Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dinner with the girls...and new additions!

Every Christmas, myself and my girlfriends of 15 years, Erin, Diana and Ashley, and their sig others take turns hosting a holiday dinner at each other's homes. This year it was Erin's turn, but we had two new additions - baby Chloe and baby Payton! Payton is 3.5 months, and Chloe is almost 2 months.

Having babies around certainly added a new dimension to our happy crew. Good friends can always go with the flow though, and Chloe and Payton were passed around, coddled, fed and changed by every single one of us at some point throughout the night. As the 7 of us (Joe couldn't come) took turns on baby duty, I couldn't help but notice the truth behind the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." Holy handful. It would be a lot easier if Chloe and Payton had five "moms" instead of one and they all lived in one giant hut.

Erin and hubby, Grant, had anticipated the chaos, though, and as former servers at the esteemed Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville, they broke out some old tricks to make dinner easier. The day before Erin had plated the tossed salad and wrapped each individual plate in saran wrap so it was ready to pull out and serve at meal time. She'd also pre-made a delicious Apple Balsamic Vinaigrette, which was the perfect winter dressing.

Grant prepared two types of creamy risotto - one with shrimp and one with sausage. He garnished each risotto with vegetables julienne to add simple color.

Dessert was peppermint sundaes served in Christmas mugs and topped with crushed candy canes and homemade glazed sugar cookies! Charming presentation, and a delicious, festive taste.

Kudos to the McElwains for pulling off a wonderful dinner and night of friendship while juggling baby Chloe. If I'm ever in their shoes, I can only hope to be as graceful!

Anniversary in Roanoke

On Dec. 16, my parents celebrated 30 years of marriage. Their wedding reception had been held at the gorgeous Hotel Roanoke, and mom's anniversary wish was for our entire family to have dinner there on Christmas Eve to celebrate.

I'd been to the Hotel many times since it's close to Virginia Tech. We spent the day walking around Roanoke's downtown square, and grabbed lunch at Trio Bistro Bar Bottle off the main square. We sat in the bar, which was bright and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls. Trio had several dishes with fried green tomatoes! Ah! A fried green tomato BLT, Caribbean spiced green tomato soup, and fried green tomatoes as appetizers. Yep, I was officially back in the South. And loving it.

Back at the Hotel, we took a bunch of family pictures in front of the massive Christmas tree before we were seated for dinner. My brother, sister and I had given our parents a night's stay at the Hotel the night before, so they'd already staked out the good photo opps.

The Regency Room did not disappoint. For Christmas Eve, the chefs had prepared a gourmet buffet that was truly a feast for the eyes. Our family shared a bottle of wine and must have done at least three toasts over the course of our meal. The most famous dish, though, is the Hotel Roanoke's signature Virginia Peanut Soup. For those who've never had Peanut Soup, it is truly a Southern dish and is best made from Virginia peanuts. It tastes like pureed peanut butter. It's kind of a rite of passage for Virginia guests and hosts.

A pianist entertained us throughout the evening before we rolled ourselves out of the Hotel for the two-hour drive home. It was a beautiful afternoon and evening in celebration of our wonderful parents! Here's to another 30, mom and dad!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Monkey Bread dreams

When I was in 6th grade, we rotated through various "exploratory" classes, such as home economics, agriculture, tech shop, drama, etc., for six weeks at a time to help us identify possible interests or future trades. All fall semester I had been looking forward to Home Ec because I saw all my friends making Monkey Bread during their six-week rotation. I remember smelling Monkey Bread wafting from Mrs. Lambert's Home Ec suite of rooms as I sat across the hall in computer class, and then my friends proudly guarding their final product so that the rest of us wouldn't ruin it before they got to take it home and show their moms.

Finally, December came, and I left my agriculture rotation and moved into Home Ec. Woo hoo! And wouldn't you know it, the week we were supposed to bake Monkey Bread, we got the biggest snow storm in five years and missed an entire week of school. We never got that time back in Home Ec, and my shot at a batch of Monkey Bread of my very own was lost.

