Tuesday, September 28, 2010

For Joey

Remember the Friends episode where the guys competed against the girls in a high stakes game show with their apartment as the coveted prize?  One of the "lightning round" questions inquired Joey's favorite food, and Monica instantly shot back, "sandwiches".  I totally get that, especially when it's a filthy (that's Ryan speak for really, really good) concoction served on a perfectly crusty roll with delicious sauces and toppings oozing everywhere as you dive in for your first bite.  It's not that messy always means good, but when it does turn out to be delicious, the mess factor just somehow takes it to the next level.

This sandwich was something to write home (or a blog) about.  I mean, it was amazing. Imagine this: spice rubbed flank steak grilled to perfection and sliced atop a toasted sourdough roll, piled high with smoky onions and zesty horseradish sauce.   Okay, now you need to stop imagining and walk to your kitchen to make it.  Forget calories or logistics or whatever might be inhibiting you and do this because I promise you'll thank me (I mean, Yahoo Shine Recipes) afterwards. 
My notes:  The recipe says to cook the steak on the stove.  Cook a steak indoors?  With my husband on the premises?  Not a chance.  He grilled (in the rain, friends) without hesitation, and I knew better than to ask any questions.  He put it to rest under its little tin foil blanket for 15 minutes while I sauteed some onions in my grandmother's cast iron skillet with a glorious sprinkling of the steak's spice mixture.  I actually turned up the heat at the end to add some char that just seemed necessary given the title of this sandwich (see the title in the recipe link below..haha).  As an aside, there is something soothing about cooking in a cast iron skillet, especially one that's been in the family for so long.  Thinking of all of the love that's gone into it over the years - and the yummyness it's yielding in that moment - evokes a lot of happiness for me.  Now if I could just remember to stop burning myself on the darn handle.  Anyway, for the sauce, I replaced about half of the required mayo with light sour cream and almost doubled the horseradish quantity.  Whether you employ my modifications or align with the recipe, you've so got to try this!!! http://www.shine.yahoo.com/channel/food/recipes/westward-ho-flank-steak-sandwiches-535947/  

Though this sandwich needed no enhancement, I prepared baked sweet potato fries to serve on the side.  This easy process is as follows: cut the potatoes into wedges, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, line up on a baking sheet (foil-line for no clean-up!), and roast for 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees.  Flip them half-way through for even browning. 

Monday, September 27, 2010


There's such a refreshingly relaxed vibe with old friends.  I was so happy to have two girls in town this weekend that I've known since the awkward days of 6th grade.  The visit was defined by lots of giggles, absolutely no schedule and an overdose of non-fussy food.  I made chocolate cheesecake in preparation for their arrival.  Lacking a springform pan, I made Marth's original recipe in a 9-inch Pyrex pie dish and was sort of surprised that the result was fine.  I mean, it looked like a cheesecake, just not as it's typically presented.  Though we didn't dive in for our full serving until we met the welcomed company of expandable pants, the couch, and a completely girly movie later that night, I'll tell you that that we added an impromptu slathering garnish of whipped cream, which I threw together with leftover heavy cream (courtesy of last weekend's key lime pie), sugar and a bit of vanilla extract.  I can't locate the cheesecake recipe online right now, and honestly, I think it's a sign.  Though it was decadently rich, I actually hoped for something more complex (or sweeter?  something? If it was entirely amazing on its own, why would feel compelled to add a mound dollop of whipped cream?).  I think this is what I'll try next time:  http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Deep-Dark-Chocolate-Cheesecake-236209

I love a nice bowl of something warm, especially as fall approaches (let's pretend it wasn't 95 degrees in Richmond that day).  For lunch, I made Japanese Chicken Scallion Rice Bowls.  These are super fast, delicately sweet, and satisfying enough to fill you up.  But get this- they are also LIGHT.  I highly recommend these, especially for a lady's lunch or an easy week night meal.  http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/japanese_chicken_scallion_rice_bowl.html

We dined out for dinner, literally following our noses to the location amidst a stroll down Cary Street.  Seriously, we were headed some place else but stopped when something smelled delicious at Thai Ginger. Crazy me - I actually asked a person sitting on the terrace what he was eating.  I could tell my girlfriends were slightly mortified, but I'm not regretful since it ensured we'd properly order the amazingly aromatic yellow curry!  It was spicy... the good kind of spice that hits you at the end after the other flavors - first sweet, then savory - have made their journey through the senses.  We took my favorite approach in sharing this dish, along with Thai cashew chicken, spicy basil beef, and fried tofu with peanut dipping sauce.  I expected a creamy peanut sauce as the accompaniment and was pleasantly surprised by a pool of dark broth with chopped peanuts swimming through it.  Sorry I didn't catch a picture of this.  I think we had sufficiently devoured it before the other stuff arrived.  

