Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Celebrating with Nathan Miller, the Chocolate Love of My Life

This past weekend was a weekend of celebration.

I celebrated another year on this beautiful planet of ours with THE love of my life and the people who allowed me to enter into it (I say "allowed" because I've been a difficult one from the start; abortion was an option for my parents multiple times, and they said "No, thank you," for which I am forever grateful).

I also celebrated being given the opportunity to do the very first book reading and signing of my first book, Marley Eats His Vegetables (or you can purchase a physical copy on Blurb.com). The event was planned by my old hometown library, Coyle Free Library, as part of their grand re-opening after a gorgeous remodel.

What an incredible day! The townspeople came out in droves (more proof that the idea of libraries going by way of the dodo is a bunch of hooey), and I got to read my book to a bunch of the cutest little kids I've seen in a long time. I met amazing local authors—Ron KeenerJennie Brown, Sherri Maret and Esther Jones—and even more amazing townsfolk: Selma Thomson who had just turned 100 and was such a pleasure to talk to. Old friends I haven't seen in decades. A mom who encouraged me in a way I don't think she realized how much it meant: thanking me for writing a book that her daughter who struggled with learning to read loved and could read, and I got to talk to the little girl about the truth that it didn't matter how long it took her to learn; what mattered was that she was being persistent.

It truly was such a special day, and so to celebrate and keep it local, my family and I decided to go to Roy Pitz Brewing Company, an establishment I would highly recommend to both locals and those of you who pass through Chambersburg, PA, for whatever reason. It's always got great food and outstanding brew, and the waitstaff are always super friendly, too.

 Celebrating at Roy Pitz Brewing Company in Chambersburg, PA

As we were finishing our giant mugs of beer, my mother reminded me to save room for dessert, not for leftover birthday cake but for Nathan Miller's to-die-for chocolate, sold in the same warehouse down the hallway from Roy's.

Nathan makes—and I am not exaggerating in any way—the best chocolate I have ever had. Crafted in tiny batches with beans that he sources from all over the planet, Nathan can literally take you around the world through chocolate, right from his tiny shop in good, ol' Chambersburg, PA.

This weekend we tried chocolate from Guatemala, a deep, dark, grassy chocolate. It was absolutely delicious (pairing nicely with his rich, nutty-and-caramel-y coffee), but it was the bite of his Buttermilk chocolate bar that sent me over the edge. So smooth, so rich and ever-so-slightly salty. It was what I always imagined Willy Wonka's bar to taste like—only a hundred times better.

Averaging about $8.00 a bar, NM chocolate bars make an excellent little gift, the kind where you don't want to spend a lot but still want to show a sincere token of your appreciation. Believe me, anyone who receives a gift of an NM chocolate bar will take one bite and know that your "little" token—and your "thank you"—are HUGE.

I know that my appreciation was huge. To end my incredible day with Nathan, the chocolate love of my life, and bites of his incredible chocolate?

Oh, sigh. There just could not have been anything better. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

For the Love of Lamb: Yotam Ottolenghi's Kofta Recipe

I think I may have forever changed my opinion on eating lamb last night.

We take part in the Walden Local Meat meat share program, and I have had a pound of ground lamb sitting in the chest freezer for several months, not knowing what to do with it. I didn't grow up eating lamb, and when I have had it in ground form, it always tends to taste just, so...lamby.

Chef Reiton, on the other hand, has a sort-of fascination for it. If I mention lamb is on a menu or that I bought a leg of lamb to roast, his eyes light up. So I feel kind-of bad that I repeatedly pass the lamb section in the meat department.

Hence the dinner we made last night. We own Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem cookbook. There is not one dish that I have made from that cookbook that I have not positively LOVED. And so when I mentioned that we had ground lamb hiding in the freezer downstairs and Chef Reiton said, "OH???", my hand went to Jerusalem's spine and gave her a little tug off the shelf. A quick perusal of the index led us to "kofta," little lamb and beef logs mixed with pine nuts, parsley, onion and garlic and seared to dark, crusty perfection before they are nestled in and drizzled with a tahini dressing and browned butter. Ottolenghi suggests serving it with a cucumber and tomato salad, which we did, ignoring his direction to not do the fried, spicy chickpeas.

Kofta drizzled with tahini sauce and butter and sprinkled with parsley, pine nuts and paprika

Cucumber and tomato salad with spicy, crispy chickpeas

 The dinner was incredible. If two of us would have done the prepping, we could have had both dishes on the table in 30 minutes. And when the tahini sauce got mixed into the salad and chickpeas? It was a glorious, delicious mess. I told Chef Reiton after the first bite that I wasn't going to be able to talk to him during this dinner...

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Petition to Change the Thanksgiving Symbol

As my butter lay softening on the counter this morning, I dug through a pile of old cookie press stencils, looking for anything that could pass for a turkey. The closest thing I could find was an antlerless reindeer. Or wait... Maybe it was a camel.

I eventually decided on a heart. I did a bit of grumbling in my head, hoping people didn't think that a heart was too Valentine-y for Thanksgiving.

But as I continued my morning—going for a calorie-burning run pre-turkey/stuffing/pecan pie; checking out the Black Friday sales in the paper (why do we need all this stuff???); meditating in the steaming shower—I thought of who I was going to be spending the day with and what they mean to me. And suddenly, I thought, We should stop using the turkey for the Thanksgiving symbol and change it to a heart, instead.

Because that's what I feel everything Thanksgiving. It's a day that forces me to look not just at one person I love, like Valentine's Day does, but EVERYONE I love. Those who I get to see everyday. Those who I miss because they are far away. Those who have gone before me and who I need to patiently wait to see again.

No. It's not the turkey I look forward to for Thanksgiving. It's the people that I love so much that I wake up thinking of. And even if I don't get to be with them, my heart is warm all day long from thoughts of them.

