Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Beautiful Surprise

Have you ever eaten a chestnut?

I ask this every time we serve these super seasonal delectable little gems at dinner service to a new customer.  I ask this because 9.9 times out of 10 the answer is "never".  

Our repeat guests know what to expect now that we have been serving this fall harvest item for three winters in a row.  However most guests first reaction to chestnuts is to tell me they have never experienced eating a chestnut even though they know the holiday song by heart.  Typically the whole experience for our guests who are new to chestnuts starts by singing the song - I sometimes join with the ones who sing aloud "chestnuts roasting on an open fire...."🎶. 

From across the dining room in the open kitchen I can see Chef roll his eyes at this singing scene.  His expression is followed by a warm smile though because he knows this is part of what makes the chestnuts special.  Eating a chestnut for the first time IS an experience.  

I confess I was almost 30 years old before I had my first delicious experience with this holiday famous nut.  It has become one of my favorite but it really is very different than what I would normally  associate with a roasted nut.

This is how I lead the conversation for my guests who are going to enjoy chestnuts for the first time:

I say~ "Have you ever tried roasted chestnuts?  No?  Oh you are in for a real treat then my friends. 

We serve them hot out of the oven so please be careful for the first few minutes not to burn your fingers, but you will want to eat them while they are warm.  

This is truly what will make your first time most menorable.

Chestnuts don't have the crunchy texture of the roasted nuts you are used to.  

They are slightly sweet and soft.  

Please make sure to take the shells off- it's easy to do where they have popped open on their tops.  

Everyone I serve these to always looks a little disoriented at first when I set them on the table.

When I come back to check on my guests table 2 minutes into their first chestnut experience the smile on their faces is proof that my confidence in these delicious golden treats was right on.  

Typically the very next thing I am asked is for the recipe.  It's usually hard for people to believe how simple it is to make these.  I feel like I am sharing a secret.  

-a handful of chestnuts- 
-a little melted butter
-375 degree oven

** with a knife score an "x" pattern on the rounded top of the nut.  If you don't do this the nuts will explode in your oven.
** put the nuts in a bowl with melted butter and toss and spread on baking sheet with the x side up.
**sprinkle salt
** bake 10-15 mins or until shells open up
**let cool a few moments then enjoy!!

My favorite story about serving chestnuts is about the guy and girl who came to dinner and it was obviously a special date because I could easily tell he was looking to impress his lady.  

When I told them I would be bringing roasted chestnuts out in a few minutes as a starter I followed up my statement like I always do by asking "have you ever had roasted chestnuts?"

Without hesitation he answered- "oh yeah, they are good- we will definitely have an order of those."  I assumed by his responses that he knew what to do so when I delivered the warm nuts to the table, I smiled, and said "enjoy!"  It was busy in the dining room that evening so I welcomed the opportunity to not have to do my whole presentation if they already knew what to do.  It gave me time to tell the other tables who had not ever tried them and his opportunity to impress.

When I returned a few minutes later I noticed that the chestnuts were half gone but there were no shells on his plate.  She had one on her plate, untouched.   It took me a moment to make sense of what I was witnessing before I asked "how do you like the chestnuts?"  

I followed up my initial question nervously- "Did you eat the shells too?" I asked..... (Now my cheeks were getting flush, embarrassed to realize that this guy just ate the shells and the nuts.  

"Oh yeah" he said.  "I always eat them that way."  My surprised look must have prompted him to add to this response-"but I bet they are great without the shells too."

His date with a sweet smile immediately started peeling the nut on her plate, and now I confess:

 I always make sure my guests know to peel off the shells so they can always enjoy the best chestnut eating experience!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Three ingredients

The endless possibilities with three ingredients......

One thing I confess as a food lover that I love to do with my writing is make comparisons of food and life. The ideas I align usually involve food or practices related to my kitchen and then parallel the bigger picture of my life experience.

My mantra "we all have to eat to live, so why not make it something good" describes very accurately what type of thoughts are nestled in my daily experience and how I relate to the world around me.

