Monday, December 19, 2011

Pearl at the table

"There are two pearls," my dad told me. "Well, two that I've found so far."

Pearls? My eyes widened and I craned my neck forward, waiting to hear about where these little white pearls were and why they were so special. My younger 13-year-old self didn't realize at first that my dad wasn't referring to the elegant stone produced from the soft tissue inside a mollusk. He was talking about the pearls of wisdom - the insightful statements that provide advice and guidance; the words that ring in our ears when we're making a difficult decision; the mantras that keep us anchored when the rough seas of life are crashing around us.

When I understood what these metaphorical pearls were, I was curious as to what pearls my dad thought were so important and why he remembered these two. Surely these statements had to be the secrets to a happy life, or at least wisdom to keeping your head held high come Monday morning.

"The first pearl is that there are pearls of wisdom and that you need to be looking out for them," he said. I thought this was pretty straight forward, but I could tell by the way his hands were clasped and how he looked at me with such a steady gaze that his first pearl was a good reminder to be aware of the knowledge we gain from our experiences.

He moved his hand across the width of our knotted oak table, gripping the corner as his finger tips rounded the curved edge. "The second pearl," he said, "is to keep relationships alive."

I wrinkled my nose. 'Keep relationships alive,' I repeated in my head. I looked down at his big hands that were still holding the table. I needed a little more explanation. He began to talk about his days of backpacking through Europe. It was the late 60s and he had just graduated from Indiana University. On his journey, he befriended countless people, from shepherds to Spanish flamenco dancers. While he carried little with him, the people he met graciously shared, inviting him into their homes to enjoy a cup or English tea or a meal of cheese and sausage. Even when my dad came back to the States, he kept correspondence with his new friends through letters. While he never went back to visit any of them, his memories of them remained vivid, even some 30 years later.

As we sat at the table that night, talking about these pearls of wisdom, I imagined that he would have loved to have shared another meal with the families he met, or better yet, have invited them to our house in Portland, Oregon for a taste of the Northwest.

While I try to listen for other pearls of wisdom that come across my path, I have really held on to the idea of keeping relationships alive. After graduating from high school, I moved to Indiana, not knowing anyone else at IU and leaving all my high school friends back in Oregon. Despite the distance, I have stayed close with a few of these girls; I'd even venture to say that I have become closer to them since our high school days. It's during times of the year like Christmas that we reunite and catch up on all the details of our lives that we've been dying to tell each other since we last visited in August. Nine times out of ten, we get together around the same familiar place: the table.

Last Friday, a group of us gathered to savor our favorite winter comfort foods - puffy vegetable pot pie, roasted squash, cinnamon apple crumble and velvety, thick hot chocolate. As we raised our glasses of Soave in a toast to our friendship, which has been going strong for the last seven years, I couldn't help but think about that pearl of wisdom and picture my dad sitting at the table, his mind drifting back to his memories of sharing food with his European friends. Even if my friends and I are only separated by 2,000 miles, instead of 5,000, the few times a year we can be together are secured in our love of the family table, a place that will always be there to house our reunions, whether we haven't see each other for four weeks or four months.

Today, I'm passing on my dad's pearls of wisdom to you. I encourage you to make relationships a priority in your life, even if you think you have little time and far too much work still left to do. It doesn't take too much effort to invite your close friends over for a night of cheese and wine, an afternoon of chewy ginger cookies or a morning cup of coffee.

Keep the friendships going; keep the family table alive.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tradition, tradition!

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A man with leathery skin, wearing a well-worn tweed vest and a prayer cloth, ladles fresh milk into a dull tin canister. His name is Tevye, a father of five daughters and a humble milkman by trade. His town is bustling with activity: men are sawing beams and sheering wool, Papa is butchering meat, Mama is baking fresh challah. As Tevye delivers milk to a woman in a small, wooden house, he says, "And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word... Tradition."

Sound familiar? This scene from "Fiddler on the Roof" is a perfect illustration of the pride we have for our traditions. While most of us may not burst into song when we think about them (unless your tradition is performing musical theater), deep inside, we attach them to strong emotions and memories.