So, here's my vote to change the Thanksgiving symbol from a turkey to a heart. Color it yellow, orange or brown, if you like.

At least it will be an honest symbol.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Lessons Italy and My Italian Friends Taught Me (Involving a Pizza and a Whole Roasted Scup)

It's been a reflective week this past week, these days following Chef Reiton's and my return from living in Italy for a month. I say "living" because that's what we did.

We didn't tour. We didn't visit. We lived.

And in those four weeks of first-time everything for me, I honestly believe I was transformed a little bit by the people and the places and lives I got to know while we were there. When you live, that's generally what happens, I guess. You learn from the experience. And I've heard that travel changes you. I guess I just wasn't expecting it to change how I think about so many things.

For one, I need to chill out. I'm serious. I am so much more chill than I was in a past life, but still, this trip taught me I can do way better. I was determined to not let anything stress me out from the moment we walked out the door (flying stand-by there and back, the driving of southern Italy's roads, only knowing a miniscule fraction of the language, etc., etc., etc.). I was pretty damn close to succeeding. Enough so, at least, to really learn that Life is incredibly more enjoyable when you allow fear and frustrations to roll off when they come sneaking into your being. Take a deep breath and a few seconds to look at how much worse something could be. Amounts of perspective and gratitude will shift dramatically in the right direction.

I also learned that I come from a country that really needs to get out more—and that includes out of our comfort zones. Traveling alone with my husband and staying in people's homes forced us to talk to Italians who spoke little to no English. Which meant we were cramming Italian lessons on Duolingo for a month and a half before we left. Which meant we spoke very, very little Italian. But you know what? It was enough Italian to fumble our way through ordering dinner, communicating with our hosts, and carrying on two-hour conversations with new friends who had the patience to let us speak like three-year-olds.

Frankly, I'd rather be embarrassed about my bad Italian grammar than the other incredibly rude behaviors I saw displayed by Americans who came to Italy expecting to get away with learning ZERO Italian beforehand. I'm sorry, but do the people who visit our country expect us to know their language when they get here? And don't give me the crap about the dominance of the English language. Show some respect for a different culture, learn to say and use "Hello!" frequently, and show some humility when you don't understand something. We saw three women hot off the cruise ship get irritated when our awesome friend, Salvatore, kept asking if they wanted 'pomodoro' pizza. They just kept saying louder and louder, "PIZZA." We finally had to intervene with their obnoxiousness and tell them that 'pomodoro' means 'tomato' because not all pizzas in Italy have tomato on them. We also pointed out as Salvatore calmly and coolly walked away down the street after they placed their order that Bar Max was a COFFEE SHOP and didn't sell pizza. But you know what? Salvatore was going to get them their pizza, anyway. Sure enough, a few minutes later Salvatore returned from his friend's restaurant carrying two pizzas for the women. And then he went and borrowed plates and real silverware from his other friend's restaurant. All for three Americans who didn't take the time to read his store signage or learn two words in Italian, namely, "please" and "thank you." Sigh.

Rude behaviors aside, every time we had one of our awkward-turned-awesome experiences of making new Italian friends, I spent the next day glowing and reminiscing of how much I loved these people. Of how delightful the world is when we spend time getting to know each other, laughing together and kissing each other good-bye.

And every time I had one of those experiences, I also had the thought that being on a tour bus would never, ever have given us—no, FORCED us—into those opportunities. Opportunities that were intimidating at first but opened up our world to friendships and memories that, I hope, will last a lifetime. Opportunities to visit towns, homes and places of beauty well off even the road-less-traveled. (Search for "Fiordo di Crapolla" on Google Map 3D; I hiked there from the top of the hill/mountain with two of our new friends, swam there, and then hiked back up, unlike the tourists who motored in on a boat—which is illegal—and only stayed 30 seconds).

We also had opportunities to eat at an insane number of bars and restaurants. Some that we hit were listed in the tourist guides; those tended to be very good. But the ones which we randomly stumbled across or were recommended by our new friends to have owners and servers that would take care of us—those were the restaurants that we went back to over and over again. I don't care that we weren't trying a new place every meal. The people and the food at these restaurants became home after the hours we spent with them. We didn't want to be anywhere else.

With this repeated visiting of the same restaurants came times when we just told our server to bring whatever dish they loved; we wanted to get out of our food comfort zone. What did this mean? It means we got a lot of fish and seafood. A LOT. I mean, we were in southern Italy. We also got the chef to come out from the kitchen one night and teach us how to eat a whole fish because we had absolutely no idea how to do it.

If you are a loyal reader, you've probably noticed that I don't cook a lot of seafood. And when I do, it's pretty basic. Shrimp. Clams, once in a blue moon. Swordfish even more rarely. That's about it. So this eating-seafood-on-a-daily-basis was really new for me. Like, REALLY. And regardless of the fact that I gained seven pounds in a month (some of it was muscle weight, I swear!), I felt better. I really did. And I really liked all the fishes that I ate. Who knew fresh sardines were out-of-this-world?? (Super bummed they aren't native to the New England waters. Because I would be making them weekly. For real.)

And now we are home. Italy and our new friends are in my dreams every night. I am comforted only by the fact that at least the food we can (mostly) replicate here. We do live with the Atlantic lapping the shore at the end of the block. The unfortunate thing: all this seafood available to me that I learned to love in Italy? I don't know how to prepare it or cook it. Except for sardines from our cooking class with the Duchess. But, we can't...get...


So, two days after we get home, we get an email offering cooking classes with Boston Public Market and Red's Best, a retailer for a network of local fisherman. The class promised to teach how to prepare not just one but THREE different seafood dishes: steamed razor clams, roasted whole scup, and bouillabaisse. DUDE.

Well, I signed us up. We went. We loved it. And we each came home with possibly one of the easiest and most delicious, healthy, not-fishy-at-ALL dinners I've ever made, even if it does sport tiny, razor-sharp teeth:

Whole roasted scup, an economical and sustainable seafood dinner that is delicious and easy!