Despite forgetting to pick up ricotta at the store, I still stuck with my breakfast plan of a potato basil frittata to fill the girls' bellies before their drive home.  This is a fairly common go-to morning dish for me, because it's (most importantly) yummy, but also bakes in the oven to avoid any last minute running around.  By the way, while Gruyere cheese is totally the best, you can make this with whatever cheese you want.  That particular morning, I mixed sharp white cheddar with Swiss and added far more than the recipe suggested in an attempt to make up for the lack of uniquely textured ricotta with boldly flavored, cheesy gooeyness.  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/potato-basil-frittata-recipe/index.html

Though unrelated to the weekend, I'll share one more comfortable dish before I sign off.  It's another simple weeknight meal that the kids will eat.  The reduced beef broth adds nice dimension to what might otherwise be a relatively boring dish.  My honest opinion is that it is pleasantly satisfying as spelled out in the recipe....but it's darn tasty with a generous heap of freshly grated Parm (gotta be the good stuff) on top and a snuggly glass of red wine. http://allrecipes.com/recipe/bow-tie-pasta-with-sausage-and-sweet-peppers/Detail.aspx

Thursday, September 23, 2010


 This post is dedicated to make-ahead meal ideas!  Incidentally, the bulk of the recipes I'm providing here can be frozen, which makes them wonderfully versatile.  You can have on hand for later in the week...or better yet, double the batch and keep the extra one in the freezer for a brainless option down the road. 

As an (inappropriately long) aside, there are a number of other strategies in the mode of convenience that don't necessarily mean making an entire dish in advance.  They simply require planning.  A friend informed me that Rachael Ray is starting a new show about this concept.  While I generally don't really feel her vibe, I'm certain she'll put me to shame in her execution.  I'll still offer my ameateur tips, sans production company:
  • Prep ingredients ahead to make your life easier (and your kitchen less messy!) when it's cooking time. Some examples would be pre-roasting chicken breasts for quesadillas or pre-chopping your veggies so you can just open up a baggy instead of pulling out a cutting board and knife when it's time to saute chopped onions. 
  • Plan your menus to accommodate the same ingredients.  Though it can require some creativity to make each dish feel unique, this strategy supports the efforts of convenience, frugality, and minimizing shopping chaos.  Several forms of this:
    •  Reinvent something you've already prepared.  Example: use leftover pulled pork from the weekend, and turn it into pulled pork soft tacos.  The flavor profile is vastly different with the addition of some traditional, fresh Mexican toppings.  While this is a main dish example, I do this more often with less significant components. For instance, if we're having rice over the weekend, I'll make a cup more to save that step for stuffed peppers. (I'll get to that recipe!)
    • Buy one ingredient for multiple dishes. Example: big bag of baby spinach.  Saute half of it with garlic to make a quick (like 3 minutes), light side dish, and use the leftovers in an easy stromboli.  Tangent within a tangent (like Inception, huh?): I can't resist providing the instructions for this, because it's awesome, kid-friendly, and fast.  Roll out store-bought pizza dough and pile it with salami, a generous heap of whatever cheese you like and, and about 10 shakes of italian seasoning.  Close it up, bake it seam-side down on an oiled sheet pan for 20ish minutes at 375, and serve with marinara for dipping. 
  • Use the slow cooker!  Taking just 10 minutes in the morning to throw everything in can mean zero work at dinnertime; the beckoning aroma in the house is just a delightfully free benefit.  I must admit that I don't take advantage of this handy tool as often as I could.  Perhaps we can all become inspired together.   That's another post.
The point of this (already endless) note is to provide a sampling of make/freeze ahead meals, and here they are! 

