Meal in a glass

I wanted to share a quick recap of a few Thanksgiving highlights. We started the day with my sister's bloody marys that were laden with her famous "fixins". If there's one thing that girl can do, it's top a bloody mary with meats, cheeses and assorted pickled vegetables to keep you coming back for more. I know a bloody mary can be made an infinite number of ways, but we start with a good tomato juice mix and add horseradish, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce as a minimum. We call it "meal in a glass," and I would definitely recommend that you make these at your next home made brunch. You can add the traditional celery and then go crazy from there. Below is a pepperdew pepper, pickled asparagus, dill pickle, stuffed olive, salami and marinated mini-mozzarella ball.

As so many holiday cooking stories go, our turkey was cooking away nicely, the butter laden cheesecloth neatly laid on top was doing its job of keeping everything moist whilst browning the skin to a delicious crispiness. Meat thermometer at the ready, we plunged it into the leg after about 3 hours and declared it done. Oh dear. We hadn't started cooking any of the sides, although everything was expertly prepared by my Dad's wife, Lisa. After she and I quickly finished off all the side dishes, another inspection of the turkey proved that alas, it was not finished. Back into the oven it went. Instead of pressing the panic button, we decided to drink through many, many bottles of my Dad's wine and a gorgeous bottle of Champagne that our friend, Phillipe, had brought. I like Julia Child's mantra of never apologizing for any mistakes you make in the kitchen.

Luckily, it turned out to be a very relaxing Thanksgiving and the turkey was expertly cooked and carved.

Here are two recipes that are staples with my family and can be cooked throughout the holiday season. I mentioned the shrimp loaf before the weekend began, and remarkably, it successfully set when I made it Wednesday night. Unfortunately, I dipped it for a few minutes too long in the warm water bath I made it. After several glasses of wine, I cared very little, but wished it had turned out of its mold perfectly.

The recipe is from my Grandmother, Dorothy, who obtained it from a friend she used to play bridge with. It really is a great salad that pairs wonderfully with turkey, which is why it made its way into our holiday traditions. I can imagine it would also blend perfectly into a ladies' luncheon buffet and a nice game of cards and cocktails.

I'm painfully aware that the photo is not as appetizing as I might have hoped. It's pale pink and wobbly, but trust me- it's fantastic with turkey, especially leftover turkey sandwiches.

Shrimp Mold
1 cup mayonnaise
8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1 lb cooked small shrimp (if you only have larger, cut it into small pieces)
1/2 ground pepper
1 1/2 celery
1/2 onion
1 pkg lemon jello, regular size
1 1/2 cup tomato juice
1 pkg Knox unflavored gelatin

Mix the Knox gelatin with a few tablespoons of water and whisk until it's dissolved. Heat the tomato juice until just before boiling. Add the hot tomato juice to the gelatin and dissolve the lemon jello into the tomato juice.

While that is cooling, cream the mayonnaise and cream cheese together. Finely chop the onion, green pepper and celery in a food processor and add to the cream cheese/mayo mixture.

Add 1/2 tsp salt and combine with the tomato juice once it has cooled.

Take a loaf pan or any other gelatin mold you have and grease it with Pam spray or take a paper towel with vegetable oil and make sure the mold is greased.

Pour the mixture into the mold and refrigerate overnight until firm. To turn out successfully, make a warm water bath in your kitchen sink and dip the mold into the water for a matter of 30 seconds before turning it out onto a plate. Don't leave it too long in the water like I did!


This year, my Mom's pumpkin soup didn't make the main event, but I just finished off the holiday weekend by preparing it for an early supper. In years gone by, she used to serve this pumpkin soup in small individual pumpkins for a fancy start to any festive meal. You can also make this and serve it out of the pumpkin you got the meat from, but honestly, it's fairly tedious. I like to make a big batch of this and dip ladle after ladle into it until it's gone.

Another thing to mention about this pumpkin soup is it's nicely rounded out with a tablespoon of rice and potato, so it's got body and richness, unlike other thin pumpkin soups I've come across.

I took a large pumpkin that I bought at the end of October and cut it's meat into large chunks and froze them in two batches. I think cooking with squash or pumpkin can be tricky because of all the peeling and knife work involved, so doing the pumpkin ahead of time makes the soup preparation super simple.

Pumpkin Soup
Adapted from the Winners cookbook by The Junior League of Indianapolis

1 medium size pumpkin cut into large chunks (or about 3 cups)
4 tbsp unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup chopped ripe tomatoes or 16 oz can of chopped tomatoes, drained
1 quart boiling water
1 quart chicken stock
1 tbsp long grain rice
2 cups peeled and sliced potatoes
freshly ground pepper
freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the butter in a large saucepan over low to medium heat. Add the pumpkin and tomatoes and cook for about five minutes. Do not brown.