This newest correlation I'm gonna share hit me pretty hard and i just LOVE IT!

~Crisp white apron wrapped around me and tied in a bow feels like a hug from an old friend. Its time to immerse myself in my own personal wonderland of baking, and start by gathering up my ingredients from the walk in cooler.

I'm being efficient in the 6 hours I've banked with grandma and grandpa's help baby sitting today. So it's a balancing act and a great shoulder and bicep workout back to the kitchen with 4 dozen eggs, 5 pounds of butter and a quart of heavy cream all in my arms. No time for extra trips to the outdoor coolers if i can help it.

Mise en place: Turn the oven to 350, gather up bowls, sheet pans and parchment, kitchen aid mixer, cutting board, flour, and my knife.

The main ingredients:

Butter. Flour. Eggs.

I shake my head and smile when i think about how many of my baking adventures start with these three players. Sometimes they invite other friends to the party- sugar, water, cream, fruit or nut but these three are almost always the faithful foundation of something delicious.

The main focus:

Love. Thankfulness. Smiles

A lot like the main ingredients I start with in a recipe, if I have all the above three above to start with in the right proportion then I can almost guarantee myself something great of my day too.

Whether its baking or living the best part of these main ingredients in each recipe or day is that I can share the happiness they all bring with the people in my daily life too.

I confess the smiles that are returned whether I share a cookie or a hug is affirmation enough for me that these things should be apart of every recipe I use inside my kitchen... In my life.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

There Used To Be No Such Thing

"There used to be no such thing as organic food."  I think of this quote all the time when I am deciding what to invest in for my next meal.  This was a statement made by Fred Laughlin, one of my culinary school instructors when I was in Intro to Baking class my first year of culinary school.  We were talking as a class about the differences in farm foods and how organic food fits in to this day in age.

As me and my classmates worked at  rolling out dough, measuring ingredients or whisking egg whites Chef Fred was recalling his youth when all food was basically "organic" and it all came from a farm.  He said "there was no such thing as the terms "organic" or "natural" describing food because it already just was organic and that is how it was "back then."   We all agreed how remarkable it is that farm to table food is not really a new concept at all.  The food that Chef grew up on wasn't under a microscope, it wasn't questioned, it didn't get marketed as a superior product because it wonderfully already just was.  Like fashion trends we are seeing the same type of "organic" food come back into style its just called something else now and its a lot more expensive too.

It was an interesting turn around in my thinking to realize that my choice to know my food sources and the people who are growing it is apart of a great new old trend: where we as communities are coming full circle back to the way it used to be.  I have a choice when it comes to where my money is spent as a consumer on foods and food products. This a wonderful freedom to be thankful for and I love knowing where my food comes from and that it is "organic".

Whatever I can't grow for myself, I can rely on purchasing from my friends and neighbors.  This is a choice I make and probably a fortunate feature to where I live too.  Northern Michigan is rich with an agricultural community that provides just about every single type of food needed to lead a healthy life with a balanced diet.  Buying food outside a grocery store requires a little more communication and planning, sometimes even education, but that is the part I think I love more than anything.  As a food lover buying my food outside a grocery store I get to socialize with my friends who are just as passionate about food as I am.  We share recipes, ideas and encourage each other in what we are doing.  Its a community I am proud to be apart of and a lot of fun too.

When I pick up or receive:

  • Brussel sprouts, carrots, and beets at the farm market each from a different farmer
  • Bread from the artisan baker
  • Honey and bee pollen from the beekeeper
  • Maple syrup from the kind hearted gentleman farmer who lives a few miles away (I know it takes a ton of sap to make that pint sized bottle which then makes the syrup even more special)
  • Pumpkins and acorn squash from the roadside stand- the one that leaves a box out to put the money in- on the trusting honor system
  • Eggs from my sister or the farm market (she has offered them every time I stop by but we always get to chatting and I forget to grab them)
  • My produce order with my farmer friends Jim and Judy down the road
  • Delicious salsa, canned peaches and tomatoes from my Mom
  • Jams and jellies and baked goods from my family and especially Jon's sister Shelly
  • A happy chicken from my friends 

Its all considered "organic" to me- even if its not "certified".  These things I bring home are like golden treasure.  As a chef I see the individual ingredients and apply my innovating passion to create something really special.  I have such a wonderful time deciding what to do and then producing it.

