Sunday, February 25, 2018

Happy Birthday to Me

Happy Birthday to Me!
Usually, I am the one who plans and organizes social events, but this time it was my husband Bruce.  Originally planned to be a different dinner altogether, this event turned into an expanded Valentines and birthday celebration with an intimate group of friends. In this case, Bruce was expanding the guest list, not me.  On this snowy night, twelve of us sat down for a very memorable celebratory dinner that I thoroughly enjoyed preparing.  

Heart Shaped Ice Cubes at the Bar
There was one overarching theme that resonated throughout the night:  Hearts.  From the prosecco to the decoration to the ice cubes in the bucket on the bar and the individual flourless chocolate cakes. The table was set perfectly with my grandmother's china, silverware and varying styles of champagne glasses and white linen napkins.  Candles adorned the length of the table to set an intimate atmosphere and the fabulous music of Chris Botti played in the background.  
Prosecco Toast

THE MENU WAS PERFECTION  No dinner party would be complete without the appropriate cocktails and wine to accompany a fantastic meal.  Prosecco was flowing- everyone received a glass upon entering our house.  I have a collection of various champagne glasses and like to use them whenever I can.  Having different styles helps to up the festive atmosphere. For those who preferred high end liquor, it was served over a large sphere, slow melting ice cube.  Pinot Noir accompanied the meal perfectly and Muscat dessert wine was served along with other cordials with the chocolate desserts.  My birthday cake was custom made by the chef at Pine Orchard Yacht Club and took two days to make.  Comprised of chocolate mousse and dark chocolate wafer layers, it was served with an amazing raspberry sauce.  The other desserts included flourless chocolate cakes and homemade chocolate truffles. 
Dinner Plate
I created the menu based on all my favorite foods- afterall, it was my birthday, so why not? P.S. The French Onion Soup is Julia Child's recipe- by far the best I've ever had!  The entire menu included:

Stuffed Mushrooms
Chicken Pate

French Onion Soup

Grilled Lamb Chops with a Cherry Bourbon Sauce
Smashed Potatoes (refer to 03.14 blog post for recipe)
Asparagus wrapped in Prosciutto with a Balsamic Glaze

Individual Flourless Chocolate Cakes (refer to 02.11 blog post for recipe)
Chocolate Truffles
Lamb Chops Marinating 

Grilled Lamb Chops
Bone in Lamb Chops topped with
Olive Oil
Chopped Garlic
Fresh Chopped Rosemary
Salt and Pepper

Grill over hot coals 5 minutes each side.  Let rest and serve.

Cherry Bourbon Sauce
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. cider vinegar
Boil 10 min.  Hold aside and add at end.
In separate saucepan:
8 oz. halved cherries
2 T. butter
2 T. sugar
Cook 3 min. and add:
1 1/2 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. bourbon
1 T. molasses
1 T. maple syrup
Salt & Pepper to taste
Add sugar vinegar syrup.

French Onion Soup
French Onion Soup

6 c. sliced onions
3 T. butter
1 T. oil
1/2 t. sugar
Cook in large pot until browned then add 2 T. flour.  Cook briefly then add:
5 qts. beef stock (best if made from scratch!)
2 c. white wine
Simmer 30 minutes.
Line bottom of crock with toasted french bread.  Top with swiss cheese.  Pour soup over top then add a splash of cognac. Top with more another slice of bread, grated swiss cheese and a sprinkle of parmesan.  Cook in 450 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dessert as Easy as 1, 2, 3

Chocolate Puff right out of the oven
Have you ever been in a twist over what to make for dessert when you have unexpected company? Ever have to bring dessert to dinner at a friend's house?  How about just needing something quick and simple, yet elegant and satisfying? I have the answer for you.

3 Simple Ingredients
It's a Chocolate Puff.  Yes, I know it sounds more complicated than it really is, but believe me, it's quick and simple.  The only thing simpler would be ice cream sundaes. Really- trust me on this.  This has become my new go to dessert, and everyone LOVES it! All you need is three simple ingredients.  Keep them on hand and you will never be at a loss for a quick and elegant dessert again.

Chocolate Puff

1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed
Step 1
1 large chocolate bar of your choice (I prefer Special Dark)
Slivered almonds, large handful

Unfold pastry on a cutting board. 
Place chocolate bar in the center of the center panel.

Step 2

Make vertical cuts at each of the four corners of the candy bar to the edge of the pastry.