(How did we prepare it? Roasted it on a baking sheet at 350° F for about half an hour after we stuffed it with some lemon slices and fresh herbs of choice, sprinkled it heavily with salt, and rubbed it with olive oil. That's it.)

NEVER would I have made (and subsequently loved) this dish without Italy. Never.

I'm afraid I might have actually been annoying during the class because I kept remarking of how things reminded me of Italy. Like how the fennel in the bouillabaisse was so Italian. And how our friend, Andrea, had showed us how to clean and trim tuna that his fisherman friend had landed one afternoon. And how we learned to stuff and roll fresh sardines for a gorgeous dish in Palermo and now we are wanting to know what other fish to replace them with...

I'm currently wondering how long this obsession will last. I tend to do that with new things; I get obsessed. A year from now, will I still be telling everyone about the delectable spaghetti con vongole Patrizia's husband made for us in Atrani or of that crazy walk we took to Ravello or of that one time when we were in Trapani and I asked those two men if I could take their picture...?

But honestly, I don't want the obsession to end. I want it to go on and on and continue teaching me the way the past month taught me. As long as I am able, I want to continue living the way that Italy taught me to live: with a full heart, a full belly, a full glass of wine and a full appreciation for the fact that Life hands all of us all kinds of customers. Help each other out in the times of need, share in the goodness when it lands on your plate, and for heaven's sake, EAT.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Learning to Cook Like Grandma: Blanching and Peeling Peaches

Can someone please do me a favor?

The next time I poopoo some "old-fashioned," "time-consuming" technique that our grandmas and their grandmas have done for centuries...


Like, seriously. Geez Louise.

Backstory: my stepson is coming to visit. I want to make him his favorite dessert of all time: fresh peach pie. This entails peeling and cutting up eight big, fat peaches.

In the past, I've "known better" because "the-newfangled-way-has-to-be-better," so I've peeled the peaches with one of these (called a "vegetable peeler"):

(No, I don't know why it is on a chain, either.)

Peeling peaches "my way" resulted in:
  • mangled peaches
  • peaches being shot across the counter or into the sink after slipping from my grip
  • a dramatic loss of perfectly good peach flesh that did not end up in the pie (or anywhere else delicious and purposeful)
Clearly, my way is better than Grandma's, right???

Sigh. I'm such an arrogant ass.

Thank God for waves of "you-know, maybe-I-WILL-try-that-blanching-thing-that-all-the-old-recipes-tell-you-to-do..."

Folks, this is what you get when you blanch and ice peaches before peeling them:

An unpeeled, blanched peach beside peaches that have been blanched and peeled

I KNOW, RIGHT???? The skin peeled off in sheets like paper! No loss of deliciousness! And it would have taken me the SAME amount of time to mangle the peaches with a vegetable peeler than it did to blanch and peel them.

What did I do? Well, by gum, I'll tell you, even though I'm no grandma!
  1. Boil a small pot full of water that is deep enough to cover the largest peach.
  2. While you are waiting for the water to boil, take a paring knife (in the picture above) and carefully score a big 'X' in the bottom of each peach (opposite the stem side).
  3. Now get a big bowl of ice water.
  4. When the water is boiling, gently drop in a peach. Slowly count to 30 as you gently move it around to evenly boil all sides. Remove the peach and drop it in the ice water.
  5. Drop another peach in the boiling water. Count to 30. Remove the peach and drop it in the ice water. Remove the previously iced peach and put it on a plate/cutting board.
  6. Repeat until all the peaches are blanched.
  7. Pick up the first peach you blanched. Take the tip of your knife blade and slide it under the peach skin where it comes to one of the points on the 'X.' Place your thumb on top of the skin (so the skin is sandwiched between the knife blade and your thumb) and gently pull downward. Ta-daaaaa!!!! Repeat all the way around the peach.
  8. Repeat with all the peaches.
Oh my word, my world was changed. My arrogance was duly spanked, yes. And it did smart a bit...

But now there will be PIE.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Open-Faced Tomato Sandwich on Griddled Sourdough Bread

The high point of my summer is finally here: my tomatoes are starting to come in in earnest. And you know how I CAN'T STOP eating them???

How to eat all those tomatoes: open-faced tomato sandwich on griddled sourdough bread recipe

Alright, everybody, follow me:
  • Get yourself a slice of good, hearty bread. I like using Pigs Can Fly Sourdough.
  • Place 2 Tblsp. of good butter in a small skillet and melt over medium heat until it just starts to bubble and sizzle.
  • Place the slice of bread in the pool of melted butter, kind-of mopping up the butter as you do so. Move the bread to the center of the skillet and just let it sit for about 3-4 minutes.
  • Flip the bread over, mopping up any browned butter still in the skillet, and let it sit for another 2-3 minutes.
  • Remove your griddled bread from the pan and place it on a plate. 
  • Slice a thick slice (or two) of beefsteak tomato and lay it on the toast.
  • Sprinkle the tomato with a bit of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • EAT. 
Right???? OMG.

And you are welcome.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The True Definition of a Foodie (According to the Reynolds' Dictionary)

I was in the middle of a very random, non-food-related activity the other day when all of a sudden—like, out of totally nowhere—the thought passed through my mind:
I really miss sitting down to a meal with the Reynolds.
There was a momentary pause in the random task I was completing. The timing of the thought startled me, but upon further reflection, the thought itself did not. It did, however, give me cause to ponder. Ponder for days, in fact.

The Reynolds have been wonderful friends of mine from the moment we first met, but they became a total lifeline to me during my separation and divorce—answering phone calls made out of loneliness and confusion, driving to pick me up so I could join their dinner party, calmly pouring me a glass of wine while willingly listening to my tears and ramblings (totally allowing me to ruin their previously fun evening) and providing me with sage advice.

