Sunday, November 25, 2012

Drunken Noodles and Tap Dogs

A recent excursion out with K and a couple of Posse gals yielding some entertaining Aussies and some seriously tasty Thai.  On a recent afternoon, we followed a viewing of the touring company of Tap Dogs with some colorful cuisine at Lulu's Thai Noodle ShopTap Dogs was a bit of a kick but the true steel-toed boot to the behind came courtesy of the fiery chilies laden within that flavorful Thai.

Tap Dogs is an Australian dance company that creates a fairly electrifying tap-dance show that stays true to its industrial beginnings.  Originally created in an Australian steel town by frustrated dancers who had taken on industrial jobs while looking for dancing gigs, its a phenomenon of tap-dancing energy.  I got a particular kick out of the power tools that were used, and was thinking that Dad would have gotten a charge out of the welding sequences.  The show was also appropriately 80 minutes long, as the tapping was impressive but could've worn thin had it gone on too long.  Of course, we also revel in any opportunity to hang at the always bra-zilliant Kauffman Performing Arts Center and to finally get to hang up in the mezzanine.

Soon thereafter we landed at local hotspot on Central Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop just a few blocks away.  Long ago in a galaxy far, far away I mentioned that (and indeed still) to this day the K-Man had not experienced Thai food. I think he'd built up a deep-set fear of the spicy unknown and what said unknown might do to corrode his ever-sensitive internal gears.  He also has since insisted he has eaten Thai but sadly was just confusing it with Indian food which is a faux pas on many levels.  Whatevs, he's here now, so let's get him saddled up with some  Thai apps...

The girls and I first ventured into ordering the house bubble teas, as I had always wanted to try them.  Bubble teas are also known as pearl milk teas and were invented in Taiwanese tea shops in the 80's.  The tea base is mixed with milk and often fruit.  At the bottom of each of these teas are tapioca balls or the "pearls" in question.  Kiko and I got the honeydew flavors and Deb sampled a mango-flavored alcoholic version with added vodka.  The conversation starting dissolving into expected lewdness with the mention of the hazard of possibly choking on the balls, so thankfully the starters were landing.

We kicked off with build-them-yourself-Thai lettuce wraps that featured a savory ginger-peanut sauce.  The highlight of the appetizers for me, though, was the featured off-the-menu tofu sliders....thinly sliced, Thai-barbecued tofu topped with housemade tangy pickles and a delicious cilantro chimichurri sauce.  Keith chose the Lulu's-favorite Drunken Noodles (light, wide rice noodles tossed with peppers, Chinese broccoli, Thai basil, scallions, lemongrass and egg) as his entree and enjoyed it while I delighted in my senses-clearing Blazing Wok Bowl (same noodles tossed with jalapenos, Chinese black beans, scallions and Napa cabbage).  Kiko loved her off-the-menu special entree...quinoa with fried spinach and pineapple.  For dessert, we all shared a Thai street food ice cream sandwich (a centerpiece of Christopher Elbow's Glace fried banana ice cream served in a spiky sweet bun) and agreed that it was a marvel, despite the spiky bun reminding us of cow udders.  This comparison, of course, speaks more to our juvenile humor then the preparation of the bun....hence the reason we got such a chuckle from the server earnestly asking us if we would have enjoyed Tap Dogs more had we been high. 

Good tap, good Thai, good times!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012: Pumpkin Shots and Random Pinecones

It seemed to approach so rapidly this year and before we knew it, the celebration of all things turkey, trimmings and gratitude was starting to formulate. Work stress had been like sharp static sparking my addled brain right up until the day itself and I struggled with coming home each evening and unraveling my mind enough to settle into helping Keith prep for the week.  Thanksgiving has a bit of magic it to it, though and slowly but surely, it would weave its subtle spell on me.
We were hosting again this year after having originally planned to dine with everyone at the Thanksgiving buffet hosted by our workplace, the newly renovated Elms Hotel and Spa.  Eventually, we chose to have it at our home again and while much of our thoughts would be with the hotel hosting their first Thanksgiving shindig since re-opening; it would be difficult to relax and not worry about what was going on around us.  So settle into the prep routine of our own dinner we did...