The word "tradition" has become somewhat synonymous with the holiday season. Whether your family has always burned a yule log in the fireplace for Christmas, or the Mexican hot chocolate you drink every Christmas Eve while watching "It's a Wonderful Life," your traditions mark the season with moments of bliss. And it just wouldn't feel right if you neglected them. The table would seem empty if you didn't make your great grandma Alice's Christmas jello salad. The magic would be missing if you didn't put piles of chocolate coins on the table when the kids were playing spin-the-dreidel.

In the last week, I attended two Christmas events where the theme was "traditions." I reminisced about my Mom's German pancake that we ate each year on Christmas morning. Once placed inside the oven, the golden pancake curled up the sides of the cast iron pan, beckoning to be filled with a steaming serving of spiced apples or doused with lemon juice and a dusting of powdered sugar. It's a sweet tradition - one that I hope to continue in the years to come.

But when someone posed the question as to what traditional foods would be on my table for a holiday spread, besides the German pancake, I couldn't think of any dishes that would be absolute essentials. At first, I was worried. Is it odd that I don't have any Christmas foods that I can't live without?

I listened to the others share their foods. One family eats summer sausages and cheddar cheese after Christmas morning service. Another girl said her mom lives to make her family's recipes that were brought over from Syria. They all sounded great, but there weren't any threads that linked the dishes together. The common denominator was that these people ate them year after year with those they loved.

Then, it hit me. At a "traditional" Christmas dinner, the food is arbitrary. Sound blasphemous? Maybe not. While it may not feel the same if you substitute Chinese takeout for the honey-glazed ham, as long as you're sitting around the table, visiting with those you care about, what difference does the food make? I believe the tradition is not as much in the specific foods as it is in the practice of sharing it in a communal setting.

So this year, whether you plan on making your family's time-tested eggnog recipe or creating a new dish you saw on the Barefoot Contessa, as long as you're sharing it with family and friends, you are most surely carrying on the tradition.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be my guest

Your fingers tear along the seal of an envelope and pull out a card decorated with tiny autumn leaves and looping cursive handwriting. "You're invited to..." Carol's 5th birthday party, Andrew's bar mitzvah, the Randall's Thanksgiving dinner. The letter beckons you to "be our guest," to put our service to the test - like a dinner scene from Beauty and the Beast ... minus the dancing plates and silverware. The idea is that you're invited. Someone wants you to be part of their celebration.

For the past four years, I've always been the one invited to Thanksgiving dinner. It feels wonderful to be asked to share such a special holiday with people that I care about, but I'm looking forward to the day when I will be the one asking friends and family to my place and eat around my table. At the risk of sounding sappy, there's just something special about opening up your space as home-base for the holidays. It's your turn to give back to those who have offered their homes to you over the years, your chance to treat them to something that shows your thankfulness and care.

This Thanksgiving, my cousin Collier, along with his wife, Julie, invited me and 27 other family members to their beautiful, spacious home in northwest Arkansas. I walked up to their doorway armed with a silver serving dish full of sweet potato casserole and my pancetta Brussels sprouts. When Collier opened the door, my gaze instantly floated to the table, mesmerised by the plates and chargers arranged around a Christmas centerpiece. Red and white tool was woven with green garland, strung from the balcony that overlooked the bustling kitchen, filled with Thanksgiving dishes. Their house smelled like cinnamon and sage, evidence of the stuffing, turkey and pies that were waiting to be devoured by hungry guests. While I was excited to be part of the celebration, I couldn't help but think what Collier and Julie must have felt like, having all this merriment that was about to take place in their home.

The whole afternoon, we mingled, munched and marveled at the feast that everyone had so thoughtfully prepared. Collier and Julie hosted us to a meal where we could relax, enjoy and catch up with those who we haven't seen in months, and in my case, years! Their house encapsulated a moment of family togetherness that I will always associate with this holiday. Their graciousness to provide their family table as the place for this lively, quirky bunch to gather, allowed me to experience the magic of a big family, something that I always think about and am now starting to feel apart of.