Before I conclude, I must seize an anecdotal opportunity, because it totally makes me smile.  It's not about prepping in advance, but about using unexpected leftovers after the fact.  My dad is the king of this.  It is simply not in his DNA to throw away even a scrap of food.  I'll never forget the night - I was a teenager, I think - when he took the remaining bits of everything we had for dinner that week, threw it on top of some lettuce along with the last crumbs from a Dorito bag and called it "Fiesta Salad".  Dad, please know I am not judging here; you have really inspired me to reduce waste (and thus, cost) in my life.   In fact, Ryan frequently catches me employing a similar practice.  If When he teases me, I affectionately remind him that the Fiesta Salad probably helped fund my college education.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dinner Date

After our funfilled weekend, Ryan and I decided to have a dinner date.  A dinner date doesn't necessarily have to be a night out.  To us, it just means being able to eat slowly enough to taste our food and maybe even conversate a bit.  Those with children realize that this can be a rarity during their waking hours.  As such, we opted to feed them bbq leftovers from the day before and cook our feast after they were resting peacefully upstairs.  As a rule, this is not my favorite thing to do, despite how much I do love to taste my food and appreciate the ability to finish a sentence.  I personally strive for us to eat as a family which, to me, means the same food at the same time.  I grew up that way, and it left me with cozy, happy mealtime memories.  I realize that can be a considerable challenge, especially for families with homework, sports practice, and other obligations with which to contend.  Often the fastest thing can be the old reliable chicken fingers and mac & cheese, and I promise we've gone there many a night.  But I'd like to encourage you to break out of that mold with relatively minimal stress by doing some prep and planning in advance.  I'll get to that in a bit.... 

But first, our quiet dinner:  Grilled mahi-mahi with Thai coconut sauce and brown basmati rice.  You may be thinking that though prepared differently, a second dose of coconut and rice in about a week is a bit much.  I think I agree, and sorry about that.  But I craved fish that night, and this recipe caught my eye.  Anyway, while I anticipated some sweetness after studying the recipe, the result was actually spicy and had a smoky quality as well.  To clarify, this was a pleasant surprise, not a disappointment!  The spice can certainly be managed by the amount of serrano chile you add.  I was pretty generous in this case, as it was just my mood at the time.  Ryan grilled the fish over charcoal at a perfect temperature (hot!) to give it gorgeous color on the outside while keeping it tender and flaky on the inside. The coconut sauce served to "baste" the fish as well as dress the plate.  The recipe instructs some of the chopped scallions to go into the reduced sauce and some to be scattered on top.  I enjoyed the contrast of the mellow, wilted version and the sharpness of the fresh garnish.   http://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/quick-recipes/2010/07/grilled_mahi_mahi_with_thai_coconut_sauce

Back to my family dinner thing.  The dish I made earlier in the day was pretty much a 180 from the mahi-mahi, and lives in my database of easy, prep-in-advance, weeknight fare.  This is a completely non-gourmet and pretty down-home kind of dish.  I mean, it's from Betty Crocker, after all.  One of its perks is being kid-friendly.  It's tough even for a kid to be totally offended by creamy pasta and chicken baked into a gooey casserole topped with parm.  I doubled (well, quadrupled...see below) the recipe that night and brought a dish to our friends who just had a baby.  The beauty is that it can be thrown in the freezer as easily as put in the oven.  In the interest of full disclosure: friends, this is by no means low-fat.  Please forgive.

My notes on the recipe:  1)  I don't think it makes enough, so I double it.  By doing this, you can assure leftovers for further weeknight convenience!  2)  I roast chicken breasts myself because it's more economical for bulk quantities and my kids are more likely to eat the white meat.  But rotisserie chicken works great.  3)  I've used both water and sherry, and either is fine.  However, sherry is classic in casseroles and gives it that familiar flavor you (may?) remember as a youngster.  4)  I don't care for canned mushrooms, so I omit them.  5)  It's helpful to pre-measure your flour and seasonings.  This way you're prepared with the ingredients when it's time to add them, and you can continue whisking without interruption.  http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/chicken-tetrazzini/18a65d11-31f2-4656-ae95-1379551c8823

Monday, September 20, 2010


Quite a caloric performance this weekend.  You'd think we were trying to win a contest or something. I should probably be ashamed of myself, but I'm kind of not, because it was blissful.  Hubby put all of the grills to work and did a stellar job.