The bird was brined with the greatest of care (with lemons and brown sugar and rosemary to spare); the mushrooms were deglazed with brandy not sipped and the vodka was infused with cinnamon, nutmeg and pumpkin soon to be nipped.  Yes, a mason jar of pumpkin pie, crust and all, along with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg was created for a pumpkin pie shots that needed to marinate for a week. We nibbled on appetizers of the beloved feta dip (made from cream cheese, feta, garlic and green chilies) and Puppy Chow (not the canine food, but a sweet treat made from rice cereal and melted chocolate that the kids love). Sierra made lovely placecards for the table.   Soon, said bird would be deep-fried to juicy and crispy perfection. There were other newcomers to the tabletop as well: diminutive and cozily satisfying Parmesan and pine-nut biscuits from the King Arthur Flour Whole Wheat cookbook and Southern-flecked asparagus bundles from a Trisha Yearwood recipe (found here) because why just settle for a healthy serving of asparagus when you can get it made with brown sugar and wrapped in bacon?  The highlights would be from both of our late Aunt Bonnie's cherished homemade noodles (which Keith nailed this time; I'm convinced my dear aunt may have lent a heavenly hand from Above ) and Sierra's first Thanksgiving meal contribution; sweet and tasty little raspberry cheesecakes.

In the end, after the fabulous meal and pumpkin pie shots (served in shot glasses rimmed in brown sugar and topped with nutmeg-dusted homemade whipped cream) were ingested, I was helping clean up and as I looked around and couldn't help but smile at the aftermath. The remainder of the magic noodles from my Aunt Bonnie's recipe in a bowl gifted to us by my bestie Kristy, the deep-fried bird on the gorgeous Sur La Table platter we got from the Leathermans, the green beans in the beautiful Polish pottery we were gifted from the Burnsides.  The door was open to the still-balmy breezes and outside the majestic sounds of the chimes that were gifts from family and friends both near and far were wafting in the air.  It felt as if so many loved ones had a hand in this one meal.  I even dropped a bite of stuffing down the front of my shirt, which I took as Dad smiling down on us and wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving,

The next day, as the kids were piled on me while we watched The Avengers on DVD, the true joy of this holiday was truly washing over me.  Gathered with family safe and sound in our home, warm against the ever-chillier wind blowing outside, I was grateful for so much.  I am so very thankful for all of our blessings.  The day before, I had pinned young Sierra's homemade Thanksgiving card on the refrigerator the day before and in it there were little pop-ups representing the turkey and love and family and...a pinecone.  I asked Sierra what the pinecone was for and she said, "it's just random".  Indeed, the "random" stuff like work and life stress...and pinecones...all tend to get in the way of what Thanksgiving is about.  When we had breakfast at the hotel with Gerald Dickens after his performance last week, he commented how impressed he has always been with the American tradition of Thanksgiving and how it has managed to avoid the commercialization of so many of our other holidays and remain primarily about gathering with loved ones.  Thanksgiving does seem to be threatened to be swallowed by Christmas madness, but still it remains relatively pure in its simplicity.

I am so very grateful for our family and friends and the continued blessing of being able to share a wonderful Thanksgiving meal with loved ones.  I wish everyone good blessings over the holidays....random pinecones and all.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Deliciously Dickens

The pudding was "like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of a half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top".  So lovingly described Charles Dickens the Christmas pudding that concluded the Cratchit's dramatic holiday meal in his holiday classic A Christmas Carol.  I was most fortunate to once again watch this scene, among many others, unfold from a masterful one-man performance by one man who ought to know it: his great, great grandson Gerald.  Indeed, our friend Gerald had returned to my workplace, the Elms Hotel and Spa, for another glorious performance and its a time we look forward to every year.