Yes, it feels great to be the one who's invited, but to offer your home as the place of togetherness - that's where the heart of the family table truly subsides.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bake because you're needed

It feels good to be needed - to have someone that recognizes the space you fill in their world. A child that asks you to tie their shoelaces; a son that asks his father how to fasten a corsage on his date's wrist; a girl that asks for her former teacher to help arrange a song for her harp recital. Being needed makes us feel wanted, and being wanted gives us meaning.

This is why I think people love to bake, because they want to feel needed... in a good way! When you spend two hours making that pumpkin pie - sifting flour and sugar, rolling out the dough for the flaky crust recipe you researched online, taking the whisk to a homemade batch of silky whipped cream to dollop on top of the slice you'll serve your boyfriend - it all comes down to that moment when you pass the plate and fork, zoom in on his face and watch the grin that follows as he takes the first bite, a sure sign of bliss.

While that might be a more idyllic moment in baking - because there are definitely times when the bread doesn't rise, the cake doesn't cook all the way through and the cookies come out black as tar - the reason why we bake is to give, to use our talents in ways that are tangible, comforting and satisfying.

In Bill Buford's book Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, (title says it all) he mentions a pastry chef named Gina who would walk around the kitchen asking the staff to try her creations, constantly asking if they liked it, if the cookies have too many almonds, not enough almonds? He began to notice the satisfaction Gina received when she watched someone eat her food. In her mind, she was giving people something that just might have brought an extra bit of joy to their day. And that's important. Baking made Gina feel needed, and for all those who enjoyed her pastries, her offerings were welcomed.

Whether it's baking a cake for your co-worker's birthday, bringing in a tray of homemade granola bars to your group meeting, or making apple dumplings for your roommate one evening, (thanks Amy!) bake to give. Try to keep in mind that what you're baking is more than a sweet or savory treat; it's something that shows your love and care for those you offer it to. And on the receiving end, the next time someone asks you to try their baked goods, do it. Let them know that their gifts are appreciated.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shape matters

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While some may get a rouse out of the saying, "size matters," I'd like to argue that it's shape that matters most. Maybe I should provide some context so you don't think I'm eluding to childish innuendos.

A conversation this weekend had me thinking about the effectiveness of the table in fostering an environment for dinnertimes where we engage in worldly discussions - what on earth was Berlusconi doing while he was in power, whether or not you agree with your city's never-ending road construction and about the bullying your child witnessed in the school cafeteria. The table itself holds a lot of potential, which can be enhanced or diminished by one key factor... shape.

Think about this: square and rectangular tables have corners. They cut people off. It's hard to pull up an extra chair without being left outside the set perimeter. In the back left corner, aunt Suzy and cousin Jimmy are talking about the newest Adam Sandler movie; on the right side, Tim and Larry are placing bets on how long the NBA lockout will last; Dad, at the head, stares bewildered at the number of conversations spurting all around him, yet he can't connect with any group because he's isolated at his end of the table!

Now switch to this concept: round tables have no nooks or crannies in which to hide. They invite people in. Want to pull up a seat? You're more than welcome. We're glad to sacrifice a little elbow room to let you enter the conversation. The long, curvaceous circumference beckons aunt Suzy, cousin Jimmy, Tim and Larry to answer Dad's question about Grandma's depression. No one is isolated. You can see everyone's face - so you better be looking your best. Just kidding. At round tables, I envision more acceptance rather than judgment. Why? I'm not sure - maybe it's just because round tables seem to want you there.

Now, I grew up with a rectangular table and I remember dinners very fondly. Yet, there were usually three of us, and then two. The conversation was all in that little bubble. All of our faces were exposed and in a way, we had a small enough group that it operated like that round table I'm advocating for.

In the case of bigger families, dinner parties, or groups with odd numbers, I think round is the way to go. When it comes to dinnertime, I'm serious about conversation. Someday, I'll have the choice between buying a round table or a rectangular table for my future home and I can guarantee you that I'll be choosing the circle. From the wise words of a childhood song, "A circle is round. It has no end." I choose the option of wanting my dinnertime to be full of "endless possibility."