And when the madness was all said and done, they followed my journey onward: drank countless martinis and bottles of wine with me as I experienced my newfound self and true independence for the first time in my life; met my new boyfriend (Chef Reiton) with open arms; kept the communication lines and last-minute dinner invites open after I moved from Chicago to Wisconsin; and celebrated every single joyous minute of Chef Reiton's and my backyard wedding celebration (like, literally; the Reynolds were the last ones to leave).

The Reynolds have been the truest of friends to me; that is a fact. But it was my week-long pondering that made me realize it was the stage on which the development of our relationship was set that made that exact thought pass through my consciousness. Truly, almost every single interaction that Cyndy, Perry and I have ever had has been set around sitting down to a meal together and just being. For hours at a time we carry on real talk about our real lives while we enjoy real food (and drink. Lots and lots of drink.).

Food for the Reynolds, I now realize, is a gift. It is a gift magnanimously given over the course of an evening during which, somehow, you feel that you are the main event. No matter how many times I have sat down with the Reynolds to a meal—and many of those times started at Cucina Paradiso, a fabulous little Italian restaurant that was a few blocks from our homes, and ended on the Reynolds' balcony in the wee hours of the morning—I have been made to feel enjoyed, cared for, listened to, respected, loved. Loved through the food and loved through the attention given to me and what I had going on in my life at the moment.

And it wasn't just evenings spent at Cucina where I felt this way. Many of our evenings spent were small get-togethers at their home. Traipsing up the stairs to their flat, I would be greeted by Perry who would lift me off the floor in a hug before leading me to the kitchen to find Cyndy. There she would be, masterfully finishing the touches on the food prepared by her own loving hands and artistic eye (I say "artistic" because it is not uncommon to hear Cyndy use adjectives like "gorgeous," "lovely" or "beautiful" as she is describing food). There I would be greeted with her own hugs and smiles. Then would come the barrage of questions about my life...the further questioning as the wine was poured...the laying out of a simple but beautiful appetizer board...

And that was the start of the evening.

I wish you could experience it. Cyndy and Perry don't just "have a way" of making you feel like the world's greatest guest. For that evening, you really are.

And there is more to it. You know how I said that Cyndy has this artistic way with food? It's something that I noticed about her the first time I went to their house for dinner. Food, for Cyndy, isn't just made to taste good. It's prepared to look good, too. And in eating my first lovely meal at their home, I noticed something about myself as a gorgeously arranged platter of food was set in front of me: I felt honored. Cyndy's meal was so simple yet so obviously created with love and care for the visual and culinary experience of her guests.

It's the combination of both those things—the warmth and sincere curiosity that they have about you AND the beautiful presentation of a delicious meal so lovingly prepared—that made me realize that is what makes me miss my meals with them. I miss the activity of their friendship and I miss feeling loved with their laughter, wine and beautiful food. Because that—all of it—is their love language.

Upon that realization, a secondary thought hit me:
I want to be like that with my heart and my food. 
I want people to know that I love them because of the straight-up, honest-to-goodness food I prepare for them. I want to set that stage and then take the time in an evening to demonstrate true, sincere care in getting to know my guests. Because I'm realizing that is the true definition of a foodie.

It's not about taking great food pictures or being able to go out to this restaurant or that restaurant and enjoying someone else's amazing food, or even about writing a food blog.

Being a foodie is about learning how to make your own delicious food, no matter how simple, and sharing it with people you love while providing them an evening to relax, talk about themselves, and be heard, honored and cared for.

Cyndy and Perry, my true foodie friends—you are missed.

And thank you.

The True Definition of a Foodie (According to the Reynolds' Dictionary)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

How to Hand Your Heart over the Fence (or, Love in Arancini)

I'm working in my garden with Chef Reiton the other morning, pruning the insanity that is my tomato patch (in a good way), when I hear my name said in the most perfect Sicilian accent you could possibly imagine. I look up to find Paola, my next-door neighbor, standing on her upstairs balcony, waving.

"I have something for you," she says. "Wait five minutes. I come down."

If you've read my blog long enough (soon entering its 9th year!), you will remember when I moved to Boston two years ago and wrote about Paola and her proffered peaches in my post, Brandied Peaches and Cream at Midnight (which I just reread and realized that not only did I spell Paola's name incorrectly, I also haven't made that dessert again and I want to! A cool, creamy, low-sugar dessert that uses summer fruit and liquor! YUM).

Well, since that post, we have had Paola over many times. We have gotten to know her very well, and let me tell you: everything my gut told me about her back when we first met was true. I'll finish my story, and you will understand.

Back to me in my garden: I wait five minutes. Soon I hear the downstairs screen door open, and here comes Paola, carefully navigating the porch stairs with a foil-covered plate in hand. We both walk toward the low cedar fence that divides our yards. I don't know what's under that foil, but already I'm smiling.

"This is for you," she says as she hands the plate over the fence, she smiling, too.

I accept the plate with a "Thank you!" and hold it to my chest.

"Well, don't you want to see what it is?" she says. "Open it!"

I laugh because I don't know how to explain my love of suspense as being the reason why I hadn't unwrapped the plate—but then I cautiously lift the foil.

Set squarely in the center of the plate are three golden brown, piping hot, perfect arancini.

For readers like me, who—oh, about two years ago—had no idea what arancini was, I will educate you: in its basic form, arancini are rice balls that have been stuffed with some type of filling and then coated in breadcrumbs and fried.  Like practically every food, there are different interpretations of what its filling "should" be, but mine—the ones sitting on the plate in my hand—were made by a Sicilian home cook who uses her experience and what she has on hand to guide her. "Meat, egg, scamorza cheese. There are usually peas, but I didn't have any," she says, "so I used some basil instead." With her years of practice in a Sicilian kitchen, they were shaped into cones that would make any art teacher proud.

