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Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Holiday Table - Baltimore Style

Baltimore Magazine recently featured this blog as a part of their 2013 Holiday Entertaining Guide.

I am both honored and humbled to have been a part of the feature, so a big thank you is in order for everyone at BMag!

To make a long story short, I was asked to put together a holiday inspired menu as well as entertaining ‘tips and tricks’ to be featured on a thematic tablescape designed by the magazine's stylists.


Needless to say I was instantly channeling my inner gay, teutonic, Giada DiLaurentiis and whipping myself into an Ina Garten style domestic frenzy, but I had to answer a few questions first… 

I’m including my responses here because I think it gives good insight into why I’m writing this blog and explains the persistent afterglow having cooked for this piece.

What is your background in?

    • I work in finance, however, I spent 10 years in various roles in the hospitality industry from marketing to floor management. It was during this time, under some inspiring talents, that I developed my interest in and appreciation for food and wine. I was also fortunate to do several stints studying abroad, during which I acquired my love for travel and the exploration of diverse locales and cultures. These experiences combined to give me an insatiable curiosity centered on the food, wine, and culinary traditions around the world, and it’s through my own cooking and travel that I get to satisfy those urges, this is my creative and sensory outlet in my 9 to 5 world.

What brings you to Baltimore?

    • I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, most of my childhood and adolescence spent as a figure skater. After my career as an athlete ended, I was drawn to Baltimore for college at Loyola University where I studied International Business. My father's family is quite large and has been in Baltimore for a many years and I had spent a good deal of time here growing up, so therefore, I felt at home right away. Through the years I forged a deeper connection with the city and the people in it, falling in love with so many things, and decided to stay after graduating. Here I am now, enjoying life in Upper Fells Point.

How would you describe your blog?

    • This blog is my way to share my experience; cooking, dining, living my day-to-day as a member of the 'Aspirational Proletariat' to which so many of us belong. It’s a personal account, a real-life version of the high-gloss images and scintillating tales of transcendent meals and cultural adventures that inspire me in print, television, and daily life, all experienced within the confines of my 9 to 5 reality.

How long have you been blogging?

    • I started blogging at the beginning of 2013, but I have to admit I’ve been writing amateur restaurant reviews and travel stories since I was 10, I hope no one ever reads those…

What do you love about holiday cooking?

    • I love that the holidays are a chance to go over the top with everything you do. Whether it’s décor, the variety of your spread, or even the richness of the dishes you prepare. No one will fault you for a little excess during the holidays. It is a perfect chance to try new things and really indulge your guests, family, friends, and ultimately yourself.

What’s your favorite holiday and why?

    • Thanksgiving, hands down. For me, it’s the perfect holiday, family and friends gathering around food, what could be better.? I also happen to love cooking during this season, fall flavors and produce like sage, chestnuts, pumpkin, and cauliflower are some of my favorites with which to work. I guess it doesn’t hurt that my absolute favorite wines, Amarone and Valpolicella Ripasso, are arguably some of the best to pair with turkey!

The Menu

My favorite culinary traditions are those of Italy and southern Germany, perhaps because of my travel experience and my personal heritage. Therefore, this is instantly where my mind goes when I think of a holiday menu. Glühwein, rich savory Casunsei (Ravioli), an abundance of seafood, decadent Pork roasts with root vegetables, and sweet delicate desserts like vanillekipferl or pfeffernuss are those items that make this type of cooking the highlight of the year.

For the purposes of the article I focused my menu on side dishes that capture iconic flavors and items I knew would be vibrant in photographs. 

My choices of the spiced wine, vibrant nutty salad, sweet and spicy carrots, simple grilled fish, and the savory and sweet custard are all nods to these traditions in some way but also come from my personal taste. Chilies from New Mexico, piquant blue cheese, and rich caramel are all some of my favorite flavors and things that I look forward to during the holidays and all year long. These recipes are simple and can easily be modified to fit any occasion.



·         Spiced Wine – Glühwein – I make mine with typical mulling spices of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves, adding cardamom and black peppercorns for a deeper flavor and aromatics, finishing off with orange rind and brandy, then cooking on very low heat for an hour before serving. I serve in a large glass punch bowl and garnish each glass or mug with a cinnamon stick.