The next time you sit around a table, see what you notice about the interactions. Does shape really matter? You be the judge.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

In Favor of Free and Reduced

Free and Reduced Lunch. You've probably heard the term before. Thinking back to lunchtime in grade school, you waited - probably not patiently - for your tray filled with some type of reconstituted, re-hydrated, reheated foods that would satisfy your groaning stomach until the hunger pangs hit again after your last class.

And while it may have been a long time since you last had a school lunch, were you ever aware that your fellow classmates might have been part of the free and reduced lunch program? While it may be an unpleasant thought - a family who cannot afford to pay for their child's lunch at school - it's a reality that many American families face.

In Monroe County, where I attend school at Indiana University, the Department of Education's data from 2001 shows that nearly 26 percent of their elementary through high school population received a free or reduced lunch. And I can assure you that this number has only grown as more families struggle with the difficult economic times we're facing.

With all of the school programs that seem to be getting cut right and left, it is a blessing that we continue to have free and reduced lunch programs.

Lunch programs are extremely beneficial to schools. Eating a healthy lunch - coupled with a nutritious breakfast and snacks - helps students to stay focused in class and turn their attention towards learning rather than feeling fatigue caused by a lack of eating healthy foods.

And while the aforementioned benefits fulfill the base of one's personal needs, being able to eat lunch at school typically involves sitting around a cafeteria table where students talk, laugh and share stories. Lunchtime is when they can vent, express their emotions and work through problems. It's when they can be silly, talk about whatever they want and just be kids!

Thank goodness for free and reduced lunch programs. As they help kids learn the values of community mealtime, it is hope that they will carry this practice into their future - better understanding the magic that occurs when we eat together around the table.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chicken Fried

The image of a greasy Colonel Sanders bucket has become somewhat synonymous with fried chicken. My Mom never brought home a 12-piece meal from the Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-through, but I grew up dreaming about down-home southern picnics where children and parents sprawled around a checkered blanket, biting mouthfuls of juicy white meat right off the bone, golden flecks of crispy skin collecting on their cheeks as they polished off the last wings and thighs.

I know it must seem like an odd fascination, but the idea of eating fried chicken seemed to embody the essence of a true family affair - the ones when your aunts, uncles and second cousins twice removed would all come out for a Sunday evening supper, catching up on each other's lives around tables covered with plates of fried chicken.

My parents weren't overly obsessed with eating healthfully, but friend chicken was never on the radar when thinking of a nutritious dinner option. But while it might not be "healthy," I couldn't help but wonder if this southern dish was more than just a comforting, calorie filled concoction. If there were thousands of families happily laughing over buckets of friend chicken, maybe it was a viable option for an "emotionally healthy" meal.

After years of this curiosity just sitting under the surface, my roommate and I finally decided to test our age old question and see for ourselves if fried chicken is all that it's cracked up to be.

Our homemade version didn't look like the breaded chicken pieces you see in the KFC commercials, but, our panko covered chicken breasts, pan fried in olive oil, seemed like a honest modern-attempt by two 21-year-olds.

Slightly anxious about our new creation, we sliced into the tender breasts and let our taste buds read the final verdict. Surely enough, the hot, salty juices sang to our heartstrings. Before long, we were telling stories and cracking jokes between bites of friend chicken. We weren't concerned about calories and the words "fat" or "sodium" never breached our conversation.

So my fried chicken curiosity wasn't all nonsense. Making and eating our own version of fried chicken was a true bonding experience. We ventured into a the unknown world of fried chicken and came out with our stomachs satisfied and spirits lifted.

It turns out that a little bit of chicken fried can mean a whole lot of joy around the family table.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The JOY of Cooking

You've just walked in the front door, your bag of books or briefcase weighing down your shoulder and your shirt half tucked into your slacks, which seem to have permanent wrinkles after all the time you've spent sitting in front of the computer. You walk into the kitchen and look from your refrigerator to your pantry to your stove. It's 7 p.m. and the last thing you want to do right now is prepare a home-cooked meal.