Make about 5 (45 degree angle) cuts on either side of the bar.
Fold ends over the chocolate bar.  Fold angled strips alternately across front of the candy bar as if you were making a braid.
Step 3

Carefully place pastry on parchment lined baking sheet. 
Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with slivered almonds. Bake at 425 degrees for approx. 15 - 20 minutes until puffed and golden.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Are You Waffling?

Stove top Waffle Iron
Like most people do from time to time, I've been vacillating about making a career move recently.  I guess you could say that I'm waffling about some of my options. But since this blog is about food and not my career in design and construction, let's talk about another type of waffling.  

I have a stove top Belgium waffle iron that has been under utilized for years.  I take it out rarely to make waffles for an occasional Sunday brunch.  So I decided to use it for some favorite foods.  Mostly because it seemed like a much more healthy alternative than frying.  And the geometric shape of a waffle is unexpected and fun.  There's something about waffle geometry and the transformative power of the waffle iron that turns (almost) any recipe into an adventure.  

The stove top waffle iron was patented by Dutch American inventor Cornelius Swathout on August 24, 1869 and its anniversary is celebrated as National Waffle Day.   The Belgium Waffle was brought to the US at the New York World's Fair in 1964 by Brussels restauranteur Maurice Vermersch based on the recipe that his wife developed during World War II.  I remember the first time I had a Belgium waffle with ice cream and stawberries- it was at the Big E in the mid 70's.  I thought it was AMAZING.  You will find that the following Belgium waffle recipe is just as amazing because it is light and airy on the inside and has a slight crunch on the outside.  Mother's Day is tomorrow, and if you are planning on making breakfast or brunch, you might want to consider this classic favorite.

Waffled hash browns with poached egg

So, I've fallen in love with my waffle iron all over again recently and discovered that it can be used for any number of foods.  One of my favorites is hash browns! If you don't have time to make them from scratch, you can use tater tots- they work just as well.  Serve with a poached egg on top and you have a real breakfast winner.  I've also discovered that you can waffle the following:

Waffled Dumplings
Crab Cakes
Banana Bread
Dumplings / Pierogies / Ravioli
Chicken Fingers
Mac & Cheese
Portobello Mushrooms
French Toast
Grilled Cheese 

What are you waffling about? Get creative, be adventurous, and surprise your family with something unexpected and fun!

Classic Belgium Waffles
Belgium Waffles with Strawberries and Syrup

4 eggs, separated

1/4 c. sugar
1 t. salt
6 T. butter, melted
2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1 1/3 c. milk

Beat egg whites until stiff; set aside.  In mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients.  In a separate bowl, beat milk, egg yolks and butter and add to dry ingredients.  Beat until batter is smooth. Fold in egg whites. Bake in waffle iron until golden and crisp, about 4 minutes.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Blessed is the Holy Trinity

The Culinary Holy Trinity is a Base for Many Dishes
The holy trinity in cooking is a combination of 3 aromatic ingredients, whether it’s vegetables, herbs or spices that are gently sautéed together to provide a flavor base to build upon.  The fundamental essence in many dishes begins with these key ingredients.  In Italian cooking, it is sometimes referred to as battuto and includes onions, carrots and celery in a 2:1:1 ratio.  In France, this is called mirepoix.
The battuto in southern Italy is typically comprised of tomato, garlic and basil.  Chopped, raw ingredients make up the battuto, a derivative of battere, which means “to strike” and describes the use of a chef’s knife chopping on a cutting board.  While it is best to hand chop the vegetables, the most effective tool is a food processor, used on the pulse setting.
Three ingredients that represent the base of various cuisines, each ingredient is chopped very fine and sautéed in oil or butter to release their flavor.  When experiencing with different cuisines, it is important to know their unique trinities:

French:                 onions, carrots, celery
Italian:                  tomatoes, garlic, basil
Greek:                  lemon juice, olive oil, oregano
Indian:                  garlic, ginger, onion
Korean:                garlic, ginseng, kimchi
Spanish:               garlic, onion, tomato
Tai:                        lime, lemongrass, ginger
West African:      garlic, chili peppers, shallots
Chinese:              scallions, ginger, garlic
Japanese:            dashi, mirin, soy sauce
Cajun:                  celery, bell pepper, onion
Cuban:                 garlic, bell pepper, onion

I was thinking about this as I was making a pot of Bolognese sauce over the weekend.  If you had walked into my kitchen, you would have thought you were in a restaurant in Florence, Italy.  And it all began with the battuto.