·         Finger Foods:

o    Fennel ‘Fries’

·         Sides:

o    Warm Radicchio, Cayenne-Candied Walnut, and Gorgonzola Piccante Salad with Citrus Vinaigrette

o    Roasted Red Chili Glazed Rainbow Carrots with Toasted Pine Nuts

o    Harissa Grilled Makerels on Grilled Bread

·         Dessert

o    Salted Carmel & Spiced Rum Custard with Fresh Whipped Cream

Recipes can be found online by clicking HERE

Holiday Entertaining Strategies

Entertaining on any scale, whether I host a friend for dinner or throw a neighborhood cocktail party, is my absolute favorite thing to do. Cooking and hosting have become my creative outlets and I live for the chance to welcome people into my home and share this part of my world. I take much of my inspiration from what I see in print and on TV, and I try to make it my own whether it be a recipe or a decorating idea. It’s my way of living those dreamlike images within the confines of my 9 to 5 life.

So as far as the entertaining ‘tips & tricks’ go, I consulted some close, like-minded friends, and really just reflected on the types of things I give myself as ‘to-dos’ whenever I entertain. Whether it's a small dinner party or an all day brunch, these are simple dishes or strategies I have found particularly successful.

·         Make a Savory Statement - Inspired by a designer friend known for her stunning plates, I've always liked to have a beautiful 'statement' charcuterie and cheese platter for guests to enjoy throughout any event. I try to use slightly unexpected items like autumn leaves, fresh flowers, crispy fennel, pickled okra, or even some candied bacon just to keep things visually interesting and to highlight the headlining meats and cheeses.

·         Add Some Flavor to Your Table Use colorful and unique ramekins for salt, pepper and other seasonings that you want on your table rather than the usual (and often mundane) shakers one might normally find. This adds visual interest to the tablescape in subtle and unexpected ways.

·         Mix & Match – Use vintage and mismatched glassware for pre-dinner cocktails and antique tea cups for dessert or coffee service. Each one can be a conversation starter while the meal begins and ends. I love collecting these pieces whenever I travel and it’s fun to tell friends about the process.

·         Spread the Spread - Placing food and beverage stations in various locations throughout the home or entertaining space rather than all in one central 'buffet & bar' location creates natural flow and allows guests to mingle more freely. This is especially important in smaller homes or compact urban environments (like my Baltimore row home) where one might even consider putting certain items outdoors to expand the entertaining space.

·         Local Color! – When possible, source all flower arrangements locally, the Fells Point Farmers Market or Ellen Frost at Local Color Flowers is my Go-Tos! By doing so, one can naturally lend an authentic seasonality to the table top or display.

·         Start from Scratch Make at least one item completely from scratch. Whether it is pasta, bread, pickles or even a cocktail infusion, creating something entirely your own puts your personal stamp on the entire event. 

·         Get that Feeling Choose your menu and decor carefully, giving it a cohesive, consistent, and thematic ‘Feeling’. Plan how you want your guests to think and feel when they enter the home or room, and develop that idea in everything you serve. I try to select a theme that is a nod to the season or a particular cultural culinary tradition, that way the décor and dishes relate naturally to each other and are all relevant to the whole of the experience, i.e  ‘Alpine Christmas’ dinner or ‘A Springtime in Italy’ Brunch.

·         Have Plan and Hire Help – Make sure you have thought through every stage or step of your event so as to avoid unexpected surprises during service. No one likes a harried host, so whether it’s hiring a professional or a begging a good friend, always designate someone to help with the minutia of execution and clean up.

Overall, this was an incredible experience and everyone should go pick up the magazine!

It made very clear to me what I love about food and entertaining, inspired my creativity, distilled my passion, and I am left feeling even more dedicated to building on this part of my life, my pursuit of umami.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Burger Love

This is just a simple post with two burger recipes ideas I tried recently.

Accompanied by a night with one of my best friends listening to The Band, Chicago, and Whitney (big surprise) for hours, these mini-burgers were the perfect way to to send off summer….finally!

I wanted to try a spin on the classic bacon cheeseburger and decided adding sweet and spice to the profile was the best approach. So like anyone would do, I candied the bacon in sugar and cayenne pepper. For the cheese, I used an incredible cheddar from 5 Spoke Creamery that I found at Fleet Street Market, a shop that is quickly becoming my daily cheese stop on the way home from work….this will eventually be a problem.