So, where did the JOY of cooking go? Apparently it expired after we started taking on so many activities that making a meal became more of a burden than a time that brings happiness to our daily lives.

But if you have cookbooks, I'm sure you have the Joy of Cooking. If you don't, then you should probably get a copy. The all-purpose cookbook, which contains a recipe for every type of dish you can imagine, has sold over 18 million copies since Irma Rombauer first published it in 1931. A year after her husband's suicide, Rombauer created the cookbook as a reminder of the activity that brought true joy to her life. In coping with her emotions, cooking provided a vehicle to show what happiness she could provide in the lives of her friends and family, as well as her own.

Today, cooking is something that most people have put on the back burner. (Pun intended) Opening up a cookbook has seems to inspire pressure to create some elaborate dish that will never live up to the perfection we desire. You know you've felt this way before, too. The cake has to look exactly like the picture. If the pork chop isn't perfectly tender, why even bother serving it? What if everyone hates my soufflé that I've spent hours making?

With our laundry list of daily activities, the idea of cooking and subjecting ourselves to "criticism" or "judgment," turns into an immediate turn off.

But what if we re-envisioned our image of cooking? What if, instead of seeing it as a canvas that exposes the bumps and blemishes of our culinary abilities, we saw it as a medium for cultivating an appreciation for new tastes and flavors? A way to treat ourselves and others to something that says "I deserve to eat well!"? A form of expression that shows creativity and a sense of curiosity?

Rombauer didn't title her book the Joy of Cooking for nothing. She knew the awesome power that cooking holds and wanted to help bring that gift into kitchens all around the world.

How are you bringing JOY into your life? Maybe today it will start with cooking.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Generous Portions

When we arrived, they were all there, awaiting patiently for their guests who didn't known them from atom. One had wispy white hair and wore a slightly stained eggshell-colored apron. She had thin wired-rimmed glasses that moved up and down when she greeted us. The others were busy removing foil from disposable baking tins and bringing out pitchers of lemonade and iced tea.

"Welcome," the wispy-haired woman said. "Is everyone else on their way? We'd love for you to all be together."

While we were the first ones to arrive, we were met with many sweet and savory smells that reminded me of visiting my Nana at her home in Arkansas when I was young. At the back of the sanctuary, three dining room sized tables were covered with casserole dishes filled with everyone's favorite comfort foods: brown sugar baked beans, corn spoon bread and crispy fried chicken. The last table was checkered with individual plates topped with slices of cherry pie, chocolate cake and frozen fruit salad.

The older women silently left us to gaze over the feast they had probably spent hours perparing. Maybe these dishes were part of their families' traditional Sunday dinners. Maybe they were the foods their sons always asked for when they had tummy aches. Whether or not these dishes were designated "healing foods," I knew that they would provide the magic that we were in need of, bringing a group of people together who had just lost someone who would have been the first guy in line, grabbing an extra plate of dessert.

On Saturday, myself, along with 30 others, gathered to honor the life of Tom Taubensee - my outdoorsy, four-wheeler driving, basketball loving Hoosier pal who left us far too soon.

After his memorial service, a group of wonderfully kind women from Sherwood Oaks Church - who didn't have any connection to the Taubensee family - prepared us an amazing lunch. Instead of us scatting in different directions and leaving with sadness in our hearts, they provided us with a way to connect after his service. Because of their kindness, we were able to celebrate his life with a little feast that I know he would have loved.

These women certainly didn't have any obligation to create this luncheon gathering. They could have been making these foods for their own families ... but they made it especially for us, and I don't think Saturday would have been nearly as special had they not blessed us with their soul food fixings.

I've learned that you should never underestimate the power of a homemade meal. After tasting these ladies' home cooking, I know that they didn't and doubt they ever will.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Are You Afraid Of?

On my road trip back to IU, my cousin and I found ourselves in need of a good latte and a little relaxation. We wandered into a coffee shop in West Jordan, Utah, sat down with drinks in hand and each grabbed a book that interested us. I chose The Best Travel Writing of ... some year I can't remember. But, I do remember one essay that left an impression on me.

