The Reach Out Project

[Originally posted on May 5, 2013]

Death does strange things to a person.

My father passed away right before the 4th of July in 2009. We were never close, but we didn’t have a strained relationship either. Years prior, I realized what our relationship was, and I was fine with that. Yet his death changed me. It came at a time when I was growing apathetic to my faith. It also came at a time when all of the walls I put up around me over the years left me with few people in my life. I had no problem moving on and not keeping in touch; it was easy.

After he died, I went through what Chris and I jokingly called “The Existential Crisis.” It was the first time in my life I really confronted the idea that when we die, That’s It. Prior to my father’s death, the thought would briefly enter my mind in the darkest part of night and I’d quickly push it out. Ain’t nobody got time for that shit. After he died, the idea consumed every “quiet” moment of my life. I’d lie in bed at night and look outside the window, nearly panicking at the prospect of ceasing to exist. I’d think about the science of it all; how my previous view of the afterlife made no sense, but I believed it like a kid believes in Santa Claus. If there was an afterlife, what would it be like, really? Would we just be this floating soul in the breeze, unable to touch velvet, hear Schumann, or watch the sun set ever again? Unable to interact with the world we’re trapped in? It all seemed so dismal to me, and yet it consumed me for months.

I wanted to fill my mind with other things, so I began doing little 30 day experimentations to challenge myself. One of them was as simple as watching no more than five hours of TV a week (basically, watching the Daily Show and Colbert, plus an hour for Sunday news shows). Another was using no electronics (TV, laptop, phone, etc) from 7:30pm until bedtime.

As I did these experiments, my previous decisions began to look different. I began to see the walls I put up around me as a faulty time capsule. Those imaginary walls were a way for me to act like I could preserve My World, protecting myself and everyone in it. Yeah, that doesn’t work. The walls now looked like a crutch and I began to desire to step out of that time capsule and enjoy the gifts of the Present. From this desire came the most important change in my life: The Reach Out Project.

Despite my social anxiety and natural tendency towards introversion, I decided that every day for 30 days, I was going to reach out to someone in my life. Whether it was emailing or calling an old friend, sending a meaningful message on Facebook to someone I didn’t normally chat with, asking a co-worker out to lunch, or inviting people over to the house, each day I had to do one thing to reach out to someone. See, part of what made those walls was my taking a passive approach to friendship. I assumed people didn’t ask me out to lunch, or didn’t email me because they didn’t like me or just didn’t have room in their life for me. Rather than my typical wallowing in self-pity/self-loathing, believing I was completely unlikeable, I instead gave a good, hearty, “oh what the fuck?”, threw caution to the wind and started reaching out to people.

I emailed, called and invited people to things and I accepted invitations to things – even things I didn’t want to do – with my heart open. Sure, I missed a couple days here and there, and sure, initially I still felt that nervousness and discomfort that accompanies my shyness and insecurity. But I persisted, and gradually I made new close friends and reconnected. I began to see that I had an incredible group of people around me. Inspiring, funny, quirky, caring…the people I allowed into my life lifted me out of my Existential Crisis (which is now in the current and likely permanent state of Existential Conundrum). Through them I realized that a lot of adults take a passive approach to friendship – we feel uncomfortable taking that initial step or we don’t allow ourselves to take the lead in setting things up with people. But someone’s got to do it – why not me? And why not you?

Fast forward a couple of years. This past March, a few of my friends put together a “Girls’ Night Sleepover” as a sendoff to me before I left for California. Girls’ Night was one of my later Reach Out ideas: once a month, invite the ladies in my life to a restaurant for a night of drinks, food and conversation. No boyfriends or husbands allowed (with the one-time exception of my friend Steven, who is the kind of friend you can count on when you need a chaperone and let’s face it – sometimes you do). For Girls’ Night Sleepover, my friend Jennie made a killer butternut squash risotto and we all brought wine and an insane amount of booze and snacks. Before we devoured the risotto, my friends toasted me. In summary, they thanked me for organizing things that brought people together – Girls’ night, Le Nom…and said Chris and I created quite the network of friends in our time in Arizona. I looked around the table and smiled at these wonderful people I was so grateful to have in my life. We proceeded to eat, drink and laugh so hard at each other’s stories our faces hurt. That’s what I live for.

I can point to the moment my Existential Crisis lifted. It was in a dream: I looked outside my bedroom window at night, watching helicopters flying overhead, shining spotlights on the ground in search of a Dangerous Man. I looked over to my pool and my heart stopped – the Dangerous Man was lying on one of my lounge chairs. Rather than retreat, I knew I had to talk to him. I walked through the wall and approached him. As I got closer, I saw that the Dangerous Man was an old man. He looked at me as if he knew what I was going to ask.  I asked anyway.

“What happens when we die?”

