Monday, December 30, 2013

A Comforting Taste of Home

The most recent journey to my hometown of St. Marys, West Virginia yielded some much sought-out comfort food.  Every bit of it provided tastes, textures, aromas and even the look of something deliciously familiar.  Some reminded me of my childhood, others were new flavors that I now associate with going home.  Every bite was like wrapping myself in a one-of-a-kind security blanket like none else.

Many of the bites that remind me of childhood are happily still available.  Mister Bee potato chips was founded in 1951 in Parkersburg, WV and is a crisp, salty chip that I've been noshing on since I was a kid.  This company, while having struggled in recent years, remains a prime example of small business made good.  The perfect accompaniment to these chips is of course, Broughton's creamy Chip Dip.  Broughton's dairy was founded in 1910 and remains the go-to local dairy.  I also reveled in a return taste to a hometown pizza that is truly beloved to me from childhood.  Pizza Place is a pizzeria that I first encountered in its home in the Grand Central Mall.  One bite of that thick-crust Sicilian style (corner slice, please) pie and I was swooning.  I hadn't had it in so long and one bite reminded me of lunches with friends, high-school band outings and so much more.  Finally, we had a quick lunch with our beloved Lydia at the Town House in Marietta.  We noshed on French Onion soup and Buffalo chicken salad while I perused the place...its always interesting to see in the less-than-light-of-day here as it is far more familiar when it is elbow-to-elbow, pitch dark, really loud and reeking of beer as it was during many an unwieldy nighttime sojourn in my more wayward youth....

On this last trip to St. Marys, I was introduced to a new taste of home by someone I had grown up with by the name of Denette. Thanks to Kristy who gave me the heads up (and assistance from Facebook), we were fortunate to get a lovely gift basket from Denette filled with mason jars of homemade pickled beets, salsa, and apple butter and all were wonderful.  Such a thoughtful surprise, but not really shocking as this is just one example of how the good neighbors of St. Marys treat each other.  Some newer and now treasured tastes of home come from Chams, the Lebanese restaurant that Kristy turned me onto. This food is homemade Lebanese cuisine that stirs the senses with its delectable aromas and nourishing flavors, from a family that clearly prides itself on its dishes. The bright, lemony fava beans are outright soul-nourishing and this last time I got to try the lamb shawarma, which was so filling and flavorful.  No wonder the Avengers sought out shawarma after saving the world from an alien invasion.

The allure would be lost on many for some of the homegrown items I sought, such as the six ham sandwiches wrapped in plastic that are found only at the Food Giant grocery store in St. Marys.  Indeed, they are rather plain, each with thinly-sliced ham and a slice of American cheese on a bun.  These sandwiches are burned in my memory, though, as they were bought on many a week for my father to take for his lunch to work when I was a kid.  I would watch as each one was packed in his square, black plastic "pail" (as Dad would call it) along with the red plaid plastic Thermos filled with black coffee.  These would only count for the five work days of course, so Dad would always give me the sixth ham sandwich.  Dad worked a long hours at at tough job and when I was young, I would eat that sixth ham sandwich and imagine myself working alongside him, precariously balanced on a steel beam at his ironworking job.  Eating one of these sandwiches now continues to evoke memories of Dad; now even more treasured as we lost him a couple of years ago.  I will probably be treating myself to these somewhat plain ham sandwiches for the rest of my return trips home.

The power of hometown food is precious to me and so welcome with every return trip.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Mud House and The Bonkers Museum

The hometown journey in November resulted in a return trip to KC that was a lively one thanks to some well-chosen stops on the way.  After a brief but soothing stop in Columbus, Ohio at our favorite German Village bookstore (the Book Loft) and some delightful noshes at a boisterous eatery called the Brown Bag Deli (highly recommend the Spice of Life:corned beef, scallions, cream cheese, Batampte mustard and onions on a crusty French roll), we rolled on westward and settled in for an overnight in St Louis.

