May 14, 2013

Chef Brian Wilke's Home Kitchen

A few months ago, I thought it would be cool to start a series of posts called "Chef's at Home" which would feature Culinary Instructors in their home kitchens talking about what inspires them and what they love about cooking at home.  I started out with Chef Wilke.  Wilke founded OCI, the cooking school where I've worked now for over four years.  I'd met him over 10 years ago at another culinary school in town and he's constantly amazed me with his Rock Star attitude and how he exudes passion and confidence in the kitchens at school.

Chef Wilke's wife Jill greeted me warmly at the door when I first arrived to take photos. She pushed an antique, thrifted cup of French pressed coffee with cream into my cold hands as she led me into the golden glow of the kitchen. The fragrance of onions sautéed in butter and warm croissants from a local bakery infused my senses and the chill of the damp, grey Portland weather vanished behind me as the door closed.

Chef Brian Wilke is the co-founder of a small, locally-owned culinary school nestled in the heart of the Goose Hollow neighborhood in downtown Portland Oregon. He's been teaching and cooking for over 30 years, and has influenced and mentored an enormous number of young cooks who make up the thriving restaurant scene in Portland. He values local, independently-owned businesses and restaurants and is a part of the pulse that makes the food scene in Portland such a Mecca of unique cooking styles and people.

There is a story behind everything in this culinary jewell box.  Even the bar-stools, where guests can cozy up to the counter to watch and eat, are works of art from re-purposed wine barrels -- a treasure Brian and Jill brought home after from a winery weekend in Walla Walla.


A well-oiled, gracefully curving butcher block counter separates the dining room and kitchen -- Wilke salvaged it from an old Portland bakery and refinished it to be an appealing and practical focal point. He chops away on the surface, deftly wielding his cherished Kramer knife, making short work of the buttery slab of salty Olympic Provisions bacon and turnips from a local farmer’s co-op called Wealth Underground.

Everything in this space, from the appliances to the utensils and ingredients, are beautiful and have purpose.   Chef Wilke and Jill are practical in their approach to cooking, design and living but embrace the artistic side of their surroundings with equal love and creativity.  To the left of the stove is a collection of mortar and pestles.  Each corner  of the kitchen showcases the rare combination of utilitarian still life.

A small ceramic tray neatly displays the most used, staple ingredients: two kinds of salt, an aged balsamic vinegar, onions and shallots, and a re-purposed bottle of wine used to decant high quality olive oil.

The bottle of 1981 Opus wine on display was shared with his father over 25 years ago in Chicago and is a loving reminder of that memorable meal.

I couldn't help but ask about the graphic design of a face drawn onto Chef Wilke's tee shirt. 
Brian looked at me with a lopsided grin, and I knew I was in for a good story. The tee shirt portrait is a custom rendering of Blues artist Professor Longhair known as the “Bach of Rock and Roll.” Brian explained that Longhair taught himself to play using a piano that was missing several keys. Because of, rather than in spite of, his lacking instrument, he created music that was solely his own — a wild mix of New Orleans jazz and blues fused with Cuban beats. Wilke listens to Professor Longhair on vinyl record albums when he cooks at home, the music inspiring him to make incredible food from the carefully curated contents of his fridge and cupboards. His cooking philosophy is based in part on the simple idea of using quality, local, fresh ingredients to create nourishing and delicious food.

Like Professor Longhair, it's all about knowing how to make something great out of what you've got.

What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
"I guess the efficiency is the most important thing. I really did design it as a professional kitchen would work so everything is accessible--the tools, the ingredients... it's really really compact and efficient for a one person kitchen."

What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
"It's gotta be my Kramer knife. The last time I checked, there was a 2 year waiting list... this guy builds knives by hand. He's a master blade-smith I bought my knife before he got famous, then he was in Cooks magazine or something like that and now his knives are coveted. I've had every knife out there and they just cut differently. This is my favorite by far."

What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in your kitchen?
"Bikram and his family from Nepal came over one night. Bikram is the Nepalese first term chef instructor at the school and I've known him for over 20 years. He's one of my best friends. It was rather nerve-wracking to prepare food for his father, uncle, aunt and cousin because he's such a phenomenal chef... and I thought for a long time about what I could possibly make for these people. Then, I thought, screw it man, I'm just going to make Nepalese food. I mean, what am I gonna do? Serve Italian? Either it'll be okay or I'll make a complete ass out of myself. We actually ate sitting on the floor in the living room and it was one of my favorite nights of my entire life."