Paola goes on to tell me that she had made them and fresh "gravy" (a simple tomato sauce that Italians use with pasta and meats) for her grandson to take to work for lunch, and she decided that she wanted me to have them for lunch, too.

And so we do.

Homemade Sicilian arancino with gravy (tomato sauce)

As Chef Reiton and I sit and eat, moaning over the delicious simplicity of this food we were experiencing for the first time, I almost yell out, "Paola, I love you!"

Homemade Sicilian arancino filled with meat, egg, scamorza cheese and basil, served with gravy (tomato sauce)

And as I sit and sip my wine and savor the lethargic effects of all great Italian cooking, I realize why I wanted to yell such words.

It was because those words were what she was telling me when she handed the plate of arancini over the fence.

This aracino, this little creation I had just consumed, had been made with thoughts of me. And it wasn't just any old food that had been shared: it was a food that was a part of Paola. A part of her story. A part of her repertoire of ways she expresses her love for others.

When that plate came over the fence, it wasn't just arancini on the plate. It was also Paola's heart.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Sidney at Willoughby Run — Gettysburg, PA — A Restaurant Recommendation

When my siblings and I visit my parents in southern Pennsylvania, we tend to have the tradition of going out to eat at least once at my parents' favorite restaurant, Cafe D'Italia, located on the square of downtown Chambersburg. It's a delightful little place that offers real Italian cooking by a young chef who loves what he does.

This past visit, however, Cafe D'Italia was closed for renovations. My sisters and I wanted to take my parents out to celebrate their anniversary, and so we were a little bit stumped. What was close by but worthy enough to honor my parents for their anniversary dinner?

After some research, my eldest sister came up with a solution: Sidney at Willoughby Run in Gettysburg, PA. The reviews seemed to be pretty good, and so we took the plunge.

After living in Chicago and Boston more than half my life, I have to admit, I've become pretty accustomed to having my pick of super-great restaurants. I no longer fear reheated frozen vegetables on my dinner plate at the local "nice" restaurant. But when I'm back in my small hometown in ol' PA, it's pretty hard to find a place that doesn't serve just that.

So that is what I was honestly expecting when we drove up to Sidney's. It was located on a golf course, so that right there meant weddings. And when we walked in, the decor was nice, but it still had that "hotel" feel to it. You know, large rooms with "elegantly" patterned, wall-to-wall carpet. And wainscoting. And draperies. Which was all translating to "canned gravy+slices of dry roast beef" in my head.

And I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Let me just put it this way: I was shocked—SHOCKED—at not only the homey hospitality that was exuded by the staff of Sidney's but also by what the chef was cranking out of the kitchen. Every single dish we tried was delicious, beautifully presented, and accompanied by the sincerest charm of our server. I was so engrossed, in fact, that I actually forgot to take pictures!

I take that back. I did snag a shot of my parents toasting each other with the champagne that our server graciously provided to help them celebrate:

An anniversary toast, provided by Sidney at Willoughby Run in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

And I did get a shot of the glorious dessert we all shared, a creation composed of sour cherry sorbet, baby panna cottas, cilantro flowers, torn and dried cake crumbles, and crisp, piped meringues.

The sour cherry composed dessert at Sidney at Willoughby Run in Gettysburg, PA

It was a spectacular end to a spectacular evening, an anniversary celebration that we all were looking forward to, and none of us expected to be so special. 

Will we all be going back? Heck, yeah. Cafe D'Italia has got some competition finally, I believe. Anniversary or not, I think we'll find an excuse to go back to Sidney's. It's chef and it's staff have done what every restaurant dreams of doing: they completely won over our hearts.

Keep it up, Sidney. We expect to see you next time.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Childhood Classic or A New Classic Cocktail?: The Baldwin Bar's Take on Encyclopedia Brown

Ran and Company have done it again.

After spending the entire day yesterday impatiently waiting for evening to arrive, Chef Reiton and I drove to Woburn and spent the dinner hour with some friends, sampling dishes and creations from Volume 2 of the Trading Company's newest menu.

May I suggest, based on our completely destroying all five dishes brought to our table, the Cucumber with Garlic Sauce as an appetizer? It will leave your mouth singing, but your tongue will get used to it, I promise. We also loved the House Special Eggplant, one of Sichuan Garden's chicken dishes that will not leave your nose running (Ran's father runs the restaurant portion downstairs; it is the best Sichuan food you will ever eat. For real.). When it comes to the beverages, I also highly recommend that you just let the staff pick what you drink. Trust me.

We had the great pleasure to be served by Luteh, who can not only read minds but also has the uncanny ability to see into your past. How do I know? Because at the end of our meal, at my request to "just have one more," I was delivered this:

The Encyclopedia Brown cocktail at The Baldwin Bar, Woburn, Massachusetts, my first cocktail-in-a-flask ever!

What you see is a little box disguised as a book. Tucked inside are a frosty flask full of the dreamiest (yes, dreamiest) bourbon cocktail I've had in a long time—if ever; a frosty glass with a wedge of lemon peel clothespinned to the rim; and a "library" card printed with the recipe for the cocktail: The Encyclopedia Brown.

(Pardon the imperfect picture, but it's romantically dark in the bar, and I was using my phone. One of these days I will take an Uber and my good camera and go crazy.)

I'm tempted to provide the recipe here, but—I'm a librarian and a violent opponent of copyright infringement, so.... I think you will have to go yourself. If you read the Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid, you'll remember that Encyclopedia Brown would never have stood for such injustice, either.

So. Instead of going to that truly God-awful Chinese restaurant down the street, make a reservation online for the upstairs section of The Baldwin Bar. Savor every bite of your mind- and tongue-numbingly good dinner, every divinely drinkable work of art that are the cocktails, and at the end of dinner, ask to check out "Encyclopedia Brown." It's a "read" you will never forget.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Delicate Nasturtium Flower...and How to Eat It (and Other Lovely Blooms)


A nasturtium flower

is a nasturtium flower.

