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!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Catch of the Day

As a child, I was very intrigued by what my mother, but particularly my grandmothers were cooking in the kitchen.  When I became a mother myself in 1989, I had dreams of passing those traditions down to my daughter, Alyssa.  Although she was not as intrigued by the mystique of cooking as I was, she did help assist with various holiday baking, which she still remembers to this day.

Now grown up and on her own, my daughter had a wonderful opportunity to go fishing off the coast of Seattle, where she now lives.  She had a great time and caught one large salmon, which was later cleaned and filleted for her.  She sent me this picture of her holding her great catch along with "How do I cook it?"
Alyssa caught the big one!

Salmon is one of my favorite fishes (and hers too!) and I love to try new and exciting recipes. One of my favorite go to recipes is for Barbecue Roasted Salmon.  This is the recipe I sent her to cook her freshly caught salmon that night along with rice pilaf and a salad. Keep in mind that she had just moved into her first apartment, so ingredients, utensils, etc. were very sparse at the time.  Later that night, I received pictures of her fresh salmon dinner masterpiece. Interestingly, she seemed to be quite pleasantly surprised when it turned out just like mine.  The proof that it was as good as she said it was is that there was not a flake of fish left- that's all you need to know that this recipe will be sure to reel you in, and before you know it, you'll be hooked on this salmon!
Nicely filleted salmon

The flavor of this salmon is an intriguing blend of sweet (thanks to brown sugar and cinnamon), spicy (chili powder and cumin lend a barbecue flavor), and tart (lemon rind).  You don't have to cook the salmon on a cedar plank, however I prefer to because the infusion of the cedar lends yet another layer of flavor.  

Barbecue Roasted Salmon

1/4 c pineapple juice
2 T fresh lemon juice
Roasting on the grill
4 (6 oz) salmon fillets
2 T brown sugar
4 t chili powder
2 t grated lemon rind
1/4 t ground cumin
1/2 t salt
Catch of the Day is served!
1/4 t cinnamon
lemon slices (optional)

Combine first three ingredients and let marinate in a shallow pan in refrigerator for one hour. Meantime, combine sugar and next 5 ingredients in a bowl.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees (or soak a cedar plan in cool water).  Remove fish from liquid and discard marinade.  Rub barbecue mixture over fish and place in 11 x 17 inch baking dish covered with cooking spray (or cedar plank).  Bake for 12 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.  Serve with lemon slices.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I Cook- Let Me Count the Ways...

I am not a chef, but I love to cook. Never really thought about why until now.  Probably because it's not for a singular reason, but rather many.  While my husband may argue that it's all about the music, I have always maintained that it's really all about the food.  [May 17, 2012 post]. Although there are many similarities between food and music.... and they both compliment each other quite well.

I learned to cook at a young age and continued to hone this skill throughout my adult life. However, it wasn't until the last few years that it became more of a vocation for me. I love cooking, I love teaching what I know about cooking, I love talking about cooking and making people happy with my cooking.  But if I had to deconstruct WHY, it would be because:

I celebrate with food

To honor what's in season

Food is comforting

To carry on traditions

My kitchen is my sanctuary

To unleash my inner chef

It touches all the senses

For instant gratification

A new ingredient is like a new toy

To travel the world

A good recipe never gets old

To show my love every day

Sunday, March 30, 2014

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four....

One Potato, two potato, three potato, four.... I can't believe I forgot the rest of it! Decades later, I am at a loss for what was once a childhood standard for me. I can even see me with my friends doing this in the back yard with our fists....Yikes!! 
Fresh Garden Potatoes

In any event, I never realized or appreciated just how good fresh garden potatoes could be until my husband and I started growing them in our garden which yields approx. 3 bushels of red and white potatoes each year.  People frequently ask him, "What is Marcia going to do with all those potatoes?" Well, truth be told, I use most of them. I'm not married to Mr. Meat &Potatoes for nothing, ya know! 