St Louis was a kick and it kicked off with a sunny beginning at colorful coffeehouse The Mud House.  Over a steaming Cubano espresso, I took in the eccentric surroundings (like the MJ print and hidden plastic doll above) and soaked up my breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, hearty black bean chili and greens.
 Soon, we were off to the main event which was the most utterly bonkers museum I had ever experienced: the City Museum.  There is not a more apt description of this one-of-a-kind marvel than the one the museum itself provides..."an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects."  It's breathtaking at once when you enter the grounds....the whooshes of spiraling slides, the precariously balanced school bus on the top corner of the roof.  We weave our way from corridor to corridor, floor to floor and soon realize it is virtually impossible to traverse unless you do it as the "natives" do.  Climb ladders, plummet down slides, crawl through tunnels and caves. Hang out and find munchies at the Shrine of Shameless Hucksterism.
City Museum is a delirious interactive ride of a museum and should be experienced by everyone who's in the area.  We finally gave our senses a break by stopping for a treat of mini hot, sugared donuts called GoNuts courtesy of City Museum's concession masters Samwiches.  This might not have been a wise choice as we immediately followed noshing on these chocolate and sprinkle-covered treats by heading to upstairs to see the rooftop Ferris wheel before hurtling down a ten-floor tall spiral slide, but oh, what a perfect ending to this brilliantly bizarro experience.  Keith's cousin summed up City Museum in a nutshell: it's like "an artist's dream".

Later on down the road, we soaked up the last of the balmy fall weather on the patio at Flat Branch Brewery in Columbia where I reflected on this fun-filled trip while sipping on a Katy Trail Pale Ale....I was ready to do it all again.

The Birthday Girls

I've had the distinct pleasure of sharing in significant celebrations with two of my favorite girls recently.  Keith's sister Kim and her daughter Sierra both marked birthdays recently and in fact, Kim's was a milestone.  I feel a significant bond with these two as members of my extended family...after all, the first family celebration I would share with this family was Sierra's christening, several moons ago.  This year, we celebrated in style both at the lake with Kim and here in KC with Sierra.

Kim's celebration occurred during some blessedly balmy September weather at the lake.  One serene day aboard the Winge boat had us sipping Bloody Marys at a lakeside joint complete with ginormous fans on the ceiling and a cockatoo that will perch on your shoulder.  The day of her actual birthday saw some soft rain and was an actual surprise for her as we all waited in the cabin garage for her to arrive.  Kim celebrated her milestone surrounded by love and family and well she should; she has so much to be proud of; has achieved much and yet remains a helluva fabulous sister(and sister-in-law), mother, wife and human being that one could hope to know.

Kim's daughter Sierra had a whimsical weekend party with us here in KC in November.  Cousin Jill, her husband Chris and their girls also joined us as we descended on the Crown Center area.  The kids got lost in a sea of color and lights in a literally crafty space called Kaleidoscope that was created by Hallmark, whose HQ is here in KC.  From glow-in-the-dark painting to making your own greeting cards and puzzles, Kaleidoscope was a dizzying colorful palette that Sierra reveled in before we moved on to the more sedate space of the KC Sea Life Aquarium, serenely following the watery world of various ocean dwellers. Our food for the day ranged from some New York- style slice at D'Bronx in Crown Center to the homemade feta dip we made for the birthday girl that we enjoyed on the poker table in the Capone Suite at the Elms where the family stayed.

Our birthday girls were feted in fine fashion.  Here's to many more celebrations of this dynamic mother and daughter duo to come...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Challenge

I suppose that I could go song-and-dance into the multitude of reasons I haven't been writing, but in the spirit of recent learning experiences, I will instead choose to move forward and just say, "Hey! We all busy, right?"  Writing is something centering and cathartic for me though, so I've been searching for a way to get back to it and have it be more feasible for my revved up life.  Leave it to my better half, the K-Man, to challenge me to return to it by appealing to my basest guilt-ridden instincts: he asked as part of his birthday present from me to meet the challenge of writing and posting on the blog every day until the end of 2014.  Every. Day. What a challenge this will be...the primary reason for NOT doing it after all, is the ever-busier routine of my life and the resulting addled stir-fry of a brain said life has been creating.

So how do I answer the challenge?  I'm going for changing it up. When particularly inspired, I will frame my posts in the storytelling style I've done in the past, but for the most part and in order to meet the challenge, I'm planning to evoke more of a Tumblr style micro-blog.  Keith is actually challenging me toward changing up the blog in even more dramatic style, but this remains to be seen....