Of course the other major part to all of it I will confess is the affirmation I receive when my loved ones are happily satisfied and full.  I have so much thankfulness for the ability and practiced skills I have to make delicious food.  I have so much respect for the people who take the time and attention to produce, grow and raise all this beautiful food that is available to us all.

What I am excited to share with you now is the most recent treasure our family invested in this last weekend- a happy chicken from Long Straw Farm, who is our friends Matt, Mindy and their sweet kids.  I did not know they were raising chickens until Matt posted a few weeks ago that they would be butchered soon:

Matt posted on Facebook- 
"Time to eat my chickens before they eat me! While putting them in tonight one grabbed my hand and drew blood. That's it...Friday is butchering day! Thank you chickens for all you provide"

So I typed up a message to Matt that I wanted to buy one of their family's chickens.  In the meantime I started to devise a plan for what we would do to really honor this special animal that was close to harvest.  My goal was to make four meals from the chicken and in the process share the experience with my kids. I hoped that they would learn what is possible when you make a plan to get the largest return on the investment not only of the money we used to buy that chicken,  but also to honor the time, care and love that went into that chicken from the farmers too.

Saturday morning, I drove out County road 667 with so much excitement and happiness.   It was a rainy chilly day, but I was warm with the anticipation of my oven soon being set to 375 degrees.  Upon arriving at the top of their winding hidden driveway, I right away saw the two wonderful smiles of Matt and Mindy as they came out to greet me.  It was interesting to see the set up at Long Straw Farm and realize all the work that went into the butchering process the day before.    This is possibly the freshest chicken I have ever worked with.  A cool thing about farm friends is they are so giving, Matt and Mindy gave us a bag of hearts and livers for Jon to play with in the kitchen- what a bonus!  They offered chicken feet to us too, but I admit I wasn't sure.  Now I wish I would have taken them up on that offer just for the curiosity of it all. Thank you Long Straw Farm!!!!!!

Here is what we did with that beautiful happy bird:

Meal #1:
Lemon thyme brined roasted chicken leg and thigh,
pumpkin potato parsley mash,
red, orange and yellow carrots,  and a pan jus.

Chicken, gala apple, and leek jasmine rice
stuffed acorn Squash, white wine apple cider reduction,
maple butter.

Chicken tacos with arugula, fresh tomato jalapeno salsa,
greek yogurt and vermont aged cheddar.

Chicken and mushroom soup over sage rice,
with mustard rye croutons

Meal#5:  BONUS MEAL CONTEST- Yes, we still have 4 cups of stock left!!!  Taking votes for what we should make with it-   I am going to see what suggestions we get, have the kids vote on the one they want and then make another story on it.

Having that fresh chicken and doing such delicious and wonderful meals around it, using ever part of it.... learning what I can do is what made it so special.  What I know is that chicken tasted better than any chicken I have ever eaten and I will remember the meals from it for a very long time.  Why?  Because it makes me feel connected to a time when there was "no such thing" as labeling what kind of food we are using.  I like that thought.

I confess: I feel like I accomplished the goal I set.  I feel extremely thankful for the opportunity to have shared it with the ones I love.  Now I want to do it this way every time.

Monday, April 8, 2013

It just feels good to cook- especially when it's from the heart ❤

Baby: lemon, apple, banana, cucumber, rutabaga, carrot and butternut squash.....

The above are just a few of the veggie/fruit inspirations we have been using to cook with at home. Our creative dinners have been inspired by our growing baby girl in her warm ever becoming smaller home inside the womb. It's been fun each week to imagine how big she is compared to each of these items since as chef parents to be we have a pretty great understanding of what that size is.