Who was it that said, "I never met a potato that I didn't like!" I think it may have been Oprah. French fries, mashed potatoes, potato pancakes, scalloped potatoes, gnocchi, spaetzel, baked potatoes, roasted potatoes.... [flashback to the floor scrubbing scene in Forrest Gump]. Who doesn't love potatoes? They're the perfect accompaniment to any meat, or poultry dish, and so versatile too. Consider potatoes to go with braised short ribs, roasted chicken or even as an appetizer- baby ones, served with sour cream and chives. Want a new twist on some old favorites?  Check these out (big nod to Ming Tsai for the inspiration!).  Believe me when I say that they will soon become your new go to favorites!
Crushed potatoes before roasting

Oven Roasted Potato Rounds
small red or white potatoes
olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Arrange potatoes on a rimmed cookie sheet and add 1/2 to 3/4 cup water, depending on how many potatoes there are.  Tightly wrap with aluminum foil and bake (actually they steam) in the oven for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven, remove foil and sop up any remaining water with a paper towel. Take a glass measuring cup or heavy mug and squish each potato until they are about 1/2 - 3/4 inches thick, but not broken.  Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. [I have replaced pan roasted potatoes with these because you don't have to watch over them as they cook and they make a much more attractive presentation].
Blue Cheese Smashed Potatoes with Lamb Chops

Blue Cheese Smashed Potatoes
4 large baking potatoes
1 c. heavy cream
1 c. crumbled blue cheese or gorgonzola
salt and pepper
1/2 lb. fresh baby spinach, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Wrap each potato in foil and prick several times with a fork through the foil.  Bake until soft, about 45 min. to 1 hour.  Remove potatoes.  In a large, heavy skillet, heat cream over high heat until it comes to a simmer.  Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the cream is reduced by half, about 10 min.  Add the cheese and stir to blend.  

Place the potatoes in a large bowl and use a potato masher or 2 large forks to mash them, skin and all.  Fold the hot cream mixture (and fresh spinach, if desired) into the potatoes and season with salt and pepper.  

Twice Baked Potatoes 

Twice Baked Potatoes
5 large potatoes
1 pt. sour cream
8 oz. shredded cheddar cheese + extra for the top
chopped chives, bacon and extra sour cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Rub potatoes with butter and bake 1 1/4 hours.  Prick potatoes 1/2 way into cooking time.  Remove potatoes and let cool enough to handle.  Cut potatoes in half and scoop out the insides into a medium bowl.  Add remaining ingredients and fill potato skins.  Sprinkle with extra cheese (and chives, if desired). [Potatoes can be frozen at this point and baked at a later date]. Bake at 350 degrees for 1/2 hour. Remove from oven and drizzle with sour cream and top with chopped fresh chives and bacon crumbles.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Forward

Looking back on 2013, I've done a lot to help others through mentoring, community service, fundraising, friendship, etc., however failed to help myself in some ways.  I'm not the only one out there who needs to stop pressing the rewind button on the things that need to be deleted from my life. We all fall prey to this at one time or another.  It creeps up without warning and invades the space in your mind that rehashes the past and prevents you from moving forward. Yet despite having read the book What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, I still find myself falling into the same senselessness.

As I look forward to 2014, I remain mindful that we are not helpless victims of our own thoughts, but rather masters of our minds.  The past is done and gone and the fact of the matter is that nothing can change it, no matter how much we want to or attempt to try.  But we can change the future and how we approach the way we choose to live our lives.  What do you need to let go? Take a deep breath, relax and say to yourself:

I am willing to let go
I release
I let go
I release all anger
I release guilt
I release all sadness
I let go of old limitations
I let go and am at peace
I am at peace with myself
I am at peace with the process of life
I am safe

WOW.... a little heavy for New Year's Eve, don't you think?? Maybe.  Maybe not.  Truth is that now that I've written it down, it will become more tangible for me, and hopefully for you as well. 