The author was describing her experience of staying at a luxury hotel in Los Angeles where she had fond memories visiting during her childhood. One of things she took great delight in were the warm chocolate chip cookies that the staff placed on her pillow each night as part of their turn down service. She said that the little piece of oozing, sweet goodness was a way of finishing the day with "good taste in her mouth" - a reminder that every day you deserve things that bring you joy.

With this chocolatey memory in mind, she checked into the hotel wanting to give her body and soul a healthy dose of self love. However, as she ate dinner in the hotel that night, she couldn't help but notice how things had changed. The menu might have been different, the decor changed here and there, but the biggest change was in the mindset of the guests. With a batch of fresh, crusty rolls nestled inside a napkin lined basket, a server walked by offering these just made delicacies only to receive responses of "No thanks," "I'm fine," and "Oh, I couldn't eat that. It's not on my diet." The guests she watched didn't just brush off the offer of freshly baked bread, they fervently pushed it out of their realm of thought. It was as if they were afraid to think about eating it, let alone set one of their plate.

That night, as she wandered up to her room, she was comforted in thinking about the cookie surprise that was soon to greet her. She opened the door, expecting the smell of sugar to waft out. Instead, the odor was clean sheets and some "soothing scented" air freshener. Her shoulders drooped and she sighed. Apparently, their new clientele wasn't the cookie-going type either. In their need to push out thoughts of a simple, sweet bite of bliss, they dissolved the moment of joy she was hoping to receive.


I think about those who constantly push away the bread basket, look only at the no-carb portion of the menu and never seem to have a ounce of space left in their stomach for dessert - not even a bite. Where did their love of food disappear to? At what point did people start analyzing every portion of their meal to the point where they have trained themselves to be afraid of eating a harmless, little cookie?

This Friday, we had a "girls night in" and made frothy, melty milkshakes with fresh strawberries, whipped cream, and of course, sprinkles. It was so refreshing to sip our creamy concoctions and whole-heartedly enjoy it! We didn't "indulge" - we treated ourselves to something we love and something we deserved. It was a great reminder that it's okay to have a milkshake. It's okay to savor a dessert. It's okay to relish in a moment of sugary contentment. In fact, it's moments like that that you should never be afraid of.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nourishment from Nothing

Her steady, calloused hands gripped the edges of a large, metal pot that was filled with dents. She squinted her eyes as she maneuvered the heavy cauldron from the plastic, dirt-covered table, up over her head. Like her pot, this woman gave the impression that she had weathered many storms and that no foreseeable challenge would ever knock her off her block - not even the challenge of cooking in the midst of the world's largest garbage dump, as she has done for the for the past 20 years.

This Friday, I had the privilege of seeing the award winning documentary "Waste Land," which depicts the lives of the humble yet driven "pickers" who collect recyclable materials out of Jardim Gramacho, where 7,000 tons of garbage arrive daily from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One of the pickers the documentary focused on was Irma, the woman I have described above, who cooks delicious, nourishing meals from foods that her fellow pickers find in the dump. While this may sound disheartening at first, Irma spoke about her cooking with nothing but pride.

My jaw hung loosely as I watched her stir her metal pot, pieces of tender chicken submerged in a bubbling brown broth. She was working with the ingredients and tools she had - ingredients that were thrown away, unwanted or forgotten. I consider myself a "resourceful" chef - scouring the fridge and pantry to use the ingredients I have on hand, but what Irma is doing takes sustainable eating to another level.

As I ate dinner that night, the food on my plate began to take on a new meaning. I am so thankful that I have access to fresh foods and that I can afford to buy ingredients when I need them. There have been times where I glance at my kitchen and feel uninspired, but thinking of Irma's creativity is motivation enough that we can create something beautiful and wonderful out of what most consider to be "nothing."