A sweet, delicate specimen, it grows from long and leggy stems, protected by lily pad-like leaves.

A yellow nasturtium flower

Orange nasturtium flowers in a garden

Loved by bees but hated by garden pests, I plant them amongst my veggies in my garden boxes in order to deter bugs that will destroy my tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers.

But I have to admit: I also plant them because I like to EAT THEM.

There is nothing more beautiful on a summer dinner table than the bright splash of flowers on your cool, green salad.

Nasturtium flowers on a green salad for eating

And there is nothing more delicious than the peppery bite of a nasturtium flower crunching between your teeth.

Okay, well, maybe this garlicky, paprika-y, finger-sucking-good chicken we experimented with last night:

Garlic-and-Paprika-Rubbed Spatchcocked Grilled Chicken

Chef Reiton and I intend to experiment further on wings, instead. (We'll get back to you.)

The next flower we intend to devour? These babies:

Squash blossoms for stuffing, frying and eating

Squash (or zucchini) blossoms. When I can't take eating one more damn zucchini this summer, I will be plucking these gorgeous blooms then stuffing and frying them in an attempt to mimic one of the jewels of our Besh Restaurant Honeymoon. (This, too, we will keep you informed on.)

Also waiting to be eaten in my garden? Violas.

Purple and yellow violas in my garden

Orange violas in my garden

Time for a crash-course in sugaring flowers for a cake? I think so! (Aaaaaaand, I'll keep you posted on that, too.)

God bless summer, right?!?!? 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Awesomeness of Dinner Leftovers: Breakfast Barbacoa with Eggs

What to do with leftover chipotle barbacoa from our amazing Latin dinner?

Breakfast barbacoa, baby.

Heat the chipotle beef in a skillet on medium with a bit of cotija (or whatever you've got) cheese sprinkled on top. Crack in a few eggs and sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Simmer away for a few minutes until the egg whites are mostly set.

chipotle barbacoa reheated in a skillet, topped with eggs and cotija cheese

Broil for a couple more minutes until whites are all white but yolks are still runny. Sprinkle with more cotija cheese and chopped cilantro and serve.

chipotle barbacoa in a skillet, topped with eggs, cotija cheese and cilantro

A gluten-free, primal, protein-packed breakfast with a kick. Dig in!

breakfast barbacoa made with leftover chipotle beef or barbacoa, cotija cheese, eggs and cilantro

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Latin American Dinner Menu—and a Few Reminders of Why I Cook (and You Should, Too)

I woke this morning to dreams of last night's dinner—the dinner I emergency-posted last night in a fit of delirious food love. Our kitchen still held the faintest smell of smoky chipotle as I came downstairs for our morning coffee. If we had been hungry, I would have pulled out a bit of the barbacoa, heated it up in the skillet and cracked an egg on top for Chef Reiton.

But we weren't hungry at four in the morning, so instead I uploaded our dinner photos from last night and dorkily reminisced over how fantastic it was.

A Latin American dinner of sorts with barbacoa on homemade corn tortillas, tostones and cucumber and mango chow

Our menu? It was an eclectic compilation of Latin American foods:
  • Puerto Rican tostones with mayo-ketchup
  • Mexican barbacoa served on homemade corn tortillas
  • Caribbean cucumber and mango chow
I definitely can't say the dishes we served were all 100% authentic, but I can say that, holy cow, I didn't want to stop eating!

This dinner, believe it or not, was actually super simple and quick. The barbacoa is made in the crockpot; the tostones fry up (twice!) in about 5 minutes total once the oil is hot; and the chow takes about 10 minutes to assemble before it chills in the fridge. The longest part is the tortilla preparation, but that—that I will get to. Save the best for last...

First, the chow. I may have already mentioned this salad-of-sorts in a previous post. I've certainly made it several times already since it was published by Bon Appétit in their April 2017 issue. The recipe is from Miss Ollie of Miss Ollie's in Oakland, CA. It has an easy-to-find list of ingredients and can be made in about ten minutes. The best part is that it can be made a few hours ahead and chilled in the fridge while you are making the rest of your dinner. I love it for its sweet but peppery mango, the heat of chiles, the coolness of cucumber, and the tang of lime. The cilantro allows you to serve it with a variety of ethnic foods that love cilantro: Thai, Mexican, Caribbean. It's simply fantastic.

Next, the tostones. Tostones are thick slices of green plantain that have been fried, flattened, fried again, then sprinkled with adobo seasoning and served with garlicky mayo-ketchup. We learned how to make these babies when we recently had our friend Chaz (JetBlue's BEST flight attendant!) over to cook a Puerto Rican dinner (yes, I will blog on that soon!). 

Green plantain slices after their first fry for tostones

A fried slice of green plantain waiting to be pressed in a tostonera

Pressing a fried slice of green plantain for a tostone

Smashing a fried slice of green plantain for a tostone

A smashed slice of fried green plantain ready to be fried again for a tostone

Not only are these just flat-out fun to make (no pun intended, really!), they are absolutely delicious and healthy, with about 2 grams of dietary fiber for half a green plantain and a low glycemic index. And as for the frying, if you still think fried food is horribly unhealthy, that's because—sorry—you are doing it wrong. Food properly fried barely absorbs any fat; the water in the food immediately starts to steam when the food is dropped into the screaming hot oil, pushing water out of the food so that the fat can't soak in. Don't believe me? Read the transcript of a Good Eats episode by Alton Brown, one of my favorite food scientists, who explains it in a more entertaining way. You can also do a bit of research on this. You'll find that science is right. Thank you, science. 