The biggest challenge for cooking in your kitchen?
"The same as my favorite thing-- it's small. When you get rockin' and rollin' in there, if you have more than one person it gets pretty dicey."

How would you describe your cooking style?
"Definitely "Black Box." (Author’s note: The "Black Box" test is a final exam in culinary school where students are given a few random ingredients and expected to create a meal or course using techniques, methods, herbs, spices, and fats from the restaurant pantry). Fresh ingredients and solid technique. Food is the only thing that affects all 5 senses and when you put things together while considering all five senses, you can pull a great meal together. My mom really inspired my whole interest in cooking. She used to put out braised meat, then smaller serving dishes with all kinds of ingredients like rice, chow mien noodles, onion, pineapple, scallions, coconut, peanuts... you know, 20 different things and you could just build your own meal from there. As a kid, I learned so much about what goes together and it inspired me to experiment. It was also a really cool way to feed a large crowd. It encouraged communication between everybody and was a magical dish that carried so much imagination, conversation and inventiveness."

Best cooking advice or tip you every received?
"George Thompson was my culinary mentor and we still teach together today. He really taught me about the whole "taste and aroma" idea. What we call "taste" is really much more about aroma... once you understand the intricacies of how they work together, that last little attention to spices and flavor makes the difference between good food and great food. It's genius how he breaks that down."

The view from Wilke's kitchen window just over the sink is of his chickens.  Practical and interesting, an egg-celent and egg-clectic addition.  Very Portland.  Very Chef-ish.

April 24, 2013

Dark Chocolate Bacon Brownies

I've worked on the administrative and admissions side of culinary school now for the last 10 years and although I myself am not a professional cook, I definitely share a passion for creating delicious, satisfying and unique food with others.  One of my most memorable students from many years ago whom I stay in touch on Face Book is a cool guy by the name of Michael.  We try to impress each other with our knowledge of All Things Bacon and he's been reminding me for the past several weeks that I'd promised to test out recipes for Bacon Brownies and get him the recipe. I've finally created an almost perfect batch...

This particular recipe is only 'almost' perfect because even though these smokey delectable bacon-y dark chocolate brownies have an ideal balance of gooey-chewiness and cake-ness, there were a few things I'd do differently to make them even better. 
(don't fret lovelies.  I'll add those notes as I describe the process.)

To begin with, I wanted to make sure the bacon itself was crispy and not rubbery or too under done.  I researched a few recipes online and found that baking several strips of bacon on parchment on a shallow cookie sheet produced the results I was aiming for.  I ripped off a stretch of baking parchment paper, (or you could use aluminum foil of course) and set out the bacon about a half inch apart on the sheet and put it into the cold oven, turning the temperature to 400 degrees after shutting the oven door.  There were several methods posted online, but starting with a cold oven seemed a popular trick.  I watched the bacon carefully and it was about done after 19 minutes.  ( a few minutes more if you buy thick cut bacon)  Once the bacon was perfectly crisp, I used tongs to remove the strips and let them cool on a brown paper bag before cutting into smaller bits.  I drained the clear fat off the parchment through a fine metal mesh strainer into a jar to use in the brownie recipe to replace a bit of the butter too, which was an extra step that made a flavorful difference. 

I scoured the internet for the best brownie recipes and came up with the winner which was the Alton Brown Cocoa version.  I slightly altered it using half the amount of butter he recommends and replaced it with the lovely warm golden bacon fat.  Honestly, I think it needed even more bacon flavor.   So next time I plan on adding a couple more tablespoons of bacon fat for an extra smokey-baconish kick.

Another change I would make is I would mix the bacon bits right into the batter rather than sprinkling them on top before baking.  I think they would stay more moist and flavorful.  Since I put them on top when I baked the batch pictured above, it slightly over cooked the bits making them too dry and not as flavorful. 

Still delicious.  The next bacon/brownie experiment will be Dark Chocolate Stout Bacon Brownies for Father's Day.  I'm already daydreaming about adding in some Guinness and chunks of Moonstruck dark chocolate bits.

I doubt I'll have any shortage of taste testers.

Dark Chocolate Bacon Brownies

  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup sugar, sifted
  • 1 cup brown sugar, sifted
  • 4 ounces melted butter
  • 4 ounces salvaged bacon fat, (still melted)
  • 1 1/4 cups high quality dutch process cocoa, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup cake or all purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  •  5 strips oven baked bacon (chopped)

  • Grease 8" square baking pan with soft butter and dust with flour.  Tap off excess flour into the sink.
    1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees
    2. In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the eggs at medium speed until fluffy and light yellow. Add both sugars. Add remaining ingredients, and mix to combine.
    3. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8-inch square pan and bake for 45 minutes. Check for doneness (desired goo-to-cake-balance) with the tried-and-true toothpick method: a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan should come out clean.