Before my relatives arrived, I made banana crunch muffins in preparation for their early morning departure the next day.  These are delightfully sweet, but the banana presence is prominent enough to make it feel like an appropriate start to the day.  I'll note here that three of my recipes this weekend came from Barefoot.  I know I need to change it up, but when we're entertaining, it can be nice to rely on fail safe dishes. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/banana-crunch-muffins-recipe/index.html

For lunch on Saturday, we served one of our favorite go-to apps as a main course.  We learned the technique of grilling flatbreads from Bobby Flay's "Boy Meets Grill", and now we are mildly obsessed with creating new ones.  I love the texture of grilled dough (which I just buy at Whole Foods, by the way...easy!); it's crunchy on the outside and nicely tender on the inside. We made two varieties this time:  The first was one of BF's originals topped with fresh mozzarella, sauteed mushrooms, caramelized (of course) onions and blue cheese.  This is beyond heavenly.  The flavor combination is amazing with the creamy mozz offset by sweet onions, and blue cheese that adds just a subtle sharpness.  I could eat my weight in this.   http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/caramelized-onions-cabrales-blue-cheese-and-wild-mushroom-flatbread-recipe/index.html 

The second version we made was simple with just fresh mozz, sliced vine ripened tomatoes, fresh grated Parmesan and a sprinkling of dried oregano.  Not inventive, but tasty!  Our side was a green salad with traditional Hess family accoutrements:  black olives and Pearl's Dressing.  This sweet dressing is a mixture of white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper.  The suggested oil-to-vinegar ratio is even greater than 2 to 1, I think.  I'm certain my ratio is more like 1:1.  No surprise there.

The star of our dinner was Carolina-style pulled pork that my husband started on the smoker at 8 a.m.

It had a gorgeous pink smoke ring (I'm trying to incorporate the terms he has taught me into my food speak; I'm learning that grill speak is almost a whole new language).  He's in charge of the rub and sauces, but I can get the recipes and post if anyone is interested.  The sandwiches were classically topped with cole slaw.  I use this recipe, sans blue cheese.  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/blue-cheese-cole-slaw-recipe/index.html

As promised in my last post, I made spoon bread on the side.  This is light and rises beautifully, almost like a souffle.  The texture and appearance results were what I hoped for.  But I'll give the out-of-the-oven flavor a C.  I am providing the recipe (which came from Wegmans, otherwise known as God's gift to grocery stores) with some untested modifications that I'd make to enhance the flavor next time around. Since it was already cooked that night, I just added salt and pepper to jazz it up.

Spoon Bread

3 1/2 cups milk
1 cup cornmeal
5 eggs, separated
1.5 cups shredded extra sharp cheddar
8 oz creamed corn
2 tsp finely chopped chives, divided
1 tsp chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

1)  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Bring milk to boil in a medium saucepan on medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium and whisk in cornmeal.  Remove from heat; stir in egg yolks.  Stir in cheese, then creamed corn.  Stir in 1 tsp chives and parsley.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Allow to cool for 10 min. 
2)  Whisk egg whites in a clean, stainless steel bowl until medium peaks are formed.  Whisk 1/3 of the whites into the cornmeal mixture.  Fold in the rest using a rubber spatula.
3)  Spray 2-qt shallow casserole dish with nonstick spray, and spread cornmeal mixture into the dish.  Bake about 50 min.  Garnish with remaining 1 tsp of chives.

Something green was required to tell ourselves that we were, in fact, healthy.  I sliced zucchini into long strips, tossed them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and passed them on to my husband to give them some charcoal love.  Basically any vegetable is delicious prepared this way!

At the conclusion of this meal, I needed dessert like I needed a hole in the head.  But how can you abandon such a vital course?!  The solution: unbutton the jeans and accommodate it.  I've had a hankering for key lime pie lately, and with the summer drawing to a close, it seemed like a great dessert choice.  I've tried multiple recipes, and this is the winner.  The filling is bright and tangy, which is a nice balance to the sweet, crunchy graham cracker crust.   http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/frozen-key-lime-pie-recipe/index.html

I made two more dishes on Sunday, but I'll reign in my excitement and post on those later.  Happy week, all!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On the Side

I don't quite understand why side dishes receive so much less credit than the main event.  I realize their title basically assigns their place...on the side... but there's no reason they should be any less delicious, right?