Now for the barbacoa. I have no idea who Queen To Y'All is, but I want to thank her for posting this recipe on Recipezaar.com years ago and making me and my friends extremely happy. It was a required party staple during my years in Chicago. Now you can find the recipe under "Chipotle Roast for Tacos and Sandwiches" on Food.com. It's awesomely simple. Dump all the ingredients into the Crockpot in the morning, set her on low, and walk away until it's time to prep the rest of dinner. It will sit and simmer happily, silently taunting you, wafting smells of cumin and spice all day long. When it's time to eat, stir it all up with a slotted spoon and put it on the table. That's it. 

We are now left with the best for last... 

I've never in my life eaten a fresh corn tortilla. Even the Mexican restaurants that I've visited use prepackaged. You can tell: they are rubbery, pretty darn tasteless, and absolutely perfectly round. It's actually kind-of too bad I made these (in a good way) because after eating them, I don't know that I'm ever going to be able to eat another commercially made tortilla again.

Corn tortillas may somehow look complicated (like anything does when you've never made one) but in reality are super simple to make. They are made with a fine corn flour called "masa harina" (I used Bob's Red Mill—totally gluten-free, by the way, and you can find it in most grocery stores), salt and water. I used my stand mixer to blend the ingredients into a smooth paste, then Chef Reiton formed them into little balls.

Shaping the masa dough into little balls

We experimented with different ways to roll them out. Chef Reiton started by rolling them on a sheet of parchment

Experimenting rolling out masa dough for homemade corn tortillas

but we decided that they tore less and came out rounder if they were flattened with my palm between two sheets of parchment and then rolled gently.

Rolling out a homemade corn tortilla between two sheets of parchment paper

Homemade corn tortillas made with masa harina

We also learned that the little balls need to be kept under a damp towel while the tortillas are being rolled out. They started to dry out rather quickly, making them break and tear when they were rolled. Because of this learning curve, I ended up actually dipping the last several balls of dough into a bowl of water twice then rekneading them to soften them back up again.

With our cast iron skillet smoking hot, we cooked up the tortillas, one minute a side, finishing with a final thirty seconds after the second flip. Later we realized we should have had two skillets going at a time. Duh. It would have gone faster.

Cooking a homemade corn tortilla in a cast iron skillet on the stove

The recipe for these tortillas came from a wonderful cookbook by Marilyn and Luis Peinado called Bienvenidos to Our Kitchen: Authentic Mexican Cooking. The book is loaded with every single authentic Mexican dish you've ever eaten plus some. 

A cookbook by Luis and Marilyn Peinado called Bienvenidos to Our Kitchen: Authentic Mexican Cooking

You are in luck, too! New copies are still available on Amazon.com as well as used copies on BarnesandNoble.com and eBay.

As Chef Reiton and I sat sipping our rioja at the end of the meal, we couldn't stop oohing and ahhhing over our empty plates. I do not mean this as a boast, but how could we have made probably the best Latin meal I have ever had in our North American kitchen?

The answers are simple:
  1. We are willing to experiment making new foods.
  2. We are willing to mess up and learn from our mistakes for the next time we try it.
  3. We are into saving money while eating food that is usually better than a restaurant's.
Do you want to know how much our dinner for two last night cost us? Actually it's probably closer to three dinners for two, thanks to the leftovers. Let's assume that going out for an average Mexican dinner costs $60 for two people. Sound reasonable? Maybe even a little cheap if you throw a few margaritas into the bill? 

Well, here's what I spent at Market Basket on the ingredients that make three full meals for two (and I'm even going to assume you don't have staples like cumin, garlic, chile powder or oil). I'll even throw in the bottle of wine we had with dinner:
  • 2 lb. chuck roast from Walden Local Meats, my pasture-raised meat share: $20.00
  • can of green chiles: $.99
  • can of chipotle peppers: $2.69
  • onion: $.43
  • can of salsa verde (even though mine was free because I used my own): $1.29
  • beef consumme (used my own, again, so technically free): $1.89
  • garlic head: $.40
  • cumin: $1.59
  • chile powder: $1.29
  • adobo seasoning: $2.79
  • green plantain: $.33
  • corn oil: $3.09
  • masa harina: $2.99
  • hothouse cucumber: $.99
  • mango: $.99
  • cilantro: $.99
  • shallot: $.25
  • bottle of wine: $18.00
TOTAL: $60.99

So, for a more expensive, pasture-raised roast, a good bottle of wine and ALL the ingredients for the meal, I spent the same as the cost of a Mexican dinner out—and I'll actually get THREE dinners for two out of last night, not just the one. AND my homemade dinner was SO MUCH BETTER than the food you get at a restaurant.

And it's not ME who is awesome! It's the FOOD!!!


I'll calm down. But, folks...this is why I cook. And it's why you should, too. It's cheaper. It's healthier. It's waaaaaaay deliciouser. (I know.)

So. Think about what foods you love. Find the recipes. Buy the ingredients. Make the meal. Even if you "screw up," it's going to be good.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Homemade Corn Tortillas (and How They Can Blow Your Mind)

I don't really have time to write right now...

But I just finished one of the most delicious multi-cultural dinners I have ever made, and I'm presently completely obsessed with the amazingness of fresh corn tortillas.

I swear more will follow. I PROMISE more will follow. But I will also tell you this right now: I will NEVER buy packaged corn tortillas EVER AGAIN. I don't care if they are $1. I don't care if they are

All I know is that what Chef Reiton and I made tonight fricking blew my mind. It wasn't even the same food. Like, seriously. It in no way resembled the tasteless, perfectly round, I-have-to-cook-them-anyway tortillas that I buy at the store.

Which means they were flawed in their roundness. Yes. My anal side really struggled with not being able to make them pretty. But it made no difference in how they tasted. What we made were earthy, vaguely sweet, hearty and hefty. We loaded them with shredded chipotle beef, and did they break like measly, pasty, supermarket tortillas? No. Were they supple, golden and screaming with flavor? A resounding YESSSSSSS!!!

And now I must go. We have to get up at a ridiculous hour tomorrow morning. I just needed to get this off my chest. I'll post the menu tomorrow. Swear...