The posts will be shorter for the most part, much more random and less linear.  The song remains the same however; my life with a food theme, and even this is a challenge as food blogs are clearly moving past the saturation point.  Mine is a personal blog though, and whether it be cool or uncool to write about and photograph food these days, food remains my most powerful passion, not just because I love to eat but because as I've written before, I love the stories that accompany them and how these tales and dishes tie into our life.

K and I will also go into 2014 challenging ourselves personally and professionally.  When I started The Confounded Cook, I had several goals in mind, mostly to start writing again and that I achieved and have maintained for the last four years.  I had other shorter-term goals such as getting healthier and quitting smoking.  I'm happy to say I haven't smoked in nearly three years and K and I have ran two 5ks in the past couple of years.  2014 is a milestone year for a couple of reasons, so change is in the air once again and among our personal challenges are training for more runs.

 To kick it off are photos from our wonderful and delicious 2013 Thanksgiving shared with new faces such as South African university student Erick who joined us (and survived) the signature blessed revelry that is our family gatherings.  The dishes include Keith's dark chocolate cake, bacon-wrapped and Parmesan-dusted breadsticks, and Dave's take on the restaurant Black-Eyed Pea's stuffing.

So,can I meet the challenge?  How much change will there be?  Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tasty Travels on the Posse Trail; Brought to You By The Letter J

Scattered amongst the non-stop madness of our recent weeks were some tasty moments surrounded by our beloved Posse gang.  The boisterous laughter and delicious food that always accompanies these outings is a powerful tonic for these stressful days.  These are some of the flavorful highlights of recent Posse hangs:

Justus Drugstore's Burgers and Beignets   - Only second in preference after making joyous new flavor discoveries is returning to some tried and true eats.  Justus Drugstore in Smithville is one of my favorite restaurants in the metro area because I think Jonathan Justus truly knows how to create a deeply satisfying dining experience with the restaurant's triumvirate of creative cocktails, informative, attentive service and truly sublime dishes.  I also enjoy the fact that you can hang outside in the all-weather patio area for a more low-key (and lower-priced) but equally satisfying experience.  I had two of my faves: that killer housemade veggie burger with Shatto cheese on fresh-baked buns that remains the best veggie burger I've ever had; and  those marvelous carrot cake beignets that Keith and I split.  It also wouldn't be a Justus visit without sampling one of those imaginative cocktails.  This night's chosen elixir was the Malus Aforethought (the name I'm assuming is a riff on an antiquated legal term called malice aforethought meaning premeditation) or as the menu moniker stated, the "cocktail geek's delight".  This concoction was a blend of Laird's applejack, Aalborg aquavit, yellow chartreuse liqueur, lemon juice, celery bitters and fresh sage.  This was our last night on the Justus patio for awhile, so this was just the perfect kind of bright and complex cocktail to sip as the crisp fall air was settling in.  It was Carl's birthday at his favorite local eatery, so all was well.

The Orange Julian-Drenched Sunday Brunch - I had long been eager to try out Brookside restaurant Julian partly due to the fact it is the favorite of our friends Ken and Renee, but mostly due to the reputation of owner and executive chef Celina Tio.  Ms. Tio is a James Beard award-winning chef who has done stints on both Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef.  The Posse gathered for a fine Sunday brunch here recently and it was quite good.  Several of us kicked off brunch with the signature cocktail called the Orange Julian: a creamy blend of Ketel One Oranje, cream, vanilla and fresh orange juice that tasted like the cocktail version of the childhood Push-Up bars
we used to get from Dink's concession stand at the county park.  Other brunch cocktails offered were the Caraway Bloody Mary and the Grapefruit Mimosa.  The childhood memories didn't stop with the libation as our gift from the chef as well as my entree was the breakfast poutine.
 Poutine is a common Canadian dish of french fries and gravy with cheese curds.  I discovered french fries with gravy at the Hi-Way Grille in my hometown as a child and it's a cozy food memory for me for certain.  Chef Tio's poutine certainly achieves comfort-food nirvana with eggs your way and a peppery gravy over the fries with Shatto cheese curds melted through.  Everyone enjoyed their dishes such as starters like the flaky bacon and scallion scones and sugary ginger doughnut holes as well as entrees like the crispy pork shoulder and the tofu scramble with roasted veggies. 
 I didn't get to meet Chef Tio on this visit, but she is one very busy chef as she has opened another eatery in downtown KC called The Collection and the menu sure sounds appealing, particularly the calamari that king-of-all-KC-critics Charles Ferruzza calls 'the best he's ever had".  Can't wait to check it out...