Until this Christmas! My mom, never forgetting my disappointment and subsequent longing for Monkey Bread, bought me a Monkey Bread baking mold so I could make my own. I tackled it tonight.

Please note, the baking mold came with two recipes: one for the "Working Woman", which was meant to be quicker and simpler, and the "Gourmet Chef's" recipe. I had all the ingredients for the latter, so I thought I was up to the challenge.

Well. After four hours of mixing, rising, kneading, rising, rolling, rising, and finally baking, I finally got to taste my very own Monkey Bread. While my final product looks nothing like the delectable photo on the box, it does taste good. Simply put, Monkey Bread is sweetened bread dough rolled into 1/2 inch balls, stacked and caramelized with brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped pecans. You cook the stacked dough balls in a sort of bundt cake pan, so it should form a tower that you can invert onto a plate when it's done baking. Mine just fell apart when I tipped the mold upside down to dump out the dough.

Next time I'll use the "Working Woman's" recipe, which calls for refrigerated biscuits instead of made-from-scratch dough and should save me about three hours. But today, with nothing but a collection of Gregory Peck classics and the smell of 6th grade memories, I owed it to my 11-year old self to start at the beginning.

Working Woman's Recipe (from Tumbleweed Pottery):

  • 4 cans of 8 buttermilk refrigerated biscuits
  • 1.5 cups light brown sugar
  • 1.5 sticks butter, melted
  • 1.5 tsp cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup pecans, chopped

On low heat mix butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts together until sugar is dissolved. Spray Monkey Bread Pan (or 9-inch tube cake pan) with non-stick cooking spray. Quarter biscuits and dip in sugar mixture until well coated. Place biscuits in pan and pour remaining sugar mixture over biscuits. Place in cold oven and turn to 350 degrees. Bake 45 minutes. After removing from oven, carefully release edges and center with a knife. Invert onto a serving platter and serve warm.

A cook's Christmas

My mom always told us that kitchen gadgets/appliances are not acceptable gifts for birthdays or Christmas (too Betty Crocker/1950s housewife), but this year apparently was an exception. I got several much needed kitchen tools and gadgets, including a hand mixer (so I don't feel like I'm churning butter in 1827), salad spinner (which I'd stalked at the culinary class with mom and sis), a Monkey Bread baking mold, and four French presses. I have this vision of serving my guests coffee from their own little individual French press. It's very bed and breakfast of me, and slightly redundant to have four, I know. But they're so cute!

Along with a beautiful vintage pearl and diamond ring that has nothing to do with food (incredible!), Joe furthered my culinary promise with a subscription to Wine Spectator, and the 75th anniversary edition of "The Joy of Cooking", which he deems the true marker of any respectable cook. Guess that means he thinks I've got potential ;) I can't wait to get to know sweet cicely, irish moss, epazote, and more!

Since I had the whole day to myself, I decided to try out all my new gadgets without anyone around. Hand mixer - can I just say, what an upgrade. I treated myself to an after dinner coffee from my personal French press, which was as charming as I'd hoped it would be.

I currently am on the third and final rising stage of the Monkey Bread, but I'll do a separate post on that. There's a gourmet cooking store in Charlottesville that I like called The Happy Cook, and that's exactly how I feel! Cheers to cooking and wining in 2009!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Holiday Party 2008

True to form, Joe and I sent out an invitation on Wednesday for a holiday part for Friday - two days notice. Our friends must think we're insane. But God bless them, they take us with a grain of salt.

Long story short, our attendance was more "compact", shall we say, than last year, but we love all our wonderful friends who remained flexible in their schedules and were able to attend. Mostly, we have a holiday part to show off our tree, courtesty of Whole Foods. How yuppie white-bread is that? Yikers. But it's easy to get to downtown.