Each week I get an e-mail from Babycenter.com that updates us on where we are at in the pregnancy process. It tells us things like the weight and possible length. We find out how our baby girl is developing her sense of hearing and sight, the formation of her lungs and nervous system and we receive fairly accurate reports of what I may be experiencing too! Lately I have to admit it seems like we are already running out of room in my short torso. The kicks are getting stronger and some of her movements have literally took my breathe away.

We are at week 29 as of April 5th.

I stopped at Hansens grocery store in Suttons Bay specifically to buy a butternut squash this weekend but that store usually keeps me captive for more than my intended get in and get out grocery shopping plan. I make a couple circles through the produce section and checked for any new products in the specialty cheese section. I used to spend a lot of time in the wine department- they have a very nicely organized section in case my wine aficionado friends didn't know already- but I don't spend much time there recently for obvious reasons.

I grabbed a red onion and celery on my first pass along with the squash. The second time around it was goat cheese, green onion, and eggs. All along thinking about how I could incorporate these items into my butternut squash creation. What do I already have at home that needs to be used? Was that bacon I saw in the freezer? I could make a soup, a casserole, waffles... Oh yeah I don't have a waffle maker.... Hmmmmm.

By the time I passed the deli for a third time I couldn't resist stopping for one of those gigantic dill pickles and a small container of potato salad too. Saaallttt....... Total pregnant woman stereotype that I wasn't about to deny at this point.

My small splurge confession- the Harboro gummy bears- you know the ones that have been around forever- I squished them in the package to make sure they were fresh and not stale and hard. Those would do when my sweet tooth arrived later on. I smile as I am writing this now because that was supposed to be a secret but I'm tattling about For a reason i don't have. I definitely made sure when the bag boy was putting my order into the brown paper bag that those went on top just in case I wanted a few to enjoy on the way home.

I turned on my oven to 350 degrees right away when I got home with the idea that I would roast the butternut squash and decide from there what to do with it. 2 hours later I finally got to chopping up the squash and added it to the perfectly warmed up appliance. I got a little sidetracked cleaning as any normal pregnant woman who is nesting will do.

When the roasted squash had done its job smelling up the kitchen with its deliciously sweet and earthy aromas i was still formulating my plan as i scooped the flesh away from the skin. I then set to work on my dinner tribute to our "baby butternut squash girl". I would just figure it out as I went along- perfectly normal way of doing things in the kitchen for me.

I have to admit I am pretty happy with the outcome for our dinner that evening. Somewhat simple yet vibrant flavor combinations and distinct textures that balanced each other out nicely too.

I was asked if I would share my recipe by my dear friend Sahra in which I replied "I have to remember what I did. Cooking without a recipe is a reoccurring instance to my style of cooking that I am comfortable with. I often think I should be better about keeping track with what I am doing so I can do it again if I want to or share it easily with friends who ask but that rarely happens.

I am grateful this time that I was asked though since I do plan to make something similar to this again. Maybe for our little girl when she is our growing toddler. I know her older brother and sister love food like this already so hopefully she has similar taste buds for trying new foods too!

BUTTERNUT SQUASH FRITTERS WITH CRUNCHY CELERY SALSA- stacked with crispy bacon and crumbled goat cheese.

Butternut squash- chopped into large pieces roasted at 350 until al dente- not too soft.
Scoop out the squash flesh after cooled into a bowl- it's okay if it is in chunks.

While squash roasts in the oven:

Prepare and put into a bowl:
-1/4 cup chopped red peppers
-1-2 stalks green onion chopped
-1/4 cup of chopped red onion sautéed til translucent in 1 tbsp oil- it will seem like a lot of oil but this is part of what will make the fritters flavor and crisp.
-2 cloves of garlic minced and added to the onion half way during the sautéing process

Bake your bacon strips in the oven at 400 degrees until crisp.

Make the salsa:
Slice up on the bias thinly two celery stalks, slice a handful of cherry tomatoes and One tablespoon of minced raw red onion. Add salt and pepper, about two tsp white wine vinegar or verjus if you have it, 1 tsp of maple syrup and 1 tsp of oil or warm bacon fat depending on what you like.