I'm not suggesting that you go dumpster diving for your next meal or feel that you have to use foods that are going bad. This week, as you sit down at the table with your family and friends, supping on spaghetti marinara or homemade chili, maybe you can think about Irma and her devotion to feeding her community with the little, but sufficient ingredients she has. Maybe each of us can look at our meal and eat it with appreciation, regardless of how simple or ordinary it may seem.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Keeping it Fresh

You walk into a small town diner at 8 a.m. each weekday morning, and there he is, sitting at the counter with his habitual cup of steaming, black coffee and the number 7 - eggs over easy, white toast, a side of plump sausage links.

Waltzing into a rooftop lounge with a view overlooking the city skyline, he's there too, every night after work, sipping his Johnny Walker Blue on the rocks (with a twist, of course) and gazing at his 8 oz ribeye next to a bed of celery root puree.

These men, although at different ends of the social and financial spectrum, have something in common. They are regulars at their respective joints. While it's great fun to be a "regular," to be in a place where people know your name, what you like to eat and make sure that it's done to your specifications, being a regular is ... well, regular. Normal. Predictable even.

You always praise a child when they do something out of their comfort zone - the first time they dress themselves, when they choose to spend time studying for their math test instead of playing video games, when they ask their date to their first semi-formal dance. Doing things outside of your norm is a cause for celebration!

If we take the time to switch things up in other areas of our life, why not take the time to throw a few new recipes into our repertoire?

For this week's Friday Night Dinner, our theme was "Make Something New!" I cracked open one of the dozen recipe books on our baker's rack and flipped through the pages of recipes I had always said I would try, that I wanted to take a crack at, but hadn't gotten to it yet. Sound like something you've done before?

I decided to make a simple, but delicate and savory eggplant tart. With my fresh eggplant from the farmer's market, I diced, sauteed, seasoned and placed the succulent slices atop a sheet of pastry dough covered in a layer of fluffy ricotta cheese. After baking it for 15 minutes, I pulled it out of the oven, sliced it and viola! A new, never before tasted dish was born. It was that easy! I just needed to take the time to do it.

Now, I'm inspired to make at least one new dish each week. Who knows, maybe I'll even find my new favorite dish out of one of these whimsical culinary adventures. So, what do you say - are you going to be a regular today, or try something new?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Daily Devotion

It's 7 p.m. and I stare at her as she walks in the front door, back from another day of classes. All day we've been waiting for this moment and now we're craving to do it, like we do every day around this time. It's our daily devotion and we do it right.

Every night, my roommate and I sit down at our little cafe table and eat dinner together.

While this may seem like just an ordinary part of our day, we have both realized how special and unique our supper ritual has become. Looking back on my past three years at college, I've learned that most college students could care less about taking an hour out of their busy schedule to eat a meal together. I'm not even talking about cooking - just the conscious choice to share dinner with a friend, to talk about how their day has been and what is on their mind.

Living with a someone who values coming to the table each night to eat, laugh and discuss, just as much as I do, is a blessing. Finally, I don't feel out of place when a huge smile spreads across my face when we're simultaneously chopping vegetables, squeezing slices of lemon into tumblers filled with seltzer water and clinking our glasses of wine, saluting our health and whatever reminds us of the joy in our lives.

Even though it's just an hour or so out of my day, it's an hour that I know I can count on - an hour where I can relax, where I can share new things I've learned and ask for help on the things that present challenges.

If this doesn't sound important to you now, maybe you should take the time to figure out what you do where you engage with others and reflect on how to deal with the world that rushes by. Maybe coming around the table each night with your friends and family is just the thing you've been looking for.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Breathe Life into Bliss

Floating across the gentle, warm water, the bubbles’ light foam caresses your skin and makes playful popping noises as your mind drifts deeper into the Enya soundtrack playing in the background. With a glass of red wine in hand, you sip the earthy, burgundy liquid and let the calming, wine-induced buzz take over. ‘This,’ you think to yourself, ‘is bliss.’

There are few things in life that simultaneously evoke a sense tranquility and class: hearing Celine Dion perform live in Las Vegas, sailing on the emerald green waters of San Tropez, a private dining experience by chef superstar Bobby Flay. But for a college student, or the average joe, these experiences might be few and far between, or part of an overly affluent dream world. But it’s not impossible to be on a budget and create tasteful and sophisticated experiences.