Classic Bolognese Sauce

1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 large carrot, chopped
2.5  lbs. mix of ground beef, veal and pork
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup red wine
1/2 cup whole milk
pinch of ground nutmeg
2 cups canned Italian whole plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
1 lb pasta (traditionally tagliatelle, but fettuccine and spaghetti work too)
In a Dutch oven, or large heavy bottomed pot, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add the celery and carrot and sauté for an additional 2 minutes.

Add the ground meats, using a fork or spatula to crumble it as you stir. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook meat just until it is no longer pink.

Add the wine and increase heat to medium-high. Let the wine simmer until it has evaporated completely. 

Add the milk and a pinch of nutmeg. Reduce heat to medium and let the milk simmer until it has evaporated completely. 

Add the tomatoes and stir until thoroughly mixed. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, reduce heat to the lowest simmer and cook uncovered for at least 3 hours, but optimally 5 hours. Stir occasionally during the cooking process. If you keep it on the lowest possible simmer, you shouldn’t need to add any more liquid. If, however, it starts to stick, add a few tablespoons of water, but make sure no water is left at the end of the cooking time. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. 

Serve over cooked pasta, tossed with a teaspoon or two of butter. Top generously with freshly grated Parmesan.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Kitchen Update

Newly updated kitchen
It all started because my basement refrigerator died. Realizing that it would be best to just relocate our kitchen refrigerator downstairs, was the start of our kitchen update.  I say update because we didn't do any major renovations, just an update of the appliances, counter tops, furniture, paint, lighting and window treatments. Believe me, it felt more than that, but in the end it was all worth it.  

Kitchen before the update
Our home is only about 20 years old and the existing kitchen echoed it. White appliances scream 90's, so that's where we began.  Honestly, I never thought I'd get so excited about kitchen appliances, but I did.  The hardest part was finding a refrigerator that served our purposes and fit within the existing space.  One thing I did not want to do was cut into the existing, beautiful cabinetry.
New refrigerator
Luckily we found one from Fisher & Paykel which worked perfectly.  I didn't really care about the dishwasher as long as it was
quiet, but the stove I did.  I love the new stove which is automated yet very easy to use and clean. We also added under cabinet lighting and an extra light over the sink to enhance the lighting in the kitchen, and believe me- what a difference ambient lighting makes!  I put in a new, large and deep stainless steel (chef) sink with a trendy bronze faucet to complete the appliances.

Perimeter counter top design
The counter tops were more difficult to decide on.
We used elements of the earth and the ocean as our inspiration. However when it was all installed, particularly on the island where I do all the prep for my cooking, there seemed to be too much movement in the pattern. Ultimately, what we decided to do was re-purpose the island counter in the adjacent laundry room and put a more solid counter top to 'anchor' the kitchen. The black counter top is not a solid, it does have a pattern which resembles a summer starry night. Working in the design and construction industry for 25 years and married to an architect, you'd think I'd get the concept of form follows function..... my bad.  As for the shape, we
Re-purposed counter in laundry
added depth in order to create an overhang which matched the eyebrow style of the cornice over the sink window. Since everything in the kitchen was square, it was nice to add some curves and rounded edges, similar to the small stand and new, Pottery Barn kitchen table and counter stools.
 Also had complimentary back splash tile installed which tied a tight bow around the L-shaped counter to add dimension where all the 'light' was.  We opted for more subtle colors to blend in seamlessly with the new color palette.

Galley view- note new stove and tile
The existing muted eggplant wall color was changed to more of a green-putty color to compliment the kitchen elements rather than fight with them.  I made the purple work for 7 years by complimenting it with sage green, but now it was time to move on to a more sophisticated palette.  I also removed the outdated appliance garage and replaced the stain glass insert in the cabinet door above it to blend more seamlessly with the new design.

New granite bar top
Ok, now on to scope creep. Happens in all the projects I've been involved in professionally, the same happened with my kitchen. Since we were having work done, we figured that we'd tear out the laminate counter on the built-in bar in the adjacent den and put in a nice granite top. All I can say is WOW!  And then, since our 8 ft. slider was rotting from the outside, we had the slider and trim replaced and stained to match the cabinets.  Lastly was the window treatments and the rugs.  