On to more fun things.... New Year's Eve is all about celebration, right?  So how will you be ringing in 2014?  I plan on spending it with my husband at home with some of our favorite food (thank you Ming!) and wine as we watch the Twilight Zone marathon :))) 

New Year's Day is typically a day wrought with hangovers.  We can all admit to enjoying the celebrations a little too much, so for those of you who will be celebrating with more enthusiasm than me, I offer you the perfect hangover cure.  It's delicious, fast to make, and full of things that are supposedly good for a hangover: bananas for potassium, ginger to help soothe the stomach, and a shot of rum for the hair of the dog.... 

Excerpted from Ed Kimber's Say It With Cake, this recipe gives us hope for the morning after a night of overindulgence.  At the very least, this cake offers a hearty homemade dose of comfort.

Hangover Cake

4 T butter, room temp.
3/4 c flour
1 t. baking powder
2 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. salt
1/2 c superfine sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 t. vanilla
1/4 c plain yogurt

3 T butter
1/4 c light brown sugar
2 T dark rum
3 large bananas

Preheat oven to 350.  Lightly grease 8" cake pan.  To make the topping, put the butter in a small pan over med. heat.  When butter is melted, add sugar and cook until you have a smooth sauce.  Remove from heat and add rum.  Taste the caramel and if you want a stronger flavor, add a little more rum.  Pour the caramel into the base of the prepared pan and set aside.

In med. bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, ginger and salt together then set aside.  Put the butter in a med. bowl and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 min.  Add the sugar and beat together. Then add egg and vanilla, a little at a time, beating until fully combined.

Add half the flour mixture, mixing until just combined.  Mix in yogurt, then add the remainder of the flour, stirring until just combined.

Peel and slice bananas into 1/2 inch slices and spread across the bottom of the prepared pan. Top with cake batter in an even layer.  Bake for 25 - 30 min. Let the cake cook in the pan for 10 min. before inverting onto a wire rack.  Best served warm.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What's in YOUR Pantry?

Inspired by the Architect's Bag series in the Life of an Architect blog by Bob Borson, not only did I take a deeper look into my own bag, but into my pantry as well.  When I think about it, the two are very similar in that they both contain what I need to do my job well- whether it's marketing construction services, or cooking a meal.

Granted, my pantry is a little bigger than most, however the rule of thumb is the same: have enough ingredients to pull a meal together at a moment's notice- hence, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca (literally "spaghetti a la whore" in Italian) which is a tangy pasta dish invented in the mid-20th century by women who would put a simple pasta dish together for their gentleman callers. The ingredients are typical of Southern Italian cuisinetomatoesolive oilolivescapers and garlic

I like to organize the pantry according to items that are used together such as baking items, dried spices, condiments, canned items, cereals, etc. Why is it important to organize the pantry?  It saves you money by identifying what you're using and not using, allows you to take stock of your cooking habits, and tells you what you should and should not buy in bulk. Need help getting started? Real Simple magazine has provided a checklist which you can print out which includes the essential items you should have on hand in both your pantry and your refrigerator:

  • Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3-4 canned anchovies, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 Tbsp small capers
  • 3/4 cup pitted olives (black or green), roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Salt
  • Olive oil for drizzling

pasta-puttanesca-1 pasta-puttanesca-4
1 Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, deep saute pan. When the oil is hot, sauté the onions until they're soft and translucent, about 4-5 minutes. While the onions are cooking, stir in the chopped anchovies along with some of the oil from the can. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
2 Mix in the tomato paste  and cook it for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, chili pepper flakes, and olives. Turn the heat down to a gentle simmer.
3 Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When you add the spaghetti to the boiling water to cook, add the capers to the sauce and continue to simmer it gently. Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, to al dente, cooked but still slightly firm.
4 Drain the pasta and put in a large bowl. Drizzle a little olive oil over the pasta and mix to combine. Stir the parsley into the pasta sauce. Add a ladle's worth of sauce to the pasta and mix to combine. Serve in shallow bowls with more sauce on top.