    April 22, 2013

    Baked Ricotta with Roasted Garlic and Lemon

    I'm a huge fan of the classic appetizer, warm Parmesan and artichoke dip.  To be perfectly honest, I pretty much swoon at the mention of just about any warm gooey-cheesy type of food, and though I could probably become a vegetarian, (with the exception of bacon) I doubt I could ever become a full fledged vegan due to my addiction to cheese.

    I discovered this quick delicious dip online a few weeks ago while reading an article about a new cookbook called "Cook Like a Rock Star" and tried it out on the fam.  Everyone loved it and it disappeared rather quickly.  I recommend doubling the recipe and storing a bit of it in the freezer or fridge for a last minute appetizer when friends stop in.  Crackers or thinly sliced baguette pieces toasted in the oven while the cheese warms up are perfect for scooping. 

    Baked Ricotta

    2 cups ricotta cheese
    3-5 cloves roasted garlic cloves
    1 sprig fresh rosemary, finely chopped
    1 lemon, zest only
    3 tablespoons olive oil (plus a bit for drizzling on at the end)
    1 pinch red pepper flakes
    2 hefty pinches sea salt

    Combine all ingredients together in a large bowl and mix well. 
    Scoop dip into a buttered baking dish (I divided it into 2 small oven-safe bowls)
    Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes until lightly browned and hot.
    Drizzle with some good olive oil and top with a bit of rosemary.

    April 19, 2013

    Cheers to Friday

    Over the weekend I'll be posting a few recipes I've been working on.  Stay tuned for a fab oven baked ricotta-lemon-garlic cheese dip that is out of this world and perfect to keep on hand in the fridge, ready to go whenever you need a bit of comforting warm cheese.  (which for me is just about always)

    April 9, 2013

    Dropping a Little Acid in the Kitchen

    Working at a Culinary School is a huge benefit in terms of gleaning awesome tips and ideas about cooking from people who know the inside scoop.

    One Golden Rule mentioned to me by more than one chef:

    If you taste a dish and you know it's missing something but your not sure what, it's probably acid.  When I interviewed Executive Chef Brian Wilke, one of the founders of Oregon Culinary Institute a while back in his kitchen at home, I noticed he had a wire basket near the stove filled with lemons.   He often uses a fresh squeeze of lemon to balance and enhance flavor in soups, sauces and marinades, then scrubs down the butcher block counter top with a little sea salt and the leftover wedge when he's done cooking dinner for his wife.  In a professional kitchen, and at home, full utilization of product is ideal.

    On Sunday, I finished off our Easter ham by cooking up a bowl of split pea soup with fresh thyme.  It seemed to be missing something though, and I sliced off the end of a lemon, squeezed the juice into the pot and Voila!

    Perfect flavor.

    I even saved the heel and scrubbed my butcher block island as well before plunking the well used bit of fruit into the compost.

    Chefs are practical and brilliant people.  

    April 5, 2013

    The Treasure of Family Cookbooks

    Last month, I had a super exciting opportunity to chat in-person via a super cool Google Hang Out with Nigella Lawson, Julia Moskin from the New York Times and a home cook from New York as well as one from Scotland.  It was an amazing experience.  Before the actual "live" video began to roll, the three of us regular-old home cooks chatted it up and laughed about things like photographing everything we eat and cook, how tiny Amanda's kitchen is and what exactly Preston was sipping in his coffee mug.  Julia Moskin asked that we come up with a sort of backup question, in case there was time left after chatting with Nigella about the Italian casserole recipe we all tested out.  The question was, "What is your favorite cookbook of all time?"  Preston was the youngest in the bunch, and although he treasures his Nigella Collection, he mentioned that he had relatively few actual books, and finds most of his recipes and ideas for cooking online.  I imagine this is so with many people these days.  I mean, so many weekdays, right about 5:00, I find I find myself surfing on my work computer to figure out what to make.  I look up recipes on my smart phone and iPad and subscribe to the New York Times Dining and Food articles online.  I follow several food blogs that offer up not only fabulous recipes, but they inspire me with gorgeous photographs and I tend to enjoy the "voice" or tone of the writer, and feel like they are a friend in the kitchen advising me about what to make.  At home, I have a laptop on the kitchen counter that I often look up recipes from Epicurious, Bon Appetite and Food and Wine.  But I'll always have use for my shelf of well loved, actual paper and ink cookbooks.  When Julia asked us to be prepared for which cookbook we would take with us to a dessert island, I had a few ideas.  
    But on Tuesday this week, I was given a gift that I will treasure for as long as I cook.