“I know the answer, but I can’t tell you.”

“They’re looking for you…” I pointed to the helicopters.

“I know.”

We talked about death and the importance of living for the moment. I wasn’t afraid of the Dangerous Man. He got up and looked at the back wall of my property. “It’s time for me to go now.”  As he walked towards the wall, I remembered the most important thing I wanted to know.

“Wait! I don’t know if there is a god or not. If I live my life the way I know in my heart I should live it, and it turns out there really is a god, does it matter if I have doubt?”

The man turned around and he was a beautiful young Spanish woman with long dark hair. She laughed as if my question had an obvious answer. “He won’t care.”

She hopped the wall, and I woke up. No, I don’t think it was God speaking to me. That doesn’t matter – what matters is the common sense presented in the dream: be the person you know you should be, surround yourself with goodness, and experience love wherever you can. Nothing else matters beyond that, does it?

Image courtesy of twobee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Le Nom Volume VI: Southern Comfort

A quick apology for the delay in posting.  Due to illness over the past several days (I was convinced it was Black Death, but it turns out it is just a bad sinus infection. Go figure), I’ve been somewhat incomprehensible and incredibly pathetic.  Well, more so than normal.  On both counts. I’m gradually getting back in the swing of things, so enjoy!

Since we started our international cooking club, I’ve learned there is a common thread that connects all good food around the world: the sense of family behind a dish.  The most famous of dishes in any country’s cuisine were not created by chefs in palaces, but have their roots in the homes of the villagers.  These families had to create calorie-rich food that could give everyone at the table enough sustenance to get through their physically-demanding duties.  You have your Italian Ribollita, your French Boeuf Bourguignon, and your Mexican tamales.  Pierogis began as a peasant food in Poland, but in my family as with many Polish families, pierogis are a special Christmas Eve dish.  All of these foods are steeped in that tradition of family dining, and when we eat them, we call them “comfort foods,” because they give us that feeling of home and familiarity.  They feel good for the soul when we eat them.

There is something about Southern cooking that makes it the King of Comfort Foods; from light breads to chicken fried steak to sweet potato pie, all of it makes you feel like you’re home and you can put your feet up and relax with family.  Our cooking club is our family of friends, so what better way to celebrate food and friendship than with a feast of down-home Southern dishes?

The centerpiece of our feast was the fried chicken.  I am normally not a big fan of fried foods, however this recipe was amazing.  The breading wasn’t too thick, and it was fried  perfectly – the texture was crisp but not dry and fried but not oily.  Needless to say, there were very few leftovers by the end of the night.

The other big dish on the table was biscuits and gravy.  My husband’s mother made this often for breakfast when he grew up, and I learned how to make it as well.  It is a dish that is so caloric and fatty, it feels wrong eating it, but it is irresistible when made correctly.  The gravy is really simple – you take a stick of butter, melt it over medium high heat, then add a pound of hot breakfast sausage.  Once the sausage is fully cooked, add a cup of flower and stir it in until it is fully mixed in with the sausage.  Add a half gallon of milk (don’t go lighter than 2%, or it won’t thicken properly), and bring to a boil while stirring constantly.  Keep on stirring until it thickens, take the temperature down a little, salt and pepper to taste, and pour it over your biscuit of choice.  Add an egg over easy into the equation and you’ll be in heaven.  It’s that simple.  This is also a great hangover food.  Um, not that I would know of course…

To provide the proper companionship to these dishes, we had a number of sides. You cannot have fried chicken without mashed potatoes, so clearly, that was a necessary presence at the table.  We also had amazing creamed corn.  This recipe calls for a generous amount of parmesan cheese in the dish, which makes it oh-so cheesy and good.  My friend Celeste expressed concern that she may have added too much cheese.  We looked at her as if she were mad; you can never have too many friends, too much joy, or too much cheese.  These are impossible things.  The creamed corn was so good, it was the only dish where there was literally not a bite left over by the end of the night.  We also enjoyed the corn bread I put on the table, which admittedly was a little neglected as we devoured all the other foods.

For dessert, I made a chocolate chess pie.  I will admit, this was a slight cheat; the ingredients for regular chess pie looked a little odd to me, so I went with the chocolate recipe, because chocolate generally makes everything taste better.  As you can guess, I’ve never had a chess pie before, but I thought it was pretty good.  It has the texture of a slightly undercooked brownie. If that’s your thing (and it is kind of my thing), this would be a simple and tasty pie for you to try out.

For fun, we had a few cocktails with a little southern inspiration: Watermelon pulp with sprite and vodka was a refreshing summer treat, and we tried mixing a few things with Southern Comfort.  Depending on how the portions worked (that is to say, if you could taste the Southern Comfort at all), the cocktails made your arm hairs stand at attention.

