all, was also Pat's birthday and to them the perfect karma of Larry winning on that day was meant to be.

A week later, Misty and her family attended the Rotary breakfast where all of the proceeds would be presented to her. Misty was gobsmacked to learn that in addition to the funds raised by the ticket sales, Larry had donated his grand prize money back to her.

Perfect karma, indeed. Karmic moment noted, respected and savored. Carry on, Autumn.