This year Joe made a carrot and strawberry tart, topped with goat cheese and plum chutney. I made turnip fries (which I'm always struggling to perfect), assorted cheeses and olives, prosciutto and cantaloupe, french bread and olives, and endless rounds of champagne. As if that's a surprise.

It was an intimate group, but Joe and I always love to entertain our dearest friends and show them a good time. We thank all for coming, and since Joe is passed out on the sofa (post call and too much champagne), I'll thank all our guests for making our holiday special once again. Happy holidays to all from #105!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hampden Hon

Saturday night we drove to Hampden to see the lights on 34th St., but first we stopped for dinner at Rocket to Venus. This place is on the corner of 34th and Chestnut, directly across from the block of lighted homes. I didn't want to see the block of lights until after dinner, so I turned my head and shielded my eyes so I'd see it for the first time when we came out after dinner.

Rocket was awesome. It was nothing like I'd pictured. I had this kind of tried and true Hampden-style dive bar in my head, but the interior was very modern, and the ceiling reminded me of outer space. Fitting, I guess, if you're rocketing to Venus. According to the insert in the menu, in 1928, these three buddies built a machine that would launch them into outer space and, subsequently, Venus. The machine had 50 gallons of gasoline and no steering ability. Needless to say, they didn't get very far but showed plenty of bravado in their attempt.

The menu was a real hodge podge of cuisine, from southern style fried pickles (which we got) to gnocchi and olives (which we also got). I tried the Jo-fu, a Sloppy Jo made with tofu instead of beef. The sandwich was HUGE and came with fries. Way too much for one person to eat, but very good. Per our server's warning, the Jo-fu sauce was very sweet, but that's what I think Sloppy Jo's should taste like. 

Although I didn't order one, I was was extremely tempted by their selection of warm drinks, like the flavored coffees with liquor. Note - great place for a hot tottie after walking 34th Street.

By the time we came out of dinner, they'd turned off the lights on 34th Street. I'd miss the whole thing! My girlfriend reminded me last night what a good example that is of how we should enjoy life as it happens and not try to hold on to something for a better time. My desire to "delay" the 34th Street revelation had resulted in me missing it entirely.

So we moseyed up Chestnut to the new location of Dangerously Delicious Pies. We heard music coming from inside, so we invited ourselves in. This duo was playing ridiculously awesome music - the kind of music that you know is going to launch them in only a matter of time - and then the store owner rocked out a few soulful tunes. A man dressed as Santa was sitting on the bench next to Joe, and the other guests looked like Hampden-lifers and punk 20-somethings. Beautiful mix of the people who make Hampden fun.

On our drive down 36th Ave. to go home, we saw a band playing at Golden West, so we hopped out to see what they were all about. Three folksy groups were on the board, and we caught the tail end of the first guy. Next up was Kira Kira, an Icelandic chick and her electronic band. She played the glockenspiel, ok? And a ton of other crazy instruments we'd never seen before! Her music was extremely Bjork meets The Postal Service. We went home and Googled her right away. (I had joked when she first came on that she was going to sound just like Bjork, and surprisingly, her middle name is actually Bjork!) Neither Joe nor I had ever witnessed electronic music like that performed live. It was sick. So refreshing.  

Friday, December 12, 2008

Celebration dinner for little sis

My sister, Erika, moved to northern VA yesterday - her first foray out into the real world on her own! She decided 21 years in Harrisonburg was enough, so she found her own place, a good job, and transferred schools so she can keep rolling. She doesn't really know anyone in NOVA, but that didn't faze her. I'm so proud of her smart choices and newfound independence! 