Due to the Labor Day holiday, we are skipping September, and will reconvene in October for…you guessed it – Oktoberfest!  I am expecting a full spectrum of German Bier to be on the menu.  Oh, and food too.  See you then!

 

Le Nom, Volume V: The Mexican Dinner Fiesta-Siesta

Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, I equated the question “do you want Mexican?” with “do you want to go to Chi-Chi’s?”  Thankfully, after living in the southwest for roughly half my life, I’ve developed a bit more knowledge and appreciation for Mexican cuisine since then.  I’m not about to eat menudo or calf’s brains or anything crazy like that, but I at least appreciate a number of dishes and the diverse flavors of Mexican cuisine.  For this month’s Le Nom, we decided to explore a few different dishes in Mexican cuisine, and as always, the results were amazing.

For starters, we enjoyed two kinds of homemade salsa – red and tomatillo (example).  Tomatillos are a staple in Mexican cuisine, being the primary ingredient in many green sauces.  A member of the tomato family, tomatillos are generally tart in flavor and can provide a bit of a citrus flavor to dishes.  Many tomatillo salsas call for a little bit of sugar to be added to offset the tartness.  We enjoyed both salsas with chips and Tecate Light with lime – always a great selection with chips and salsa!

We had two main dishes to enjoy, the first being machaca (example).  A dish popular in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, machaca is a spicy dish consisting of shredded beef or pork.  Interestingly, even here in Arizona the style of cooking varies by region – in the Tucson area, machaca tends to be dry, yet in the Phoenix area, it has a bit of a soupy consistency.  The Tucson style is more similar to the Mexican style, however the Phoenix style is enjoyable for letting your flour tortilla sop up all of the the spicy liquid that comes with the dish.

Our other dish was my contribution for the night – chicken mole.  This is a dish that is popular all over Mexico, being most popular in Oaxaca.  This wonderful dish is loaded with flavor, typically averaging over 20 ingredients in a given recipe (the recipe I used only has 15 ingredients).  There are a variety of flavors all working together in mole – you have the spiciness of chili powder and a chipotle chile in adobo sauce (recipe note: note that the recipe says ONE chile from the can, not the entire can; I think you could safely go with two for a little extra kick, however). There is also the unique spiciness of cumin, nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon contrasting with the earthiness of toasted sesame seeds and the richness of cocoa powder and peanut butter (the recipe called for 3 TB of cocoa powder – next time I’m adding an additional TB).   If you have never had mole before, this combination of ingredients may sound a little off-putting – I mean, chocolate and chicken? But I assure you, the results are amazing and like nothing you have ever tried.  I even left the raisins in, and I hate raisins.  This recipe in particular is super-easy to do – you simply put all the ingredients in your slow cooker, and let it cook for 5 hours.

Both of the main dishes are perfect for rolling up in tortillas.  Our Tucson friends brought up some of the best fresh tortillas in Arizona from Anita’s Street Market.

For our side, our Tucson friends also made homemade refried beans. (example).  Normally, the beans can take hours to prepare, but thanks to their pressure cooker, they were able to reduce the cooking time significantly.

After loading up on our main dishes, we enjoyed brownies with chipotle chile (example).  The dish contained a number of flavors common in Mexican food – as you can see from the mole, the combination of chocolate, cinnamon and chile is rather popular.  While it may sound odd to have chiles in your brownies, they do not make the brownies spicy; on the contrary, the chiles enhance the richness of the chocolate, giving the brownies a dark chocolate, fudgy flavor.  The hint of cinnamon balances everything out perfectly.  I also really loved these brownies because they are “proper” brownies – all too often, people either make them too fudgy or too cakey.  These were the perfect texture, so mad props to Rachael for baking them!

For our final dish of the night, we were blessed with the Latin American treat of Tres Leches Cake, made by our birthday girl of the evening, Angela.  Angela took the recipe from the wonderful Pioneer Woman web site (which you may remember, is where I got my pots de creme recipe last month) and made a few minor adjustments to the cake.  Her advice is as follows: “The yolks and sugar need to be beaten to look pale white, but also to the point that you can see the nascent batter trace on top of itself. The recipe doesn’t tell you that, but my hubby did. I inadvertently beat the egg whites a bit beyond ‘soft peaks,’ but it wasn’t the worst thing. I baked the cake, removed the cake to cool overnight in the refrigerator with a cotton gauze tea towel atop it, and returned it to the pan for easy transport. I added all of the three milks liquid, only realizing later that some sweetened condensed milk was still in its can. Finally, I did not use Maraschino cherries, as I don’t really like them.”

The cake was really phenomenal – it was spongey and the sauce was delighfuly gooey, however it wasn’t too much so (which I’ve ran into with other Tres Leches Cakes, and ew to a soggy cake). The topping was whipped cream, and even though we were all full, we basically devoured the entire sheet.