Add the boiling water, chicken stock, rice, potatoes, salt and pepper. Simmer for 40-60 minutes Puree the soup using a hand blender (which I prefer because it literally takes seconds and you can do it in the pot you're cooking in or risk burning yourself while blending) or a little at a time in a blender or food processor.

Check seasoning at this point and add salt, pepper and a little nutmeg before tasting again.

Pour soup into individual or the larger pumpkin shells to serve and garnish with nutmeg.


Divide and conquer

This year, we are approaching Thanksgiving with a divide and conquer strategy. I'm heading south today to Indiana to spend the holiday with my family and we're each bringing something. Other than assisting in my Dad's kitchen, I'm bringing the all important cranberry sauce and attempting my Grandmother's shrimp loaf. Before we go down the shrimp loaf path, let me just say that it is either loved or hated. One thing's for sure- I can't remember a Thanksgiving without the gelatin based shrimp loaf that my grandparents used to make and it is the secret ingredient to leftover turkey sandwiches. More of that to come over the weekend.

Let's start with the cranberry sauce. As I was running through the grocery store yesterday on the way to the fruits and vegetables, I spied cans of cranberry sauce whirring past me, conveniently located at the end of an aisle along with other Thanksgiving essentials. If canned sauce is part of your holiday meal, try this simple recipe to turn the beautiful ripe berries that farmers in Massachusetts harvest every year into an unforgettable side dish. My Aunt and Uncle, who live in Cape Cod, were lucky enough to go and see the harvest last month.

My family from England will be joining us for Christmas this year, which means more turkey. I've convinced my sister in-law, Helen, to try a turducken this year, but everything else will stay traditionally English, including my favorite- bread sauce. When I put the cranberries on the stove yesterday with the brandy and sugar, I made a double batch to freeze for our Christmas dinner. As soon as I tumbled the crimson fruits into the pan, it felt like the clock had started to tick on the festive season. My mind wandered to the time I'll be spending at the stove over the next six weeks preparing for that one special meal. I've been squirreling away holiday treats in the pantry and just waiting to bring out the decorations. If you're like me, I adore the holidays, but hate the out-of-season run up and wince when I see Christmas lights in windows before Thanksgiving.

Like so many of my holiday dishes, I refer to the Queen of Christmas, Nigella Lawson. Many of them work for Thanksgiving as well, but I have to admit I was dreading eating the same meal twice within the matter of a month. I'll definitely be mixing up my Christmas menu to vary it, but I'm equally excited about both holidays this year.

Cranberry Sauce

1 x 340g packet cranberries
1 cup of granulated sugar
3 tbsp cherry brandy (or other red fruit brandy you can find)
1/3 cup water

Put everything into a pan and turn the heat on high. Stir everything together and let it bubble and pop for about 10-15 minutes. Keep in mind, as Nigella quite rightly shares in her book, that once the berries have burst, it's best to take the pan off the heat, even if you feel there is slightly too much liquid. It will solidify quickly as it cools (like jam). Let it cool completely before you put it in a jar ready to serve. Taste to make sure it's not to tart, which it probably won't be. If it's too sweet, add a squeeze of lemon juice.

You'll need to fluff it up with a fork when you're transferring it to a serving dish.

If you're like me and make double, put the cooled sauce into a container and freeze it until December.


Luckiest girl on earth

I've had a few weeks to process our trip to Napa, and though I'm still waiting for our wine shipment to arrive, I can't recall a place I've visited in the US that I liked more. It was truly an escape from my mid-west city life filled with discount wines from Costco. Although we did little more than drink, eat and rest, I felt as if we packed a lot into our three days. I know there weren't many moments when I didn't have a glass of wine in my hand, but I honestly think I could move to Napa tomorrow and be happy. The landscape was spectacular and varied. We visited vineyards in the valley and then drove up winding paths until we felt as if we were on top of the world.

I am most certainly not a wine expert, but we learned as we went along. Our first day was shrouded in mist and rain as we arrived from San Francisco. Our first stop was Frog's Leap, where as novices we stumbled past their red barn and a pomegranate tree towards the tasting rooms. When you are from the land of corn, the sight of pomegranate or persimmon, as we later saw, on a tree, tends to blow the mind.

The beautiful tasting building was complete with a roaring fire and a dozing orange tabby cat.

We headed straight to their back deck overlooking the vineyard and gardens to start our first tasting, unsure of what to expect.