    When I stepped through the door of my husbands parents house for dinner, his mother hugged me tightly and quickly ushered me into the dining room.  She reverently pressed into my hands a cookbook that she had owned for years and years, and was now passing on to me:

    I was speechless.  I gently opened the book, and saw, there on the first page, Julia and Paul Child's autographs.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I would have been tickled to death to be the second owner of this classic cookbook even without the precious signatures because I'm a HUGE Julia Child fan.  I was given The Art of French Cooking a few years ago, and of course have read just about every book written by and about Julia Child.   But this particular book is going to be cherished more than anyone can know.

    As convenient and inspiring as Food Blogs and great Culinary Websites are, I have to admit, the feel of a cookbook, the tiny sploshes of sauce or wine left on the page of a frequently referred to recipe, and the knowledge that someone you love once used it to cook those particular recipes for their family, is such a romantic notion that I will always be a loyal fan of actual books.  So many times, at almost every family gathering, holiday, celebration and meal, there is a dish that is a "family" dish.  A recipe that's been handed down.  My husband remembers his grandmother vividly as he bites into the particular one-sheet lemon cheesecake that his mother makes for him still every year on his birthday.  My grandmother made something called "Volcano Meatloaf" that I remember so clearly from childhood.  My mom used to make it, and imagining a wedge of the stuff on her Blue Danube china makes me smile.  When I am wanting to conjure up memories or comfort myself, I always think about and sometimes cook the things I remember my mother making.  My favorite cookbook from my own mother is a tattered handwritten spiral booklet baptized with chocolate sauce and molasses.  She gave it to me on the day of my wedding to my first husband when I was just 21.  Recipes from my grandmother, great aunts, mother, neighbors and even things I used to cook when I was in high school are listed there.  Just seeing her neat and rounded handwriting is reassuring.

    A few months ago, my ex-mother in law, who is very dear to me and who is a woman who can make an excellent soup out of just about anything, gave me the cookbook she used as a young bride, back in the late 1950's: 

    Just about every single day, I check up on the online site, The Kitchn.  Recently, there was a great article about the difference between online recipes and good old fashioned cookbooks...

    What's your preference?  Do you have a favorite dog-eared, creased and spattered hand-me-down that you treasure?

    At first, when the editor of the New York Times Dining and Wine guide asked me to think of my favorite cookbook, I entertained the notion of telling her something trendy or impressive.  When I really thought about it, to be perfectly honest, my favorite books are a hodge-podge of recipes that I've made for family or these books that my mother, my mother in law and my grandmother's have recommended and used. 

    I can only hope that one of my kids will grow up to love cooking as much as I do.  Then I can pass my collection on to them.

    April 4, 2013

    Thought for a Thursday

    The meaning of life is to find your gift.  The purpose in life is to give it away.
    Pablo Picasso

    April 2, 2013

    Spring Break Shrimp Dinner at the Oregon Coast

    We scrambled to find a last minute deal on a cute little house just a block away from the boardwalk at Seaside for the weekend.  The kids are just starting their week of Spring Break, and we wanted to kick it off with a short get-away.

    The little house was adorable.  The location wasn't perfect in terms of an ocean view, but we were simply a couple of blocks away from the beach and only one block from the old town promenade in Seaside.  The kids took off on their long boards and then we all hung out on a quilt on the beach reading books. Kevin played volleyball with Emma, we went for long morning walks and each night we walked to the local Dairy Queen for a cherry dipped ice-cream cone.

    I was impressed with the tiny kitchen in our rental, and managed to pull off a couple of decadent dinners with minimal pans and effort. Saturday morning we had stopped on our way out of the city at Ken's Artisan Bakery for a loaf of walnut peasant bread and a few basic staple supplies at Trader Joe's in NW.  In just a couple hours we arrived at the coast and I ran into the local grocery store for a pound of fresh shrimp so I could try out this quick, very spicy and flavorful dish that I served with the bread and bowls of jasmine brown rice.

    The recipe I used was from the October 2012 edition of Bon Appetite.  I just made a few little changes, and it was fantastic if I do say so myself!

    I'll definitely be adding it to my repertoire. 