I discovered an awesome side dish that to me is totally worthy of acclaim: toasted coconut rice.  This recipe showed up ages ago in Marth (I don't mean to state the obvious here, but in the event that it's not obvious to you for whatever reason, "Marth" can refer to Martha Stewart the person as well as Martha Stewart the magazine.  I know this suggests that she and I are tight, and I'm okay with that.).  I keep an ever-changing binder of recipe cutouts and look forward to opportunities to flip through it for inspiration.  This little 4x6 card has been calling my name from the "side dish" section for months now, and boy am I glad that I finally gave it a go.  It's delightfully sweet (more on that momentarily), but a generous sprinkling of sliced scallions before serving adds a gentle and necessary layer of spice.  The prep is very low key!  The first step outlined in the recipe is to toast some unsweetened coconut in olive oil....and thus begins my deviation from the recipe.  That didn't take long.  As my pantry instead contained sweetened coconut at the time, that is what went into my dish.  And given the oil content in coconut, I'm not certain why the instructions necessitated olive oil.  So I instead toasted my sweetened coconut in a dry, non-stick pan until golden brown.  The "sweetened" part turned out to be a glorious and completely yummy mistake, and I'll only do it that way from now on.  Before I provide the recipe (which I basically followed from here on out), I want to take a quick opportunity to express my appreciation for basmati rice.  It is far more fragrant and complex than its plain white or brown cousins, and I'm a huge fan.  Texmati is my favorite brand, and my most common preparation includes chopped fresh herbs (usually flat leaf parsley, basil and chives), a hunk of creamy unsalted butter, and kosher salt.  Okay - the recipe:  http://www.marthastewart.com/recipe/toasted-coconut-rice 

There are two sides I'm having a hankering to make.  One is spoon bread, and it's just been added to my menu for a grillfest (smokefest to be more accurate) that we'll be serving to my fabulous aunt, cousin and her husband when they visit this weekend.  The second is one that was just mentioned to me by an old friend, fellow foodie and owner of the best cupcake shop in Richmond: Frostings!!  To accompany braised lamb, he roasted some brussel sprouts with a splash of balsamic vinegar.  How good does that sound?  I am absolutely trying it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Onion - September 13, 2010

This weekend was Andrew's birthday party. In a previous post I mentioned practicing piping the image for his cake and thought I'd share the result.  My Toy-Story obsessed little boy was happy!  Personally, I wasn't thrilled with the recipe for the cake itself, as it wasn't chocolatey enough.  Desserts need to be worth it, you know?  I'll have to work on that one.

Anyway, perhaps you wonder how any of this relates to my title.  Well, the grown-ups at the party needed to eat as well.  I made a caramelized onion dip and served it simply with some store bought potato chips.  What's so special about onion dip?  Nothing.  It's the caramalized part that earns the kudos.  I don't mean to offend its raw, sauteed, fried, grilled, or braised counterparts, because they are all lovely in the right dish.  It's just that something magical happens in the roughly 30 minutes that transforms them into a delectably sweet  condiment that I could devour with a fork alone.  I'm the first to admit that 30 minutes can seem excruciating for an element that typically plays a somewhat minor role in a meal.  But it is SO worth it.  If you've never done it before, I'm providing two treatments below as examples.  The absolute key is patience.  About 20 minutes in, you'll think they're done....please give them ten more minutes; I promise they'll be ten times more amazing.

  • Slice about 3 large onions and saute over low to medium low heat in two tablespoons each of olive oil and unsalted butter.  Optional: about 10 minutes in, add a spoonful or two of sugar.  I don't think this is really necessary if they're cooked properly.  But if you're short on time, this can speed the process a bit for you.