I should say ALMOST every year, but this year came sooner than usual as we fell out of Gerald's rotating performing schedule due to being closed this time last year for renovations.  No matter, it's always a distinct pleasure to have Gerald back with us, and this year we got a bit of extra time with him, which is rare.  First, a dinner at Excelsior Springs local favorite Ventana Cafe, where over spicy pasta and a shared slice of homemade caramel-pecan cheesecake, Gerald entertained us with tales of his ever-fascinating life 'round London and on tour, including such riveting subjects as Olympic fever, Prince Harry and the breathtaking highlight of his past year: meeting the Queen during the Dickens 200th birthday celebration.  The next day would be the performances themselves; one, a matinee over afternoon tea and the second in the evening; interwoven with a five-course dinner created by our Executive Chef Steven Cameron.

Aside from the usual anticipation of seeing Gerald perform, we were looking forward to watching the event in the newly renovated elegance of the Grand Ballroom at the Elms.  I personally, of course, was salivating over the traditional Victorian-era menu for the evening.  We sat with the Bisbee clan and Gerald himself, when he wasn't on stage.  Speaking of the stage, it was a kick for us to see the stained-glass lamp Keith made as part of the backdrop for Gerald.  As for Gerald, he began weaving his spell on said stage, masterfully bringing voice to each of his great, great grandfather's characters and we once again found ourselves utterly enthralled despite having seen this performance time and again.  As he finished the first chapter, or "stave" as Dickens himself called them, the courses began....

First were passed hors d'oeurves consisting of chicken liver pate on toast, mushroom and stilton tartletts and my favorite, a traditional British appetizer of Devils on Horseback, or bacon-wrapped dates.  These were served with sips of either traditional wassail or mulled spiced cider.  We opted for the clove-laden wassail and found it a spicy treat.   The next course was a warming cup of Beef Consomme Jardiniere filled with savory broth and fresh , crunchy egetables and a heaping basket of flaky and fabulous currant biscuits with a tangy housemade lemon curd.  Once we had met the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, the third course arrived; light and flavorful Herb-Roasted Oysters on the Half-Shell with a Champagne Mignonette (sauce with minced shallots, cracked pepper and vinegar).  I so enjoyed those tender oysters and that amazing mignonette sauce that I kept scraping the shell, apparently hoping more might materialize, but alas.  After the next grave chapter featuring the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, the main course of Sausage and Cranberry Stuffed Turkey Ballotine (meaning boned, stuffed, rolled and tied in a bundle) with Glazed Carrots, Fingerling Potatoes, crispy roasted Brussel Sprouts and Missouri Pecans would arrive to comfort us.  We were fairly and deliriously stuffed ourselves after this delectable treat but were bound and determined to hang until Scrooge reached his epiphany so that we could experience dessert.  What a dessert it was, too...Figgy Toffee Pudding with Roasted Apples and Brandy Anglaise.  The "pudding" was a moist and spongy cake made with figs and served with beautifully crispy apples and topped with that sweet anglaise; a light, creamy pouring custard made with brandy.  It was a perfect ending to a magnificent meal and paired with that happy ending we all crave from every performance of A Christmas Carol.

Gerald Dickens was as brilliant as ever, but my pride came from that truly lovely meal created by Chef Steven and his hard-working crew.  It was the kind of meal Charles might have written quite lovingly about.

"turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, suckling-pigs, long wreathes of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, red hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes and seething bowls of punch that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam". -the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present

The opinions here are my own and do not represent the Elms Hotel and Spa.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Weekend of Janes; A Night on the Veranda

Some sweetly sublime evenings with the Posse of night was hosted by Posse member Jane in her and husband Rick's lovely home and a week later we kicked back with them again on an oddly balmy November eve.  Good food and friendship were as usual, the orders of the day.  The first weekend was indeed a weekend of Janes.  The first night was a Posse bang-up at Jane's in Liberty.  Jane and Rick whipped up a gobsmacking amount of grub ("we can't cook small") on our visit, no doubt.  After being completely charmed by their adorable pup, we dug into the various starters like bacon -wrapped herbed potatoes, goat cheese, honey and walnut tartlets and spinach-and feta-laden spanikopita.  We then split up amongst two dining rooms and reveled in each others' tales (particularly the ones from Kiko and Deb's recent Cabo sojourn) while soaking up the comfort of Jane's many homemade soups: creamy seafood chowder, bright tomato bisque and hearty steak.  Served with gooey grilled cheese sandwiches and phyllo-wrapped pesto bites, we were plenty soothed by this deeply satisfying meal.  Accompanied by the jeroboam of fine red wine supplied by Jane's son-in-law (thanks, JJ), this was a perfect meal for the growing chill in the air.The chill wasn't pervasive, though, as the next day was quite beautiful when we ventured to see another friend named Jane.  We went to help her get her gutters and rooftops cleared off for winter.  Lovely Jane fixed a perfectly pleasant lunch of croissant sandwiches, pimento-lined celery and my absolute Jane Durr favorite, her righteous deviled eggs.  Jane regaled us, as usual, with frequently ribald and hilarious tales from her colorful life.  Multiple Janes are a good thing to have in life.

The following week the strangely summer-ish feel held on for one last night as the Posse re-gathered to hang with our gal Carolyn at her home.  Jim worked his usual magic in the kitchen and brought forth his monstrously good lasagna, my beloved buttery foccacia bread and the always anticipated feta dip but the big surprise of the evening was mine and Keith's discovery of our darlin' Deb's amazing homemade pies.  All of the desserts were good, from Charlotte's brownies to Bunchie's pumpkin bread but as anyone there would tell you, Deb's pecan and apple pies were to die for.  Girlfriend could open a bakery right now and be an instant success, if you ask me.

We all spent that night on the screened-in back porch with Carolyn and her nurse.  The evening was brisk but beautiful and Carolyn seems to improve with every visit.  Nothing beats that radiant smile of hers, for sure.  The next morning the temps had plummeted to the thirties and we drove to the movies in pouring sleet to catch the latest Bond flick (which was awesome by the way).  The last couple of weeks were a great way to close out some lingering Indian summer.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Profound Thoughts of a Fool in Mozambique

Folks, one of my greatest wishes in life is to become a more accomplished traveler and writer.  I also hope one day to better emulate my father who truly walked the walk of being a better human being by simply being compassionate and helping his fellow man.  It sure is easy to wish and dream about what- ifs, but my brother-in-law Dave, like my father, actually did something about it.  Dave recently returned from a mission sojourn in Mozambique, Africa doing the good work of Habitat for Humanity. I asked Dave that upon returning, he write about some of his experiences in Africa, particularly relating to food.  As only Dave could, he captured both the joys and perils of eating in a faraway land.

Now, Dave has a blog of his own called Profound Thoughts of a Fool.  I encouraged him to start the blog a while back just like I encouraged him to write about Africa.  Dave tends to sell himself short regarding his writing skills but I truly believe Dave possesses one of those rare, slice-of-life voices that needs to be heard.  As he will tell you, he thinks his writing more "low-brow" than mine, but I suppose that depends on your perspective.  I frankly think he's just braver than I am and I admire his ability to tell it like it is.  Therefore, I wanted to share his astounding experience in Africa in his own, unique words.  Please click here and read the post before it as well to get a vivid, striking and often damn funny recount of his brief but powerfully life-changing time in Mozambique...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Ricky and Lucy Reunion In Asheville

Our next stop was, at the time of our visit, ablaze with gorgeous autumnal color and would, like our other vacay locales, later deal with the extreme effects of Hurricane Sandy and be covered in several inches of snow.  It was a lovely evening when we did arrive, though, and I was most excited to arrive in Asheville, North Carolina for various reasons.... 

