Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Work in Progress

Entertaining is, you might call it, a passion of mine. Some might put me over the edge of being obsessed but however you spell it, I just like doing it a whole lot. From setting up (and even cleaning!) our house and getting to hang out with friends, to menu planning and the subsequent grocery shopping (oooh - my favorite!), I love each and every morsel.

Often I get a little tied up in the planning part... the narrowing down of my stacked-high piles of recipes, combining my choices with what's on sale that week and what we already have stashed in the cupboard... calling what results "side-tracked" is being more than friendly.

Buuuut... once I've righted my ship, usually something at least edible (and on occasion, even repeatable, which is obviously a big bonus) is born. Things like decorating my table and selecting the right mix of serving dishes for the final presentation are still works in progress... and perhaps a call for help will meet your eyes right here one day.

You'd think, then, that I'd be the first to notice things like say, serving an entire vegetarian meal (to self-avowed meat-eaters). Alas, it was only as I was setting individual portions of this delicious lasagna and it's accompaniment of garden-fresh herbed tomato salad on the table that I realized the entire meal, from start-to-finish, was devoid of anything that could even moonlight as meat.

Thankfully one of the uh, meatless items on the table was this Black-Bean and Spinach Lasagna (thanks, Emily!!). It truly saved the dinner. And we were only too happy to feast on the left-overs for as long as they would last... which wasn't long enough.

Luckily, my shame lasted for even less time, as no one seemed to notice my embarrassing oversight in menu-planning until I mentioned it (I will never learn).

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Personal Celebration

Mostly because time has been short this week... but also because there are some things that are augmented by words and others that well... aren't.

Danny and Grace's big day was one of those...

Beautiful couple... beautiful setting... great friends... lots (and I mean LOTS) of personal touches done by the bride and groom themselves...

I loved all of the simply adorned wine barrels out in the vineyard during the cocktail hour... and the hand-strung lanterns filling the reception venue.

Charlottesville didn't disappoint - aside from the college that calls it home, I just can't get enough of this town.

Thanks to the bride and groom for an unforgettable evening! Congratulations to Grace & Danny!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Weekend Dog

These are some of my favorite moments with our little Annabelle...

First she gets comfortable and settles in for a sunny afternoon nap -

Those of us who've seen this before can tell that she's a little closer to getting some serious shut-eye here -

And then the ultimate... the "curl" - usually, the light's just a little too bright looking out at the world so she bundles her little body up - as cute as can be. This is also most certainly a big fat "Do Not Disturb" sign.

But mere moments later she can be wide-eyed, ready to take on the world... or pounce on any unsuspecting pine cones...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Far We've Come

It's been been very interesting watching my food tastes change, maybe even mature, as I've done some growing-up, myself. I wasn't necessarily a picky-eater as a child - not that I had much of a choice in the matter... if I didn't eat my dinner, it showed up as my breakfast - and just in case you were wondering, food you didn't like once isn't much better 8 hours later), but I certainly had a whole food group that I called "gross".

What's most intriguing to me is that save for one specialty, I now love all of the things that I once loathed. Orange roughy (think tilapia in the 90s), egg salad, spinach, and the infamous squash casserole. I'll spare you the details on the squash casserole - it'd take quite a bit of coaxing to get me to consume another bite of that stuff - but as for the rest of the group formerly known as "gross", I'd happily make, serve or eat some any day.

I suppose since I missed it during my formative years, spinach has made its way back with a vengeance... and with dishes like this Spinach and Orzo Salad around, I couldn't be happier.

This side dish was a huge hit... I fear, now, that it risks being made so many times it's liable to send spinach right back to the "gross" food group. But I'll take my chances...

A few notes:

  • This recipe makes a LOT; halve it and you'll still have plenty for hearty helpings for at least 4 plus some left-overs
  • I used white balsamic which as it turns out is a bit lighter (in our opinion) in flavor and worked perfectly - plus, our salad didn't have the slight tinge that regular balsamic would leave
  • Do NOT leave out the pine nuts or the feta
It's recipes like this that make me oh-so-thrilled that I've learned the error of my ways in my early food likes and dislikes... and even happier that our crop of fall lettuces (spinach included) has pushed her way through and promises (knock on wood) an abundant harvest!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Southern... or Not

There's an ongoing debate in my life that's been raging (and I mean it! ha) for the past few years... and while it's about something relatively trivial, I'm determined to get to the bottom of it.