After all was said and done, I witnessed something I’ve never seen before at a Le Nom: every single person was sprawled out in our family room in a semi-coma watching Scooby Doo with the kids.  On the floor, on the couch – every one was stretched out, fat and happy.  That’s the only way to end an evening of Mexican food!

We are skipping Le Nom for July due to a number of conflicts regarding the 4th, however we are considering doing a Southern-style picnic on Mount Lemmon for August.  For those of you not in Arizona, Mount Lemmon is perhaps the coolest place you can find in southern Arizona (and houses the southern-most ski resort in the country).  As we hit temperatures of over 110, cooler weather in the pine trees sounds pretty amazing.

Until then? Don’t be afraid to be adventurous and daring in your kitchens! When all else fails, there is pizza, so why not try something new this weekend?

Le Nom, Volume III: A French Dinner Party

When life deals you lemons, throw them away and make cheese sauce.  This is the lesson I learned from this month’s Le Nom.

Due to a few scheduling conflicts, we had a smaller group for this dinner party.  To make sure we continued with the tradition of having more food than anyone can possibly eat, I decided to contribute not one, but three dishes to ensure we had a little bit of everything.

My initial plan was to make garlic aioli for us to dip bread in.  I found a recipe on food.com, which called for a fruity olive oil.  This was the perfect opportunity to use the Queen Creek Olive Mill Meyer Lemon Olive Oil.  Queen Creek Olive Mill is the only company in Arizona to make their own EVOO, and offer a number of unique flavors  – Mexican Lime, Roasted Garlic, and Chocolate are but a few. They practice sustainable farming and have a great reputation around the valley. I’ve been dying to try them out.  Unfortunately, I either completely screwed up the recipe for the aioli, or it was a bad recipe to begin with.  When I made it, I expressed my concerns over the result on Facebook.  My chef friend Brian asked me what the problem was.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: “What should the texture of aioli be?”
Brian: “Mayonnaise.”
Me: “Yeah…it’s like soup.”
Brian: “What was the proportion of egg to oil?
Me: “One Egg, 1.5 cups olive oil.”
Brian: “A whole egg?”
Me: “Yup.”
Brian: “That’s the problem. Here’s what you do…”

He gave me excellent instructions on attempting to revive my soupy aioli.  Unfortunately, it didn’t really work, and I decided to give it a little taste to see if it was even worth saving.  Between the high amount of olive oil and the lemon juice the recipe called for, the mixture tasted like oily lemon, and not in a good way.  The olive oil was an amazing olive oil (I got a second bottle for non-aioli purposes), however this recipe just didn’t work at all. I’ve decided to have Brian or gourmand-friend Steven show me how to make aioli someday.  I’m pretty sure the majority of this fail is on me.  I’m a visual learner, and I think I need to see someone make it.

Why am I telling you about the dish that failed? Because I want you to know that it’s okay to screw up a dish.  It was a pricey screw up, but the only way to reach new horizons with cooking or anything in life, is to take a risk, be willing to see it blow up in your face, learn from it, and move on.  So? I moved on.

The next recipe I tackled was pots de crème. I have always wanted to make pots de crème, which is basically a sexy, naughty version of custard or pudding.  I found a great recipe on The Pioneer Woman’s web site – it’s not a traditional way of making pots de crème as there is no baking involved, but this recipe is super-easy, can be made ahead and is a silky chocolatey treat.  I particularly appreciate how she explains she made a mistake with the temperature of the eggs and coffee, because I probably would have done the same thing had she not mentioned it.  I had some Godiva liqueur on hand, so per her suggestion, I replaced the vanilla extract with the liqueur.  I also added white chocolate Godiva liqueur to the whipped cream – I need to practice this more.  I used to be really good at boozy whipped cream, but lately I’ve been adding in the liqueur too early, and it’s not thickening as much as it needs to.
Pairing suggestion: You could go with an alcohol pairing, like Raspberry Lambic, or banyuls, but I think just a good old-fashioned cup of coffee works here.  It is so rich, you need the bitterness of a cup of coffee to balance it out.

The next thing to tackle was Cauliflower Gratin.  Why did I choose this dish? Well, for one thing, I wanted to have a vegetable on the table.  Second, it has all the ingredients that make French food delicious – cream, butter and cheese.  Magical things happen when these three ingredients come together.  This is also a simple recipe, and I think it came out perfectly.  I’ll be making it again on Memorial Day weekend for friends who missed this month’s Le Nom.
Pairing suggestion:  Since this is a side, you’ll want to pair to your main dish, but if you decide to have a mountain of Cauliflower Gratin for dinner – and there’s nothing wrong with that – an unoaked Chardonnay would be a tasty choice.  I think a mildly sweet Riesling might work too.