  • Slice and saute over low to medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil.  About 20 minutes in, add a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar and a 1/4 cup of beef stock.  Cook until the liquid reduces entirely.  (Side note: these are heavenly served over filet mignon and topped with crumbled blue cheese!)
The recipe for the dip called for some cayenne pepper during the carmelizing process, and it added nice complexity to the flavor.  Here's the recipe!  In a very rare move given Ina's - in my opinion - aggressive stance with onions, I actually added an extra onion to ensure they they were the star of the dish, as opposed to the creamy stuff!   http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/pan-fried-onion-dip-recipe/index.html

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mini Me - September 11, 2010

I'm almost embarrassed to post on a food blog that I dined on a Weight Watchers frozen meal of Sante Fe Rice and Beans for lunch today.  I mean, I know I am always advocating taking the time to explore, using fresh ingredients, creating something new, etc.  The reality of my day today, however, resulted in roughly 12 available minutes to both prepare and consume a mid-day meal, so the convenience factor reigned.  The reason I feel compelled to sharing is that it led to a gleaming moment for my four year old, Andrew.  I toasted two corn tortillas to enjoy as an accompaniment, ala baked tortilla chips.  Andrew looked on with such an eagerness that I knew he had to share.  I offered the tortilla, and he responded with the review, "It needs salt, Mom."  I was thrilled.  My imagination soared in that moment to a picture of us opening a restaurant together and bonding over the seasoning of our inventive dishes.  Then two minutes later, he comments, "Mom, I'm starting to be a big boy and growing hair, but you can't see it because it's still in my bones."    Perhaps I got a bit carried away.

Tasting Menu - September 3, 2010

Spa weekend with my two best friends who also happen to be my sisters.  They are my kindred spirits on so many levels, and one relates to our constant pursuit of tasty food.  This weekend was no exception, and we commenced the eating fest at a relatively new, but acclaimed steak house in the W Hotel in Washington DC with an old and dear friend from my years working near the White House.  We embarked on the journey of the tasting menu.  It is just the most fun to linger over wine - or in our case this time, a Cosmo (sister tradition) - and look forward to each plate that always seems to be brought out at the ideal digestive moment.  Not sure how they do that.  The first course was a layered cylinder of paper thin radish slices, salmon tartare and avocado puree swimming in a gingery dressing. The crisp radishes, fresh salmon, creamy avocado and delightfully tangy dressing composed a balanced and satisfying dish that, to me, could have sufficed as a main course!  In an effort to avoid droning on with this level of commentary on so many courses (and because it's a bit late tonight), I'll summarize what followed:
  • a light salad of roasted beets, watercress and goat cheese
  • seared halibut with a kalamata olive-y concoction (a bit too salty for me, actually)
  • grilled petit filet served with sauteed spinach and homemade french fries presented vertically in a little cup
  • some sort of molton chocolate, gooey deliciousness topped with vanilla ice cream
The establishment we chose the following evening had an entirely different vibe; though our approach to the meal aligned with the tasting menu concept.  With a more "taverny" establishment came a far less gourmet experience. But as we know, fancy doesn't always equal delicious.  After our requisite Cosmos, we just ordered a smorgasbord of appetizers to share, and the waitress kindly staggered their delivery.  In retrospect, maybe they weren't the most amazing dishes I've ever tasted.  Still, the whole combination of the tavern vibe, pleasantly greasy apps, and impeccable company would have been pretty darn hard to top that night.

Before I go, I just can't speak about tasting menus without a brief homage to perhaps the most amazing and memorable feast ever: a  9-course binge session at Michele Richard's Citronelle - also in DC - a few years back....I still dream about it regularly and could (obviously) still describe each decadent course down to the plating.  I won't do that now, but if you ever find yourself in that vicinity, please go!!!

Themed Entertaining - August 30, 2010

I'm the first to admit that themed meals can be a little cheesy. But every once in a while, embracing a particular concept for cooking is a both fun and a helpful way to get organized! I hosted a group of nine girlfriends - my old college roommates - over the weekend. I wanted to do as much shopping and prep as possible in advance in order to be able to enjoy their company without distraction. So I decided on an ethnic approach, which turned out to be totally fun!

The first meal was Mediterranean and began with easy, assembled apps from the store: kalamata olives, tzaziki and hummus garnished with cucumbers, pita triangles and baby carrots as dippers. For the main dish, my thoughtful husband took a moment out of wrangling our munchkins to grill (on charcoal...no other way, he says) chicken that I had marinated in tangy buttermilk, about 15 crushed garlic cloves and a baseball sized portion of chopped rosemary from my backyard. For a side, my girl Ina helped me out with her recipe for orzo with roasted vegetables and feta. For this dish, please cube a block of good feta and not the crumbled stuff. It is just worlds better!! (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/orzo-with-roasted-vegetables-recipe/index.html

One of my friends made homemade yogurt (wow!), which we layered with granola, fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey for breakfast the next morning. With a (four) cup (s) of coffee on the side, it was a glorious start to our day.