My brother helped her move in yesterday, and I happened to be in DC for a client meeting, so the three of us were able to get together for a celebration dinner! Woo hoo! As the unofficial "halfway" point between Baltimore and Harrisonburg, Erika is so excited to do just what we did last night - get us all together in one meeting point, her place :)

She had a gift certificate to Carrabas, which she'd earned as Employee of the Month for Outback, a sister restaurant, and she very sweetly offered to pay for our dinner. I'd never eaten at a Carrabas before, but now I can see why one in three Americans is overweight or obese. The amount of food they served with each entree was ridiculous. Plus the bread before the meal and an 

We had a great time together, and we were so happy to hopefully get Erika's new lifestyle off to a great start! She managed to survive NOVA rush hour traffic after dark and in the rain without having a clue where she was going. Major kudos for that, E!

Can't wait to have her show me around her little part of the world in a few more weeks.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My first potato leek soup

Did anyone else ever thinks leeks were some sort of legume?  I was shocked when a farmer recently handed me a bunch of leeks, and they looked like thick scallions. The word "leeks", to me, sounds like a bean. Apparently the rest of the world does not agree.

So I bought these beautiful leeks and Joe refused to let me use them for anything else besides potato leek soup. Soups aren't really my thing, but it's such a classic recipe that I decided to give it a shot. 

I realized, during my two hours of mindless slicing, dicing and peeling, how therapeutic this part of cooking really is. When you've got the time and you've got good music, I could dice and peel all day. Now, for some reason I felt like being an overachiever and decided to make a double batch on my first try, so everything below got doubled. (Totally useless when you're only cooking for 2 people. We now need a small army to come slurp the gallons of soup out of our fridge).

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts washed and sliced into 1/4 in. slices
2 c chopped yellow onion
1/2 tsp sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced (I cheated and pulled from a giant tub of garlic in our fridge)
2 large Yukon gold potatoes (1 lb.), peeled and cubed into 1/2 in. cubes (Note: it is IMPORTANT to actually peel the potatoes. I was dealing with little Yukons and didn't peel them, and their skins kept getting caught in my blender).
2 c vegetable stock
2 c chicken stock
2-3 tsp fresh rosemary leaves

1. Heat soup pot over medium and add oil.
2. Add leeks, onion and sea salt. Saute for 5 minutes until onion turns translucent.
3. Add garlic and stir well. Cook for 1 more minute.
4. Add potatoes and stock, cover and boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook 20 minutes.
5. Remove from heat. Blend soup with rosemary leaves until smooth.

I recommend serving warm with a hard, crusty bread, like a day-old French baguette.

Free happy hour at three restaurant on Sunday

I went to three, the restaurant on the corner of Baltimore and Patterson Park last night, and our server filled us in on a free upcoming event. This Sunday, 12/14, from 1-4pm, three will be holding a happy hour with a free buffet from 4-8pm to thank all its customers for their support over the past year. They want to fill the place up, so stop by and watch the game and enjoy good food and fun! Parking is free and ample on the street.

Check it out:

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ladies' night for Erin

Saturday night was a single lady's grand finale for my girlfriend, Erin, who's getting married this Friday. Her closest Baltimore gals met at Pazo and concentrated on inhaling plenty of carbs in anticipation of the night ahead. We were eating Fougasse, which I typically try to avoid because it fills you up, but it's this delicious pretzel-looking bread with sea salt and olive oil. Couple of the girls got beef tartare and mushrooms and pizzas. I pretty much stuck with the champagne.

Few new things about Pazo, which I was glad to hear help maintain the integrity of the place: no penis paraphernalia allowed, and no shots. (Whew! This was a bachelorette party I could handle). Way to stand your ground, Pazo.

We moved on to Meli where Erin let me try her signature Melitini - a honey-infused martini. They'd made hers extra strong in honor of her big night, so I didn't get an honest assessment. I'd try it again, though.

We ended the night at Slainte and discovered a new bar I didn't even know existed on the 2nd floor! It was gorgeous - dark wood, deep reds, Christmas decorations, views overlooking the Harbor. Loved it! 

It wasn't a night of anything crazy, but the bride had a great time and we got all our girl talk in. Mission accomplished. Now on to the wedding Friday night at the Cloisters where Will Smith and Jada Pinkett got married. Can't wait to see it! Good luck Erin and Christos!