Japanese and Honey-Wasabi Mayo in Sushi on a Wicked Afternoon - Thanks to our show diva Kiko, I had the at-long-last opportunity to see the national tour of Wicked when it came to the Music Hall recently.  You would think there might be at least a twinge of disappointment after such a drawn-out anticipation lasting many years, but indeed, it was a gorgeous dream of a show with great songs, relentless humor and a top-notch production value.  We followed that day-glo scenario and replaced with another for our post-show meal: Drunken Fish at the Power and Light district.
 The eye-popping environment of this sushi place includes lighted crimson tables and pop art on the walls. We were seated in an oversized curved table next to the DJ booth.  Sexy trance music reverbed off the walls but wasn't intrusive, it seemed to settle with the vibe of the place.

The sushi was as sexy as the decor, especially our Starburst Roll, a colorful mix of fresh crab, Japanese mayo, shrimp tempura, avocado, masago (roe) and tamago (grilled egg with rice vinegar) that was topped with honey-wasabi mayo and a spicy sauce all rolled up in bright pink soy paper.  As we savored our sushi, it came to my attention that our Wicked experience was not over...I thought that the well-dressed diners going up the stairs next to our booth looked familiar and then one particular woman really struck me.  It was Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, the star of the production we just watched!  More specifically, it was the actress who just took over the role on the national tour, accompanied by her mother!
 She was gracious and told us it was only her second performance as Elphaba, and she was smashing.  Jolly good show it was...and jolly good sushi as well.

Jim's Kitchen - Finally, several of we Posse crew gathered at our favorite eatery...Jim Schutte's kitchen.  We visited with Carolyn and shared Dove chocolates with her before supping on some classic Jim fare: spaghetti carbonara with freshly made pasta, Ceasar salad, creamy feta dip, buttery foccacia bread and the best damn cheesecake flan he's ever made and that's saying something.

Thank gracious goodness for these Posse outings.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Life, as I know it, has been rocketing by like a Japanese bullet train.  Much of it centers around the hotel and spa that is my place of business and as such the images whizzing by me may be fleeting, but lively, colorful and delicious as well.  Non-stop change and challenges abound but it's certainly never boring. However, amid the rapid-fire chaos of daily work life has been a nagging sensation that as exciting as it may be, life was passing me by too fast.  I have many blessings in life and while acknowledging this is easy, taking the time to count and truly appreciate these blessings seemed to be an occurrence that was equally fleeting.  How many times must I learn this persistent lesson; this painful lifelong perspective study of what the consequences could be when failing to stay in touch with the people that you cherish?  One more time, at least, it seems.

Flashes of the ever-changing hotel scene sailed by at a whiz-bang pace during the past few months.  The client event in the Regent Ballroom was a palette of fall mums, sunlit marble slabs showcasing beautiful nibbles like stuffed mushroom caps with smoked potato and Gruyere and avocado and peach salsa filled phyllo cups as well as tobacco guru Corey Frisbee rolling his signature Weston Tobacco cigars.
Then there was the five-course beer dinner highlighting local brews like Schafly's bottle-conditioned Biere de Garde, O'Fallon's Hemp Hop Ale and Boulevard's luscious Saison Brett.
 The annual Tables by Design event supporting the Good Samaritan Center saw the Grand Ballroom alive with charming decor including the emerald-hued tabletop from the Buckmans adorned with lanterns and limes.

Finally, our annual employee picnic turned the Elms grounds intoa giant playground of inflatable slides, badminton courts, crackling firepits with hovering s'mores, soft pretzels with homemade dipping sauces and our spa director's ever-entertaining Pyrosapiens troupe whipping fire whips and wielding flaming fans.