    • 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
    • 3garlic cloves, minced, divided
    • 2dried chile's (chef Brophy hooked me up with dried chile's from his garden)
    • 1bay leaf
    • 1 1/4 cups chopped tomato (about 8 ounces) (I used a can of tomatoes)
    • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
    • 1tablespoon tomato paste
    • 2 15-ounce cans white beans (such as cannellini), rinsed, drained
    • 1 cup chicken broth
    • 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined
    • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
    • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
    • Grilled bread (we used the Ken's Walnut whole grain version)


    • Preheat broiler. Heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large, heavy, ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add 1 garlic clove, chile's, and bay leaf and cook, stirring constantly, just until fragrant, 1–2 minutes (do not allow garlic to burn). Add tomato; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring and smashing tomato with the back of a wooden spoon, until tomato is completely broken down, about 5 minutes.
    • Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until paste is deep red and caramelized, 3–4 minutes. Stir in beans and broth. Bring to a brisk simmer and cook until juices are slightly reduced and thickened, 3–4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
    • Combine remaining 2 garlic cloves, 2 Tbsp. oil, shrimp, and paprika in a medium bowl; season with salt and pepper and toss to evenly coat shrimp. Scatter shrimp over beans in an even layer.
    • Broil until shrimp are golden and cooked through, about 3 minutes. Drizzle remaining 2 Tbsp. oil over shrimp and
      beans; garnish with parsley.

    March 27, 2013

    In Light of Childhood

    Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.
    Walt Whitman
    Whenever I see this photo it tugs at my heartstrings. 
    I took it several years ago, when my youngest daughter was still wearing her tutu over just about everything. 
    As she grew, I'd find it abandoned here and there around the house...  this frayed and worn tuft of elasticized tulle was such a vivid reminder of her love for purple, dancing, sequins and dress-ups.  She still loves music and dancing, but "face-timing" her friends on the iPad, texting, slumber parties,Justin Bieber posters and pop music have replaced the purple tutu, stuffed pink unicorns, books about fairies and songs sung by Disney Princess's. 
    My kids have seemingly grown up into teenager-hood in what feels like a flash of time.  

    March 25, 2013

    Steak, Guinness and Cheese Pie

    I’ve been on a kick lately--comforting family style dishes by English cookbook authors have been my thing. Maybe it’s inspired by the cool Google hang-out chat with Nigella Lawson after trying one of her latest recipes out on my teenagers, or perhaps it’s because March weather in Portland is grey, chilly and dreary.  Cold weather makes me want to hunker down, hibernate with my family at home and create soothing and hearty food.
    Saturday my son was not feeling well and lay sprawled on the couch most of the day sipping tea, watching basketball games and past episodes of his favorite show Psych.  Beyond having a crush on Nigella Lawson, he thinks Jamie Oliver is a super cool dude, and I think secretly wants to be just like him. I think he’s off to a good start with the blond spiked hair and twinkly eyes. 

    This is one of my favorite pictures of him taken when he was about 11 years old at the Oregon Coast~

    So to cheer him up and fill his stomach with something that would stick to the ribs and be comforting, I pulled up an online recipe from Jamie at Home and made a pretty cool dinner with the show stopping bonus of a gorgeous, lightly golden crisped lid of perfect puff pastry.  I used winter root veggies, organic natural stew meat, freshly grated Oregon Tillamook cheddar and a pint of Guinness. 
    (to be perfectly honest, not quite the whole pint.  A pint minus a few swigs) I was slightly preoccupied and ended up forgetting to put the additional top layer of cheese on before attaching the pastry lid, so I had to pull it gently off, sprinkle on the cheese and re-assemble.  It looked more "rustic" due to my last second rescue attempt, but tasted divine.

    Now, you can very easily go to the Jamie Oliver website and get an even more detailed recipe, but I went ahead and attached a slightly shorter version here too.  The only thing I think I’ll change next time is that I wouldn’t put the bottom puff pastry layer into the pie dish, I’d simply top it with one, like a lid, then save the left-over piece of pastry for another recipe another day. 

    1.     Preheat oven to 190C/375F/gas 5. In a large ovenproof pan heat a glug of oil on a low heat. Add the onions and fry gently for about 10 mins - try not to color them too much. Turn the heat up, add the garlic, butter, carrots and celery. Scatter in the mushrooms. Mix everything together before stirring in the beef, rosemary, salt and pepper. Fry fast for 3-4 mins, then pour in the Guinness, stir in the flour and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, cover the pan with a lid and place in the oven for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven and give the stew a stir. Put it back in the oven and continue to cook it for another hour, or until the meat is tender and the stew is rich and thick.

    2.     A perfect pie filling needs to be robust, so if it's still liquidy, place the pan on the hob and reduce until it thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in half the cheese and leave to cool slightly.