Buenas noches, amigos. Te veo mañana.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Learning to Devein Fresh Shrimp: A How-to Video

A while back I posted a recipe on Ginger-Lime Shrimp. I promised you all at the time that I would create a video showing how exactly to "devein" (or de-poop, really) the little suckers without tearing into the entire back, destroying the aesthetic quality of a beautifully curled, perfectly cooked shrimp.

Well, a year later, here I am. It's ridiculous, I know, but there were just too many times that I was peeling and deveining shrimp while Chef Reiton was still at work, and my camera is too heavy for my tripod, and... Ugh. Excuses. But good ones, I swear.

Before I show you the video, I want to descriptively run through what I do, as well as show you a few pictures, in case it is unclear in the video.

And, remember, this is how I do it. Technically, you don't even need to devein your shrimp. You can eat the whole damn thing—head, shell, guts and all—if you want. I don't want to, so the following video shows how I choose to prepare my shrimp, fresh (not frozen) and beheaded by the local fishmonger.

To begin with, you first must PEEL the shrimp (unless you are having guests peel their own at the table during a casual dinner). I generally do this by pinching the legs between my thumb and the side of my pointer finger and tugging them sideways. This usually loosens the shell, too. Then I peel off the shell surrounding the shrimp and gently tug off the tail casing. You CAN leave the tail on if you prefer a kind of "handle" on your shrimp if it's acting as a finger food.

After your shrimp are peeled, it's time to devein. When you buy shrimp, the entire head and guts portion are already cut off and discarded—except for the intestine. "Deveining" means that you are removing the intestine that runs down the back of the shrimp. You do NOT need to do anything to the dark line running along its belly: it's just a nerve. See the shrimp diagram below for clarification (thank you, shrimp-culture.blogspot.com):

Shrimp diagram for learning how to devein shrimp

Yes, you can buy deveined shrimp at the store, but this usually means the shrimp are handled by a machine which leaves a huge slice down their backs. They are typically then frozen into an unsightly mass of flayed, frost-bitten flesh. Such shrimp still taste and look just as frost-bitten and unsightly after they are prepared, and being a cook that likes to make my food not just attractive to the tongue but also to the eyes, I have learned to buy fresh shrimp and peel and devein them myself. Does it take extra time? Yes. But I'm not making shrimp every day, so I'm willing to put in the extra work when I need to. The sweet tenderness of un-frozen, un-molested shrimp is definitely worth it.

To devein, you will need a paring knife and a colander. I usually do this activity over a sink with running water to rinse the shrimp or knife as needed. You will be inserting the blade of your paring knife BLADE UP into the shrimp.

How to devein shrimp pictures and video

The intestine USUALLY shows as a dark "dot" in the neck of the shrimp. This is the start of the intestine. What makes it dark is the poop.

The intestine of a shrimp that is removed while deveining shrimp

Just below and beside this dot is where you are going to insert the tip of the knife.

Where to insert a knife while deveining shrimp

Only insert about 1/4-inch of the knife tip and slice up. With a little bit of fishing with the knife tip, you should reveal a section of the intestine. Using your thumb and fingertip, grasp the end of the intestine and pull firmly but gently. If you yank, you will snap the intestine and have to slice further down the back to reach the rest of it.

Let me show you with a video. It's not professional, but it will at least give you an idea of what I'm doing.

If you are even more confused than ever after watching the video, please feel free to ask me a question in the comments section below. I will do what I can to help. Or you can send us a picture of your beautiful, poop-free shrimp! Yippeeeeeee!

And check out the other videos in CAF's "How the Hell do I...?" video series. You can subscribe to our channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTnyS-M2IZ5uWvkwLI8dhxQ.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Use Them While They're Hot!: Learning to Grill Ahead

Last night I sat outside at the dinner table, noshing with utter abandon on this glorious baba ghanoush made straight from the grill (thank you once again, Melissa Joulwan!), when I had an epiphany:

Use Them While They're Hot!: Learning to Grill Ahead

It's summer, it's hot, and cooking outside on the grill is really the way to go. Food magically tastes twice as good cooked over smoky charcoal. But I have to be fair to Grillmaster Reiton. Standing over 600° coals in 90° weather night after night probably isn't as much fun as sitting on the deck with a chilled glass of rosé in hand (which is what I do). Sooooo (here comes the epiphany)...

Why not grill several meals' worth of stuff all at once? Use those coals once for a week of food?

It's kind-of like that cooking fad that my mom and aunt got into about ten years ago, where you would do this huge shop and cook like a mad woman for an entire day to make meals that would last you a month.

Except I love to cook. And I love to eat fresh. And, call me impractical or inefficient or what-have-you, I don't really freeze a lot of food. Maybe I'm doing it wrong, but I find that the freezer changes the texture of foods in ways that I don't like, so instead I tend to grocery shop for the week.

So if I shop for the week, why not grill for the week?

For example, my dinner menus for this week call for a number of things that I could have grilled last night and then reheated or eaten cold. Here's a snapshot of my notes for dinner this week:

Planning the dinner menus for the week

(Yes, I had a dinner party Sunday!)

A more efficient grill could look something like this: before Grillmaster Reiton grilled our chicken and eggplant for last night's dinner, we could have grilled the ribs (later reheated at low heat in a foil packet in the oven), the butternut (finished cooking the mash in the oven), the steak (grilled slightly underdone and reheated it in a cast iron skillet) and the burgers (also slightly underdone and finished in a skillet).

Then Chef Reiton could also be sitting with a chilled glass of rosé, eating this silky, smoky dip with crisp, cool veggies as an appetizer, now that a decent chunk of time was added back to our summer evenings.  

Use Them While They're Hot!: Learning to Grill Ahead

I think I'll give this a go and see what we think, then I'll get back to you to let you know if it's successful.

I hope it is. I mean, really, I'd rather not be drinking alone...

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