Asheville is a very special town to me.  Both of my sisters lived here at one time in their lives and Keith and I also visited previously and remembered a lovely little visit touring the stunning Biltmore Estate; adoring our vegetarian hempnut burgers at Laughing Seed Cafe, strolling the aisles at Malaprops, one of my all-time favorite bookstores.  This magical little burg is a mix of many of my personally preferred attributes: a town of seemingly boundless creativity in every aspect that still pays great tribute to its history and all of it surrounded by majestic natural beauty.  How fitting that this would be the home of one of my favorite people; my dear friend Erica. 

I've spoken of Erica before; of how she's the niece of my friend Kaki; how I would be instantly enchanted by her 9-year-old self at her family's home in Boston many years ago; how she would decide then that I inexplicably resembled Ricky Ricardo and that we would then became Ricky and Lucy for life.  I would send her a rose from "Ricky" to her school when we left Boston and more than a decade later, she would appear at my father's funeral in West Virginia bearing a rose for me in return.  She once wrote a fascinating letter to me recounting the many dining rituals of Africa where she was serving in the Peace Corps that I posted on this blog.  I have said often and continue to believe she is one of those young people who give me great and powerful hope for the future.

We met at her workplace and favorite hangout Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company.  Erica gave us a tour of the facilities and let me just say this eccentric and awesome hangout and wicked-cool tribute to the movies would be my hangout too, if I lived near here. Tiles that serve as mini-film posters are everywhere, the walls are covered in cinematic memorabilia and the bathroom doors were adorned with life-size renderings of the Nic Cage and Holly Hunter characters from Coen Brothers classic Raising Arizona.   The theater was showing 3$ flicks and that night the girls were looking to make a later showing of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. What could possibly improve this way-cool movie house but house-brewed beer and excellent pizza?  Yes, that tasty Ninja Porter was a fine start and the pizza was indeed excellent: the Shear Delight came with pesto sauce, portobello mushrooms, walnuts, gorgonzola mushrooms and sesame-seed crust and we reveled in it.  Our girl Erica remains as delightful as ever and we also met her equally fabulous roommate Blake as well and they joined us for dinner.  It was a relatively quick catch-up before our decrepit behinds needed to shuffle off to the hotel and those darling girls were off to their flick. 

Lightning-quick that it was, even a small taste of Asheville and a short visit with the ever-enchanting Erica is tonic for my cynical soul. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Vacationing in Virginia; Pre- Frankenstorm