The take-away from my kitchen update: Hire designers and contractors that really listen to you. I hired Laurene McGarry-Bissell of Eclectic Design, Inc. in Glastonbury, CT and she says:

New kitchen table
Custom window treatment
"If the cabinets are in good shape, there is no need to replace them for a fully effective renovation.  Replacing counter tops, backslashes, increasing lighting, trendy faucets and cabinet hardware and a fresh coat of wall paint can make the cabinets look brand new. Benefit of hiring a designer for a full or partial kitchen renovation:  (1) saves you time — a professional can find materials that suit your style, budget and that will mix well with the rest of your decor; (2) the smaller details really make a difference — an ogee edge versus a pencil edge, what color faucet would you prefer — stainless steel versus antique bronze; (3) under cabinet lighting — does the designer and contractor understand the various types of under cabinet lighting and types of lighting that can give you what you need without breaking the budget; (4) can manage the entire process to ensure a smooth project, especially if the designer has a  contractor he/she likes to work with.  They are a seasoned team that communicates well and respect one another’s roles so that your project is completed to your complete satisfaction."

Monday, January 4, 2016

10th Annual Holiday Party- Baking it Forward

Thanks to all for Baking it Forward!
I am still feeling so fulfilled as I write this after having delivered trays of homemade holiday cookies to those in need and the first responders in Shelton (where my office is located) on Christmas week.  It is so gratifying to bring something so unexpected, yet greatly appreciated, to those who really deserve it- For me, that's what the holidays are all about.

What started out 10 years ago as a way to save my sanity during the holidays, turned into an event that grew exponentially with each year.  Hosting a Cookie Swap saved me from the 48 hour cookie baking blitz hangover for sure, and I was very pleasantly surprised by all the wonderful and delectable holiday cookies that my friends and family proudly brought to the party. 
Beautifully Packaged Cookies
Year #2 grew to include the guys and even more snacks and holiday drinks, but this time, we added a Yankee Re-Gift Swap to mix things up.  We've come to find out that there were always one or two gifts that were most desired as they served as a big source of amusement, and the game became a little cut-throat (in a friendly sort of way).   

In Year #5, one or two of the gifts managed to reappear under our tree.  The guest list grew and so did the small plates and libations.  We always provide beer and wine, but sometimes include a signature cocktail such as a specialty martini, mimosa or homemade eggnog. This was the year that we started to include a prize for 'Best Cookie' which kept everyone on their best cookie baking game.

Year #6: It seemed unfulfilling that all of us enjoyed the event so much while there were others that were not so blessed with a home, family and friends, presents under the tree and food in their bellies.  So that year, we started donating a tray of cookies to a charity of our choice.  These donated trays were always welcomed and it made all of us feel the spirit of the season even more intensely.

Holiday Appetizers
Year #10, the largest attendance included 32 people, probably because it didn't snow on the day of the event!  The food was amazing- everyone contributed small plates which included pulled pork sliders, stuffed breads, spaghetti and meatball muffins, cocktail meatballs and turkey and stuffing eggrolls. And for dessert, brownie cake and homemade eggnog. And the cookies were just amazing.  We had so much that 6 trays were donated to charity.

You can see how my modest holiday party / cookie swap
Herbed Goat Cheese Pinecones
has grown over the years.  It gives me so much pleasure to host this signature event as a way to gather friends and to say thanks- Because when I really think about it.... for me, it's all about friendship, appreciation and generosity.  My sincere thank you to all who have contributed over the years to this event.  I will be writing a cookbook commemorating the 10th Annual Holiday Party, and will include a compilation of cookie recipes, savory snacks and hosting tips.  Meantime, I share some of the highlights of our holiday party with you.  Best wishes for a happy holiday season and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Cocktail Meatballs (at every event for the past 10 years)
1 lb hamburger
1 egg
1/3 c breadcrumbs
2 T A-1 Steak Sauce

Combine all ingredients and shape into small meatballs.  Brown under broiler in a cookie sheet lined with foil.  Drain fat and add to large frying pan along with:  1 c A-! steak sauce, 4 T brown sugar and 6 T butter.  Simmer, covered for 15 minutes and serve warm.

Sausalito Crab Dip 
1 pkg. Knorr Leek Soup Mix
1.5 c sour cream
1 T lemon juice
1/2 t hot pepper sauce
2 cans lump crab meat, drained
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
1 c shredded Swiss cheese
1 T chopped fresh dill

Mix all ingredients together and chill for 2 hours.  I like to hollow out a round pumpernickel bread and fill with dip.  Garnish with cherry tomatoes and fresh rosemary to simulate holly.