The topic in question is how I became (or why I am now... either way) someone who can not and will not show up to someone's home without something from our kitchen ("kitchen" occasionally meaning our wine collection, I will admit).

My mom would immediately attribute this to being Southern. This is suspect as I have no recognizable trace of a Southern accent and have lived in places such as New Jersey and Washington, DC; but I did do most of my growing up in Atlanta and attended school in North Carolina. My main problem with this assumption is that it indicates that people not from the South don't do this!

Others would say it's just your run-of-the-mill manners. I am inclined to go with this theory. Many people who've never dipped a toe below the Mason-Dixon line also can not set foot in another person's home without some sort of tasty item.

But the truth of the matter... what I know lingers down deep in my heart of hearts... is that it is the perfect excuse to dig through cookbooks and find that recipe I've either never made or had long since forgotten about. It doesn't hurt that I also happen to think food makes the ideal gift.

My proclivity towards giving edible gifts (and not just of the hostess variety) started way back in high school... I remember baking up a batch of our favorite peanut butter and chocolate crispy bars and tying them up in a cute baggie as my friends' Christmas treat. I've never looked back so while I can't remember a thing about that holiday season, let's just assume they went over well (that's quite boastful of me).

Most recently Susan's zucchini bread has found its way into the hands of some of our friends. The best part about this bread is that the recipe makes two loaves... so while you might think "oooh, two gifts out of one recipe", I thought "oooh, one for them and one for us". Maybe I don't have this gift-giving thing down after all.

Friday, September 11, 2009

More Than 60 Seconds

Today is all about reflections, remembrances... and of course, that moment of silence (can anyone tell me why just a moment, as I've been wondering since 8:46am EST).

It's been a fittingly grey and somber morning here in the DC-area - if I have my way, though, before this day has ended, the umbrellas will have disappeared and a bit of sunshine will poke her head through the thick cloud-cover. How's that for a metaphor (grammar snobs - forgive me if that's not a real metaphor) - not to mention, some good ole' fashioned optimism?!

Along with the rest of the free world, today brought with it a flood of memories for me. Where I was at the time and how I learned about all that had just happened that would change our world, more than we could ever comprehend, or possibly imagine. No, it's not just on this date in September that I relive those events, but today it can't be helped.

And so here we are - another year "post-9/11" (disappointing and strange all at once, to me, that this is now how we mark time) has come and gone. I'm constantly struck by how much even my little insignificant life has changed in these past eight years. So while I don't want to give 9/11 all the credit (ah-hem, perhaps I'm just getting older - nah - and wiser - double-nah), one of the major changes in my life for the better is that I try (and fail miserably, but oh a valiant effort is, and will continue to be, made) to focus on what is important (like the fact that my pie crust didn't look at all like her's or that my photography skills are still, how-do-you-say, lacking?!).

All kidding aside, the events of 9/11 eight short years ago have forever changed us all - it's easy to see how much harder, or maybe just different, life is - but perhaps a better use of our time would be to see all of that we have to be thankful for and (try and) concentrate on what really matters... hopefully, not just for one short moment each year.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Beware Those First Birthdays

Just when nothing seems to be inspiring me lately - not inside or out of the kitchen - along comes an opportunity for me to beg my way into helping out with another first birthday. Gosh, I'm so pushy!! Watch out if you have a child turning one... I'm liable to show up on your front doorstep with off-set spatulas and decorating bags and tips in hand!

Funny, that's almost exactly how things went down last week: friend with most adorable son ever having a first birthday... Kara and Chris (and a furry little black dog) jump in car and roadtrip for the sake of cake.

For a second, just pretend the aforementioned friend had asked me to help (rather than me inviting us down to stay with the birthday boy's family and insisting that I would love to help with any and all preparations). After that realize that said friend has more than adequate baking skills and almost professional cake-decorating skills. It's at this point that you ask... "Kara, what were you doing there again?"

I just can't help it - say the words "first birthday" and I come a-callin'.

Given that introduction, it should come as no surprise that Jayne had everything picked out and planned out long before the troops arrived. Our tasks consisted of only baking and decorating. And so we baked a cute over-sized cupcake shaped cake, a dozen cupcakes (how cute is that... mini-versions of the main event!), and a two-layered, perfectly round - perfectly monogrammed, smash cake.

And yes, I'm allowed to describe parts of the cakes as perfect because I had absolutely nothing to do with their lack of imperfections.