    3.     Cut a third off the pastry block. Roll out each piece to the thickness of a pound coin. Line a greased pie dish with the larger sheet of pastry, leaving the edges dangling over the side. Tip in the stew then sprinkle the remaining cheese over. Brush the edges of the pastry with the egg.

    4.     Cut the other piece of the pastry to fit the top of the pie dish and criss cross it slightly with a sharp knife. Place it over the op of the pie and fold the over-hanging pastry onto the pastry lid to make it look nice and rustic. cook on the bottom of the oven for 45 mins.
    I now thoroughly believe Guinness Steak and Cheddar Pie could be the cure for the common cold and the winter blues. 

    March 21, 2013

    Neighbor Love and Rib-Sauce

    A surprise gift of food is a treasure.

    Yesterday when I came home from work after a long day, there were two jars of homemade rib-sauce on the chair next to the front door.  They were still warm.  My neighbor Mary texted me shortly before I left work letting me know she'd been slow cooking ribs in red sauce all day and had put the jars out front.

    Mary lives in a little barn-red house just kitty corner to my house.  She's been in the Peace Corps and travelled the world, has a degree in environmental science and worked at a well known winery in Oregon helping with Crush during wine seasons a few years back.  She adores soccer and is a huge Chelsea fan, sometimes catching games at the local Soccer Bar 442 when she can squeeze in a few hours without the kids.  She is one of the coolest people I know basically...  totally dedicated to her family and staying home with the kids while they are small.  I remember what that was like.  I was a stay-at-home mom with my kids until they were 2, 4, and 8.  I loved staying home and taking care of my family 24/7, and those were some of the best, hardest and most rewarding years of my life.  I love my job now, but I wouldn't trade that time I was able to invest in my kids formable years for anything.

    One thing that I used to do was to plan out weekly menus and grocery shop meticulously, adhering to a tight budget and trying to be creative about feeding my family delicious meals.  I felt like cooking was a creative outlet, and a ritual that nourished my family.  When you cook for people, it's a gesture of practical love.   I always feel like I am taking care of people when I cook for them, and it's a huge treat when someone cooks for me.  Mary stops by every once in a while and I set her up at the counter, usually with a glass of wine or a shot of whiskey in a pretty glass, and we talk while I cook.  We share recipes and attend a supper club together when time allows, and a few times we've swapped bowls of food so our family can try something a little different for dinner.

    Usually, on weeknights, we either have leftovers from meals prepared over the weekend, or we throw things together that we find in the pantry and freezer.  This particular weeknight meal was a luxury.  Mary's sauce was a rich, tomato based sauce with bits of smoky flavored tender rib meat mixed in.  Hubs ran to the local grocery store for a loaf of olive specked Ciabatta bread, some spinach and couple of small steaks.  I simply poured Mary's sauce over the steaks and we had the most decadent weeknight dinner. 

    What's that saying? "Love thy neighbor"? Nothing shows love like sharing good food.
    I felt completely spoiled and lucky to have such a thoughtful woman/mom/friend as my neighbor.
    I can't wait to reciprocate this weekend and share some dark chocolate bacon brownies I'm planning on baking.

    March 18, 2013

    A Girl Crush on Nigella Lawson


    When I first saw the blurb in the New York Times on my computer screen announcing an opportunity to try out one of the recipes from Nigellissima, I pounced.  I wanted to be clever and pithy, and write something titillating and honest because I really wanted them to pick me.  I think I ended up writing something that compared Nigella to a hybrid combination of Mae West and Julia Child.  I mentioned relating to a woman with an appetite, and how I sometimes feel I could bench press most thin and tiny women who seem to dominate television and magazines.  I ended with a wanton comment about how few things in life have made my eyes roll to the back of my head, and how warm, melt-y Gorgonzola cheese pasta is one of them. 

    Inevitably, I was chosen to be one of the three home cooks to video chat with Julia Moskin and Nigella. 