We were immediately approached by a friendly woman who set us right at ease as she poured each of their wines into the glasses set before us. We picked at a selection of cheeses and dried fruits and immediately began to enjoy ourselves. Huge, ripe pumpkins studded their gardens and we patted ourselves on the back for choosing to visit in autumn. It felt as if we were sitting on our own back porch, sipping wine and chatting as a tempting croquet set sat next to us.

Reluctantly, we moved on. From there, we drove up a never-ending path past red wood trees and eucaplyptus until we reached Kuleto Estate. As promised, this place is something to behold. The tour, which we completed under umbrellas, was undoubtedly our most drunken affair. Lets just say they pour extremely generously there, and we had a fabulous time. The property is vast and pizza ovens and party areas seem to be around every corner.

After drying off, we continued through their tasting (and a huge plate of artisan cheeses) until we realized we had definitely missed our last appointment of the day. At this point, no one cared. We headed up to a room overlooking the vineyards where our late lunch was laid out.

Enticing smells wafted from the adjoining kitchen. Inside, Executive Chef, Janelle Weaver, was preparing a rabbit stew and putting the finishing touches to her panna cotta for an upcoming tasting event. Like a shy school-girl, I chatted to her for a few moments as I let my job envy get the best of me. Wine does this to me.

We spent the evening back at the Inn on First, soaking in the jacuzzi and heading out to Angele where we enjoyed a laid back French dinner, expertly prepared and paired with a half carafe of the house wine. My sister had the cassoulet, which inspired me to include lamb sausages the next time I make my own version. Several of us were wondering how we would wake up and do it all over again the next day.

The following morning started with the promise of bubbles. Before we left the Inn, Jim made us a hearty breakfast of his rosemary soft polenta topped with mozzarella, poached egg and crumbled Italian sausage. As we finished our coffees, Schramsberg beckoned where we toured the caves and learned the pain-staking steps that are gone through to get those bubbles in each bottle.

"America's first house of sparkling wine" did not disappoint and I particularly enjoyed how Ann, our tour guide, talked us through possible food pairings. Of course, my favorite was the toasty, buttery $100 bottle, which would go perfect with home-made macaroni and cheese.

With the sun shining, we headed to Pride Mountain, tasted the makings of Merlot from barrels and lunched atop a hill with hawks circling overhead.

Our last stop was a private tour of Jericho Canyon who are just finding their feet when it comes to visitors. We didn't mind- we had the place to ourselves. Our final night was spent in Yountville at Thomas Keller's Ad-Hoc. I loved the simplicity of the menu and the fact that there are no choices to be made. Before slipping off to bed, we sat around the Inn's open fire, sipping glasses of velvety Prager port, vowing to add a bottle to our shipment.

On more than one occasion during the trip, I felt like the luckiest girl on earth. Napa had a way of taunting me, somehow showing me what I'm missing out on in a valley dedicated to wine and food. I definitely plan on going back, but maybe, just maybe, I can re-create some of the magic I found there in my very own mid-west kitchen.


California dreaming

Since returning from San Francisco and Napa, my mind has been racing with a plan for my next visit. As I mentioned last week, I'd never been to California before, and she definitely didn't disappoint. I'm convinced that one does not visit this area of the world only once in their life, and I'm secretly planning another trip in the not to distant future. Martin and I spent two feet and leg aching days traipsing up and down San Francisco's unforgiving hills and only scratched the surface, but loved every minute of it.

Day one started with our hungry stomachs calling for a substantial lunch after we made our way from the airport to the hotel. Nopalito, in Lower Haight, was our destination and we were rewarded with a sunny window spot and two chilled glasses of "Death and Taxes", a Moonlight Brewing Company black lager. As we quenched our traveler's thirst, we munched on spicy corn nuts as they brought us a bowl of Totopos con Chile to share. Home made tortilla chips doused in salsa de arbol, topped with cotija cheese left us licking our fingers as we squeezed wedges of lime and dipped them in crema. Their signature carnitas followed with house made corn tortillas and pickled vegetables- perfect with the black lager.

Needless to say, we needed to walk off the heavy lunch and only San Francisco's streets know how to make you shed a few pounds. As bike enthusiasts, we visited the Mojo Bicycle Cafe to revive ourselves in the late afternoon. After seeing death-defying feats of fixed-wheel cyclists skidding to stops on brightly colored bikes, we decided we were thankful for Chicago's flatness.

Later in the day, I chased uphill after cabs to take us to the next foodie destination, only to realize that in the end, making the trip to Berkeley to Chez Panisse on our first day was too much of a trek. Somewhat disappointed, but too exhausted to care, I've vowed to return some day soon. To brighten the spirit of my taste buds, I reminded myself that we had booked a table at Delfina for the following evening and fell deeply asleep dreaming of a morning at the Ferry Building and the Golden Gate Bridge.