What a difference a couple of weeks make.  Not all that long ago, Keith and I had just departed the spectacularly tranquil and sunlit locale of Lewisburg, WV to embark on a clear, colorful and scenic Autumn drive to coastal Virginia where after several hours we would kick back and chill before getting some much-needed R and R for a couple of days.  Who would guess (other than trained meteorologists) that a week-and-a-half later Lewisburg would be under a blizzard warning and Virginia Beach would be battening down the hatches in preparation for an approaching Frankenstorm 2012?
Said superstorm did approach of course, and do lasting and historic damage to New York City, New Jersey and many other areas.  The mountains of my home state West Virginia were buried under several feet of snow including some of the areas we had driven through but a couple of weeks prior.  I'm glad my hometown was spared the power outages after the exhausting post-storm issues they had dealt with earlier in the year.  Newport News, Virginia, where we were staying, would end up experiencing heavy rain and flooding.  We certainly wish everyone well with the cleanup efforts and our thoughts are with so many who weathered this brutal weather.
Our weather was thankfully tranquil when we were in Virginia.  After breakfast in Newport News, we moseyed to colonial Williamsburg on a crystal-clear day.  We strolled through the picturesque historic town, admiring the period costumes and horse-drawn coaches.  Williamsburg is almost eerily evocative of early to mid-1770's life.  We walked through bountiful gardens where the groundskeeper spoke of the artichokes that weren't yet known to the general public, but were demanded to have in stock by the wealthier citizens in those days.  The various signage for food and beverage establishments and inns were unique and as charming as the restored buildings themselves.  Lunch involved some supremely flavorful noshes from the Cheese Shop, a boisterous gourmet shop, sandwich eatery and paean to all things cheese.  This place was packed with tourists and William and Mary students alike and with good reason.  I am, undoubtedly, a great fan of gourmet foods and it is not unusual to see me perusing the actual order guides from friends' shops. Thinking myself fairly knowledgeable regarding various food lines, the Cheese Shop reminded me that I clearly had no idea at all.  Amongst the seemingly endless shelves of bountiful gourmet food lines, I recognized only one: Stonewall Kitchen.  Of course, this realization is completely exciting to much more to try!  As for those sandwiches, well, its no wonder they've been written about from the New York Times to Frommer's. These sandwiches are made from the freshest of meats, cheeses and ingredients and the breads are baked daily.  The taste indeed told the tale: mine was a creamy chicken salad with Applewood bacon on fresh rye bread and Keith's was the veggie with edam on delicious foccaccia bread and we swooned over both.  Paired with Joe's salt and vinegar chips and frosty root beer from local historic Chowning's Tavern, it was a fabulous lunch to launch us through the rest of our day.  We did miss what I would later find to be the Cheese Shop's specialty ....a Dijonnaise-style house dressing eaten with bread ends that is famous among William and Mary alumni.  We finished off the afternoon at the wonderful Spice and Tea Exchange where we would pick up a sugar sampler, their signature spice blend and hazelnut-cookie tea.

Later that evening, we sought out the one thing I was most desiring since going coastal: fresh seafood.  After an exhaustive Yelp search, we chose a local crab shack by the name of Harpoon Larry's Oyster Bar.  Yelp is greatly helpful for many reasons and here was one big one...if you pull by this divey little joint, you might think it a fun place to kick back with a frosty brew, but fresh seafood?  Hmmmm. Fully sold by the giant lobster atop the beater van in the parking lot, we ventured inside and divey it sure was.  In fact, as we sat down I would see it was voted one of the best seafood dives in the nation according to a framed write-up on the wall and soon, we would see why.  The service was casual and friendly and that first chilled glass of Chesapeake Pale Ale set the tone.  K is not an oyster fan but I sure am and was sure I'd be getting some on the half-shell though as I was reading the menu offerings of Rockefeller-style (butter sauce and bread crumbs) and Casino-style (bacon, green onion and cayenne) and was pondering those options when I overheard a local conversation where a patron said Harpoon Larry's was one of the few spots that fried oysters were the "bomb".  What the hell then,  and so I got them fried with a blackened crab cake, hush puppies, and cole slaw.  The meal arrived quickly and wow, was it worth the wait.  The slaw was perfectly crisp and tasty and those big Hog Island oysters were lightly pan-fried and delicious but that crab cake...lightly blackened and filled with crabmeat was one of the best crab cakes Keith and I either one had ever had.  I wanted to descend on that limb and say it was THE best, but I seem to remember that this one in Annapolis, Maryland was crazy-damn tasty so I held off.  All in all, we were sold and how -all hail Harpoon Larry's and never will I underestimate the seafood dives again!

We closed our day out with a drive to the coast and watched the night sky descend over the water as military helicopters and spy planes flew out from nearby Langley Air Force Base.  A perfect end to a damn-near perfect day in then-peaceful Virginia Beach.

Then, as I mentioned before, Hurricane Sandy of course descended and havoc ensued up and down the coast.  Also, as I mentioned before, our thoughts are with those in the Northeast who have suffered so much, including one of our favorite cities, New York.  Click here to learn how to help those in need.