    It's quite true that I spent most Sunday mornings lounging in bed with a cup of coffee, surrounded by cookbooks and Vogue magazines in my flannel pajamas watching Nigella cook gracefully in her bright white kitchen with the little strand of white Christmas lights in the background.  It was the one morning a week I'd allow myself to luxuriate in the pleasure of hanging out in bed, imagining I could also be glamorous and sexy while whipping eggs, grocery shopping and stealthily eating leftovers right out of the fridge at midnight.  Nigella Lawson is the epitome of womanliness... she's intelligent, beautiful, funny, loves to cook and is unapologetic about her appetite for life.  She seems to care deeply about her family and friends, and is poetic, graceful and spiritual in her explanations about food and cooking and home.  Who wouldn't want to be that way?  When she cooed over the caramelized specks left over in the pan after cooking bacon, and breathed the words "gorgeous bits", I was smitten with her use of language as much as I was with her as a person.  She inspired me to start my blog and to embrace what I love, to put words to the photos I take and to elevate the otherwise average and everyday things in life.   I can get lost in her writing.  My favorite cook book of all time is How to Eat.  It feels like a person is standing next to you, talking to you about food and cooking, rather than just listing ingredients and bullet pointing steps.  Her chapter that she mentioned in the Video Chat on Thursday about "The Solace of Stirring" makes my heart skip a beat.  She speaks and writes about what I believe in. 

    Cooking is a certain kind of philosophy.

    During the technical set up for the Google Hang Out, the other home cooks, Amanda and Preston and I had time to chat. They were both so charming and eloquent, and we all  instantly bonded when we started talking about food. Preston was an awesome combination of intellect, spirituality and art.  He seemed to be a handsome, young, well-educated and travelled Renaissance man.  He had a gorgeous sounding concoction of homemade ginger syrup mixed with libation to calm his nerves, and Amanda cracked me up when she calmly explained her New York kitchen was about the size of a closet.  She demonstrated the point by reaching into the fridge, just out of the computer screen shot, and pulled a beverage out to drink.  I get this whole Hang Out thing now.  It's quite fun really. The New York Times dining and wine section will be making a series out of it I think, and the next home cooks they choose are in for a treat.

    Nigella was as warm and lovely as I imagined her to be.  She made a little comment about how when she lived in Italy she was 19 and it was before all of us were born... I wanted to yell out, "I'm 46 Nigella!"  She looks AMAZING.   My teenage son, being the smart kid his is, has a bit of a crush on her too.  And once I told him she attended Oxford University and majored in Medieval Languages, he decided she is his dream woman. 

    My only regret other than making up a weird joke about how beer compliments everything, (it sounded clever in my mind, but I was star struck and tongue tied so ended up sounding like a dork I think) was that everyone on the chat was in their kitchen except for me.  I was sitting in my 13 year old daughter Emma's upstairs bedroom.  Although I moved all of the pink stuffed unicorns off the bed and took down the Justin Bieber posters, I still sat in front of a pink dresser with a missing drawer to talk to people around the world and at the New York Times.  I wished so much I'd figured out how to get the computer cable to reach my own kitchen that is quite nice.  I would have loved to show it off a bit to Julia Moskin, who also seems to have a thing for white subway tiles and enameled cast iron pots and pans. 

    In the end, what a great format for the New York Times to create, and what a cool opportunity for people who love food and cooking to connect on a real level, in real time.  I learned a lot just from that half hour: about truffle oil, how long to cook risotto, that Nigella is truly authentic and not driven by what would make her more "marketable", and that lawyers in New York with tiny kitchens and young students in Scotland and moms who are editors of the New York Times sometimes think just a little like me.

    Our passion for good, homemade food ties us all together.

    March 17, 2013

    Happy Sunday Darlings

    I was a little disappointed I didn't just splurge on a huge coil of cable to use with my computer so I could have had my kitchen in the background of my video-chat with Nigella last Thursday.  I LOVE my kitchen!  

    No worries though, it was a delightful experience, and I had the best time chatting with the other two home cooks/bloggers just before we aired.  I'll post the finished bit tomorrow and get into a few details then too.

    Happy St. Patrick's Day~

    March 12, 2013

    Nigella Lawson's Pasta Dish

    It seems a thousand things occur on the weekends that we have my kids:  volleyball tournaments, slumber parties, homework, laundry, grocery shopping and hopefully, time to stop for a moment and look at each other across the dinner table and talk. 

    Since I work away from home all week, cooking for my children and that time we finally spend together is crucially important.  No matter how busy or how long the weekend to-do list is, I squeeze in the time to cook. Senses are often frazzled from a week of racing the clock, and I find myself longing for just an hour or so in the kitchen--the sound of water filling a pan, the feel of a heavy knife in my hand, the warmth of the gas flame on the stove flickering to life, and the comforting savory smells of nourishing food slowly roasting in the oven is soothing and familiar.  It brings me back to who I am and what I love.  It reconnects me to my now teenage children. Putting together a meal for my family is about the best way I can relax, and knowing I am nourishing them with good food and memories at the same time is wholly satisfying.