Note: I saved the bacon fat for cooking the fritters later. I actually experimented cooking two with bacon fat and two with butter. The bacon fat ones kept a prettier orange squashy color while the butteriness got browner on the outside.

Combine the above with the semi cooled squash with a fork gently

-Add one egg
-1/2 cup flour more or less just so the batter is not too wet
-Salt and pepper to taste
-You could add other herbs and spices depending on what you have available- i kept this one simple.

Heat up your sauté pan with butter or bacon fat and in 1/4 cup portions spoon the squash batter into the pan and gently push it down until about 1/4 inch thick and fritter looking- or like a pancake. Cook on both sides until golden brown.

Remove the fritter from the pan and put onto a sheet tray lined with parchment and place into a 300 degree oven to keep warm and crisp as you cook the rest of the fritters.

Right before you plate up your creation warm your plates up in the oven for a few moments. Stack two fritters with bacon strips in the middle and a little goat cheese. Place the celery salsa on top and more crumbled goat cheese as desired. Enjoy!!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Remembering how to Just Be

I'm holding back tears as I begin to write this Post. I have found a place to lay my stress and weariness aside and just be. Its like a treasure that was buried so deep has just reached the surface for the first in a very long time. The carefree stride I may have known as a child has returned for me to experience now as an adult. I have had an opportnity to appreciate and not take for granted as I once did probably when I was younger, a beautiful freedom. Oh the many days I used to spend and start out without a plan or timeline- only to experience and uncover the coolest adventures and make the best memories while running through the woods or riding my bike around the block.

What I love about his particular stop of this trip is the simplicity and the rare ability to be so close to nature comfortably. I love it! Every breathe that I take is refreshing. . I am finding that saying goodbye to this place is like saying good bye to a long lost friend that I am afraid I may not see again for a very long time. It's amazing to me that it took traveling over thousands of miles to finally get to this point but now that I made it, maybe I am afraid I might lose it again.

We have been staying in a Yurt- I will write more on this later but it is the coolest thing that I never knew about until 3 days ago.

No multi tasking and worries of communication here- there are no phones or Internet on this mountainside in Big Sur. So without warning I am disconnected from the world I have grown accustomed to being apart of. I don't miss it- Besides the concern of contacting my kids for a our daily chats while I am away, I do really miss their giggles over the phone.... I actually miss a lot more about them than that. Like the smell of their wet shampooed hair. Riley's hand rubbing my pregnant belly and all his anxious excitement to be a big brother. His busy boy constant movement until he finally falls into deep sleep so quickly. I miss Lauren's soft smile, and caring eyes- the way she holds my hand on walks and in the car. I miss them a lot and on every new discovery during this trip I think about how they would absolutely love this too.

The gentle warmth of the sun is a loving embrace here
If I close my eyes this breezy hillside could be anywhere, but when I open them the view is magnificently unlike anything I have ever seen with my own eyes. All the pictures that I had seen in my lifetime of places like this simply don't compare to this real moment that touches every one of my senses.
As I look out over the ocean there are whales in my distant vision, following the ocean currents, instinctively guiding their young towards a bright future of warmth and food in the southern seas.
I am surrounded by the smells of subtle natural perfumes, of rosemary and lavender, lemon verbena and pine.
And when I take a deep breathe everything just slows down a bit.
I think of how my Laren and Riley would love this- everything I have taught them about happiness and making healthy choices is available here.
I rub my pregnant belly and let our baby know this is a good healthy moment for both of us too. Soft little kicks from within seem to agree.
My fingers are interlocked with my best friend and love, as he seems to be in the same state of mind too- a sweet boyish grin on his face.
I can hear the ocean, the wind, the barking seals at night.
The windows and doors are open and invite the surrounding atmosphere to cradle us to sleep each night.
In the morning the sunrise over the mountain is amazing
In the evening the sunset paints a never ending picture with a palette of tangerine orange and crimson reds, purples and blushy tones that extend forever.

I can truly just be here. Thankfulness in my heart abounds.