I opted to assemble rather than cook for lunch, and laid out an Italian Panini bar. I cut out a picture of this concept from Marth almost a decade ago, but it was only recently that I actually tried it. As it was easy, collaborative and fun (as well as tasty...clearly a necessity), I thought it would be the perfect approach for a group of 10. I sliced individual ciabattas that each person could dress with her choice of meats, cheese and a smorgasbord of marinated things**, and press into a crusty sandwich literally oozing with flavor... **I actually found a considerable selection of interesting jars (cippolini, olives and about 400 varieties of peppers) at World Market. Who knew?

We went Tex Mex for our final feast and kicked it off with Sangria! It was a refreshing combination of sauvignon blanc, sliced oranges, plums, raspberries and apples, sweetened with superfine sugar. The recipe - which I actually can't find now...sorry - called for vodka. As this was not so much a vodka-swigging group, I opted for a splash of Pellegrino instead. (PS - I've heard brandy is lovely in this too!). A couple of the girls contributed guacamole and salsa with chips as appetizers, which we enjoyed while prepping the main course: fish tacos. I love this dish. It is light, simple and totally yummy. While a friend sautéed tilapia filets simply with olive oil, salt and pepper, I made the slaw. This consisted of shredded red cabbage, sliced scallions, diced jalapeños and chopped cilantro tossed with a yummy marrying of sour cream, lime juice, salt and pepper. I always make a fairly ridiculous quantity of the dressing, because it is a gorgeous added burst of flavor when dolloped on top of the assembled taco.

You may be wondering why I haven't discussed dessert. Did we have it, you wonder? Of course we did. I'm not so sure you can have a real party absent of dessert... perhaps I'll chat about that another time. But I wanted to focus today's babblings on the "theme" theme as an idea for a low-stress, festive way to host a gathering. Ole!

Family Style - August 26, 2010

Fab dinner with fab friends last night at Edo's Squid. The family style concept in a restaurant is brilliant. The opportunity to taste not one, not two or three, but four deliciously creative dishes is divine! As is my typical practice prior to a restaurant experience, I read some reviews online to build anticipation. I learned that a lot of people didn't care for the family style delivery offered at this place and actually believed it to be somehow limiting. On the contrary - I think it is a lovely invitation to experience a variety of flavors, perhaps some of which you wouldn't otherwise order for yourself. Of course, the best part is just delighting with friends and ranking the plates after the fact!

As a newbie to this restaurant, I didn't know what to expect upon walking through the nondescript entrance and up a skinny flight of stairs decorated with the cleaning products that apparently can't be otherwise accommodated (weird, huh?). But it just goes to show that a food treasure can be found anywhere....and never judge a book by its cover...etc etc. The interior door opened to an inviting and earthy atmosphere complete with exposed brick walls and worn hardwood floors. Lucky us - we were seated at a corner table, which allowed for both cozy conversation and a neat vantage point of the restaurant.

After warming up with a nice bottle of Chianti, we started off with garlicky sautéed broccoletti with white beans. A splash of lemon (acid...of course!) played the perfect supporting role. Entrees included braised veal shanks that were as savory as they were tender, lamb sausage accompanied by polenta (this was frankly a little too lamb-y for me but turned out to be the fave of one our friends), beautifully prepared rockfish, and the restaurant's famous eggplant parmesan. I knew the last dish got me when I ate well past the point of comfort but just kept going anyway. No wonder it's famous.

The company, ambiance and cuisine made for a glorious date night. We will certainly be going back!

PS...as a follow up to a prior post re: turkey meatballs and marinara. The meatballs were moist and flavorful, but the sauce was drab and kind of tomato pasty. Is that a word? Anyway, as it was not entirely yummy, I will not waste your time exploring this recipe!