Turkey and Stuffing Eggrolls
Left over chopped turkey meat
Left over stuffing
Left over mashed potatoes\
Eggroll wrappers

Combine first three ingredients and place a large tablespoon of mixture in bottom corner of eggroll wrapper.  Brush opposite corner with a little water and roll up from the bottom, fold in sides and seal with top.  Fry in shallow pan with canola oil and serve with hot gravy and / or cranberry sauce.

Brownie Cake

Brownie Cake
1 stick butter
4 eggs
1 lb. can Hershey's Syrup
1 c sugar
1 c flour
1 t baking powder
1 t vanilla
1 c chopped walnuts or chocolate chips (optional)

Mix all ingredients together and pour into a prepared tube pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.  Cool, unmold and sprinkle with powdered sugar or chocolate glaze.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Be Prepared to be Impressed

Steak Dinner at Bern's Steak House

On a recent trip to Tampa on business, I had the privilege of not only traveling first class (both flights AND accommodations), but dinner as well.  My husband was with me on the trip because we were attending our nephew’s wedding nearby that weekend.  After what seemed like a very long day on Friday, we drove to Bern’s Steakhouse [] where we had dinner reservations.  Bruce had been there previously and thought it would be a fitting venue to celebrate our anniversary.  All he said on the way to the restaurant was, “Be prepared to be impressed.”
The outside wasn’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination, however everyone’s car (except the very expensive models) was valet parked in a nearby garage.  Inside looked like a cleaner version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, with majestic staircases, velvet chairs and antique artwork and lighting.  We were seated in a quiet corner of one of the five dining rooms with waiters and sommeliers waiting to service the patrons.  I needed a martini just to get through the wine and dinner menus that read more like a book than a menu.  For the wine, we chose for one of our favorites, 2007 Flowers Pinot Noir, which was expertly decanted prior to the meal.  The steak portion of the dinner menu was also extensive…. Everything from NY Strip to Chateaubriand explained in a two page matrix that described the cuts, size, thickness, doneness, etc.  We selected the Chateaubriand for two which was served with Bern’s French Onion Soup (very good, but not quite as good as mine ;) salad with a choice of homemade dressings, baked potato, vegetable and their very own special thin Vadalia onion rings.  It was absolutely stupendous- you could see and taste the attention to detail in everything.  And the steak, well…. It was cooked perfectly on a charcoal grill which created a nice crust on the outside, while the inside melted in your mouth.
Kitchen Staff Hard at Work
After dinner, the waiter escorted us to the kitchen where we were given a private, back of house tour.  The kitchen encompasses 6,200 SF which is more than all the dining rooms combined.  A staff of 80 was so busily working in each of the stations (in order to wait tables at Bern’s, one must spend a year working all the stations of the kitchen).  
Only a Portion of the Wine Cellar
From there, we were led to the wine cellar.  Not all 450,000 bottles are housed in the restaurant, but it was certainly extensive, including the locked portion of rare wines, some dating back to the 1800’s.  All are catalogued like the Dewey decimal system in order to keep track of them.  I was so awe-struck that all I could do was look at my husband and mouth the word WOW!

Lastly, we were guided to the second floor Dessert Room which included 48 private banquets  made from antique, rosewood wine casks.  Seated across from the piano player, it was a very romantic and intimate setting.  The dessert menu included an assortment of 50 desserts, one more luscious than the next and highlighted a few that were developed by Bern as signature sweets.  The dessert menu also included a very extensive artesian cheese and wine list.  Too many choices to imagine, for sure.  
Intimate, 2nd Floor Dessert Room

Bruce opted for the spirited cappuccino with Bern’s custom, Kahlua infused roasted coffee beans and a trio of chocolate cakes accompanied by various homemade ice creams.  I decided on a Madera wine flight and a selection of artesian cheeses with custom chutneys.  We were, after all, celebrating our anniversary, which made me think of our wedding and not more than a few moments later, the piano player started his next set with our wedding song

Amazing Chocolate Dessert!
- what a sweet way (pun intended) to tie a bow around a very memorable dining experience!
Bern’s- story and his vision for the dining experience are very unique. I was so captivated by the evening that I have since added the Bern’s Steakhouse Cookbook to my library. If you are ever in the Tampa area, it’s well worth the trip- I promise, you won’t be disappointed.  In fact, be prepared to be impressed- VERY IMPRESSED!