    When I found out on Friday that I was picked to cook a dish from Nigella Lawson's new cookbook followed up with a chat by video with her and the New York Times Dining Section editor, Julia Moskin, along with two other home cooks like me, I was elated.  What a fantastic excuse to make something lovely and delicious for my family, and then photograph the whole thing!  The cherry on the cake is to actually talk about it directly with Ms. Lawson after it's all said and done.

    I followed her recipe exactly.  It really was something I could prepare on a weeknight, since the most complicated thing was simply a bit of chopping.  Tossing the veg into the water as it boiled along with the pasta is a very cool time saving trick.  If I was leisurely preparing the dish, and wanted to change it up a little, I might oven roast the brussels sprouts and potatoes after coating them with a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt in the 400 degree oven while the pasta boiled, then add them in at the last second.

    I printed the recipe before I left work on Friday. A sweet benefit of working at a cooking school is having a stable of brilliant Chef Instructors at my fingertips, so I asked Maxine, the wine instructor, for advice about which wine would be best with this particular dish.  She scribbled down a few for me and I grabbed up a rather lovely but inexpensive bottle of Sauvignon Blanc on my way home.

    Although I followed the recipe rather exactly, at the last minute I realized I'd left my glass lasagna dish at a friend's house, so I used a cast iron skillet instead.  Also, I set my oven to "convection bake" accidentally, so the dusting of Parmesan cheese crisped to a deeper golden brown than perhaps Nigella intended.  We rolled with it though, and I just confidently informed the kids that it was simply "caramelized" and would add a little crunch that they would love.

    The kids heaped seconds into their pasta bowls.  Emma separated the sprouts from her coveted pasta and cheese as usual, but everyone agreed they'd love to eat this particular recipe for dinner again.

    And of course, once the flavors melded together after a few hours, the left-overs were a delicious treat to be enjoyed after everyone else has gone to bed... in proper Nigella Fashion  ; )

    March 8, 2013

    Doing the Happy Dance!

    Whoo hoo!  Air kisses to all... 

    I can't believe it.  They picked me as one of the home cooks to prepare one of Nigella Lawson's recipes from her brand spankin' new cookbook, Nigellissima, then talk with her on a video chat with the New York Times and two other home cooks like me!

    I am thrilled beyond belief, and I raced to Whole Foods to purchase all of the ingredients so I'm completely set to go tomorrow to work in the kitchen with divine Gruyere cheese, ricotta, Parmesan, garlic, loads of butter and gorgeous brussel sprouts and whole wheat pasta.  
    I even checked with Maxine, the fabulous wine instructor at my school as to which wine to buy that will perfectly compliment the dish.

    I'll be taking photos all along the way my darlings, so you are going on this adventure right along side.

    Happy Friday for sure!

    March 7, 2013

    Remembering Italy

    One of the most romantic pockets of time in my life was when Kevin and I took our "pre" honeymoon trip to Italy.

    I'd never been overseas.  I'd never really been farther than Chicago for a rather boring corporate training, which at that time, I still thought exotic compared to my old quiet stay-at-home life.  I felt like a glamorous world traveller, and we would spend afternoons exploring the side streets and snug little cafes and shops as far away from the tourist-y places as we could find.  I took my film camera, and captured my favorite moments on wonderfully rich sepia film.  These are still some of my favorite images and the one up top was taken right after a short rainstorm that pushed us off of our walk into a covered stoop near a market where we bought Moretti beers and sipped them until the drizzle subsided.

    The food was incredible, and for the ten days that we travelled from Verona, to Florence to Venice, we ate at wonderful little spots that featured menu's only written in Italian and sipped coffee spiked with tiny bottles of grappa.

    I've been thinking of Italy again quite a lot.  This morning, I was invited by a reporter from the New York Times to try out a recipe from a new cookbook by Nigella Lawson, then, possibly, if all goes as I wish, I can video chat with the Domestic Goddess herself about the experience!  It was fabulous serendipity that I found the invitation on the NY Times Facebook page yesterday morning, calling for fans of Nigella who would like to write something about her then have the chance to be chosen to chat with her about cooking.  I've downloaded the recipe from her latest work, Nigellissima, and I am going to buy the groceries this weekend and cook it with my children.

    The idea of this little cooking challenge has triggered my favorite memories of Italy.  I hope that the smells and tastes from my kitchen this weekend will remind me even more of that magical trip and time.  Of course I'll be taking photographs and sharing the recipe too over the weekend.  I think already that I am going to fall in love with the dish.  Anything "swimming in butter and cheese" as this particular recipe is described, gets my full attention.

    Ciao Darlings~