For the second burger I wanted to pursue umami (had to) and went for a Pan-Asian idea. I used curry on fried Vidalia onions, a tangy mustard teriyaki combo made on the fly, and kimchi to accomplish this flavor feat. Any opportunity I have to use kimchi, I seize it, I love the heat and tartness, it’s guilt free, and who doesn’t’ love fermented cabbage?!?  I have yet to find my favorite brand or local producer, but I am loving the process and I am VERY open to suggestions.

I  made both burgers using some grass fed ground beef I picked up from Whole Foods during one of their Friday sales, and made 3oz patties adding just salt and garlic pepper – I prefer to keep it simple when it comes to the meat and the small size meant minimal time on the grill.


Redmond Cheddar Burger w/ Cayenne Candied Bacon & Heirloom Tomatoes

Ingredients (for 2 burgers):

·         Heat a medium non-stick pan over medium heat, place bacon strips and cook for 2 mins until the fat begins to render. Then add cayenne and sugar and continue to cook and turn strips as sugar dissolves, cook until desired crisp and doneness is achieved, then set aside (do not use a paper towel, the sugar will stick to the fiber).
·         Stacking order: bun, bacon, beef, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, condiment of choice, bun

“The Pan Asian” 

Fried Egg, Kimchi, Curry Ketchup Fried Vidalia Onions & Teriyaki-Mustard Sauce

·         3 oz Spicy ‘red’ kimchi – I have yet to find my favorite brand….loving the process and VERY open to suggestions
·         2 Fried Eggs – I fried mine in evoo and used a circular form to make stacking easier
·         1 large Vidalia onion – halved then sliced into long strips, this is just my preference for fried onion format
·         2 tablespoons ketchup
·         ½ tablespoon curry powder
·         1 tablespoon evoo
·         1 tablespoon whole grain mustard (I use seeded mustard)
·         ½ table spoon GF soy sauce
·         ½ tablespoon teriyaki sauce
·         ½ tablespoon mango hot sauce (brand)

·         Combine mustard, teriyaki, soy sauce and hot sauce, whisking with a fork until smooth
·         Heat evoo in medium sauce pan, and onion and curry and fry until they begin to brown, then add ketchup and continue to cook until most of the moisture cooks off – set aside
·         Stacking order: bun onions, burger, kimchi, egg, mustard sauce, bun

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ravioli Redeems the Squash

Despite the sweltering heat that hung over Charm City this first weekend of October, I am totally in the mood for fall food. This is many folks' favorite season for cooking and eating, potentially because of the leeway that the slimming effect fall layers affords the appetite, but I’ll maintain it’s the seasonal ingredients that really get me going. 

Fall at the Farmers Market is amazing, it’s all about gargantuan heads of cauliflower, myriad squash varieties in every shape and size, and a plethora of favorites like lima beans, pears and apples. It’s this time of year I find myself most inspired and active in the kitchen - ok enough gushing...

Squash, the iconic symbol of fall food, presents a conundrum for the conscientious eater in me. At the same time delicious and full of nostalgic flavor, it is also nearly nutritionally void, consisting mostly of water, a notion my grandmother has beaten into my psyche. That said, I justify using this farce of a vegetable for the flavor and textural vehicle it can be for other ingredients.

Now there are plenty of types of squash, and they all have their place - acorn for stuffing and baking, spaghetti for guilt-free pasta, pumpkin for fragrant soups - but the go-to, for me and I am sure many others, is the ubiquitous Butternut. Fortunately, these can be found in droves at nearly every farmers market in the state of Maryland from September through January, so I have plenty of opportunity to experiment, finding new ways to elevate fall food. 

Bakes, hashes, purees, they have all had their day in my kitchen, but on my most recent butternut foray I chose pasta as my muse. It was a Friday night, the work week and the 90 degree October heat which I can't even call ‘unseasonal’ any more, were weighing on my dinner decisions so I decided I wanted to stick to comfort as the theme for the night’s meal. I had invited two close friends for dinner, both of whom responded enthusiastically (a little too much so IMO) to the suggestion of pasta, so it was decided. 