Mania - August 22, 2010

If you saw me in the kitchen today, you might think I'm a little manic. Well, if you know me, you understand that that description isn't that farfetched. (I like to refer to it as "efficiency" instead.) In 5 hours this afternoon, I cooked five dishes plus made two batches of buttercream frosting to practice piping the image for my almost 4-year old's birthday cake. I clearly don't do this every day; I tend toward cooking frenzies on Sundays to get a head start on the week. This minimizes week night dinner chaos and allows more fun time to build forts and do puzzles in the play room with my little pumpkins (Andrew, the almost 4-yr old, and his sweet little 16-month old sister Molly) after school.

Let's get to the food though. I'm so happy to share the recipes I use. But as a disclaimer, I must say that when it comes to cooking recipes - as opposed to baking recipes - I typically don't follow them too closely. I rarely measure, often substitute, and always adjust. And yes, I usually add some sort of vinegar. Hobbies should have some creative freedom, and I'm psyched that I've found it here.

The first dish was a cold broccoli and whole grain pasta salad as a light lunch after church. With crunchy raw veggies, fresh herbs (not dried as the recipe suggests), toothy whole wheat penne and a creamy dressing accented with a bit of tangy rice wine vinegar (of course), it was actually quite satisfying...and also made fab leftovers. http://mobile.eatingwell.com/recipes/broccoli_ham_pasta_salad.html

Next was carrot salad to accompany smoked baby back ribs that came courtesy of my husband, the grill master. [Aside: He's not going to want me to carry on about his skills with his "family" of grilling equipment....a 6-burner gas monster, a charcoal kettle, and the smoker that ate Manhattan. Let's just leave it that I'm hoping he doesn't leave me to join the barbecue circuit.] Back to the salad...for this dish, I trusted my second inspiration and the person who I like to imagine is my best friend: Ina Garten, a.k.a. Barefoot Contessa. I have cooked countless dishes of hers and adore the fact that while they are perfectly delicious, they are also quite simple! I don't make a lot of modifications to her recipes. Though I'll insert that I think she can be a bit heavy handed with onions and mayonnaise! http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/barefoot-carrot-salad-recipe/index.html

I made a blueberry tart for dessert. I don't often use puff pastry, and given how simple it is to work with (coupled with the fact that it's store bought...hello), I have no idea why. It is beautiful and produces such a gourmet looking result. The tart was topped first with a lemon zest speckled cream cheese mixture, then plump fresh blueberries, and finally a dusting of confectioner sugar. It rocked - that's it. http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/blueberry-tart-00000000017216/index.html

To prep for the week, I made turkey meatballs with marinara sauce. Since it was a new recipe that I haven't tasted, I'll refrain from chatting about it for now. I also made Oreo truffles that I'll bring to celebrate my boss's birthday at work. Those are simply a pack Oreos zapped in a food processor with 8 oz. of cream cheese and dipped in chocolate. The process is insanely easy for how scrumptious they are.  My sister-in-law gave me the scoop on how to make these little nuggets years ago, and lately it seems like they're popping up all over the place!  The secret must be out.
Food filled days are the greatest.

The Ode Begins - August 20, 2010

I'm completely obsessed with delicious food. Notice I didn't just say food, because not only am I un-obsessed with mediocre food, it actually gets on my nerves. Adding precious moments to my workout for tasteless calories is a relative calamity in my book. The world of flavors is endless, and I relish (mmm, hotdogs) in exploring each and every one of them.

I am a credit analyst by day, and it seems that I might be driving my co-worker nuts with my food ramblings. It turns out that I enjoy talking about food almost as much as consuming it. He has recommended that I start a blog as an outlet for my cooking/eating obsession. I'm thinking of this as a food journal of sorts, and I'm excited to share my cooking and dining experiences with whoever wants to hear about them. The combo of food and friends/family evokes such a feeling of warmth to me, and I'd love to inspire that for others. Perhaps a recipe here will get you enthused enough to give the kitchen a try.

Why the title, you might ask? Sure, vinegar has got some great practical uses as an all-purpose cleaning agent blah blah....(totally no disrespect to Martha Stewart here; she was my first inspiration, and I love dorky household tips). But vinegar is just yummy and deserves more credit. The more I've cooked and tasted over the years, the more my palate longs for a gentle - or not - note of acid. In fact, more often than not, when a dish needs something, it's a splash of vinegar. Red wine, tarragon, sherry, rice, white wine, balsamic, champagne, you name it. My pantry is stocked with them all, and I love them.