So, the house was clean, the table was set, the gratin was in the oven and people were soon to arrive.  I needed a replacement for my Aioli Fail, so I decided to wing it.  I had a ton of Gruyère left over, so I decided to basically take an Alfredo recipe, replace the Parmesan with Gruyère, omit the garlic, and at the suggestion of Steven, add white pepper and nutmeg for seasoning.  While it didn’t thicken very well initially (as it cooled, it was much thicker), it was cheesy goodness that was devoured by all.  Was it a “French” dish? I’m not totally sure - Gruyère is from Switzerland, but it’s used in many French dishes – quiche, croque-monsieur, french onion soup… I’ll give myself a pass.
Pairing suggestion: again, an unoaked chardonnay or a Riesling would work.  A Brut champagne would be pretty yummy too. One of the Le Nommers brought a Sauv Blanc that worked nicely.

While we were enjoying the cheese sauce, another Le Nom member showed up, explaining their own challenge with the dish they were going to bring – a peach crème brûlée for dessert.  Apparently, video games and baking do not go well when done simultaneously! Not a problem for us – again, we always have more than enough food, and we had an emergency dessert waiting in the wings.

After enjoying our bread and cheese sauce, it was time for the main meal – inside a beautiful Le Cresuset oval French oven, Steven and Jennie brought with them the dish of all dishes, Juila Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon.  Because I’m a little nerdy, I was excited to try this particular recipe because I loved the movie Julie & Julia, and the boeuf bourguignon was a critical plot point in the movie.  It also looked really yummy on film.

Served atop egg noodles, this dish is a mix of elegance and comfort food. It is a labor of love – taking all day to make, as several of the ingredients must be prepared in advance prior to adding them into the stew. From the Burgundy region, boeuf bourguignon was originally a food for peasants, but today it tends to reside in the world of haute cuisine.
Suggested Wine Pairing:  We enjoyed pinot noir with the dish, however a nice Syrah or Cabernet would also go well here.

All of the food was delicious, and we actually had the perfect amount of food for six people.  My only regret was not saving a bit of the boeuf for myself for the next day.  What was I thinking?

Next month, we are heading back to this continent to tackle Mexican cuisine.  There are so many regions to choose from, and so many different dishes that can be made – carnitas, flan, enchiladas, mole sauce, ceviche…yum.  I can’t wait to see what everyone brings!

Suggestions:
               

Le Nom, Volume II: A Polynesian Feast

After our successful Italian Dinner Party, we decided to go to the other side of the globe and try our hand at Polynesian cuisine.  Polynesia is a series of islands in the South Pacific that include Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and all of those beachy places they use on Survivor.  It’s a beautiful part of the world: lush, green landscapes, waterfalls, coral reefs and delicious warm-water seafood like mahi mahi, opakapaka, and tuna.  Even though we are land-locked in a desert, we did our best to imagine a cool, saltwater breeze and recreate a few foods inspired by the Polynesian islands.  Polynesian culture celebrates with food, Le Nom celebrates food, so it sounded like a perfect match!

 

One of the most authentic dishes of the night was panipopo, a Samoan bread that has a sweet coconut milk glaze on the bottom.  While bread was introduced later to Samoan culture, coconut milk has always been a common ingredient in Samoan cuisine.  Other common ingredients in Samoan cuisine are not surprising – taro, breadfuit, bananas, fish, chicken and pork are all common staples.

Due to the remote nature of the islands, many foods have been around for only the past couple of centuries.  Beef, for example, was not introduced to the Hawaiian islands until the end of the 18th century.   Pineapple, a fruit often associated with Hawaii was not cultivated until the early 19th century.  Both pineapple and sugarcane plantations became big business for Hawaii, to the point the plantations had to bring in immigrant workers.  The immigrant workers, many coming from China, Japan, and Korea, brought their cuisine over with them, and soon the foods incorporated into Hawaiian cuisine.  Another dish we had, Polynesian Meatballs, is a great example of a Hawaiian-inspired dish that incorporates these “newer” elements.  This sweet and savory appetizer has tender meatballs paired with a pineapple and soy sauce that is absolutely delicious.

 

Also sporting Chinese influence, we enjoyed Pork Spring Rolls (the recipe states they were baked but our Le Nommer decided to fry them) with duck sauce or sweet and sour for dipping.

If you look at a map of the world, you’ll see that the Hawaiian islands are very isolated.  In fact, Hawaii is considered the most remote island chain in the world.  Because of this isolation, there were few edible plants and the only mammals were bats on the island when the first Polynesian settlers arrived around 300-500 AD.  Fortunately, the settlers were smart enough to bring a bunch of plants and food with them and those plants thrived in Hawaii’s rich soil.  For animals, they brought pigs with them to use for religious sacrifice (which resulted in eating the pig).  Today, eating Kalua pork is almost a religious experience, it is so delicious.  The word “Kalua” means “to cook in an underground oven.” This is the method for cooking you typically see at luaus – they dig a large pit, fill it with koa wood, then place rocks over the wood to retain the heat.  The pig is salted and stuffed with hot rocks, wrapped with banana leaves, then buried in the hot pit to cook for several hours.