Getting in the spirit at the BSO

Friday night we had tickets to see Handel's Messiah performed at the BSO to kick off the holiday season! Our tickets were in row G on the orchestra level, so we had a beautiful, undisturbed view of the upright bass section. We arrived at the last minute, and the show was sold out, so we didn't get a program, or I'd have lots more to tell you about the guest conductor and the choir. 

Long story short, the performance was two hours long, and Joe made a great observation. Sitting through a music performance of that length reminds you of how it must have been not too long ago before radio and TV, when everything centered around live entertainment or the debut of a new painting at a salon. The fine arts were the crux of society, and opening night of a new performance was THE event of the season. 

We headed across the street to Abacrombie for drinks and dessert after the show. We hadn't been since the renovation and appointment of a new head chef. We sat in the bar, which is below street level. Joe had escargot served in a small crock, baked in a puff pastry. Beautiful presentation. We shared a cheese plate of two cow's milk and one sheep's milk cheese from Italy and Spain. I had a glass of the Montrasell, and Joe had a Cab. 

The service was great. Our server took a liking to us and brought us samples of one of their finest ports (and talked about chick flicks with me!) to sip on while we hung out.

Note to drivers. The University of Baltimore parking lot across the street from Abacrombie closes at 11:00pm on BSO show nights, 8:00pm other nights. Do NOT pull a Meghan and get your car stuck in there overnight. In addition to our tasty Abacrombie experience, I also accrued a $36 parking fee, plus an $8 cab ride to get my car out the next morning. Good times.

But thumbs up to the new Abacrombie!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wine tasting at Silo Point

Ok, I'll admit it. I'm stalking Silo Point. I WILL live in that building. We'd already taken an official sales tour of model units, but when a friend told me about a wine tasting party in the Sky Lounge, I pounced.

Last night, Joe and I and 49 other guests visited the Sky Lounge for a wine tasting party, co-hosted by Silo Point and Baltimore Style, with tastings courtesy of the Wine Market and proceeds benefiting the Maryland SPCA. (Was that thorough enough?). Our friends Ben and Adriana were there as well, which shouldn't have surprised us since they're as obsessed with Baltimore happenings as we are. 

Silo Point is the country's oldest grain elevator, which they've just finished renovating into luxury condos with THE best views in town. Love it. Views from the lounge were ridiculous, and the wine was wonderful. I'm going to make another shameless plug for the Wine Market since I'm such a fan. I learned they actually prepare custom wine tasting dinners for you! Get a group together, contact the Wine Market a few days in advance, and they'll put together a menu and wines for your group! Can be 5, 6, or 7 courses, starting at $29 a person. Great deal on something new to do with friends.

And, shocker. We left Silo Point and went to dinner down the street at the Wine Market. It was inevitable. 

Apparently some of my Twitter friends were there too, but a little Avatar does not do a real life person justice, and I couldn't match faces with icons. Doh! Here are some photos from @600Block, a Baltimore "scene" site. Catch me on Twitter at @sunnye03.

Butternut squash and spaghetti squash patties

This recipe was ridiculous, and unfortunately I can't take credit for it. I spent Sunday afternoon baking all kinds of vegetables from the market so they'd be recipe-ready later in the week. I literally used up all our Tupperware storing prepped vegetables. 

Joe took the flesh from the baked spaghetti squash and the baked butternut squash, mixed them with one egg and some oats, and formed six little patties. He fried each patty until they were lightly browned on each side. 

Then he made a red wine sauce with a touch of cloves and flour to thicken the consistency. He drizzled this sauce over each little patty, and added a fresh mint leaf from our mint plant for color. 

Voila! It was, hands down, one of the BEST things he's ever made. It was a great new way to prepare spaghetti and butternut squashes, which we usually serve as a pasta-substitute and soup, respectively. And the patties were the perfect snack size for later.