As it all progressed, summer had given way to fall, leaves were floating to the earth and the perfect fall weather was getting crisper by the day.  Then one day, Keith had gotten word of something we hadn't expected: our friend Torben Klarland had passed away.  Torben and Jytte Klarland were, along with the Nelsons, one of the earliest pioneers of the downtown Excelsior Springs renaissance.  I remember very clearly their lovingly appointed yet warm and inviting Scandinavian Country shop with its little upstairs bistro.  At Christmas, it was positively magical; strung with twinkle lights and adorned with whimsical touches from their native country.  Equally enchanting was their country home where we would visit every Christmas for their Toys for Tots party.  I've detailed these parties on this blog; when friends and family would pour in all day long bearing Toys for Tots gifts, graze from the long tables of homemade desserts (like the ever-present Black Forest cake) and stroll the grounds, watching the ever-entertaining llamas.  Now, years later, many of the familiar faces at those parties were gathered at the Klarland's home again, this time at their Lawrence, Kansas home and this time in a far more somber state.  They had moved to this home to be closer to their daughter and granddaughter Beargitta and of course, despite Lawrence only being an hour's drive away, it was enough distance to help create an inexcusably long several months since we had seen them.  So here we were now, moving about another gorgeously appointed home, circling another long table leaden with beautiful desserts while Jytte and her son-in-law (and our former hotel chef) Andy busily set up platters of sandwiches and pulled pork and cucumber salad.  The scene was so familiar and yet jarringly different due to the missing presence of Torben himself. After all, as lovely as their homes and shop may have been, they were only a reflection of the boundless charm that was Torben and Jytte themselves.  We joined our good friend John (another former Elms cohort) outside and made small talk while we quietly ate our meals in the beautiful backyard with its lush gardens. I met the gentle pastor who so perfectly eulogized Torben during the memorial service with his recounting of Torben's joy in sharing a good meal with cherished loved ones and his devotion for his family.  I would also find out this same pastor made the amazing cherry, pear and apple pie we enjoyed; made from fruits he raised himself.   How fitting this seemed...the pastor's recounting of that joy Torben had for sharing meals with loved ones reminded me of my father's love of the same and oh, how Dad would have loved this pie. 
I looked at so many of the familiar faces out in the back yard and remembered more carefree times... there was Kate and Karen by the tranquil pond and my mind was alive with memories of the lively wine and scotch tastings John would host and Andy would prepare hearty fare for at the hotel...there were the Nelsons and I'm picturing us with the Klarlands in their cozy home sipping wine and telling tales...I see the Gerdes and the Mooks and I think back to all of us at the Klarland's home at that Toys for Tots party.
 These memories start to fade as Jytte joins us to touchingly recount Torben's final days with us.  Still though, the memory of Torben is persistent, that gentle joyous bear of a man who hugged us all and started many a conversation with, " I want to tell you a story...".

This day was another perfect fall day; truly stunning in its crisp beauty.  This day was also sad and telling by its emptiness; the emptiness created by that missing presence.  Torben will be missed and he left a true legacy for all of us and that's how to devour life even when it seems unimaginably challenging.  Lessons like this as well as like the one that says to not let your loved ones fade from your life are persistently present. The question remains as to whether we choose to learn from them.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Wined Up at The Waterpark

Mr. K and I received an opportunity to attend the Village West Winefest in Wyandotte County, KS recently.  We knew little about this event outside of the fact that it benefited the Kansas Special Olympics and Wayside Waifs and intriguingly located near the Legends shopping mecca at Schlitterbahn Waterpark. This would be an interesting evening, methinks...

The Fest was sold out and thus packed to the gills once we had made our way past Schlitterbahn's oddball version of the Walmart greeters: Star Wars stormtroopers and sandpeople bearing laser weapons and posing with attendees.  Schlitterbahn Waterpark, just open a couple of years now, was adorned with creative ice sculptures and multiple booths offering over 200 wines and food from over 30 area restaurants.  And Winefest this may be, but more than 100 beers were also featured in the Rogers Liquors Beer Garden also.  We strolled around the many water features and rides; noshing on chips and salsa fromMargarita's and pork tenderloin sliders with sweet onion marmalade from Brancato's Catering.  Keith sipped on a local Moscato but the humidity drove me to seek out the brews, specificially s couple of offerings from beloved KC brewery Boulevard: first, the 80-Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer and their perfectly delightful Pop-Up Session IPA.  We caught up with our friend Miss Major was laying down some bluesy goodness with her band The Minor Mood Swings at the Fest. I finished off the night savoring a sip of Leavenworth brewery High Noon Saloon's Stampede Stout paired with a cannoli from Yard House Brewery while K and I chatted with a brewer from Gordon Biersch.   We departed the fest while the evening fireworks lit up the night sky, thinking that this oddball idea of attending a wine, food and beer fest in a waterpark in September might just be the perfect way to cap off the summer.