Thankfully, all of Jayne's cake decorating of years past carried us to (and through) the finish line. Armed with my now go-to buttercream icing, which I must highly recommend, she covered every surface of chocolate cake like someone on a Food Network challenge. As I didn't make a very good assistant or sous chef (ever heard of a molten cake... sure... but how about within a sheet cake?!), I was even more grateful for my friend's piping and frosting skills as well as a super cute birthday boy for endless distractions.

Wilton Buttercream Icing
Yield: about 3 cups of icing (enough for a two-layered cake)

1/2 c solid vegetable shortening
1/2 c butter or margarine (softened)
1 tsp vanilla extract (the recipe calls for clear but we had no problem with regular vanilla)
4 c sifted confectioners' sugar
2 TBSP milk

In the bowl of your mixer, cream shortening and butter. Add vanilla. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl often. When all sugar has been mixed in, icing will appear dry. Add milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy.

Keep icing bowl in refrigerator when not in use. Kept in an airtight container, icing can be stored two weeks. Re-whip before using.

*For best piping consistency, add 2 TBSP light corn syrup and whip on medium speed to incorporate.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


We're swimming in a sea of red (tomatoes) these days... and honestly, I can't think of a more welcome sight.

Last year was our first attempt at our vegetable garden and while it was successful and we immensely enjoyed the fruits of our labor, we also realized how much we had to learn. Who knew that tomato plants generally grew so massive that they would topple over in even the slightest breeze? Thankfully tomatoes are just as easy to clean (and eat!) after being picked up off the compost-fed ground as they are picking from the tree.

This year with sturdier cages and some home-'grown' contraptions to ensure our plants remained upright and healthy, our crop has been even more plentiful. And thus, almost daily I am searching for another use for our beautiful, vine-ripened fruit.

Pasta dishes are few and far between in my repertoire so this tangy pasta salad was a welcome change of pace. It seemed endlessly adaptable - so I did just that.

What's been your favorite way to use up your garden-fresh harvest this (ever-fading) summer?

(Kinda) Greek Pasta Salad
adapted from AllRecipes

1/2 c olive oil
just shy of 1/2 c red wine vinegar
splash of balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp basil, torn or chopped into small pieces
2 tsp oregano, chopped into small pieces
3/4 tsp ground black pepper
3/4 tsp sugar
1 1/3 c rotini pasta (uncooked)
15-20 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 c diced red bell peppers
3/4 c crumbled feta cheese
1/2 c chopped green onions
1/2 c turkey pepperoni, cut into thin strips

In a saucepan, cook pasta according to directions, leaving out oil.

In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegars, garlic powder, basil, oregano, black pepper, and sugar. Add cooked pasta, tomatoes, red peppers, feta cheese, green onions, and pepperoni. Toss until evenly coated. Cover, and chill 2 hours or overnight.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


I'm still reeling from having just watched this video about an accomplished (and adorable) 5-year old with some amazing God-given, natural talent (not to mention having beautifully overcome more trials than most adults, let alone children the age of five).

And, while you might not recognize either my cute little golf prodigy or this guy who I'm about to introduce you to, in terms of raw, natural abilities, they both shine.

But in very different ways (what?! I promised I'd get back to food around these parts... so here we go!).

I've mentioned this other guy before... our family's master chef, Ben. He's been around, this is nothing new... he's always been the brains (and brawn, to be sure) behind all of the deliciousness that we are treated to in Penn Yan and he was also the 'hired help' at Chris' 30th birthday shindig, complete with... you guessed it, ribs.

I should stop lest I mislead you into thinking our chef is a one-dish man, though. He just has some things (ah-hem, ribs) perfected so it's hard us mortals of the kitchen to get past them.

Poor Ben can't spend more than 5 minutes with all of us before we are inquiring when he'll finally be opening a restaurant and (since he asked our opinions) naming items that 'absolutely must' be included on the menu. Sure he's never had a formal cooking lesson - but you wouldn't know it visiting his kitchen (or grill, for that matter). Our last visit to his local kitchen produced a meal worthy of royalty... pan-seared foie gras, sauteed duck breasts, and mushroom risotto, all paired with the perfect crisp white wine.

With that said, you can understand why this last time that we saw him, we got down to business... coming up with the perfect name for his restaurant - and an advertising campaign to boot.

I know I'm hedging bets pretty quickly but I think it's fair to say that you should keep an eye out for both of these guys. There's just something about hard-working, figure-it-out-yourself-types that gives me the confidence to know they could go the distance.

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