I’d picked up some sage sausage from Pahl’s Hogs the prior weekend, and decided the addition of fresh sage and incorporation with sweet and earthy butternut squash would be the perfect filling for some handmade Casunsei. Casunsei, is a fancy, more Italian (is that a thing?) way of saying Ravioli…Actually it is a type of filled pasta hailing from the culinary tradition of the Italian alps, towns like Verona and Trentino. Casunsei is usually characterized by hearty fillings, its half-moon shape, and is commonly found on the Christmas Eve table - The ideal pasta for autumnal flavors.

With such full flavors going into the pasta filling, the sauce was a no-brainer; a simple brown butter made with my ‘one and only’ Kerry Gold and even more fresh sage. It is both traditional for this type of pasta, and, well, there's nothing better than butter. 

I roasted the squash as soon as I got home, scooped, mashed, and then combined with a sauté of sausage, onion, garlic, and sage, filling the house with autumnal smells prior to my friends’ arrival (I do it all for effect).

I (almost) always try to make my pasta by hand, this was no exception, but it does take time. So while the dough rested, to avoid conversational stagnation and hypoglycemia, I coated some slices of eggplant in egg-wash and cayenne spiced corn meal, and fried them up as appetizers. I topped the ‘Melanzane Fritti’ with a quenelle of fresh ricotta I’d picked up from Fleet Street Market on my way home, and drizzled an 18yr old balsamic reduction on top for a sweet punch. 

The eggplant must have been perfectly ripe, because the creaminess achieved with a quick flash fry, surprised even myself (this appetizer is happening again).

We made the ravioli sheets together, which is a way to make prep more social and temper the pre-dinner wine consumption, win WIN… Once filled, the pasta takes a 5 minute bath in boiling water and is ready to go. I topped with the brown butter, and finished with grated Fulvi Pecorino Romano, the ONLY cheese option for that sharp and salty bite needed to offset the sweetness of the squash.

It’s difficult not to be happy with a dinner of filled pasta, but I have to say this is one recipe I will be sure to repeat. The squash was totally redeemed, while not the star of the dish, it was the key player in marrying all the flavors and textural elements. The dish was perfectly rich and savory but grounded in the season by the honeyed profile of the Butternut, probably one of my favorite dishes so far this year.


Butternut Squash & Fresh Sage Sausage Casunsei

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups ‘00”’ or all purpose unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon + 1 tablespoon EVOO
  • Sea Salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper + more to tsate
  • 6 oz Slab bacon or pancetta (diced)
  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 1 medium white onion (chopped)
  • 1 large butter nut squash, halved, skin on
  • 1 lb fresh ground pork sausage
  • 2 oz + 1 oz fresh sage (chopped) + more for garnish
  • Pecorino Romano to taste (grated)
  • 4 tablespoons Kerry Gold Butter
  • 1 large butter nut squash, halved, skin on
  • Filling
    • Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F
    • Brush squash with evoo and roast face up for 45 mins or until fork tender
    • Carefully scoop from the skin and place in a medium bowl
    • While squash roasts, heat 1 table spoon evoo in medium sauce pan of medium heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté until translucent. Add sausage, sage, black pepper, and sea salt and cook, using a spatula break up the sausage as finely as possible. Continue until fully cooked, but do not brown.
    • Combine sausage and sage with roasted squash and ‘mash’ together until smooth, set aside.
  • Pasta:
    • In a large bowl, mound the flour forming a well in the center (looks like a volcano).
    • Put eggs, evoo, and salt into the well. Using a fork, incorporate the flour into the well, move to using your hands until all the liquid is absorbed and you have a cohesive dough ball.
    • Add water as needed and knead for 10+ minutes until dough is smooth
    • Once smooth, wrap in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for about 30mins – Then run through pasta maker to desired thickness and width – For Ravioli you do not want to go too thin as this will not stand up to the filling process.
    • Use a cookie cutter or other kitchen instrument to cut 3-4” diameter circles in dough sheets. Place 1 heaping table spoon filling into the center, fold over, and using your fingers, press edges together making a semi-circular half-moon shape. Be sure to seal each ravioli well so it does not come open during cooking.
      • If the dough is too dry, you will need to use some beaten eggs to seal the ravioli
      • Flour the filled ravioli to and place on a parchment lined baking sheet
    • Cook in salted boiling water for 5-8 minutes until al-dente.
    • While pasta boils, brown the butter in a small sauce pan, adding the remaining sage just as the colors turns a deep golden hue.
    • Serve immediately, drizzling brown butter over pasta, and finish with grated pecorino and fresh sage.