 

No one at Le Nom was interested in digging a pit in their backyard, but I did find a fantastic recipe that gives you a similar flavor and consistency.  The Kalua pork I made for the dinner party is insanely easy, although it takes a while to cook (at least 16 hours on low in the slow cooker).  It was worth the wait – when the time came to shred and serve the meat, the bone in the pork came off cleanly and easily, leaving behind tender, smoky meat you can eat by itself, in tortillas, or in Hawaiian sweet bread sandwiches.

 

Our final dish of the night was a simple but delicious dessert that incorporated both Polynesian and Chinese ingredients.  The Fried Bananas were a great way to end the meal.  Topped with whipped cream and/or honey, they were very tasty and a huge hit!

Once again, Le Nom success! Every dish was great, and thanks to me being hostess for this month, I had some awesome leftovers for the week.

What’s on the menu for next month? I’ll give you a hint: think Julie and Julia.  My mouth is watering already!

Le Nom, Volume I: The Italian Dinner Party

One month after an inaugural meeting filled with friends, appetizers, wine, and …shots?? (how’d that happen??), we had our first official club dinner party.  I named the club “Le Nom,” not to be properly translated as “The Name,” but to be in the vein of “nomnomnomnom.”  As you can tell from my blog titles, I’m not good with names. It’s short, and that’s good enough for me.  Our tagline is “Voulez-vous manger avec moi? Ce soir?” My husband thought that translated as “will you sleep with my food?”  He knows 900 computer languages, but when it comes to the non-geek ones… I love him.

This month was Italian Night, hosted by my stylish friend Kirsten.  Where I normally throw down a plastic tablecloth and put out a bunch of mismatched Solo cups left over from previous parties, she does things like this (yes, that’s a printed menu in each glass):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So yeah, she’s pretty good at this stuff.

The rules for Le Nom are simple: In our first meeting, we agreed to meet the first Saturday of each month, and discussed what international (or regional) cuisines we wanted to have as future themes.  Once a theme is determined for the month, the person who volunteers to host the event cooks the main dish, and everyone else is responsible for making the appetizers, sides, and dessert(s).  We haven’t quite figured out coordinating the courses, but were able to get all aspects of the meal in for Italian Night.

My personal hope for the club was to get together with my foodie friends to enjoy their good company, eat their food, and challenge myself in the culinary arena by making dishes I’ve never made before.  The night did not disappoint!

Listed below is a breakdown of what we ate, recipes (where provided), a little background on each dish, and a suggested wine pairing, should you decide to try it out for yourself.  I apologize for the lack of photos – I completely forgot to take pictures of everyone’s food, either due to excitement or too much Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio.  I’ll leave it to you to guess which was more likely.

 

Caprese Skewers:

Caprese (translated as “in the style of Capri”) is a delicious and light dish that gained popularity in the Campania region of Italy in the 1950s.  Fresh mozzerella (preferably buffalo moazzarella), tomato and basil on a stick – this is a fantastic hors-d’oeuvre for a party.  It’s colorful, delicious, finger-friendly, and doesn’t require any cooking.  When topped with olive oil and balsamic, they are to die for.  I could have had 10 of them.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Chianti or Sangiovese

 

Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms

Another great hors-d’oeuvre for a party.  Italians love their wild mushrooms – among the most coveted are porcini and of course, tartufi (truffles).  Here’s a cooking tip – never store your mushrooms in plastic – it will make them mushy.  Instead, store them in a paper bag, and refrigerate them for no longer than 2-3 days.
Suggested Wine Pairing: any non-oaked Chardonnay

Ribollita

This was my contribution to the theme.  I had this soup for the first time when I visited Florence, and loved all of the different flavors in the soup as well as its heartiness.  Ribollita began as a peasant dish to reuse existing soup, vegetables and older bread.  I used Giada de Laurentiis’ recipe, which is not only tasty, but takes out a lot of prep time by using a few canned and frozen items.  The soup was so pretty, I took a number of pictures as I cooked it, as you can see here.   I love how it has the colors of Italy – red tomatoes, green spinach and white beans.  The recipe also calls for Herbes de Provence, which smells wonderful as it cooks.  I think it turned out pretty good – so much so, I made another batch the next day!
Suggested Wine Pairing: Sangiovese or Chianti.