I awoke bleary eyed the next morning to a call from my sister and her husband, Stacia and Andy, who were at the airport in Chicago on their way to join us. From the sound of her voice, her cold had worsened and the only medicine awaiting her on the west coast was a fantastic combination of cough syrup and wine.

We quickly headed to the Ferry Building for breakfast where my husband promptly seated himself at a cafe to sip coffee and nibble a croissant while I indulged myself amongst the food stalls. The market outside was in full swing and inside, I was drawn to Cowgirl Creamery.

Even early in the morning, I can't fight the urge for cheese. The macaroons at Miette also proved to be a temptation.

We had just enough time to finish our coffees outside on a bench overlooking the bay when we headed back into town to meet Stacia and Andy.

We spent the afternoon with them on a cruise around the bay, passing underneath the Golden Gate bridge and circling Alcatraz. Even as the cold wind whipped through our hair and threatened to toss us overboard, we felt lucky to have seen these two iconic sights up close.

That evening, we made our way to Delfina in the Mission district, and as we slid into our seats, the waitress poured a stunning Syrah to start off the evening.

We each ordered pastas to start with, passing them around with eyes rolling at the melt-in-your-mouth goodness. The unanimous winner was a special of the evening- a pappardelle with duck sugo, a ragu of sorts that's been passed through a sieve until it is so rich that it coats each noodle with its deep, delicious flavor.

The salad that Stacia and I shared may seem as if it wasn't the star of the show, but I'm a sucker for a great salad, and this is definitely one to try at home. Try this lemon vinaigrette paired with little gem lettuce, blue cheese (they used Pt. Reyes), radishes and sieved hard-boiled egg. Season well and drizzle the dressing. I could have eaten a huge plate of it.

We shared portions of Fulton Valley roasted chicken and perfectly cooked pork chops before calling it quits and heading straight for dessert wines. On our way back to the hotel, we were starting to see the affects of a weekend indulging in food and wine and realized this was only the beginning. The following day we would leave the city behind for wine country. Napa was calling my name.


Finally here

It's finally here. It's the night before my first real holiday since.....hmmm, can't remember. I don't count Michigan, as a holiday in my mind is truly an escape to somewhere you've never been before. It's hard to believe, but I've never been to California. I've just finished packing my bags, incredibly into a carry-on that includes all of my curly hair products to manage any frizz that the San Francisco fog may blow at me. I've got plenty of eating and drinking just waiting for me on the west coast.

With so many choices, but with only two nights to spend, I've booked tables at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Delfina in the Mission District, and then we're off to Napa. We're meeting my sister and her husband in San Francisco and then driving to Napa for a few days of touring local wineries and eating more fantastic food in the valley. I can't wait to tell you all about it and start cooking from the inspirations I'm sure to find.

We're staying at the Inn on First, and from the looks of it, the breakfasts are stand-out amazing. I'm getting used to having breakfast made for me. Last weekend, my Dad's wife, Lisa, made this amazing breakfast tart. It's almost savory enough to serve with a green salad, but a fruit one will do.

As usual, don't worry about making the pastry yourself and make this for the ones you love this weekend. I'll be back to report on my experience in foodie heaven.

Breakfast Tart
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma
Serves 4

1 sheet puff pastry (ready-made from the grocery)
1 egg, beaten lightly with 1 tsp of water
3 oz creme fraiche
2 oz shredded Gruyere cheese
8 bacon slices, cooked until crisp
3-4 free range eggs
2 tbs finely chopped fresh chives

Thaw your pastry (I like to put mine in the refrigerator overnight). Lightly grease a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 425F. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry until it is 1/4 inch thick and is a 10 x 8 inch rectangle. Place it on the baking sheet and score a border 1/2 inch in from the edge around all four edges. Prick the center of the pastry with a fork so it doesn't puff up in the cooking process.

Brush the borders with the egg wash and place in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the creme fraiche and cheese together and season with salt and pepper. Spread it on the pastry, keeping the border nice and clean. Lay the bacon on top, draping it over each other, and bake for 14 minutes, rotating the tray halfway through cooking.

Remove the sheet from the oven and using a fork, prick any large air pockets that have appeared. Crack the eggs onto the tart so that they're spaced out nicely around the surface. Bake until the egg whites are set and the yolks are soft- about 7-10 minutes depending on your oven. Watch them closely at this point- you don't want to over-cook the yolks.

Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the chopped chives and serve immediately. I like to cut this with a pizza cutter.