Last night, my roommate Amy and I decided to have a wine and cheese tasting for our friends in honor of the last year of our undergraduate career. While it’s hard to believe that we’re seniors, we are committed to enjoying every moment of our last Cream and Crimson college days.

The start of the semester brings new classes, tricky schedules and filling the calendar with upcoming tests and assignments. Things get busy – fast. But this year, we’re taking each day with a fresh attitude and decision to celebrate the simplicities of life and the gift of our friendships.

As we nibbled slices of smoked gouda and Spanish manchego, crunched cool, green grapes between our teeth and clinked our glasses of soft rose from the local Oliver Winery, the “first day jitters” about our classes became an elusive concept. All that mattered was that we were together, laughing and catching up on each other’s lives. If school was mentioned, it only made a brief appearance and slid its way in and out of conversation, rather than overwhelming our minds or causing anxiety.

I’m not saying that wine is the miracle elixir that erases worry or makes you feel glamorous. In fact, whatever beverage, food or activity that gathers you and friends together to celebrate the moment is great! What’s important is that you take the time to enjoy the simple moments in life and create a bit of bliss for yourself and those you care about. Whether it’s having a wine and cheese tasting, a movie night or playing cards in your living room, take the time to breathe life into BLISS.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bringing it home

It's not a question. Everybody knows the answer. In the ultimate battle of the culinary arts, Italy takes the cake... and then goes on to one-up her prize as she dishes out her velvety tiramisu.

For the past five months, I traveled between various tables in Italy during a semester studying abroad in Florence. While it's impossible to summarize the countless memories spent twirling forkfuls of tagliatelle and laughing amidst sips of red wine, I can confidently say that if I were to look at a calendar for the months of January through May 2011, within the confines of any bracketed date, I could pencil in the details of a wonderful meal spent with my host family and roommate. Some nights were ushered in with dancing and singing by my host granddaughter and myself, while others began with a ten-page-long wine list at a local trattoria, but the hours of talking and sharing stories, all intertwined with hunks of warm bruschetta and smudges of green pesto, remained a constant.

Returning back to the States, one might think that I'd be missing these evenings terribly. And it's true. Having the reassurance that every night I would be eating a wonderful meal accompanied by family and friends can only be described as true bliss.

Yet, the elixir to combat these feelings of loss is quite simple: Pass on these memories through the evening mealtime practice I became so addicted to.

Last night, my friend Taylor and I made a delicious Italian meal for her parents and brother, a collection of dishes that we sampled throughout our two and a half weeks spent traveling between Rome, the Cinque Terre and Tuscany. After spending a morning at the market picking out fresh ingredients for our dinner, we crafted a feast of fresh, raw artichokes drizzled with olive oil and salt, bruschetta with tomato, pecorino cheese and grilled zucchini, hot and succulent calamari, and for the main course, tagliatelle with pesto that we brought back all the way from the Ligurian Coast.

Not only was buying the ingredients and cooking the meal a great reminder of our recent journey, but being able to share our stories through food - the funny moments when we watched the stars in our limoncello stupor, the hours spent catching up on each other's lives while walking along the lush, green trails of Vernazza, the night we nearly cried when we couldn't find an open gelateria to satisfy our gelato addiction - created an emotion inside of me which brought a permanent smile to my face.

As I drove away from Taylor's house last night, sitting in the car with a happy and satisfied stomach, I couldn't help but feel as if I was right back in Italy. And then it hit me, I didn't need to wish that I was in Italy, because I was home - in the presence of people whom I love and care for. No matter where I am, whether it's Rome or Cairo or Atlanta, as long as find myself at a table, gathered with a group of genuine people and enjoying a thoughtful meal, I will always feel that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ciao a tutti!

Greetings everyone!

I have been in Florence for one week and already feel like I'm becoming a true Italian! Everything here - from the food, the wine, the people, the art and architecture, is truly amazing.

Now that I'm settled, I'll be updating to the blog very soon! Lots of marvelous culinary experiences to report on and I'll be full of details!

Un bacio!