Bruschetta

Let me tell you about my friend Steven: he covets his Bon Appetit the way some people covet vintage Playboy magazines (or, I guess, National Geographics, but that just doesn’t seem as appropriate).  He is passionate about all things culinary.  He makes his own bacon, for God’s sake.  He is exactly the kind of person who was born for this sort of event.  He brought two things to the party, the first being his amazing bruschetta.  The flavor of the topping was so rich and fresh, I could have dove into a pool of it and eaten my way out.  Instead of putting it in a pool for me to dive into, he put it atop lightly toasted slices of bread, and topped each piece with some cheese, broiling it just enough for the cheese to melt.  Fantastic.  As far as the history of the dish goes, bruschetta has origins back to the 15th century, and existed as a way to use bread that was going stale.  It comes from the verb “bruscare,” which is translated as “to roast over coals.”
Suggested Wine Pairing: Once again, Sangiovese and Chianti are great, although if you want to go with a white, a Sauvignon Blanc would pair well.

 

Handmade Pasta and Meatballs

This was Steven’s other amazing creation – he made fresh fettuccine (or tagliatelle, I’m not sure what the difference is).  I love fresh pasta – it’s so delicate and soft.  The meatballs were full of flavor and moist.  This made me feel bad for not using my pasta roller yet, even though I’ve had it for over 2 years.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Barbera d’Alba, Zinfandel (real Zin, not that fakey white Zin)

 

Sausage and Gravy with Mostaccioli

This style of Ragu was more in the style of the Campania region – lots of sauce, and large chunks of meat.  Ragu is believed to originate from the French ragout, which appeared after Napoleon’s invasion in Italy.  Where Bruschetta and Ribollita were peasant dishes, Ragu was a dish for nobility.  We were lucky enough to get the leftovers for this, and enjoyed them for dinner the next two nights! Needless to say, this reheats well.
Suggested Wine Pairing: Same as above.

 

Chicken Marsala

Marsala is a fortified wine (like Sherry or Port) from Sicily that dates back to the late 1700s.  It can be drank as an accompaniment, of course, but it is also used as an ingredient in a number of dishes, such as Chicken Marsala, some risotto, and tiramisu.  This was Kirsten’s dish, and she did an amazing job of making this dish for 16 people – the fillets were perfectly browned, and the sauce turned out great!
Suggested Wine Pairing: Pinot Noir

 

Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato

Anything Nutella-ish is A+ in my book! Gelato is essentially an Italian ice cream, however there are a few key differences from regular ice cream – there is significantly less butterfat, and it is typically stored at a slightly higher temperature to remain nice and soft. It is believed the chef for the Medici’s in the 16th century created what we know as modern-day gelato.

There are a lot of gelato places in the U.S. that aren’t that great – I’d recommend avoiding large chains if you want to try it.  If you are in the Phoenix Metro, my favorite is Gelato Dolce Vita.  They also make a mean drinking chocolate and cappuccino.  Check them out!
Suggested Wine Pairing:  I’m not big on pairing wine with this kind of dish, but a Port or sweet Sherry (such as a PX) would be nice.

 

Rum Raisin Tiramisu

There is debate whether Tiramisu (Italian for “pick-me-up,” likely for the caffeine in the dessert) originated in Sienna or Treviso.  Regardless of where it came from, it was a great way to end the evening.  It traditionally uses Marsala, but this recipe calls for dark rum – you can’t go wrong with rum, right?
Suggested Wine Pairing: Like the gelato, I’d go with a Port or sweet Sherry for this as well.

 

 

So that was our wonderful Italian Night for Le Nom!  Next month’s assignment? Polynesian/Chinese (odd mix, but people weren’t thrilled with Polynesian, so we decided to mix it up a bit).

What are some of your favorite Italian Dishes? Post below, I’d love to hear them!

A Bucket List for 2012

When I was 20 years old, I sat down and created a list called “The Things I Want to Do Before I Die.”  Many years later, someone called this sort of thing a “bucket list.”  It is a two-page list of everything I wanted to accomplish and experience, and every place I wanted to go.  When I created it, I asked myself, “when I’m 80 years old and I look back on my life, what would an interesting, accomplished life look like?”  It has simple things on it like, “visit Hawaii,” “pat a dolphin,” or “get something substantial published.”  It has more difficult things on it, like “meet Oprah Winfrey.”  It has a number of things I inexplicably wanted to do at the time, but no longer have any desire to do: “Shoot and kill a deer,” “Join the RNC.”  It excludes things that I was afraid to do but have done anyway, like go Skydiving.  Every so often I take it out and peruse it.  I never delete anything from this list because I think one of the lessons to be learned is that our goals and desires change over the years.  While certain hopes and dreams are solid as rock, others are fluid and constantly changing.  A happy life isn’t a rigid life, but a flexible one.

Regardless, I love checking things off of the list.  Sometimes the accomplishments were even more valuable than I imagined (visiting Italy), and other times they are less thrilling than I expected them to be.  “Have a credit on a CD.”  Done.  It was a minor credit. It wasn’t the accomplishment I thought it would be.   As a whole however, it has been a wonderful experience living with this list for so many years.

With this in mind, I’m going to take a different approach to 2012.  Like many, I typically create a list of resolutions every year that are nothing more than corrections on my shortcomings – I want to live healthier, floss more and be a kinder person.  These are simple resolutions and they will continue to be in my mind for 2012, but this year I’d like to create accomplishments.  The “Things to Do Before I Die” list is a macro list; I’m creating a micro list for 2012.  Below is my list, and a little background as to why each accomplishment is on the list:

Start an international cooking club

As you can probably tell, I really like food.  I also enjoy cooking, but I don’t give myself the time to really experiment with new recipes.  A couple of months ago, I asked on Facebook if any of my friends would like to start an international cooking club, where we would meet once a month and focus on a particular region for food.  I received a very positive response, which tells me I have potential members! The next step is to get the ball rolling and send the invitations out.  Plus, if I start a cooking club I’ll likely be able to knock “make a difficult dish” off my lifetime bucket list.

Do a DIY/repurposing project

This sounds like a really simple task, but I am awful at hobbies and projects.  I typically get all gung-ho at a concept, spend a shitload of money on supplies, and wind up sobbing with a clump of glue and wires and a crumpled up pamphlet of instructions beside me.  The project then sits in the Valley of Lost Hobbies (aka my home office) until I finally admit defeat and throw it away three years later.  I am going to read Lifehacker this year, find a project that looks like fun and is reasonably simple, and damn it, I’m going to do it.

Make 100 hats and/or blankets for the homeless

Believe it or not, southern Arizona can get really cold in the winter. This past year, one of the organizations in town offering services to the homeless requested warm clothing, hats and blankets to distribute through the winter.  I was able to give them 8 hats.  This past year, I spent a day volunteering for a soup kitchen, and when I drove up to the building a few hours before they opened, there were a lot of people lined up on the street looking for a warm meal; way more than 8 hats are needed to help a part of our community in Arizona.  I’d love to make even more hats than 100, I just don’t know if that’s possible.  We’ll see.

Do one thing I’ve been afraid or resistant to do

I’m much better about it at this point in my life, but I have issues with social anxiety and bringing attention to myself.  This blog is a little quiet piece of therapy, but I’d like to step out more.  I’m not sure what this thing will be – maybe I’ll finally have the guts to post one of my songs online.  Maybe I’ll gain the confidence to try playing craps (the crowd at the table and the rules of engagement with getting and cashing out chips is intimidating).  Maybe I’ll take up ballroom dancing.  Maybe I’ll do all three.  I’m not sure.

Learn all three movements to “Moonlight Sonata”

This is a big one.  The quick and simple story of Anne-Marie and piano playing: I am entirely self-taught, and growing up I was severely lacking in discipline.  I was a wiz at theory, but my performance ability was semi-pathetic.  I didn’t have the discipline to learn a full piece.  I didn’t bother to study proper fingering on the piano.  I was above average when learning by ear and used it as a crutch when attempting to sight-read on the piano.  When I got to college level, I was so far behind my peers in the area of performance it became a humiliating experience worthy of its own blog entry.  I developed stage fright as a weird offshoot of chronic depression and anxiety, yet I somehow managed to get through my juries.  I felt like a hack, and I felt like everyone knew it.  The thing I loved became a mutated monster that made me angry with myself, and I pushed it out of my life for years.

It’s made its way back in my life, and even though I am all too aware I once knew a lot more than I do now, I’m feeling an intrinsic satisfaction that I haven’t felt since I was little and secretive about my love of playing.  I want to learn a full piece, and I want to learn how to play it properly.  Why not “Moonlight Sonata?” It’s a beautiful piece and was my dad’s favorite.

Run a race and hike a mountain

When I was healthier, I enjoyed running and hiking.  It would be nice to get back to a point where I can do them again.  “Hiking a Mountain” is also on my lifetime bucket list.

Find a way to get my blog to average 100 visitors a day for a week

Time has been the greatest challenge I’ve had with this blog.  The most important thing is for me to do my best to be a good writer and storyteller with every entry.  I want to do more than that – I want you, the reader to enjoy what I write so much, you want to share it with people.  I want to write something that is such quality that I want you to look forward to reading every entry I put out.  Maybe it’s because I’m a performer at heart, but I enjoy the thought of creating something and having people enjoy it.  I’m going to gradually roll out changes to make this site better.  I want to entertain you every single week of 2012.

I guess that sounds a little like a resolution.

Is there anything you want to accomplish in 2012? Do you want to learn to play an instrument or learn to watercolor? Do you want to create an app for your iPhone? Do you want to take tap dancing lessons, or learn calculus? I want to hear about it!